Back to IndexWritten April, 1999

Opinions of Value

There was an investigation, of course; how could there not be? It was just that kind of event, the kind that - just for a second - threw everthing you believed in off track, the kind that made the world stop for a few moments and just think. That kind of event isn't too common.
The police went over his house with a fine comb but found nothing so they started all over and tried again, they went over his office and found the same, they even checked the water in the swimming pool where he used to bathe - but they found nothing even there. Nowhere was there any indication of how this had happened, nowhere did anyone have the slightest idea of what was going on. I certainly didn't, and I was there.
Privately we admitted it was hopeless, publicly we protested the opposite - that we were making "progress in our enquires", that "the big picture was beginning to emerge". For a while the media was satisfied with these sound-bites, but eventually they began to realise - as we had - that there were far too many questions, and not enough answers. There were not anything like enough answers to set to rest the death of one of richest men on the planet, not enough answers by half.
Why had he gone out alone? He had never done it before. Why had he chosen that day to be the first time he tried to climb that mountain alone? Why had he slipped on the last, easiest part of the slope? Why had he managed to climb virtually the entire mountain expertly before falling to his death from the easiest part? And most importantly, why had his automatic safety net (a development of his own company) failed to open?
From whatever direction you looked at it, one conclusion seemed inescapable - Richard Galois should not have died.
It took a few weeks for the media to realise that it wasn't just that we were playing our cards very close to our chest, we actually didn't know any more than they did. And so, after a few scathing editorials in some of the more respected newspapers, the head of the investigation was relieved; to replace her they needed someone who was reliable and had a solid record but had never done anything controversial - the media were watching too closely for that. In short they needed someone who was inherently unexciting, cautious and utterly regular - so they chose me.
I was surprised, to say the least, I had begun to believe that promotion was always going to be just beyond my grasp (due mainly to exactly the same uncontroversial nature which had ironically been the reason for this advancement). Despite this, my mild urge to celebrate was cut off by the realisation that I had been handed something that was not so much a hot potato as a molten potato hotter than the Earth's core which was now dripping through my fingers.
My new direct superiors expressed a surprising degree of confidence in my abilities, especially surprising because I was certain that none of them had even heard of me a few days earlier. They also expressed a desire for the case to be sorted out as quickly as possible.
It turned out that my first official duty, before I had even found all the drawers in my new desk, was to attend the funeral of Richard Galois.
I forget exactly which church was the venue for the event but I do remember my first impression on entering it which was that I had never seen such a large open space indoors. I realise with hindsight that it is likely that this impression was incorrect but at the time it was how I felt. That place was packed, it was as if half the planet had turned out to see the service, and I remember squeezing my way to a seat which had been reserved for me somewhere near the front.
During the service my mind was racing, there was just so much to do I could hardly comprehend how anything was going to actually get done and at times it felt as though I was going to spend all my time dealing with all the little administrative niggles that are involved when control of an investigation is transfered. I remember very little of what was said but I'm sure that I could attempt a guess. The list of speakers was as long as my arm and each one of them wanted to get in their own personal tribute to the man who had changed so many of their lives.
They came and they just kept coming. Friends, enemies, even a government minister; they all came up to pay their respects and somehow in death the man who his enemies had been (a few weeks earlier) a "threat to their way of life" and a "power maniac" became a "true visionary". Even his most hated rivals changed their tone: we didn't always agree, we didn't always see eye to eye; but in the end he was someone who you could talk to, someone who I had the greatest respect for and someone who I was proud to know and, I hope, to call a friend.
I disengaged myself as quickly as I could and set off at a swift pace towards the city's forensics lab where Galois' equipment was being examined. After being met by Jane Hillis, the forensics specialist involved in the case, I asked to see his equipment. I can remember Jane mentioning that they were thinking of buying a display case for the stuff because so many people wanted to see it. I smiled slightly at the attempt at humour and nodded lightly for no particular reason, this seemed to have the effect of discouraging any further attempts at conversation.
The equipment was laid out on a large clean white table such that when looking directly down on it the impression was that it was floating in nothingness.
"What went wrong?" I asked.
"Nothing." Jane replied. "There were no malfunctions in the equipment, it failed because it was switched off."
I was astonished to say the least. "Switched off?"
She nodded. "No-one thought to check it earlier, they simple assumed that someone else had switched it off at the scene or on the way to the mortuary, but we ran some checks and no-one admits to touching the stuff."
"He forgot to switch it on." I murmured quietly. Suddenly I could see the coclusion of the case in front of me. He had been so excited at the possibility of his first solo climb that he had forgotten to switch on the safety equipment that should have saved his life; then, after completing the hardest part of the climb, he noticed his error and tried to turn round and switch it on. That was how he must have fallen, distracted at a critical moment, twisting his body away from the rock to activate the device on his back, he had fallen to his death.
"This pretty much ties it up." I said simply. "Bar a few loose ends this case should be over."
Jane coughed. "Er, not exactly." She said simply. "You see, these things are designed to activate automatically when you start climbing - it was supposed to be an added safety feature."
"So that feature wasn't working."
"We've tested it twenty times, in each case it worked perfectly."
"So how come it didn't activate?" I asked, a little confused.
Jane shrugged. "He must have switched it off."
I was beginning to see the case, which a few seconds earlier had seemed all but solved, laid out in front of me like a road reaching to the horizon, continuing indefinitely until officialdom grew tired of my lack of progress and found someone to replace me. I went home that night thinking unhappy thoughts.
It was not my habit to awake at dawn and pace the dusty hallway outside my bedroom in the small hours of the morning while my wife slept on; nevertheless it was exactly that which I found myself doing early the next day. I must have padded back and forth a few hundred times, deep in thought, before finally deciding to have breakfast and moving into the kitchen.
Our kitchen was not a well equipped affair and, if the truth be told, it could have done with a great deal better heating that morning, but it was how it had been for years and despite its flaws we felt no immediate desire to refurbish it. The financial side of such an endeavour would probably have proved equally intractable.
A quick rooting through my cupboards gave evidence to the suspicion I had long held which was simply that my wife and I were not cut out for shopping. The display on the front of the fridge, while smeared with dirt, was still sufficiently ledgible to show a shopping list as long as my arm. After grimacing at the total amount it was going to cost I gently tapped the "order" button.
Nothing happened. I paused for a second and then slammed my fist into the unco-operative device. There was a high pitched beep, almost as if I had hurt the thing, but the shopping list disappeared and was replaced by a short receipt from what the fridge had obviously decided was our favourite supermarket. I wasn't feeling up to correcting its error so I simply rubbed its top lightly and opened it to find something to eat. The fridge purred appreciatively at the attention, it probably thought we had been neglecting it recently.
A few seconds and half a grapefruit later, my coat donned and buttoned against the morning chill, I set out towards my office.
The way I could see it there were now two possibilities emerging. Either he had commited suicide, or he had been murdered - admittedly by some unknown method. I also had to conclude that the murder option was becoming more and more unlikely; I just didn't see how anyone could have deactivated the safety net and pushed him off that mountain without leaving any trace evidence behind. Did he fall or was he pushed?
Murder? Could it really not be murder. It was not so much the desire for a more high profile case as a sense of disbelief that had kept me from considering the obvious. An important person had died, someone who had many powerful enemies - ergo he had been murdered. It was elegant, if slightly flawed, logic.
The glass doors separating the station from the outside air halted my chain of thought; however, a few seconds after swiping my security card and tapping in my personal access code I was inside and back in thought as I walked towards my office.
Even I had to admit that it was not exactly the model of neatness, although to be fair this had not always been the case. Although not known as a particularly disorganised man my predecessor ha gone to the considerable effort of taking copies of every piece of paper that had been printed, written or scribbled on by any member of his team. This (not minor) feat had left me with boxes and boxes of un-catalogued material lying around my office.
Someone who had more time on their hands might have gone through the considerable rigamarole necessary to have the obstructions taken away and put in storage somewhere but every time that thought breached the surface of my consciousness I found myself remembering my previous battle with the bureaucracy which had resulted from a similar effort my part. For some reason that recollection tended to cause my resolution to fade away.
Cutting a path through the accumulated debris using my arms as scythes I made my way to my desk. I swept my arms to each side of the desk, thowing pencils, pens and the great proportion of a small forest onto the floor. Then I planted both elbows on the newly clear desk space and plunged myself back into thought.
It was that way that my new deputy found me a few minutes later. We had known each other distantly for some years but this was the first case we had worked together on and I, for one, found our relationship slghtly strained and artificial. Maybe that was simply the way that she wanted it to be. All things equal, however, you had to admit that Eleanor Kates was a very curious person.
"Dead or dying?" She asked as she entered the room to find me in a semi-comatose state.
"Both and neither." I replied cryptically. She smiled wanly and proceeded to step carefully across the mountains of debris that littered the floor. I grimaced as she nearly tripped on a particularly large wad of papers, I was really going to have to tidy this place up a bit once this case was over.
"Anything new overnight?" I asked hopefully.
She turned from examining a chart of suspect organisations on one of the walls and fixed me with a glare that spoke volumes.
"No." I murmured to myself. "I didn't think so."
"Have forensics finished going over his home?" I asked, rather hopefully.
For a second I thought she was going to laugh, but that would have been so out of character that I realised how absurd it was almost immediately. "Have they ever?" She replied. "They're on their third complete sweep now. They haven't found anything on the scale of the listening devices you asked them to watch out for."
"I think it's time we paid them a visit." I remarked, suddenly realising that I hadn't actually been there. True, in most investigations you only investigated the stuff that you thought was relevant, but I felt that this was a special case, and if this really was an elaborate suicide then perhaps there might be some clues there which everyone else, busy looking for evidence of murderous intent, were oblivious to.
"Shouldn't we let them do their job?" Eleanor asked, the tone of her voice indicating all too well what she thought the answer should be.
"Shouldn't they let me do mine?" I retorted, all too aware that she had a point but unwilling to concede it. I grabbed a few items off the table that I thought might prove handy and headed for the door. Eleanor mumbled something under her breath as I walked past but I soon heard her footsteps echoing mine.
Budget cuts had, as always, taken money from the things which seemed to be a good place for economising at the time but had turned out, in the long term, to be not such a good idea; thus, we arrived at Galois' home in a taxi.
The constable guarding the entrance recognised us both by sight and we stepped over the threshold into the house with barely a murmur. It was not as I had expected.
I had read the reports, of course, but somehow they had seemed distant and described the environment in an almost clinical way. Somehow that had filtered through to me as an impression that this would be a clinical sort of place, full of gleaming white surfaces bathed in light. In fact the house was quite normal, abeit with slightly greater attention to detail. We found Jane Hillis supervising the completion of yet another sweep for fingerprints. Personally, I believe it was not a matter of them believing that they might find something but rather a disbelief that they hadn't which spurred them on.
She protested somewhat half-heartedly at our presence but I knew that she was well aware that we were in no danger of destroying any evidence. I took one look at what they had acheived in the last few days, it didn't take long, and sent them packing. Repeated forensic sweeps might help to calm their nerves but it was a waste of the (admittedly more than sufficient in most cases) resources at my disposal.
The forensic team disappeared, leaving their equipment temporarily behind at my instruction, and a strange silence descended upon the building. Galois' wife had, gracefully, been kicked out of the house and had taken up residence at one of the Galois family summer homes but the investigation teams had moved straight in and this was the first time in so long that the house was empty.
The rhythmic ticking of a clock just above the threshold of hearing lent a quiet background to my thoughts. I sighed lightly and carefully circumnavigated the building, finding (unsurprisingly) nothing out of the ordinary. I sent Kates to have a look at the top floors while I set off to explore the west wing of the building. The place almost seemed larger inside than it did from outside but it was laid out in an orderly fashion along a central corridor and I felt that I would have no trouble retracing my steps if it came to it. I wandered almost aimlessly along, peering into rooms which had probably been untouched for years before our forensic teams moved in, but found nothing. Until I reached the end of the corridor.
The corridor ended in a single door with a brass 'private' sign plate nailed onto it. I felt that Galois' would probably not object so I pulled the door open and stepped inside. The other rooms had been lushly furnished in a turn of the century style that some people still found quite appealing but this room was quite different. The walls were painted in a bright white that reflected the already adequate light in the room and made my flinch away from it for a few seconds while my eyes adapted. It was also the only room I had come across without any windows. My feet made a hollow tapping sound on the floor tiles as I took each step and I found myself inadvertently looking round in case someone was about to come and accost me.
I blinked a few tears away from my eyes and took a good look around. The room was cramped with equipment, most of which was completely unrecognisable to me. Eventually it clicked - this must be Galois' private laboratory. I had read his profile, it had been required reading for anyone working on the case, and could remember most of it. Galois had started life as a unified field theory physicist and had at first gone into business almost as a hobby. It was always said that Galois was still a scientist at heart and liked to carry out his own research experiments behind closed doors - though no-one was quite sure what he intended to achieve through it. The tell-tale sheen on the surfaces was enough to tell me that the forensic teams had already been through here, probably several times. I had read their reports however, and none of them had mentioned this room as having any significance.
It would not be the first time this had happened, however. It was something of a joke in the department that if you showed a forensics man (or woman) a corpse they would go and dust it for prints, take DNA samples, photograph the scene and report it thoroughly to someone without actually informing homicide that there had been a murder. It was a slightly bizarre case of not being able to see the forest for the trees. The forensics team had probably dusted the buttons on these pieces of equipment without even bothering to read what it said on them.
I shook my head in disbelief. Even if the forensic teams had missed this, the accompanying detectives should have noticed it and though it was probably of no real importance I decided that someone's head would roll for not informing me about it.
There were a number of control banks surrounding what looked like a giant electrode. Quite what the purpose of this arrangement was remained beyond me but nevertheless I tentatively reached towards one of the panels and pressed the 'power' switch. The rest of the room hummed into life and within seconds I was surrounded by flashing screens and the sound of cooling fans. Alarmed, I touched the button again in the hope that it would switch it all off. As I did so I chastised myself for my moment of stupidity.
"Five seconds." Announced a voice. I spun on my feet, expecting to see someone else at the door, but there was no-one there.
"Three seconds." On closer examination the voice seemed to be coming from a speaker set into one of the panels.
"Isolating quantum phase. Two seconds." It would seem that my attempts to switch the machines back off had been less than successful.
"Phase and variance isolated." I tip-toed slowly backwards and pulled the door open. To my surprise it was now locked.
"One second."
I cursed - then the door opened. I stepped out and back into the corridor, calming my breath. I was never very good at the not touching things bit of detective work. I left the equipment running and set off to find Kates.
I must have searched the entire building several times and called her name more times than I could remember before it dawned on me that I had told her not to wait for me. I shook my head and stepped outside, being careful to lock the door behind me. The constable on the doorstep nodded politely at me as I passed him.
I returned to my office my the mixture of taxis, walking and public transport that I had isolated several years earlier as being far quicker than trying to make it down the congested streets of the city for the whole way. It was then that I got my first shock. My office wasn't where I had left it. I know it sounds strange but that is exactly how I felt. I got off the elevator at the right floor and made the correct sequence of turns that should have brought me to my door but instead it brought me to the office of some superintendent I had never heard of before - probably new blood, recently promoted through the ranks.
I shook my head in confusion and retraced my steps back to the elevator. Then I took a deep breath and made the sequence of turns again, trying to obscure as best I could the memory of my previous attempt. Once again I found myself outside the same office - and it wasn't mine.
I was aware that I had been under quite a bit of stress recently but even so, this was ridiculous. I wandered around aimlessly for a while before I located a floor map and from there traced my way to where my office was to be found. Sure enough my office was exactly where the map said it should be and half-way across the building from where I had thought it was. On the other hand the building was built in a symmetrical pattern and it would have been very simple for me to have taken one slight wrong turn and end up at the mirror position of my office. I rubbed my eyes in the hope that the action would encourage my overworked brain to put itself into overdrive. It didn't.
I pushed open the door and collapsed behind my desk. No sooner had I done so but the phone rang. I picked it up wearily.
"Yes." I said, as a greeting it didn't count for much but it was the most I could manage at that point.
"Yes, indeed." The voice at the end of the phone replied. I recognised it instantly as Miller's - my direct supervisor. "I just finished reading through your report. It's brilliant. Look's like you've finally found your feet."
I wasn't quite sure what he was referring to on more than one point. He had not even known me two weeks ago and now he was talking as though he was impressed that I had finally written a report properly. The weird fact that far dwarfed this slight discrepancy however was the simple fact that I hadn't written a report recently.
"Peter." I said simply. "What the hell are you talking about?"
Laughter echoed down the telephone line. "Your report on the Galois incident of course, old boy. Maybe you should take a holiday now this case is finally over, you've wrapped it up nicely - we'll have no problems from here in. Keep it up and you'll go far."
I murmured something approaching agreement into the line and dropped the phone back onto the hook in shock. I missed the first time and was forced to fish around underneath the desk to find the handset which was dangling by its coiled wire like an erratic pendulum. I eventually grabbed it and slammed it back onto its pedestal, not caring if I damaged it beyond repair. Was I suffering from memory problems as well?
I touched the button on my desk that caused my computer to come out of power saving mode and took a look at the list of last accessed documents on the screen. Sure enough, document one was titled 'Galois' followed by the case number. I called up the document onto the screen, all the time trying to stop myself hyperventilating.
The file was retrieved from the buildings central holo-storage unit and displayed in under a second. There were pages of text there but my eyes were drawn to the last line.

Case closed.

"Oh my god." I murmured to myself. I shut down the computer with a single mouse click and lay back in my chair, my mind racing. What the hell had happened? I had left this building a newly promoted detective with little confidence and, seemingly, no hope of ever solving this case. Now I found that the case had been solved and to the satisfaction of my new superiors who were apparently now convinced I was some sort of rising star.
My mind went to work. Logically there seemed to be two possibilities - either I had changed and lost some of my memories...or I was fine and everyone else had changed. Certainly I was taking very little satisfaction in 'solving' the Galois case, after all it wasn't really me who had solved it.
I took my portable biometric scanner out of my pocket and touched it to the spot where a tiny semiconductor was implanted under the skin. It retrieved the last few days of data from the chip and displayed it on the screen. I was no doctor but it seemed to me that everything was exactly as it should be, in fact, bare a little tiredness I was possibly in the best health I had ever been.
I closed my eyes. If I was fine (and I still wasn't sure about that but I sure felt fine) then that left only the second alternative - but that was completely ridiculous. What had happened? Had I fallen into some sort of alternative dimension? I was not very knowledgeable about alternative dimensions, most of what I knew was what I had picked up from various incarnations of 'Star Trek' and from a practical point of view that kind of information was of very little use.
What about that laboratory at Galois' house? Now I thought about it was really less of a laboratory and more of a room with a single purpose. A room specifically to house that equipment I found there. The equipment that I had been stupid enough as to...oh boy.
This was just getting far too confusing for me to wrap my brain around. All I was sure of was that despite my current dilemma, I was in a far better position career-wise than I had been this morning. That was something that should be kept in mind.
It was on the way home that it occurred to me. Maybe this was Galois' secret. Maybe this was the way he had made his billions. For the first twenty five years of his life he had never shown any particular promise, any particular ability beyond the average scientist. Then suddenly that had changed, over the course of a few years he had gone from obscurity to being one of the most famous and richest people on the planet. No competitor had ever succeeded in challenging him, ever. Now I thought I knew why. As soon as someone challenged him he simply used that machine and wished the competitor out of business. I wasn't sure whether this explanation was scientifically plausible but I liked it a lot more than the alternatives.
If so, that machine was possibly the most dangerous invention that was ever made. Imagine the ability to advance your position in the world by just using it. It must be destroyed...or at least kept secret. A few changes wouldn't matter would they?
I resolved to return to the lab the next day - but just once, to see how far I could go.

The girl pulled back the curtains and the sunlight streamed in through the window. The old man in the chair covered his eyes with a withered arm in mock pain.
"So." He said simply. "Now you know."
She laughed lightly. She wasn't really a girl, she looked at least sixteen but her eyes seemed older. "I'm not sure I believe it though."
"You asked." The man said simply. "You asked your grandfather how a man with no previous political ambitions became a great world leader." He delivered word 'great' as though he was choking to get it out.
He allowed his voice to soften. "I allowed nothing to stand in my way, just as Galois had done..." he paused for a second before continuing at a volume that the girl could barely hear, "...and along the way I found out why Galois killed himself."
"Why?" She asked curiously. To her this was an interesting experience but nothing to be surprised at.
The old man sighed. "When you remove the difficulties you remove the challenges and when you remove the challenges you remove the sense of achievement at having conquered them. If you ask a historian what I have done they will give you a list of accomplishments as long as my arm but none of them matter a damn to me. Because I didn't earn any of them, because they shouldn't really have been mine.
That was why Galois, the man who seemed to have everything, took his own life - because he didn't earn any of it, he cheated his way to the top and when he got there he found that it wasn't all he expected it to be. He seemed to have everything, when in reality he had nothing...just like me."

The girl listened quietly and when she spoke she did her best to hide any signs of her fast beating heart. Galois and her grandfather had clearly not understood the machine properly, they had not used it properly - that was the only explanation for their unhappiness.
"So," she managed to say, feigning only mild interest, "what happened to this machine?"

How I got the idea for this story is part of a long a protracted tale which I will not bore you with. Still, I'm not sure I like the way the ending turned out. Oh well.

Oliver Pell