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Emeroma dropped the last paper onto the pile with a displeased scowl. Seventeen papers investigating the escalating incidents at the site of the new city, and barely a coherent thought strung between the lot of them.
One of the papers had focused entirely on the folklore related to events like this, rambling about tribes of people in the Breida mountains and stories told on the edges of the crystal desert. It might have been appropriate for a cultural report, but was completely ineffective as a scientific paper. Another had postulated wildly on unaccepted theories regarding nearby time crystal mines and the barriers that had been present during the sundered time, without really tying the issues together or offering more than a token attempt at scientific process. Rouge time fields were suggested, magnetic dissonance (undefined and unsubstantiated) and even pockets of corrosive gases in discrete atmospheric conditions. Some of them sounded like the crazed meanderings of end-of-the-world gray rags, and none of them were any use.
She fanned them out in front of her, picking up one at random. At least the corrosive gases theory had some suggestions for testing the hypothesis. She rebelled against giving it higher than mediocre marks, but at least an argument could be made not to outright fail that one. She put it down and went to her window.
Laughter and running footsteps preceded Oranaan, who came skidding into her open door while more footsteps continued past, echoing down the empty hallway.
Emeroma frowned. Decorum was something she continued to plague the Science Master about. Her words fell on deaf ears and he continued to cavort. At least the exodus of people from the city of lights meant that there were fewer ill influences on him, even if it did mean a striking shortage of labor to finish the remaining buildings and staff the empty shops.
A spark of hope lit in her when she saw that he was holding a slim volume of papers. His paper was late, of course, and she would dock him plenty of marks for it, but if anyone had come up with a coherent - and testable - theory for the problems plaguing the city, it would be Oranaan. She glowered more, unwilling to let him see that bit of hope. Enough people encouraged the young man's ego as it was.
"It's late," she said sternly, as he tossed the paper without ceremony onto her desk.
Eyes wide with innocence, Oranaan protested, "I was running some extra tests! You're always going on about being thorough!"
Emeroma refused to rise to the bait, leaning back in her chair and steepling her hands in front of her. "And?" she prompted.
Oranaan needed little encouragement, collapsing into the chair opposite her and leaning forward eagerly. "Nothing."
Only a blink betrayed Emeroma's surprise. "Nothing?" How was that worth excitement?
"I've been running experiments for three tendays non-stop now. I tried isolating the workspace in noble gases, used different temperatures, ran electricity through the area, used crystal dust, impregnated the cement with imperfections of six different kinds, and even put metal in the time field -"
Emeroma couldn't quite keep her noise of dismay from escaping.
"Don't worry," Oranaan assured her quickly. "It was only by accident, and I only blew up part of the lab. No one got hurt, and there were two witnesses who agree it was totally by mistake."
"You still have to -"
"I know! Fill out a report. It's on the bottom of the pile," Oranaan said impatiently, continuing while Emeroma fished it out. "Anyway! I couldn't get the same final texture to the concrete using time crystal fields. The fastest fields money could buy wouldn't make it crumbly and light-weight like it was."
"You didn't finish filling this out," Emeroma said, displeased.
Oranaan flapped his hands. "I got the witness signatures and tattoo fields. You can fill in the details." He ignored Emeroma's disapproval and pushed on. "So, I figured it couldn't be time crystals. Because, how would they get up there anyway, right?"
Emeroma waited without comment, returning the form to her desk.
"So I started looking at the other materials in the buildings that got destroyed and looked around for other places this happened. And I found one!"
Emeroma raised an eyebrow at the pile of papers on her desk. "A crazy woman with goats in the Breida Mountains," she guessed.
"Huh? No! At the time mines! They use a stone rod for probing into new mining areas, and they can stick them in and out of time fields all day without anything happening to them, but every so often, they get all squirrelly and soft for no reason. And they lose exactly the same amount of mass that the stone and cement around here loses when it goes bad."
Emeroma's frown was only thoughtfulness now. "So it is something to do with time crystals."
"Unformed time crystals," Oranaan announced. "Before they become completely physical, they have a... an... anti-time field affect."
"An anti-time field." Emeroma wasn't quite as skeptical as she sounded.
"Sort of like an energy balance. Because we've never really been able to figure out a time field energy balance like you can with other kinds of energy. So there's something else in the time mines that acts as the counter to the time fields. Sort of like lightning, when a negative charge builds up enough to.. to... ka-snap!" Oranaan gestured wildly, nearly unseating himself. "But it's invisible and doesn't make noise, usually. And then everything is back to stable again."
Emeroma studied him, turning the idea over in her brain. "And you've got this 'ka-snap' theory written out here?" she asked, tapping his paper.
"Er, no," Oranaan confessed. "I thought of it on my way over. The paper's mostly about what didn't work in the lab. And there's another report form in there to cover a thing that happened with a fire."
Emeroma closed her eyes, battered between the anti-time field idea and the knowledge that Oranaan had started another fire. "How do we know when and where it will strike?" she asked finally.
"How do we stop it from happening?"
"I'm working on it," Oranaan said confidently. "I just came up with the idea."
Emeroma tapped his paper in her hands, then handed it back across the desk to him. "You've got another tenday without penalty," she said firmly. "Answer those questions and come back. And have the lab send me an invoice of your damages."
It was an impossible task in an impossible time, but Emeroma had long since learned that if she didn't let Oranaan know she didn't think he could do something, he wouldn't guess that he couldn't.
He scampered away, muttering to himself about anti-time and lightning. Unlike lightning strikes, these disturbances seemed to hit the city of lights again, and again, with growing frequency... and Emeroma hoped that ten days wasn't too long to wait.