It was a private survey team that made the discovery: Hired by an expanding corporation based in one country and sent, with permission, into another country’s forest, the surveyors were evaluating a potential overseas factory site when one of them, the hydrogeologist according to early reports, first found the half-acre glade and then literally stumbled upon the edge of something large and metal and flat under the soil in the clearing, something obviously not indigenous... and then, raising his gaze, saw peeking through the soil at what he estimated to be the center of whatever was in the ground an oversized metal eye bolt, to which was secured a metal cable extending, taut, straight up into the sky.

The survey team leader called corporate headquarters, then had his men displace the soil from atop the large flat metal something, which was revealed to be just that, a square plate, riveted at the corners to the rock beneath it. But more curious by far was the cable, twined of more slender metal strands, which went straight up into the sky and perhaps beyond. It was impossible to stand in the glade and look up to where the cable extended because during the day the sun shone too brightly into one’s eyes, and at night it was too dark in the forest to see anything but stars above one’s head.

The survey team leader thought the government of the country where the forest, glade, plate, hook, and cable were needed to be informed and involved, and he told corporate headquarters as much.

The local government appreciated being notified, and by noon the following day a detachment of soldiers had arrived to provide protection for the site. The surveyors were invited to stay, an invitation they gladly accepted. The two teams—the surveyors and the soldiers—got along well, which was nice. It could easily have been otherwise under the circumstances, which were that neither group had much of anything to do, exactly, for the time being. Anyway, they were there together only for a few days.

The nation where events were unfolding had an army but no air force, so planes from a friendly neighboring country were deployed to see where the cable went when it went straight up from the ground. The report was inconclusive. The cable went up through the atmosphere, it appeared, and possibly into space. That is, it almost certainly went into space, being that there was nothing in the atmosphere holding up the other end of the cable.

At this point, someone on the ground where the cable was bolted to the plate in the rock walked up to the cable and tugged on it with both hands, just to see what would happen. Nothing happened, and the surveyors and soldiers had a good laugh.

While the world’s population was waiting for the international science organization to ready a space shuttle for launch to get to not the bottom but the top of the mystery, as it were, a third team arrived at the ground site, a university-based group of engineers with a device that looked and operated much like a miniature elevator car, not much more than a pair of gripping wheels, a power source, a camera, and a radio transmitter/receiver. The engineers clamped the device to the cable, adjusted the camera lens, tested the radio, stepped back, and then, with a remote control, sent the device up the wire. The climber sent back video images of what was directly above it—that is, higher up on the cable—on a dedicated frequency made known in advance to the planet’s population, so that billions were watching as the machine climbed the cable through the atmosphere and into space and then, despite a repeated radio directive to stop, further into space, at which point it stopped transmitting any data at all and contact with the scout vehicle was irretrievably lost.

The crew of the orbiter, when launched, did not see the climbing robot anywhere on the cable in space, nor could they either see the terminus of the cable, but saw that the cable indeed extended from the planet out into the inky void indefinitely, beyond the farthest point away from the planet to which the orbiter had enough fuel and its crew enough nerve to venture.

The planet’s population was confounded and abuzz with questions, though not many different ones: Where did this cable go? What did it do? and Why had no one ever noticed it before?

The people never got the answers, at least not to the first and last questions. They learned what the cable did, though—it held their planet in its place in its solar system—when, seventy-two hours after the corporation-hired hydrogeologist first discovered the cable, a cadre of radical eco-terrorists, convinced that the entire contraption was part of a scheme somehow to persuade the local government to raze the entire forest, sneaked onto the site posing as reporters for the news media and then, after distracting the surveyors, soldiers, and engineers, using a large wire cutter, severed the cable. Just like that.

Although again nothing observable happened, not immediately anyway, after a couple of days it began to get noticeably, increasingly colder on that particular planet, until all that remained of the world and its inhabitants was a chilling cautionary tale with a conspicuous loose end.

“The Admirable Vice Provost” appeared in Zahir 14, Winter 2007.