The professor sat in his chair, still and silent with his metallic golden eyes unseeing as his expanded consciousness sifted, processed, categorised and theorised. Around him, the conversation ebbed and flowed.
Unnoticed by all, he finally stirred.
"Gentlebeings, I believe I have the answer to the question of the moment, this being: what has happened to the Portals?"
Although soft, his voice immediately cut through the chatter and the room faded into expectant silence.
"It is my conclusion that the message now being shown upon all Portal consoles in place of the customary operating interface is a demand for payment for services rendered. We have based our civilisation on the Portal System and now the owners are demanding recompense.”
The leader of the group of beings gathered in attendance started in on the customary appreciations and congratulations, but was cut off practically instantaneously.
“There is more."
Those members of the group skilled in reading human body language were suddenly able to note a distinct touch of fear in the man's demeanour as he continued.
"As you know, we did not build the Portal System. No known race did. They may be billions of years old.
"It is an enduring mystery why no Portal-using star-spanning civilization has apparently been able to survive as such for longer than approximately one hundred thousand years. The fossil records are quite clear: any civilisations reaching that age seem to dissipate overnight, archaeologically speaking.
"It is natural to expect a wide variation in the lifespans of the civilisations, with the primary factor probably being the aggressiveness of the dominant species involved. This does not seem to be reflected in reality: we have recorded the existence of several shorter-lived or less widespread groupings, but nothing in the fossil record on any of the planets on which we reside admits to the possibility of any older society.
"Our oldest records—requiring deep searching and extensive reformatting to access along with subsequent subtle translating—indicate to me that we first accessed the Portal System approximately one hundred thousand years ago. We have always expected to use them for much longer, even given humanity's predilection for violence and self-destruction."
The professor closed his golden eyes and took in a long, deep breath. When he continued, he seemed to be forcing the words out, as though fighting a real and visceral pain.
"We know that the Portal builders are clearly an advanced and powerful people. Since we cannot build a Portal—or even accurately determine the actual age of one, please note—we must assume that they are much more advanced than we ourselves.
"I cannot, as yet, determine what would constitute appropriate payment for such an advanced race. I attach a very high probability that no member of this civilisation will ever be able to determine this."
The professor waited until calm had reasserted itself before continuing.
"This brings us to the real question, the one you did not know you were asking.
"Gentlebeings, the real question is this: what of the ‘debt collector’?"