Six months on, John was spending more and more time studying the mathematical theory behind the instantaneous communication system. It was something he would have to do in order to ensure that the software would function as intended, but was really only one part of the gamut of problems he would be expected to solve. Instead, he subjected the physics to a level of intensive study which verged on monomania - even by his standards - and was sometimes to the detriment of the project itself.

He was also still exhibited his predilection to react before some triggering event actually occurred, events from the most trivial to the most momentous. His sixth sense seemed to be protecting him in some way; one of the few times he was late arriving in the office was when a gas explosion partially collapsed a building on his usual route. Several people were injured in the blast, but John was unaffected, having chosen to dawdle in front of some shop windows rather than complete his usual brisk walk with a minimum of delay.

He was now much less likely to become confused when reacting to something which had not yet happened, but still didn't seem to be aware of what he was doing. He had become adept at constructing post-hoc explanations in response to the occasional informal query, most of which boiled down to "I just felt like it". My attempts to broach the subject directly with him led first to withering scorn when he thought I was being fanciful and then flat denials when he realised I was being serious.

All projects have a period when things start to go wrong, when mistakes and slippages multiply, when everybody is working extra hard, and when tempers get severely frayed or lost entirely. These episodes had always bypassed John, until now: I had never before seen him manifest serious signs of stress. Now he seemed permanently on edge, always grey of face shading to black around the eyes. He was certainly working ludicrous hours, sometimes avoiding sleep for two consecutive nights. I had had to firmly direct him to go home and get some sleep on more than one occasion, but he was still back in the office, looking only slightly better, after four or five hours.

There was another new development: John started muttering to himself, at first occasionally and very soon nearly all the time. What he said appeared to have nothing to do with the problems he was tackling as part of the project and was very often unintelligible gobbledegook, as far as I could tell. Again, when challenged, he would brusquely deny that he had said anything.

He was getting worse. I suspected that John was on the verge of some kind of psychological episode or nervous breakdown, which was in turn worrying me. Not just because of his own health - I genuinely both liked and respected him, despite his multitudinous quirks and foibles - but also because of the risk to the project as a whole. If John left, or collapsed at his desk, the project might be delayed by months, if not years. This might come across as callous but, as a professional Project Manager, it was my job to identify risks and to try and find some mitigation. It the general case, it is poor practice to depend so entirely on any one individual but sometimes this is just unavoidable, especially with somebody as naturally talented as him.

John's apparent stress levels continued to rise week after week - and mine with it - until a delegation from the international analysis team came to our offices to update us on the new understanding gleaned from the Message, at least insofar as it was relevant to the software development team. This manifested as several days of intensive workshops with the usual mix of discussion, debate and the occasional outright argument. He was more than usually distracted during these sessions, forever springing up from his seat to answer his mobile phone or typing urgent messages on his laptop, and seemed only marginally engaged even when not otherwise engaged.

It was during one of the breaks in these sessions when a curious coincidence - maybe that should be a miracle - occurred. It involved a young man, a slightly-built Filipino named Pascual Reyes, one of the delegation I was shepherding around in my role as meeting facilitator and general dogsbody. On short acquaintance, he seemed to be habitually polite and softly-spoken, although his grasp of idiomatic English was sometimes erratic.

Doctor Reyes was standing waiting his turn at the coffee machine in the corner of the conference suite when he happened to overhear one of the apparently unintelligible mutterings that John was all too prone too. Reyes spun around, his mouth open in astonishment. Then, to my astonishment, he responded to John's words in what was immediately evidently the very same language.

John was instantly nonplussed. His habitually dour expression deepened even further and his brows knotted in confusion.

"What did you just say?" he demanded.

Reyes' response was equally confused.

"I just agreed with your statement," he said, as politely as ever, "It's obviously the right answer."

John's mood swung from sullen to annoyed in an instant.

"The answer to what question?" he demanded, swinging around suddenly and glaring at Reyes' face from a distance of about six inches.

"The one we were just discussing!" Reyes spluttered, stepping back nervously in the face of an apparent madman, "You know, the meaning of Symbol Beta-1074 in the Message."

There was a sudden silence as the two men stared at each other in a deadlock of mutual incomprehension. I thought it best to step in at this point. I took Reyes gently by the arm.

"So what was the answer then?" I asked softly.

He looked away, a glance to the upper-left that indicated he was cogitating deeply.

"Er, it's a bit difficult to translate into English," he said eventually, "The best I can manage is 'causally, with moderate probability'. Sorry, but that’s it."

We were the centre of attention in the little coffee annex by now. There was a growing hubbub around the room as the distinguished delegates converged on the offered interpretation and, to a man and woman, agreed it was undoubtedly the right answer.

That was the very first of John's Answers.

Part 5 Part 7