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Ken Dolby stood before his workstation, his smooth, polished fingers caressing the controls of Isabella. He waited, savoring the moment, and then he unlocked a cage on the panel and pulled down a small red bar.
There was no hum, no sound, nothing to indicate that the most expensive scientific instrument on earth had been turned on. Except that, two hundred miles away, the lights of Las Vegas dimmed ever so slightly.
As Isabella warmed up, Dolby began to feel the fine vibration of her through the floor. He thought of the machine as a woman, and in his more imaginative moments he had even imagined what she looked like—tall and slender, with a muscular back, black as the desert night, beaded with sweat. Isabella. He had shared these feelings with no one—no point in attracting ridicule. To the rest of the scientists on the project, Isabella was an “it,” a dead machine built for a specific purpose. But Dolby had always felt a deep affection for the machines he created—from when he was ten years old and constructed his first radio from a kit. Fred. That was the radio’s name. And when he thought of Fred, he saw a fat carroty-haired white man. The first computer he had built was Betty—who looked in his head like a brisk and efficient secretary. He couldn’t explain why his machines took on the personalities they did—it just happened.
And now this, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator . . . Isabella.
“How’s it look?” asked Hazelius, the team leader, coming over and placing an affectionate hand on his shoulder.
“Purring like a cat,” said Dolby.
“Good.” Hazelius straightened up and spoke to the team. “Gather round, I have an announcement to make.”
Silence fell as the team members straightened up from their workstations and waited. Hazelius strode across the small room and positioned himself in front of the biggest of the plasma screens. Small, slight, as sleek and restless as a caged mink, he paced in front of the screen for a moment before turning to them with a brilliant smile. It never ceased to amaze Dolby what a charismatic presence the man had.
“My dear friends,” he began, scanning the group with turquoise eyes. “It’s 1492. We’re at the bow of the Santa Maria, gazing at the sea horizon, moments before the coastline of the New World comes into view. Today is the day we sail over that unknown horizon and land upon the shores of our very own New World.”
He reached down into the Chapman bag he always carried and pulled out a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. He held it up like a trophy, his eyes sparkling, and thumped it down on the table. “This is for later tonight, when we set foot on the beach. Because tonight, we bring Isabella to one hundred percent full power.”
Silence greeted the announcement. Finally Kate Mercer, the assistant director of the project, spoke. “What happened to the plan to do three runs at ninety-five percent?”
Hazelius returned her look with a smile. “I’m impatient. Aren’t you?”
Mercer brushed back her glossy black hair. “What if we hit an unknown resonance or generate a miniature black hole?”
“Your own calculations show a one in quadrillion chance of that particular downside.”
“My calculations might be wrong.”
“Your calculations are never wrong.” Hazelius smiled and turned to Dolby. “What do you think? Is she ready?”
“You’re damn right she’s ready.”
Hazelius spread his hands. “Well?”
Everyone looked at each other. Should they risk it? Volkonsky, the Russian programmer, suddenly broke the ice. “Yes, we go for it!” He high-fived a startled Hazelius, and then everyone began slapping each other on the back, shaking hands, and hugging, like a basketball team before a game.
Five hours and as many bad coffees later, Dolby stood before the huge flat-panel screen. It was still dark—the matter–antimatter proton beams had not been brought into contact. It took forever to power up the machine and cool down Isabella’s superconducting magnets to carry the very large currents necessary. Then it was a matter of increasing beam luminosity by increments of 5 percent, focusing and collimating the beams, checking the superconducting magnets, running various test programs, before going up to the next 5 percent.
“Power at ninety percent,” Dolby intoned.
“Christ damn,” said Volkonsky somewhere behind him, giving the Sunbeam coffeemaker a blow that made it rattle like the Tin Man. “Empty already!”
Dolby repressed a smile. During the two weeks they’d been up on the mesa, Volkonsky had revealed himself as a wiseass, a slouching, mangy specimen of Eurotrash with long greasy hair, ripped T-shirts, and a pubic clump of beard clinging to his chin. He looked more like a drug addict than a brilliant software engineer. But then, a lot of them were like that.
Another measured ticking of the clock.
“Beams aligned and focused,” said Rae Chen. “Luminosity fourteen TeV.”
“Isabella work fine,” said Volkonsky.
“My systems are all green,” said Cecchini, the particle physicist.
“Security, Mr. Wardlaw?”
The senior intelligence officer, Wardlaw, spoke from his security station. “Just cactus and coyotes, sir.”
“All right,” said Hazelius. “It’s time.” He paused dramatically. “Ken? Bring the beams into collision.”
Dolby felt a quickening of his heart. He touched the dials with his spiderlike fingers, adjusting them with a pianist’s lightness of touch. He followed with a series of commands rapped into the keyboard.
The huge flat-panel screens all around suddenly woke up. A sudden singing noise seemed to float in the air, coming from everywhere and nowhere at once.
“What’s that?” Mercer asked, alarmed.
“A trillion particles blowing through the detectors,” said Dolby. “Sets up a high vibration.”
“Jesus, it sounds like the monolith in 2001.”
Volkonsky hooted like an ape. Everyone ignored him.
An image appeared on the central panel, the Visualizer. Dolby stared at it, entranced. It was like an enormous flower—flickering jets of color radiating from a single point, twisting and writhing as if trying to tear free of the screen. He stood in awe at the intense beauty of it.
“Contact successful,” said Rae Chen. “Beams are focused and collimated. God, it’s a perfect alignment!”
Cheers and some ragged clapping.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Hazelius, “welcome to the shores of the New World.” He gestured to the Visualizer. “You’re looking at an energy density not seen in the universe since the Big Bang.” He turned to Dolby. “Ken, please increase power in increments of tenths to ninety-nine.”
The ethereal sound increased slightly as Dolby worked on the keyboard. “Ninety-six,” he said.
“Luminosity seventeen point four TeV,” said Chen.
“Ninety-seven . . . Ninety-eight.”
The team fell into tense silence, the only sound now the humming that filled the underground control room, as if the mountain around them were singing.
“Beams still focused,” said Chen. “Luminosity twenty-two point five TeV.”
The sound from Isabella had become still higher, purer.
“Just a moment,” said Volkonsky, hunching over the supercomputer workstation. “Isabella is . . . slow.”
Dolby turned sharply. “Nothing wrong with the hardware. It must be another software glitch.”
“Software not problem,” said Volkonsky.
“Maybe we should hold it here,” said Mercer. “Any evidence of miniature black hole creation?”
“No,” said Chen. “Not a trace of Hawking radiation.”
“Ninety-nine point five,” said Dolby.
“I’m getting a charged jet at twenty-two point seven TeV,” said Chen.
“What kind?” asked Hazelius.
“An unknown resonance. Take a look.”
Two flickering red lobes had developed on either side of the flower on the central screen, like a clown’s ears gone wild.
“Hard-scattering,” said Hazelius. “Gluons maybe. Might be evidence of a Kaluza-Klein graviton.”
“No way,” said Chen. “Not at this luminosity.”
“Ninety-nine point six.”
“Gregory, I think we should hold the power steady here,” said Mercer. “A lot of stuff is happening all at once.”
“Naturally we’re seeing unknown resonances,” Hazelius said, his voice no louder than the rest, but somehow distinct from them all. “We’re in unknown territory.”
“Ninety-nine point seven,” Dolby intoned. He had complete confidence in his machine. He could take her to one hundred percent and beyond, if necessary. It gave him a thrill to know they were now sucking up almost a quarter of the juice from Hoover Dam. That was why they had to do their runs in the middle of the night—when power usage was lowest.
“Ninety-nine point eight.”
“We’ve got some kind of really big unknown interaction here,” said Mercer.
“What is problem, bitch?” Volkonsky shouted at the computer.
“I’m telling you, we’re poking our finger into a Kaluza-Klein space,” said Chen. “It’s incredible.”
Snow began to appear on the big flat panel with the flower.
“Isabella is behave strange,” said Volkonsky.
“How so?” Hazelius said, from his position at the center of the Bridge.
Dolby rolled his eyes. Volkonsky was such a pain. “All systems go on my board.”
Volkonsky typed furiously on the keyboard; then he swore in Russian and whacked the monitor with the flat of his hand.
“Gregory, don’t you think we should power down?” asked Mercer.
“Give it a minute more,” said Hazelius.
“Ninety-nine point nine,” said Dolby. In the past five minutes, the room had gone from sleepy to bug-eyed awake, tense as hell. Only Dolby felt relaxed.
“I agree with Kate,” said Volkonsky. “I not like the way Isabella behave. We start power-down sequence.”
“I’ll take full responsibility,” said Hazelius. “Everything is still well within specs. The data stream of ten terabits per second is starting to stick in its craw, that’s all.”
“Craw? What means ‘craw’?”
“Power at one hundred percent,” said Dolby, a note of satisfaction in his laid-back voice.
“Beam luminosity at twenty-seven point one eight two eight TeV,” said Chen.
Snow spackled the computer screens. The singing noise filled the room like a voice from the beyond. The flower on the Visualizer writhed and expanded. A black dot, like a hole, appeared at the center.
“Whoa!” said Chen. “Losing all data at Coordinate Zero.”
The flower flickered. Dark streaks shot through it.
“This is nuts,” said Chen. “I’m not kidding, the data’s vanishing.”
“Not possible,” said Volkonsky. “Data is not vanish. Particles is vanish.”
“Give me a break. Particles don’t vanish.”
“No joke, particles is vanish.”
“Software problem?” Hazelius asked.
“Not software problem,” said Volkonsky loudly. “Hardware problem.”
“Screw you,” Dolby muttered.
“Gregory, Isabella might be tearing the ’brane,” said Mercer. “I really think we should power down now.”
The black dot grew, expanded, began swallowing the image on the screen. At its margins, it jittered manically with intense color.
“These numbers are wild,” said Chen. “I’m getting extreme space-time curvature right at CZero. It looks like some kind of singularity. We might be creating a black hole.”
“Impossible,” said Alan Edelstein, the team’s mathematician, looking up from the workstation he had been quietly hunched over in the corner. “There’s no evidence of Hawking radiation.”
“I swear to God,” said Chen loudly, “we’re ripping a hole in space-time!”
On the screen that ran the program code in real time, the symbols and numbers were flying by like an express train. On the big screen above their heads, the writhing flower had disappeared, leaving a black void. Then there was movement in the void—ghostly, batlike. Dolby stared at it, surprised.
“Damn it, Gregory, power down!” Mercer called.
“Isabella not accept input!” Volkonsky yelled. “I lose core routines!”
“Hold steady for a moment until we can figure out what’s going on,” said Hazelius.
“Gone! Isabella gone!” said the Russian, throwing up his hands and sitting back with a look of disgust on his bony face.
“I’m still green across the board,” said Dolby. “Obviously what you’ve got here is a massive software crash.” He turned his attention back to the Visualizer. An image was appearing in the void, an image so strange, so beautiful, that at first he couldn’t wrap his mind around it. He glanced around, but nobody else was looking: they were all focused on their various consoles.
“Hey, excuse me—anybody know what’s going on up there on the screen?” Dolby asked.
Nobody answered him. Nobody looked up. Everyone was furiously busy. The machine sang strangely.
“I’m just the engineer,” said Dolby, “but any of you theoretical geniuses got an idea of what that is? Alan, is that . . . normal?”
Alan Edelstein glanced up from his workstation distractedly. “It’s just random data,” he said.
“What do you mean, random? It’s got a shape!”
“The computer’s crashed. It can’t be anything but random data.”
“That sure doesn’t look random to me.” Dolby stared at it. “It’s moving. There’s something there, I swear—it almost looks alive, like it’s trying to get out. Gregory, are you seeing this?”
Hazelius glanced up at the Visualizer and paused, surprise blossoming on his face. He turned. “Rae? What’s going on with the Visualizer?”
“No idea. I’m getting a steady blast of coherent data from the detectors. Doesn’t look like Isabella’s crashed from here.”
“How would you interpret that thing on the screen?”
Chen look up and her eyes widened. “Jeez. I’ve no idea.”
“It’s moving,” said Dolby. “It’s, like, emerging.”
The detectors sang, the room humming with their high-pitched whine.
“Rae, it’s garbage data,” Edelstein said. “The computer’s crashed—how can it be real?”
“I’m not so sure it is garbage,” said Hazelius, staring. “Michael, what do you think?”
The particle physicist stared at the image, mesmerized. “It doesn’t make any sense. None of the colors and shapes correspond to particle energies, charges, and classes. It isn’t even radially centered on CZero—it’s like a weird, magnetically bound plasma cloud of some kind.”
“I’m telling you,” said Dolby, “it’s moving, it’s coming out. It’s like a . . . Jesus, what the hell is it?” He closed his eyes hard, trying to chase away the ache of exhaustion. Maybe he was seeing things. He opened them. It was still there—and expanding.
“Shut it down! Shut Isabella down now!” Mercer cried.
Suddenly the panel filled with snow and went dead black.
“What the hell?” Chen cried, her fingers pounding the keyboard. “I’ve lost all input!”
A word slowly materialized in the center of the panel. The group fell into silence, staring. Even Volkonsky’s voice, which had been raised in high excitement, lapsed as if cut off. Nobody moved.
Then Volkonsky began to laugh, a tense, high-pitched laugh, hysterical, desperate.
Dolby felt a sudden rage. “You son of a bitch, you did this.”
Volkonsky shook his head, flapping his greasy locks.
“You think that’s funny?” Dolby asked, getting up from the workstation with clenched fists. “You hack a forty-billion-dollar experiment and you think it’s funny?”
“I not hack anything,” said Volkonsky, wiping his mouth. “You shut hell up.”
Dolby turned and faced the group. “Who did this? Who messed with Isabella?” He turned back to the Visualizer and read out loud the word hanging there, spat it out in his fury. greetings.
He turned back. “I’ll kill the bastard who did this.”
Copyright © 2007 by Splendide Mendax, Inc. All rights reserved.