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THE CASIMIR ENGINE
A little after dawn, Vitaly Keldysh climbed stiffly into his car, engaged the SmartDrive, and let the car sweep him away from the run-down hotel.
The streets of Leninsk were empty, the road surface cracked, many windows boarded up. He remembered how this place had been at its peak, in the 1970s perhaps: a bustling science city with a population of tens of thousands, with schools, cinemas, a swimming pool, a sports stadium, cafés, restaurants and hotels, even its own TV station.
Still, as he passed the main gateway to the north of the city, there was the old blue sign with its white pointing arrow: to baikonur, still proclaiming that ancient deceptive name. And still, here at the empty heart of Asia, Russian engineers built spaceships and fired them into the sky.
But, he reflected sadly, not for much longer.
The sun rose at last, and banished the stars: all but one, he saw, the brightest of all. It moved with a leisurely but unnatural speed across the southern sky. It was the ruin of the International Space Station: never completed, abandoned in 2010 after the crash of an aging Space Shuttle. But still the Station drifted around the Earth, an unwelcome guest at a party long over.
The landscape beyond the city was barren. He passed a camel standing patiently at the side of the road, a wizened woman beside it dressed in rags. It was a scene he might have encountered any time in the last thousand years, he thought, as if all the great changes, political and technical and social, that had swept across this land had been for nothing. Which was, perhaps, the reality.
But in the gathering sunlight of this spring dawn, the steppe was green and littered with bright yellow flowers. He wound down his window and tried to detect the meadow fragrance he remembered so well; but his nose, ruined by a lifetime of tobacco, let him down. He felt a stab of sadness, as he always did at this time of year. The grass and flowers would soon be gone: the steppe spring was brief, as tragically brief as life itself.
He reached the range.
It was a place of steel towers pointing to the sky, of enormous concrete mounds. The cosmodrome—far vaster than its western competitors—covered thousands of square kilometers of this empty land. Much of it was abandoned now, of course, and the great gantries were rusting slowly in the dry air, or else had been pulled down for scrap—with or without the consent of the authorities.
But this morning there was much activity around one pad. He could see technicians in their protective suits and orange hats scurrying around the great gantry, like faithful at the feet of some immense god.
A voice floated across the steppe from a speaker tower. Gotovnosty dyesyat minut. Ten minutes and counting.
The walk from the car to the viewing stand, short as it was, tired him greatly. He tried to ignore the hammering of his recalcitrant heart, the prickling of sweat over his neck and brow, his gasping breathlessness, the stiff pain that plagued his arm and neck.
As he took his place those already here greeted him. There were the corpulent, complacent men and women who, in this new Russia, moved seamlessly between legitimate authority and murky underworld; and there were young technicians, like all of the new generations rat-faced with the hunger that had plagued his country since the fall of the Soviet Union.
He accepted their greetings, but was happy to sink into isolated anonymity. The men and women of this hard future cared nothing for him and his memories of a better past.
And nor did they care much for what was about to happen here. All their gossip was of events far away: of Hiram Patterson and his wormholes, his promise to make the Earth itself as transparent as glass.
It was very obvious to Vitaly that he was the oldest person here. The last survivor of the old days, perhaps. That thought gave him a certain sour pleasure.
It was, in fact, almost exactly seventy years since the launch of the first Molniya—“lightning”—in 1965. It might have been seventy days, so vivid were the events in Vitaly’s mind, when the young army of scientists, rocket engineers, technicians, laborers, cooks, carpenters and masons had come to this unpromising steppe and—living in huts and tents, alternately baking and freezing, armed with little but their dedication and Korolev’s genius—had built and launched mankind’s first spaceships.
The design of the Molniya satellites had been utterly ingenious. Korolev’s great boosters were incapable of launching a satellite to geosynchronous orbit, that high radius where the station would hover above a fixed point on Earth’s surface. So Korolev launched his satellites on elliptical eight-hour trajectories. With such orbits, carefully chosen, three Molniyas could provide coverage for most of the Soviet Union. For decades the U.S.S.R. and then Russia had maintained constellations of Molniyas in their eccentric orbits, providing the great, sprawling country with essential social and economic unity.
Vitaly regarded the Molniya comsats as Korolev’s greatest achievement, outshining even the Designer’s accomplishments in launching robots and humans into space, touching Mars and Venus, even—so nearly—beating the Americans to the Moon.
But now, perhaps, the need for those marvelous birds was dying at last.
The great launch tower rolled back, and the last power umbilicals fell away, writhing slowly like fat black snakes. The slim form of the booster itself was revealed, a needle shape with the baroque fluting typical of Korolev’s antique, marvelous, utterly reliable designs. Although the sun was now high in the sky, the rocket was bathed in brilliant artificial light, wreathed in vapor breathed by the mass of cryogenic fuels in its tanks.
Tri. Dva. Odin. Zashiganiye!
* * *
As Kate Manzoni approached the OurWorld campus, she wondered if she had contrived to be a little more than fashionably just-late-enough for this spectacular event, so brightly was the Washington State sky painted by Hiram Patterson’s light show.
Small planes crisscrossed the sky, maintaining a layer of (no doubt environmentally friendly) dust on which the lasers painted virtual images of a turning Earth. Every few seconds the globe turned transparent, to reveal the familiar OurWorld corporate logo embedded in its core. It was all utterly tacky, of course, and it only served to obscure the real beauty of the tall, clear night sky.
She opaqued the car’s roof, and found afterimages drifting across her vision.
A drone hovered outside the car. It was another Earth globe, slowly spinning, and when it spoke its voice was smooth, utterly synthetic, devoid of emotion. “This way, Ms. Manzoni.”
“Just a moment.” She whispered, “Search Engine. Mirror.”
An image of herself crystallized in the middle of her field of vision, disconcertingly overlaying the spinning drone. She checked her dress front and back, turned on the programmable tattoos that adorned her shoulders, and tucked stray wisps of hair back where they should be. The self-image, synthesized from feeds from the car’s cameras and relayed to her retinal implants, was a little grainy and prone to break up into blocky pixels if she moved too quickly, but that was a limitation of her old-fashioned sense-organ implant technology she was prepared to accept. Better she suffer a little fuzziness than let some cack-handed CNS-augment surgeon open up her skull.
When she was ready she dismissed the image and clambered out of the car, as gracefully as she could manage in her ludicrously tight and impractical dress.
OurWorld’s campus turned out to be a carpet of neat grass quadrangles separating three-story office buildings, fat, top-heavy boxes of blue glass held up by skinny little beams of reinforced concrete. It was ugly and quaint, 1990s corporate chic. The bottom story of each building was an open car lot, in one of which her car had parked itself.
She joined a river of people that flowed into the campus cafeteria, drones bobbing over their heads.
The cafeteria was a showpiece, a spectacular multilevel glass cylinder built around a chunk of bona fide graffiti-laden Berlin Wall. There was, bizarrely, a stream running right through the middle of the hall, with little stone bridges spanning it. Tonight perhaps a thousand guests milled across the glassy floor, groups of them coalescing and dispersing, a cloud of conversation bubbling around them.
Heads turned toward her, some in recognition, and some—male and female alike—with frankly lustful calculation.
She picked out face after face, repeated shocks of recognition startling her. There were presidents, dictators, royalty, powers in industry and finance, and the usual scattering of celebrities from movies and music and the other arts. She didn’t spot President Juarez herself, but several of her cabinet were here. Hiram had gathered quite a crowd for his latest spectacle, she conceded.
Of course she knew she wasn’t here herself solely for her glittering journalistic talent or conversational skills, but for her own combination of beauty and the minor celebrity that had followed her exposure of the Wormwood discovery. But that was an angle she’d been happy to exploit herself ever since her big break.
Drones floated overhead, bearing canapés and drinks. She accepted a cocktail. Some of the drones carried images from one or another of Hiram’s channels. The images were mostly ignored in the excitement, even the most spectacular—here was one, for example, bearing the image of a space rocket on the point of being launched, evidently from some dusty steppe in Asia—but she couldn’t deny that the cumulative effect of all this technology was impressive, as if reinforcing Hiram’s famous boast that OurWorld’s mission was to inform a planet.
She gravitated toward one of the larger knots of people nearby, trying to see who, or what, was the center of attention. She made out a slim young man with dark hair, a walrus mustache and round glasses, wearing a rather absurd pantomime-soldier uniform of bright lime green with scarlet piping. He seemed to be holding a brass musical instrument, perhaps a euphonium. She recognized him, of course, and as soon as she did so she lost interest. Just a virtual. She began to survey the crowd around him, observing their childlike fascination with this simulacrum of a long-dead, saintly celebrity.
One older man was regarding her a little too closely. His eyes were odd, an unnaturally pale gray. She wondered if he had possession of the new breed of retinal implants that were rumored—by operating at millimeter wavelengths, at which textiles were transparent, and with a little subtle image enhancement—to enable the wearer to see through clothes. He took a tentative step toward her, and orthotic aids, his invisible walking machine, whirred stiffly.
Kate turned away.
“…He’s only a virtual, I’m afraid. Our young sergeant over there, that is. Like his three companions, who are likewise scattered around the room. Even my father’s grasp doesn’t yet extend to resurrecting the dead. But of course you knew that.”
The voice in her ear had made her jump. She turned, and found herself looking into the face of a young man: perhaps twenty-five, jet-black hair, a proud Roman nose, a chin with a cleft to die for. His mixed ancestry told in the pale brown of his skin, the heavy black brows over startling, cloudy blue eyes. But his gaze roamed, restlessly, even in these first few seconds of meeting her, as if he had trouble maintaining eye contact.
He said, “You’re staring at me.”
She came out fighting. “Well, you startled me. Anyhow I know who you are.” This was Bobby Patterson, Hiram’s only son and heir—and a notorious sexual predator. She wondered how many other unaccompanied women this man had targeted tonight.
“And I know you, Ms. Manzoni. Or can I call you Kate?”
“You may as well. I call your father Hiram, as everyone does, though I’ve never met him.”
“Do you want to? I could arrange it.”
“I'm sure you could.”
He studied her a little more closely now, evidently enjoying the gentle verbal duel. “You know, I could have guessed you were a journalist—a writer, anyhow. The way you were watching the people reacting to the virtual, rather than the virtual itself…I saw your pieces on the Wormwood, of course. You made quite a splash.”
“Not as much as the real thing will when it hits the Pacific on May 27, 2534 A.D.”
He smiled, and his teeth were like rows of pearls. “You intrigue me, Kate Manzoni,” he said. “You’re accessing the Search Engine right now, aren’t you? You’re asking it about me.”
“No.” She was annoyed by the suggestion. “I’m a journalist. I don’t need a memory crutch.”
“I do, evidently. I remembered your face, your story, but not your name. Are you offended?”
She bristled. “Why should I be? As a matter of
“As a matter of fact, I smell a little sexual chemistry in the air. Am I right?”
There was a heavy arm around her shoulder, a powerful scent of cheap cologne. It was Hiram Patterson himself: one of the most famous people on the planet.
Bobby grinned and, gently, pushed his father’s arm away. “Dad, you’re embarrassing me again.”
“Oh, bugger that. Life’s too short, isn’t it?” Hiram’s accent bore strong traces of his origins, the long, nasal vowels of Norfolk, England. He was very like his son, but darker, bald with a fringe of wiry black hair around his head; his eyes were intense blue over that prominent family nose, and he grinned easily, showing teeth stained by nicotine. He looked energetic, younger than his late sixties. “Ms. Manzoni, I’m a great admirer of your work. And may I say you look terrific.”
“Which is why I’m here, no doubt.”
He laughed, pleased. “Well, that too. But I did want to be sure there was one intelligent person in among the air-head politicos and pretty-pretties who crowd out these events. Somebody who would be able to record this moment of history.”
“No, you’re not,” Hiram said bluntly. “You’re being ironic. You’ve heard the buzz about what I’m going to say tonight. You probably even generated some of it yourself. You think I’m a megalomaniac nutcase—”
“I don’t think I’d say that. What I see is a man with a new gadget. Hiram, do you really believe a gadget can change the world?”
“But gadgets do, you know! Once it was the wheel, agriculture, ironmaking—inventions that took thousands of years to spread around the planet. But now it takes a generation or less. Think about the car, the television. When I was a kid computers were giant walk-in wardrobes served by a priesthood with punch cards. Now we all spend half our lives plugged into SoftScreens. And my gadget is going to top them all.…Well. You’ll have to decide for yourself.” He studied Kate. “Enjoy tonight. If this young waster hasn’t invited you already, come to dinner, and we’ll show you more, as much as you want to see. I mean it. Talk to one of the drones. Now, do excuse me.…” Hiram squeezed her shoulders briefly, then began to make his way through the crowd, smiling and waving and glad-handing as he went.
Kate took a deep breath. “I feel as if a bomb just went off.”
Bobby laughed. “He does have that effect. By the way—”
“I was going to ask you anyhow before the old fool jumped in. Come have dinner. And maybe we can have a little fun, get to know each other better…”
As his patter continued, she tuned him out and focused on what she knew about Hiram Patterson and OurWorld.
Hiram Patterson—born Hirdamani Patel—had dragged himself out of impoverished origins in the fen country of eastern England, a land which had now disappeared beneath the encroaching North Sea. He had made his first fortune by using Japanese cloning technologies to manufacture ingredients for traditional medicines once made from the bodies of tigers—whiskers, paws, claws, even bones—and exporting them to Chinese communities around the world. That had gained him notoriety: brickbats for using advanced technology to serve such primitive needs, praise for reducing the pressure on the remaining populations of tigers in India, China, Russia, and Indonesia. (Not that there were any tigers left now anyhow.)
After that Hiram had diversified. He had developed the world’s first successful SoftScreen, a flexible image system based on polymer pixels capable of emitting multicolored light. With the success of the SoftScreen Hiram began to grow seriously rich. Soon his corporation, OurWorld, had become a powerhouse in advanced technologies, broadcasting, news, sport and entertainment.
But Britain was declining. As part of unified
Europe—deprived of tools of macroeconomic policy like control of exchange and interest rates, and yet unsheltered by the imperfectly integrated greater economy—the British government was unable to arrest a sharp economic collapse. At last, in 2010, social unrest and climate collapse forced Britain out of the European Union, and the United Kingdom fell apart, Scotland going its own separate way. Through all this Hiram had struggled to maintain OurWorld’s fortunes.
Then, in 2019, England, with Wales, ceded Northern Ireland to Eire, packed off the Royals to Australia—where they were still welcome—and had become the fifty-second state of the United States of America. With the benefit of labor mobility, interregional financial transfers and other protective features of the truly unified American economy, England thrived.
But it had to thrive without Hiram.
As a U.S. citizen, Hiram had quickly taken the opportunity to relocate to the outskirts of Seattle, Washington, and had delighted in establishing a new corporate headquarters here, at what used to be the Microsoft campus. Hiram liked to boast that he would become the Bill Gates of the twenty-first century. And indeed his corporate and personal power had, in the richer soil of the American economy, grown exponentially.
Still, Kate knew, he was only one of a number of powerful players in a crowded and competitive market. She was here tonight because—so went the buzz, and as he had just hinted—Hiram was to reveal something new, something that would change all that.
Bobby Patterson, by contrast, had grown up enveloped by Hiram’s power.
Educated at Eton, Cambridge and Harvard, he had taken various positions within his father’s companies, and enjoyed the spectacular life of an international playboy and the world’s most eligible bachelor. As far as Kate knew he had never once demonstrated any spark of initiative of his own, nor any desire to escape his father’s embrace—better yet, to supplant him.
Kate gazed at his perfect face. This is a bird who is happy with his gilded cage, she thought. A spoilt rich kid.
But she felt herself flush under his gaze, and despised her biology.
She hadn’t spoken for some seconds; Bobby was still waiting for her to respond to his dinner invitation.
“I’ll think about it, Bobby.”
He seemed puzzled—as if he’d never received such a hesitant response before. “Is there a problem? If you want I can—”
“Ladies and gentlemen.”
Every head turned; Kate was relieved.
Hiram had mounted a stage at one end of the cafeteria. Behind him, a giant SoftScreen showed a blown-up image of his head and shoulders. He was smiling over them all, like some beneficent god, and drones drifted around his head bearing jewel-like images of the multiple OurWorld channels. “May I say, first of all, thank you all for coming to witness this moment of history, and for your patience. Now the show is about to begin.”
The dandy-like virtual in the lime green soldier suit materialized on the stage beside Hiram, his granny glasses glinting in the lights. He was joined by three others, in pink, blue and scarlet, each carrying a musical instrument—an oboe, a trumpet, a piccolo. There was scattered applause. The four took an easy bow, and stepped lightly to an area at the back of the stage where a drum kit and three electric guitars were waiting for them.
Hiram said easily, “This imagery is being broadcast to us, here in Seattle, from a station near Brisbane, Australia—bounced off various comsats, with a time delay of a few seconds. I don’t mind telling you these boys have made a mountain of money in the last couple of years—their new song ‘Let Me Love You’ was number one around the world for four weeks over Christmas, and all the profit from that went to charity.”
“New song,” Kate murmured cynically.
Bobby leaned closer. “You don’t like the
“Oh, come on,” she said. “The originals broke up sixty-five years ago. Two of them died before I was born. Their guitars and drums are so clunky and old-fashioned compared to the new airware bands, where the music emerges from the performers’ dance…and anyhow all these new songs are just expert-system extrapolated garbage.”
“All part of our—what do you call it in your polemics?—our cultural decay,” he said gently.
“Hell, yes,” she said, but before his easy grace she felt a little embarrassed by her sourness.
Hiram was still talking. “…not just a stunt. I was born in 1967, during the Summer of Love. Of course some say the sixties were a cultural revolution that led nowhere. Perhaps that’s true—directly. But it, and its music of love and hope, played a great part in shaping me, and others of my generation.”
Bobby caught Kate’s eye. He mimed vomiting with a splayed hand, and she had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing.
“…And at the height of that summer, on 25 June 1967, a global television show was mounted to demonstrate the power of the nascent communications network.” Behind Hiram the V-Fab drummer counted out a beat, and the group started playing, a dirgelike parody of the Marseillaise that gave way to finely sung three-part harmony. “This was Britain’s contribution,” Hiram called over the music. “A song about love, sung to two hundred million people around the world. That show was called Our World. Yes, that’s right. That’s where I got the name from. I know it’s a little corny. But as soon as I saw the tapes of that event, at ten years old, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”
Corny, yes, thought Kate, but undeniably effective; the audience was gazing spellbound at Hiram’s giant image as the music of a summer seven decades gone reverberated around the cafeteria.
“And now,” said Hiram with a showman’s flourish, “I believe I have achieved my life’s goal. I’d suggest holding on to something—even someone else’s hand.…”
The floor turned transparent.
* * *
Suddenly suspended over empty space, Kate felt herself stagger, her eyes deceived despite the solidity of the floor beneath her feet. There was a gale of nervous laughter, a few screams, the gentle tinkle of dropped glass.
Kate was surprised to find she had grabbed on to Bobby’s arm. She could feel a knot of muscle there. He had covered her hand with his, apparently without calculation.
She let her hand stay where it was. For now.
She seemed to be hovering over a starry sky, as if this cafeteria had been transported into space. But these “stars,” arrayed against a black sky, were gathered and harnessed into a cubical lattice, linked by a subtle tracery of multicolored light. Looking into the lattice, the images receding with distance, Kate felt as if she were staring down an infinitely long tunnel.
With the music still playing around him—so artfully, subtly different from the original recording—Hiram said, “You aren’t looking up into the sky, into space. Instead you are looking down, into the deepest structure of matter.
“This is a crystal of diamond. The white points you see are carbon atoms. The links are the valence forces that join them. I want to emphasize that what you are going to see, though enhanced, is not a simulation. With modern technology—scanning tunneling microscopes, for instance—we can build up images of matter even at this most fundamental of levels. Everything you see is real. Now—come further.”
Holographic images rose to fill the room, as if the cafeteria and all its occupants were sinking into the lattice, and shrinking the while. Carbon atoms swelled over Kate’s head like pale gray balloons; there were tantalizing hints of structure in their interior. And all around her space sparkled. Points of light winked into existence, only to be snuffed out immediately. It was quite extraordinarily beautiful, like swimming through a firefly cloud.
“You’re looking at space,” said Hiram.
“‘Empty’ space. This is the stuff that fills the universe. But now we are seeing space at a resolution far finer than the limits of the human eye, a level at which individual electrons are visible—and at this level, quantum effects become important. ‘Empty’ space is actually full, full of fluctuating energy fields. And these fields manifest themselves as particles: photons, electron-positron pairs, quarks…They flash into a brief existence, bankrolled by borrowed mass-energy, then disappear as the law of conservation of energy reasserts itself. We humans see space and energy and matter from far above, like an astronaut flying over an ocean. We are too high to see the waves, the flecks of foam they carry. But they are there.
“And we haven’t reached the end of our journey yet. Hang on to your drinks, folks.”
The scale exploded again. Kate found herself flying into the glassy onion-shell interior of one of the carbon atoms. There was a hard, shining lump at its very center, a cluster of misshapen spheres. Was it the nucleus?—and were those inner spheres protons and neutrons?
As the nucleus flew at her she heard people cry out. Still clutching Bobby’s arm, she tried not to flinch as she hurtled into one of the nucleons.
There was no shape here. No form, no definite light, no color beyond a blood-red crimson. And yet there was motion, a slow, insidious, endless writhing, punctuated by bubbles which rose and burst. It was like the slow boiling of some foul, thick liquid.
Hiram said, “We’ve reached what the physicists call the Planck level. We are twenty order of magnitudes deeper than the virtual-particle level we saw earlier. And at this level, we can’t even be sure about the structure of space itself: topology and geometry break down, and space and time become untangled.”
At this most fundamental of levels, there was no sequence to time, no order to space. The unification of spacetime was ripped apart by the forces of quantum gravity, and space became a seething probabilistic froth, laced by wormholes.
“Yes, wormholes,” Hiram said. “What we’re seeing here are the mouths of wormholes, spontaneously forming, threaded with electric fields. Space is what keeps everything from being in the same place. Right? But at this level space is grainy, and we can’t trust it to do its job anymore. And so a wormhole mouth can connect any point, in this small region of spacetime, to any other point—anywhere: downtown Seattle, or Brisbane, Australia, or a planet of Alpha Centauri. It’s as if spacetime bridges are spontaneously popping into and out of existence.” His huge face smiled down at them, reassuring. I don’t understand this any more than you do, the image said. Trust me. “My technical people will be on hand later to give you background briefings in as much depth as you can handle.
“What’s more important is what we intend to do with all this. Simply put, we are going to reach into this quantum foam and pluck out the wormhole we want: a wormhole connecting our laboratory, here in Seattle, with an identical facility in Brisbane, Australia. And when we have it stabilized, that wormhole will form a link down which we can send signals—beating light itself.
“And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the basis of a new communications revolution. No more expensive satellites sandblasted by micrometeorites and
orbit-decaying out of the sky; no more frustrating time delay; no more horrific charges—the world, our world, will be truly linked at last.”
As the virtuals kept playing there was a hubbub of conversation, even heckling questions. “Impossible!” “Wormholes are unstable. Everyone knows that.”
“In-falling radiation makes wormholes collapse immediately.” “You can’t possibly—”
Hiram’s giant face loomed over the seething quantum foam. He snapped his fingers. The quantum foam disappeared, to be replaced by a single artifact, hanging in the darkness below their feet.
There was a soft sigh.
Kate saw a gathering of glowing light points—atoms? The lights made up a geodesic sphere, closed over itself, slowly turning. And within, she saw, there was another sphere, turning in the opposite sense—and within that another sphere, and another, down to the limits of vision. It was like some piece of clockwork, an orrery of atoms. But the whole structure pulsed with a pale blue light, and she sensed a gathering of great energies.
It was, she admitted, truly beautiful.
Hiram said, “This is called a Casimir engine. It is perhaps the most exquisitely constructed machine ever built by man, a machine over which we have labored for years—and yet it is less than a few hundred atomic diameters wide.
“You can see the shells are constructed of atoms—in fact carbon atoms; the structure is related to the natural stable structures called ‘buckyballs,’ carbon-60. You make the shells by zapping graphite with laser beams. We’ve loaded the engine with electric charge using cages called Penning traps—electromagnetic fields. The structure is held together by powerful magnetic fields. The various shells are maintained, at their closest, just a few electrons’ diameters apart. And in those finest of gaps, a miracle happens.…”
Kate, tiring of Hiram’s wordy boasting, quickly consulted the Search Engine. She learned that the “Casimir effect” was related to the virtual particles she had seen sparkling into and out of existence. In the narrow gap between the atomic shells, because of resonance effects, only certain types of particles would be permitted to exist. And so those gaps were emptier than “empty” space, and therefore less energetic.
This negative-energy effect could give rise, among other things, to antigravity.
The structure’s various levels were starting to spin more rapidly. Small clocks appeared around the engine’s image, counting patiently down from ten to nine, eight, and seven. The sense of energy gathering was palpable.
“The concentration of energy in the Casimir gaps is increasing,” Hiram said. “We’re going to inject Casimir-effect negative energy into the wormholes of the quantum foam. The antigravity effects will stabilize and enlarge the wormholes.
“We calculate that the probability of finding a wormhole connecting Seattle to Brisbane, to acceptable accuracy, is one in ten million. So it will take us some ten million attempts to locate the wormhole we want. But this is atomic machinery and it works bloody fast; even a hundred million attempts should take less than a second.…And the beauty of it is, down at the quantum level, links to any place we want already exist: all we have to do is find them.”
The virtuals’ music was swelling to its concluding chorus. Kate stared as the Frankenstein machine beneath her feet spun madly, glowing palpably with energy.
And the clocks finished their count.
There was a dazzling flash. Some people cried out.
When Kate could see again, the atomic machine, still spinning, was no longer alone. A silvery bead, perfectly spherical, hovered alongside it. A wormhole mouth?
And the music had changed. The V-Fabs had reached the chantlike chorus of their song. But the music was distorted by a much coarser chanting that preceded the high-quality sound by a few seconds.
Aside from the music, the room was utterly silent.
Hiram gasped, as if he had been holding his breath. “That’s it,” he said. “The new signal you hear is the same performance, but now piped here through the wormhole—with no significant time delay. We did it. Tonight, for the first time in history, humanity is sending a signal through a stable wormhole—”
Bobby leaned to Kate and said wryly, “The first time, apart from all the test runs.”
“Of course. You don’t think he was going to leave this to chance, did you? My father is a showman. But you can’t begrudge the man his moment of glory.”
The giant display showed Hiram was grinning. “Ladies and gentlemen—never forget what you’ve seen tonight. This is the start of the true communications revolution.”
The applause started slowly, scattered, but rapidly rising to a thunderous climax.
Kate found it impossible not to join in. I wonder where this will lead, she thought. Surely the possibilities of this new technology—based, after all, on the manipulation of space and time themselves—would not prove limited to simple data transfer. She sensed that nothing would be the same, ever again.
Kate’s eye was caught by a splinter of light, dazzling, somewhere over her head. One of the drones was carrying an image of the rocket ship she’d noticed before. It was climbing into its patch of blue-gray central Asian sky, utterly silently. It looked strangely old-fashioned, an image drifting up from the past rather than the future.
Nobody else was watching it, and it held little interest for her. She turned away.
* * *
Green-red flame billowed into curving channels of steel and concrete. The light pulsed across the steppe toward Vitaly. It was bright, dazzlingly so, and it banished the dim floods that still lit up the booster stack, even the brilliance of the steppe sun. And, even before the ship had left the ground, the roar reached him, a thunder that shook his chest.
Ignoring the mounting pain in his arm and shoulder, the numbness of his hands and feet, Vitaly stood, opened his cracked lips and added his voice to that divine bellow. He always had been a sentimental old fool at such moments.
But there was much agitation around him. The people here, the rat-hungry, ill-trained technicians and the fat, corrupt managers alike, were turning away from the launch. They were huddling around radio sets and palm-top televisions, jewel-like SoftScreens showing baffling images from America. Vitaly did not know the details, and did not care to know; but it was clear enough that Hiram Patterson had succeeded in his promise, or threat.
Even as it lifted from the ground, his beautiful bird, this last Molniya, was already obsolete.
Vitaly stood straight, determined to watch it as long as he could, until that point of light at the tip of the great smoke pillar melted into space.
…But now the pain in his arm and chest reached a climax, as if some bony hand was clutching there. He gasped. Still he tried to stay on his feet. But now there was a new light, rising all around him, even brighter than the rocket light that bathed the Kazakhstan steppe; and he could stand no longer.
Copyright © 2000 by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter