Nebula Award Finalist: A team of physicists trying to develop fusion power via a new development in plasma physics, a Sonomak, accidentally stumbles on a method to create picoverses, which replicate everything in our universe but on a smaller scale.
A disastrous test of the Sonomak machine shakes things up and a new project director, previously unknown to the group, is appointed.
Alexandra has her own secret priorities and one of them is to escape from her superiors into one of the picoverses. To do this, she needs the researchers to execute her plan. Unfortunately, things go amiss and the team finds itself stuck in a picoverse duplicating 1920s Earth, but with its own version of a Sonomak, vacuum tubes and all. On the local team are Werner Heisenberg and Albert Einstein. As the pace of the story accelerates, the original team races from one picoverse to another, trying to return to their home base and thwart Alexandra’s plans. In a clash of alternate realities, the fate of Earth and the entire universe hangs in the balance. Cosmic rabbits need to be pulled from alternate-universe hats before this tale comes to a satisfying—and scientifically rigorous—end.
Robert Metzger writes classic hard science fiction, but he does so in a way that emphasizes excitement and adventure, and shows the science in a way that makes it accessible and fascinating.
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By Robert A. Metzger
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Robert A. Metzger
All rights reserved.
The Nunn Physics Building, a six-story sprawl of red brick and smoked glass, dominated the northern boundary of Georgia Tech's campus, throwing a long shadow down 14th Street, painting the dozens of ramshackle student bungalows that hugged its western edge in depressing shades of gray and brown. Built six years earlier, and intended to accommodate a wide spectrum of students, the bungalows were now the exclusive domain of physics grad students, tethered close to their professors, and even closer to their experiments.
Dr. Katie McGuire sat cross-legged atop Nunn's observation platform—a three-by-three square meter slab of rain-rotted plywood, once painted black, but now weathered gray and streaked with mildew. Wedged between a behemoth segment of galvanized ducting that carried away acid fumes and metalorganic residues, and a half-dozen two-hundred-gallon liquid nitrogen tanks, long empty, pressure gauges and relief valves scavenged, the platform was Katie's roost, a place to think, to fret, to clear a cluttered mind.
She faced east, in the direction of Atlanta's midtown, the oil-on-water lenses of her Virtuals reflecting the morning light. Sunrise was spectacular, the sun hanging behind the Bank of America tower, the light cutting into the building, refracting through stained glass windows, then erupting from the building's western face in rainbow streamers that played out across the city. Clouds, tinted bloodred, hung low on the distant horizon, while the air, full of springtime pine and grass pollens, glowed golden. It was a perfect morning. But Katie saw none of it.
'Two seconds," she said. The lowermost left quadrant in her field of view flickered, locked, and then the Virtuals began to feed, cycling through channels every two seconds.
Bold and Beautiful.
High resolution video streamed into her retinas, the SO gigahertz modulated lasers in the frame of her Virtuals, bouncing light from the imbedded prisms in the lenses and men rastering the input across the back of her eyeballs. A screaming face replaced the green-blue waters of a tropical paradise.
"Quotas are for the slight of—"
As quickly as it had appeared, the face vanished in a growing fireball that filled her viewing field as the next channel locked in. Katie refocused and let the channels blur, as the Wireless Local Area Network within Nunn's multimedia stream flashed channel after channel, rolling through its nearly infinite menu. The WLAN's content didn't matter—volume did. Katie craved the noise, was addicted to the input, and in fact, could not concentrate unless assaulted by a cacophony of bits. She momentarily checked the simulation running in the lower right quadrant of her field of vision—a bare-bones, three-dimensional plot, with plasma density contoured in a Day-Glo green mesh, and temperatures textured from cool yellows to smoking blues. The simulation was a hydrodynamic/kinetic mix, melding a fluid approach to an atom-by-atom calculation, her latest attempt at predicting the plasma turbulence that was damping the Sonomak's ability to really burn.
Hydrodynamic/kinetic mix. It was a tricky approach, but the only one that had the slightest chance of modeling what was occurring in the heart of the Sonomak. The physics describing high-speed liquid turbulent flow and ultra-hot plasmas were still poorly understood, nearly impossible to model, and when mixed together, turned into a mathematical nightmare beyond belief.
Couldn't be modeled.
So chaotic, so intrinsically nonlinear, that the system just couldn't be understood.
At least that was what the experts insisted—all those wizened old white men, with worn leather belts cinched over their little potbellies. Can't do it, girl. No one can do it, girl.
This girl would prove them wrong.
That thought normally cheered her, but the smile faded from her face as her thoughts drifted away from the simulation and to the chunk of stainless steel, flickering lasers, and pulsing plasmas that the simulation was attempting to model—the Sonomak. This work was too applied for her taste, too tied to experiments and the boxful of zip discs crammed with data that refused to be modeled.
There was no real theoretical work anymore, no more physics that was studied for the pure joy of simply understanding how the universe worked. For twelve wonderful months at Cambridge, she had worked directly under Stephen Hawking, modeling the vacuum fluctuations that took place in the vicinity of black holes.
But she had lost her funding. Cosmology, particle physics, those areas of research that couldn't be transformed into a product suitable for insertion into microwave ovens, or high definition CCD recorders, or used to slow down the ever-widening trade gap with mainland China, had been deemed nonessential by the Feds who doled out the science dollars. The only other avenues of funding were in the production of military systems used to carbonize Third World types before they could stumble out of their huts, or to sign your soul away to one of the big Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence consortia and spend your days trying to crack the uncrackable signals that poured down from the heavens, having been picked up for a century now. Neither frying Third-Worlders nor crunching uncrackable SETI signals was her cup of tea.
At the moment, plasma physics was about as theoretical and esoteric a topic as the U.S. government could tolerate. And Katie was afraid that even that indulgence was about to come to an end.
She refocused on the simulation. At the edge of the plasmon, that region where electrons had been swept out of the plasma, leaving behind positively ionized helium atoms, just nanometers away from the shock wave being generated by the collapse of the plasmon, the plasma temperatures were peaking, the ascent rate punching discontinuities in the plot, the diagram indicating that the plasma residing within a few atomic spacings of the shock wave had reached a temperature in excess of 60 million degrees.
Then the Pocket Accelerators were ramped down.
The thermal gradient went ballistic as the plasmon imploded.
The simulation broke down, the plasma density mesh lines rippling, actually folding back on themselves as the high-energy electrons transferred their energy to the helium ions. Frame after frame of contour plots rolled by, each one a snapshot of the plasma as it evolved every two picoseconds. Katie shook her head in disgust, but the simulation continued to hang stationary in her field of view, the input being fed directly into her retinas through her Virtuals.
"Damn," she said.
The simulation shattered, a black spiderweb sucking down plasma density contour lines, me plasma temperature color scale oscillating, unsuccessfully trying to auto-scale, as temperatures soared into the billion-degree range, a temperature so unrealistic that even a theoretical physicist like Katie, for whom lines and contour plots were reality, knew that the simulation and physical reality had parted company. Not even Katie could believe plasma temperatures in the multibillion-degree range, higher man temperatures in the center of the sun.
The simulation vanished. In its place appeared Anthony's playroom, the default input for the simulation quadrant when she was not running simulations. Anthony sat at his worktable, nearly hidden behind a multicolored mound of construction paper, glistening tape, and rubber bands. He carefully taped what looked like a rainbow-colored fish to the top of the mound. Within the mound Katie recognized a wide spectrum of geometrical shapes, ranging from the most basic squares, circles, and rectangles, to more complex Mobius strips, convoluted manifolds, Penrose tiles, and Gordian-like knots.
Katie did not like the look of it.
Her son was obsessed with anything geometrical, and the things he built usually caused trouble. The six-year-old focused; his crystalline blue eyes flicking back and forth.
But for the moment, all was calm.
Anthony was not screaming. And just as importantly, the latest in a long string of special ed teachers was not screaming. Katie did not hold out much hope for Miss Alice. Caring, loving, degreed in special-needs primary education, with a strong background in math and science, she should have been perfect Miss Alice had been working with Anthony for almost three weeks now. Katie doubted that Miss Alice would break the four-week barrier, not after what happened two days ago, when Anthony had set up a convoluted array of aluminum Toil and light-bulbs, the contraption generating enough focused heat to ignite the kitchen curtains.
911 was on speed dial.
He was a brilliant little boy, but could not quite connect with the world, had no concept of the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Katie sighed. People skills were an alien concept to Anthony.
But at the moment, all was calm. She refocused past the input being fed into her head and out into the Atlanta morning.
Katie sipped tea from her cracked and terminally stained Starbucks vacuum cup, the contents burning her tongue and scorching the roof of her mouth. Tears momentarily welled up in her eyes, blurring both reality and input
Katie squinted, driving tears from her eyes. Anthony looked up at her, peering into the camera. He held up a paper cube that fit snugly in the palm of his right hand. It was tied up like a Christmas present with a green and blue string, bound together at the top of the cube with what looked to Katie like a carrick knot. She knew that only moments before the cube must have been the huge mound that had covered his play table. She found herself smiling, thinking that someday Anthony would make a wonderful Boy Scout, with absolutely no problem passing the knot test.
"What have you got there, Anthony?" she asked, her voice picked up by the receiver in the data pack slung across her back and transmitted to the speaker in Anthony's playroom.
"A surprise, Mama," he said, smiling.
"No!" Katie stood up, turning her head, the camera in Anthony's playroom rastering in synch to her movement Miss Alice walked into the room, like a lamb to the slaughter, with nothing to defend herself with except a warm smile.
"Put it down, Anthony!"
Anthony obeyed, placing the cube on the floor. Katie knew at that instant she'd made a mistake, played right into Anthony's hands. Before she could say anything, he tugged on the carrick knot, the blue and green strings parted, and the cube unfolded in an explosion of color and twirling rubber bands, rising up off the floor, flapping sheets of construction paper giving it lift, rubber band power driving it. The contraption hit Miss Alice in the face. A swatch of tape unrolled itself, tugged by multicolored beating wings, and then wrapped several times around her head.
"Not today, Anthony, please not today," Katie said, knowing that it was already too late. Miss Alice danced around the room, frantically tugging at the tape that stuck to her face and the paper and rubber bands that were wrapped around her head.
Anthony smiled for the camera. "An automatic tape dispenser, Mama. Do you like it?"
Katie lowered her head and closed her eyes. It would be a miracle if Miss Alice made it until the weekend. She started doing quick calculations. Tech to Sandy Springs: twenty minutes. Calming down Miss Alice: fifteen minutes. Confiscation of Anthony's tape, construction paper, scissors, glue, rubber bands, and markers: ten minutes. A stern yet compassionate lecture to Anthony: two minutes. More pleading and apologies to Miss Alice: ten minutes. Sandy Springs to Tech: twenty minutes.
Grand total: one hour and seventeen minutes.
Katie groaned. Of all the mornings for this to happen. For a moment, she wondered if she could ignore the situation, letting Miss Alice handle this one on her own. She opened her eyes and refocused. Miss Alice sat on the floor, cross-legged, whimpering, trying to pull a big knot of masking tape out of her hair.
"Mama?" said Anthony, now standing next to Miss Alice, reaching out toward her with a shaking right hand, but pulling it back each time Miss Alice lurched and twisted as she tried to dislodge the sticky mess from her head. "Is Miss Alice sad?" he asked.
Again Katie closed her eyes, and her right hand went toward the phone on her belt She should call Horst, her ex-husband, and make him go home, acquainting him with the mundane aspects of the real world and fatherhood, insisting that he deal with a six-year-old who had chewed through three special-ed teachers in the last eight months.
The silk-suited son of a bitch hadn't seen Anthony in more than two weeks. And there was no way that he'd leave campus this morning. When Anthony had been born, Horst had cancelled trips, meetings, and conferences to be with them, spending an entire month at home. But the fame that Horst's research had brought him, and the pressure to perform at an ever higher level, had destroyed that gentle Horst, and eventually their marriage. Katie checked the virtual clock hanging in front of her nose. The Sonomak would be put through its paces in less than three hours. She knew that nothing would get that egomaniac off campus today.
"Did I do a bad thing?" asked Anthony.
Katie refocused again. Anthony had backed away from the now-sobbing Miss Alice. His chin quivered, his eyes had grown large, and with his right hand he clenched a fistful of his sandy-blond hair, twirling a lock of it with his index finger. Tears began to run from the outside comers of his eyes. "I was bad, Mama!"
Katie was up, hopped from the platform, and started to run for the stairwell. "It was just an accident, baby. Don't worry, I'm coming right home," she said as she descended the stairwell, taking two steps at a time. "Everything will be all right."
The senator looked at the professor. The professor was big, probably topping 220 pounds, and looked powerful even on screen. His ink-black hair was slicked straight back across a head so big and square that it looked chiseled from a block of wood. His pencil-thin mustache looked painted on.
The senator tried to smile but couldn't quite manage it.
Dr. Horst Wittkowski smiled back, instantly understanding what the look on Ty Miller's face meant. Bad news. Of that he had absolutely no doubt. The only question was how bad it would be. He slowed his breathing, lifted his hands from his lap, and placed them atop the cool lacquered perfection of his mahogany desk. He leaned forward, pursed his lips ever so slightly to denote concern, and then angled his head to the left as he furrowed his brow, the expression and body language precisely engineered to solicit details.
Senator Ty Miller felt the thin sheet of sweat across his forehead begin to bead up, and a muscle in the left side of his face, just at the base of his jaw, ticking as sure and steady as his pocket watch. He did not like to deliver bad news—it made him nervous. His career had been built on the twin political pillars of filling up the pork barrel and slapping the backs of countless good ol' boys. Nothing good came from delivering bad news.
"The news, Senator?" asked Horst, his voice deep and resonant, the German accent polished to a high luster.
Senator Miller swallowed hard. The president has decided to fund the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor" he said, and then slipped back in his chair, bracing himself for the explosion that he was sure, would come, as the significance of what he'd told Wittkowski hammered home.
What is wrong with the presidents of this country? Horst wanted to shout Clinton forced to resign in '97, Gore killed in '99 after a visit to the troops in Cairo, where a wayward SAM took out Air Force One, with both those events opening the way for Vice President Marie Meyer from Iowa to fill the power vacuum. If it didn't involve corn or cows she was out of her depth. She didn't know plasma physics from pork bellies. But Americans loved the woman, had actually elected her twice after she had finished out Gore's term.
Excerpted from Picoverse by Robert A. Metzger. Copyright © 2002 Robert A. Metzger. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I come from the universe that created yours. After reading this novel I could help but wonder if this story had inspired an episode of Futurama (The Farnsworth Parabox) which dealt with parallel universes. I know it’s not an exact match, but it did remind me of the show, except that this book is much longer, less fun and ultimately forgettable. The last half of this book became such a jumbled mess that I began to hope a smart conclusion could redeem it. Nope.
This book was apparently scanned from a printed document. It contains numerous errors that are typical of OCR software, such as mis-translated words, missing periods and extra spaces that often make it difficult to read. Too bad someone couldn't have taken the time to do some basic proofing.
Do yourself a favor and read the free sample first. Once you figure out that "men" means "then" because the OCR software kept merging "th" into "m", it starts to make more sense. But I'm not willing to work that hard to get past lazy publishing errors when I've paid for the book.