To cross the final frontier

“Doctor Sanchez….Doctor Sanchez, can you hear me?”

Why the hell is it that every public address system ever made produces that tinny, ready-to -squeal-in-feedback, ear-grating audio….how did they get all of them to sound like that?

I stop entering commands and key the mic.

“Yes, I hear you, but I’m busy. Do you think you could give me a few minutes?”

I hope the reply will buy some time, but no such luck.

“I’m afraid not, you have all the entrances to the control chamber sealed, and the safety systems on the ring are disabled. Could you please explain what you’re doing, and why you want to keep everyone else out of the room?”

I recognize the voice now. It’s Don Linster, the self-important twit who manages operations of the Superconducting Super Collider.

“Well, Don, I’m getting ready to make an experimental run, and if you can let me finish the coding, I’ll be able to start the run. Who knows, I might even get some science done…you know, the reason why we have all these neat toys.”

Linster might hold a PhD in particle physics, but I know he hasn’t done any research since he got his degree. I also know he hates to be reminded of that fact. Even with the crappy audio, I can hear the edge of irritation on his voice.

“Yes, Dr. Sanchez, I know what the SSC was built for. I also know that you haven’t submitted a proposal for time to do any runs. It is also very unusual for a researcher to make a data run without any assistance. So I’ll ask you again: What are you doing?”

Ah, fuck it. May as well tell them…it’s not like they can do anything at this point.

“Okay, Don, then I’m planning on gathering data to solve the problem we’ve been having with the most recent runs.”

“What do you mean, ‘solve’? We’ve been getting nothing but garbage out of the latest high-energy collisions. No clear particle tracks, and no definable cause for the lack of results. There’s some sort of problem with the sensor package or the data collection software. We’re going to have to take the ring down and run diagnostic tests on everything.”

I start keying in the command string I’d been working on. Even typing one-handed, I can get the software ready to run while I keep my moron of a boss busy.

“That’s where you’re wrong, Don. There’s nothing wrong with the sensor package, or with the data collection software. We’ve been getting data, we just didn’t recognize it.”

That caught him off-guard, because the pause is obvious. Probably asking some of the real scientists what I’m talking about. The speaker squawks again, but this time, the voice is different. It’s Amber Strong, my associate and one of the few physicists who might understand what I’ve found.

“Paul, what are you talking about? We’ve both been over that data, and all there is in the output is a cloud of random tracks. Nothing that makes any sense, nothing that even looks like it might relate to the sub-quantum particles we’ve been trying to find.”

“Hi Amber…yeah, well, neither of us knew what we were looking at, that’s why we couldn’t make any sense of the data. We weren’t seeing our results…well, we were, but we were also seeing the results of a bunch of other collisions as well.”

“What? How is that…”

“Amber, you remember what we were searching for? Evidence of the particles that make up what we think of as the basic quantum building blocks? Well, we found it! Our collisions were energetic enough to not only produce decay particles, they caused tiny openings in the quantum barrier!”

There was another pause, and I knew this time it wasn’t because some idiot couldn’t understand what I was talking about, but because a kindred mind was struggling to grasp the implication of what I’d just said. I go back to typing with both hands while I wait for a reply…just a few more lines. Give me the time, Amber, give me the time!

The speaker actually squeals this time, Amber now speaking far too close to the mic on her end. “Paul, that’s an interesting idea, but are you sure? Are you sure it’s not just a data collection error, or some sort of scrambled data set caused by a software error?”

I finish the line of code I’m typing in, leaving me only two more to enter before the program is ready to run. I grab the mic, wanting to share my discover with my colleague and also to keep anyone from interfering.

“Yes, I’m positive. I couldn’t understand it at first, but then one night I was looking at the data and I realized that what I was seeing were a series of identical tracks that are slightly out of phase, and that some of them were identical but arriving at the detector at slightly different times. What we saw was the mess that popped up on our display. Do you understand what I’m driving at, Amber?”

Another pause, and I attack the keyboard again. I’m reaching to hit “Return” to execute the program when Amber’s voice interrupts me.

“I understand what you think you saw, but why would the signals present like that? Why would they be out of phase…and why would they be arriving at our detector at a slightly different times?”

“Amber, you’re not a desk-riding fool like Don, think about it! On the quantum level, no two rings will be the same! Those subtle differences will cause a phase shift in the beam, and that shift will be reflected in the particles those other rings produced. As for the time difference…I ran a spectrum analysis and found that the signal’s the same, it’s just coming from a collider somewhere else in the world! There are at least a twenty other rings that I can find. Over half of them are right here, but the rest are scattered all over the world. A couple of them are located in the USSR, at least one is in China, and the rest of them are scattered all over Europe. Hell, one of them seems to have been built in Switzerland, if you can believe that!”

Amber was always quick on the uptake, and she caught the implications at once. “Yes! I see why you’re convinced of you conclusion. But how can you prove it? Is that why you want to make another data run?”

It’ll take at least ten minutes to charge up all the capacitor banks so I can fire the beam. And I need to keep them from over-riding the start sequence. Better keep her talking. I hit “Return”, and the screen displays the charge timer. It begins to count down, and I grab the mic for what I hope will be the final time.

“No, I’m not going to use this run to prove my theory, I’ve already done that! After I realized what I was seeing, I made another run, but I made a change to the software that controls the current to the ring magnets. I figured that if I could vary the strength of the current, I could cause the intensity of the beam to vary…in short, I could generate an old-fashioned AM signal. All I had to do was figure out what I wanted to modulate the beam with.”

The control computer flashed a message showing an attempt by an external source to access it. I type in the command to block the attempt and isolate the machine from outside input. Now, they’ll have to literally short out the capacitor banks to stop them from charging.

Amber cut in while I was stopped to type. “Yes, but you’d have to modulate it with something clearly artificial, something that couldn’t possibly be a random noise. Did you use your own voice?”

“I thought about it, but the collision only takes place for a few seconds, so how much could I say? And how could I be sure any other versions of me doing the same experiment wouldn’t think it was just more random noise? No, I had to use a signal that would be short, yet stand out. So I chose music…in my case, the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”

“Why do you say ‘the other versions of you’, Paul? You can’t know who’s running those experiments.”

“Know for sure…maybe not, but when I made the run, over a third of the signals I saw had picked the same four notes. Another third didn’t have a signal riding on the beam, which I’m guessing means those versions of me didn’t figure out what’s going on yet. But of the rest, I recognized every piece of music picked, from the opening guitar riff for “Johnny Be Good” to the bagpipe solo at the beginning of “Amazing Grace” I love. One or two that I knew would be a possible coincidence, but all of them? No, it’s another version of me out there in the multi-verse conducting the exact same experiment.”

Another warning blinked on the screen, this one indicating that the gate on the capacitor cage had been opened.

“By the way, Amber, I’m getting indications that someone’s in the capacitor cage. I don’t think you’re stupid enough to send someone in there, but you might want to remind Don that if those things are shorted, odds are that they’ll either catch fire…or they could just explode. Either way, whoever is in there is going to get hurt, maybe even killed.”

Silence, and I glance at the screen. The charge count-down is now under five minutes, and as I watch, the alarm on the capacitor cage goes out, indicating that the cage is closed again. No more chances that the run can be stopped now, barring someone breaking down the door and storming into the control room. The speaker comes to life, and Don’s annoyed voice is loud enough to set it squealing with feedback, rendering whatever he’d shouted into the mic unintelligible. He pauses, probably to take a breath so he can shout some more, but he doesn’t get the chance. Amber’s voice is the next out out of the speaker.

“Thanks, Paul. Harry Chin was in there, getting ready to try to short the bank out. Director Linster had ordered him to try, and I’ve asked Security to restrain the director in their office so he can’t put anyone else in danger. So….you said you had evidence that these other signals were from parallel universes. Good, but if that’s the case, why are you making another data run?”

It takes me a minute to finish geting my hand into the pressure suit, but Amber seems willing to wait, so I don’t rush. The less time she has to stop me, the better.

“Oh, I’m not going to make another data run, I’m going to test my theory in person.”

“Ummm, Paul you can’t test your theory…wait…you can’t be serious! Paul, if you do that, you’ll…die.

I’d been pulling on the helmet, and I gave ring seal a twist to engage it before check the face plate. Satisfied, I answer. “I know that, Amber. But it’s not like I’m losing a lot. Do you know why I’m willing to do this?”

“Paul, I can’t imagine why…”

“I’m willing to do it, Amber, because I have nothing. I’m three years from being forced int retirement, and I have nobody at hone, or anywhere else, to share my last years with. And that’s why I’m willing to try this. Because if there are other versions of me out there, at least one of them has to have found someone to love. So I’m going into the target chamber, and I’m going to put my head in target area, in hopes that in the instant between the time the collision opens the gateway and the time the radiation kills me, I’m hoping to experience something of those other lives. It might be just an instant, but if I can experience that happiness, if I can know, if only for a heartbeat, what it’s like to be loved…it’ll be worth it.”

There was silence again, and when Amber spoke again, I could hear her sobbing as she spoke. “Paul…I don’t know what to say. Don’t…you can’t think like that, you can’t think your life will be over once you’re retired. You’ve just made a discovery that will earn you a Nobel nomination, if not the prize itself! Don’t you want to be there to collect it, to make people like Don eat their words?”

I smile at the speaker, wishing Amber could see it. “You’re a sweet kid, Amber, but even if I did win the prize, what good will it do to an old man? No university is going to hire me, even with that sort of award behind my name? No, I sent out my preliminary paper this morning to “Physics Reports”, and I listed you as co-author. You’ve done more than anyone else here to help me with this, and you’re young enough to benefit from the boost a Nobel will give you. My data’s in your inbox. You’re smart enough to crunch it and draw up the underlying theories. So do it…and be happy. Goodbye.”

The charge timer is down to one minute. I close the visor, turn the oxygen tank on, and let myself into the airlock that opens into the accelerator ring and the test chamber. I know Amber, and I know she’ll try to stop me. I look at the entrance as I close the inner airlock door. The file cabinets I’d moved in front of it would slow them down long enough for the beam to fire, and for me to carry out my final experiment.

Would it work? I close the door. Work or not, it will be over soon.

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A winter’s day

Kevin Smith drew in a breath of air so cold it burned his lungs and pivoted his hips, driving the shovel into the accumulation of powdery snow covering his back walk. The standing temperature hovered somewhere between ‘too damned cold’ and ‘freeze your balls off in an instant’, but he was glad the air was that cold. He’d been born in Carswell’s Corner, and knew that if the ‘Alberta Clippers’ that had moved through overnight hadn’t generated the snow, it would have been ‘heart attack’ snow. It took something approaching hurricane-force winds to cause that stuff to blow, but once it had landed, getting it to move took serious effort. Shoveling it was something anyone with sense dreaded. A scoop of that dense white crap the size of the ones Kevin was now slinging out of the way with ease could task even him.

Another scoop flew, and Kevin stopped to survey his progress. He was just over halfway down the walk, but the real task had yet to be addressed: digging out around the his car and his wife’s SUV, then clearing the short lane from the family parking space to the alley. He could see the alley beyond the vehicles, still unplowed and as free of tire tracks as if it where a country field.

The scraping rattle of a snowplow drew his attention. Could the city street department be coming to take care of the street out front, or even the alley? He focused on the sound, listened closer, and shook his head. No, the city was doing what it always did after a snow storm of any magnitude, it was plowing the streets on the ‘right side of the tracks’ first.

Carswell’s Corner had once been a hub of manufacturing. It had been founded as a place farmers all over southwestern Iowa could bring their harvests. Small manufactures followed, and those had grown to be large companies. All those goods, needed access to the rest of America, so one of the railroad had stretched out a tentacle of steel to proved that service. When the manufactures had gone bust in the Great Depression, the rail line had stayed, but the harvest wasn’t enough to keep it in town forever. Before Kevin was born, the railroad had abandoned the line. He still had memories of it from his childhood, but those memories were of rusted rails standing on rotting ties set in a weed-choked right-of-way. A scrape company had eventually bought the line, tearing it up and hauling away anything of value when Kevin was in junior high.On the East, or ‘right’ side of the old right-of-way was where the ‘leaders’ of the town lived. These were the oldest families in Carswell’s Corner.

Kevin dropped the shovel to the sidewalk and took another scoop as he reflected on how his town worked. What was left of downtown Carswell’s Corner was also located East of the old tracks, but the town’s few bars were located West of the former rail line. West of the tracks was also where the old manufactures had stood, and where the people who worked in those plants had dwelt. Their descendants still lived there, and like their ancestors, they too got the short end of the proverbial stick when it came to city services.

The city still owned the power lines that ran through town, and as surely as the Sun would rise in the morning, after one of the thunderstorms that routinely rolled across town, the first places to get power restored would be East of the tracks. Streets on the ‘right’ side of town were repaired and resurfaced far more regularly than those on the other side too. Everyone living West of the tracks complained about these and a thousand other slights done to them, but to little effect. The town council was voted in ‘at large’, with no real requirement that they represent a particular part of town. So, with the generous backing of the ‘leading families’, the city council served as a rubber stamp to whatever those influential people wanted.

Kevin stopped again as the rattling scrape of the snow plow grew in volume. Turning, he saw the orange hazard lights of a plow strobing off the snow-covered limbs of the trees across the street from his house, then caught a glimpse of the plow itself as it rumbled past.

“About fuckin’ time you assholes showed up!” Kevin muttered as he turned back to his own snow removal. The big plows like the one that had just passed couldn’t navigate the narrow allies so common in his neighborhood, so he’d still be fighting his way through any drifts that might have formed overnight. But at least once he got to the road, it should be just another slick, messy drive to work at the Big Box.

It took Kevin almost an hour to get all the shoveling done, and before he left, he poured himself a final mug of coffee in the hope that it would warm him after the frigid temperatures outside. Hannah, his wife, was up, and she moved to give him a peck on the cheek which he turned into a proper kiss by putting an arm around her waist. That moment of shared intimacy helped warm him more than any coffee ever would. When their lips parted, his wife asked the one question any practical inhabitant of the Midwest would ask on a day like today.

“You think that cars will start?”

“Yeah, it’s cold, but nothing special. Unless your Jeep’s been having trouble turning over, it should start fine.”

“No, it’s been starting without any problems, I was just worried about your car.”

Kevin drove the family ‘hand-me-down’ car, an old four-door sedan that had hauled his family everywhere. With the boys away at college, and their daughter in the Army, there was no need for such a large car. His wife, who worked at the state college the next town over, had a real need for something that could handle winter roads. That’s why she had the newer Jeep while he made do with a car that had seen better days.

“Oh, I’m not worried about that old monster! I think the air would have to freeze solid before that thing refused to start.”

His wife cocked her head to one side as she looked at him, a clear indication that she wasn’t as confident as he was, but said nothing. He smiled at her, gave her a quick kiss on the lips, and letting her go, stepped back.

“We both need to get around, so I better get my lunch packed and get on my way.”

Kevin moved to the fridge, pulled out the covered plastic dish of leftover rigatoni from the night before, and retrieved his lunch cooler. A fork from the kitchen drawer and a cooled block from the big upright freezer in the corner finished joined the dish, completing his preparations to leave. Hannah was busy spreading butter on her toast, so Kevin didn’t interrupt her.

“See you tonight.”

“Yeah, you too. Take care.”
“This from the woman who’s got twenty miles of two-lane roads to drive! You be careful…love you.”

“Love you too.”

After the time spent in the house, the air seemed even colder than it had while Kevin had been shoveling. In typical fashion, the lock on the car door was stiff, and it was a struggle to get the key to turn. The interior of the car, which had soaked in the chill from the air around it all night long, felt even worse. He shoved the key into the ignition, stepped down hard on the gas peddle, and muttered his usual prayer before trying the car on a day like today.

“God, please let this pile of junk start.”

The starter groaned, then began to spin the engine over. There was a loud ‘chug’ as the engine tried to start, another period of relative silence as the starter cranked away, then the engine coughed, sputtered, and began firing regularly. Kevin gave the steering wheel an affectionate pat. “Thanks, old son. I should have known I could count on you.” he muttered to the car, happy to have it respond when he needed it to.

After letting the engine warm up enough to settle into a steady idle, Kevin flipped on the headlights and slipped the car into reverse. The headlights showed no tracks beyond a few animal tracks, probably made by one of th feral cats that haunted the neighborhood. He eased the car into drive and turned the defroster on. He knew the air it blew would be just as cold as the air outside, but it would serve to keep the air near the front windshield moving and (hopefully) keep the moisture from his own fogging the view too badly.

Near the end of the alley, Kevin saw the only sign that another human was up and about in the pre-dawn darkness: a pair of broad tire tracks leading out of Bill Carstairs’ garage. Bill liked to describe himself as a ‘redneck’ because he drove his huge pickup with dual rear wheels. He too worked at the college, but his job in the ground department meant he was probably already hard at work clearing sidewalks and parking lots for the students. It was a good thing he’d already left, because while the city plows had scraped the snow off the road, that snow had been left behind in a broad mound across the entrance to the alley. Even with Bill’s passage, Kevin had to speed up as he exited the alley to be sure he didn’t get stuck.

The road was worse than Kevin had imagined it would be. The new snow had mostly been moved off the pavement, but the slush that had been on the road since shortly after the first snowfall was still there. Unfortunately, the sub-zero temperatures had frozen it solid, and all the snowplow had done was to smooth off the rough surface it should have had. Kevin hit the first patch, and found the car slipping and attempting to fishtail.

“Steady, old son, steady. Don’t go trying to pass yourself.” Kevin whispered as he got the car under control. A light coming up a side street ahead brought his attention back to the world outside. As he watched, a car came to a ‘rolling’ stop at the stop sign, then pulled out onto the road in front of him going the same way.

Well, it tried to pull out. Whoever was driving it tried to accelerate too quickly, hit a slick spot, and as Kevin watched, the car executed a quick, complete spin before slamming into the snow berm along the roadside.

“Holy shit!” Kevin swore as he slowed down to come to a stop beside the car. He saw that both front wheels had been lifted as the snow had compacted under the front bumper, leaving neither of them in contact with the pavement. As he watched, the visible wheel spun, and he heard the engine gun as the driver tried to back out of his predicament. Kevin put on his emergency flashers and climbed out of his car to see if he could help.

Coming around his car, Kevin got his first really good look at the trapped vehicle. It was an Audi, an A6 no less, and either a new one, or nearly so. What the hell is a car like that doing around here? He wondered as he approached the drivers side window. It came down, and Kevin was surprised to recognize the man behind the wheel. It was Nick Patterson, oldest son of the Patterson family and his former high school classmate. The Patterson’s were as close to a founding family a town like Carswell’s Corner could have, and they had the money to prove it. Nick had also had the attitude to prove it. He’d been one of the ‘jock’ crowd that made sure everyone knew they ruled the school, and Kevin had gotten on his bad side more than once. Now, though, Nick aimed his friendliest smile at Kevin.

“Kevin Smith, is that you? Man, I’m glad to see a familiar face! Can you give me hand? I hit a slick spot and the car got away from me. I need to get going…got places I’ve got to go…”

Maybe Nick wasn’t as dense as Kevin had believed him to be, because he slowly stopped talking as he saw Kevin’s face split into a grin that had nothing to do with friendship. Kevin pulled his cellphone out, opened it, and dialed. Nick might have been smart enough to know Kevin wasn’t going to respond a friendly approach, but he wasn’t smart enough to keep his mouth shut.

“Umm, Kevin, who you calling? I just need someone to get out in front of my car and give it a shove, help me get it out of this snow.”

“Well, Nick, I’m calling for some help. I’m calling the police to report that I saw a man driving recklessly run his car into a snow bank. You can be sure they’ll come down here and give you all the help you need. I mean we can’t have a car obstructing traffic or the snow plows if they decide to come back now, can we?”

“Hey, wait a minute! I wasn’t driving recklessly, I just…”

“Nick, you need to learn to shut you mouth. I saw everything you did from two blocks down. Hell, you didn’t even stop for the stop sign, then you come barreling out of a side street like you were racing…by the way, why were you coming out of a side street, in this part of town, at this time of the morning?”

“I’s none of your business, but I was just down here to see an old friend!”

Kevin hadn’t tapped the phone yet to make the call, but he did now as he addressed his old nemesis. “Yeah, Nick, and who are you going to see at 4:30 in the morning?” A thought occurred to Kevin. “Wait….Lori Leleki still lives down here, doesn’t she? Are you still hitting that? Shit, I heard you and the rest of the football team passed her around like a sex toy. I can’t imagine your wife’s going to be happy to find out you’re still screwing the biggest slut in Carswell’s Corner. Is that why you don’t want me to call the cops?”

Nick wasn’t smiling now. His face had first gone pale, then blotched an unhealthy reddish purple. Now he screamed his anger at Kevin. “Don’t you even think about calling the cops, you little son of a bitch! I’ll bury you, you hear me, I will bury you!”

Kevin put his phone to his ear, heard someone on the other end, and spoke to them. “Yes, officer, I’d like to report a traffic accident I witnessed. A driver ran a stop sign, lost control of his car trying to make a turn, and he’s now stuck alongside the road.”

“Where are you located at, sir?”

“Let me see…I’m located on the 1200 block of North Sixth, north side of the road, about two houses down from the corner of Sixth and Oak. Can you tell whomever you send to hurry, the driver is threatening me for stopping to report that accident and I’m afraid he might decide to follow through on those threats.”

“Sir, if you could get in your car and lock the doors, a car should be there shortly. Don’t get into a confrontation if you can avoid it.”

Nick, who had been listening to the exchange, decided that this was the perfect moment to prove his stupidity. “I told you, damn it, not to call the fucking cops! I’m going to get out of this car and beat the shit out of you!”

“Did you hear that officer? I’ll get in my car now, but could you tell the officer responding that this guy is acting like he’s high or something…seriously, this guy is acting like he’s on PCP or something.”

“I heard it, sir, and I recorded it too. Now, get in your car, one of our officers should be there in less than a minute.”

“Thanks, and tell the responding officer I’m be the person in the car with the emergency flashers on. I don’t want to be confused with the really dangerous person, after all.”

“Yes sir, and thanks for being a responsible citizen.”

Kevin fought to keep from laughing as he replied. “No problem, sir, no problem at all. I’m just glad I could help put someone truly dangerous behind bars.”