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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