It only takes a patch swap to splash the STM’s interface across both workstation monitors and we begin to examine the reason for Denny’s insomnia. A couple remote adjustments and we’re treated to a color enhanced vista of something that, by all accounts, should not exist.
I need to caution you. If anyone asks… it does NOT exist. Okay?
You really need to trust me on this.
Monitor one on the left shows me a set of static images, representations of the staged sample on its three axes. It’s a wafer, only five or six atoms top to bottom, but no real detail. It’s quite a bit larger than I’d expected.
Screen two offers an expanded view from the probe poised above the first layer.
“This is… the stuff?” I say.
“We really have to call it something besides ‘the stuff’.”
“Plasmos,” Denny says.
“Bozonium,” Benn says.
“Come again?” I’m not sure I heard him right.
Denny is staring at the enhanced image.
“Barbarella,” he says. “The mathmos.”
And just like that, we’re playing Trivial Pursuit®.
“How do you know I’ve even seen that movie?”
It’s been a while, but some cinema is indelible.
“Okay,” I say. “The mathmos, so the script goes, is a sentient alien goo living beneath the only hospitable, habitable environment on an otherwise inhospitable world. Every now and then, the goo will reach out and swallow a citizen or two. No big deal. Not quite what you’d call symbiotic, but better odds than Outside.”
Denny’s grin is disturbing.
“The principal attribute of plasmos in its raw stage,” he says, “is that its properties are ambiguous, completely malleable—plastic in a literal sense.”
“It won’t eat us will it?”
Benn coughs. “Says the girl with sentient alien goo in her refrigerator.”
“Probably not.” Denny says.
“Two syllables,” I say. “Easy to remember. Works for me.”
“So, Bozonium’s out, right?” Benn sounds disappointed.
And that’s what consensus looks like.
The STM maps individual atoms in a material, but its modality doesn’t define subatomic particles. Rather, the software interprets and generates a representation that looks more like bubble wrap than anything else I can think of.
Raw plasmos, let’s call it then—patent and trademark pending—turns out to exhibit a near-homogenous surface to the scanning tunneling microscope. Not so much a bubble as the suggestion of a bump. Its color enhancement profile is monochromatic and disinteresting.
Plasmos, one might say, looks unnatural. What constitutes “natural” will become fodder for much speculation amongst the three of us soon, but we’ll get to that later, I guess.
Also, it’s evident we’re going to need something more powerful very soon. Right now, however, we have a working tool most folks aren’t typically able to fit into their kitchen.
These boys are lucky I found them when I did, is all I gotta say.
“Eric,” I say more or less symbolically in the direction of the gimbaled breadbox, “follow Denny’s direction to map the sample in the STM, please.”
“Okay,” says a pleasant tenor.
“Hi, Eric,” Denny says.
“Hi, Denny. Good to see you back. We missed you.”
“You did? I… I’m glad to be back.”
“I await your instruction.”
“Go ahead and tunnel down to the second layer. The first gradation will dissipate as the probe moves into it.”
The inert layer dissolves upon contact with the intrusion of the probe, as advertised.
A raster inches down from the top of both screens, displaying submicroscopic topography. My breadbox protégé maintains a precise, micro-micrometric separation between the probe and the sample, regardless irregularities in the atomic terrain, and there are many.
This is not what Denny calls ‘first stage’ material. It has been shaped with deliberate intention, and set. I notice my mouth is open and shut it.
Benn pipes up. “Hey, Eric, I didn’t know you were on or I would have said ‘hey’ before.”
“Hey, Benn. Power-save mode.”
“How’s it going in there, buddy?”
“Thank you for asking. I’m managing some precision work with the STM right now, but I want you to know it warms my circuits to see you, albeit not sufficiently to cause them to thermally reconfigure themselves.”
Benn snorts milk and the raster continues to trace the object’s surface at a pace I could never hope to achieve.
“Benn? Are you all right?” Eric sounds concerned. I like that. Maybe he is.
Benn, one hand pressed hard over the bridge of his nose, waves vague acknowledgement with the other.
Patterns emerge on-screen.
The software is doing its best to represent what it detects without prejudice. The bubble-wrap vista so far revealed is crisscrossed and ribboned with something that looks like grains of arborio rice strewn with a generous helping of Morse code in braille scattered among them.
I’ve not seen anything like this before and I’ve already seen some pretty wild stuff. I’m not sure something isn’t wrong with the equipment, but Eric continues to map the rest of the object as though there is no problem, so I just stare at it with my mouth open again.
An irregularity appears as a blister on the surface composed of the same braille stir-fry we see organized in interconnected clusters around it.
I nudge Denny with an elbow and point to the overview on screen one. “See those bright discolorations in the new scan lines?”
“Yes,” he says, eyes darting. “Eric, can you give us another scan of this segment, mark, and superimpose any changes?”
Eric says, “Once this initial pass is complete in another fifty-seven point zero two eight seconds from the conclusion of this statement and your anticipated response, I could give you a continuous progressive scan at sixty frames instead. Would that provide more context?”
“You could…? I mean, yes. Definitely. Do that.”
Fifty-eight seconds later, flashes of intense brightness overwhelm the output optics, enough to make us recoil. A star strobes from the screen.
Eric adjusts and it loses a couple orders of magnitude. Active pico-circuitry is apparent in real time.
Denny and I are both standing now, shoulder to shoulder, watching as clocked pulses energize the coded pathways. They radiate outward from the blister and across the surface of this near-infinitesimal thing.
One pathway in particular seems prominent. On it, we watch energy exchange across what might be a stylized synapse, fanning out into a dendritic cluster that terminates at the abrupt bottom edge of the tiny flake.
“Eric, that single cluster must be a power source. Zoom in close and put it up on two.”
A star, eclipsed now to an acceptable degree, flickers steadily from the right-side monitor.
“Eric, capture one full cycle and queue it up on two instead, please.”
Monitor two is lit up. I dial the image back three frames to see its precursor.
Remember what I said about the STM’s ‘bubble wrap’ interpretation of the surface? Well, this isn’t.
It looks like a cavity. An emptiness.
Three frames forward, a brilliant emptiness.
“Ohhh-kay. I am now officially interested,” I say. “Secretary, please note the date and time.
“There is so much going on inside this little sandwich, Denzil, but how did you get an atom of plasmos to produces energy?”
“It’s not an atom. It’s a singularity.”
I’d like to say something in response, but I’m going to need a minute to digest that.
“Hold on,” Benn says from the cheap seats. “Granted, I’m without the benefit of a formal education in Einsteinian or Hawking physics, but I have read ‘Black Holes for Dummies’ and I don’t think that’s a black hole. I don’t think so because it was in your pocket on the way over here and we’re all still here.”
“You’re right, of course, Benn. This is the other one.”
“A white hole.”
“Oh, I see. White hole. Sure, that makes sense. Sorry to interrupt you again.”
“I have a question,” I say. “I have so many questions I don’t know where to begin, but you didn’t make any of this, did you?”
“No. Well, yes; I made the stillpoint, the raw first stage ambiguity.”
“And the mystery woman, Abbey, made all of this… from that? Without any instrumentation?” I know I sound skeptical.
“I watched her while she did it. I felt her doing it in a way I won’t even try to explain. Maybe it was because I made the point she was shaping, I don’t really know. She doesn’t talk much and I’m still figuring a lot out. But when she was finished, she asked me to form the dielectric wrapper around her finished example and I didn’t have instrumentation then either.”
I cannot feature how that should even be possible, at any scale. But I know he’s telling the truth.
Did I already say I have no idea what his limitations are anymore?
“Eric, please reorient to map the butt end of the sample. Let’s see what we’re up against.”
The probe’s transition and its initial mapping pass on the new surface takes time. It’s worth the wait.
Eric narrates. “The sample itself varies from five to six atoms in thickness, but the flake itself averages eighteen wide and thirty-six long.
“There are exactly ninety-nine atoms in this end cap, plus a synaptic terminus for a pattern of no less than twenty-seven discrete conductors and each conductor projects two atoms beyond the terminus.”
“It’s a plug,” Benn says. “A real inconvenient one too.”
The hair on the back of my neck is standing up.
I want to get into the substrate of that and see what’s underneath. I want to know how this thing works and how to make it do other things. But what I really want to know is, “Why do you think they gave this to you?”
Benn has unreclined himself and joined us in front of the micro-panorama. One hand on his friend’s shoulder, he points, not at the images, but at the STM’s blurred hulk behind the drapes. “Let me see if I understand. That… thing there… is a hole the size of an atom.”
“That’s right enough.”
What’s in the hole?”
“I thought you said you read the book.”
Benn’s face scrunches up. “There’s no empirical evidence that all the matter collapsing into a black hole is expressed as either matter or energy out of some theoretical other ‘end’ or ‘side’, or whatever. That niggling detail aside, is the black hole at the hypothetical other “end” of this, also the size of an atom?”
“For the sake of conversation, let’s say that it is.”
“Good. And where is this other end right now, the black, ‘Oh God oh God we’re all gonna die’ end’?”
“I don’t know. It’s not a hose. Time-space deforms around the event, and this is a pretty small event, relatively speaking.”
“Listen, you know I’m not a scientist, right? But I read. I watch The Discovery Channel and Myth Busters and PBS when they’re not aggressively soliciting donations. I may not understand celestial or quantum mechanics, but whether you’ve got yourself a portable gravity well there or an explosion of literally astronomical proportions, it hardly matters which, does it?”
“Technically, in the context of your question, no.”
“Either way, brother, there’s no other place I’d rather be than right here, Front Row Joe, with the two of you.”
A grin plumps the whiskers around Denny’s cheeks and squints his eyes. It’s an alarming look on his gaunt, scruffy mug. “Thank you, Benn. That means a lot.”
“Besides, I couldn’t get far enough away now even if I wanted to.”
He’s right about that.
Denny says, “I’d ask you both to consider that, up to now, neither of these catastrophic events have occurred.”
“As far as you know.”
“I could tell you what I believe, but that’s irrelevant. If you’ve followed the chain of circumstances that’s brought us together,” he gestures to the microcosmic close-up, “you already know what you believe.”
“No, I don’t,” Benn says.
“Anyway, Erica’s question is a valid one. Why do we have it? I’m not the one to answer that. It’s not my story to tell.”
“You mean the midget, right?”
“Dwarf.” I say it automatically now, it sems. “Eric, the usual criteria for Braden… what’s he say his name is, Den?”
The breadbox doesn’t miss a beat. “I parsed and filtered the usual sources when it was mentioned earlier. What I retrieved was a single, unambiguous, ‘go mind your own business’. I’m paraphrasing.”
I’d like to say I’m surprised, but I’m really not. I think I’m jealous, though.
“Your show,” I say and slide the definitely-not-a-flip-phone back in front of Denny. I sit down on my cajón. “I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”