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 four or five 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.
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 I can think of.
I suspect we’re going to need something more powerful very soon, but for now 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.
“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’s looking at the enhanced image.
“Barbarella,” he says. “The mathmos.”
And just like that, we’re playing Trivial Pursuit®.
Fine, I’ve got this. “The mathmos was a sentient alien goo living beneath the only city, the only hospitable, habitable environment on an otherwise inhospitable world. Every now and then, the goo would reach out and swallow a citizen or two. No big deal. Not quite what you’d call symbiotic, but better odds than Outside, so the script goes.”
Denny’s grin remains disconcerting.
“The principal attribute of my 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.
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 as much a bubble as a bump. Its color enhancement profile is monochromatic and disinteresting.
Plasmos, one might say, looks unnatural. What constitutes “natural” is fodder for much speculation amongst the three of us recently, but we could debate that later, I guess.
“Go ahead and tunnel down to the second layer,” Denny says. “The first gradation is just a dielectric wrapper. It’ll dissipate as the probe moves through it.”
“Eric,” I say more or less symbolically in the direction of the gimbaled breadbox. “Map the sample in the STM, please, and display on both screens. Two up on two. Then follow Denny’s direction with the probe.”
“Okay,” says a pleasant tenor voice.
The inert layer dissolves upon contact with the intrusion of the probe, as advertised, and my protégé maintains a precise, micro-micrometric separation regardless irregularities in the atomic terrain.
A raster inches down from the top of the screens displaying topography. This is not first stage material. It’s been shaped with deliberate intention. I notice my mouth is open and shut it.
“Hey, Eric,” Benn says. “I didn’t know you were on or I would have said ‘Hi’ before.”
“How’s it going in there, buddy?”
“Thank you for asking, Benn. 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 carefully strewn grains of arborio rice with a generous helping of Morse code in braille scattered among and connecting 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 sample as though there is no problem, so I just stare at it with my mouth open again.
An irregularity appears as a blister composed of the same braille stir-fry organized in clusters around it. I nudge Denny with an elbow and point. “See that light discoloration in the granular strata, upper quadrant just right of center?”
“Yes,” he says, pointing the other way. “There’s another.”
I see it too. And then I see others, slightly brighter points at odd places on the map.
Denny’s eyes are darting. “Eric, can you give me another scan of the surface, mark and superimpose any changes?”
“Once the initial pass is complete in another one hundred thirteen point zero two eight seconds from the conclusion of this statement, I could give you a continuous progressive scan at sixty frames instead, if that would provide more context.”
“You could? I mean, yes. Definitely. Do that.”
One hundred fourteen seconds later, active pico-circuitry becomes 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 little blister, like dendrites. We watch energy exchange across what looks like synapses.
I feel my own synapses energizing as the implications of this careen in my head. The hair on the back of my neck is standing up. My hand reaches out to the laptop touch screen on its own volition, narrowing Eric’s scan to the little cluster that seems the focal point of this example.
A flash of intense brightness overwhelms the output optics for just an instant, enough to make me recoil, then a pristine view of something I’m pretty sure no one’s ever seen before.
“Eric, what was that?”
“I do not have an answer, but here is a capture of the incident on two.”
A star appears on the right-side monitor. Eric adjusts and it loses several orders of magnitude. I dial the image back three frames to see its precursor. Remember what I said about the ‘bubble wrap’ appearance 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. How did you get an atom of plasmos to produces energy?”
“It’s not an atom. It’s a singularity.”
“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’, you know. 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 alive and, you know… there’s still a here here.”
“You’re right, of course, Benn. This is the other one.”
“A white hole.”
“Oh,” Benn says. “White hole. Well then, sorry to interrupt you again. Please continue.”
I have so many questions I don’t know where to begin. “You didn’t make any of this?”
“No. Yes. I made the stillpoint. Raw first stage ambiguity.”
“And the mystery woman, Abbey, made all of this… from that?”
“Everything except the spark.”
“Without any instrumentation?” I know I sound skeptical.
“That’s right. I watched her do it. When she was finished, I formed the dielectric wrapper around the model. I didn’t have instrumentation then either.”
I cannot feature how that could even be possible, but I know he’s telling the truth. Did I already say I have no idea what his limitations are anymore?
“This is just an example, of course,” he says. “More form than function, but you get the idea.”
Yeah, I do. “Disregarding for just a moment the handy blueprint for nanocomponents and neuro-connective applications heretofore merely dreamed of, what we seem to have here is either a limitless power source or the end of all life as we know it. Potentially both at once.
“I want to get into the substrate of that and see what’s under the hood. I want to know how it works and how to make it do other things. But what I really want to know is, why did they give 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.”
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 ‘side’, or ‘end’, or whatever. That niggling detail aside, is the black hole at the hypothetical other “end” of this, also the size of an atom?”
“Let’s say that it is, for the sake of conversation.”
“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. Erica may be right in theory about being the same…”
“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?
“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 even if I wanted to.”
He’s right about that.
“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 it. It’s not my story to tell.”
“You mean the midget, right?”
“Dwarf.” I say it automatically now, it sems. “Eric, if you would, please. 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.
“I wouldn’t miss this for the world.” I say and slide the definitely-not-a-flip-phone back in front of Denny. I sit down on the cajón. “Your show.”
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