[Editor’s note: this story has been in the works for way too long, since at least 2014, and I’ve finally decided to publish it, mostly as-is. The tenses change a few times and there are some other issues with it, but I also need to be free of it. So here it is.]
10 years ago, your average Joe Six Pack didn’t have a damn clue what L4 meant. This is still true for poor Joe, though now his kids probably do. Do you? No, it doesn’t have a thing to do with the lumbar vertebrae, or the Bren Gun, or whatever else . It’s a damn point in space.
Ask a kid in elementary school about the L4 and he’ll wax poetic on the subject, much like the previous generation could be relied on to blabber about dinosaurs or sharks or Pokemon. Nowadays, every damn kid knows that L4 stands for “4th Lagrange point”. Which, in turn, means that if you’ve got two large bodies, like the earth and the moon, there are 5 “stationary” points. 5 points where you can put something, like a rock or a book, and it won’t move. L1, 2, 3… those are about as stable as the tip of a needle. Yeah, put something there, it won’t move. Look at it the wrong way and off it goes, sailing into the night sky.
4 and 5, that’s where the money’s at. So to speak. You put something there, it sticks around. Maybe not in the same place – it wobbles a bit, in an orbit, you see – but it’s not flying nowhere.
“Come on dad, let’s get some ice cream! We can talk space later!”
10 years ago, I had a thankless job at the University of Chicago. Which is to say, I was that PhD student who worked the night shift, stuck in the lab while the rest of my high-school graduating class was attending dinner parties and art-house openings with their families. Or the DINK weekend warriors, climbing Mt Rainier, unwinding from some mind-numbingly boring IT gig they scored along the way. Ha, those suckers. They’d never know the true pleasure of staring at electron microscope scans, processing data, setting up simulations in a dire attempt to replicate the… Where was I going with this?
10 years ago, I’d have given anything to be where I am now.
10 years ago, I was a damn fool. A silly PhD student.
Remember that SpaceX business a while back? Private space travel. Whoda thunk it!
When I was still in school, a couple more rich-nerd collectives joined in the space race. Rockets were lifting off from launch pads in the Mojave on a daily basis. After the first few weeks of no lift-off accidents or otherwise colorful fireworks, the NASCAR crowd packed up their coolers and their fold-up chairs, herded the swarm of kin into the pickup and went back home. “There, you did something this summer. Now shut up, we ain’t stopping ’till Pahrump.”
Most of the rockets we launched, in those days, didn’t carry people, just instruments or rocks, one way or the other. First base on the Moon, those god-awful “expansions” to the space station, the first in a series of documentaries about the dark side of the moon. All that nonsense.
Or so I thought. Damn fool.
Eventually, just around the time I was getting the swing of things at UIC, the Poles launched a mission – some would call it “saving of face” – to finally put to rest the controversy surrounding Kordylewski clouds. (Your kid would say that these are clouds of dust in the L4 and L5.) While the rest of the world was busy flinging shit at the moon, these Poles wanted to confirm what their predecessor claimed and what the rest of us didn’t really accept.
Want to say that there’s something where others say there’s nothing? Easy! Pop a ginormous scoop onto one of your ships, launch it in the general direction of L4 (first one they tested), and see what comes up.
Cast a wide enough net in the Altantic, you might catch yourself a whale or a sub. The Poles came up with a whale of their own. Suits them right. Let dead astronomers lie.
Step one: spend a sizeable portion of your GDP on a hare-brained scheme involving a rocket and space dust. (Might help to be doing dust while coming up with the plan.)
Step two: bring said dust to Earth.
Step three: realize you’ve spent a fortune to bring a pile of carbon back.
Step four: send samples to places with nothing better to do than to “verify finding”.
And that’s how we came to be on the short list of institutions to be staring at Polish space-dust. 12 others agreed to take a look, 4 passed on the chance once they got grants to study monkey farts. Or something equally worthwhile.
“Look, you’ve picked up some stuff out there. What more do you want to know? Congrats, Kordylewski was right all along. Want a gold star?”
In the days when humanity was looking at nano-tubes, quantum computers, a freaking MOON BASE, no one was particularly eager to study dust. Dust that’s hung around for a few million years. But, my advisor suggested kissing more ass with the “Polak” department head (her words), so there I was, another Saturday night wasted.
The night shift had to keep itself entertained somehow, right? We tried to set fire to everything, made bets about the flies in the lab or which one of the foreigner janitors would show up today, Skyped with the waking half of the earth, expanded our substance-abusing habits, played unhealthy amounts of Xbox. Anything to not die of boredom. Those damn scans won’t just analyze themselves, will they? They won’t come up with realistic models, they won’t win any damn Noble prizes. They won’t make my advisor happy. As if that was even… ah, and there’s the dust – Earth variety – kicking in.
Can’t recall now who scored us the PCP, or how (“who does this shit anymore?!”), but somehow we thought it was important to be on dust while looking at dust. It was probably Mike. Or maybe Katerina?
So there I am, with a grain or two of Polish space-gold under a microscope. My hands are sweating. Maybe that’s the PCP? Or maybe it’s cause I’m using that damn glovebox in the middle of summer and the AC decided to turn itself off. “Damn it, Mike, stop fucking with the thermostat!”
Dust looks like dust. Diamond dust, to be accurate. “Congrats guys! The Poles found themselves the world’s most useless diamond mine!”
Now, excuse me as this next part is fuzzy. Someone kicked someone, someone tickled someone, some samples maybe got exposed, someone fell down, maybe something involving pants and underwear. Something like that.
A night’s work lost and two grain-size samples contaminated, what else was there to do? Log it, seal it, go back to Mike’s place, beg for forgiveness the next day.
Mike’s a bad influence. Bad influence is what I wanted. Needed.
Never tried anything more potent than a shot of vodka before I met Mike. Now, we’re burning through bowls at a prodigious rate, all while playing D&D with some older gents. The neckbeards who still do that kind of shit well into their forties. Sure, some got kids, some are “lifelong bachelors”, most are the guys for whom the game is a substitute for an actual life… but give them some paper, pens and a baggie of weed, and they’re riding into battle on a fucking wolf.
That’s Tuesday night. I like it, probably because I don’t exactly fit in. They’re Mike’s crowd, Mike’s long-time friends. Mike’s set of hand-painted figurines.
Wednesday night, Mike snuck us into an unlicensed boxing match. Said he heard about it from his dealer. Or one of his students? Or his dealer slash student? Whatever. Mike has way too many connections for me to remember. And now, he’s also got blood on his jacket.
Thursday night, we stayed in.
The shit that seems so important at night, it’s nothing in the light of day. No one scolded me for fucking up the samples. Even the messed up glovebox – casualty of love, you might say – didn’t show up on anyone’s radar. The planet kept on spinning and interesting research managed to avoid me like the plague.
The day shift gave the dust a passing glance and emailed someone in Poland about their newfound diamond mine. Something along the lines of “Congrats! Now get on with real work.”
Even the day shift felt screwed over here. All they did was look at the damn dust, confirm that it’s diamond-oid (“walks like a duck, swims like a duck, quacks like a duck…”) and that’s about it. Other departments in other universities actually got to shoot the damn dust with particles. Or they’d heat the stuff up enough to evaporate it and see if there’s anything in there other than carbon (nope). You know, conduct actual analysis on the damn stuff.
But my life ain’t that bad, I decided, and stopped feeling sorry for myself. The hell with this Polish dust, how’s my halfling orc hybrid doing?!
The next two weeks flew by in a whirlwind of drugs (just THC, this time), D&D, tutoring the kids you’d charitably describe as “mathematically challenged poets”, time with and without Mike, and the irregular hours at the Adler.
At the Adler I worked as glorified IT slash “educational programmer.” That’s basically a fancy way of saying that someone who got paid more than me would come up with some interactive educational mini-game. Something we could let the kids download to their phones when they came by the Adler, keep them quiet and, incidentally, maybe something that’d teach them a bit. I would then whip it up in a day or two, toss some clipart at it and pick up a paycheck. It’s quiet, gets me coding and “pays the rent.”
We don’t pay rent, actually, so most of that money goes toward books. Mike might complain, but our basement apartment is plenty big for the book issue to still not be an “issue”.
Somehow, Mike persuaded this nice old lady to let us move into the bare basement in her building, all in return for being the apartment IT squad. Which, most of the time, requires us to tell the tenants the passcode to the WiFi and not hog the pipe with our torrenting. There are just a dozen tenants, and the more with-it ones already have fiber. The widows get to share our connection. It works.
A peaceful few weeks, if you ask me. Until Mike reminded me of that appointment with my advisor. You remember, the one in three days? The one that you postponed twice already?
The other reason my advisor pushed me toward the Polish diamonds? My thesis has almost fuck-all to do with carbon. And certainly nothing to do with outer-space diamonds. But, apparently that little bit of “fuck-all” was good enough. Go figure.
So, here I am, doom looming high on the horizon and I’ve got jack squat to report. I’ll have to explain to my advisor that instead of the ass-kissing that she suggested, I contaminated our samples and yielded no results on the space dust. Would she like to see my non-space dust? No, didn’t think so.
So off I go, trudging to the lab, in vain hopes of scrounging up whatever samples we haven’t destroyed or postmarked to Warsaw. Hell, maybe the contaminated stuff isn’t too bad. You just blow off the layer of THC and PCP, right?
I’m in deep shit.
So it’s another late night Metro ride through the city toward the University of Chicago campus. To the wretched (in this context) Burkland Lab. To dig up some filed-and-forgotten dust. To do… what? How the hell do I tie this shit in with my thesis, in the next three days, in such a way as to actually move the whole process along? And, hopefully, to satisfy my damn advisor.
The uncontaminated samples were still somewhere in the lab. Yes! A faint chance of success. No! There were logged out to my advisor. Physics is all about improvisation, right? Or was that jazz? Who cares!
A hurried sprint took me from the 5th floor down to the basement. I avoided the elevators for fear of bumping into someone I knew. I was still coming off a too-short trip and didn’t really trust myself to interact with anyone. I almost flew down the staircase, only a thin strip of rubber sneakers touching the steps. My hands lightly touching the walls, making sure I was smack-dab in the middle of the stairwell. The contact, the slightly-sticky wall beneath my fingers, it felt good.
At this point, munching on a cardboard box would be a feast fit for some kind of monarch… what’s that word?
I went looking for the THC-laced diamonds. Surely no one was doing any research with those guys. Uhh, except for me, of course. Sigh.
The samples were exactly where I left them, in a small, sealed glass container, in the back of the same fridge we sometimes kept our beer in. Industrial bastard, freezes a brewski in no time flat. And keeps our precious PCP diamonds safe from the infamous Polish diamond mafia.
I’m still tripping.
When Mike came into the lab some sixteen hours later, I was still tripping. He shook me. I’m assuming that he’d called out my name half a dozen times and gotten no response.
I was still tripping. Not on THC, though.
I was in front of the computer, dozens of tabs opened in a handful of browsers, spread out across three monitors. Mike read out the titles of the tabs he could see: “Cellular automata, 3753 Cruithne, Lagrange, Game of Life, Langton’s ant, Turmite, Caffeine overdose, Prime sums, Turing machine, Fibonacci spiral, Nobel Prize…”
“What the hell is this? You didn’t come home last night. And you forgot to take your phone with you. And I’ve been worried.” Almost as an afterthought, he added wearily, “and your mother’s been calling.” Mike and her didn’t get along. Wait, no. Mike got along with everyone. She didn’t get along with anyone.
“Mike, listen. I think… I think… Crap, I really need to pee. BRB.”
I also had to vomit a few times. Clean myself up as best I could, etc. When I came back, Mike was going through the rest of my tabs, switching every so often to the x-ray and optical scans.
“Are you playing some kinda prank here?”, he asked without turning to face me. “Cause if you are, this is some trippy shit. Might get you kicked out of the program, though. Still, it is pretty.” He finally settled on the last image I was looking at.
It was white disk, on a dark background, that looked almost like an LP. If you squinted, you could probably make out faint spiral outlines. Like a damn LP.
“World’s smallest record? And, correspondingly, world’s most expensive record player? Pleasepleaseplease tell me this is the White Album.” Mike was putting me on, sure, but I wasn’t exactly laughing.
“Uhh, Mike? It’s primes.” I cracked open a bottle of Mexican Coke – we were flying to the moon again, but still hadn’t managed to put real sugar back into Coke, how’s that for progress? “That LP is about 20 microns across. That’d mean that…” I glanced at the whiteboard on the wall. “That’s about the first eighty thousand primes. If my math is right.”
Mike wasn’t laughing. And he wasn’t going to accept that answer quite yet. (I was now seriously concerned about a caffeine overdose. How long have I been at this?) But, hell, if he wasn’t going to believe me, would anyone else?
OK, Mike. Mikey. Listen. It happened like this.
I came into the lab, fished the container out of the WonderFridge and tossed the sample under a microscope. Expectation: two grain-sized diamonds. Possibly some THC/PCP particles. Definitely some bacteria.
Reality? Reality manages to be stranger than we expect. One grain found. Second grain… ostensibly missing. Wonderful. Call the noble diamond miners in Sierra Leone and warn them of a new breed: the bastards are evolving, they can walk now!
I’m still tripping!
I give it a second look. There’s the glass slide, there’s the first grain, there’s… what the hell is that? I put on my CSI hat: “Magnify. Enhance. Enhance. Track to…” On the screen in front of me is a slight discoloration. Zoom in some more and it actually looks like a damn puddle.
Great. The Poles brought back diamond dust and, what, dirty ice?
OK, OK, I’ll skip all the commentary. Relax. Have a Coke.
The puddle was carbon. Yes, I know, carbon ain’t liquid at this temperature! But that’s what it was! Looked a bit closer, found a strange circle. Disk. Whatever. Here’s the picture. That was twelve hours ago. See it now? The damn thing’s grown. It’s a spiral that started in the center of the puddle and is extending. Growing. The end is getting longer, but it’s still looping around, see?
Here, check out the center. See how the spiral has these gaps in it? There, toward the center. There’s a bit of the spiral, a bunch of carbon atoms in a row, then a gap where we can see down to the puddle, then the million-atom march continues.
For the next three hours I just sat there and stared at the spiral. Stared and counted. Here, that’s a segment of 151 carbon atoms. Then a gap, then 157 carbon atoms. You should know what comes next.
No, it’s not impossible. You’re staring at it! Tell me you can see that. Tell me I’m not crazy.
Mike finally does accept my story, but only after he finds the center of the spiral and counts the atoms for himself. “Two, gap, three, gap, five, gap, seven, gap, eleven…” he trails off.
“Gasp,” I supply.
I crashed from the caffeine high. Hard. It happened on the L. I went from a nice, standard vertical to lying on the train floor. Remember that and not much else. Mike must have carried me home, the handful of blocks from the station, where I slept for about twenty hours. When I woke up, it was the next day, morning.
Mike wasn’t home. He’d left a quickly-scrawled note on the fridge, affixed there with a silly Space Needle magnet I brought with me to Chicago. “UC called. Zoya + Kozlowski. Diamond LP. Told them you’re dead.” Well, shit. Just what I needed. My advisor and our loveable department head are in on the spiral business. And my partner in crime is valiantly attempting to keep the wolves at bay. Love the guy.
I shower, dress, grab a power-bar and run out of the apartment. Just as the door closes I hear the phone going off, but it’s probably just some tenant who forgot the WiFi security key. It can wait. They can leave a damn message.
On the way to the lab, I try to play Devil’s Advocate, ask myself the questions that the bigwigs will surely ask. Yes, the sample was thought to have been contaminated. No, the spiral isn’t made of “the contaminant”, it’s a line of carbon atoms. I think I’d know what THC/PCP/bacteria look like under a microscope.
Whoops, did I forget to mention the drugs? I forgot to put that in the notes? Whoops. Concentrate, people! Primes! (I pray that my hand-waving will get the old grouches past this little hiccup. I mean, it could be worse, we could have been doing some real nasty shit, like krokodil… Uhh, nevermind, let’s get back on track.)
Possibilities, possibilities. Look, here’s an example of cellular automata, it’s called a Turmite. Which is like Langton’s Ant. Which is like Conway’s Game of Life. You know, you flip cells on a board according to their neighbors? A system with simple rules that produces insanely complex results? (Every school kid now knows and plays with various flavors of cellular automata. Ask them if you’re still confused.)
Right, right, back on topic. So we know of this particular Turmite configuration that can create an ever-expanding spiral pattern. Kinda similar to what we’ve got. No, the spiral doesn’t calculate primes. And our spiral is way too simple. Each groove is just an atom across. And the primes just grow out of the carbon puddle. At this point, I can almost see Mike shaking his head: “You aren’t going to get through to them like this. Try a different tactic.”
Uhh, the diamond melted! (Think that’s a good idea? Telling the department head that something impossible happened?) The damn diamond rearranged itself. No way in hell THC or a common cold can do that! It’s doing weird shit that… maybe can be explained by quantum mechanics? Quantum computers are used to factor numbers, maybe this one is doing the same thing! We’d of course need to study this. Lots of study. A big grant. And undergrads, cute ones… (Hey, eye on the ball!)
I’m standing in front of the lab and I still haven’t managed to pull anything out of my ass. Sigh.
What I see in the lab is actually worse that I imagined. Zoya and Mike are at the whiteboard, going over my caffeine-inspired math, arguing over something with an integral in it. The other half of the board, the one where I charted the spiral’s progress, has some new rows. Mike’s hand-writing. The times are listed as last night.
Shit, did he write that note yesterday?! And I’m just staggering in here?
Kozlowski is at the far end of the lab, unloading into his cell in what sounds like Polish. I don’t understand the words, but the tone comes through crystal-clear: we’ve got something you want to see, something that none of the other universities managed to find, so you’d better pay me some FUCKING ATTENTION! Then again, I also think I hear him say “Wermacht” a number of times… Could be he’s ordering sausages from his cousin at the delicatessen and just generally shooting the breeze.
I drop my bag into an empty chair and four heads swivel in my direction.
Ah, right, Katerina. Our unofficial undergrad butler. She’s got a habit of blending into the furniture when you’re not looking, popping up for a moment when you’re trying to figure out what happened with the x-rays from last week or what the hell the C++ compiler is complaining about, then disappearing again. She’s some kind of a wunderkind in the CS department. Started in UC before she had her driver’s license. And still can’t legally drink. Not that that’s stopped us from corrupting her six ways from Sunday.
I’m not exactly cogent this early in the morning, but where I lack in ability I more than make up for in stupidity.
“So… What’s up?” Mike slams his head into the whiteboard and I try to remember the number for 911.
The spiral is now .03 centimeters across. It’s the size of a (small) grain of sand! I don’t even need a microscope to see the damn thing. If Kozlowski would let me anywhere near it, that is.
According to Mike, the following statements are to be taken as the literal word of god. I’m not fired. Really, not fired. The diamond recently chewed through the first million primes. It’s still going. Actually, it’s accelerated. It will run out of carbon to use in the next three and a half days. Kozlowski is on the phone with Warsaw, trying to get information out of them. They’re as lost as he is.
This is the important part, so Mike looks me dead in the eyes and speaks real slow: no one, ever, has seen shit like this before. No. One.
So it’s understandable that four humanoids in full-out radiation suits run into the room and start moving the microscope with the spiral. The diamond is in a sealed and shielded sample chamber, but even so, these aren’t the types to screw around with potentially dangerous space junk. If only we’d been this careful…
The microscope is being taken across campus and down several levels to a clean room. The kind of clean room that has 6 feet of lead acting as walls, ceiling and floor. The kind that sometimes has security guards outside it. The kind for which they’re still figuring out an appropriate hazmat sign. (“Come in here, and we’ll need to launch you and your entire family into the sun” sounds good to me.) The kind that most of the faculty pretends to not know about, Mike whispers to me. The kind that, up until recently, housed some pretty weird stuff for a government TLA. Well, move over, we’re turning up the weird-shit-o-meter to 11.
At some point, while Mike was explaining all of this to me, Kozlowski switched to English. I keep overhearing all these familiar terms, like “Warsaw”, “L4”, “Melbourne”, “Atlanta”, “Turing”, “Oxford”, “THC”. The places he’s mentioning are the other universities, the ones who didn’t find what we found. Somewhere in there I hear my name, briefly.
I’m praying for a nice disaster right about now. Maybe a bathtub can magically appear over my head. That’d solve some problems.
Kozlowski finally puts down the phone. From the look on his face, he’s planning early retirement. “OK. Your team…” he points a crooked finger at me. “Your team has to get all ducks in row. Soon. Landon is in Chicago on book tour and some others are flying from Georgia and Oxford. Warsaw, too, maybe. You must have some answers for them. Meet company in the lab.
“Put out tea and crumpets,” he finishes, smiling.
Or, you know, a couple bathtubs.
Our new office is quite a bit larger than the rat-trap we just came from, though the fact that it’s right on top of the clean room isn’t terribly exciting. That little tidbit aside, I’m actually pretty happy with the setup. We’ve got a dozen cameras aimed at the diamonds, everything from x-ray to infrared. Some joker even brought in a radio set from the SETI department. Just in case the carbon matrix decides to start broadcasting primes, I suppose. Though, it’ll hardly get a better response, or audience.
Sigh. Told you, I was a damn fool.
I start going over the data Mike has collected since last night. The spiral is growing. Fast. To what end? How? Wish I knew. Maybe this is why they called in Landon. He’s one of those popular-science mathematicians, a welcome mainstay at a convention of nerds and D&D fans, whilst actually having his shit together and being a respected expert in his field.
The guy solved one of Hilbert’s problems, for crying out loud. Made math “fun” for the common man. He’s the mathematical equivalent of Feynman, Tyson, Sagan and Hawking rolled into one. And this guy’s going to walk in here any minute and draw conclusions from our THC-doped diamonds?! Against my better judgment – and both Mike’s and Katerina’s hypothetical objections – I smoke half a bowl and dive headfirst into the problem.
Landon shows up. Several fruitless hours later, so do the nerds from Georgia. Someone from California phones. She’s on the road. Managed a connection into St Louis, then carjacked someone (I think) and is doing 90 miles per across the corn fields. Katerina mentions that the first of the Warsaw delegation will be landing in 8 hours. 8 hours from, you know, whenever she said it.
(I’m not an addict. Shut up, honestly, I’m not. I just had one hell of a migraine and a raging case of social anxiety. For the most part, the THC helps me overcome some of the negative aspects of my INTP personality. You know, the ones that’d make me go fetal in front of a group of more than two.)
The diamond keeps consuming itself in a mad dash to calculate primes. We come up with a revised “time for completion”. For the most part, we just sit and watch. And scour every scientific article printed over the last century or two. And talk to every other university that’s got space dust under observation. Katerina suggested it, bless her, and then the whole team superglued phones to their faces and started asking strangers if they’d seen anything out of the ordinary.
No one else had. Melbourne raised our pulses a bit, but that ended up being a dead end. They’d analyzed the composition of the dust. First test came back positive for carbon and silica, but subsequent tests only showed a carbon composition.
While we were busy talking to the other side of the planet, the diamond stepped up its efforts. So did Landon. He announced, with some degree of trepidation, that the progression of primes has in fact increased and will run out of usable material tomorrow, around 1 or 2pm.
Finally, a team in Moscow’s ITEP weasels out enough about the situation from us and conducts their own experiment: they exposed two diamonds to air in the lab, then set the samples under a microscope. Mike got a frantic phone call from Moscow in the middle of the night. Diamonds were melting in Moscow. In the middle of winter!
It’s 24 hours after Mike attempted to imprint his skull into a wall. It’s morning again. I take my time in the bathroom and the shower. My only privacy nowadays. I love Mike to death, but sometimes I just need some time to myself. Myself and Pink Floyd, of course. God bless subdermal speakers.
I’ve been putting it off for a while, but finally some form of stupid guilt chimes in. I dig the phone out of a pile of dirty clothes and call home. A distinct Southern drawl, one that my mother’s never bothered to shake, answers. “Oh, we are just fine. Weather fluctuates every five minutes, like usual. Pugs are snoring again. You just missed your father, he went off to work. Have you seen the paper?”
Seems someone noticed the impromptu nerd convention at the Burkland building. It’s the weekend and the campus is deserted, but I guess someone was around. Either that, or one of the visiting Poles spilled the beans last night, right after putting away a fifth of vodka with their 4th or 5th cousin. Don’t ask me why, but the Poles have themselves a nice little dug-in community here in Chicago.
A call comes in. Call waiting ominously suggests it’s the Tribune and asks if I’d like – that is, if I’m in the mood – to consider answering. That’s when I notice the voicemail icon with the never-before-seen 19 messages. It’s not fair! I haven’t even had coffee yet. Or read the comics!
Mom will understand, I’m sure, so I switch over to the reporter. Two and a half minutes later, I throw my phone against a wall, satisfy myself with the fact that the battery popped out, then hurriedly leave the house. It’s only once I’m on the el that I recall saying something about replicating patterns, Conway’s Game of Life and grey goo.
By the time I walk into our new Burkland Lab office, the news has spread. It’s the Tribune’s online feed, pushing out whiter shade of “news”, but the internet grabs onto it like a drowning man going for a life-preserver. Strangely – as I’m actually the source of the rumor – I’m somehow the last one to hear them. “UIC scientists discover self-replicating machines, fear end-of-world scenario. trib.in/FuckMyLife”
“The asshole didn’t know the definition of the word ‘analogy'”, I almost-yell to Mike. “He took my comments completely out of context.” I glance at the article on his phone. “And quickly, too. Must have spoken to someone here before he got my misquoted two-cents.” I look questioningly at Mike.
“Hey”, he replies, putting his hands up, “I didn’t say anything to anyone. Bastards have been calling me all morning.”
“Oh, I know you wouldn’t have. I just…” I’m not sure what I meant to say. What I wanted to say. “I just… need you to tell me…” I don’t finish the thought. Mike swoops in and holds me for what seems like hours.
“We’ll get through this, don’t worry.” He speaks into the nape of my neck, holding me close. We’re on the roof of the lab, a non-smoker’s smoking break. I hear distant police sirens, followed by the unmistakable whir of a helicopter overhead. “The Tribune will take the heat for creating the panic, you’ll have to get your morning comics from some other paper, and the world will keep on spinning.”
The “media” (all of two newspapers and some radio station in Arlington Heights) is calling it an exodus, a deluge of the terrified masses. I can see it firsthand from the roof of the lab and it’s nothing like that. Just a long, languid tail of metal streaming along The Drive. The traffic is barely busier than on a regular weekend. Who knows, maybe it’s not my fault at all, maybe everyone is heading to a surprise Muse reunion tour in Milwakee or Kenosha.
Either that, or they’re all terrified that the UIC campus might just be swallowed up by nanites run-amok.
We make it down to the lab half an hour before the diamond is expected to run out of itself. Its mad dash to calculate primes is coming to an inglorious conclusion. Unless, of course, you know that in the next few minutes we’ll take the photograph that defines the rest of the century. That confirms our best dreams and worst nightmares. The picture that, without words, calmly informs the inhabitants of this planet that “you are not alone”.
By the time the diamond ran out of material, it was the size of a nickel and weighed less than a microgram.
“It’s a disk of carbon, a single atom in depth, with one-atom primes on top of it,” supplied Landon. “That’s just about the only way the math on this works out.”
A microgram. The damn thing weighs something like a grain of sand, but it’s spread out across so much space that it’s at most two atoms in thickness. And it constructed this mind-boggling structure which, incidentally, calculates a metric fuck-ton of primes!
Forgive me if I don’t give this event the pomp and circumstance it quite deserves, but at this moment the how was much more important to me than the why. Call it professional curiosity.
In my mind, we were light-years beyond assumptions and guesses here. Only a sentient scientist could have created this wonder. This bit of diamond didn’t grow in the vacuum of space. The Universe did not throw this together at random, only to be found in the L4 cloud around our planet. This was a signal, a message.
“Anyone else think this thing is alive?” The question came from a small, unassuming nerd from Georgia. (Name of Marlene Cobb, of course, though at the time I couldn’t name more than half a dozen people in the room.) While most of us were staring at the side scans of the diamond, Cobb pointed to the live infrared feed. Twenty heads swiveled to stare at the LP.
There it was, right in front of our eyes. The defining moment. The disk of primes reconfigured itself, the myriad of ridges melting into one-another, forming patterns on the surface of the slowly-shrinking disk. The spirals swam, merged, broke apart, created fleeting images that we could not even begin to describe.
The disk physically ripped itself, short tendrils of atom-thin carbon separating from the mass, groping into the void around itself. On IR, the center of the phenomenon glowed in fake-orange, while the far-flung portions graded from green to blue. The camera adjusted itself, intermittently shifting the palette of the images, coping with the faint temperature differences.
Shortly, a thin arm of carbon reached the second diamond grain. The image shifted again as the until-now static grain erupted in faux-red. The rest of the image took on the ambient light-blue. Someone jumped at the computer and attempted to adjust the camera range, but finally settled on the visible spectrum.
For the next hour, we watched as the second grain was absorbed into the first mass, its atoms rearranged into some new, strange patterns.
“Guess it got hungry”, someone opined. “Did anyone bring more of that space dust?” Conversation slowly started up around me, but I tried to tune it out.
Later Mike told me that some wanted to dump a few more grains of diamond into the sample chamber. The majority disagreed, arguing that we needed to see what would happen when the system ran out of material to consume. “Who knows what it’s doing. Maybe it’s preparing to calculate more primes. Give it more carbon, it might not stop until the sun goes out.” Landon pointed out that this scenario was mathematically impossible, considering the rate at which… He was promptly shushed. We ended up watching the diamond lattice work, without any more “food”.
By the time the image of the Milky Way makes its way onto the field of carbon, some scary, Drumlin-from-Contact look-alikes from the NSA or TLA show up and start ordering us around. The math geeks couldn’t give two shits at this point, they’ve been running their mouths like crazy for the past hour and the rest of us are glad to see them relocated.
Mike and I find ourselves a couple of floors up, being questioned under the continuously disapproving glares of Zoya and Kozlowski. Katerina is mostly quiet, though that’s nothing new, seeing as that’s her default state.
It’s mostly my show, but Mike interjects once in a while. It takes a few repetitions to hammer into these guys that this was a damn accident, something that no one anticipated or expected. We go over the hanky-panky incident half a dozen times, in such annoyingly embarrassing detail that I actually tire of the phrase “PCP-fueled fucking”.
The suits don’t let up. An hour or two later they just shift the focus to the events of the past few days. Or the Great North American Security Breach, whereupon the group of saboteurs gathered here today had planned and carried out espionage most foul, namely talking to other universities about the fucking diamond dust.
It’s four hours later when some hapless fellow pops his head in to confer with our hostage-takers and we’re allowed a piss break. Nobody dies in the resulting stampede, but that’s just due to blind luck.
While the group rotates through the single bathroom I gather my thoughts. Certainly sober enough for that now. (Was it Kitz from Contact that I was remembering? Either one, really. Both sweep in and take the cool toys and credit away from Ellie.) Though try telling that to my ADHD-riddled brain. Probably starved halfway to death after the Spanish Inquisition.
I try to recall what in the hell was happening before the boys in black showed up and finally decide to make my way down to the lab. The diamond’s gotta be all done by now, all its material used up to recreate this You Are Here replica.
And, I just realize, it’s probably out of energy. Whatever it was running on had to have run out. The last IR images showed a uniform temperature, barely above ambient. The atom-thick LP must be breaking up already, every footstep rattling thousands of atoms out of their mathematically-determined location.
To no one’s surprise but my own, the lab is of course off-limits when I get there: two pairs of sunglasses stare past me as they do a bang-up impersonation of an immovable object. By the time Mike and Katerina join me at the entrance I’ve already made a complete ass of myself by trying to speak to the suits in English, Spanish, high-school French and broken-down Russian. The guys are better than the Grenadier Guard.
“Hey,” Mike hugs me single-handedly, “Kozlowski says you did a good job in there. Go ahead and get some sleep.” He holds me out at arm’s length, giving me a good once over. ”Looks like you could use it.” Katerina just nods and fumbles with her phone. There’s no signal here, so she’s probably checking the time. I look over and see that it’s late afternoon and the weight of the day hits me.
“Yeah, good idea. OK, I’ll head home. Might work, a bit.” Coding for the Adler. “Coming?”
“Eventually. Want to see what happens with our new masters here. Zoya wanted to talk to me.” Mike’s giving me his all-is-fine look, so I ignore for the moment that my advisor needs to speak to my boyfriend.
That just leaves Katerina.
“Chinese, my place?” She shrugs and follows my lead.
“Don’t stay up too late you two. And don’t go ape-shit, might have to come back here soon.” Mike wants to say “one bowl max”, but knows that’s unlikely after the cross upstairs. So he follows with the same noncommittal shrug and kisses me good-bye. “Love ya.”
It’s dark when we get topside. The ride home is blissfully quiet.
I get up early the next day, at least earlier than my usual, and take a long shower. My only time alone, just me and one Mr Waters. I take my sweet time, forget if I’ve washed my hair and probably end up going through four times as much shampoo as usual. Whatever.
When I finally make it out of the steamed up bathroom I find Mike asleep on the couch. He must have come back late last night and crashed. But not before putting my phone back into one piece and plugging the damn thing in. Love the guy.
I give him a peck on the forehead and get to making breakfast, quietly. I make a bet with myself that I can guess how late he got in, without him having to tell me, based solely on how long it takes him to get up.
Cooking is relaxing, but not quite enough to hold my undivided attention, so I grab my phone and start to pull up an old episode of a long-ago cartoon series when I notice the texts and missed phone calls. So much for a quiet morning.
Half a dozen sausage links are in a pan, three pieces of frozen toast with accompaniments of butter are slowly soaking up the heat of a different pan, and coffee is murmuring away in the corner before I start figuring out who’s after my ass this morning. A couple of texts are from Mike, saying he’d be staying late. That was last night, while me and Katerina were on the el, on the way home. One from Seattle, just a saw-you-on-the-news. Two voicemails from around the same time. Hmm, guess I made CNN or something.
A phone call from an unlisted number sometime after midnight, after the phone was resuscitated back to life. Half an hour after that someone called from an ancient, pre-WW2, ten-pound, puke-green rotary phone: Zoya.
I call her back. The line rings and rings while I zone out with a thousand-yard stare somewhere past the fridge.
“Hey. Something smells good.” Mike’s up already, which means he probably got in around 2. Probably left the lab around 1? I hang up the phone and drop it a tad too loudly on the counter.
“Breakfast of champions. Why didn’t you wake me up?”
“Mmm.” Mike comes up behind me and gives me a hug. “Didn’t want to disturb you. You looked pretty worn out.” He nuzzles his head into the nape of my neck and we stand there intertwined as I flip the links and the toast. I can feel him reaching out a hand in the direction of the fridge and in a moment he slides a carton of eggs onto the counter.
I love it when he helps me cook, but today something’s got me on edge.
“I tried calling, last night, but looks like your phone was out of commission. Guess you had more important things to do.” He kisses me behind the ear, just there, and I almost feel my legs give out.
“Jealous? Deflecting?” I push him away with an elbow and busy myself with mixing the eggs, half-and-half and the flour. “What did Zoya want?”
“Just shooting the shit.” He runs a hand up my back and through my wet hair. “I don’t believe in jealousy. It’s for the weak. One thing-”
“Quoting ‘Wanda’ is deflecting. Stop it.” I busy myself and for a minute neither of us says anything, though I know he’s there. He hasn’t moved, is probably just watching, chewing on his lip, figuring out what perfect thing to say to get out of the doghouse.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to… Zoya wanted to know what was up with you, she’s concerned, thinks you’re working yourself too hard. Told her you needed a break.” Mike reaches out and places both hands on my shoulders, then guides me slowly into facing him. “I agree. So I was happy to see you relaxing last night. You looked so peaceful, so happy and content, that I couldn’t bring myself to wake you up.”
Mike does have a way with words. I lean in to kiss him, a slow and languid exploration. He tears himself away for a moment to mutter something that sounds like “certainly not jealousy”, but I’m already sold.
Then my phone rings, I realize the toast hasn’t been flipped in too long, and finally spot Katerina sitting at the table, flipping through a thick technical volume. Hell of a way to start the day.
I pick up the phone and it’s Zoya. Looks like she emailed me, too, and texted. Two more phones around the table start to buzz.
She sounds pissed, and starts the conversation midway into an inquisition, continuation of yesterday’s festivities. I roll my eyes and mouth “fuck” to Mike and Katerina.
Katerina tosses her flip-phone in her bag and stumbles toward the bathroom. After a few moments the shower comes on. This isn’t something she wants to deal with, not just yet.
Mike looks through his phone, taps around, then points the phone in my direction. It’s across the table and I can’t make out the headline, but the photo is very familiar.
Mike reaches over to the ancient CRT we use as a TV and flips it on. The same picture greets us in a few seconds.
The Afghan Girls with the beautiful eyes. The burning monk in Saigon. Tiananmen. The sailor and the nurse sharing a kiss in Times Square. Jack Ruby getting the last word on Oswald. Moments that defined the last century, frozen in time.
Our own Milky Way galaxy, staring us in the face. Milky Way, composed of some forty billion carbon atoms. Pretty bad resolution, if you ask me, but no one can doubt what it is that we’re all staring at. Much more ambiguous is the delivery method. The diamond dust that, time and time again, spins out the same damn image.
The story found its way online quickly, possibly by way of Melbourne, or some poor soon-to-be-imprisoned bastard in Moscow, and it’s on every channel. The world knows we are not alone.
Donald Currey was a nice guy. A geography heavyweight, some might say. Got some serious cred for his work on Lake Bonneville. Did some mind-numbingly interesting research concerning geoarchaeology. And the one thing that people will remember him for is chopping down a fucking tree! I mean, who hasn’t taken an axe to the oldest living organism once or twice in their life?
Whenever I go to conventions or speak at schools or on TV, the first question that gets asked is if I’m still smoking. Half the time, the idiots in charge follow this up by jokingly offering me a pipe. Cue canned audience laughter.
Yes, I do still partake. It’s Social Lubricant 2.0. Or whatever version they’re onto now. Not to mention I get some freaky ideas while high. Hell, once I saw the evolution of fish! I love it and probably won’t stop anytime soon. But for that to be the first damn thing that I get associated with? That’s just fucking annoying.
OK, I admit it, the discovery of the century was made by a horny stoner. Can the damn attention seekers drop that and focus on the actual science?!
We’ve gone back to L4. A fully “international” team this time, of course. Then L5, then the L4/L5 Sun-Earth points. Found the same dust, with the same damn picture show. (The Ruskies went hogwild and got to investigating the various L1-L3 points, but didn’t turn up anything of interest.)
No one really turned up much, in the end. We’re all just on a wild goose chase. But we keep looking. Cause that’s what we do, ain’t it?