Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Know Circuit - Interlude - Part 7.0

Interlude Part 6.0

After long nights of furious work by the entire group, they had their proof of concept prepared. Their first prototype was a glowbug on steroids, as Janicki put it, a featureless box standing over six feet tall. While glowbugs were wired into an existing power source, this larger, more powerful version would generate power wirelessly to any electrical device within its sizeable radius. This cloud of energy gave the device its name, the cloud generator. Due to the mana engine’s asymmetrical power conversion ratio, they couldn’t pin down how long the cloud would operate on the tiny bit of startup energy. It might only last a few minutes, or it could go for years. Rolfsberg’s math was imprecise, and everyone else was too busy with their own work to double-check him thoroughly. Since the generator had no moving parts, as long as it could generate power, it would need no physical maintenance. If it worked, it could literally power an entire building without cost.

The experiment was certain to attract attention. In order to test the cloud, the group would have to disconnect the Engineering Center from the campus’s power grid. If the generator worked as planned, the Center’s power would be restored within seconds, but even that tiny interruption in power would be noticed. Since their work would most certainly be discovered whether it succeeded or failed, they had decided to make this night their public debut. Once the campus administration questioned them, they would reveal their research by releasing it into the GlobalNet as open source designs.

Carl and Lydia would sneak into the Center’s maintenance room and disconnect the back up generators first, then flip the switch on the whole complex. As the building went dark, Balfour would activate the cloud. Nervous anticipation made his stomach do flip-flops as he listened to Lydia’s reports. This was it, everything he’d worked for. He hadn’t eaten all day from the nervousness. His skin tingled with anticipation. His breathing seemed too rapid, too shallow. In the back of his mind, he could hear the voices urging him on, that subconscious creative inspiration whispering concepts and blueprints and ideas and visions into his head from the deepest recesses of his mind.

“We’re in place, Dr. Balfour,” Carl said after what seemed an eternity. “Disconnecting the backups now.”

“Be careful,” Rolfsberg hissed. Carl grumbled inaudibly. He needed no instruction on the need for secrecy. Rolfsberg’s nervousness made him even more insufferable.

Balfour checked his instruments one more time from his seat. He marveled at the engine’s abilities; he could do everything from his chair without ever lifting a finger. “Dr. Wong, Dr. Janicki, are you ready?”

Wong hovered over the cloud generator. He had taken to levitating inside the lab as much as he could, but especially when Rolfsberg was around. Balfour thought he was showing off. The young scientist gave a hearty thumbs-up sign, a smile stretching from ear to ear. Janicki answered, “We are as good as we’re ever going to get, Mark.”

“Carl, disconnect the backups.”

“Backups down. Got a warning light blinking in here.”

“Let it go. Proceed to blackout.”

Lydia’s silken voice broke through the channel. “Shutting down now.”

The building seemed to convulse once, then sigh into silent darkness. Only the computers that ran off individual backup power supplies lit the lab. “Fire it up, boys.”

Wong and Janicki gestured at the cloud generator, each firing a tiny particle at the machine. Two globes of light about the size of marbles shot from their hands and struck the generator’s smooth outer surface, causing the outer skin to briefly glow a muted blue before the particles disappeared.

“Did it work?” Rolfsberg asked out of the black.

“I don’t see any lights,” Janicki snapped, stating the obvious.

A low hum began to sound from the inky darkness. An imperceptible ambient glow grew to sheathe it in white light, throbbing like a heartbeat in an eerie cascade. One of the robotic arms closest to the generator twitched, then snapped into life. Lights began to burn, flooding the room with a sudden, disconcerting light. The battery backups on the computers shut off with numerous audible clicks. As the hum of the generator grew strong, Balfour heard the building’s heating sigh to life. He displayed readouts of the power generation, confirming that it was working exactly as planned. But rather than level off, the power of the cloud continued to build, incrementing slowly at first, but as each second passed, its output doubled, trebled, and climbed on and on at an exponential rate.

“Lydia, Carl, how’s it look down there?”

“Power is steady and strong.”

“This output isn’t leveling off. It’s already passed our highest estimates and keeps going.”

“Is it stable?”

Janicki answered quickly. “There’s a distinct hum, but no other outward negative signs. The casing is cool to the touch.”

“Rolfsberg, can this casing contain that kind of buildup?”

Rolfsberg tapped at a console furiously. “The casing is well within safe limits. Can we tamp down the output?”

“Trying,” Balfour responded, maneuvering the equations as holograms in the air above him. “It’s not responding. It’s like it won’t stop building until it completes a specific cycle.”

“Did you program that in?”

“No, this is entirely unexpected. Rolfsberg, are you sure of your math?”

“My math is solid, goddamnit!”

“Obviously it isn’t!” Wong shouted back. “Dr. Balfour… something’s happening here.”

Balfour looked down from his equations. The generator had started glowing, a cold white light building on the top surface. “Shut it down, boys. Shut it down.”

Janicki and Wong gestured. Draining the feeder particles back out of the generator should gradually shut down the machine, at least in theory. The two particles flew from the machine, zipping into Wong and Janicki’s outstretched hands before disappearing. The light continued to grow brighter. “It’s not working.”

“Shit. Shit. Rolfsberg, get in there and help them drain it.”

“Into what?”

“I don’t know, something else!”

“I think it’s too late for that, boss,” Janicki sighed.

Balfour’s readout spat back a final message. “Power-up cycle complete.” His eyes snapped back to the miniature star growing on top of the generator. He cursed silently.

An icy shaft of brilliant light exploded upwards, slicing through the ceiling like a hot knife through butter. A whoosh of air followed the light up into the ceiling, through the five floors above and onwards until it reached the clouds of the chilly night sky. Balfour stood hesitantly and walked to the machine, staring up through the hole in the ceiling to watch the darkened clouds swirl around this massive pillar of silent light. His stomach sank. There would be no explaining away this experiment. It had worked though not as they’d expected. For the first time since their dangerous experiments had begun, he was genuinely afraid for their survival.

The light eclipsed all and he was swallowed in brilliant white unconsciousness.

Go to Interlude Part 8.0


Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Know Circuit - Interlude - Part 6.0

Interlude Part 5.0

The next months were an amazing time of creativity, with each scientist bringing some exciting new idea to each meeting. Balfour’s experiments on power generation and remote cybernetic control allowed him to manipulate all the machines and computers in his lab with a thought. He could jack into any network, including the GlobalNet from any location on campus without using his interface jack. He discovered that he could even enter closed systems that normally only allowed interface through a hard wire, such as the Engineering Center’s security system. He was practically ecstatic the night he discovered this. He could stand in front of the keypad at any door in the building and enter its closed system, allowing him to bypass every electronic lock he could find with ease.

Balfour found his hacking skills on the GlobalNet to be greatly improved. By duplicating the same thought processes that he used to control machines in the physical world, he could create virtual machines that outstripped most of the software he had previously written. The things Balfour could accomplish with software floored Michael Freeman. Though none of the programs Balfour demonstrated could overcome the hacker god’s best work, Freeman pointed out that they were at least as strong as those of a dedicated hacker. Considering Balfour only learned as much about hacking as he needed to further his research, it was high praise indeed.

Lydia and Wong worked together closely. Though he stayed out of their business, it became obvious that their working relationship was turning into something beyond professional again. Balfour hoped their romantic urges did not interfere with the work of the group as a whole. He pulled her aside before one of the group’s meetings. “Lydia, I would like to speak to you about your relationship with Dr. Wong.”

A tense, nervous look of apprehension leapt into her eyes. “What about Quon?”

“It has come to my attention that the two of you are growing very close again, perhaps even considering rekindling your sexual relationship.”

She stiffened as if slapped. “I fail to see how that’s any of your business, DOCTOR Balfour.”

“Normally, I would say that you are entirely correct. These are extraordinary circumstances under which we labor, however. Once the endorphins and the hormones start rushing around the bloodstream, heretofore completely rational people tend to act altogether irrationally, sometimes dangerously so.”

“I am perfectly capable of separating my work relationships from my personal ones.”

Balfour peered down his nose at her, a smug expression of knowing judgement written across his face. “Previous history might disagree with you.” The rush of red in her cheeks told him that he had made his point. “I am in no way suggesting you should alter your behavior in any way, only that you should observe… caution.”

“Duly noted. Now, if you’d like to hear about my research.”

The work she and Wong demonstrated, combining Lydia’s research into particle states with Wong’s nanomachines, produced some fantastic results. Wong had designed an army of nanobots that could deconstruct any inanimate materials, from steel to wood, and reconstruct them into whatever he wished. He could animate the materials like puppets, or use them to build anything. His first demonstration transformed one of the workbenches into a frightening golem that strode around the room before reconstituting itself as a cabinet. Lydia used the nanoconstructors to remodel the cubicle farm in the outer ring of the lab, theorizing that with enough of the little machines, she could erect an entire building from refuse in days.

Carl had the flashiest application. His research on holographic projection created solid light constructs that could affect their environment, perfect illusions with physical manifestations of mass, density and energy. His most impressive was the flame dragon; rather than being a solid entity, the illusion surrounded his body like an exoskeleton composed of light. He could alter the illusion’s appearance like a GlobalNet avatar at will. He and Wong collaborated on the flight equations, which only the two of them could control. Once the two had discovered this new power, it became extremely hard to keep them from zipping around the campus at all times. They chafed at the restraint, taking every opportunity to use their late night meetings as an excuse to fly all over campus.

Rolfsberg struggled with the engine the most. His creations were pedestrian. Whatever he shared with the group, they improved. His imagination couldn’t keep up. He became almost palpably jealous, especially once Wong and Carl discovered flight. Rolfsberg spent most of their meetings sulking. He had great success with the nanoconstructors, using them to improve his materials fabrication but he was clearly disgruntled. Thanks to his work, they had each upgraded their mana engines three times by September. Both Rolfsberg and Janicki insisted that the discarded engines be destroyed at a molecular level, using the energy contained in the engine to implode and disintegrate the case and all evidence of its existence. “We have to be careful,” Rolfsberg argued. “We all know who funded Mark’s work. We all know that corporations like that take great pleasure in exploiting the work of scientists without paying them a dime. I for one do not intend to do this work for free. If they want it, they’re going to have to pay.” The argument was a long one that night, but in the end all agreed no matter how reluctantly that the work must be guarded jealously.

Janicki took Balfour’s designs for portable power sources and expanded their range, output and longevity. Uninterested in the parlor tricks of flight, the garish displays of power like Carl’s flame dragons and fireballs, he concentrated on something the group could sell. He started small, creating small power amplifiers for the lab. The power amplifiers he dubbed ‘glowbugs.’ He could attach one of the tiny cylinders to any power source, from a fuse box to a generator, a battery pack or even a wall outlet. With a tiny jolt of energy from his mana engine, the glowbug could produce power for whatever device they were attached to indefinitely. He could dial up or down the amount of power generated by the glowbug so that he could split the device’s power consumption between the glowbug and a traditional supply. Janicki’s eyes lit up when he talked about the glowbug’s marketability.

As the campus buzzed with costumed students celebrating Halloween, the group met in the lab to discuss their most ambitious experiment, one they would use to prove their success and unveil their research to the public. They set the date of the experiment during the wee hours of November the second.

Go to Interlude - Part 7.0


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Know Circuit - Interlude - Part 5.0

Interlude Part 4.0

True to his word, Rolfsberg cranked out the casings quickly. Within five weeks, they’d generated five prototypes, improving the fabrication with every new version. Instead of adding a new particle to each engine, Balfour discovered he could concentrate on transferring a piece of the dimensionally-charged particle in his own engine into the new engines. His first attempt was both a spectacular failure and a fascinating discovery. Rather than powering up the empty engine, he managed to fire the group’s first fireball into the table. The fire that resulted was luckily extinguished before the building’s fire alarms could alert the rest of the campus. After some nervous giggling, Balfour tried again, concentrating even harder as he pictured an atomic diagram of the particle in his head, splicing and dicing the particle with waves of equations, precisely considered formulas flashing through his mind’s eye. The second attempt worked. The engine was fully powered with no explosive side effects.

Bowing to the pressure of Rolfsberg’s blistering annoyance, they agreed to let him implant the second engine. Janicki performed the operation while Balfour powered up the third engine for Lydia. Once Rolfsberg’s operation was complete, Balfour explained the use of the engine, sharing the mental formula he used for energy transfer. Rolfsberg claimed to understand, but he was unable to complete the simple particle transfer.

“Are you thinking of the formula I told you?” Balfour asked.

Rolfsberg snapped irritably. “Of course I am. I’m not an imbecile. It’s not working.” He pointed his arm at the engine and squinted but nothing happened.

“Maybe you need a different formula,” Carl suggested. Seeing Balfour’s questioning glance, he elaborated. “It seems like everything we’ve seen you do, from logging on to the GlobalNet without a jack to controlling the constructors, everything we’ve seen you do is triggered by what? You visualize a particular equation and solve it in your head. We’re not even sure how or why the engine allows those mental processes to manifest as physical phenomena. But everybody’s mental processes are unique. Everybody learns a different way as their brain’s chemistry alters around new bits of knowledge. Perhaps each individual has to visualize their actions in a unique way.”

Lydia spoke up from the table where Janicki worked on her back. “That would make some kind of sense. Why don’t you try visualizing it like an engineering problem as opposed to a mathematical one?”

“What? Like I’m building something?” Lydia nodded. Rolfsberg shrugged and reset himself, closing his eyes for focus. He held both his arms up to the engine, and began to wiggle his fingers and move his hands as if he was assembling a physical construct. A soft glow sheathed both his metallic and flesh arm.

“Careful, careful,” Balfour said gingerly. “You only need a miniscule amount.” Balfour ran a piece of diagnostic software he’d written to monitor the engine’s power output. The program appeared as a thin hologram in the air in front of him.

Carl whistled. “That’s a new one, Dr. Balfour. You’ve been holding out on us.” He poked a finger through the hologram and stared at it in rapt fascination. “Oh, the things I’m going to do with you,” he said, rubbing his hands together like a kid eyeing a free candy store.

“It’s done,” Rolfsberg said, dropping his arms to his side. He was suffused with sweat. He plopped into a seat awkwardly. “That sure takes a lot out of me.”

Lydia’s gaze snapped to the Norseman, concern evident in her voice. “How do you feel?”

“Like I’ve run a marathon.”

Balfour considered. “Huh. I’ve never had that happen to me. I always feel wired after using it.”

“Are you just about done?” Lydia asked Janicki hurriedly. He snapped closed the interface port and slapped her on the back. “May I?”

Janicki agreed. “Knock yourself out.”

“Hope not,” she countered, hopping off the table without bothering to put her shirt on. Seeing Quon and Carl’s embarrassed glances and the lascivious stares from both Janicki and Rolfsberg, she covered her chest with a lab coat.

“If I’d have known that was all it took to get your top off, I’d have fainted in front of you much earlier,” Rolfsberg quipped.

“Pig. Act like you’ve never seen tits before.” She smiled. “Oh right, you geeks probably haven’t.” Her cursory examination revealed nothing worrying. “Take it easy. You seem to be fine physically. Perhaps you should drink some electrolyte replenishers. Quon, can you get him an energy drink?” The Chinese scientist jumped at her orders without hesitation. Drinking the sugary concoction seemed to level Rolfsberg off.

Within an hour, they were all fitted with mana engines. Balfour offered as much instruction as he could on using the device, but ended the evening with simple instructions. “As we’ve already seen, it appears everyone can and will use the engine slightly differently. Let’s take the time between this meeting and the next to come up with as many creative uses as you can. Watch your vitals. Watch your electrolytes. Call one of us immediately if you feel even slightly unhealthy. None of you are allowed to die before we change the world.”

Go to Interlude Part 6.0


Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Know Circuit - Interlude - Part 4.0

Interlude Part 3.0

The rest of the group was none too happy with his rash use of the prototype. They spent precious minutes berating him the next night during a hastily arranged meeting. While both Lydia and Carl seemed genuinely concerned about the unforeseeable side effects that might result from hardware that hadn’t been thoroughly tested, Rolfsberg and Wong seemed more jealous than concerned. Everyone in the group had some form of cybernetic replacement either from necessity or by choice. Balfour got the impression any of them would jump at the chance to be the guinea pig despite their protests.

Lydia’s almost matronly concern bled through her criticisms. “Do you realize the danger you could be putting yourself in? We have no idea if that thing is even safe to be around yet, much less implanted internally. You could get radiation poisoning. It could explode. It might even start draining your body’s energy or interfere with your nervous system. We have no idea.”

Acknowledging the dangers, Balfour countered, “And what better way to find out? It isn’t like we weren’t working up to human trials eventually.”

“We should have discussed this.” Rolfsberg simmered. “I would have gladly volunteered if given the opportunity. You made a unilateral decision that could affect all of us. If you drop dead, how will we explain that to the board?” Balfour doubted very seriously that Rolfsberg actually would have volunteered. It isn’t that he would have objected to the dangers of human testing, he just wouldn’t have put himself in danger. But since it was obvious the engine worked in a human host, he wanted it for himself. “I want the next prototype. If I can improve on the fabrication time for the casing, we can each have one.”

“Why do you get the next one?” Wong snapped. “I volunteer too!” The two of them had already developed an unhealthy grudge. Rolfsberg was rather domineering. He showed Wong little respect, probably because the Chinese man was the youngest of the group and had just graduated. For his own part, Balfour thought the kid more brilliant than Rolfsberg and at least on a par with the other members of the team. Perhaps sensing his own inferiority, Rolfsberg badgered and bullied Wong at every opportunity. The other team members wouldn’t take Rolfsberg’s bullying, but Wong did.

“Quon!” Lydia snapped. “It’s too dangerous. None of us are getting anything implanted.”

Carl spoke up finally. “Now, Dr. Carlisle, let’s not be hasty. Rolfsberg, how long will it take you fabricate more casings?”

“At least two, maybe three weeks.”

“Can we have five more prototypes in the next month?” he asked.

“Five? What are you saying?”

“I’m saying we have a month to watch Dr. Balfour here, see if he starts losing hair… well, more hair.” He grinned sheepishly. “We’ve got the best opportunity in the world to study the engine’s effects on a real life human subject. If he starts to show any signs of deleterious effects, we can certainly yank the thing out and replace it with a standard cybernetic power supply. Meanwhile, we build enough engines for all of us.”

“You think a month is enough time to adequately test for negative side effects?”

“I think a month is enough time to study the immediate effects. Look, we’re already in neck deep. This experiment is so beyond the pale of accepted procedure, if we get caught it’s going to cost all of us our jobs at the very least. Maybe our careers.” He paused to let the previously unspoken implications sink in. They all knew the potential consequences; they’d known it all along despite never having uttered it aloud. “But… if this thing really does what we think it can do, and if these abilities Dr. Balfour has displayed are typical, we can write our own ticket. The energy implications alone are priceless. There’s not one LGL that wouldn’t pay us a king’s ransom for this technology.”

‘Or kill us for it,’ Balfour thought.

Lydia’s face scrunched up in a sour glare. “So we either succeed, or we destroy our careers with nothing to show for it.”

“Or we all die to horrible, unforeseen side effects,” Carl added with a sardonic grin. Lydia lowered her eyes. “Besides, aren’t you the least bit curious what you could do with that thing?”

Her smile was an emphatic yes.

Go to Interlude Part 5.0


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Know Circuit - Interlude - Part 3.0

Interlude Part 2.0

Once the first prototype was up and running, the ideas came in a fevered torrent. Mundane applications tumbled from their collective thoughts like candy from a burst piñata, and plans were drawn up for all sorts of commercial applications. Janicki seemed particularly interested in the commercial aspects, continually asking when they’d publish their findings. He seemed especially interested in the idea of a transitional device he called a glowbug, which would amplify existing power supplies indefinitely. Such a device would fractionalize the cost of electrical generation using current technology, making the obscenely profitable LGL utility companies even more profitable. Lydia and Wong fought tooth and nail against such mercantile ambitions, wishing to release the information to the GlobalNet like open source software. Carl had no real opinion. He buried himself in increasingly bizarre concepts in the field of wireless energy transfer and holographic projections. Rolfsberg’s only concern before taking the engine public, whether open source or commercial, was in getting credit for his part. Balfour had the final say as the author of the original formulas, and he ultimately decided they should push themselves to apply the technology in multiple places before revealing the research.

Balfour’s first thought was a selfish one. He wanted to replace the power source on his own cybernetic replacements. Shortly after getting his doctorate, he’d been involved in a horrendous wreck, a three car pile up that had taken the life of his two best friends and left him with both arms amputated and partial paralysis. A nanotech-regenerated spinal cord surrounded by replacement cybernetic vertebrae supported two prosthetic arms and allowed him full use of his legs again. Despite the insane risks, he decided to replace his current cybernetic power supply with the mana engine, secretly enlisting Janicki’s aid.

“You realize this is both highly unethical and quite possibly illegal,” Janicki said with a wry smile as he worked carefully at the interface port on Balfour’s back. Numbed by a local anesthetic, Balfour just giggled.

“Of course. Why do you think I asked you and not Lydia?”

Janicki feigned insult. “Are you saying I’m not ethical? I’m almost insulted. Of course, if I was really unethical, I’d have stolen this thing and claimed it as my own. Don’t think I haven’t thought about it.”

“The math’s all wrong,” Balfour replied. “You and I both know it. You don’t think the five of us would all contradict your claim of ownership? Five is greater than one.” Janicki didn’t comment. Balfour was sure he’d thoroughly examined that equation and come to the same conclusion.

“Hop up, you’re done,” Janicki said, snapping closed the flesh-colored access port on Balfour’s back. Balfour felt the power return to his leaden limbs, to his paralyzed back. Rather than the routine feeling of restored mobility, Balfour instead felt a rush of fire, as if his limbs were suddenly suffused with an energy that practically burst from every pore and follicle. A cold sweat broke out on his forehead, followed by a flash of heat. He raised himself on his arms and swung off the table.

Janicki noticed the wild look in Balfour’s eyes. “Whoa, you ok? You look a bit flushed.”

Balfour flexed his metallic fingers, staring down at his hands as if seeing them for the first time. “I’m better than ok,” he began, grasping for words to describe the feeling. “I feel like I’ve got a supernova under the skin. Let’s check the readouts.” He reached for the console next to the workbench he’d laid on but stopped halfway there. The readouts he’d been thinking of were already being displayed on the console. “Did you set up those readouts before starting?”

Janicki stared at him wide-eyed. “Not unless I blacked out. I haven’t touched it.”

Balfour thought of another screen of reports. The console switched to the reports just as if he’d been working at the keyboard or jacked in. He began to run through a series of menu commands. Despite not being configured for wireless access, the console executed all the commands as if he’d been operating the system remotely.

“Now you’re really freaking me out,” Janicki stammered. “This isn’t a prank, is it? You didn’t set this up beforehand?” Balfour shook his head. “Try a different console. Try the constructor arms."

Balfour gestured at the console that controlled the constructor arms, unable to even see the screen. The arm mimicked his every thought. “I think of the commands and it executes. What a thoroughly unexpected side effect.”

“We should get this on video,” Janicki chattered excitedly. He ran to the video console on the outer ring. He let out a loud guffaw when he reached the console. Balfour had already activated the video feed. “Ok, fine, do it yourself. Can you focus it on your area?”

“It is.”

“I don’t see you,” Janicki said. “Hold on, I’ll do it.” He worked the console’s controls momentarily, looking back and forth from the screen to Balfour with a confused expression. “No, that’s the right angle. I’m looking directly at you. Mark… you’re just not there.”

“What?” Balfour’s voice shook in spite of himself. “What are you talking about?”

“Come see.”

Rather than moving towards the console, Balfour focused his mind on opening a video window. His vision flipped from his normal flesh and blood view of the world to a video of the lab. He was jacked into the video console now, jacked in just as if he had logged into the GlobalNet, only he’d never experienced that rush of cyberspace entry. He was just there. What he saw in the video froze his blood. He could tell that the camera was pointed directly at his position. He could see the robotic arms behind him, the consoles on the other side of the room, the white board to his left, even the workbench he’d just been laid out on. But his body was not there. The only indication of anything between himself and the environment around him was a sort of electronic distortion, a series of film-scratch artifacts and thin static slightly distorting the picture. He tried to speak, but the video playback only spouted a burst of static.

He was invisible.

Go to Interlude Part 4.0


Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Know Circuit - Interlude - Part 2.0

Interlude Part 1.0

They set up schedules, working in solitary shifts and smaller ad hoc groupings with full group meetings to compare notes two or three times a week. On the few occasions when they were asked about their late night lab sessions, they claimed to be engaged in an extended old school pen-and-paper roleplaying campaign. Their cover story made many of the faculty jealous; after word got around, not a week went past that they weren’t begged by another researcher for an invite into the campaign. Others who might have been concerned about the clandestine research, such as the administration and security, ignored the group once the cover story became common knowledge.

Balfour had been contracted by Chronosoft, Inc. to research a more robust power source for man-mounted cybernetics on long-range manned space exploration missions such as the upcoming Moons of Jupiter expedition. Current cybernetics used a generator for most normal operations, while some auxiliary power was generated by the body’s internal chemistry and stored in a battery. The generators required regular maintenance and yearly parts replacement. Long-range space exploration would require years away from earth, and space on those vessels was in short supply with the necessity for food, gear, backup atmospherics and other essentials. The fewer replacement parts needed the better.

No one really expected Balfour to create a workable upgrade. The money for his research was a low-cost crapshoot in comparison to the total mission budget. If it produced even a 10% increase in battery or generator life, the project would pay for itself.

Balfour’s concept wasn’t just an improvement; it was a complete power source replacement that would win him a Nobel Prize if it worked as he intended. His power source would remove both batteries and generators from the equation altogether. Energy, in this case electricity, was finite. One could not create energy, only use potential energy stored in other forms. Balfour’s design was a device that altered a microscopic particle’s vibrational frequency, something theoretically possible only with the use of a supercollider. The resulting change in string vibration would fire the particle across a dimensional barrier and back. Traversing the dimensional barrier would amplify its potential energy by an unknown factor. Balfour’s best calculations put the amplification rate at 2:1, though in theory there was no ceiling. Even a 2:1 ratio would revolutionize energy consumption on a global scale. So long as one could recycle the altered particle through the dimensional circuit in a continuous stable loop, the particle might well generate a limitless supply of energy.

“You’re talking about a wormhole,” Rolfsberg proclaimed when the theory was first explained. “A wormhole through theoretical dimensions that we aren’t even sure exists, I might add.” His skepticism was palpable.

Carl was just as skeptical, but ecstatic with the possibilities. “But think about what you could do with the ability to tunnel through dimensional states without an acceleration process. You could theoretically pipe energy from there to here or from then to now if you attune the frequency correctly. You could beam Scotty’s farts from the Enterprise to King Arthur’s Court. You could send one erg of stored solar energy from orbit to California losslessly. It’s fantabulous!” Heated discussion ensued.

Balfour watched their arguments with a wry smile barely touching his lips. This group would figure it out, would implement a prototype. And because they’d done the work off the books, he felt no obligation to hand the research over to his corporate benefactors. He had always been mistrustful of large, well-heeled organizations, especially outfits like Chronosoft. He was not a particularly political person; he hadn’t even voted since 2012. Nevertheless, he found the very concept of corporate control of government that was inherent in the Local Governance Licenses to be an unsettling prospect. The LGL monopolization of local power generating utilities had only amplified that unease. The first company that could implement Balfour’s concept would put every other competitor out of business in months. They could literally control the entire world’s energy supply. No one man, no one organization should hold that much leverage. He would rather toss his specs on the GlobalNet to be copied for free, just as Takamura had done with the first plans for the interface jack.

Six sleepless months of late-night conferences, experiments, simulations and arguments had taken their toll. But despite Rolfsberg’s delays with the prototype’s casing materials, they finally had a working, physical model, a thin cylinder about the size of a corn dog. Late that fateful night Balfour placed the prototype on the workbench. “I think I’ll call it the mana engine,” he pronounced proudly.

“That’s a stupid name,” grumbled Rolfsberg, but offered no alternatives. Balfour had learned to dismiss the man’s grumblings out of hand. When he wasn’t offering weak proofs for already-solved formula, he engaged in pointless cynical rants on any subject that the group deemed worthy of discussion. The only thing he really seemed positive about was his delusion of superiority.

“Why mana engine?” Lydia asked, ignoring the Norseman.

“If it works,” Balfour responded, “it will be like mana from heaven. Inexhaustible, constantly renewed, life-giving energy.” Everyone but Rolfsberg nodded, accepting the explanation with satisfaction. He programmed in the last settings on the engine’s tiny display, calibrating it to provide power to a cybernetic arm set up on the table next to it. Carl would send movement commands to the arm while Janicki would reposition the limb at various points around the room with a robotic arm to test the engine’s transfer range. All stood behind the transparent safety glass and offered their own private hopes and prayers to whatever force they believed would aid them.

Balfour triggered the engine. Nothing seemed to happen. There were no sounds, no explosions, no static discharges, nothing. The engine just sat there. Balfour shot a glance at Carl. Carl nodded happily. “Readout is green. The arm has power.”

Balfour could barely contain his excitement. His voice quavered as he said, “Start your movements.”

Carl complied, and the arm began to move. Fingers flexed, metallic muscle fibers tensed and the arm moved freely. Balfour motioned to Janicki who sent the robotic armature down to pick up the cybernetic limb. The arm continued its motions as it was transferred across the lab from one armature to the other. For ten minutes, they watched, occasionally staring back at Carl for statistics. “Power is steady. No decay whatsoever. Every bit that’s used is replaced immediately.”

Balfour watched the readouts over Carl’s shoulder. “Is that temp reading right?” Carl nodded. “The engine is generating no heat whatsoever? Are you sure the monitors are working?”

“Touch it. I can only tell you what the readout says, and it says that thing is generating enough juice to light this room for decades without one micro-degree of thermal leakage of any kind.”

Balfour donned a pair of safety glasses and entered the inner lab. “Just don’t bonk my bald head with that arm, Janicki,” he joked nervously. He walked carefully towards the engine like he was stepping through a minefield, as if he expected every step to be his last. Finally reaching the table, he stuck out a hand and touched the engine gingerly. Feeling no excess heat, he placed a firmer touch to the surface. It was cool. It made no sound, not even the slightest buzz or hum, not even a quiver of vibration in his hand. Other than the cybernetic arm waving around the room, there was nothing to indicate it was working at all. Balfour lifted it and showed it to the rest of his colleagues with a gigantic smile plastered on his mug. “My friends, we have just discovered the equivalent of fire for the twenty-first century.”

Go to Interlude Part 3.0


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Know Circuit - Interlude - Part 1.0

Mark Balfour

“I can solve the world’s energy problems in one year.”

The statement was bold, bold enough to raise the eyebrows of a cynic like Lewis Janicki. Mark Balfour could tell neither Janicki nor Lydia Carlisle believed him. Why should they? Neither of them knew him or his work beyond casual greetings on the campus grounds and faculty scuttlebutt. He was just one of hundreds of professors conducting major research at the University of Colorado. He had only joined the faculty a year before and had been relegated to an office and lab space in the Engineering Center despite most of his research projects being funded by NASA and its corporate partners through the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. He knew where on the scientist pecking order he stood, somewhere down near the grad students and non-tenured professors, stuck teaching first-year physics to hungover business school students who couldn’t tell the difference between an electron and a proton. The fact that much of his research involved attempts to mesh superstring theory with real-world applications made many of his more traditionally minded colleagues regard him as the scientific equivalent of a snake oil salesman.

He’d done his homework, however. The night he woke from a dream in a cold sweat with his mind bubbling with solutions to equations he’d just barely formulated, he had realized he would need help with this research. He would need another set of eyes on the applications; a set of eyes not jaundiced by pig-headed prejudice nor constrained by the rigid hierarchy of the university’s research guidelines. He’d need scientists so hungry for breakthroughs that they’d jump at the chance without worrying about the rules. He’d jacked into the GlobalNet and found his former student and friend Michael Freeman. They had stolen all the personnel files of the university's research faculty and pored over them in a marathon cram session, searching for just the right combination of theoretical skills, application experience and willful disregard for procedure. In all, five candidates presented themselves. He’d stepped from the crèche physically exhausted, but inwardly renewed with a sense of purpose he’d not felt for years. When he invited Lydia to coffee after classes, he had to convince her that he was not asking her out on a date. “It’s purely professional, Dr. Carlisle.” The skepticism was plainly evident on her features, but she agreed. The three had met in an off-campus coffeehouse frequented by other faculty.

“That’s a very bold statement, Dr. Balfour,” Janicki responded. “You’ll forgive my skepticism, but I’m aware of your field. Superstring, correct? Have you suddenly discovered the energy dimension? Or magic energy fairy strings?" He barely contained a derisive giggle. Lydia frowned at the man with the goatee, but her sympathy did not signal agreement.

“There’s no need to be dismissive.” She gave Balfour a cautious questioning glance. “I’m sure Dr. Balfour would not waste our valuable research time without good reason. Let’s hear him out.”

Balfour nodded and began to explain his breakthrough. He scribbled frantic equations on napkins until the table was a tableau of paper scraps loaded with scribbled formulas. Somewhere after the fifteenth napkin, Janicki began to sit up and take notice, adding his comments and notes in the margins. His excitement became palpable by the time Balfour had finished. Though Lydia had taken slightly less convincing than Janicki, her calm exterior never quite broke into the ravenous enthusiasm Janicki displayed. But Balfour could see the twinkle of barely contained excitement in her green eyes.

Convinced fully at last, Janicki sat back with a huff, rubbing his shaved head with a hand that shook slightly. “Where did you come up with this? It’s… it’s not just incredible, it’s goddamned revolutionary.”

“It came to me in a dream,” Balfour said with a sheepish grin. Janicki scoffed. “No, really, I woke up and the formula was burning a hole in my brain.”

“I’d like a sample of your sleeping pill prescription,” Lydia joked. “We’ll need to run simulations to be sure, but on the surface, the math seems sound.” A serious mood gripped her, darkening her expression noticeably. Her next question was hesitant, as if she already knew the answer but did not want to face its implications. “Why tell us? Why not submit a research proposal?”

Balfour’s expression hardened into a mask of resolute determination. “This is too big for protocol, too important. I need scientists of a particular skill set. I need you two and a few others and the chances of actually getting all five of us approved to work on the same project this decade is next to nil.”

Janicki squinted. “What others?” Balfour could see the ambition in the man, the naked greedy desire to share as little credit for this discovery as possible.

“Quon Wong, Carl Bullock, and Sven Rolfsberg,” Balfour replied flatly.

“Rolfsberg?” Janicki shouted. A few of the other patrons turned their heads at his shout. He asked again in a low whisper, conscious of the attention. “Rolfsberg? That guy’s an asshole. I worked with him last year on some cybernetic enhancements for the moon mission. His materials fabrication is spectacular, but his math…” He waved a dismissive hand. “Why him?”

“His materials work is good, as you said.” Balfour didn’t want to tell either of them that they’d all been chosen as much for their willingness to work off the books as for their work. “I’m sure his personal attitudes and mathematical deficiencies will not be a hindrance. Dr. Carlisle, can I rely on you to recruit Wong?”

The furtive look in her eyes confirmed the campus gossip as well as the entries in her personnel file. Lydia and Wong had been romantically involved last year while he was still her graduate assistant. The affair had been fleeting, ending many months ago, but the mere mention of his name made Lydia tense. Balfour worried for just a moment that he’d chosen his comrades poorly, but her resolute nod quelled his doubts. “And I will recruit Dr. Bullock. His work with holographic wireless communication systems and point-to-point energy transfer will be invaluable. We’ll work off the books, on our own time, using as much borrowed lab time as possible. My lab in the Engie Center is big enough for all of us, and everyone there ignores me. Too theoretical for the Engineering Department.”

Within a week, his team had been assembled and work began in earnest.

Go to Interlude Part 2.0


Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Know Circuit - Chapter 17.5

Chapter 17.0

The geeks led Bridge into the Engineering Center at one of the entrances not affected by the fungus covering the tower. Through the mostly deserted parking lots and empty bike stands, into a confusing series of hallways, past classrooms, offices and labs decorated with the usual geek décor and college campus fliers, they led Bridge deeper into the complex. Up a flight of stairs, the group entered a covered walkway suspended over the street. On the other side of the walkway, the fungus grew on the interior walls, covering the hallway in shiny coal black gunk, like dark polished marble that shimmered in the cold fluorescent light. “What the fuck is that stuff?” Bridge asked, poking a finger towards it before retracting his hand in fear. “Is it safe?”

Janicki urged him onward. “It’s safe. Go ahead, touch it.” Bridge did so. It felt like a mixture of cold tar and liquorice and it oozed underneath his touch. “It’s an amazing new strain of nanotech construction material. Balfour came up with it one long crunch session. Of course, the uni wouldn’t allow us to test it on campus, but well, they’re gone now so we did. Program in your specs, stand back for a few days and it constructs things for you. It’s safe enough to be around while it does all the work, no need for costly labor and as strong as current construction materials at half the cost once we perfect the goop formula. All it needs is a power source, a rather big power source.”

Bridge marveled at the sheer naivete of these incredibly intelligent people. “Do you know how many people this would put out of work? Do you realize the kind of leg-breaking assholes in the construction industry you’d threaten if this ever went to market?”

Lydia’s earnest response was almost painfully innocent. “But those displaced workers can go on to learn a more lucrative, less labor-intensive trade. They don’t need to toil in such dangerous conditions…”

“Mmmmm, innocence, it tastes like candy. Look lady, you ever heard the expression ‘somebody’s got to dig ditches?’ Well, some people, that’s all they know and all they want to know. You think they give two fucks about improving their education? They want their GlobalNet titties, they want their reality vids, they want to drink and fuck themselves into a stupor every night until the day they die with as little hassle as possible.”

Lydia huffed. “I fail to see why we should retard human progress because some humans are lazy, lice-picking monkeys.” She turned quickly on her heels and continued on down the corridor.

“Because those lice-picking monkeys will burn your fucking house down,” Bridge yelled at her retreating back. Janicki smirked with cold humor and followed her.

As they penetrated further into the areas of the complex affected by the nanotech constructors, Bridge began to notice the thrumming hum of electricity. It grew in intensity until his fillings practically vibrated. It was as if the very air was supercharged with electricity, the constructors’ power needs so great they created a web of static charge that made his interface jack tingle. Finally, they reached a set of double doors and pushed through into a lab unlike anything Bridge had ever seen.

The room he entered had originally been very large but these geeks’ experiments with nano-constructors had made it cavernous. The lab was constructed as two interlocking rings. The outer ring was a series of workstations, crèches, and white boards. A barrier of transparent safety glass walls protected the outer ring from the machinery of the inner ring, which was full of robotic arms, worktables, assemblers, laser mechanisms and other machinery Bridge couldn’t identify. At one point in the near past, however, the roof had been destroyed. The nano-constructors were hard at work stabilizing and restructuring a new internal configuration. Where there had been at least three floors above this lab, now there was only a metallic silo reaching to the sky. That silo was filled with light, the shimmering light Bridge had seen rising from the tower to feed the dome. The shaft of light terminated in a machine about six feet tall by ten feet wide in the center of the inner lab. The machine was lined with glowing circuits and capacitors and appeared to have no moving external parts whatsoever. Oblivious to the marvel glowing behind him, another scientist toiled at one of the worktables on the far side of the machine.

Standing barely five foot eight, the scientist was balding, his shiny scalp showing through a halo of graying brown hair. Dressed in a lab coat with goggles reflecting the sparks his experiment produced, he waved his empty hands in the air as if working with invisible tools, manipulating the robotic arms of a constructor just as Wong had controlled his football players. “Mark,” Lydia shouted across the room. The man jumped as if shocked and stopped working.

“Oh, didn’t see you there,” he muttered. “Is this him?” He threw off his goggles excitedly and ran over to greet Bridge.

“Yes, Mark Balfour… excuse me, DR. Mark Balfour,” Lydia began. Balfour waved away the honorific with an irritated gesture. “Meet Artemis Bridge. He likes to be called Bridge. No Mister.”

Balfour reached out both his hands to give Bridge a handshake which Bridge clumsily refused. “Sorry, don’t do handshakes. Germs, nanoviruses, never know what somebody’s going to give you.”

“Nonsense, these things are sterile as a surgeon’s scalpel.” He held up his hands, both of which glimmered in the light, their metallic surfaces as smooth and shiny as any cybernetic limbs Bridge had ever seen. Though mildly insulted, Balfour accepted Bridge’s phobia. “Fair enough, then. I’m glad to finally meet you. I’ve heard a great deal about you.”

Bridge’s eyes narrowed into a suspicious squint. “From who? Who the hell told you about me?”
Balfour seemed to ignore the question momentarily. “Forgive our manners. Tea? Coffee? I’m sure you must be parched after walking all that way to get here.” When Bridge refused, he prattled on. “We have a mutual friend, Mr. Bridge. I’m sure you are familiar with Michael Freeman?”

Bridge scowled. “Freeman. That shut-in gave you my name?”

Balfour nodded. “Yes, Michael was kind enough to provide me with a full accounting of your services. He’s quite impressed with your ability to… bullshit shall we say?”

“Yeah, I bet he is.” Freeman was the god of hackers, a world-class GlobalNet runner of exemplary skills. He had saved both Bridge’s and Angela’s lives during the election fiasco, providing the leverage Bridge needed to escape from a no-win situation. Freeman wasn’t just an accomplished credcrasher, information thief and all-around security expert, he was an interplanetary genius. Despite his past and present illegal activities, he worked for Chronosoft in Los Angeles. Bridge wasn’t exactly sure what parts of the corporation’s operations he didn’t have a hand in. Bridge also wasn’t sure when or if Freeman ever slept because he’d work just as tirelessly on his freelance projects outside of work as he did anything during office hours. And because Freeman had done Bridge such a huge solid before, Bridge was now stuck in this mess. He cursed the hacker silently. “How do you know Freeman?”

“Michael was a student of mine at UCLA years ago. We kept in touch. I’ve been known to get his thoughts on a few thorny problems. He has an absolutely breathtaking ability to analyze systems and point out the flaws, even in areas he’s not well-versed in. I’m hesitant to name him a super-genius, but he would certainly qualify. I think he’s a mutant, personally, a once in a generation evolutionary marvel with astounding mental capabilities. Why he spends his time working for those corporate bloodsuckers, I'll never know.” He walked over to a coffee maker and poured a cup. “You sure I can’t offer you a cup? It’s Blue Mountain.”

The smell of the coffee was intoxicating and Bridge relented. “Yeah, I’ll take a cup. I could use the pick-me-up.” Bridge took the cup in both hands, barely allowing it to cool before sipping at it.

Balfour seemed to finally realize someone was missing. “Where are Wong and Rolfsberg?”

Lydia started down at her feet. “There was an… incident.”

“Incident? Somebody got dead and that’s what you call it, an incident?” Bridge fumed.

Balfour’s raised an eyebrow, but seemed otherwise unconcerned. “Dead? Who’s dead? Wong?”
Lydia shook her head. “No. Rolfsberg instigated a showdown with Wong. Wong didn’t back down and they fought. Wong won.”

“He dominated, you mean,” Janicki said with an unsettling glee. He held up the melted cyberarm. “This is all that’s left of that cocksucker.”

Balfour grabbed the arm and began to examine it intently. “Impressive. Nothing else left? Everything ashed?” Janicki nodded with an irksome smile. Bridge had always considered himself cold-hearted, but Janicki and Balfour seemed to have no remorse about the death of their colleague. “The energy conversion rate is even greater than I’d calculated. That explains why our first large scale conversion was so explosive. Rolfsberg’s math was dangerously inaccurate.”

Bridge shouted angrily, “Your buddy got toasted and all you’re concerned about is his bad math? You geeks are amazing!”

Lydia put a hand on Bridge’s arm. He yanked it away angrily. “No, seriously, you’re sitting in a ghost town talking about the temperature required to ash human bone like you’re discussing what to have for lunch. Is not one of you concerned that there are thousands of ghosts running around this place and the National Guard is outside your doorstep and your buddy Carl is out there showing off as a flame dragon? Do you not think they’ll come kicking down your door any minute now? Or that somehow I’ve been in this place like two hours and it’s gone from morning to night in that time?”

Balfour shot a puzzled glance at Lydia. She nodded. “The temporal distortion we’d been observing is accelerating. Bridge says that Carl was alive three hours ago.”

“Hrmmm. Mr. Bridge, how long has it been since we contacted you?”

Bridge totaled up the days in his head. “Five days. Maybe six by now, I’ve lost track. It was dead of night when I was on the other side of the dome, and daylight when I got to this side. How’s that work?”

“I’ll try to explain this so a layman can understand,” Balfour began, with the tone of an exasperated parent talking to a thick-headed child. “Our experiments had a certain side effect, one not entirely unanticipated. This dome has sort of shifted us in time, as it were.” Seeing Bridge’s confusion, he continued to elaborate. “You perceive time as a straight line, an unalterable path from here to here, or more accurately from then to now. The value of that time is always constant, can always be expressed as X, correct? But really, the value of that X is only a perceived value based upon our limited consciousness, our restricted ability to see in only three dimensions. The altered dimensional vibrations we’ve created to amplify our original energy source so as to create enough power to generate and maintain the dome has altered the value of X, at least from our three-dimensional perceptions. Maybe X squared, cubed? I’m not entirely sure. I’ll have to run some calculations.” Balfour ran over to one of the workstations on the outer ring, his attention diverted from Bridge almost completely. He muttered as he worked. “In essence, your perception of the passage of time while within the dome appears as constant as it does outside the dome. But in actuality you are moving along the time path at a much slower rate than normal. Your mind creates the illusion that time is moving at the same rate you’ve always experienced because it cannot process the distortion.”

Bridge shook his head as if he’d been slapped. “You’re not making sense, Poindexter.”

Janicki grunted. “Time moves slower in here than out there. What’s been five or six days for you has been over two weeks for us in here. Your two hours in the dome has been a full day.”

“Right. And you say you spoke to Carl mere hours ago?”

Bridge nodded. Balfour continued to tap numbers into a terminal while talking to Bridge. “We received a message from him days ago saying he’d been attacked by the National Guard, and then nothing since. But perhaps what we received was not a message from our current point on the time path but one further up the path?”

“The future? You’re saying he spoke to you from the future? Does that make this the past? Oh shit, my head hurts.”

“I’ll have to do some more calculations to be sure, but yes, that’s entirely possible. And if we haven’t perceived that event on the time path outside of the dome yet, it’s possible when we leave the altered time path within the dome we could actually be on the path before said event occurs. We could change that future.”

Bridge slammed his coffee cup down. “Ok, that’s it. I don’t know what the fuck you guys are talking about, but I have had enough of this shit. You owe me an explanation. A clear, linear explanation. Start from the beginning and bring me up to speed assuming I know bupkiss. Assume I am a complete dumbass. Use the goddamn white board if you need to map it out for me. But please, explain to me what you did and what you expect me to do. Because right now, I’m ready to just leave you geeks here and head the fuck back to L.A. and let you fend for yourselves. Got it?”

If Balfour was insulted by Bridge’s anger, he didn’t show it. “Certainly, Mr. Bridge. It all started a year ago.”

Go to Interlude - Mark Balfour - Part 1.0


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Know Circuit - Chapter 17.0

November 7, 2028
Time Unknown

The three got in the car and drove north, leaving Wong alone with his thoughts. Bridge took one last look back at the kid who had resumed floating over the field. Wong had retrieved the metal cocoon from the hole it had made in the dorm building and was busy recreating his players with a glazed expression. Bridge turned his attention back to the pair in the front seat.

“So how were you guys planning to leave? There’s like an army of Legios Corp cops surrounding the town, and just as many National Guard on top of that. Not to mention the horde of journos that swarmed on this fucking place like locusts the minute that news chopper went down. Did your buddy Carl do that?”

Lydia exchanged worried glances with Janicki. “We’re not sure. Communication with Carl has been somewhat sporadic. The only time it really worked well was when he was near the dome. What did he do to the news chopper?”

Lydia glanced back over her shoulder from the driver’s seat to watch Bridge make a poofing motion with his fingers. “Poof. Gone. Big flaming dragon knocked it out of the sky. Well, I assume that’s what he did. They saw a flaming dragon and they weren’t heard from again. Legios refused to talk about it. They actually don’t have clue fucking one what to do by the way. They’ve flipped between quarantining the area like some kind of outbreak and suggesting it’s some kind of a terrorist invasion.”

Janicki began asking questions intently. “We can’t see out much past the perimeter, but you said the National Guard was out. Why haven’t they just driven a battalion of tanks up to the dome and blasted it?”

Bridge returned his gaze with an expression of irritated confusion. “Do you really not know the effect you’re having out there? No, I guess not. Nothing works around the dome. No electricity, no cell, no GlobalNet, nothing. It’s the Stone Age. Our driver refused to get within three miles of this place because he said his car would just stop working. National Guard was using abandoned cars to build a cordon. No tanks, no Gunheds.”

“Does the power drain out gradually or does everything just blink out? Are there explosive effects when you pierce this dead zone?”

“Well, the jack in my head didn’t explode so I’m guessing shit just stops working. But I didn’t get to experiment what with being more concerned about not getting my ass shot off.”

The car had looped around past what appeared to be a basketball arena and an astronomical observatory. Lydia pulled the car to a stop at a stop sign, checking both directions for non-existent traffic. Bridge couldn’t resist needling her. “Why are you stopping? There’s no traffic.”

She smacked herself in the head and scoffed. “Duh. I know, I know. Force of habit. This intersection is usually crawling with bikes and kids, even this late. Early. Whatever.” She steered the car into a right turn, aiming it northward a little distance before coming to another stop sign. She ignored this one, turning the car right again. Bridge made a note of the street name, Regent Drive. He was lost without his GlobalNet maps. Knowing the street name would at least give him some bearing if he needed it. They continued on around Regent as it curved northward. Across an open field, Bridge got his first glimpse of the Engineering Center.

Even without the transformation these geeks had effected on the city, the complex would have been impressive. Made of the same brick exteriors as the rest of the buildings he’d seen, the Engineering Center was a striking series of constructs with severely angled roofs arranged in stepped tiers reaching towards the night sky. The roofs all seemed to either oppose or compliment the tallest structure, a tower over five stories high in the center of the complex. It was this feature that Bridge noticed the most.

At first, he wasn’t sure what was wrong with the tower. Bridge’s eyes seemed to slide off the building, as if he couldn’t focus his vision correctly. As they got closer, he figured out why. The tower wasn’t just big, it was moving. Not moving exactly, it was growing. The once-flat walls that comprised the structure had what appeared to be shiny, fungus-like outgrowths that drooped down to the surrounding buildings like stalactites. Bridge was reminded of the towers of South American ant colonies he’d seen on some nature vid. The growth was glacial. Only constant observation made it noticeable, and the movement made the tower appear to vibrate ever so slightly.

From the top of the tower sprouted a pillar of light, so subtle that only as Bridge drew within a few hundred yards did he notice it. His eyes followed the pillar up as far as he could see until he realized that the light was a column of energy sustaining the dome. “I think I’m too tired to be amazed, so I’ll just ask. What are you geeks doing here? What the fuck is that?”

“That’s where it all began, Bridge. That’s the power source sustaining the dome and every other electrical device underneath it. That,” Janicki pointed with undisguised pride, “is the future of human energy.”

Go to Chapter 17.5



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