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

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