"What keeps her going Mom?" a little boy asked as he looked up at Angela's shriveled body while she struggled to complete her daily walk. The boy's mother, a pretty blonde woman with a kind face, thought for a moment and then replied "Like the rest of us dear, hope and memories."
Angela smiled at the child, who recoiled in horror at her suddenly exaggerated wrinkles.
"He is a lucky boy to have such a mother," Angela thought to herself, "even if she knows nothing about real life."
Hope would get you only so far, and memories faded with time, even though, these days the older ones were more vivid than the newer ones. This wasn't, as her doctor had hinted darkly, because of early signs of dementia (if anything could be called early at ninety eight), but because her younger life had been so much more interesting. What really kept her going was a sort of contrary stubbornness, a conviction that life had many more things that she wanted to experience, and she wasn't going to let little annoyances like old age and mortality get in the way of them.
Her walker, if anyone had thought to notice, was somewhat utilitarian in design but unscratched by time and frequent use. It was made of aircraft grade titanium, with a titanium carbide coating. Her late husband, Henry, had invented it for his mother back in the 1970s, just before his death, and it had been returned to Angela, his wife, years before she thought she would ever need it for herself.
She continued on her journey around the block in which she had lived for the last seventy years. Once, "Oak Grove", had been more than just a name. Enormous trees stood sheltering her little house from view, magnificent cathedrals of nature, that she had been sure would outlast her, but she had seen them fall one by one, to old age and "sudden oak death" until the garden was bare to the sky. The house was one of the first in the area, back when Los Altos was still mostly orchards. She had not been allowed to visit the construction site, Henry had insisted that he wanted the house to be a surprise, but it must have been especially difficult laying the foundations with such large trees all around. Only later did she realize that the seclusion of the building site was part of its attraction.
Relying heavily on the walker, she arrived at her favorite corner, where a "beautifully distressed" telephone pole (she preferred the term to "old") held scraps of paper announcing the concerns of the local residents. She took a certain glee in the fact that even in Silicon Valley, the home of the integrated circuit and all of its distractions, people still put up wanted posters, like the Wild West, but now it was usually for a garage sale or lost pet.
"Lost Cat $500" announced one. It caught her attention with more than the usual sympathy for a lonely owner. The cat, a uniform grey in the picture, had intelligent eyes, very intelligent eyes in fact. In the picture it looked at the camera with a mixture of aloofness and amusement, almost as if laughing at the photographer and his primitive contraption. This sort of sublime condescension had no doubt contributed to the Egyptians worshipping cats as gods, and the people of the Middle Ages associating them with witches and magical powers.
Five hundred dollars was an extravagant reward for a cat, but in Los Altos, Angela had seen wanted posters for as much as a thousand. What puzzled her more was the eight hundred telephone number underneath the picture. Who was so organized that they had an eight hundred number for a lost cat? No doubt it was one of those many driven entrepreneurs that had made the Bay Area such a hot-bed of innovation and such a difficult place to have a successful relationship.
Not that Angela had had to worry. She had met Henry back in the nineteen forties at Berkeley, during an astronomy night. They had stepped forward to look into the eyepiece of a telescope at the same time. In the dark, their cheeks had touched by accident, before they recoiled in flustered embarrassment.
Prompted by Angela to take her to coffee to apologize, Henry had offered a late dinner and there they sat, eating burgers and talking about their parents, the war and their research interests. Angela had explained, tactfully, several times that she was a biologist, but Henry had still spent at least half an hour trying to explain to her his excitement about non-Euclidean geometry and curved space-time. Though struggling to keep up with his train of thought, she had still enjoyed his enthusiasm for science and his sparkling eyes, a topic on which she was something of an expert.
On the walk back to the campus, the conversation had lapsed into one of those awkward silences so common on a first date, in which a flurry of nervous chatter makes way to periods of reserve. To Angela it was clear that their future teetered on a knife edge, tilting between the polite good night of strangers and a passionate kiss that might lead to a happy lifetime spent together. As Henry walked along, trying to figure out what else to say, he let his arms dangle aimlessly at his sides. Angela steeled up her courage and slipped three fingers of her left hand into the palm of his right, and she felt a gentle squeeze. That was all it took for a special understanding to develop between them. They courted with wartime urgency and were married within a year. Afterwards, whenever they walked together, they held hands in the same way, to remind themselves of how close they had been to losing each other on that first day. Angela, having caught her breath, turned away from the picture of the cat, and continued home, thinking back to their life together, half a life really, since he had died so young.
The next day, the reward, obviously unclaimed, had been increased to two thousand dollars. For an impatient, heart-broken millionaire, such money was obviously nothing compared to the company of a missed friend. Angela started to wonder how high it would go, three thousand, five thousand? By Saturday it was offering ten thousand dollars and people at Andronico’s supermarket were starting to talk about it. The cashier was convinced that the cat must be a special breed, maybe from Tibet, whereas the customer in front of Angela was outraged to see that much money wasted on a pet when there was so much human suffering in the world.
On Saturday night, when Angela was just getting ready to read Scientific American, there was an inhuman scratching at her front door. Her initial thoughts were that it must be a squirrel or a raccoon trying to come in from the cold, but on reflection there was something deliberate about the scratching, as if trying to communicate the need to come inside, while not drawing too much attention to itself.
She looked through the peephole, but, of course, saw nothing. Torn between a sense of danger, and the chance for a small adventure, she opened the door a crack, and saw too luminous eyes, shining up at her. She was too much of a biologist to be alarmed, and immediately recognized the retro-reflective glow of a night hunter’s tapetum. In fact, back in the nineteen forties, she had written a paper for her professor about night vision in cats and the light that bounces off the mirror-like layer at the back of their eyes to enhance their night vision. In a burst of enthusiasm, she had gone on to speculate that if prey animals had such tapetum, a predator might develop glowing eyes to see the retro-reflection themselves. Making the retina glow would be useless of course, the science fiction movies were always wrong about that, but having glowing irises would make the eyes of the anxious prey glow in the dark like road signs. Her professor had taken great delight in giving her paper an F, in contrast to the almost monotonous string of As and A+s that she usually deserved. He had added, rather pompously she thought, that he was glad that he still had something left to teach her about science, namely that biology was about the characteristics of real animals, not the fanciful speculations of science fiction. And so it was, with a certain vengeful satisfaction, that she had presented the professor with a letter from the journal Nature announcing that her paper had been accepted for publication, along with a note from the captain of a deep sea submersible, reporting the discovery of a new species of predator in the Marianas Trench, with glowing irises, the value of which had only become clear to him on talking to one of the reviewers of her paper.
With the cat, though, the angle of it puzzled her, since there was no strong light on behind her. But the moment was gone in an instant, as the cat pushed its way through the gap left by the open door. Now that she could see it properly, it was even more beautiful than its picture, with slender paws, an unusually long body and a tail that curled up into a question mark.
“You look hungry, would you like some tuna?” she asked and the cat rubbed its tail against the back of her legs. Three cans later, it finally seemed satisfied, and she realized that it must have been half starved. Skipping her own supper, Angela stretched out in her padded leather chair and put a blanket on her lap, hoping the cat would jump up onto it. Instead, the cat curled up underneath her legs, and to all the world, she was just a little old lady, all alone, taking a customary nap.
The next day, the posters changed again. An experimental cat had escaped from a science laboratory, having contracted a form of bubonic plague, and was somewhere in Los Altos. Residents were told not to approach the cat, but to report it immediately to the same eight hundred number previously given on the posters. It had not occurred to Angela to claim the reward. A friendly, half-starved cat, needed some loving care, and this last story seemed farfetched, to say the least. The posters already admitted that they had been lying the first time, and Angela had heard enough government cover stories in her time, in fact she had helped to invent some of them, that she dismissed it out of hand as a fabrication. The cat did sleep a lot, which was not unusual, but it looked fine, and she felt better than she had in years, hardly needing the walker on her next outing â€“ something she put down to the placebo effect of finally having a new companion in her life.
However, she decided not to take any chances, spending her evenings with the lights off, with the cat comfortably curled up in its favorite spot, or exploring the house with its eyes that needed no illumination beyond what came in from the street. With the aural acuity of darkness, Angela started to notice that there were an awful lot of helicopters flying around. Moffet Field was only a few miles away, but the number of hushed throbbing blades that she heard lingering overhead was quite out of the ordinary.
Peering out of an unshuttered window, she hoped to catch a glimpse of the helicopters, but instead she was suddenly greeted by two odd beady eyes staring back at her. Even in this age of global warming, it was bizarre to see a gecko crawling up a glass window pane in Northern California. It appeared not to notice her at first, and as it moved, it had a slightly unnatural, mechanical gait perhaps only noticeable by someone who had studied them in their natural habitat. Angela’s mind raced back to articles she had read twenty years before about DARPA experiments with synthetic gecko cilia to make robots that could be used for surveillance by crawling up walls. She stepped closer to get a better look at it, but the creature, or whatever it was, was gone in a moment. Instinctively, Angela looked round the room, to see if the cat had been visible, but it was off exploring the basement, or sleeping behind the sofa, as it liked to do, mostly during the day-time. Â
So many thoughts were racing through her head. Could this cat be the cat? The one Henry had mentioned on his deathbed. Struck down by cancer in his forties, Henry had faded in only a few months. Heroically, he had prescribed his own radiation treatment, knowing more than the doctors about the effects of different isotopes and particles. Despite a few precious weeks of remission, he had succumbed to what Angela couldn’t help but blame on his wartime work, that secret project that had taken him away from her in the fresh bloom of their love, turning him into a brooding, secretive man, with the weight of the world on his shoulders. She had always assumed it was the Manhattan Project, most of the great physicists had participated one way or another, but he had never told her anything, except once, when watching a documentary on TV, a narrator had described it as a top secret project and Henry had laughed, involuntarily.
“If you want something secret, keep it small,” he had said, and left it at that.
But on his deathbed, which he insisted on being at home, he had waited until they were alone, and then, almost delirious, had looked into Angela’s eyes.”
“I must tell you something.”
“I have a secret.”
“Well, whatever it is, I forgive you.”
He had looked annoyed.
“No, not that. I was alwaysâ€¦”
“I know dear, so was I.”
He looked at her in deadly earnest.
“There is a secret, in the basement. One day, you must go and find it, but not yet.”
She was half humoring him. This was an odd turn for the disease to take, but the doctor had said to be prepared for anything.
“How will I know?” she asked, half smiling.
“I can see,” he started to cough, “that you don’t believe me, but one day a catâ€¦” His coughing became so bad that she ran to the kitchen to get him a fresh glass of water. When she came back, he had vanished. The bed was empty and none of his clothes were gone except the pajamas he was wearing, and his slippers.
She searched the house, including the basement, but he was not anywhere to be found. She ran out into the street, but all was quiet, so she called the police. Whether it was her husband’s job during the war, or his grave illness, she wasn’t sure, but the manhunt that followed was the most thorough in California history. Thousands of policemen were on the streets looking in every dark corner, at the homeless or the out of place. Men in very smart suits came to their house and carted away all of her husband’s books and papers, even taking his locked desk without opening it.
All she would get in reply to her questions was that it was government property and they were doing everything that they could. It was still the height of the Cold War, and the best idea anyone could suggest, was that Henry had been snatched before he died to yield up whatever secrets he still possessed from his work during the war. It all seemed ridiculously improbable, and Angela regretted most of all, that she had been denied her last moments with him, before he died.
A year later, a package arrived from Henry’s lawyer, addressed to her, with a letter from Henry saying that the enclosed document contained the culmination of his life’s work, and asking her to publish it. Inside was the doubly spaced manuscript of a detective story. Angela didn’t know that Henry had been a writer. When did he find the time? And if it was so important to him, why had he kept it a secret? Being an author wasn’t altogether something to be ashamed of, and as she started to read it, she hoped that it would help her to hear his voice again and give a little more insight into that inner life about which he had always been so secretive.
How disappointing then, that the book was, it was hard to admit, bordering on second rate. It had the usual elements - a flinty detective with a platinum blond client, a sinister foreign mastermind and iron-jawed thugs, but the plot seemed like a flimsy amalgam of several films they had seen together, and parts of the dialogue were almost lifted word for word from Raymond Chandler. With great reluctance she had set it aside, unpublished, convinced that such a book should not be the public face of her husband’s enigmatic life.
It was twenty five years later, during the rolling blackouts of 2002, that she had taken a second look at the manuscript. During the occasional power cuts, there were always parts of her house, such as the refrigerator and the outlet near her bed that remained active, but she considered it poor taste to draw attention to the fact, so she lit candles or used flashlights like everyone else. She sometimes wondered if Henry had used his connections to tap into an alternative, government power network, or even more exotically, installed some sort of power source in the basement. A full nuclear reactor was unlikely and impractical, but a plutonium isotope thermal generator could last for decades. She once did the math to figure out how much plutonium would be required, and had concluded that it was more than enough to make the neighbors very uncomfortable.
She had recently received a new-fangled LED flashlight from her grand niece, who was visiting Japan. It was impressive, but imperfect, giving everything a blue tinge, and incidentally giving off light in the near ultraviolet. As Angela opened the first page, she was astonished to see glowing between the typed letters of the manuscript, a second document written in the even meticulous lettering of her husband’s handwriting.
My Darling Angela,
If you are reading this, then I will have been dead for over a year, and the censors still monitoring your mail have become lazy or have lost interest in my work. I am deeply sorry to leave you so soon, and to place on you the heavy responsibility that this letter will reveal. There were many things I longed to tell you when we were together, but for which you and the world were not ready, but you are the only one I can trust, now that I am no longer with you, to carry on my work.
You were always discrete enough to never ask me about my research, knowing that I could not answer. Even now, I will only tell you just as much as you need to know in case this document should fall into the wrong hands. If it is full of science rather than my love for you, take comfort in the thought that what I did was for the safety of our life together, and as a man, I felt more than I ever said, trusting to that unspoken understanding that I felt between us from the first.
Your ever-loving husband,
What followed was a lengthy description of Henry’s work during the war. As a physicist from Berkeley, he had been recruited directly into an advanced weapons program of the U.S. Government. This famously included the Manhattan Project, to build the first nuclear weapon. The basic principle of nuclear fission had been discovered, by Leo Szilard, in the 1930s, and it was a technological tour-de-force to produce enough weapons-grade material to make a bomb. Though nuclear in nature, fission was a way to convert mass into energy, in accordance with Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. Rudimentary calculations showed that such a bomb would be immensely powerful.
Any responsible government creating a weapon of mass destruction also develops defenses against such a weapon, knowing that it is just a matter of time before proliferation undoes the advantage of having one first. Henry’s lab had been tasked with devising such defenses. The main-stream effort had focused on the idea of destroying the delivery mechanism, be-it airplane or missile, but Henry, in a memorandum to the lab director, had suggested trying to harness Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, to build a kind of shield around a city under attack. Henry felt confident that such a device might be possible.
Working in a small lab south of San Francisco, Henry set about trying to work out how to design one. With nuclear fission, the basic device was easy to understand - neutrons colliding with unstable nuclei would generate energy and also more neutrons leading to the now famous chain reaction. With General Relativity there was no such concept already to hand. Einstein’s theory was concerned with gravity where it showed that the bending of space and time were due to either gravitational attraction or frame-dragging. Gravitational attraction is determined purely by the mass of the objects affecting a given region of space, and even if it was possible to create a black hole, it was hard to see how to use it to achieve protection from attack â€“ more likely it would fall to the center of the Earth and destroy the planet, which, even in the most optimistic military analysis, could only be regarded as a draw. Frame-dragging, on the other hand, while an infinitesimal effect in normal life, depended on both mass and angular motion. The spinning Earth itself slightly drags along the space around it due to its daily revolution. However, to make an effective beam or shield, a significant quantity of mass would need to be rotated quickly, close to the speed of light, inside a small radius. Any physical solid would fly to pieces long before attaining such a velocity, and particle accelerators were too large in radius and moved far too little mass to generate an appreciable gravitational effect. The project was starting to look hopeless.
At around this time, Angela started to worry about Henry's mood. Thinking he needed cheering up and hoping that they could have a little more time together, she did some research of her own and found that the San Francisco Opera was going to put on a production of Carmen. Through an old college friend she managed to obtain one of the publicity posters, and pasted it up in the kitchen, hoping that even Henry would notice and that he might even suggest that they go together. Deeply engrossed in his work problems, he hardly said anything at breakfast the next morning, but on his way out he stopped and stood in front of the poster, staring into it as if it might contain the answer to his problem. The swirling of the red dress in the graphic of dazzling sunlight did make him smile distractedly, but Angela realized with chagrin, that she would have to buy the tickets herself.
Henry spent days in the lab despairing of finding a practical design. Working late into the night he would often take a break to stare into his coffee cup, wondering when he should admit defeat.
In laying out the lab, George Edwards, the lab director, had mixed up the departments, putting biologists next to chemists, and cryogenic researchers by the astrophysicists. Rather than surround people with like minds, he had hoped that the interdisciplinary atmosphere would lead to discoveries. Arthur Teddington was a visiting scholar from Cambridge who had been caught up in war work, studying the behavior of materials at very low temperatures. One night, he noticed Henry banging his spoon against the side of his cup, so he tried to lighten the mood.
“You know, in England a gentleman knows how to stir a cup of tea without hitting the side.”
“Really.” Henry banged his spoon even louder.
“And a lady can make the tea go round by just circling the cup on the outside with a silver spoon and never making contact.”
Henry began to smile.
“Of course, if we all drank liquid helium instead of this wretched coffee we wouldn’t need to stir it at all.”
“Super what?” Henry had not kept up with cryogenics. Super fluidity had been discovered in 1937.
“Below the lambda point, about 1.6 degrees Kelvin (Lord Kelvin was British
by the way)â€¦”
“It loses all friction.”
“Not all friction - that’s impossible.” Henry thought the Englishman was exaggerating.
“No really, it’s quantum mechanics.”
“And it would keep going forever?”
“Exactly, if you could stir it. Without viscosity, a spoon wouldn’t have much effect. A beam of light on the other handâ€¦”
Arthur Teddington had hoped to lift Henry’s mood out of the doldrums. In fact he had done more than that. The American leaped from his chair and gave the man a hug, which he received in that sort of nonplused but polite way that serves English visitors so well in a strange land.
Any solid would fly apart, but a liquid would instantly heal any fractures,
rubbing only against the sides of the containment vessel but with zero
friction. The centripetal forces needed to contain the fluid would be immense,
requiring a solid under enormous pressure and it would have to be transparent
so that the fluid could be accelerated by rays of light. Some molecules of
helium would heat up eventually and so there would be some friction with the
walls of the device, so they would have to be made as hard as possible to avoid
abrasion, cracks, and the subsequent explosion. This line of reasoning led,
inevitably, to the conclusion that the containment vessel would have to be made
of a flawless diamond, something that made the lab director cough for a moment,
thinking of the expense.
“What about synthetic sapphire?”
“Maybe we could try that later, but do you want to have the first device fail because we skimped on materials?” Henry was passionate, but not always very tactful.
Synthetic sapphire would have cost tens of thousands of dollars, but a big enough flawless diamond would cost millions.
The lab director hated spending money or wasting time when it could be contributing to the war effort.
“I’ll make a few phone calls.”
Henry wasn’t hopeful. He started doing some experiments with high pressure ovens, hoping that, with refinement, a synthetic diamond could be produced with high enough quality - but the gems were small and full of flaws, good enough for drill-bits and abrasive paper, but hopeless for the task at hand.
The lab director called him into his office.
“I had your idea looked at by a government expert.”
“Who could be an expert? I just invented it.”
“One of the men at Los Alamos.”
“Oh great, an alchemist.” It was Henry’s pejorative name for the researchers at the other lab. At first it had been in fun, but then, as they started to float the doctrine of mutual assured destruction as a defense against nuclear weapons, and lobbied for Henry’s lab to be shut down, the competition had become serious and nasty.
“His report says that your design is, and I quote ‘A wild flight of imagination invoking scientific principles not yet proven, to build a device that may achieve nothing, at an expense that is too massive to contemplate.’ End quote.”
“I hardly think that they are in a position to throw...”
“’And I want you to know that the Trinity test was successful, accentuating the need to focus all efforts on this weapons program, to bring about a hasty end to the war.’”
Henry looked at the lab director.
“George, you know what this might mean in the future. A bomb on Washington or San Francisco. Democracies don’t keep secrets very wellâ€¦”
The lab director interrupted Henry again.
“Well it’s going to keep this one.” He lifted an unremarkable cardboard box onto his desk, and presented it to his brightest researcher.
“God help me if you’re wrong Henry.”
“What is it?”
George sat back in his chair. In a nod to his favorite author he added “It’s not a diamond as big as the Ritz, but it was the best that I could do.”
Henry went back to his desk, still somewhat puzzled. After a coffee, he started to open the box which was filled with crumpled tissue paper. Inside that were some large leather cases looking as though they should be in a jeweler's shop rather than a science lab. Henry opened one of the smaller ones, and inside was the largest, flawless diamond he had ever seen. Opening the second box he found an even larger one. Assuming that the largest box must contain semiprecious stones or documentation he left that one for last. When he opened it, he was astonished to see a perfectly clear ostrich-egg sized diamond sitting on a solid gold nest of twigs. Carefully picking up the nest he looked underneath and saw the name “Carl FabergĂ©.”
He put the egg back into its nest.
Arthur Teddington walked up.
“Do they have you looking at crystal balls now?”
“It isn’t crystal.”
“Some sort of glass then.”
“It’s a diamond â€“ the biggest diamond in the world, I think.”
“It says FabergĂ© on the base.”
“How the hell did you get the Lunar Egg?”
“The egg that was going to be presented by the Tsar to the Tsarina, after Rasputinâ€¦"
"I don't understand."
"In 1917 there were three eggs being made, the Constellation, the
Karelian Birch and the Lunar. The Lunar was only ever a whispered legend, of
the largest diamond in the world, discovered in the Kamchatka Peninsula. People
dismissed talk of it as anti-Tsarist propaganda, but this must be it."
Henry sat staring at the egg in disbelief. “It must be worth a fortune.”
George walked up.
“Is everything alright?”
“It’s perfect, but how on Earth did you get it?”
“As I said, I made a few phone calls. I told some people I know that we had just made a breakthrough in synthetic diamond production, but that we needed larger ones right now for the war effort. I appealed to their sense of patriotism, and when that didn’t work I said we would hold off on the patent for fifty years, if they sent us the best ones they had right now.”
“We haven’t had a breakthroughâ€¦”
George smiled. “It should be easy to keep the patent secret then.”
Henry winced at the implications, but was still curious. “Who sent the diamonds?”
“Come on Henry, you should know better than to ask a question like that. I want you to sign for them, by the way.”
Drilling a hole in a diamond is not as easy as you might think. Given that it is the hardest substance known to man, methods of abrasion require rubbing one diamond against another, or at least a diamond-powder impregnated metal. Given the unusual size of the diamond and the diameter of the chamber needed, Henry had decided to improvise. Diamond was just carbon after all, and so he thought it worth a try to use a graphite electrode with a high-voltage arc to erode both surfaces. Since they wouldn’t actually touch, the wear should be equal on both. To ensure a good current, the diamonds were dipped into a gold solution before the experiment.
Arthur Teddington had advised trying the novel method on one of the smaller diamonds first. Fragment H, at only two thirds the size of the Hope Diamond was the smallest, and least valuable at only a few million dollars. When the switch was thrown it immediately burst into flames, making a fantastic jet of orange-red fire, no doubt tinted by the gold. All that was left as the reaction subsided was the most expensive smudge Henry had ever seen.
An attempt to use a cooling spray of water on Fragment G, almost resulted in the electrocution of the experimenters. As the feeling returned to their numbed finger tips, they decided that they needed to recruit some help. Benjamin Ross, a local jeweler, was brought in for the purpose. Trained in Amsterdam before the war, he was an expert in both the cutting of fine jewels and in creating diamond drills for industrial machinery. When he first saw the FabergĂ© Lunar Egg diamond (officially renamed Fragment A), his eyes became as wide as saucers, but he took his oath of secrecy very seriously, and thought it unwise to ask too many questions. He did ask what type of hole they wanted.
“A cylindrical cavity about 5 centimeters in diameter and one centimeter tall.”
“To hold what?”
“A very cold liquid.”
“And the lid?”
Henry hadn’t thought about a lid yet. Arthur Teddington looked up.
“A conical plug, also made of diamond, with an interference fit that is gas tight.”
“Gentlemen, that is impossible with current machinery.”
Arthur smiled brightly. “Then we need to invent something new.”
Benjamin and Arthur, both being practical men, took to the experimental engineering with gusto. Henry, as the head of the project, pulled back and decided to focus on the other elements of the system. He needed an extremely bright source of light, shone into the diamond as a set of offset beams to make the helium flow without heating it excessively. He considered mirrors and sunlight, but realized that the arrangement was impractical and very hard to keep secret.
He was starting to be worn down by the magnitude of the enterprise, and his marriage was feeling the strain of so many late nights. Realizing this, Henry reluctantly agreed to attend the opera with Angela, but once the performance had begun he was transfixed by the stage. Angela half jokingly thought that he was developing a crush on the leading lady, something that only seemed more plausible when he disappeared during the interval, promising to meet Angela back at their seats in the second half. The next day, large government vans arrived to requisition most of the theatrical lights of the theater, for purposes of national defense.
The spot-lights proved hard to focus and generated large amounts of heat, but they were the brightest light sources available that has a small volume. Arthur added plumbing to cool the front glass of the lamps with liquid nitrogen, and one of the lab’s astronomers worked out how to use a telescope, with the lights far away, to concentrate the beams into a small area of the device.
The diamond egg drilling continued depressingly slowly, using a slurry of diamond dust in a high-pressure water jet. This abrasive material regularly wore out the pump faster than it did the target. Other issues were equally daunting. With the gas spinning at near the speed of light the pressure on the walls of the diamond would be enormous. Diamonds are very hard, but also quite brittle, so the only way to solve the problem was to apply a nearly equal amount of pressure from the exterior. George's diamond anvil had the raw strength to do so, but the result would be a perfectly compressed egg with nowhere for the light to enter, and if they left holes around the egg for light to get in, they would act as windows to let in heat.
After much trial and error, Arthur Teddington hit on the design of two egg halves made out of high-tensile steel, that would perfectly enclose the egg and could fit into the diamond press. seven holes were left around the equator of the egg press for quartz tubes to be attached to the diamond egg itself. These tubes were pumped free of air, so that the light could come in, but heat-loss from conduction would be kept to a minimum. A small amount of bonding fluid would be introduced as the devices cooled, to even out the stresses between the press and the diamond before it froze. One half of the press exposed the top of the egg so they could measure any gravitational effects.
With all of the practical issues that had to be addressed, Henry had had little time left for theory, but as the preparations were completed he had finally gone back to the alchemist’s analysis of his idea, and, to his horror, he realized that his own calculations contained a major flaw. Working through the night, he had rectified the error, and the anticipated effect from the frame-dragging was one hundred thousand times less than he had originally anticipated. Appalled at the mistake, and weighed down by the impending fiasco, he had confessed his error to George.
“Frankly, I don’t think either of you know what will really happen. We don't have a proper theory of quantum mechanical systems at high accelerations. Even Einstein is struggling to figure that out.”
“Why did you let me do it then?”
“I grew up playing with radio tubes, and even with them, the most important discovery was something of an accident. Pioneers don't always know what they will discover. They just need a good story to justify the funding."
Henry wasn’t so sure. “It might blow up and kill us all.”
“That’s why I’m taking the weekend off.” George smiled at Henry, but he was only half joking.
The following Saturday morning, Henry stood with Arthur and Benjamin looking over the work bench in anxious silence. Arthur poured the liquid helium from a dewar into the glinting egg, and vapor poured over the sides like a witches cauldron. A great blob of liquid squirted straight up into the air like Old Faithful.
“Not to worry,” reassured Arthur, “It’s just reaching thermal equilibrium.”
He added more helium and the egg spat out more of the liquid, like a choking bullfrog. Finally, after many attempts, the sputtering subsided into a smooth laminar fountain. The superfluid helium had no internal viscosity to damp the motion, which would have continued indefinitely if left undisturbed. Benjamin lifted the conical lid out of a pool of liquid helium and guided it into place, pushing down to squeeze out the excess liquid. The fit of the plug to the hole was so accurate, that the two pieces of diamond fused to each other and formed a perfect seal. They let it cool all of one piece in a vat of liquid helium for two painfully slow hours and then they transferred the egg to the diamond press that could squeeze it from all directions with a pressure of several million atmospheres. Through six holes they let enter the beams of light, and through the seventh Henry observed the liquid as it started to turn. He monitored the velocity of the fluid on an oscilloscope, anxious about turbulence or any dissipation of the fluid velocity.
It gained momentum for several hours and around midnight George poked his head round the door.
“I thought you were going to â€¦”
“I know, but I went to Harvard with the son of the person who sent us the diamond. He is not a very forgiving man. If we are going to blow it up, it would probably be better if I was standing next to it.”
But how could they tell if it was working? According to the sensor, the fluid was travelling at half the speed of light now. A beam of light passing through the fluid was no longer going in a straight line but was bent by the motion of the liquid. It was the deflection of this beam that Henry was visualizing on the oscilloscope.
“If I may,” said Arthur Teddington with one of those charming British expressions that was not really asking permission, while sounding terribly polite. He took out a seed from a sycamore tree, the kind that falls like a propeller to the ground, and placed it on the top of the device. To everyone’s amazement, it started to twitch at first, and then as the fluid inside the chamber speeded up still further, the seed spun around and lifted up into the air, hovering in place before finally tumbling to one side and hitting the floor. Arthur was bending down to pick it up to try again when Henry noticed the line on the oscilloscope had starting dancing in a pattern of random oscillations.
“It’s hitting turbulence.”
“I don’t see how. It should be laminar up to 0.9C.” C was shorthand for the speed of light. Arthur Teddington had clearly been doing some calculations of his own. The turbulence was like nothing Henry had ever seen, with large and small structures in it, and what he could swear were near perfect repetitions.”
George looked at Henry. “I hope you’re getting this on tape.”
It hadn’t occurred to the team to record the turbulence, being more of a nuisance than anything of value, but now Arthur and Benjamin ran through the hallways to the audio lab, where a German helical scanning tape recorder was being reverse engineered by their in-house experts. With the device on a trolley, they careened through the building as fast as they could and within minutes the output of the oscilloscope was being fed into the recording machine.
Patterns danced and evolved on the display, at one point taking on the form of counting numbers, at another looking like a test pattern of ones and zeroes in carefully separated pulses. Though none of them dared put words to it that day, each man went to bed convinced that they had just witnessed a signal intended to initiate communication. Unless the Germans or Japanese had invented a transmitter for such a device first, which seemed extremely unlikely, the only possible explanation was that they had just been the first human beings to ever witness an alien signal from another planet.
At that point in Henry’s journal, he might have realized that he had less time left to live than he had hoped. Instead of continuing with a proper narrative, he took to transcribing the hurried notes that he had taken during the following frenzied days.
April 24. We have numbers â€“ base four, but with every number having repetitions and redundancies. They must have thought the signal would be noisy.
June 1st. Arthur thinks he’s found the periodic table, but it has isotopes and atomic weights unknown to science. Some very large. Am contacting Los Alamos, as casually as possible, to see if these are physically possible.
Jun 8th. Got very excited note back from the alchemists. Apparently we triggered quite a debate about “islands of stability” in the heavy elements. They wanted to know what made us ask, and invited us to co-author a paper. We laughed it off as a joke, saying we had had a bet in the lab and wondered if they could settle it for us. Seeming like fools helped to blunt further interest.
Periodic patterns, roughly sinusoidal of different wavelengths. Don’t know what that means.
Jun 12th. Arthur got it again. Our solar system. Are they here or can they see us with telescopes? The moons are missing, and Pluto. But why?
June 13th. I got it at home in bed. Time. They are giving us a time unit, pico years base four. But why?
June 20th. It is coming together. Some portions are graphical, with patterns of light and dark. Others seem like a series of steps of something, but what?
June 28th. George figured it out. It is for a machine. Not a radio, as far as we can tell. More like an oven and projector in one. The recipes are for materials, and the patterns are to project onto them. There are temperatures, given relative to water melting and freezing (must have seen our planet through a spectroscope), and a series of gases of different purities. The materials people split their sides laughing when we said how pure we needed everything. Slabs of silicon with thin layers of Hafnium Telluride. They said it would cost hundreds of thousands, but started experimenting.
August 2nd. They came back very excited. Extraordinary electrical properties with tiny amounts of impurities. Made no sense, but they could work on it. Odd optical surface propertiesâ€¦
August 20th. We are ready for our first run. The silicon wafer is in the machine, and the stencil is made as finely as we could image it.
August 30th. The steps are very slow and require exact control. We are exhausted, but had some success. The layers change appearance after the UV exposure, and the acid washes and heat treatments have started to dissolve areas preferentially.
Sept 5th. Unbelievable!. The pieces snapped apart, but kept hinges in critical areas. With the addition of a final gas, the pieces started to curl and rise up, like a ship in a bottle. One slab is held aloft by another, and we seem to have made lenses that are perfectly flat, but with a continuous refractive index. I wondered if the forces holding it up were electrical, and we put in a small probe. The probe tore things from their hinges without touching anything.
Arthur thinks there is a set of infinitesimal fibers acting as the rigging, (he talked excitedly about HMS Victory and something called the Cutty Sark, which I didn't understand.) If the fibers are there, they are stronger than anything we know how to make.
Sept 6th. More probing, and with a twist, we made a not quite invisible yarn. But this wrecked the whole thing. Have to start again.
Sept 10th. Arthur rigged up a tape machine to a signal decoder, and is using this to control the gas and temperature flows. It stops us making a mistake, and gives us time to observe. It is the oddest thing though, this strange music driving the creation of a tiny machine.
Sept 20th. Back to where we were. We rewound the tape and played it again. You won’t believe it. The machine made sixteen copies of itself, but each one sixteen times smaller (by area). We debated whether such things could be precise. Surely the errors propagate from generation to generation. But George pointed out that machine tools had grown more precise during the 19th century. (Driven by Babbage, I think, among others.)
Sept 30th. Generation 2. Now we have 256 machines.
Oct. 10th. Generation 3. 4096 machines.
Oct 20th. Generation 4. 65536 machines.
Oct 30th. Generation 5. 1048576.
Nov 10th. Gen 6. 16777216. They are hard to see now, needing a microscope to grasp the details, but as far as we can determine the design is getting more detailed and accurate!
Jan 30th. Lost count in all the excitement. The dust has started to move. The dust pieces are like ants or termites, building and destroying tiny pillars and mounds to form global patterns. We are building more machines, to see if it comes out differently.
April 30th. We have two pounds of powder now. The movements make no sense, I’ve stared at it for hours. The FabergĂ© detector has gone dead. It either developed a fault, or they stopped transmitting.
May 5th. To add to our troubles we had a no-notice government inspection today, including researchers from Los Alamos. After some stalling by George, and a bit of a mad scramble by the rest of us, we showed them, the "Boring Lab" which we keep ready just in case. It is filled with worthy but applied research projects that probably won’t go anywhere, like ultra-high-bandwidth tape-recorders and electromagnetic destructor beams that only seem to work as very expensive ways to heat coffee. We are not ready to share our results with the world yet, so what else could we do?
May 20th. The powder stopped moving. We tried different gases. We don’t know if it “died” or ran out of energy, or stopped receiving a transmission. We will make some more, but it will take weeks.
May 24th. The dust is moving again, but it must be a prank. Maybe this whole thing was some sort of lab-wide delusion. Perhaps a gas leak made us all imagine the same thing. I hoped to see some kind of message or signal from the dust, but this is ridiculous.
May 30th. The lab is being shut down. A bright spark at Los Alamos persuaded the powers that be, that we are wasting government money that could be better spent on a fusion bomb. They reviewed our projects and found them to be pedestrian and unlikely to yield more that the most incremental of results. (So much for the paper on islands of stability!) This was, of course, the impression we had been hoping to make, but must have overdone it. The memo also mentioned an industrial concern that was hoping to get its diamonds back now that they were no-longer required for the war effort. Our bluff has been called.
George took it quite well. No use coming out now with stories of alien contact. People would just laugh at us, for using a pathetic excuse to postpone the inevitable. But he did manage to get permission for researchers to keep some of the equipment for the “continuation of their academic research”.
My darling Angela, that was when we built the house in Oak Grove. One of the smaller diamond fragments paid for the special features, and we had footage of the first fire to show how we lost it. George, Arthur and I thought the one silver lining was that we would be able to keep our discoveries secret. The Russians just exploded their first atomic bomb. There is no such thing as a top secret project of two hundred people.
So, Angela, why am I telling you now? I am sorry that you could not know before. Perhaps you would have thought it was a delusion too, or wanted to join the research. But I thought it better to leave it secret until you needed to know. I cannot say exactly what it will be like, but there will come a day when you will realize that it is the right moment to go to the basement. When that day comes, look carefully. I have left something to help you.
With all my love,
Angela stirred from her reverie. The cat was stroking the back of her legs with its tail, as if reminding her that it was time for her walk. She looked down.
“Shouldn’t you be a dog to do that?”
It stared back at her blankly.
This time, on her walk, which had become even a little brisk, she saw proclamations that the San Francisco Bay Area was being evacuated - to prevent infection. To ensure no-one stayed behind, the electricity was going to be shut down in 24 hours. The engineers of Silicon Valley could sometimes work without sleep or food for three days straight, if it was for the right deadline, but the prospect of being without electronic communication for more than a few hours was too much to contemplate. The exodus to Lake Tahoe and Monterey began, causing log-jams on Highways 280 and 101. The coastal roads were even more dangerous, but slowly, like oozing lava, the population drained away. A few die-hards sheltered in their houses, trusting to solar panels and the batteries in their electric cars, but such resolve rapidly evaporated when the police knocked on the door, and explained that the danger was very real. Three people had already died in San Jose.
Angela didn’t give much credence to that either. The last thing a government would do to contain an epidemic would be to arrange an evacuation. She walked at night now, her eyes surprisingly able to pick her way through the shadows. One advantage of walking the same walk for forty years was that she knew every paving stone and curb by heart. She had a close call with one of the autonomous ground vehicles that were now patrolling the streets, looking for stragglers. Angela crouched down besides a trash can and pulled plastic bags full of refuse over herself to hide her thermal signature from the passing robot. As she did so, she realized that she had finally turned herself into the bag lady that she had so long feared she might become, as her money dwindled from year to year, and her mind slowly dimmed. The machine passed on in its methodical way, and Angela struggled to her feet, something that was not quite as hard as she had expected. During all this, the cat stayed in the house.
The attack, when it came, began at three o'clock in the morning â€“ a distant pulse of thunder followed by a mournful cry from her companion. She stirred in her night dress and edged over towards the window. Looking up, she saw a brilliant glow in the sky, all the more vivid because of the lack of city lights. Putting on a shawl, she crept quietly outside and turned to look back over the roof of her house. She gasped with astonishment, as a giant glowing star-shaped spacecraft fired bolts of plasma towards the ground. At the same time it used intersecting planes of blue light to shield itself from attack by missiles from the fighter aircraft that were zooming overhead.
Like moths to a flame, the aircraft exploded one-by-one, as the inexorable destruction continued of Moffet Field and the surrounding communities. Ripped from its hanger, the Zeppelin dirigible that had delighted tourists with serene views of San Francisco Bay was swept up in the thermals from the burning houses and pushed against the blue planes of light where it glowed electrically for a moment, before being sliced in two by one of the beams of plasma.
Angela was fascinated and horrified at the same time, and yet the scientific part of her brain could not help but notice that the spaceship was strangely articulated, like a star-fish, with limbs that curved and writhed as the tips shot fountains of sparks towards the ground. She wondered, idly, if the creatures inside might themselves be starfish-like, we so often create vehicles that somehow represent our own bodies. She told herself off for jumping to conclusions. If she had seen a flying saucer, would she have assumed that is was populated by sand-dollars?
Angela paused to think about her safety. She wasn’t entirely sure that this was the day that Henry had intended her to go to the basement, but with Sunnyvale and Mountain View already destroyed, it seemed like a good idea.
She went back inside, and the cat was at the basement door, rubbing against it in anticipation. She threw the light switch, and whatever source Henry had left to supply electricity was still working, so she went down the steps as carefully as she could manage. Her hands were shaking, despite her resolve, and the cat had disappeared from view.
The basement was unusual for Silicon Valley, but its contents were typical of a house near the end of somebody’s life. Worn suitcases testified to younger days of travel and adventure, and a small inherited child’s crib suggested a happy life to come that had never materialized. But there was nothing special about the room itself. Angela had searched it a hundred times, spurred on by Henry’s strange story. It was a rectangular concrete box filled with bric-a-brac with the usual piping and valves leading to the ceiling. Tonight, though, with a heightened sense of urgency, Angela looked at those valves again. There were eight altogether which seemed far too many for any domestic purpose, and now, as she examined them more closely, they formed a straight line, even though the pipes were impossibly bent and complicated â€“ like one of Henry’s puzzles. She looked at each valve. “AAH” was stamped in large letters on each one. They looked old and slightly corroded, and definitely dated back to the original construction of the house. The fine engraving on the valves showed the name “Angela Alexandra Hexworth”. Angela’s middle name was Alexandra, but her maiden name was Bosworth, not Hexworth.
Angela paused. Why Hexworth, why Hex? Henry must have thought that he was being avant garde and ineffable with such an obscure clue, but now any high school student learns about base 16 arithmetic, or hex, as it is called in computer science.
AAH, it meant 10 times 16 plus 10, or 10101010 in binary. Angela took the valves and rotated them to up for one and down for zero. As the last valve fell into place there was a satisfying clunk and then nothing. Frustrated, she began to doubt herself. Perhaps this was only so much wishful as the sound of the destruction above her head grew ever louder. The cat appeared again, rubbing itself close for warmth, or to give encouragement. Angela reversed all the valves and stood back. A series of bangs rumbled beneath her feet, and then the wall, the pipes and the valves, slid down into the floor.
What greeted her next made her cry out with horror. A bronze slab blocked her path, and embedded within it was what looked like the result of an experiment gone hideously wrong. Henry’s shoulder and arm were protruding from the wall, but enveloped in bronze, somehow it had maintained the detail of even the living flesh as it consumed him. Tears welled up in her eyes as she finally found the body of her missing husband, however oddly entrapped in the metal. But then, to her surprise she saw that the fingers of Henry’s hand had small cracks at each of the joints, and more careful inspection suggested that they were articulated like a suit of medieval armor â€“ but why?
And then Angela remembered their first date, and the holding of hands that had meant so much to them. Henry, afraid that someone else would solve the puzzle of the valves, had made a lock that only Angela would understand. All she needed to do was place her hand in his, something she hadn’t done for forty years, and give it a slight squeeze. Angela bit her lip for a moment, trying to contain the awful thought that her hands were not those of forty years ago. Her joints had become swollen and twisted from their youthful elegance. Would the mechanism reject her as an imposter?
She let her fingers rest there for a moment, relishing the feeling that his familiar shape, even in bronze, could give to her living hand. As the thundering crashes above her head gained in intensity, she reluctantly squeezed the statue and the metal fingers crumpled together with a series of clicks and then sprung apart. Stepping back in surprise she saw this door slide sideways into the wall, revealing a small room that she had never known existed. It was filled with the technology of the late nineteen sixties â€“ oscilloscopes, microscopes, cathode ray tubes, and a series of neon digital displays that must have seemed the height of modernity at the time.
She and the cat went inside, and there, on the bench in front of her, was a tray of what looked like grey dust. But the dust was moving in abstract patterns, almost like turbulence, except for the linear and circular elements that would blend in with the chaotic flow. Angela’s first instinct was to imagine that these were some form of iron filings, but a nearby compass showed no reaction on being brought near to the seething powder.
Angela eventually tore her gaze away, to examine more of the laboratory. There was an elaborate device, sheathed in insulation and piping, but with flat optical windows in a seven-fold arrangement around the outside. She wondered if this might be the FabergĂ© device and chuckled at her penny-pinching over the years as the largest diamond in the world lay hidden in the basement.
The most striking aspect of the lab, one designed not to be missed, was a large sign with red and orange stripped lettering which said. “In event of attack, pull Handle 1.” There was also a ladder next to the handle that went all the way from the floor to the ceiling. Angela was puzzling about what Handle 1 was for, when she heard a sound behind her, and turned to see the cat inside the tray of dust scraping away with its paws.
Angela cried out instinctively, thinking that the poor cat, stuck indoors for many hours, had finally found a place to relieve its suffering. Then she noticed that the cat was not covering up an indiscretion, but was gesturing with its paws and making patterns in the dust. These appeared to be being answered by the dust or by another creature using it as a communication device. The cat drew a circle and then a series of dashes around it, as if describing the distribution of satellites, or perhaps spacecraft attacking the Earth. Angela finally had to admit to herself something she had been dismissing as too improbable â€“ that the cat had something to do with the space-ship that was above her head, trying to destroy her planet.
The cat looked over to her, and then at Handle 1, and nodded.
Angela thought of Henry, of the fact that he had built this place, of his astonishment at that second message, the one from the dust, and finally understood him. She walked over as carefully as she could to Handle 1. With one hand on the ladder for support she reached up to grasp the handle with her other hand. At that moment, whatever destructive forces were being spewed from the spaceship came to bear on her house, and she heard the roof catch fire and the walls crash down onto the solid cement foundation. It was now or never, and she pulled the handle with all her might. It tilted down away from the wall and then slid inside it, like a control rod in a nuclear reactor.
There was a hideous buzzing, like the sound of a dentist’s x-ray machine only a hundred thousand times louder. Angela clasped her hands to her ears. Even through them the buzzing was impossibly loud, until suddenly it ceased and was answered by an enormous but slightly muffled explosion as it struck home at whatever vulnerability it had found in the alien craft. A second louder explosion, perhaps as the craft’s energy source exploded, bathed the basement in a form of radiation that made all of the displays and indicator bulbs burn with blinding brilliance until, with a pop, they faded into pitch black nothingness. A final immense, but mercifully distant rumble suggested that the enormous craft had tried to escape, but had crashed somewhere in the Santa Cruz mountains.
Angela sat in astonished silence. Her world was reeling from too many revelations in the same day. Her mind wandered to Henry, and his great experiment, and then slowly, as clarity returned, she started to experience an emotion that she had not felt for forty years. She knew it was not really fair, but she started to burn with a slow and stubborn sense of annoyance with her husband.
She understood his desire to protect her from the details of his experiments, at first because of national security, and later because of the difficulty over the diamonds, but she couldn’t help thinking that if they had been able to discuss it properly, then they might have been able to figure out a way to save the world from destruction without her ending up being buried under several hundred tons of radioactive rubble without any hope of rescue. Whatever Henry’s power source had been, it had exhausted itself making the destructive beam, and so Angela was entombed, without electricity, food or water, and she felt welling up from her stomach the appalling onset of despair.
A small light flickered on below her. She looked down to see the cat staring intensely at its surroundings. The irises of its eyes were glowing brightly now, as it searched for any ducts or passageways through which it might escape. Finally it looked up, first as if to reassure Angela, and then past her shoulder at the wall. Angela turned round and there, glowing with enough radium to illuminate a thousand wristwatches, was a handle on the other side of the ladder, inscribed with the number “2”.
Angela had ignored the second handle, thinking it was a backup system in case the first destructive system failed, but at this point, there wasn’t much to lose. She stepped over to the glowing handle, steadying her nerve as best she could, and gripped it with more trepidation than she had the first. She looked down at the cat.
“If you really think so.” It nodded again.
She closed her eyes and pulled. An ear-splittingly loud siren began to wail, as a canister of compressed gas announced to the world that its years of waiting had not been in vain. Angela crouched down instinctively, as a series of explosive bolts fired shafts of steel high into the air. An enormous spring, like those used to move the covers of nuclear missile silos was unleashed, and the entire ground floor slab of the house was pushed to one side by a vast stainless steel ram. Angela looked up to see the ceiling gone, and stars twinkling in its place.
Now she understood the ladder to the ceiling. Her heart lifted with hope and then sank into misery again. She had not climbed a ladder for twenty years. She could barely get up a flight of stairs. Henry had thought of everything, except the passage of time. Perhaps he had underestimated the distance between the stars, or been two optimistic about the speed of even alien craft. She would die here still, despite the fact that the view was drastically improved. But what about the poor cat? It hardly seemed fair to have it die with her.
She looked over at the handsome creature. Its eyes no-longer glowing, it stood upright like an Egyptian statue in the night. For the first time, Angela could not help but wonder if such creatures had visited the Earth before. Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, a beam of light came down out of the sky. Instinctively Angela knew that this beam would soon carry it away.
“Take me with you.”
The cat opened its eyes and looked surprised.
“There is nothing left here for me now.”
The cat paused for a moment, and then in its old ingratiating way, it wandered over to rub itself against her. As it did so, it curled its tail around Angela’s legs, but instead of the usual soft caress, a tingling pain shot up her legs. As she recovered from the shock, Angela gasped with astonishment and recognition, as her body was transformed back into the form it had taken when she was twenty years old. Her fingers were long and smooth again, and it felt as if an enormous weight had been lifted from her shoulders. It was the cat’s way of saying thank you for saving its life.
With Angela’s renewed body came back a flood of memories. She remembered evenings spent arguing with Henry about philosophy, biology and the nature of intelligence. One night Henry had brought up the topic of quantum teleportation, and wondered if one could use such a device to travel between the stars. Angela, if she remembered correctly, had argued against using it. Such an imaginary device disintegrates you in one place and reconstitutes you somewhere else. While the person that comes out the other end would make an excellent show of claiming to be you, the subjective experience of someone at the other end might be that they were evaporated out of existence. Henry had been more hopeful, imagining that a quantum field might capture the illusive essence of subjective experience.
Angela now had to make the choice in real life. As she looked at her new hands, she couldn’t help reflecting that life itself was a philosophical risk. The child she had been at ten would not have recognized the old woman she had became at ninety eight. Perhaps at each moment we die and are reborn as someone slightly different. Angela had not had children, and the people she most cared about were long dead. If her death now meant that a young woman very similar to herself would have a chance to explore the universe, then she was at peace with that.
But even so, she suddenly craved reassurance, and so picked up her extraordinary cat and started to stroke its fur. It had never let her do that before. The cat started to purr as it stared up into the beam, and Angela looked up too. Inside her mind, she was saying goodbye to the world that she had known, sanguine that this might be the end. Then, almost despite herself, she let the hope creep into her heart that she might, somehow, somewhere, see Henry again, and the thought came to her that if she did, they would have plenty to talk about.
For Angela, the vortex, when it came, looked like the underside of water in a swimming pool wrapping itself around her. Someone watching from outside, on the other hand, would have seen a bubble-like ripple in the fabric of space-time swirl around the beam of light and hit the ground like a tornado of quicksilver. When it subsided, the cat, and the smiling young woman who had been holding it, had both disappeared.
© 2011 Gavin Miller. All Rights Reserved.