I promise you that Richard Phillips is going to be a popular and
influential writer, period. As good as any science fiction being
-Orson Scott Card
Dr. Rodger Dalbert stepped out of the black Mercedes, almost losing his footing on the icy blacktop. His driver reached out to support him, but he waved the hand away.
“It’s okay, Carl. I’ve got it.”
“Black ice is a bitch this morning. Thought we’d slide off the road in that last round-about.”
Rodger smiled at the bigger man. “That crossed my mind.”
An icy blast of wind forced Roger to duck his head involuntarily, seeking some protection behind his overcoat’s high collar. Damn it was cold. Of course, what else could one expect of Switzerland in January?
On the bright side, Meyrin wasn’t far outside Geneva. Rodger had always loved Geneva. Too bad his schedule wasn’t going to allow him to tour more than the airport. Oh well. He’d known his personal life would suffer when he’d agreed to chair PCAST, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
Hitching his overcoat more tightly around his neck, Rodger ducked out of the wind and into the building which would host today’s conference, a review of ongoing repairs on the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC. The most ambitious science project ever undertaken by man occupied a monstrous tunnel a hundred meters below ground, its twenty-seven kilometer circumference crossing the border between France and Switzerland in multiple spots, just west of Lake Geneva. This building sat seventy meters above a cavern in which the huge ATLAS detector enfolded LHC Point One, a beam interaction point where two super-accelerated proton beams collided … at least they did when the whole thing was working.
“Dr. Dalbert. I am so pleased you could make it.”
Rodger turned to see Dr. Louis Dubois, the famed French physicist who headed the team of ATLAS scientists, approaching from across the room. The man had aged since last Rodger had seen him at a conference in New York, long black hair flowing down over his shoulders as if he had just stepped out of a Paris salon, looking more like a twenty-something Yanni than a Nobel Prize winning quantum theorist. Now he wore it tied back in a greasy pony tail, as if he hadn’t bothered to wash it in weeks. His eyes, which seemed to have sunk back into his face, showed a fatigue no sleep could wash away.
“The pleasure is mine, Dr. Dubois. I apologize for my tardiness. The drive took us a bit longer than expected this morning.” Rodger nodded toward the reception desk. “Should I sign in?”
“No need. I have your badge right here. Now, if you’ll follow me, the conference is about to begin.”
Passing through a doorway, Dr. Dubois led Rodger down a short hall then turned right into a room that was much smaller than what Rodger had expected. The conference table seated a dozen, but today, only three people occupied its chairs. Dr. Dubois, with Rodger in tow, now made a grand total of five.
As Rodger seated himself, Dr. Dubois moved to the head of the table and began the obligatory introductions.
“Good morning to you all. Although most of you have already met, I will make my way around the table.
“On my left is Dr. Robert Craig, chief scientific advisor to the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense.”
The stocky red-headed man inclined his head in acknowledgement.
“Continuing in clockwise fashion, Dr. Klaus Gotlieb, scientific advisor to the Euopean Commision.”
Rodger recognized the bald, birdlike visage of the older man from an August meeting in Stockholm. Although he’d only chatted with the scientist briefly, the encounter had felt interminable.
“Next we have Dr. Pierre Boudre, senior astro-physicist for the European Space Agency.”
Raising his left eyebrow ever so slightly, Rodger glanced across the table at the slender Frenchman. He had known and liked Pierre since they had collaborated on the International Space Station for NASA. The man was brilliant, and endowed with an affable personality that could charm a group of locals at a Houston coffee shop as effortlessly as society’s elite at a Long Island social. But what was he doing here?
For that matter, what was Rodger doing here? What had been billed as a conference on the status of LHC repairs was clearly nothing of the sort. Five people? This wasn’t enough for a round table discussion, much less a conference. And the makeup of the group. Two French, one German, a Brit and an American. Something about the mix didn’t seem right for an LHC discussion. The project was a worldwide collaboration. So what was this about?
“And on my right is Dr. Rodger Dalbert, chairman of the U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
“As for me, I am Dr. Louis Dubois, and I am the senior physicist for the ATLAS experiment. Actually, that title is a bit presumptuous, since we have over 2500 physicists from thirty-seven countries collaborating on this experiment. Let’s just say, ATLAS is my baby and a very big baby at that.”
Chuckles of approval whispered among the small assemblage.
Dr. Dubois paused, then spread his hands before him, palms up, like a pastor about to call his flock to prayer. “It is by now obvious to you all that this is no conference on the LHC repair schedule. I apologize for the subterfuge, but I am quite certain you will soon understand why we deemed this necessary, given the current situation … one that requires deft handling to avoid undesirable media involvement.”
Rodger’s pulse quickened. Media involvement? Had the CERN scientists made a breakthrough? Had they finally found evidence of the Higgs Boson, providing final validation to the physics standard model? But then why not just present their results? Nothing about this made any sense.
“Rather than try to explain why I called you together, let me show you.”
Dr. Dubois thumbed a button on the small remote control unit he picked up from the table, bringing the flat panel display on the far wall to life. The screen showed a myriad of colored lines twisting away from a central point, something a child might have produced given a full day with a Spirograph.
Dr. Dubois moved the mouse pointer on the screen, circling the central point.
“This is an ATLAS image from testing conducted just prior to the system shutdown, early on the morning of the last Friday in November. In fact it was still Thanksgiving night over in America when this image was captured.”
Rodger studied the screen. Without a detailed study of the complete data set he was at a loss to spot anything unusual in the image. Clearly the extreme energy released in the proton collision had created a wide range of particles with different charges, spins, and masses, accounting for the assortment of paths which were displayed on the screen.
“Now this,” Dr Dubois said, bringing a new image to the display, “is ATLAS data captured this very morning.”
Although the first image had been indicative of an extreme energy event, this latest image showed an order of magnitude increase in particle interactions, so many that it was difficult to discern one path from the other.
“Excuse me,” Dr. Craig interjected. “Were you using the same filter and trigger settings on this last event?”
“The ATLAS instrument settings are unchanged,” Dr. Dubois replied.
Rodger leaned forward. “But you said this was captured this morning. I didn’t realize that you had finished repairing the damaged electromagnets and restoring vacuum to the system.”
Dr. Dubois leaned back in his chair. “That brings us to the issue at hand. There’s really no way to put this except bluntly. There never was any electromagnet damage, or any loss of vacuum in the beam tube. That was merely a cover story issued to the press to allow us time to develop a detailed understanding of the anomaly.”
Voices around the table rose in concert, each scientist demanding attention until no single question could be discerned above the noise. Dr. Dubois waited patiently until at last the scientists fell silent.
“I understand you have questions, but before I yield the floor, you need to hear the rest of what I have to present, information that will answer many of the questions you have already asked, but which will certainly raise more. Now, may I continue?”
Glancing quickly around the table without encountering objection, Dr. Dubois rose from his chair, as if he could no longer bear the tension while remaining seated.
“As I indicated in my early remarks, the testing conducted in late November produced a series of exciting results, albeit without the anticipated discovery of the Higgs Boson. However, during a test conducted on the morning of the last Friday in November, we noted an odd spike in measurements across the range of ATLAS instruments. I’m talking about across the inner detector, the calorimeters, the muon spectrometer, even the outer toroid magnets.
“Even more disconcerting, the readings continued after the beam channel was shut down. Naturally, we first looked for some failure in the instrumentation, faults in the electronics or in the software responsible for collecting and processing the data.”
Dr. Dubois’s face had taken on a pallor which could not be blamed solely on the room lights.
“We shut down all further LHC testing until we could determine the exact nature of the problem. We have not done a beam firing since that day.”
“Wait one minute.” Dr. Gotlieb rose from his chair to point at the screen. “You said that image was collected this morning.”
Dr. Dubois nodded. “That is correct. That is a slice of the data collected by the ATLAS detector this morning.”
“But, if there has been no proton acceleration around the LHC, how… ?”
Dr. Gotlieb’s question trailed off into horrified silence.
“Jesus Christ.” The words slipped from Rodger’s lips like a prayer.
“The November Anomoly, as we have come to call it, appeared at the interaction point within ATLAS and somehow achieved a semblance of stability. I think you can see why we have held this information close hold as the best minds on the program scrambled to understand it.”
“But how is that possible?” asked Dr. Boudre. “Admittedly, I’m an astro-physicist rather than a quantum specialist, but even the energies provided by LHC collisions have far too small a probability cross-section to allow for stable formation of some sort of micro black hole.”
“We don’t think that’s what it is.”
“You don’t think?” Dr. Gotlieb sputtered.
Rodger realized that he had also risen to his feet, although he found himself leaning on the table for support.
“And after two months of secret study, what have you learned?”
Dr. Dubois started to speak, paused, then began again. “The anomaly violates all accepted theory. We have poured through every paper published in the last fifty years that could remotely have bearing on this matter and have only found one which seems to describe what we are seeing. It was a theoretical treatise titled “Quasi-Stable Quantum Singularities”, published three years ago,.
“And what does the physicist who wrote the paper have to say about your anomaly?” Rodger pressed.
“I don’t know. We haven’t spoken to him.”
“What? Why the hell not?” Dr. Craig bellowed.
“Gentlemen, please sit back down. Thank you. I know you are all wondering why I have gathered you here instead of taking this directly to the world’s governing bodies. What we have here is something entirely beyond our current understanding of physics, something which, for now appears quasi-stable. It has the potential to transform into something far more dangerous, possibly even a black hole that would consume our planet. If a government reacted to this out of fear, you can imagine what they might try.”
The table jumped as Dr. Craig’s fist slammed its surface. “They’ll nuke the bloody hell out of your God damned science experiment. Should have been done before now.”
Dr. Dubois leaned forward. “And if they do that, they will probably bring about the disaster that we all fear. According to our analysis of the equations in the paper I mentioned, an anomaly of this type occupies an inflection point between a number of more stable states, most of which are unpleasant. Even a relatively minor perturbation could tip it from its perch, sweeping away humanity in an avalanche of destruction.
“So we have determined that you four, as respected scientific representatives to the key governments of the European Union, Great Britain, and the United States are best suited to bring this knowledge to your political leadership. After those governments have absorbed the facts, they can come to consensus on how best to proceed.”
Dr Craig’s face had acquired a purple cast. “You still haven’t answered my question. Why haven’t you contacted the physicist who wrote the damned paper?”
“Because, until now, we haven’t been able to,” Dr. Dubois looked directly at Rodger. “We’ll need the help of the American government to reach him.”
Rodger inhaled softly. “And why is that?”
“Because he’s incarcerated in an American prison. The physicist to whom I refer is the famous Dr. Donald R. Stephenson.”