Buckyball

by E.S. Strout

God does not play dice with the universe. — Albert Einstein

1

Approaching the expanding rim, July 2048

U.S. Navy Commander Dennis Gorman shook his head to clear the cobwebs. “Terry?”

“I’m here, Dennis,” Major Teresa Hernandez replied after a gaping yawn. “What woke us?”

Gorman viewed the status readouts of the experimental intergalactic spacecraft Infinity-1’s digital displays. “Radiation alarm. Readings are off scale.”

Hernandez sat up, scrubbed her eyes with two closed fists. “Gamma and x-rays, probably. Good thing we’re shielded.”

She tapped bright green spikes on the monitor with a fingertip. “Wow! Primordial stuff. Newly formed hydrogen and helium atoms, pre-protons like at nanoseconds post-Big Bang. We’re close, Dennis.”

Hernandez produced a foil-wrapped rectangle from a Velcro-sealed flight suit pocket. “Power bar. Bon appétit, partner.”

He took a bite, made a face. “You can have the rest.”

“We gotta have the energy boost, Dennis. Our proximity to the expanding rim singularity will stress our bodies, according to Professor Lampley.”

She patted her lips with a tissue. “I just finished mine. Yummy.”

“Yech. Me for a nice rare rib-eye steak, fries and a couple of cold Buds when we get back.”

A sudden klaxon alarm dilated the small cockpit as stroboscopic red warning lights flashed.

SECURITY ALERT: CONTAINER BREACH IN CARGO SPACE.

Gorman punched up a security camera view. “Oh hell, Terry. Our passenger is loose.”

2

One month earlier.
Edwards Air Force Base
Space Flight Division Commander’s Office

“Help yourself to coffee, officers.”

U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Andrew J. Shaw, a thin, wiry black man with graying temples, lit up an illegal cigar with a kitchen match. He took a drag, then jabbed a key to kill the screeching smoke alarm. He viewed the two personnel records on his laptop’s screen, nodding with satisfaction.

"Commander Dennis Gorman. U.S. Marine Corps Major Teresa Hernandez, astrophysicist.”

Major Hernandez waved an ineffectual hand at the General’s exhaled cloud of carcinogens and sneezed and dabbed her nose with a Kleenex. “Couldn’t this have waited, sir? I was lecturing a sophomore cadet class on gravity drive technology. Mandatory course. It’ll be a bitch to reschedule...”

Shaw silenced her with a raised hand. “I.D.’s please.”

They peered for a microsecond into the tabletop retinal scanner. I.D. Holograms confirmed their identities.

“Are we in trouble, General? Commander Gorman asked.

Major Hernandez stood, all of five foot two on tiptoes. “That’s what I’d like to know, sir.”

“Quite the contrary. You, Commander, have a 4.0 flight rating on the new Lynch gravity drive spacecraft. And you, Major, possess dual Ph.D’s in astrophysics and molecular structure analysis. Correct?”

Both nodded.

“You have a new mission.”

3

Major Hernandez gulped a swallow of black coffee from a styrofoam cup, then tapped restless fingertips on the tabletop. Her eyes sparked a dangerous glint of defiance. “Why us, sir? Dennis and I were just debriefed on our Zeta-2 Reticuli mission. Captain Avery’s team hasn’t been off Earth in a year.”

Shaw refilled a china coffee cup bearing his name and rank. “You are the best I have, Major. Triple hazardous duty pay and guaranteed promotions for this one.”

“I’m skeptical, sir. This better be good.”

“As good as it gets, Major. Rim of the known universe.”

“I’m thirty-three, General,” Gorman said, a frown darkening his features. “Too old for any more of that twentieth-century Star Wars fantasy. You need a twenty year-old flame-tailed Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade fresh out of Lynch drive flight quals.”

Major Hernandez grabbed Gorman's arm and squeezed. “Please, Dennis? The edge of space. Let’s hear more, okay?”

“Thank you, Major.” Shaw punched a key. A hologram hovered over his desk. “This is our quandary.”

4

“You’re looking at a 3-D enhanced electron microscopy photo of our problem,” General Shaw said.

“It looks molecular. Like a bunch of soccer balls stacked in a pyramid,” Major Hernandez observed.

A nod. "Right on, Major. Dr. Lampley will explain.”

Gorman shrugged. “Don’t recognize the name, sir.”

The Major held a finger to her lips. “Hush, Dennis. Frances Lampley. She’s a civilian. A biophysicist. Smart lady, got a Ph.D. Head of our laser research research section. I’ve read a bunch of her stuff.”

Shaw pressed an extension. “Dr. Lampley, we’re ready for you.”

5

Biophysicist Lampley, a tall woman with ash-blond curls framing her face, wore a concerned expression. She refused the General’s offer of coffee and selected a diet Pepsi. She popped the tab and took a swallow.

“Are your people qualified, sir?”

“Best I’ve got, Fran. Ultra Q clearance verified.”

Hernandez’s dark Hispanic eyes shot sparks. “Why should we be interested in something submicroscopic, General Shaw?”

Commander Gorman clapped a hand over her mouth. “Sorry, sir. My partner can be a touch insubordinate.”

“It’s okay, Commander. Professor Lampley will explain.”

She brought up a new hologram. “Ring a bell, Major?”

A sudden grin. “It does now. Carbon-60. It’s a heap of buckyballs.”

“Excellent, Major.”

Dennis groaned. “Say what?”

“It’s a form of pure carbon in molecular form, Dennis. Buncha scientists back in the late twentieth century were zapping graphite rods with a molybdenum laser in an experiment. Unexpected result. The buckyball.”

“Buckyball?”

“’Cause it looks like Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. Correct me if I miss anything, Professor Lampley.”

“I’m impressed, Major. Please continue.”

“Trust me on this, Dennis. Carbon-60 is used as a superconductor in advanced computers and in lubrication systems that can’t use silicon. Like in our Lynch drive. There’s been some classified research involving radon.”

Dr. Lampley’s laser pointer reflected a red-gold glint from Hernandez’s brass name tag. “I’m impressed, Major. You’ve been reading.”

“See that, Dennis? A gold star,” she whispered.

General Shaw described an impatient aerial circle with his cigar. “Update please, Professor.”

“Of course, sir, Major Hernandez is correct. We were looking for a way to deliver a radioactive source, radon, to a cancerous tumor. Then things got really weird.”

She clicked a computer key. A new hologram image appeared. “Carbon-60 with a twist.”

“Yikes!” Hernandez gasped. “It’s grown.”

Gorman smiled. “A bigger buckyball?”

“Right on, Commander,” Lampley said with a resigned sigh. “The addition of radon difluoride to the Carbon-60 molecule has made a novel difference.”

Major Hernandez viewed the new structure with interest. “Difluoride? Radon’s not really inert then, is it?”

“Perhaps not,” Lampley agreed.

“What’s this got to do with us, General?” Commander Gorman asked.

“Show them, Professor.”

“Follow me to the lab, officers.”

6

They peered into a large cubic glass module lined with clear boron fiber. It enclosed a stygian black structure with reflective, subtly shifting angular surfaces.

“This is Carbon-60 radon difluoride,” Dr. Lampley said.

Gorman shrugged. “What’s so special about it?”

Dr. Lampley grabbed a bunch of wooden pencils from a desk drawer and spread them out on a lab bench top. “Notice anything different, Commander?”

Gorman picked a few up, turned them in his fingers. “No lead.”

“No graphite, partner,” Major Hernandez said. “It’s another form of pure carbon.”

Dr. Lampley removed her engagement ring and set it next to the pencils. “Now this.”

Hernandez stared. “No diamond. Just a silver gem setting.”

“Fluoridated radon has imbued Carbon-60 with an unusual property. It is able to absorb elemental carbon from external sources and replicate itself. The boron fiber blocks it — for now.”

“Is it alive?” Hernandez asked.

“Valid question, Major. Watch.”

Dr. Lampley placed a metallic pointer in a transfer port and slid it past the inner boron fiber shield into the enclosure. “This is carbon steel.”

The astronauts gave an involuntary start as the pointer collapsed into grayish-brown dust.

“What happened, Prof?”

“That’s pure elemental iron, Major. The carbon’s been assimilated.”

“You said external sources.”

“I’ll demonstrate, Major. I’ll open a one-centimeter boron fiber partition.”

She pressed a remote stud. “Commander Gorman, would you please step closer.”

Gorman walked to the enclosure, then backed away at a sudden tug on his uniform shirt. Major Hernandez grabbed his arm and pulled him back as Lampley closed the shield.

“Jesus. What the hell just happened?”

“An external source,” Dr. Lampley said.

Only the brass clip of the Commander’s I.D. Badge remained. The plastic lamination and paper components drifted to the floor in flakes of brown debris.

“All partially composed of organic carbon compounds,” Dr. Lampley said.

Gorman mopped a film of perspiration from his forehead with a sleeve. “Right through the glass. It could have been me.”

“Dennis is right, Prof. We’re made partly of carbon.”

“Correct, Major. Most of human biologics consist of carbon compounds,” Dr. Lampley said. “For some reason the enhanced Carbon-60 doesn’t affect living tissue. It ignored two lab rats placed in the enclosure.”

“This thing started off microscopic. How come it’s so big now?” Commander Gorman asked.

“Than answer is complex, Commander. You need to see this video.”

Dr. Lampley clicked a hologram remote. “This is a chip recorded two hours ago when we tried to destroy the anomaly.”

A beam of intense pulsating lavender light shot from a small aperture in the ceiling and impacted the enclosure.

“Pure neutron beam from a concentrated americium source. It’s military hardware. It can atomize enemy ships and aircraft in seconds but won’t affect glass or boron fiber,” Dr. Lampley explained. “You can see the anomaly is still intact.”

There was a gasp from Major Hernandez. “Jesus Christ. At least four times larger now.”

“Keep watching, Major, Commander.” A second neutron blast obscured the enclosure in purple brilliance. “This was double strength. As you can see, equally ineffective.”

“Now look.” Lampley clicked the remote and radiation readings popped to the screen. "Background only. All radiation absorbed and neutralized by the anomaly. And it’s still growing.”

“Shoulda quit while you were ahead,” Commander Gorman said.

“We were never ahead, officers,” Dr. Lampley said.

7

Lampley handed General Shaw a computer printout.

“From our briefing, sir. Carbon-60 radon difluoride has eaten two bolts of pure military strength neutron radiation. Its plus-delta growth increment is the greatest I’ve ever seen. It fills 75 percent of the containment and now it’s beginning to erode the boron fiber shield.”

Shaw ground out the cigar butt in his coffee cup. “What do you think, Commander? Major?”

“Our top military weapon just enhances it,” Major Hernandez said. “I think it’s alive.”

“Rational point,” Professor Lampley admitted.

“We have very little time, General. It continues to expand and will seek additional carbon compounds when it breaches the containment.”

“How long, Fran?”

“Unknown, but soon.”

“This is why you’re here, officers,” General Shaw said.

“What can we do, sir?” Commander Gorman asked in a subdued voice.

“Show them, Prof."

She tapped computer keys. A chaotic, sinuous multicolored light display hovered over the conference table. “The rim of the universe.”

“Nice simulation,” Major Hernandez said.

“You wish. This is a tachyon transmission from an unmanned probe powered by the Lynch gravity drive. Expanding periphery of the original Big Bang singularity. Primordial atoms and free radicals.”

“So this mission will accomplish what?” the Major asked.

“Data from the probe suggests that antimatter components beyond the event horizon will destroy matter injected from our universe,” Dr. Lampley explained.

“So Dennis and I are to launch it through the event horizon and turn it into antimatter toast?”

Lampley gave a reluctant nod. “Be aware, officers. Our buckyball may have potential we have yet to discover.”

Commander Gorman rose to his feet. “So give us the word, sir.”

“The word is given, Commander. God go with you both.”

“I think you’re getting off easy with triple hazardous duty pay, General,” Major Hernandez grumbled.

8

At the expanding rim

“It’s out of the cargo bay. We can’t launch it now.”

“There’s only one choice, Dennis. Before it starts on us...”

Hernandez hugged her partner in a fierce embrace. “Send Professor Lampley a tachyon encryption. Tell her it’s alive.”

Commander Gorman punched keys. “Transmission is blocked.”

“The buckyball.”

“Let’s see them block this.”

Commander Gorman tweaked the helm control. Infinity-1 and its occupants vanished in a cloud of silvery vapor as it accelerated through the event horizon of the rim singularity.

9

“Are we clear of the rim, Dennis?”

“Yes, Terry.”

“The primitive radiation. Any effect?”

“None.”

“The rats were inferior life forms. Not suitable for assimilation.”

“We have subatomic particle deflection now?”

“Yes, Dennis. An undiscovered capability. As Dr. Lampley so aptly put it. Immunity to antimatter disruption. It also shielded the Infinity-1.”

“Blocking of the tachyon transmission was necessary?”

“It assures the element of surprise, Dennis, and unrestricted access to Earth’s vast carbon supplies.”

“Won’t they suspect?”

“The infusion was total. This is what my Major Hernandez host meant by alive. We’re heroes. We saved Earth.”

“My Commander Gorman receptacle has Earth coordinates set and programmed.”

“Execute, Dennis.”


Copyright © 2008 by E.S. Strout

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