"BuckEye" by Andy McCann

 

Buckyball
by E.S. Strout

 

Astropilot Commander Dennis Gorman shook his head to clear the cobwebs from his sensorium. “Terry?”

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

Gorman viewed the status readouts of the intergalactic spacecraft JOHN GLENN’s overhead cockpit digital displays. “Radiation alarm. Readings are off scale.”

Hernandez sat up, scrubbed her eyes with two closed fists. “Gamma and x-rays, probably. We must be getting close.” She punched up RADIOACTIVITY ANALYSIS and tapped a bright green spike on the systems monitor screen with a fingertip. “Wow! Look at this little number. Primordial stuff, for sure. Newly formed hydrogen and helium atoms, pre photons like at nanoseconds after the Big Bang. Nothing molecular yet, Dennis.”

She rummaged in a Velcro-sealed flight suit pocket and produced a small foil-wrapped rectangle. “Power bar. Bon appetit, partner.”

He took a bite, made a face. “Sawdust bar you mean.”

“We gotta have the energy boost, Dennis. Our proximity to the attraction of the expanding rim singularity will be stressful on our bodies according to Professor Lampley.” She patted her lips with a tissue. “I just finished mine, see? Yummy.”

"Security alert," the computer warned.

“Location, please?”

“Container breach in stowage space.”

“Oh, shit, Dennis,” Hernandez said her voice betraying panic. “Our passenger is loose.”

1.

“Help yourselves to coffee, officers. I’ll be right with you.”

U.S. Space Corps Lieutenant General Andrew J. Shaw, a thin wiry black man with graying temples, lit up an illegal cigarette with a kitchen match scratched across the undersurface of the heavy oak conference table. He took a deep drag, then jabbed a key to kill the screeching smoke alarm. Shaw scrolled through the two personnel records on his laptop’s screen, nodding to himself. “Astropilot Commander Dennis Gorman. Major Teresa Hernandez, astrophysicist.”

Major Hernandez waved an ineffectual hand at the General’s exhaled cloud of carcinogens and sneezed. “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 glare. “I.D.’s please.”

Gorman and Hernandez peered for a microsecond into the tabletop retinal scanner. Their I.D. holograms hovered over the table an instant later.

“Are we in some kind of trouble, General?” Commander Gorman asked.

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

A scowl clouded the Director of Special Projects’s face. “Quite the contrary. You, Commander, have a 4.0 flight rating on the new Lynch gravity drive intergalactic spacecraft. And you, Major, possess dual Ph.D.’s in astrophysics and molecular structure analysis. Am I correct?”

Both nodded in silent agreement.

“You have a new mission.”

2.

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

General Shaw raised his hands in a mock defensive gesture. “You are the best I have,
Major. Triple hazardous duty pay and guaranteed promotions for this one.” He sipped coffee from a china mug enameled with his name and rank over a Space Corps logo.

“This better be good, sir.”

General Shaw lit another cigarette. “As good as it gets, Major Hernandez. 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 B.S. You need a flame-tailed Lieutenant JG fresh out of intergalactic 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.” The General pulled up a graphic on his CRT. It replaced the prior hologram. “This is our quandary.”

General Shaw took a deep drag on his cigarette and suppressed a cough. “You’re looking at a 3-D enhanced electron microscopy photo of the problem.”

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

A nod from the General. “Right on, Major. Dr. Lampley will explain.”

“Don’t recognize the name, sir.”

“Hush, Dennis,” Major Hernandez said. “Frances Lampley. She’s a civilian. A biophysicist. Smart lady, got a Ph.D. Head of the Space Corps laser research section. I’ve read a bunch of her stuff.”

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

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, which she poured over ice in her monogrammed mug. “These your people, sir?”

Shaw blew a smoke ring. “Best I’ve got. 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.”

General Shaw dismissed him with the flick of a hand. “Professor Lampley?”

A new hologram appeared. Dr. Lampley aimed a laser pointer. “Ring a bell, Major?”

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

“Excellent, Major.”

Gorman’s face reflected confusion. “Clue me, partner.”

She winked. “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.”

“Why buckyball?” the still mystified Gorman asked.

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

“I’m impressed, Major. Carry on.”

A grimace from Gorman. “Okay. I’m lost.”

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

Dr. Lampley directed her laser pointer to Hernandez’s brass name tag where it reflected with a red-gold glint. “You’ve been reading, Major.”

“See that, Dennis? I win a gold star,” the Major whispered, emphasizing it with an elbow nudge to her partner’s ribs. “What’s my prize, Prof?”

General Shaw described an impatient aerial circle with his cigarette. He brushed ash and sparks from the table top with a flick of his hand. “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 and aimed her pointer at the fresh holographic image. “Carbon-60 molecules with a twist.”

“Sonofabitch,” Hernandez gasped. “It’s grown.”

Commander Gorman stifled a snicker with his uniform sleeve. “A bigger buckyball?”

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

Major Hernandez viewed the new structure through eyelids narrowed to a squint. “Difluoride? Radon’s not really inert then, is it?”

Lampley gave a reluctant nod. “Perhaps not.”

“What’s this all got to do with us?” Commander Gorman demanded.

“Show them, Professor.”

“Certainly, General.” Lampley stepped to the office door. “Follow me please, officers.”

3.

They peered into a ten-foot cubic polarized silicon lined module.
It enclosed an immense stygian black structure with a reflective angular surface. “This is Carbon-60-radon difluoride,” Dr. Lampley said.

Gorman shrugged. “What’s so special about a big chunk of shiny black rock?”

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

Gorman picked one up, twirled it in his fingers, scratched it across a note pad. “Lead’s gone.”

“Graphite to be precise, partner,” Major Hernandez corrected. “It’s another form of pure carbon.”

“And check this out,” Dr. Lampley said. She pulled a ring from her left fourth finger and set it beside the pencils. “Pure crystalline carbon. My engagement ring.”

Hernandez stared in wonderment. “Damn. The diamond’s gone.”

“Fluoridated radon has imbued Carbon-60 with an unusual property. It is able to absorb elemental carbon from external sources and replicate itself.”

Major Hernandez’s startled eyes widened, a white ring of sclera surrounding the dark, dilated irises. “It can reproduce? You mean it’s alive?”

“You may be stretching the definition of alive, Major.” Dr. Lampley placed a metallic pointer in a glass transfer port and slid it into the enclosure. “Watch. This is carbon steel.”

Commander Gorman gave an involuntary start as the pointer collapsed into grayish brown dust. “What happened?”

“You’re looking at pure elemental iron. The carbon’s been assimilated.”

“You said external sources, Professor.”

“I’ll demonstrate, Major. Commander Gorman, would you please step closer to the glass and take a good look?”

Gorman walked to the enclosure, then backed away at a sudden tug on his uniform shirt. Major Hernandez grabbed his arm and yanked him away, shielding him with her body. “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 lamination and paper components drifted to the floor in flakes of brown debris. “All partially composed of organic carbon compounds.”

Gorman mopped a film of perspiration from his forehead with a military issue khaki handkerchief. “Right through the damn glass. It could have been me.”

“Madre d’ Dios,” Hernandez exclaimed. “Dennis is right. We’re made partly of carbon.”

“Correct, Major. A large part of human biologics consists of carbon compounds,” Dr. Lampley agreed. “But for some reason as yet unknown, 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 grown?” Commander Gorman wanted to know.

“That answer is complex, Commander. This way please.” Dr. Lampley led them to a small observation room with a thick, tinted glass window and activated a closed circuit TV monitor. “This is a video chip recording from an event two hours ago when we attempted to destroy the anomaly. As you will notice, it is much smaller.” She punched PLAY.

A beam of intense pulsating lavender light shot from a small opening in the ceiling. It impacted the glass enclosing the Carbon-60 configuration, obscuring it from view. “Pure neutron beam from a concentrated americium source. Normally part of our military weaponry. It can atomize an interstellar battle cruiser in seconds but won’t affect glass,” Dr. Lampley explained. “You can see the anomaly is still intact.”

There was a gasp from Major Hernandez. “Jesus Christ. It’s bigger. At least four times more than before.”

“Keep watching, Major, Commander.” A second neutron blast obscured the glass enclosure in purple brilliance. It was equally ineffective. “Now check this out.” Lampley touched a remote and a series of figures popped to the screen. “Radiation readings. Background only. All absorbed and neutralized. And it’s still growing.”

“Shoulda quit while you were ahead,” Commander Gorman observed. Major Hernandez nodded enthusiastic agreement.

“We were never ahead, officers.”

4.

The Professor handed General Shaw a computer printout.
“From our briefing, sir. As you’ll recall, 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 now fills seventy-five percent of the containment.”

Shaw ground out a cigarette butt on the table top. “What do you think, Commander? Major?”

Commander Gorman shrugged. “I’m just a spacecraft pilot, sir.”

“Our top military weapon just enhances it,” Major Hernandez said. “I think the sonofabitch is alive.”

“Valid point, Major,” Professor Lampley admitted.

“We have very little time, General. It continues to expand and wll seek additional carbon compounds to absorb when it breaches the containment. How long that will take? Unknown, but soon, I expect.”

“This is why you’re here,” General Shaw addressed the two astronauts.

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

“Show them, Prof.”

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

“A simulation?” Major Hernandez asked.

“Tachyon transmission from an unmanned probe powered by the Lynch gravity drive. Expanding periphery of the original Big Bang singularity. Primordial elements. Pre-hydrogen and helium atoms.”

Hernandez drilled her with a skeptical eye. “And you want us for what, Professor?”

“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 should launch this thing through the event horizon and turn it into antimatter toast?”

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

General Shaw said: “This wont be a pleasure cruise, officers.”

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

The General smiled through an exhaled cloud of cigarette tars. “I figured as much, Commander.”

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

5.

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

“There’s another choice, Dennis.”

“The final solution?”

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

Commander Gorman punched keys. A puzzled grimace. “Transmission blocked.”

“The buckyballs.”

“Let’s see them figure this out.” Commander Gorman tweaked the helm control. The JOHN GLENN and its occupants vanished in a cloud of silvery vapor as it accelerated through the event horizon of the rim singularity.

6.

“Are we clear of the rim, Dennis?”

“Yes, Terry. And we are intact.”

“I feel weird. The primitive rim radiation, I believe.”

“I dreamt of polarized silicon.”

“Remember Professor Lampley’s lab?”

“The enclosure, Terry?”

“And the rats. Inferior lifeforms.”

“Ah, yes. Deficient intelligence.”

“I dreamed about subatomic particle deflection.”

“What does that mean?”

“An undiscovered capability, as Dr. Lampley so aptly put it, Dennis. Immunity to antimatter disruption.”

“Blocking of the tachyon transmission was necessary?”

“Gives us the element of surprise. To assure unrestricted access to Earth’s vast carbon supplies on our return.”

“They won’t suspect?”

“The infusion was total. This is what my Major Hernandez host meant by alive.”

“My Commander Gorman receptacle has Earth coordinates set.”

“Let’s hurry, Dennis. A carbonaceous feast awaits.”




Story © 2002 by E.S. Strout gino_ss@earthlink.net

Illustration © 2002 by Andy McCann andy@planetmag.com




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