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by E.S. Strout
(This is another of a series of Professor Paula J. Lynch stories. The previous tale in this series, "Field Trip", appeared in issue 37 of Planet Magazine.)
AMANDA (Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detection Array), a hunter of ghostly particles, is ready to go to work. It is a radically different kind of telescope. Instead of light, it will rely on neutrinos, particles with no charge and almost no mass that barely interact with matter at all. The detector, a massive array of light-sensitive globes buried in the clear Antarctic ice, has had its first test run . . .
-- The Orange County Register, Jan. 27, 2003
NASA Operational Headquarters, Cape Canaveral, Florida:
Air Force Major General Raymond Turner poured coffee into two Styrofoam cups, passed one to the young woman seated across the table. He turned pages on a NASA personnel file, muttering an occasional "Mm hmm."
Professor Paula Jane Lynch shot him a questioning glance. "Sir?"
Turner held up a silencing hand, continued his perusal then snapped the folder shut. "Are you familiar with the AMANDA project in Antarctica, Dr. Lynch?"
Paula nodded. "Some physicists set up shop on the Amundsen-Ross ice shelf for particle research. Couple of years back, I believe."
"There's been some recent interference with electronic transmissions from an Air Force satellite orbiting the South Pole."
A puzzled grimace. "From the AMANDA site?"
"Yes, Professor. We need your expertise in particle physics."
"I'd be happy to review your data, sir."
The General sipped coffee. "I'm proposing an on-site visit. Your Projects Director has OK'd it. The stipend will be a hundred grand."
Paula held her cup out for a refill. "Sounds intriguing, sir. May I bring a couple of my lab people?"
A head shake. "Negative, Professor. Safety concerns. We've dispatched an Air Force Security unit."
"Yours, Dr. Lynch. The atmosphere could be hostile. One of the Profs, a Dr. Colquitt, has vehemently denied every request for information."
A startled blink of long-lashed gray-green eyes. "Richard Colquitt? From Cal Tech?"
"The same. Is he a problem, Doctor?"
"Professor Colquitt has been my competition since we were graduate students. No love lost there."
"The Air Force will cover your six."
"My tail. Fascinating." Paula drummed clear-polished fingernails on the table top. A faint grin creased her lips. "Am I authorized to carry a sidearm, General?"
"You're a noncombatant, Professor."
He pushed a manila envelope across the table. "Your itinerary. Air New Zealand to Christchurch. Air Force C-130 Hercules to the site, plus what files we have on Dr. Colquitt's neutrino project. Your cold weather gear will be on board."
(Click picture above to view a larger image.)
"Captain Ted Raglan," the figure garbed in cold-weather attire introduced himself. He handed Paula a laminated I.D. badge. "Welcome to our igloo, Dr. Lynch. This grants access to all AMANDA facilities."
"What do you know that I don't, Ted?" Paula shouted as they leaned into the brisk, numbing wind and swirling ice crystals.
"The satellite glitch you'll be investigating began about two weeks ago," Captain Raglan said, cupping a hand to her ear.
There was a sudden tremor. Paula scrabbled for footing on the icy walkway.
"Earthquakes," Raglan said as he grasped her hand in time to avert a tumble. "Fifth one this week."
"Unusual for Antarctica," Paula said. "Can you update me on Dr. Colquitt's project? General Turner didn't have much."
"Right. The neutrinos. Way over my head, Dr. Lynch."
She grinned. "And through it too, Captain. Several million have traversed our bodies during this conversation."
Eyes wide, Raglan patted his chest and abdomen with both gloved hands. "You're kidding."
A muffled giggle. "Relax, Ted. Neutrinos are unique subatomic particles. They have been traveling through space since the Big Bang at light speed without slowing down. They haven't run into anybody yet."
"Could they cause earthquakes?"
A raised eyebrow from Paula. "Why do you ask?"
"The tremors began about the same time as the satellite problem."
"Thank you, Ted. I'll keep that in mind."
"Dr. Colquitt tells us it's shifting ice fields. I'm skeptical."
Raglan chuckled. "A guess, ma'am."
"Just keep feeding me your guesses. I'm told I can rely on you if Dr. Colquitt goes crazy on me."
"Count on it, Dr. Lynch." He handed Paula a cell phone. "Press 6, that's me. Sorry I couldn't give you more info."
"I'll deal with Professor Colquitt. He's an old nemesis."
They teetered for balance after another tremor. "At least Richter 4.3." Paula pronounced.
"Your intuition may be on target."
"I'll show you to Dr. Colquitt's Lab. Is 0900 hours tomorrow okay?"
"Just bring a large coffee. Black."
The Neutrino Sensor Station, 0900 hours:
Paula sipped coffee. "That's him, Captain," she whispered.
A thin, unshaven young man perched on a stool, engrossed in graphics on a computer screen as Mozart's Rondo in A minor played softly over stereo speakers. "Later," he said without looking up. "I'm busy."
"Paula Lynch, Richard. How's Cal Tech?"
The man leapt to his feet, upsetting his coffee cup. His face was an apoplectic crimson. "You! What the hell . . .?"
"Nice to see you too. I wish you'd have answered the Air Force requests. I'd rather be someplace warm."
Colquitt blotted coffee stains from his lab coat with a handful of Kleenex, a dark scowl etched on his face. "Go away."
Paula tucked an unruly strand of auburn hair behind an ear. "As soon as I know your research isn't affecting that satellite."
"It's classified. And I won't show you a damn . . ."
"Orders, Doctor," Captain Raglan said. "I'd suggest you cooperate."
A frustrated head shake. "Miss Lynch has no authority."
Paula unclipped her I.D. tag and tossed it on his desk. "This is my authority. And it's Doctor Lynch to you, Prof. I'd rather be basking on a warm Florida beach. Much better for my attitude than this minus-forty degree penguin sanctuary."
"You're here to steal my data."
Paula exhaled an exasperated sigh. "Paranoia, Richard? Either something here is screwing with their satellite or it isn't."
Dr. Colquitt gritted his teeth. "You can't interfere . . ."
Paula smiled. "My Air Force friend here can."
Captain Raglan released the holster strap of his sidearm. "Please, Dr. Colquitt?"
Paula grinned. "Ted's a pretty good shot, Professor."
Colquitt brushed cold sweat from his face. "This way. Just you," he stammered.
"Sorry. Captain Raglan will be covering my six."
Banks of electronic equipment lined the walls of the neutrino sensor lab. Dr. Colquitt pulled up a computer image showing a series of black dots on a pale-blue background. "This is real time. Photomultiplier tubes enclosed in crushproof glass spheres are amplifying neutrino collisions with hydrogen and oxygen atoms in the ice."
"Impressive. How many sensors?"
"Over six hundred," Colquitt admitted with an acid-laced sputter. "Embedded a mile deep in the ice shelf."
"There's a hit," Paula said as a silvery blip lit the screen. "And there's a bunch more. Wow! I thought this was a rare occurrence."
"It's within the parameters of my study."
"Would you scroll back a couple of weeks, please?"
Dr. Colquitt stepped away from the computer. "It's double-encrypted. Help yourself."
"I've been into cyberdecryption since I was twelve." She stretched her arms, cracked her knuckles and attacked the keyboard. A complex grid lit the screen seconds later as Colquitt gaped in disbelief.
"Just one hit per day . . . Oh, golly gee." She highlighted an upward slant on the graph. "Your increase began fifteen days ago. Here."
"It's all documented."
"And the recent seismic events?"
Dr. Colquitt shook his head as though trying to dissuade an aggressive mosquito. "Intermittent cooling and warming are causing instability of the ice layers."
"I've been with this project from the start," he snarled. "How dare you question me?" His thrown coffee cup shattered on a counter top.
Paula deftly plucked china fragments from her black NASA sweatshirt. "I think your neutrino collisions could be doing more than just messing up satellite transmissions."
"Impossible. The impacts produce a secondary particle with a half life of less than a nanosecond."
"I think possible. They may be releasing untold amounts of energy."
Colquitt slammed his clipboard on a lab bench. "Bullshit!"
"One phone call can shut down your project," Captain Raglan warned.
A wide-eyed stare. "You couldn't."
"Try me," the Captain said. "My authority comes from the Pentagon."
"I have rights."
"Not when it involves national security, sir. I'm a marksman, but I am out of practice. I might blow off a kneecap by accident. Continue please, Dr. Lynch."
"I'm checking out all possibilities of satellite interference, Richard. Don't interrupt." she cautioned.
"For example," Paula ticked off items on her fingertips. "Convergence of magnetic fields at the poles, free ions in frozen sea water, influence by other subatomic particles. What do you think?"
"Good enough answers," Dr. Colquitt said. "You can leave now."
She clicked open another folder. "But this says the ice thickness filters out all subatomic particles except neutrinos. That's important."
"Oh really? Show me your gravimetric readings."
"Didn't keep any."
"This is bullshit," Paula screamed, her voice rising a contralto octave. "Captain Raglan, got any suggestions?"
"How about I arrest him?"
"For what?" Colquitt screeched.
"Obstructing a government investigation, sir. Ten to twenty at the Fort Leavenworth military prison."
"This what you want?" Dr. Colquitt groused as he scrolled pages.
Paula highlighted a graph. "How interesting, Professor. Says here the electronic and seismic events correspond."
"An unrelated coincidence. Everything will be explained in my Nobel Prize presentation."
"Dammit, Richard. Something's wrong here."
Another tremor rattled and they were plunged into darkness except for the spectral glow of the computer screen. "5.3 Richter," Paula said. She punched up a split image. "Stay with me now. On the left, the seismograph track of this event, on the right a cluster of a couple hundred neutrino hits. Identical to the millisecond. The tremors are increasing in intensity as we speak. These events are related."
Colquitt's face was ashen in the accusatory effulgence of the CRT screen. "Pure happenstance," he mumbled.
"I doubt that," Paula argued. She aimed an index finger at Colquitt's nose. "You are aware of Stephen Hawking's theory that neutrinos are remnants of the Big Bang event, are you not? He believes they are subatomic singularities. Little tiny black holes."
An annoyed head shake. "Hawking is wrong. My study will prove neutrinos are harmless cosmic particles."
"I believe Professor Hawking," Paula said. "Each neutrino collision may be releasing an intense gravitational field."
A skeptical sneer. "You're telling me one hit could shift mile-thick layers of Antarctic glacier?"
"No. It would take a confluence of gravitational forces. Something here is a neutrino magnet."
Dr. Colquitt blinked as the emergency lighting kicked in. "We're looking at an unrelated tectonic phenomenon," he insisted.
Paula clicked open another file. "Hello," she said, tapping the screen with a pencil point. "Just six-hundred photomultiplier tubes, you said? But here it says you added another six hundred."
"It was essential to my research."
"Look here." Paula grabbed a black Sharpie marking pen and sketched the components of a photomultiplier tube on a sheet of scrap paper. "Neutrino collision stimulates release of secondary electrons from the contact diode. These amplify the impact to produce a visible blip. You following?"
"Elementary research tool. Easily explained."
Paula brushed an errant dark curl from her face. "I'm not finished. When you added more photomultiplier tubes, you doubled the number of neutrino collisions in your sensor array. The secondary electron production by sensor contact diodes was thus also doubled."
"So I discovered a way to increase neutrino contacts," Dr. Colquitt admitted. "What's the problem?"
"Just this. I just showed you, all other subatomic particles were filtered out by the ice. But those secondary electrons released in the sensor globes are already in the ice. That's gotta be what's attracting the neutrinos. Now there are hundreds of collisions instead of isolated hits. Maybe thousands. Their cumulative gravitational fields are building up to a huge . . ." Her eyes suddenly widened in shock. "Oh, God, Ted. We've got to deactivate those sensors. Now!"
"Power plant. I'll get it." The storm door wheezed shut behind him.
Colquitt's face contorted in anger. "I expected more consideration from a colleague."
"These seismic effects are the prelude to a cataclysmic event of Biblical proportions." She tapped computer keys. "I'll prove it to you . . ."
Dr. Colquitt crashed the computer with a single stroke. "More science fiction? I reject your premise!"
He was interrupted by a quake that sent them sprawling across the deck as frigid Antarctic wind whistled through gaps in the walls and ceiling. "I'm involved in the first study of subatomic particle physics of its kind. My discoveries will assure me of two Nobel Prizes. One more than you have, Miss Lynch."
An exasperated sigh as Paula kicked aside glass and structural debris. "Nearly 7.0 Richter, I'd guess. You've been cooking up something dangerous as hell, Richard."
A wild-eyed shriek as he drew an automatic pistol from beneath his lab coat. "You will not steal my research."
Outside, Paula punched 6 on Captain Raglan's cell phone. "Professor Colquitt's flipped out. Warm up the C-130 and have your guys get the civilians on board. I'm fucking freezing out here, so grab me some hot coffee if you can. We may have to split in a big hurry."
Paula gulped down a jolt of black coffee. "Were you able to shut down the power, Ted?"
"Yes, but the sensor lab has an independent generator. Dr. Colquitt has barricaded the access."
"Can your guys break in?"
"Reinforced steel door. No other entrances. And an M-16 rifle, two 9mm semiautomatic pistols plus ammo are gone from the armory. There would be casualties."
"Your skepticism was right on, Ted," Paula said. "It's worse than you can imagine."
"Turns out the electronic disruption is a byproduct. We're looking at an impending confluence of gravitational forces only seen in collapsing neutron stars. Know what a singularity is, Ted?"
"A black hole?"
"Precisely. An intense gravitational field condensing matter to a point of zero mass. Time, space and dimension will cease to exist in the vicinity of the one Dr. Colquitt has created."
"We could end up in another cosmic reality, or a past or future in this one if we don't get far away."
"Oh, shit." Ted punched up SENSOR LAB on the intercom. "Last chance, Dr. Colquitt. You're gonna die if you don't . . ."
A chatter of automatic weapon fire and the line went dead.
"Everyone aboard, Captain?"
Another tremor sent a series of crevasses branching across the ice sheet. "Affirmative. We're outta here."
The C-130's four prop engines screamed as it barely cleared a gaping crevasse bisecting the runway. A crash of thunder and blinding lightning flashes lit the sky and ice field below. Swirling sheets of snow and ice crystals buffeted the plane as the passengers dodged a rain of unsecured gear.
"Very sturdy aircraft," the pilot assured them.
Sudden uncompromising darkness enveloped them as the plane struggled for altitude. The view outside revealed a frozen rock-strewn landscape, lit only by alien star configurations.
"What's this?" Raglan gasped.
"A peek into another cosmic reality, Ted."
"Clearing now!" Captain Raglan yelled as sudden sunlight streamed in through the side ports and the plane leveled off. "I think we're okay . . . Oh holy shit. Look!"
Paula's voice was subdued as she viewed the deep defect in the ice expanse below. "We were lucky. The event horizon missed us. The anomaly is gone as well. Too small to sustain itself more than a few seconds."
A sad sigh as she blew perspiration-moistened tresses from her forehead. "Dr. Colquitt is somewhere or sometime else, along with station AMANDA."
"Shitload of paperwork for me," Raglan noted with a wry grin.
"Me, too," Paula agreed.
"Captain Raglan, Professor Lynch. NORAD reports the satellite has resumed normal function," the pilot informed them.
Paula exhaled an exhausted sigh. "Whew. Thank them for us, please."
"Drinks on me at Christchurch, Dr. Lynch."
"I'll buy, Ted. I just earned a six-figure bonus."
Story © 2004 by E.S. Strout email@example.com
Illustration © 2004 by Leo Lin/GaiaGear http://members.rogers.com/gaiagear/main.htm
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