"Ignition" by Georgi Ostashov

(Click picture above to view a larger image.)

At the Mercy of the Budget
by Richard W. Novy


"It was working!"

The reporter looked skeptical, "Only in one small region, professor."

"Ah, yes," said the professor, raising a finger to punctuate his remark, "but the first success breeds others. They might have spread. They did travel a little, but theirs is such a harsh environment. The experiment simply needs more time."

"But they're so small, and they live such short lives." The reporter shrugged his shoulders. "What possible difference could it make?"

"Don't judge their lives by our standards. That's a common mistake for a layman to make." The professor waved his hands as he talked. "They've developed a fascinating culture and a rich history in the short time they have existed."

The reporter was skeptical. "What kind of life could such a creature possibly have, trapped inside an aquarium?"

The professor rolled his eyes. "It's a containment chamber, not an aquarium. Their senses use electromagnetic radiation, and there hasn't been nearly enough time for light from the edges of the chamber to reach them yet. There is no way for them to know they are in a controlled environment."

"Would you explain the experiment to me in more detail, Professor?" The reporter was intrigued why this man would be so passionate about infinitesimal creatures. Surely there wasn't any sentimental value to them. The money could be put to better use elsewhere, what with the war and all.

"I'm not very good at describing my work in lay terms, but I shall give it a try." The professor walked toward his blackboard and began to sketch. "We call the effect 'spontaneous matter generation'."

"What exactly does that mean, Professor?"

The professor began scribbling equations that the reporter could never hope to understand. "If a large energy field is applied across an area of space which is devoid of any matter, there will be a spontaneous creation of new matter from the energy in the field."

The reporter tried reaching back to his college science courses to remember some particle physics. "So you remove all the galaxies from this region of space, then apply the energy field?"

"It must be far more pure than that. Matter must be removed down to the atomic level."

The reporter's eyes opened wide in astonishment. "The atomic level! That's smaller than even suns and planets, isn't it? I didn't know that was possible. In fact, I thought atoms were only theoretical."

"Creation of a universe has only been done five times in the laboratory, this being the second time in mine. It is far from simple, but in essence, we don't do anything to the atoms directly; it is all done via forces which sweep the chamber."

"What happens when the you apply the energy field?" The reporter was clearly intrigued, but also clearly pressing the edge of his understanding.

"As I said, matter is spontaneously created."

"But how much matter?"

"Come, let's go to the laboratory." The professor grabbed his white lab coat and started toward the door. The reporter followed quickly behind. They approached the laboratory door then went inside.

They walked up to a knee-high table that held a chest-high box. The professor swept the box with his hand. "As you can see, the tank isn't particularly large. The region of space disrupted by the energy field is too small even for the creatures to measure. The universe quickly grows to fill a quarter of the tank's volume with matter in a sparse gaseous state. It continues expanding for a lengthy period of time. If I allow it to continue long enough, it will finally condense into a solid."

The reporter was particularly interested in learning more about the professor's attachment with these creatures. "How soon did the creatures appear?"

The professor beamed. Someone finally willing to listen. "They are quite recent. As you know, this is the first time animal life has ever been detected in a manufactured universe. I've had this experiment going for quite some time, but I detected the life only last week.

"How did you discover them?"

"Oh, it was quite by accident. I was examining a galaxy for stellar composition, then noticed some strange effects in a spiral arm. It took me completely by surprise. I have studied manufactured universes my entire career, and I had never seen these kinds of readings before. I returned with some pico-tech optical devices designed for researching at the sub-galactic level. Optical methods are painfully slow due to the sluggish speed that light travels. The methods are also annoying, with that particle-wave duality property light has, but when your specimens are meters in length, optical methods are the best way to handle the measurements."

"But surely these creatures can't be intelligent life forms. It's a manufactured universe. The entire thing is synthetic."

The professor smiled to himself. "Young man, the only thing we can control is the vacuum conditions and the initial energy field. Everything else is completely new physics, manufactured only in the sense that we created the conditions for it to occur."

"You didn't answer my question, Professor."

"Are they intelligent creatures? Why don't you judge for yourself?"

The professor led him to a computer terminal on the far side of the room. He punched several keys, then an image popped up on the monitor.

"Why, that's a picture of the Great Wall of China. What's so impressive about a picture of the Great Wall of China?" The reporter was growing somewhat impatient.

"This," said the professor, "is not our Great Wall of China. This is a Great Wall of China so small it could fit on the tip of a pin."

"Why, that's preposterous."

"No, no, see here. Let me maneuver the camera so that it points toward local up. See, their sky has a star in it."

"I don't believe it. Stars are among the most fundamental inseparable particles of nature."

"You remember I mentioned the atomic scale? These creatures, I suspect, are constructed of countless atoms, much as we are constructed of countless galaxies."

"And these creatures -- they will die if the funding is canceled?"

"If the conditions inside the chamber are not maintained, their universe would collapse into a solid almost instantly. This chamber slows that process down until it takes many months to occur. To cut this funding on account of some ideological war is simply wrong. If we could communicate with these creatures, we could learn so much."

"I must be going now, but before I leave, just one last question. What name do the creatures give themselves?"


* * *

After the professor escorted the reporter to the door, he returned to the computer terminal. There on the desk was the letter from the Institute of Science. He opened it, then began to read it yet again. He already had the brief letter memorized, but the feel of the piece of paper in his hands made the words more believable. Why would the Institute of Science fund this research when it was considered a boondoggle, and not when it began to show promise? He placed the letter back on the desk and pulled out the keyboard. Maybe the creatures would die off before the deadline. If they became extinct, the termination of the project would be far more tolerable. Still, these humans were a hearty race. Already they weathered several ice ages and still thrived. If the experiment were to run its course, they might spread to all the stars in their universe.

The professor punched some keys and the image of the Great Wall of China reappeared. He adjusted some controls and the ground began to move. The land scrolled quickly by for several minutes before he stopped to look. "Hoy! What is this?"

On the screen, thousands of creatures brandishing sticks and disks were striking each other. "A war about something," he thought. "I wish I could talk with them and learn their history. It passes by so fast." It was only due to the high-speed recording of the probe that allowed the professor to view the creatures at all. He reached for the history book that he started to keep in the bottom drawer when he discovered how much the history of these humans parallels his own people's. "So much data on the evolution of cultures, they parallel us so remarkably, yet nobody seems to care but me."

The professor read a brief passage from the book, then his eyes went back to the computer screen. Swords were now replaced by firearms of some kind. "The history parallels, yet there is so much strikingly different about these creatures: their appearance, their engineering designs, and their transportation are all so alien. And their physics: theirs must indeed be a strange world to call home. Still, they are more like us than different."

"Excuse me?"

"Dr. DeGoz, I didn't hear you come in."

"Your heart still bleeding for those microbes? When are you going to extinguish the universe and dismantle that contraption?"

"I've still got three hours until the budget expires."

"They're as good as dead. Might as well do it before their science lets them know what is happening to them. I came by to borrow the portable generator."

"Sure. It's in the back."

"Don't bother to get up. I'll fetch it myself."

He turned his attention back to the monitor. Aircraft! These creatures were evolving fast. There would be spacecraft soon. "That gives me an idea."

"Did you say something?" It was DeGoz again. He was carrying the portable generator and almost out the door.

"DeGoz. I forgot you were here."

"You said something about an idea."

"I think I might be able to save these humans. Does your son still have that model rocket that ejects dye when it reaches altitude?"

"What do you have in mind?" DeGoz took a moment to set the heavy generator on the floor. "You won't get anywhere near escape velocity with that."

"I don't think I have to. If we can place their galaxy high into our atmosphere, it should remain suspended long enough until their star eventually goes nova. They'd be just another mote of dust in the sky. We could hardly expect to do much better for them in the few hours we have, and they would get to live out their lives as a species."

"An interesting idea that might just work. All right," DeGoz said, "I'll help you with this, but you owe me one. I'll call my son while you figure out how you're going to scoop their galaxy out of that universe."

As soon as DeGoz was safely inside the office, the professor leaned back in his chair. "Blazes, how am I going to get their galaxy out of there? It's near the bottom of the tank." He began imagining all kinds of strange contraptions that would take weeks to construct. Nothing delicate enough came into his head. "Must I have DeGoz do this for me as well?"

DeGoz returned. "He says he'll bring the rocket right over, but he isn't happy about his favorite being used for a long shot."

"That's what rockets were designed for." The Professor turned back to the monitor and adjusted the probe for one more look at the creatures. "DeGoz, look at this."

DeGoz peered over the professor's shoulder at the monitor. "How ironic. They've started to probe their universe using rockets."

"We must hurry. Their galaxy must be extracted before they can get out of it."
DeGoz looked at him in expectation. "What do you propose?"

"All I can think of is a pipette. I'll have to stick my arm in there to get to them, but that will stir up the universe in an unpredictable way."

DeGoz looked worried. "Is that dangerous?"

"Not to us. Only to the universe."

"This universe is going to be extinguished by the end of the day. This universe has nothing to lose."

"Right." The professor walked to the cabinet and selected a pipette and a vial, then walked to the tank and opened the cover. A few galaxies drifted out the top. He reached his arm into the tank and gently sucked a small portion of the contents into the pipette. He pulled his arm out of the tank and viewed what he captured. "I got several galaxies, probably a small cluster of them." He turned to the computer and punched a few keys. "Perfect. The correct star is among those inside the pipette."

"How do you know?"

"Probe location. These coordinates are outside the tank." The professor carefully dripped the contents of the pipette into the vial and closed the cover. "These creatures depend heavily on optics. There won't be enough time for light from any of the apparatus to reach them for several days. We'll be finished by then. Where is the boy?"

"He'll be here. We might as well watch what the humans are doing while we wait."

"Do we have any propellant?"

"He said he would bring everything we need."

The professor fiddled with the computer and the probe image appeared on the screen. They began watching the progress of a ferociously fought war. "You know, DeGoz, the thing I find most fascinating about these humans is how their history seems to parallel ours."

The professor barely finished his sentence when there came a knock at the door. They turned to see DeGoz's son with the rocket.

"I'll help him set up the rocket," Dr. DeGoz said, "You prepare the cargo."

The professor looked at them in disbelief. "Don't bother."

"What? All this time we help you and now you say don't bother?"

"It's not that I don't want to help them. It's just that it's too late. There's nothing left but a cinder orbiting their sun."

Story © 2002 by Richard w. Novy rnovy@extremezone.com

Illustration © 2002 by Georgi Ostashov georgi@home13.net

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