"To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman," I said.
A robotic voice responded, "Voiceprint Recognized. Sandra Swift. Access Granted," and the door into Professor Miller's laboratory slid open. The security system was one of my brother's designs, but I'd installed it in the lab myself after the Black Dragon tried to get to the Swifts by threatening Professor Miller. In addition to voiceprint recognition, the system checked for eleven other biometric parameters. It wasn't foolproof- no security system was- but it was unlikely that anyone without the proper authorization would be able to get through. Which made the laboratory a vital refuge, for me as well as for my thesis adviser.
The lab was empty, but it was a familiar, warm kind of emptiness. My latest batch of protein samples were on a tray next to the electron microscope, carefully marked with identifying sequences. I pulled a chair over to the electron microscope and began to prepare the samples for microscopy. It was tedious, absorbing work, and I didn't know how long it was before the vocoder interrupted me with a tinny "Voiceprint Recognized. Irene Miller. Access Granted." I turned from my work as the professor entered the lab.
"I thought you were taking off tonight to see that concert with Rick," she said in greeting, and I grimaced. If I'd been back home in the Central Valley, I could have retreated to a lab access-locked only to myself, but here at Georgia Tech I had to share the lab space with Professor Miller and her all-too-perceptive questions. Usually, I don't mind, but tonight, well. Tonight I had wanted to be alone.
She could see that I was hesitating to answer, though, because she quickly pressed on. "Not that I mind, of course. More time in the lab is fine with me. I really want to see how these new gene splices turn out, too. I think we're on to something." Gene splices wasn't quite the right word for my new synthetic proteins, but Professor Miller was a physicist, not a geneticist, so I figured it was close enough. I wasn't precisely a geneticist, either. It can be hard to find a place in the academy when your scientific interests wander as broadly as a Swift's do. My older brother Tom had skipped college altogether, which is something you can do when you're Tom Swift, Jr., heir apparent to Swift Enterprises. Fortunately, I'd discovered Irene Miller and we'd struck up a partnership that honestly gave me far more freedom than I deserved.
"I'm rechecking the electron microscopy results. We turn on the string folder in two days. I don't want to use the wrong sample by accident."
"Good idea. You wouldn't want to be embarrassed in front of your brother," she said. There was a knowing glint in her eye that I would have resented if she hadn't been so close on the mark. You can only play the second child so long before you want to step out of the shadows on your own. This was my big chance. This was an experiment so cutting edge that even Tom was interrupting his research to come see it. Nothing could go wrong, but nothing. My triumph was so close I could taste it.
"I guess not."
"How's the containment field looking?"
I shrugged. "We finished testing it two weeks ago. We had four solid weeks of stress testing without any issues observed. Why, do you want me to test it again?"
She mirrored my shrug with a wry one of her own. "Couldn't hurt."
I sighed and started to set up the testing equipment.
The next day, I met my brother at the airport. This wasn't strictly necessary, since his triphibian atomicar was capable of driving out of the airport on its own, but it's hard finding parking on campus if you only have a guest permit. In any case, meeting a visitor at the airport was simply what one did, in my mother's words. Even if were were both going to be taking our own vehicles back to my apartment, I would still offer my brother the courtesy of showing up to meet him.
I drove him back to campus as he filled me in on the details of his latest engineering project, a tuneable laser projection system. I listened attentively, of course, since my brother's experiments are always interesting and useful to learn about, but a part of me wondered why I wasn't telling him about my own experiments, which were the reason why he was visiting. I supposed it was force of habit. After so long living in Tom's shadow, it had become the natural pattern we fell into.
He settled himself into my guest room and then we walked over to the laboratory.
"To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman," I said, and the door slid open. Tom nodded his head in appreciation as he took in the details. We'd upgraded a few of the systems since his last visit. I stood just inside the doorway on the left and let him look around, trying to keep the satisfied smile off of my face. I could see in the mirrored side panel of the oscilloscope that I was failing.
"It looks like a million bucks," Tom said endearingly. "Where's the containment field apparatus?"
I gestured to a dark grey, heavy steel door at the back of the room. On either side of the door, wide glass windows, reinforced with steel crossbeams, revealed a small, dark room. "Through there." I walked halfway through the lab and sat down at a control station. I typed a key sequence at the console and the lights turned on in the back room. The room was empty, except for a small steel pedestal in the middle, partially wrapped in insulating plastic stripes.
"All control and monitoring operations are performed from this command console," I explained. "I thought about implementing your voice command protocol, but I don't trust it to handle idioms properly. This experiment is too potentially dangerous to trust to the spoken English language."
"There is a lojban version," Tom said obscurely, but he sounded more amused than upset. Tom was a brilliant inventor, but he knew better than anyone else how often his inventions ended up causing disproportionately inconvenient problems in the test phase. There were times for proven technology, and now was one of those times.
I typed another key sequence and a blank set of gridlines came up on a holoscreen. A thin green line started tracing a path from left to right across the bottom of the grid. I typed another sequence and the line briefly spiked to the top of the grid, then settled down on a new plateau, higher than the original. Through the barred windows, you could see a light blue, semi-transparent orb about the size of a magic eight ball materialize a half inch above the pedestal.
"There. That's the containment field activated, at a fairly low strength, a couple of thousand Newton-seconds of impulse resistance. We've ramped it as high as 40,000 Newton-seconds and it's held strong over a wide range of stimuli."
"Impressive, Sandy," Tom said devilishly.
"It's mostly Dr. Miller's idea. She's much better at conceptualizing the physics than I am." I grinned. "She's also much better at thinking about experimental safety design than you are. As soon as we started looking at the elemental forces my pseudo-proteins tap, she told me that before I went any further, we had to implement a shield that could withstand a Tom Swift worse case scenario. Our design goal was that the containment field be strong enough to stop a dinosaur and a half from entering the lab."
Tom flushed bright red. I knew I'd somehow scored a direct hit. I'd have to call Rick later and find out what Tom wasn't telling me about his laser projection system. Except that that would involve calling Rick. That was something I wasn't exactly thrilled about doing at the moment. I sighed. Maybe Mandy would have the inside scoop on the latest from Swift Industries. Maybe Harlan could be persuaded to unbend a little. I could keep avoiding Rick if I had to.
We stood there, staring at the glowing ball for a while, neither of us saying a word. Sometimes Tom was a pain in the ass, but sometimes it was like we were telepathic and knew exactly what we both needed. This was one of those times. After I cleared my head, I deactivated the containment field and killed the lights in the back room.
"Okay, big brother," I said. "Let's go down to Sullivan's and get a drink. Tomorrow's going to be a big day." He nodded and followed me out of the lab.
Our lab was spacious, but not limitlessly so. Observing the big string folding experiment was limited to the experimenters and a select group of invitees: Tom, Dean Richards, President Crecine, Dr. Mensah from across the hall, and Dr. Dunn from the University of Minnesota. Dr. Dunn was an aeronautics engineer who was a childhood friend of Professor Miller's, and I'd met him a few times before when I'd gone to conferences with my adviser. I liked him a lot. He was very good at what he did. His conference presentations were as illuminating and clear as they come, but he never lost his sense of humor about his work. While I checked the control parameters one final time with Professor Miller leaning over my shoulder, Tom stood with Dr. Mensah and Dr. Dunn in a cluster talking about the latest results from the Webb Telescope. The two administrators stood in their own cluster, awkwardly gawking at all of the flashing lights. I hadn't wanted to invite them, but Professor Miller had insisted.
"When you're a Swift, you can choose to interact only with the people you wish to. Most of us can't be so cavalier. It's a lesson you ought to learn," she had said. I took her point to heart. Inwardly, I wished Tom would try to incorporate them into his conversation, but he was a Swift, too, and I was too busy debugging code to entertain out of their league bureaucrats.
Finally, Professor Miller pronounced herself satisfied with our code check. I stood up from my seat at the console for a moment and turned to our guests. I'd memorized a little speech, but I decided that if I gave it word for word, I would sound stiff and silly, so I paraphrased it.
"Thanks for coming, everyone. We're going to start the experiment now." I sat back down. Okay, so it was a pretty liberal paraphrase.
"Wait a minute. Wait a minute. I think some of us need a little more explanation than that, Miss Swift," Dean Richards said. I'd grown up as Miss Swift to the army of employees at Swift Industries, but since coming to east I'd grown accustomed to its blessed absence. I didn't like Dean Richards, and I didn't like that he clearly had not read any of the thirty pages of background information I'd forwarded to his secretary last week along with his invitation to attend the experiment, but I restrained a growl.
Professor Miller cleared her throat, either a warning to me or a preparation for speaking. I wasn't sure which, but I stayed quiet and let her handle the Dean.
"String theory experimentalists have demonstrated that our universe is an eleven dimensional space constructed of infinitesimally small vibrating objects we call strings. That's the conventional three dimensions we're all familiar with- length, breadth, height, you know- as well as Einstein's fourth dimension of time, as well as seven so-called higher dimensions that cannot be easily perceived. Why can't we sense the higher dimensions? Because our whole galaxy and beyond is in a subdimensional space called a brane. Picture the brane as a pinched off bubble of spacetime that cuts off our access to the higher dimensions. But the strings are capable of vibrating in all eleven other dimensions if we manipulate them in the right ways. Sandra has discovered, we believe, a mechanism by which specially prepared protein chains can be folded into the higher dimensions. For the first time in human history, humanity will be able to send an ambassador to the higher dimensions. The people in this room are witnesses to what I believe is a truly historic occasion." I flushed bright red. Nothing she said was wrong, on its face, but she made it seem so much more grand than it was. All that would happen if this experiment worked was that the red goo on my substrate holder would disappear without any fanfare. There one minute, gone the next. A simple confirmation of a theory, or else a truly historic occasion. I guess it depended on your perspective.
I called up a new program at the console. Most of the time, I don't bother with a GUI, but I needed a visual interface to wrap my head around the protein folding algorithms. (I'm sorry, but yes, the pun was intended) They were based on some knot theory theorems my mathematical collaborator Stacey had developed, and they were mindbendingly counterintuitive. There was no way I could figure out the writhe of a compound superstring link diagram without the aid of my computer graphics workstation.
I called up a knot pattern and passed it to the primary holodisplay so our guests could see it. The visualization program rotated the protein knot about its central horizontal axis.
"It looks like a bird!" Tom said swiftly. The protein was vaguely avian, I supposed, but I'd spent so much time staring at it that its shape barely registered.
"The red pseudo-fluid in the containment chamber consists of several tens of thousands of proteins whose constituent strings look like this," I said, at first softly and then gradually getting louder as I became aware that everyone in the room was paying attention to me. I pressed a button and the knot transformed as everyone watched. "When we apply the catalyzing agent and a strongly polarized magnetic field, the protein will refold itself in a very specific way and its constituent strings will be bent out of our brane... into the higher dimensions!" I frowned. "If the experiment works as expected," I added as an afterthought.
"The experiment will work," Professor Miller reassured me. "I have no doubt about that."
"The protein we're using..." I tried to continue, but my brother cut me off.
"The bird protein," I conceded, glaring at him, "Has been specially engineered. We selected a protein because they're such versatile molecules. It could be designed with the right catalytic receptors, while also having enzymatic pathways that will serve as molecular sensors. Once the protein is delivered to the eight or ninth dimension, it will maneuver around for a while, gathering specific information, and then it will return to its station and we'll deactivate the catalysts with an orthogonal set of polarizing magnets, returning the bird to our brane."
"Sounds like a solid plan," Dr. Dunn said. "When do we begin?"
"Right now. Everybody step back beyond that red mark on the floor and watch the containment chamber. I'll begin the activation process in ten, nine, eight." Everyone shuffled into position, or Professor Miller made sure they did. I counted the rest of the way to zero and activated the main program. It would mostly run without interaction, but there were a few control parameters that would require manual input if a deviation was observed.
The primary lights in the containment chamber turned off and were immediately replaced by a set of six dim, cool blue monofrequency LED lamps mounted around the room. Then the containment field activated around my protein samples. The same semi-transparent orb that had shed pale blue light yesterday now appeared green under the LED illumination. When the field stabilized, motors began to whir and groan and a pair of heavy, gleaming copper coils wheeled into position on opposite sides of the proteins.
I took a moment to glance away from my still-green process monitor screen toward our guests. They were all staring at the containment chamber with deep focus. I noticed that Dean Richards had edged a few steps back from the red line, but he was watching as closely as any of the others. They were about to see the show. I pulled a key out of my pocket and inserted it into the lock of a small red plastic box near my console, revealing a solid copper knife switch with a thick rubber handle. I whispered a prayer to the elder gods and flipped the knife switch to the on position.
Hundreds of amps rushed through each of the copper coils, energizing their magnetic fields. It only took a few seconds after that. As we watched, the viscous pseudo-fluid in the containment field disappeared. Everyone in the room gasped. Even me.
The experimental protocol called for the proteins to gather data for one minute before I returned them to our brane. There has never been a longer minute in my whole life. I didn't merely count down the seconds. I counted down the milliseconds. And all the while, my process monitor screen read green across the board. It was agonizing and delicious and I was barely breathing. Without my prompting, the motors wheeled the electromagnet coils into the return position. It took longer for the proteins to reappear than it had taken for them to disappear, but after a minute it appeared that they had all returned. I opened the knife switch and the magnets de-energized. The containment field dematerialized. Normal light returned to the chamber. The assaying balance beneath the substrate platter reported an equivalent mass to when the experiment had begun. And in the middle of the heavily shielded containment chamber, on top of the platform in the middle of the room, was a holder full of bright, yellow pseudo-fluid. My eyes widened in excitement.
"That's it," Professor Miller said. "I promised history, and I did not mislead you. We'll need to analyze the data to be certain, but I have no doubt that that was the first transdimensional exploration mission humanity has ever launched. I cannot wait for Sandra and I to explore the information it has ferried back to us from that mysterious land. Thank you to everyone for coming." She motioned for everyone to make their way to the door. I was just as eager as she was to start digging through the data, but unfortunately it was not to be. My brother and Professor Miller's friend Dr. Dunn just about raced each other to claim the right to buy us the first round at the bar, and before we could protest they had chivvied us out of the lab and down to Sullivan's.
Rick couldn't make it to the bar, of course. I had been wavering on inviting him at all, but I decided to go for it at the last minute. I was feeling expansive and forgiving with the buzz of the day's experiment still pumping from my adrenal cortex. He responded to my text with a courteous and apologetic one of his own: "Sorry babe. Still busy with the merger paperwork." He didn't mention my experiment at all. He didn't say anything about making history or even making my thesis defense a virtual certainty. I didn't know how to deal with that, so I decided not to.
Tom bought the first round for the table, and then Dr. Dunn, who insisted that I call him Danny, bought the second. I told them about how I was feeling when I flipped the switch, that heady, hormonal mixture of arrogant certainty and limbless fear. Everyone nodded their head in recognition and the stories starting flying around the table. It was good to be among scientists tonight. It was good to be among people who cared.
After a while, a shitty band started playing old rock and roll covers in the back corner of the bar, and Danny pulled Professor Miller out onto the dance floor. It was nice watching them together, so easy, so carefree. It was just dancing, without any hidden meaning behind it. I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen my advisor look so happy. My brother pulled me out onto the floor a song or two later, and pretty soon the floor was crowded with bodies. I let my brother dance with this cute blonde townie and found another partner, one of the grad students in child psychology who had an office down the hall from mine.
He was cute and he was a good talker, but he was a terrible dancer. We had a great time together. I showed him a few moves, he showed me a few things not to do, we spent an hour or so cracking ourselves up. Then we went back to our table to drink some ice water and cool down, while I told him about my experiment. He listened without having any idea what any of it meant. It was challenging to try to put words to the numbers. Eventually, I gave in and used Tom's terminology. "So basically, we took a bird-shaped protein and sent it to another dimension. It flew around and then it came back and told us what it saw."
That seemed to penetrate his brain. "What did it see?" he asked.
"Well, we don't know yet. We were going to begin the analysis, but everyone else decided that first we should celebrate the fact that it made it back at all."
"So you're telling me that you got a message from another dimension, one that no human has ever seen before, and instead of reading it you came to a bar?" His face creased with incredulity. The look widened his dimples.
"Yeah. It's a little frustrating, but it's pretty normal for science. There's no rush to study the data. It'll take us weeks and weeks to go through all the information the bird brought back with it. And the fact that the experiment worked at all is definitely worth celebrating. There were so many things that could have gone wrong?"
So sue me, I was more than a little tipsy. I gave him the whole list of ways. It took me over half an hour. Somehow, I did not get laid that night.
I got a full night's sleep and then some, then dragged my hungover brother to a late breakfast at the West Egg Cafe before he flew back home. He'd offered to stay a couple of days to help me analyze the data, but we both knew it was just a courtesy offer. He had obligations at Swift Industries and anyway, it would probably take him a couple of days just to get up to speed on our data protocols. I promised him that I would keep him up to date on the results. Then I drove him back to the airport.
We hugged beside his atomicar. He stepped back and took a good look at me. "Great work, Sandy. I'll tell dad all about it when I get home. He's going to be so proud of you." I didn't stop smiling for the whole drive back from the airport.
When I returned to the lab, I checked my phone for the first time that morning. There were two messages from Rick. The first offered further apologies and promised that the merger paperwork was finally complete. The second offered to take me out for lunch. I turned him down. A third text immediately arrived on my phone, adding that the lunch would be at Vittorio's. I mulled it over, reasoning that if I didn't take him up on his offer, I would probably get so tied up in my work that I would forget to eat anything at all for lunch. I accepted his offer and got to work, setting a timer for two hours.
We'd purchased a Class A hazmat suit for handling the proteins after they returned. I'd drilled with it a few times, but I'd never actually used it for work before. It took a while to put on, and it was pretty uncomfortable to wear. I entered the containment chamber, snapped a lid onto the tray of proteins, and pulled the tray off of its platform carefully. The yellow color was unexpected, but in a way that was to be expected. There were so many enzyme pathways built into the bird that I hadn't been able to work out a complete list of possible end results before the experiment. I couldn't wait to see which one this was.
I started, whimsically, with a spectrophotometer I borrowed from the freshman chem lab stockroom. Well, stole is the more accurate word but I did plan to bring it back when I was finished with it. I scanned the transmission spectra of a control sample C and the transdimensional sample A' and placed them off to the side without looking at them. I didn't expect that they would tell me anything interesting, but the color was the most instantly obvious change, so I figured it was worth recording. I took similar measurements with a viscometer, a radiometer, and a half dozen other non-invasive instruments and carefully logged all of them. I was in the middle of this logging when my timer beeped. I had twenty minutes to get to lunch, and most of that time would be taken in getting out of the hazmat suit, unless I wanted to try to impress Rick with my new fashion statement. I quickly returned the sample to the containment field and closed the door of the containment chamber.
I undressed as quickly as I could, and I was still ten minutes late to our date. Rick was sitting at a table outside. He was checking something on his phone. There was a private smile on his face, the kind of smile he made when he wasn't smiling for anyone but himself. He was wearing a sharp grey suit with a solid green tie. He had always hated wearing suits until he'd started wearing them daily for work. Rick was a very simple person when it came to clothing. He needed a uniform, and he didn't much care if it were a football uniform or a tailored suit. A uniform made him feel like he was a team player. I was wearing whichever loose blouse I'd thought would feel most comfortable underneath the hazmat suit, and I felt horribly out of my element even though I knew Rick would barely notice.
"You look beautiful," he said in greeting, after he looked up and saw me standing by the table. It was exactly what I knew he would say, and it was the last thing I wanted to hear. I pulled out the chair across from him and sat down. I tried to force myself to smile. It sort of worked.
I'd been dodging him for about a week, or perhaps he'd been dodging me, but there was nothing to do now but talk to him. I didn't know what to say, so I told him the truth. "I've missed you."
He nodded. "I've missed you too, Sandra. I'm sorry. I've been crazy busy lately, but I think we cleared the last hurdle on this merger last night. Me and MacFarlane went ten rounds over the amortization schedule, but we have something everyone can live with. The deal closes this afternoon and then I'll be your attentive boyfriend again." There was a buzzing sound from beneath the table. It was Rick's phone. He slipped it out of his pocket and glanced at the screen.
"I'm sorry, I have to take this," he said, frowning. "It's that bastard MacFarlane. Must want one last chance to screw me over." The weirdest thing about Rick becoming an M&A lawyer was that he took to it as naturally as anything else he did. He'd never used language like that before law school, but it was the way lawyers talked, and so he adapted. It was a little terrifying. I frowned, too, as he stood away from the table to take the call. I was planning to get angry at him, but then my own phone rang. It was Professor Miller.
"Hello?" I said.
"Where the hell are you?" she said, sounding angry.
"At lunch with Rick. What's going on?"
"Get back to the lab right now. It's urgent."
I didn't even bother saying goodbye to Rick.
I sprinted back to the lab. I considered activating my sneaker rocket boosters, but they weren't exactly safe to operate on a busy pedestrian walkway. Even without them, it took me half the time it had taken for me to walk to lunch. I stood at the lab door and said "Goodnight, Irene." It was shorter than my usual entrance phrase. ""Voiceprint Recognized. Sandra Swift. Access Granted," the vocoder said, and the door slid open.
I surveyed the chaos. Red contamination alarms flashed above the door to the containment chamber. Professor Miller sat at the control console with a look of deep concentration. The blue containment field had been extended well past the door of the containment chamber into the outer laboratory space and it was pulsing angrily as jets of a yellow gaseous substance blasted it from the inside.
I planted myself behind Professor Miller and started scanning the control screens. As I tried to make sense of the sensor data, I asked her for an update.
"I think we've made contact with another dimension," she said. "And I think first contact has not been peaceful."
"What scenario are you thinking?" I asked. "The Gods Themselves or Buffy's Hell dimension or what?" We'd rehearsed a whole host of possible situations we could imagine, and when we'd run out of our own imaginations, we'd started culling more from classic science fiction.
"Mmm... more The Gods Themselves, I think, but I'm still sorting it out. So far the containment field is holding, but barely. The entity is exerting a nearly uniform pressure on the orb, and it's fortunately behaving according to Boyle's law so far. Danny's making sure the building is evacuated, in case I need to expand it any further. I don't want any people trapped on the wrong side of the containment field."
The sensor data filled in the rest of the details. About fifteen minutes after I'd left the lab, the containment field had noted an increase in the pressure exerted by the pseudo-protein. It had increased monotonically for the next half hour, until it exceeded a programmed limit and alerted Professor Miller and... myself. Somehow I'd missed the alert during my lunch with Rick. No wonder Professor Miller had sounded angry with me on the phone.
"Wait a minute. You said nearly uniform pressure?" I pushed in front of Professor Miller and typed a few commands at the console and a display of the pressure uniformity popped up on a subscreen. The three dimensional graph pulsed and jumped and danced as I studied it. Professor Miller swore softly under her breath as she caught up to what I was seeing.
"There's a pattern there," she whispered. I nodded a little vaguely, but I was too caught up in my analysis to respond. There was without a doubt a pattern in the pressure distribution, and I was pretty sure I could see it. I saved a minute's worth of data and fed it to Stacey's knot theory algorithm. A perfect prime knot appeared on the screen, as I'd suspected it would.
"There's a pattern. No question about it. In seven dimensions. Whoever is on the other side has taken control of our pseudo-proteins. The gaps in the pressure distribution are their control nodes." I pressed a button and the crosses highlighted in dark blue. There were eight of them.
"I think you're right. Good work, Sandra." We stared at the screen for a while. Neither of us said a word. "But what do we do now?"
I didn't have any idea either. We needed to come up with a plan, and for that I figured we would need some help.
An hour later, we convened our council of war. I stood at a chalkboard across the hall from our laboratory marking equations with a thin piece of white chalk. A direct video feed from the laboratory showed the latest progress in the war between our hijacked pseudo-protein and the containment field. We'd had to expand the containment field another two feet in the last hour. Within the next six hours, we would have to see if we could extend it out past the boundaries of the laboratory, or give up and let the containment field fail. If that happened, the results were unforseeable but likely to be devastating. The sheer power being channeling through the dimensional tunnel we'd helped create was staggering.
Professor Miller took charge of the initial briefing, to my relief. I only had to correct her three or four times on technical details, and one of those times, I may have been wrong. Our guests listened carefully. There were four of them. Danny Dunn, who fortunately hadn't yet left town, was one of them. He was an expert in aerospace engineering, which wasn't exactly relevant, but he was a clever thinker on his feet, and anyway, nobody on Earth was an expert at intradimensional travel. Next was my friend Stacey McGill from the math department. She was terrible at applications, but she had a better grasp on the theory of higher dimensions than I did. Third was a lieutenant colonel from Dobbins AFB named Jessie Wong. Professor Miller had worked with her on research projects in the past, and had called her in to decide if we needed to get the military involved. Our last guest was my brother, teleconferencing in via hologram from Swift Enterprises.
It took Professor Miller about five minutes to explain the basics to everyone. In that time, we'd increased the force field diameter by two inches, at a cost of an additional two kilowatts of power.
"And that's the situation. We have an out of control pandimensional molecule threatening to destroy the building. And we don't have any idea how to stop it."
Danny was the first to speak. "I think the first question we have to ask is, if this molecule is being controlled by some intelligence, what does it want?" It was a good first question. If we assumed that taking control of our pseudo-protein required a significant intelligence, which seemed a reasonable assumption given that we had no idea how to exercise such control and we had built the thing, then that intelligence must have had a reason for attacking us in the way it had.
"Have there been any attempts by the molecule to communicate?" Colonel Wong asked.
"Not that I've detected," I said. "But I have no idea what a communication would look like. Perhaps the color change in the molecule was itself a message, or perhaps the variations in pressure are some sort of tactile language. There are over six million forms of communication, and we didn't put any kind of key to English on the pseudo-protein when we sent it over. We may have to analyze a lot of data really creatively to see if there is any communication."
The colonel nodded as if I'd confirmed some theory of hers. "Then we can't be sure if it's hostile."
"No. But knocking this building down would be a pretty hostile act if you ask me, and we're hours away from that happening if current projections for pressure increase hold."
"I have another way to think about the problem," Professor Miller said. "Instead of working forward from motivation to action, we should work backwards from observed action to motivation. Given that we know that it is using the molecule to project a constantly increasing countering force against our containment field, what are the possible reasons why an intelligent being might do that?"
"I can think of at least four reasons," Tom said evenly. "One, the being might be threatened by our incursion and be trying to attack us in self-defense. Two, the being might be communicating with us using a pressure based language we don't understand. Three, the being might be testing our ability to disarm its probe. Four, the being might be attempting to teach us new techniques for manipulating the molecule by demonstration."
"Well, that's helpful," Colonel Wong said. "Each of those reasons would demand an entirely different response. Unless we narrow it down, we're going to need a lot more manpower to try to run down all the possibilities, and we don't have much time."
"Well, we could create a matrix of the possible evidence for each possibility and narrow it down to the most likely motivation and focus on that."
"I saw we assume it's an attack and work on increasing the strength of the containment field. If we fabricate some superconducting cables, we can bring more power into the field."
"Yes, but the physics of energy fields means we'll get diminishing returns as we increase power, and the pseudo-protein's pressure increases are showing no sign of slowing down."
The argument would have gone on if I hadn't had a sudden brainstorm. I interrupted them. "You're all thinking about this the wrong way." Which was probably my fault, for choosing a physicist as an adviser. "Everyone has been considering the macroscopic effects and the physics of the problem, but the pressure field emanates from the pseudo-protein, and the pseudo-protein is my own creation. We know it at least as well as they do, and we have better access to it within our brane. What we need is a molecular solution, a catalyst that will deactivate their control nodes and restore our control over the pseudo-protein."
"Can you do that?" Danny asked.
"I think so. Stacey and I will need to get help from Professor Marris in the molecular biology department, but I think we can do it."
Stacey started sketching patterns excitedly in her notebook. "We can use the bradyonic microscanner to sequence the altered molecule and compare it to our baseline. I'm not sure yet if our binding agent will need to be in five or six dimensions, but we can fabricate it. Right Sandy?"
I nodded. "But we'll still need everyone else's help. The containment field is non-permeable. In order to deliver the catalyst, we will have to deactivate the containment field momentarily. The longer the field is down, the greater the danger to the building and all of us, so the delivery vehicle needs to be very fast and very accurate."
I could see Professor Miller's face light up in excitement as design ideas filled her mind. "Danny and I can handle that," she said.
"I'll help," my brother said.
I couldn't help smiling. A plan was coming together. We had this under control, at last. "Okay, let's get to work. we don't have much time."
Synthetic chemistry is fun. Tedious, sure, and painstaking, and error-prone, and dangerous, and often agonizingly frustrating, but very little beats total organic synthesis for the pure intellectual satisfaction. It takes every last brain cell you have to solve a problem in organic synthesis. Stacey and I knew the shape we wanted our binding agent to have, and we knew in broad strokes how we wanted to get there, but the devil was in the details. I was a relative novice when it came to this kind of sui generis molecule building, and we needed something fast, so we went down to Professor Marris's office to bring in an expert.
She wasn't there. We'd forgotten that the building had been evacuated, in all the fuss. I sent her a text and she was back at her lab in minutes, looking anxious and scared but ready to go to work. It only took a few more minutes to bring her up to speed. We then proceeded to completely forget about the outside world for the next three hours. When we emerged from the laboratory, we had a vial of viscous purple liquid with the potential to save the world.
I walked it back up to Professor Miller's laboratyr, careful not to drop it.
"To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman," I said. The door opened. Danny and Professor Miller were inside, watching as Colonel Wong took aim with an oddly-shaped, bright orange pistol.
"We're back," I said. They turned to greet Professor Marris, Stacey, and me with a start. The colonel barely kept from pointing the pistol at me. I hopped back a foot.
She saw my alarm and gave me a slightly feral grin. "Don't worry, the ammunition is all Nerf. Even if I were trigger happy, you'd be perfectly safe."
"I don't particularly enjoy getting shot in any case." But I shrugged and moved deeper into the room, placing the vial into a benchtop holder for safekeeping. "I take it this is your delivery mechanism?"
Danny nodded. "We needed something accurate and controllable, and with projectile speed high but not too high. Tom designed a breakable glass 'warhead' to mount on the tip of the dart, and I fabricated it. When you drop the containment field, Colonel Wong will fire as many shots of your binding agent as she can in three seconds, which is a surprisingly high number, and then you'll bring up the containment field again and we'll monitor the response."
"Sounds like a plan," I said. "I'll load up the warheads myself. I should be ready to execute the plan in five minutes. What's the status of the containment field?"
"A little shaky, but it's holding so far. I'm glad I made you run those extra tests the other day. We proved the system far beyond what I thought we would need, but we're using every bit of it now." Professor Miller looked sober. I was glad she was here. Her presence made me feel calmer, kept me from thinking about what could go wrong.
I took a quick peek at the control console and confirmed the readouts. We were drawing a hell of a lot of power, taxing the limits of our transistors, but everything was working as it should and we had not yet exceeded design limits. I took a deep breath and nodded, feeling a little bit proud. The containment field was working. Everything was working as planned, except for our transdimensional visitor, and we were about to send that problem back where it belonged. I could do this, I told myself. I corrected myself immediately. We can do this.
I dropped a syringe into my vial and drew back the plunger. Carefully, I lifted the syringe out and injected exactly fourteen milliliters of the binding agent into the first glass delivery vessel. I then reseated the warhead's gasket, twisted its gasket clamp closed, and set it aside. Somebody else would attach it to a dart, I wasn't sure who. I was too busy filling the next glass container, and the next, and the next. I trusted that everyone else was handling their assigned tasks with equal focus.
Finally, everything was ready. Colonel Wong stood as close to the containment field as possible, her dart gun aimed directly at the original pseudo-protein container. Her face was grim and determined. I sat at the control console. The commands to deactivate and reactivate the field were already entered and ready to execute. Everyone else was in our fallback room, nervously monitoring our status.
"Ready, colonel?" I asked
"Deactivating containment field in three, two, one," I counted. I pressed the enter key and sent the command. The blue-ish field vanished. Colonel Wong fired darts. I blinked in amazement as shot after shot splashed into the pseudo-protein container. Three seconds passed and the containment field reactivated.
Almost instantaneously, the pressure on the containment field dissipated. I let out my breath. From her position near the field, Colonel Wong called out, "It's turning back to red." I rushed over to watch. She was right. The pseudo-protein molecules, the bird molecules to use my brother's coinage, were back in their original shade. I shook my head. What a hell of a day.
We called everyone back into Professor Miller's lab. There was a lot of hugging, a lot of shouting, a lot of calls to repair to the bar once more. The trip to the bar would come in due time, I knew, and there was no avoiding it, but there would be a lot of cleanup work to follow in the morning, and the mornings after that. We had petabytes of data about humanity's first encounter with the higher dimensions, and we would need to make sense of every last bit, because the genie was out of the bottle. We couldn't set this experiment aside and forget we'd ever tried it, not now that whatever was out there knew where we were and knew how to reach us.
One thing I knew for sure: My doctoral thesis was not going to look anything like what I'd thought it would.
There was a buzzing from my hip pocket. I plucked my phone out of it and took a look. It was Rick, of course. "Done with McFarlane," his text message said.
I texted him back.
"Done at the lab. Meet me at the bar in ten minutes."
It was the same bar I'd been at last night, but it felt different tonight. A lot of things felt different tonight. Professor Miller and Dr. Dunn were over in a corner having a celebratory drink together, but I'd asked them to leave me out of it and they were... studiously... ignoring me. It felt nice to know that they were there backing me up for this. After today, I knew that whatever I did, I had people who would be there to support me even at great personal risk.
I had beaten Rick to the bar, so I got a table as far away as i could from other people and ordered a pair of martinis. I left Rick's on the other side of the table and took a sip from mine. He'd introduced me to the drink, years and years back. It was so much more sophisticated than the drinks the other kids were having at their boring high school parties, he'd said. I hadn't liked the first martini I'd had very much, but it had grown on me over the years. It reminded me of when we'd first starting trying to figure out how to be adults, together.
I spotted him as he entered the bar, before he saw me. He waved to Professor Miller, who gave him a nod in my direction. He turned and a smile lit up his face that melted my heart completely. He practically ran to the table, grabbed my hand, and kissed the back of my palm very lightly. I blushed. He was wearing the same suit he'd been wearing earlier today, and he still looked incredibly handsome. I stood up and wrapped my arms around his neck and he put his arms around my back and we stood in place together for a long moment. Then we sat down. I felt myself starting to panic, so I looked over at Professor Miller. She smiled supportively.
"So how was your day?" Rick asked. I couldn't help myself. I burst out laughing. There may have been a few tears, too, but mostly it was laughter. Rick waited it out patiently, a relaxed smile on his face the whole time. When I finally stopped laughing, he nodded and said "One of those days, eh?"
"I had a day for the ages. Remember that time Tom turned you into an ape? That was a calm day compared to today."
His eyes widened slightly. "Oh. Well, I'd love to hear about it."
I told him everything. It was shorter than this account, because I knew Rick would never understand all my scientific language, but it was pretty thorough. He listened to it all, asking smart questions occasionally but mostly just listening to the whole thing. When I was finished, he said, "Well, you've definitely topped the story of me and MacFarlane."
"Tell me anyway, it'll relax me," I said, and he snorted in laughter.
"You know, I always thought that's why Tom kept me around. I'd tell him about how tough Coach rode me at practice that day and it would confirm to him that everyone else was living a nice, easy, normal life."
I couldn't help but giggle at that. "Maybe, but he also kept you around because you're smart and loyal and fun to be around. And because when he was in trouble, he could always count on you being there for him."
"And meanwhile, you saved the world today and I wasn't there for you. I'm sorry, Sandy. I really am." And that was really all I needed to hear from him, except that as soon as he said it I realized that I hadn't needed him to say it. I'd always known that he would be there when I needed him, because that's the kind of guy he was. What I hadn't realized was that the ways I needed him weren't the same ways that Tom needed him.
"I'm sorry, too. The stress of the past few weeks has really been killing me, and I've been acting badly. I've been getting mad at you for being unavailable, when I've been just as unavailable to you." I raised my martini glass to toast with him. He clinked his against mine. "I'm really glad you're here tonight. Now tell me about MacFarlane."
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Professor Miller winking at me.