Aether Chapter 2

(Note:  The text that appears below is a pre-release preview which is taken from a version of the manuscript prior to final proof reading and formatting.  As such, it may contain minor errors or typos which will be corrected in the final version of the novel.)

Chapter 2

SIERRA TEXTED MAGGIE EARLY, letting her know that she was buying breakfast. Maggie knew Sierra well enough to know it was an attempt to make up for the guilt she felt for asking Maggie to be her guinea pig. She also had no qualms about using Sierra’s guilt to her advantage, and insisted they go to Rampaging Burrito. Sierra made grumbling noises, but Maggie just smiled and insisted that if she was letting Sierra cook her brains with her quantum field imager, it was only fair that Maggie get to pick her last meal. A full pound of eggs, chorizo, hash browns, cheese, pico de gallo, sour cream, guacamole, black olives, and hot sauce later, Maggie told Sierra that if Sierra did cook her brains, then at least she would be in the midst of a blissful food coma.

Maggie’s teasing mood lasted until they reached the Science Annex. The building was a block from One Park Place and housed most of Sun City University’s on-campus research science labs. That would change once the new Unified Science Research Complex was finished, but until that happened, all the physicists who were doing applied science rather than just theoretical research worked in the ‘basement.’ Maggie didn’t have a lab there because most of the practical side of her work took place at the Alternative Propulsion Lab up the road at Kennedy Space Center, or across the country at the JPL in Pasadena.

Maggie and Sierra both held their breath as they walked past the semi-conductor lab, because the place always smelled strongly of burning cinderblock and latex wall paint. One of the grad students had left a CO2 laser on over the weekend a couple of years earlier, and for reasons no one understood, the stench had never gone away.

Once they were past the semi-conductor lab, they were in what Maggie thought of as the labyrinth. The Science Annex ‘basement’ was huge; the building took up nearly half a city block, and it wasn’t really a basement. Buildings in Florida didn’t have basements as a rule, because the high-water table tended to turn them into indoor swimming pools. But the ‘basement’ was sunk four feet into the ground, and you entered the building on the floor above, so the nickname had stuck.

Maggie hated the place. It housed nearly two dozen labs doing all sorts of research, but the corridors were all identical white cinderblock walls, dingy white linoleum floors, and completely unmarked. The only way to figure out where you were was to check the numbers on the doors, and if you hadn’t memorized the numbering scheme, that didn’t help much. Her first time down in the basement, she had gotten lost for twenty minutes and had a panic attack.

Sierra’s lab was all the way in the back, next to the machine shop where a lot of the physics and astronomy department’s custom equipment was made. It was also right next to Doctor Hastings’ lab. The placement, while ironic, wasn’t by accident. The machine shop and the five labs along the back wall were all on separate circuits from the rest of the building. The labs were designated as high-power requirement labs, and numbered HPRL 1 through 5.

HPRL 5 was the radiology lab where they kept the various x-ray machines and the CT scanner. Lab HPRL 4 held the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imager, or MRI machine. Doctor Chow, the head of the high-energy physics team, was the current occupant of HPRL 3. He had an honest to God fusion reactor in the lab. It was a net loss reactor, but Maggie still geeked out over it every time she ventured down into the basement. Doctor Hastings’ quantum teleportation rig was in HPRL 2, which always confused Maggie a bit. Quantum teleportation wasn’t really her area, but from what she knew, it wasn’t particularly power intensive. On the occasions when she gave it any thought, mostly when Sierra was bitching about Hastings trying to get her project shut down, Maggie just assumed Hastings wanted an HPRL lab out of vanity, rather than actual need.

Sierra, being the most junior researcher to be assigned to one of the coveted HPRL labs, got HPRL 1, which was tucked in right next to the machine shop. Most people would have resented that. It was a bit like being assigned a broom closet. Sierra, on the other hand, loved it. She said it made it easier to get her custom parts from the machine shop to her lab. Maggie knew that had more to do with the fact that the guy who ran the machine shop had a sweet tooth and Sierra baked a mean chocolate chip cookie than the lab’s proximity, but she never corrected Sierra on the topic.

Sierra swiped her badge, then keyed in her personal access code. The light on the lock turned green, and she opened the door and led the way into the lab. Maggie stopped just inside the door, looking at the device she’d spent the whole morning calling ‘The Quantum Brain Toaster.’ It sat off center in the room, which has been subdivided by a lead-lined steel wall between the machine itself and the operator’s station. Sierra insisted the wall wasn’t necessary, but her graduate advisor had been worried about stray x-ray emissions, considering the power levels involved. Safety and Ethics had refused to let her turn the imager on for the first time unless the wall was in place, and once it was there, it was easier and cheaper to leave it than remove it.

“Welcome to my lab-or-atory,” Sierra said in a really bad fake accent, which made Maggie laugh as she stared at the imager. It had taken Sierra nearly a year to build it after she’d gotten the initial grant, and she’d been running it for two years. First as part of her dissertation research, then as part of her post-doc work. In that time, she’d imaged rats, cats, dogs, and even a monkey. The theory was a bit out of Maggie’s wheelhouse, but she understood enough of it to know that it was an incredible piece of technology and had the potential to be one of the most valuable scientific instruments ever invented.

Maggie jumped slightly when Sierra touched her shoulder. She turned to look at Sierra and gave her a smile.

“Sorry. Little nervous, I guess.”

“It’s safe, Mags. I promise. No way I’d put you in there if I had even the slightest doubt.”

Maggie nodded. “I know. It just reminds me of going for x-rays on my hip.”

Sierra slid her hand down to the small of Maggie’s back and curled her fingers in, scratching Maggie’s back through her shirt. Maggie closed her eyes and did her best not to embarrass herself by purring. The gesture was oddly comforting, and Maggie always wondered where Sierra had picked it up. She never asked, because she was afraid if she did, Sierra would think she didn’t like it and would stop doing it, which was the last thing Maggie wanted. She didn’t get nearly as much physical contact as she wanted, mostly because she shied away from contact with other people as much as she could, but that was because of her insecurities over her burn and surgical scars, not because she didn’t miss the contact, and not because she didn’t enjoy the contact when she did get it.

“Come on,” Sierra said. “We’ll get an hour of footage, and then we can go see a movie.”

“Okay,” Maggie said. “As long as there are no superheroes in it.”

“I promise,” Sierra said, grinning as she stepped over by the imager. She held out her hand, and Maggie took it, letting Sierra help her up onto the bed of the imager. Once Maggie was laying down on the bed, Sierra helped her get into the right position. She took a minute to make sure Maggie’s skirt was arranged for maximum modesty. No burn scars showing below the hem line.

The simple gesture brought a smile to Maggie’s face. One that stayed there as Sierra took her hand and just held it for a minute. Sierra didn’t say anything, but Maggie understood what she was doing. Checking in to make sure Maggie was still okay with what was happening. Maggie gave her a small nod and let go of her hand. Sierra replied by giving a small salute, and headed around behind the steel wall, taking Maggie’s cane and purse with her, so they’d be out of the way.

A couple of minutes later, the room filled with a loud whirring sound, like a cooling fan in overdrive. Maggie had seen the imager in action enough to know it was the stirrers in the liquid helium tanks that fed the cooling system. The whirring went on for a couple of minutes before it stopped, only to be replaced by the low thumping of the pumps that pushed the liquid helium through the system.

“It will take about ten minutes for the superconductors to reach operating temperature,” Sierra said.

“So, I might die of boredom before this cooks my brain,” Maggie said. “Good to know.”

Sierra giggled as Maggie watched her through the leaded glass window in the partition. She did something on the control terminal, and a moment later, Norah Jones’ voice filled the room. Maggie immediately closed her eyes and let herself be carried away by the low, sultry voice. Norah managed to get through Be Here to Love Me, You’ve Ruined Me, and Light as a Feather, and was just starting a duet with Willy Nelson when Sierra spoke again.

“I’m starting the entanglement scan. Try to stay as still as possible for the next five minutes.”

“’Kay,” Maggie said. She closed her eyes and took a couple of deep breaths to center herself, trying to focus on Norah and Willie’s voices as the imager came to life. The actual scanners in the imager started moving, sounding a lot like the scan heads of a photo copier. It took Maggie a bit of effort not to laugh at that thought, but by the time Norah and Willie were done, and Norah had followed the duet with a live version of Don’t Know Why, the scan was finished.

“You can look now,” Sierra said.

Maggie opened her eyes, and there, floating about a foot above her face, was a perfect image of her brain painted in rainbow colors. The colors shifted and danced as Maggie watched, rippling and flowing around each other. She’d never seen the imager do anything like this before.

“What am I seeing?” Maggie asked.

“Your soul,” Sierra said. “Or at least, a chromatic intensity map of the quantum field generated by your brain’s neuroelectric activity. I mapped seven hundred nanometers to ‘alive, but inactive’ and four hundred nanometers to ‘your hormones when you look at a picture of Kristin Stewart’.”

Maggie laughed, but it wasn’t as long or as intense as it would have been any other time Sierra poked fun at one of Maggie’s most enduring celebrity crushes. She was too fascinated by what she was seeing to focus on anything else, and the changes to the image as she started to laugh only deepened that fascination. She was watching herself think in real time.

“Tell me you’re recording this,” Maggie said.

“Of course I’m recording this,” Sierra said. “It’s not science unless you write it down. I can’t record the field itself, not without a few petabytes worth of storage to house it, but I’m getting a really good recording of the intensity map. Once we’re ready for full scale testing, we’ll run cognitive exercises on the subjects while we’re recording the intensity map. That will let the cognition team over in neuroscience start to build models. And hopefully get us the money for the data cluster so we can start recording the field.”

“Sierra,” Maggie said.


“I know I’ve said this before, but you’re going to change the world with this.”

“Always the romantic,” Sierra said.

Maggie didn’t reply because she knew Sierra was right. She was a romantic. She was watching one of the most amazing scientific breakthroughs of her life unfold in real time right in front of her, and all she could think was that she wanted to congratulate Sierra. And by congratulate, she meant she wanted to kiss Sierra silly. She wanted to make a grand gesture of it, complete with the dip her damaged bones would never let her do. She turned her head to look at Sierra. Sierra smiled at her, and Maggie smiled back, and that was how Maggie died. Looking at her best friend, grinning like an idiot, and dreaming of kissing her.

Return to Chapter 1Continue to Chapter 3