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The Church questions whether this “anomaly” is even alive. And if alive, we question whether it is intelligent. And if intelligent, we insist—without qualification—that it has no Soul. Man cannot create a Soul; that is for God alone.

—Cardinal Robert K. Desmond

* *

As the deuterium passed through the opening, the discharge bombarded it from all sides. Electrons were torn from their nuclei, heating the fuelstuff in the plasma until the elementary particles fused together. The reaction sustained itself. Billionths of a second passed—an eternity to the plasma—while lasers delicately probed the inner workings of the maelstrom.

His own thought processes moving infinitely slower, Keller stood in silent awe, praying that it would work.

The particles bounced back and forth in the chamber, billions of times a second, unable to escape past the giant yin-yang magnets on either side of the Magnetic Mirror Fusion Facility. Long-range coulombic forces sculpted the plasma, creating swirling, complex interactions.

“And?” Keller asked.

The technician reached up to the screen directly in front of him, touching a blue icon that opened up to display two columns of numbers happily glowing green. “Everything’s perfect, Gordon. Blessed be the Holy Laws of Physics.”

Keller frowned at how the technician—all Californians, in fact—too often used his first name: especially in this, his moment of triumph after so long. He wanted to feel important.

In the background, filling the stuffy room with a much needed festive atmosphere, two operators hoarsely sang, “Fusion power, here we come!” to the tune of “California, Here I


Then someone else called from behind another barricade of control consoles. “There it goes again!”

The singing abruptly stopped.

Keller reached forward to touch icons on the top two screens, opening up another numerical display while the second screen showed the data from varying perspectives.

“Glitches again!” the technician cursed. “But they’re different from the last time.”

The data repeated itself in oddly distorted cycles. The plasma seemed to be on the verge of blowing up as the instabilities on the screen grew, then decayed, as if a dancer were lightly touching the boundary of a dance-space, feeling her way. It seemed almost as if the plasma was testing its enclosure, exploring.

Keller stared at the screen, silently urging the anomalies to go away, but knowing they would not heed him. He wanted the experiment to be over, successfully completed at long last—he had driven so hard, worked his brain to the bone. And at thirty-three, he felt he was getting to be a little too old to be the proverbial whiz kid anymore. When they brought the MMFF online, the damned instabilities were always there . . . but they were always different. Whatever the hell they were. He sighed and checked different readouts. In disgust, he walked to the windowless wall, wishing he could stare through the concrete cinder blocks to where, half a block away, a gigantic vacuum chamber held the eye of the storm, a sustained fusion reaction in a plasma confined by magnetic mirrors.

“But it does run? It’s stable?” Keller asked without turning, sounding half-defeated.

“Sure, it runs. Close enough for government work,” the technician answered.

Keller placed his hands behind his back and mentally tried to think of something historic or profound to say. “Good,” was all he could manage.

* *

This could prove to be extremely dangerous or extremely embarrassing. I don’t want it to be either.

—Confidential memo to laboratory management, regarding the MMFF anomalies.

* *

Keller shielded his eyes from the glaring, obnoxious lights. Three camcorders, eleven microphones, and sixty people crowded in a conference room that had been intended for forty-five, waiting for him to speak. Many of the reporters fingered their laminated temporary ID badges, looking with some concern at the dosimeters attached to them. Keller tried to kill the butterflies in his stomach. The DOE bigwig on his right grinned broadly and finally removed his arm from around Keller’s back. Just before entering the crowded room, the DOE man had force-fed him some coaching for the cameras. “And for God’s sake, don’t mumble!

The official held up his hands, quieting the crowd. “If you could please hold it down, Dr. Keller can say something about the Magnetic Mirror Fusion Facility.” Silence was a long moment coming, but the DOE man finally continued. “Gordon, why don’t you tell us what’s so special about the MMFF?”

Keller leaned forward, cleared his throat, and tried not to look at all the faces looking at him. “Well, to start with, thank you for coming. This really is important, I think.

“The MMFF is the simplest design of all mirror machines: as you can see from the diagrams in the press kits, it’s basically a long tube with a special type of powerful magnet on each end. The magnets act like mirrors, bouncing the plasma back and forth, confining it long enough so that fusion occurs. Once our yin-yang mirrors were perfected, all we had to do was turn it on. The MMFF doesn’t have a lot of the instabilities associated with other mirror devices, such as the tokamak and spheromak machines.”

The DOE official cut him off, interrupting with a large grin on his face. “And best of all, this machine uses no dangerous heavy elements such as uranium or plutonium. We all remember Three Mile Island. But TMI—and all other commercial nuclear power plants—rely on nuclear fission, rather than its opposite, nuclear fusion. With fusion power, five gallons of seawater could provide electricity for a town the size of Livermore for a week. Once we can bring MMFF sites up commercially, it’s a no-lose situation.”

The DOE man clapped Keller on the shoulder, then turned back to the audience. “Dr. Keller has been assigned to continue studying the MMFF, and he will release his complete findings at the November APS meeting in New York. To reiterate, the MMFF machine you saw a few moments ago is purely a feasibility study, but a study that has achieved the breakeven point in fusion energy. The next step is a facility that can be used for the commercial generation of power. And I’m sure we’ll be asking Dr. Keller for his advice and assistance during the next phase of the project. And on that note, allow me to introduce Dr. Zel’dovich, the director of the MMFF-2, currently in the planning stages.”

Scattered applause came as Keller turned, then was ushered away from the head table and into the background. He stood and watched, feeling sheltered and hidden by the other people. The fusion facility worked, despite the unexplained glitches, and he wondered if it was all over, if he had indeed completed the purpose of his life . . . if the heaviness inside him would grow any larger. When he realized he wouldn’t be missed in the conference room, Keller slipped away.

* *

What is Life? What is Death? For that matter, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? You can argue yourself silly, and I don’t really care what the answer is. Right now, I want to know what the hell we should do about that Thing in there!

—Dr. F. Gordon Keller, MMFF staff meeting

* *

Keller stared at the small radio for a long moment, but ultimately decided to keep the house silent. Though he didn’t particularly want to hear the depressing sound of the rain outside, he wasn’t sure he was in the mood to hear music or another human voice, either. Keller slipped into his pair of faded, threadbare old brown cords and a lightweight cotton shirt—his “around home” clothes—but he couldn’t shed the thoughts of his work as easily as he shed his clothing. He heaved a sigh.


He placed a TV dinner with a fancy-sounding French name into the microwave, carelessly jabbing at the timer pad. They had been so careful designing the huge magnets, the fusion chamber, the diagnostics. What the hell was going on? The plasma theorists were just as stumped as the computational physicists to explain the anomalies.

The microwave sent rhythmic pulses of electromagnetic radiation into his food, warming it. Keller muttered to himself that he would never have received a Ph.D. in physics if he’d set up his plasma experiments the same careless way he cooked his food. But at least when he cooked a frozen dinner in the microwave oven, it left him with no surprises . . . disappointment maybe, but certainly no surprises.

The anomalies just didn’t make any sense.

He decided not to switch on the lights while he ate. He sat alone in the shadows, surrounded by the gray-washed dimness of the rainy windows. He stared absently at one of his son’s crayon drawings attached to the refrigerator door with an old happy-face magnet. The drawing was somewhat curled around the edges and starting to yellow, but he hoped he wouldn’t be able to notice that in the dim light. Three months—had it really been three months? He couldn’t even remember if he had answered Shelley’s letters.

It wasn’t so long ago that she’d been the most important thing in his life; and when Justin was born, the little boy had taken over that special place in his heart. And what did Keller have now? The MMFF was online, and he finally had time to spend with his family . . . time that had been so precious to him, so precious that he’d put his wife and son on hold just to complete the project—but now Shelley was gone, with Justin.

Some things just went wrong—there was nothing you could do about it, no equation you could solve, nothing you could explain with a simple, clear-cut answer.

But the plasma anomalies were a physics problem. They were solvable—they had an answer, an explanation. And if he didn’t spend too much time wallowing in self-pity, he could probably clear his head and figure out some simple thing that was causing these anomalies, these embarrassments. He had a Ph.D.—Piled Higher and Deeper, in layman’s terms—which meant he was supposed to know something about physics.

That had been his scholarly battle cry for so long. Get the Ph.D. The incessant pushing, grinding out problem sets, spending long hours at the lab. It was the single most important thing in his life, with his entire world centered around that one goal: Get the Ph.D. He couldn’t settle for anything less. And then, after actually getting the doctorate, it was as if all his personal drive had been snatched like a rug from under his feet.

He put down his fork and stared down at his wrists. Two slashes, running across the veins, had healed years ago to thin white scars, now almost invisible in the dim light by the dining room table. He’d spent so much time in the physics books that he couldn’t even kill himself right; the cuts were supposed to be made along the vein, so that the bleeding would be more profuse. He knew that now. The shock, the jolting reality of obtaining his degree—getting what he wanted more than anything else in the world—had left him with nothing else to live for. At the time, it had seemed so coldly logical: he had achieved his one goal in life, and what else was there left to do? It sounded trivial now, but it did help explain his depression about finally completing the MMFF.

But what were the damned glitches?

Depression—it was such a nice excuse. He could still remember his mother, but at the time he had been too young to know what “cancer” was; watching her die had been a profound experience for him. One moment she had been lying on the white bed, as she had for the previous interminable weeks, connected to a wall full of electronic machines. An oscilloscope displayed patterns that showed she was alive.

Her suffering went on. The doctors all said she couldn’t experience pain in her coma, but young Keller suspected otherwise. They said she couldn’t feel the long, long time she spent on the machine, that it wouldn’t be real to her. Keller had felt an urge to end it all for her, to make it stop. . . .

But then one moment the machine had changed its mind and pronounced her dead. His grandparents said that the Hand of God had reached down and taken her soul, but young Keller had seen nothing. Even now, Keller still found it difficult to understand, with the physicist in him trying to break down the entire experience into specific questions with specific answers.

What actually had taken place during those few seconds in the hospital room? What actually had been the difference between life and death? Just a tiny voltage differential across the brainpan?

He remembered the somber warnings from his electronics classes about the kid who had leaned over a bank of capacitors: a line had slipped and the capacitors had discharged across his temples. The twenty microamps had been enough to short-circuit his head, killing him. Was that all life was, an electric field skittering around the contours of your brain? Was even the template of the brain, the body, just so much extraneous mass to hold a special electric field?

He switched on the light and switched it off again.

Glitches. Anomalies.

He decided to go back to the lab.

* *

Before going to the MMFF control room, Keller walked down the deserted Laboratory street past the trailers and other research buildings. Heavy equipment sat idle, sleeping, in wide roped-off lots near numerous construction sites. Keller stopped in front of the huge housing for the MMFF chamber, which rose into the darkness like an airplane hangar. Concrete walls three stories high plunged deep below ground to make the structure earthquake-safe. Girders strung with fog lights bathed the interior of the bay with an orangeish yellow light. Even at this hour of the night, a dozen workers kept their vigil around the armored hull of the MMFF chamber, an airtight cylinder over a hundred feet long, layered with thick sheet metal and bristling with diagnostic instruments. The great fusion chamber throbbed and pulsed, making thunderous sounds pitched just below the level of human hearing. Inside, held captive by two of the world’s largest magnets, were temperatures hotter than the sun itself, powerful enough to melt through any metal known to man. He stared for a moment, then headed to the main building.

“We’ve tried everything to get rid of them, and at times we got some responses you wouldn’t believe.” The technician was packing up, getting ready to go home in the darkness and the rain. “You know, Gordon,” he said with a lopsided grin as he looked over the readouts displaying the glitches, “sometimes it reminds me of my wife. Like we’re dealing with something that’s got a mind of its own.”

The technician left, calling his good-byes into the room. The new shift of technicians mumbled about the prospect of working the next eight dead hours of the night while the rest of the world slept. Keller smiled thinly, distracted. “Yes, like it has a mind of its own.” He stared at the readouts for along time, hypnotized by the wavering plots that sometimes displayed patterns, sometimes chaos.

He reached forward carefully without taking his eyes from the display screens. His fingers were shaking somewhat. Then he began to touch the controls, adjusting the laser probes. Injection on, and the m numbers ran up the scale: the plasma went through the sausage, kink, and firehose instabilities, all in sequence, all on the verge of getting out of control.

Injection off, and the sequence reversed . . . then repeated itself—spontaneously. Like a code. Or was it only some weird sort of resonance?

Keller drew in his breath. He sat and tried to establish a link, any link, using anharmonic modes from the RF generator. It could almost be classed as communicating.

He caught himself. Communicating?

* *

. . . The discovery at the MMFF facility opens wide a new door for the human race. It will force us to restructure our philosophy of the universe and life itself.

—Editorial, Physical Review Letters

* *

The official Lab spokesman looked good on TV, perfectly groomed, selected from the vast DOE complex as the man to best handle the explosive publicity. The late-night talk show host nodded soberly, hanging on to every word said by the panel of distinguished experts. As Keller watched, he knew the publicity generated by the televised discussion would bring out every nut, fruitcake, and religious fundamentalist who was offended by the suggestion that something was happening inside the MMFF. He had already taken his phone off the hook.

The host defused an argument among the “experts” and cut right through the static: “But has the Fusion Facility created life? Yes or no?”

The lab spokesman had been talking around the subject all night, and he finally looked as if he had been trapped. “We like to think of it as an unknown physical phenomenon which can spontaneously react to stimuli within correct statistical parameters.”

The host rolled his eyes, and the lab spokesman responded a little too defensively. “That is a direct quote from Dr. Keller’s recently published paper in Physical Review Letters. I’m sure Dr. Keller could explain what he meant to say—”

“Dr. Keller is not available for comment at your lab,” the host snapped.

“Ah, yes.” The spokesman brought his fingertips together. “He is a very busy man, and I assure you he is doggedly working on this problem.”

“I’m sure he is,” said the host dryly.

“But getting back to your question, and answering quite honestly—we just don’t know what the phenomenon is. Granted, some do claim it’s alive. But a simple virus is also technically alive. A better question would be, does it have self-awareness? These questions just can’t be answered at this time.

“But the point is that something is happening in the chamber, something we can’t explain. This was to be just a test run, a feasibility study to see if the MMFF would indeed perform as expected before we began full-scale tests. The experiment was originally scheduled to be shut down after three days of continuous operation, but, given the unusual anomalies, we have directed that the facility be kept running for as long as it takes us to understand what is going on.”

The discussion grew more philosophical, with the lab spokesman dancing away from pointed questioning. It went on and on, growing fuzzy like a plasma . . . until the spokesman leered out at Keller, stuck his head through the TV set, and made a grab at him. Keller tried to run but his legs were stuck in a magnetic field and he couldn’t stop bouncing back and forth and back and forth and—

Keller woke with a start. He blinked his eyes and realized he had fallen asleep, probably for more hours than he had slept the entire previous night. Keller glanced up at the television and saw that the panel discussion had been replaced by the climax of an Italian-made vampire movie on The Late Show.

A man—obviously the hero, obviously the vampire hunter—had pinned the king vampire in his coffin just before sunset. He held a wooden stake against the vampire’s chest and made ready to strike.

Keller stood up stiffly from his chair, tried to straighten his shirt but then pulled it off instead, and shuffled over to the television. On the screen, the king vampire had awakened, glaring in melodramatic horror at his victorious adversary and the wooden stake, but then a calm, beatific expression of relief passed over the vampire’s face.

“You are trapped, Count!” cried the vampire killer. The actor’s lips didn’t quite move in tandem with the English words.

“Trapped?” whispered the vampire. “I have been trapped for uncounted centuries. Trapped as what I am, unchanging, never to see the light of day. I have lived for so long that what you do to me is an act of kindness. I can no longer endure my life.” The king vampire closed his eyes again and drew a deep breath. “Kill me.”

Keller flicked the switch and shut off the television. “There, you’re dead.”

* *

We do a lot of stuff here, so we always have protesters. But I’m getting tired of those nuts claiming we’ve got God bottled up in there. They’re spooky!

—Security guard, MMFF

* *

With a sour and harried expression on his face, Keller wadded up the formal invitation and threw it at the motel room wastebasket. An invitation to speak to a Congressional hearing on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project. SETI wanted him to talk about “communicating with alien beings”—they had their gall, especially now!

* *

He flopped back on the hard bed. It probably wouldn’t be long before the reporters found him again—Livermore had only a few motels, and those were used mostly by out-of-town job interviewees and DOE contractors. Judging by the stories they ended up printing in their newspapers, the reporters never seemed to listen to his answers to their questions anyway, but they were damned persistent in trying to track him down.

He knotted his fingers in the bedspread. He could hide from the reporters, the decisions, the publicity—but he couldn’t hide from the problem.

The thing in the plasma had stopped communicating. Or rather, as the careful side of him liked to point out, the plasma “wasn’t spontaneously initiating any controlled instabilities” anymore. The glitches showed it was still there, still living within the fusion chamber, staring at itself in the magnetic mirror. Like Alice unable to get into Wonderland.

Keller could not fathom why the thing didn’t treasure every bit of communication, why it didn’t eagerly anticipate every new mathematical challenge. It was trapped within its huge chamber, unchanging, unable to come out. It had nothing to do but listen, and talk.

The Congressional invitation caught his eye. He hated to talk in front of people. Yet, it was the most logical thing in the world for SETI to ask him to speak on their behalf, since he was the only human being ever to “successfully” communicate with an alien intelligence.

But what in the hell was Keller supposed to say to the SETI people? Should he confess that he’d always thought their project was basically a waste of time and effort? Sure, he believed there were other civilizations Out There, but the nearest star was five light-years away, the nearest galaxy 2.2 million light-years away—as the photon flies. How in the blessed world were you supposed to hold a conversation?

If they were to receive a message from Andromeda tomorrow, it would have been sent twenty thousand centuries before Australopithicus africanus had just begun to make his first tool, just begun to chase woolly mammoths while wondering why it was getting so cold even in the summertime . . . and no one on Earth then had even the slightest desire to build a satellite antenna to listen for extraterrestrial signals. And if SETI were to acknowledge that message, how many millions of years in its grave would be the civilization that had initiated the conversation? It was all a matter of perspective on time.

And here he was, Dr. F. Gordon Keller, separated from an alien intelligence by only a thin wall of stainless steel, but he couldn’t communicate with the thing either—and he didn’t have the incredible time differential working against him. But something was very wrong with the creature in the plasma. It didn’t seem to want to communicate anymore.

Then it hit him like a load of bricks falling on his head.

How many times did he have to stare at something before the obvious answer reached out and bit him on the ass? Time scales of tenths of nanoseconds were critical to a plasma: in a second, a plasma could undergo thousands of millions of interactions. A second to Keller would be billions of times longer to something that lived on a plasma time scale.

A strange sense of horror began to grow in the pit of his stomach, and Keller even found himself feeling sorry for the thing.

Imagine being alone, trapped inside the fusion chamber for what was—to the thing—an absolute eternity. Even when Keller was communicating with it, tapping icons on the touch-sensitive screen or rapidly keying in commands—centuries would have seemed to pass between each individual finger stroke. The thing had been alive and aware for a million centuries, without a break to the monotony.

Keller remembered his mother dying, in a coma “with no sense of time,” connected to the life-sustaining machines as an oscilloscope displayed her life as a pattern on a screen.

Electrical patterns in a plasma. Putting it out of its misery would be like switching off alight. But he would be destroying the world’s oldest living thing. He would be killing a living being.

A million centuries alone and in silence, without another living being to talk to. Something wrenched in his stomach as the implications pounded themselves home. The thing was immortal, chained to an utterly useless life, unable to die as long as the MMFF remained running.

He would be giving it peace. Something in the world deserved peace.

* *

It was the dead of night, with only a skeleton crew in the control room. Nothing had changed for days. A security guard checked Keller’s badge at the gate, and then another let him pass into the control room. He wasn’t going to break in and shut down the experiment . . . he was going to walk in and shut it down. He would free the living being that had been trapped inside, bottled up for eternity by Keller’s wonderful mirrors. He moved with brisk and determined steps to the MMFF control room. Every moment he delayed meant another year of suffering for the thing.

“No change, Gordon,” one of the operators said, seeing him as he walked purposefully into the room.

Without acknowledging, Keller went to a vacant bank of computer screens and stared at the jagged display of glitches on one of them. Even as he stared, even as his heart beat, years were ticking away for the thing imprisoned in the chamber. It could only bounce back and forth and exist for millions of its years, unable to escape and see the world outside. Keller felt his eyes sting, almost with tears, at the unspeakable loneliness.

But what about himself? He’d thrown away his marriage working on this damned project, trying to push and work and achieve so that he could hold an accomplishment up before himself to prove that his life was worthwhile. Like his Ph.D., getting the degree for a trophy. Was he trying to commit career suicide this time? The MMFF success had been the pinnacle of his research, but the living thing he had created was unexpected, a blessing, a curse. Keller had hidden from the publicity, passing the responsibility to others. But no one else would see the responsibility he had now, the imperative goal to free the creature he had trapped between the magnetic mirrors. It was time for Gordon Keller to stop hiding.

Keller stared at the red switch. Emergency shutdown—the only hardwired switch in the entire computer-screen-driven control room. It would be simple. Keller held out the palm of his hand—the razor blade against his wrist, the oscilloscope in his mother’s hospital room, even the stake on the movie vampire’s chest.

With a quick thrust of his arm, he shut the MMFF down.

He would have more time for Shelley now, and Justin. He’d try to call her, and maybe—maybe—she would even admire what he had done, tell him he’d been brave. He could write a book, Memoirs of a Modern-Day Frankenstein. Or maybe Zel’dovich would consult him about how the next generation of fusion chambers could be built without spawning a new life form.

As it died, and before anyone could act or any alarms could sound, Keller thought he felt a tingling rush through his skin—a flash of dissipating electricity. But it was only his imagination, or just the release of some of the psychological weights on his shoulder. With a sigh, he slowly eased himself into a chair as the shouting started.

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