Interplanetary Bicycles and the One Back Home by Gustavo Bondoni
Robert looked down the long, empty tunnel and imagined it filled with shining tubes. Inside those tubes, his mind’s eye could clearly visualize particles – subatomic and invisible, speeding at incomprehensible velocities towards a target at the far end.
But those days were long past.
A scratching sound filled his head, the precursor to an in-system transmission, a phone call from the outer reaches of the solar system. He stopped and paid attention.
“Hey old man.” The voice on the other end was unmistakably that of Stirling Licht, who wasn’t a youngster by any means. “Just calling to let you know that, by the time this gets to you we’ll be one hour away from initialization. So if the universe suddenly goes bye-bye, you’ll know we were the ones to blame. I guess I’ll be pretty unpopular with everyone if there really is an afterlife, but that’s the way it goes.” The other man paused. “Seriously, I wanted to thank you for … well for everything. We couldn’t have done this without you, and we all wish you were here with us. Thank you.”
Tears welled in Robert’s eyes, and he looked down the tunnel, dark now save for the illumination from his miner’s helmet. What had once been the pinnacle of human engineering was now just another abandoned hole in the ground. By this time the next day, the entrances would be blocked off, the elevator shafts filled in, to avoid accidents.
But for today, he could enjoy the ride around the ring and try to remember how it looked when it was full of piping, wiring and complex detectors as opposed to bare rock and holes in the walls. The sound of his bicycle’s wheels echoed ahead of him.
While his technicians watched the data feeds, Stirling Licht looked out the front window at the sensor. The huge structure floated in space, looking just like an electric motor from the toy cars he used to dissect as a child, except this one was the size of a skyscraper. The sensor’s technical name was High Energy Scruon Experiment, which the team had immediately turned into Hissy.
Stirling was well aware that there would be no outward sign that the detector was working – unless the energies released finally did live up to the panicked predictions of the anti-science set and destroyed the universe, in which case he wouldn’t see anything anyway – but he couldn’t tear his eyes off it.
“Hissy is up and running, ready for its first fit,” the head tech announced. He was seated behind Licht facing one of the monitors that filled the center of the shuttle’s living area. Eight other techs sat in expectant silence, concentrating on their own monitors.
Licht nodded. “Initialize,” he replied. No experimental data would be collected on this particular run, just confirmation that the particle beam could be accelerated to the Tera-electron-Volt range, making this the most powerful particle accelerator in the history of mankind. Only after that was confirmed would they scale it up for real power.
The technician flipped a switch.
In the dim light, images came back to him. The day, nearly sixty years before, when the Large Hadron Collider had been put on line deep in its underground lair. There had been a real edge to that event – people protesting that the expense had already been too much, that the money would be better spent on social programs, that knowing the reason that particles in the universe had mass was less important than solving hunger in Bolivia.
And then there were the real whack-jobs. The people who insisted that the LHC would create a black hole that would swallow the Earth. That energies being created were well beyond humanity’s understanding. This had been the first big physics project in the internet era, and the information had been available to any fool who cared to look. Too many fools had.
Robert sighed. You could say what you wanted about the politics and stress of the time, but it had been an exciting moment to be a physicist.
Everything After that had been a let-down. The passages he was riding down had been used intensively for one month, the time it took to run the preliminary data analysis, and for everyone to understand that they wouldn’t be getting any definitive answers from this machine. After that, the white elephant had been kept semi-operational just because people believed that the detectors themselves could be used in its successor. Not since the atomic bomb had a machine been so successful and yet so vilified.
Most of the cobwebs were also sixty years old. Except for the ones that had been torn away by the men who’d dismantled the whole thing. Only dust remained of the glory now, and that would only be accessible until the workers sealed the shafts.
The only way to be in contact with high-energy particle physics would be in space – no place for an old man whose body would never survive the acceleration of a rocket launch.
“What’s going on?” Stirling asked as he reached the cycle bay.
The ashen-faced assistant merely handed him a print sheet – ionized to show text, a short message: We cannot allow you to put this machine in motion. Science has gambled with our lives too many times. You’ve already lost one gamble – the stakes are even higher this time. It was unsigned, but that didn’t really matter – Licht had long since stopped trying to make sense of the players on the lunatic fringe.
“So what did they do? And who’s the loony?” The extremist anti-science groups always managed to infiltrate people into every project they opposed, despite strict screening done on everyone from the project directors to the cleaning crew.
The tech just pointed to an empty niche, and Stirling’s heart fell. That niche should have contained a one-person planet bike – a rocket scooter suitable for short hops between the ship and nearby equipment – but it stood empty. “As far as we can tell, the terrorist is Hannah.”
“!” That was an unexpected twist. Hannah Moss was the morale officer. Not a physicist, but a psychologist whose role was to keep the rest of them sane during their six-month stint inside the cramped spacecraft. Then again, it was logical. None of the team’s physicists would try to sabotage this particular mission. Curiosity would overcome whatever brainwashing was attempted.
There was really only one thing to do. Following her in the ship was too risky; she was obviously bound for the Hissy sensor, and trying to maneuver the enormous ship near the experiment was likely to result in bent antennae or worse. Licht walked to another niche and popped the hatch to the second bike. “Track her and keep me posted on her movements,” he ordered and sealed the opening.
No matter how often he went out, Licht was always fascinated by the sheer peace of space. The single-person craft was small enough that the silence seemed to drift through the bulkhead. He was in a state of near-panic but the emptiness calmed him, if only a little.
His instruments lit up as the main ship was transmitted coordinates for the stolen planet bike. Hannah was ten kilometers ahead, nearly half-way to the Hissy sensor, and moving at top speed. There was no way he could reach her before she did whatever it was she was planning to.
He toggled the intercom. “Hannah, can you hear me? This is Stirling Licht.”
His only reply was static.
“Hannah, come in. Please. What you’re doing doesn’t make any sense. You don’t understand the physics involved. You’re just a tool for ignorant people who hate science!”
That managed to elicit a response. “That’s an interesting argument, seeing how you represent a group of people who’ve managed to be wrong almost every time they set their minds to it. Remember the LHC?”
“The LHC posed no risk whatsoever to human life. It achieved its goals perfectly – so well in fact that it became nearly obsolete after the first month’s analysis was complete. It was built mainly to find the Higgs boson, and it did. Very quickly, too.”
“I’m certain we would all have been much more impressed if the particles it found had done anything like what they were supposed to. Your predictions were wrong then. They can easily be wrong now, except you’re playing with a million times more energy. Do you really think we can just sit on the sidelines and watch you gamble our lives away?”
“The predictions weren’t wrong. The Higgs boson appeared almost immediately!”
“Yeah, and you had to rewrite the entire set of equations to account for the fact that it only did half of what you predicted. That doesn’t sound like much of a success to me. Even the guy who named the missing particle set agreed with us. Or have you forgotten why they’re called scruons? You people are completely unbelievable.”
Stirling knew that he had no choice now but to try to stop her physically. But there would be three minutes during which she’d have the Hissy to herself. God only knew the kind of mayhem she could wreak in that time. Despite its size and the radiation shielding, the High Energy Scruon Experiment was a delicate piece of equipment – one of the most accurate ever built by man.
He cursed the designers of the bikes for not giving them more top speed – although he knew that that would also help Hannah in her flight – and for not having slave circuits built into them. That would have solved all their problems; they could simply have overridden Hannah’s manual controls and brought her back to the ship. He punched the control stick, but that didn’t cause the scooter to move any faster.
Hannah had reached the edifice-like jungle of tubes and metal plates that was Hissy. To Stirling’s surprise, she didn’t drive the bike directly into the airlock in order to attack the more sensitive areas. She simply pressed the its nose against the experiment and began to push it out of its orbit, using full thrusters to do so.
Hissy had been designed to be self-adjusting to a certain degree, but its tiny attitude rockets were no match for the scooters’ thruster, and the platform began to drift slowly. Very slowly.
By the time Stirling arrived, the whole thing had moved nearly fifty meters out of orbit, which would require months of realignment. And yet, Licht could see Hannah inside her bike, teeth clenched, pressing the control stick forward as far as it would go. She seemed determined to push the experiment out of the solar system altogether.
Despite her canopy giving her a full view of the sky, Hannah had no inkling that Stirling had followed her, and her face registered furious surprise when Licht’s scooter collided with hers, sending them both tumbling away from Hissy. He used her momentary confusion to lock his bike’s grappling claws to one of her exhaust tubes.
“That’s enough,” he hissed. “You’ve already ruined months of work. Aren’t you satisfied?”
“Screw you,” she replied, her voice shrill now. “I just wish I could have found something to crash the whole thing into.”
“Another good reason for us to build it in empty space.” Licht grinned. The damage hadn’t been terrible, and the extra expense of building the accelerator above the ecliptic seemed to have paid off, even though the main reason they’d put it there was to avoid the dust particles that were more prevalent on the plane.
The would-be saboteur gunned the engine on her bike, but as Stirling’s was already at full power, it was to no avail. The scooters just went around in circles.
“I should have known you’d be the one to come after me. Typical male scientist. Despite the fact that you hold a PhD in particle physics, you just couldn’t come to terms with the intellectual nature of your profession. You seem to see yourself as some kind of cowboy from a pair of centuries ago. When you found out I was gone, did it even cross your mind that it might be a better idea to try to hail me over the ship’s radio?”
“I didn’t think you’d listen. And if I’d have done so, where would I be now? Much farther back, watching you move the experiment even further out of its orbit.”
“Excuse me, Dr. Licht?” The voice over the radio sounded extremely concerned, but, given the state of affairs, that wasn’t surprising.
“Hello Emily. Don’t worry, I’ve neutralized the saboteur and we’ve drifted far enough away from the experiment that it’s safe for you to come pick us up.”
“That’s not it, sir. The second package just cleared the final accelerator. We tried to abort it, but the system asked us for your abort code.”
“Oh my God,” Stirling said. He could hear Hannah laughing over the intercom. There was madness in that laugh, and it was obvious that not only had she overheard the conversation, but knew what it meant.
“How is our orientation?” he asked.
“As far as I can tell, it’s perfect.”
“Tell the receiving station on Earth that they’re about to get bombarded with something a lot more massive than a neutrino shower.”
It had seemed like such a good idea at the time. After all, one of the most interesting results of any particle collision experiment was the explosion of neutrinos that it originated. And what better way to insure a maximum neutrino strike on the Earth-based sensors than to put the whole orbiting accelerator into an orbit that meant that the back end of the Hissy was always pointed straight towards the planet? The beam would slam into the target, the neutrinos would fly out the back and head right for the detectors.
Of course, no one expected Hissy and its safe, distant lead target not to be there when it happened.
Robert’s bike ride was coming to an end. Even a ring twenty-five kilometers long had to end sometime, no matter how much he tried to extend the circuit by slowing and falling into nostalgia-filled reverie. No matter how many times he got off the bike and placed a hand at some spot where, as a young man sixty years before, one experiment or another had resided, ripe with the potential to aid in pushing aside the veil of ignorance just that little bit further.
Science had seemed exciting back then. The world’s mysteries ripe for the unveiling, and there had been no talk of putting the LHC in space. Back then, if you wanted to run an experiment which might seen risky to the unwashed, you just buried it underground and hoped no one would notice. And you walked through the picket lines with a smile on your face when that strategy failed.
Now, there were acres of vacuum between the collision point and the nearest observer. You’d practically have to drop Jupiter into the sun to create a noteworthy emotional reaction under those conditions.
And yet Robert knew that this was exactly what progress meant: in understanding things, one was able to remove the risk. As science advanced, even though the energies involved increased by multiple orders of magnitude, there was less and less danger. It was simply a question of being able to predict what was about to happen. Life changed, and science itself was causing it to change.
A burst of static on his comm brought him out of his reverie. He realized he was nearing the elevator shaft and the time had come to say goodbye to the tunnel that had been such an important part of his life’s work. He turned the volume up.
“… I repeat, terrorists have removed target and high-energy particles are headed towards Earth after final acceleration. Impact should occur ten minutes after you receive this transmission.”
The old man smiled. Now this was more like it. No one knew exactly what an unshielded impact at tera-electron-Volt energies would look like.
But science was about learning new things. He wordlessly thanked the LHC’s original designers that the elevator was an express model that would get him to the surface quickly.
There was more to life than stale memories.