Central Oregon Coast, July 2120
It was 9:30 in the morning and that little French fucker was already pushing my buttons. Wait, Jules, not nice! Don’t be such a nationalist bigot. But he was French and definitely a fucker who was intentionally trying to push my buttons.
“Georges, quit pushing my buttons.” I said. He didn’t even look up from his work at the lab bench.
“So many buttons…” he uttered in his infuriatingly cute accent, as if he found my suggestion tedious. I might punch him someday, adorable French-ness notwithstanding. As Georges carried on with his highly annoying rightness about our next course of action, my attention drifted to the amazing futuristic space that we were working in. We were working in a spacious lab outfitted with every conceivable modern scientific instrument, with access to an enormous budget and a massive science team populated with some of the most intelligent and accomplished people on Earth. And then there was Georges and me. I still had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming up this incredible job (sometimes I pinched Georges, too, just keep him on his toes.)
Georges and I met in college, where we both studied theoretical physics. We met on the first day of chemistry lab and I realized immediately he was about 10 times smarter than me so I knew he would make a great lab partner. I’m not an imbecile by any means, but many of my gifts lay in areas like mechanical aptitude and occasional startlingly accurate flashes of insight. So while I’d be great on your post-apocalyptic dream team, but you wouldn’t necessarily hire me to take your SATs for you. As chemistry lab partner, I’m afraid I’m a bit of a dud. But I’m funny and I’ll bring you coffee, so it’s really a win for all.
After we graduated (without honors, sorry Mom), we decided to stick together and continue research in our area of specialty, which was quantum foam structures, specifically wormhole theory. We were able to get a very small grant for our research and we set up our lab at Oregon State University. The big money at the time was in propulsion technology, warp drives, fusion engines, rocket fuel efficiency, space habitation, and similar. These were the pursuits that were finally going to get us out of this solar system in the 22nd century, so PoESA and the other space corporations were headhunting engineers and scientists whose research targeted those areas.
Our project, while thrilling and important to Georges and me, had very little commercial appeal, so we had to share the lab with several other projects which all needed access to the same set of lasers which Georges and I would need to attempt to create negative mass. The whole idea of negative mass is one reason I love physics—it’s kind of like the Star Trek Mirror Universe, but way stranger than just meeting the evil (and therefore slightly sexier) version of yourself. The matter we were looking for has the opposite quality of everything any of us has ever seen, touched or smelled. It’s propulsive, not attractive (much like most of my online dating candidates, but that’s another story). A planet made of negative matter would propel any other celestial body that came near it: a moon, and asteroid, a space ship, which is objectively cool. Anyway, negative mass is one way to keep a wormhole open. We’re talking about wee, little quantum-level wormholes. And even if we could to keep one open for a nanosecond, you couldn’t enter it with any positive (aka: normal) matter or it would immediately disintegrate. As far as we knew, between the sub-atomic smallness of wormhole and its disdain of normal matter, there was not much of a chance humans could use wormholes for transportation.
However, our hypothesis was that we could squeeze a very tight radio signal through a wormhole opening in the aforementioned nanosecond before it collapsed and that would mean faster-than-light communication which mind-blowingly relevant, but not to the short-sighted clowns with the check books. So our money and lab time ran out before we had much of a chance to produce anything and OSU notified us that we needed to vacate the lab space to make room for “more viable studies”. Ouch. And that was right about the time when the weird shit happened on the moon.
PoESA (Peoples of Earth Space Administration) had just launched a routine shuttle mission to the far side of the moon to establish a radio base for interplanetary travel when said weird shit occurred. One of the technicians, Jens Ulrich, found a strange artifact and in the process of creating video documentation, he and another tech, Anjelica Reyes, were sucked into a wormhole (in a nutshell). The mission leader Rob Perkins had witnessed it: the wormhole opened up next to the two techs and seconds later they were gone. Swallowed? Sucked in? He didn’t know. Then the wormhole disappeared. A strange alien box and a wand-like thing were all that was left behind.
The bewildered and horrified crew packed the object back into its box and loaded it into the shuttle to return to Earth, after quickly and unceremoniously unpacking their cargo. The box and the Wand were turned over to PoESA to whom, amid much confusion, Rob attempted to explain what had happened to his swallowed crewmates. PoESA experts examined Rob’s camera video which had captured in detail what Rob’s vision was not acute enough to see: Jens crazily waving a wand and a wormhole forming a few seconds later.
A week later PoESA decided that it needed a physics team that specialized in quantum mechanics to study this strange alien device that had generated what appeared to have been a stable wormhole. So they tracked down Georges and me as we were packing up our lab at Oregon State University. And I mean that literally- we were humping boxes out to the car when a PoESA recruiter showed up. It turns out that our research was further along than several other teams who were working on a similar concept. Overnight, Georges and I became the subject-matter experts in the field of wormhole theory and therefore this crazy-ass alien wand. Which is clearly absurd. We were the SME’s? Our university had just ejected us for being losers with a non-viable experiment, and now this?
I was immediately overcome with a mixture of excitement and anxiety and big hairy case of Impostor Syndrome. All I could think was, how am I going to pull this off? And also: Suck it, OSU!
Regardless of our qualifications (or lack thereof, as my anxiety reminded me daily), it was thrilling to be a part of the project. The timing was perfect, not the least of which because now I would not have to explain to my mother why I was unemployed after 8-plus years of college. They were calling it Project Charybdis, which is a very dumb name. The administrators who hatched it apparently thought a wormhole is like a whirlpool…in space? Whatever, we had a sweet high-paying gig, and we were going to make wormholes. Hell yah.
The research facility was housed in a large complex of geodesic domes on the central Oregon coast. The domes were part of what had once been a thriving hippie commune in the mid-twentieth century (circa 1970) until its charismatic founder left suddenly in the early 1980s to work on Wall Street. The remaining free spirits, disheartened by his departure, abandoned the complex and procured day jobs and/or joined cults. The property went through several iterations over the next 75 years including: a vacation resort, a yoga retreat, and a highly unsuccessful restaurant that featured nothing but wild mushroom dishes. After ‘Shroom With a View closed its doors for the last time, the site was abandoned. The complex was finally auctioned by the county and Oregon State University purchased it for their Oceanography division. It remained thus until it was most recently acquired by PoESA, with a little cash and a lot of coercion. PoESA rarely took no for an answer. (Jules & Georges 2, OSU 0).
A word about PoESA (pronounced poza, and not po-eesa): I realize that the name- with the whole “Peoples of Earth” thing- makes it sound like an international public venture, but in fact PoESA is a for-profit corporation run by board members in the private sector. Any nation can join as a member for an insanely large fee, or in lieu of such (if a nation cannot afford said fee) they may contribute by sending their own engineers and scientists to work on projects; for instance, individuals who have applied for research grants in areas where PoESA needs spare capacity, or other government employees who have requested PoESA duty as a rotation. It turned out to be more efficient for many governments to outsource their space and orbital needs to an innovative company that is also beholden to its stockholders. That being the case, PoESA expected us to produce results that they could monetize and, if we didn’t, they would replace us with those who could. No pressure.
PoESA assembled a team of the best minds from all over the planet. There was our team, Physics, comprising Georges, myself, and four others who had various areas of specialty- string theory, multiple universe theory, quantum mirroring and a few other exotic studies. We were was tasked with trying to reproduce a wormhole and then figuring out exactly how it worked (magic, obviously) and then adapting it for usable technology, and finally, making PoESA and its stockholders a shit-ton of money. There was also the Cosmology team, the Astrophysics team, the Linguistics team, the Anthropology team, Mechanical Engineering and an entire army of support personnel. The complex was like a vibrant, thrumming hive of scientific academia, sitting on a sunny cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Kind of like summer camp where the popular campers are nerds and the cool kids have to bring them Cokes.
The team needed to find out what was keeping the wormhole stable. The String team suggested that the Wand could attract cosmic strings, the impossibly tiny, super-massive, infinitely long bits of cosmic spaghetti under tension. The Wand could attract the cosmic stings in pairs, the team had proposed, to prop the wormhole mouth open by forming a quantum scaffolding. The String team was losing their minds over the potential discovery. Party time, nerd-style.
While the String group continued to work out possible theories behind the Wand, the first order of business for Georges and me was to re-create the wormhole as effectively as the moon techs, but somehow not get ourselves sucked down the Big Wormhole Highway. The Linguistics unit was engaged in deciphering the alien symbols engraved on the surface of the Wand container, and Electron Microscopy was trying to determine its molecular structure and identify the unknown metal. So we started experimenting with the Wand itself to see if we could even duplicate what had happened on the moon.
The Wand, which is what everyone called it when they saw it, was an elongated teardrop shape, about 1/2-meter long. The thicker base was about 3 centimeters in diameter, tapering to one centimeter at the other end and, well, just very wand-like. You almost can’t blame that moon tech for going all abracadabra with it. It was a bright, gleaming, smooth material, almost iridescent in the sunlight. It seemed to be metallic, but not like anything fabricated on Earth. There was no obvious power source. It had no buttons or bumps or bulges; no lights- blinking or not; no buzzing, beeping or whirring sounds. The only quality it possessed to inform the user that the it was “turned on” was a tactile feedback that you felt when you performed a maneuver or held it in a certain way. We described it as a “haptic crunch”. We swayed it in a linear motion and felt nothing, then curved the motion slightly and felt a very obvious spzzzt, a little buzzing sensation. Increase the curve and SPZZZT. A week later, we were still working out the “language” of the Wand when we accidentally created our first wormhole.