Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Higgs Boat

Renata already had her license, insurance, and registration in hand when the officer arrived at her door. She slid open the window and handed them over. He was younger than her youngest nephew.

“Ma’am, is there a reason you were going 85 mph?”

She choked back the response, “Because my subcompact won’t go any faster,” and instead answered, “It’s an emergency!”

“What emergency?”

“It’s hard to explain.”


“A young man… well, younger than I am, older than you… he is about to make a terrible mistake. I need to stop him.”

“What sort of mistake? Do you mean suicide?”

“Yes! Well, no…”

“Which is it?”

“He is about to do something foolish that could be dangerous. Please, this really is an emergency.”

“Is this foolish thing illegal?”

“I don’t think the law covers it.”

“Then I can’t help you, but it is all the more reason for you to arrive alive.” As he handed her the ticket, he added, “Keep your speed down.”

She never would get used to being lectured by baby-faced authority figures, but she answered “Yes, alright.”

A roar assaulted her eardrums and her vehicle lurched as the shock wave struck. The officer was nowhere in sight, but the windshield of his patrol car had shattered. She guessed her open window had altered the pressure effects enough to save hers from the same fate. Straight ahead a mushroom cloud rose into the air over the small town of Griffin, Missouri. Renata was sure nothing about Konrad’s experiment could have caused a nuclear detonation, so this was something else – very likely the same thing that had destroyed his father’s experiment a decade earlier. At least that one had been conducted safely in orbit. The traffic stop was a lifesaver. Had she been much closer to Griffin the shock wave would have been lethal. In the passenger side mirror she saw the officer crawling on his knees out of the ditch by the side of the road. He was dazed but apparently unhurt. Renata put her car in gear, crossed over the center median, and headed back toward home. She doubted that under the circumstances the officer would follow and ticket her for the illegal U-turn.

The knock at her apartment door came fully three weeks later.

“Renata Grant?”


“FBI ma’am. I’m Agent Morrow, this is Agent Kerkorian.”

Both agents wore black suits and white shirts, though Agent Morrow wore a blue tie and Kerkorian wore a bolo string tie. Renata wondered if her string tie was a violation of the Bureau’s dress code. She also wondered if Morrow practiced his piercing glare in the mirror. Like the officer a few weeks before, both were absurdly young.

“Come in. I’ve been expecting you,” said Renata.

“And why would that be that ma’am?” asked Morrow.

“Let’s not play games,” she said. “You are following leads about Griffin and my traffic stop is one of them.”

“We are aware of your speeding ticket. What brought us to your attention, however, is your telephone contact inside the blast zone shortly before the event.”

“I see the NHS is still in the business of collecting telephone data. Surely there were many calls in and out of the blast zone. What brought your attention to mine?”

“Please return the favor of refraining from games. Your contact was at or near ground zero.”

“Do you talk?” Renata asked Kerkorian.

“No,” she said.

“OK. Well, that would be Konrad Masing, as I’m sure you know,” Renata said to Morrow. “I worked with his father Gregor at CosmoTech Research for many years. Konrad has spoken to me a few times about continuing his father’s work.”

“Was blowing up Griffin Missouri his father’s work?”

“No, of course not, and I’m sure Konrad didn’t intend any such thing. He was just reckless. He didn’t think through the consequences.”

“So you believe he was responsible?”

“I believe you think he was.”

“Ms. Grant…”

“Doctor Grant.”

“Very well, Doctor Grant. Please answer the question.”

“Yes. I’ve little doubt he was responsible.”

“Why didn’t you come to us immediately with this information?” he asked.

“It was too late by then, wasn’t it? Besides, what if by some remote chance I was wrong? What if the explosion was set off by a third party to destroy his work? It was best to let you people look into it first without bias.”

“That was an inappropriate decision. There are others who will want to ask you many more questions about this.”

“‘Others?’ Do you mean other FBI agents?”

“Among others, yes. But for our preliminary report, what can you tell us about Mr. Masing? And, if you were aware of his plans, why did you not contact police to stop him? I must tell you at this point that you have the right…”

“I know my rights.”

“Good. I’m also serving you with a warrant,” said Morrow, removing a document from his jacket pocket. “We will be taking your computer and other devices for analysis.”

Renata accepted the warrant and dropped it on the coffee table without examining it.

“Yes, I assumed you would. Please sit down. I’ll make tea and try to explain.”

“We don’t want tea.”

“I do. I’ll bring mugs for you too. Whether you drink from them or not is your business,” said Renata.

The two agents looked at each other. Kerkorian nodded. Both sat down on the apartment couch. The couch was ugly with a floral pattern faded by sunlight, but it was well stuffed and comfortable.

Shortly after the teapot shrieked, Renata carried in three mugs, cream, and sugar on a wooden tray. She set it on the table on top of the warrant.

Kerkorian tried a sip without adding cream or sugar. “Mint?” she asked.

“Yes, I’m out of Earl Grey,” she said.

“This is fine,” said Kerkorian.

“I’m glad it’s fine,” said Morrow with a hint of irritation. He left his mug untouched. “Can you address my question now, Doctor Grant?”

“It began with Konrad’s father,” said Renata. “As I told you, Gregor Masing and I worked for the same research company up until a decade ago. I overstated the case when I said I worked with him. We worked on completely different projects in the same facility. Much of our work was classified – or at least was an industrial secret – so each team kept its project very separate. Gregor’s last project was very hush hush and ‘need to know.’ I didn’t need to know, but just from what I picked up by crossing paths, I deduced it had something to do with dark energy. Everyone on all the other teams was surprised when our parent company launched Gregor’s device into low earth orbit. That was a huge investment for the cheapskate accountants who ran it. He must have convinced them the project had a very big upside if it worked.”

“Did it?”

“No, at least not as planned. The payload blew up. You may remember the news report with the lame cover story about an earth resources satellite that failed to reach proper orbit.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Yes, I suppose you were too busy in high school to pay attention to such things. Well, it wasn’t an especially big explosion, I should mention. Everything just seemed to shatter. Fortunately it happened by design in very low earth orbit, so atmospheric drag brought the pieces back to earth pretty quickly without further littering orbital space. It was a several hundred million dollar loss for the company – a major accounting disaster. So, the project was scrapped. Gregor died just weeks afterward from a cerebral hemorrhage. Maybe stress over the whole affair had something to do with it. I retired from the company a year later. That was that until a month ago when Gregor’s son Konrad got in touch with me.”

“Why you?”

“Because his father liked me.”

“When you say ‘liked’…”

“Yes, he cheated on his wife with me. He must have shared this fact with Konrad, which I find a little creepy. Konrad’s mom died not long after his father, so I guess Konrad figured I was the closest thing to family he had left. It turned out Gregor also left him detailed information about the experiment.”

“If the project was classified, wasn’t that a violation of secrecy?”

“Yes, yes. But I didn’t say it was classified. I said only that it was hush hush. I have no idea what its formal status was or whether Gregor violated the law by talking to his son. Anyway Konrad told me that Gregor had attempted to diminish the Higgs field within a defined space. A device to do that was the payload that broke up.”

“Higgs field? I recall a fuss about a Higgs particle and CERN some years ago. Is that related?”

“Yes, I’m glad to see your attention wasn’t totally preoccupied by girls and football.”

“Why? I mean, what would diminishing the field accomplish?” Morrow asked.

“The Higgs provides particles with mass. Reduce the field and you reduce the mass. Imagine the advantage to propulsion if you can make your craft lighter. Or the advantage to any heavy lifting. Konrad believed that his father’s design was sound, and that whatever went wrong with his experiment involved some conventional failure such as a leaky fuel line, a problem with the conventional power source, or some such thing. So he intended to duplicate the experiment.”

“Where did he get the money to do that?” Morrow asked.

“Most of the cost of the original was putting the device into orbit. Surprisingly, most of what Konrad needed to build it on the ground was off-the-shelf technology and relatively inexpensive, though he said it took all of his savings nonetheless. For his conventional power source he could tie directly into the power grid. I warned that there was probably a reason his father’s experiment had not been tried on the ground. I suggested he show caution and assemble a team rather than go it alone. But I saw nothing in any of this that actually was police or FBI-worthy.”

“But something alarmed you enough to speed toward him on the day of the Incident.”

“On the morning of what you call the Griffin Incident, Konrad called to tell me something else. He said he had some sort of inoperable brain tumor. He said he had nothing to lose and he was proceeding with the experiment. He said he had constructed an airtight steel and Plexiglas ball as the target for the Higgs reduction. He was getting inside and trying it on himself. He said he would call me afterward. I told him not to try it, but he hung up and wouldn’t answer again. What he was doing sounded suicidal to me so I got in my car and headed toward him.”

“Why would he target himself?” Morrow asked. “To prove that whatever he was doing was safe for humans?”

“I hoped so, but another possibility came to mind that I should have considered earlier. It was why Gregor conducted his in orbit, but even there it was reckless.” 

“But you said the blow-up in orbit wasn’t very big.”

“It wasn’t, but that was just luck. It easily could have caused serious damage. You see, I think Gregor’s experiment worked – it just worked better than he expected. I think he figured that out before he died.”

“You still haven’t told us what caused the Griffin explosion? Our first speculation was the detonation of a low yield tactical nuke, but there wasn’t the right isotope signature. Besides, who would target Griffin?”

“It wasn’t a nuke. Think about this,” said Renata. “Suppose Gregor and Konrad not merely could reduce the Higgs field but cancel it in a small volume of space.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Everything in the affected area would have zero mass.”


“So by definition massless objects travel at the speed of light. And the motions of massless particles are probabilistic, not deterministic. They can go anywhere. Suppose an object went down. As soon as it was outside the Higgs-canceled area it would get its mass back but it still would be traveling at near light speed. What do you think the effect might be of even a modest object striking the earth at near light speed?”

“Is that what happened?”

“I think so.”

“So Konrad and his sphere plowed into the ground? Why would he want to do that?”

“He didn’t,” she said. “He wanted to go into space. The capsule he built for himself was rudimentary and he knew he would die in it, but he was willing to accept that. When his sphere ran out of oxygen…well, there are worse ways to go than asphyxiation. You get dopey first so you scarcely even know it.”

“But instead of going up as he hoped he went down.”

“I don’t think so,” said Renata. “From his description, his capsule probably would have caused more damage than what happened at Griffin. My guess is that maybe some light scaffolding that held the sphere in place slammed into the ground but that the sphere itself went elsewhere.”

Kerkorian’s surprised Renata by asking a question as she put down her empty mug. “Konrad told you he would call. Is that why you called a Dawn Sanford over at Grey Ridge Observatory?”

““Yes, she is an old friend, and I suspect already you know everything about that call.”

“Whether we do or not, we want to hear about it from you. Sanford is associated with SETI, isn’t she?” Kerkorian asked.

“‘Associated’ is a strong word. She shares an interest.”

“Do extraterrestrials have anything to do with this?” asked Kerkorian.

“No,’ Renata laughed. “Not to my knowledge.”

“So, what did you talk to her about?”

“As I’m sure she told you, I asked her to search for a signal in an unusual wavelength. Konrad told me to try the wavelength if he didn’t ring me on the phone. It’s what made me finally realize what he was up to.”

“Did she find the signal?”

“You know she did. The signal was highly redshifted, but when compressed it was readable. It repeated ‘I made it’ on a recorded loop.”

“Actually, we haven’t talked to Dr. Sanford yet. She is our next stop. So Konrad Masing is in space?” Kerkorian asked.

Renata realized she had said too much, but there was no backtracking now. “By now the object is far outside the solar system,” she said, “and I’m sure its occupant is deceased, either from asphyxiation or radiation.”

“Not from acceleration?” said Kerkorian.

“You mean, was he splattered on an interior wall? Probably not. The whole object including him lost mass together, so in his frame of reference there should have been no sense of acceleration.”

“I have to ask you come with us, Doctor Grant,” said Morrow.

“Am I under arrest?”

“There are people who will want to ask you questions in this matter of national security. Do I need to arrest you?”

“No. I’ll come along, but I really can’t tell you any more than I have.”

“Well, tell it again to the others.”

Renata gathered a few of her things and preceded the agents into the hallway. She decided not to mention something else that Konrad had told her. Gregor’s and Konrad’s engineering drawings already had been emailed to scores of colleagues and laboratories around the world. It was amazing no one had leaked the information yet. Maybe no one at this point fully understood the significance of what they had received, but some soon would. Then everyone would. She figured the technology would have been rediscovered eventually anyway. It might as well be now, and was probably better in multiple hands now rather than just in one – or so she hoped. The Masing Effect could open up the galaxy for exploration, or it could make a lot more Griffins, maybe by intent. But the world hadn’t been safe for a long time. She hoped for the best.