art by Liz Clarke
by Nancy Fulda
Infinity: unlimited extent of time, space, or quantity. The quality of being infinite--symbol ∞.
God acted on September 13, 2014.
Teenaged brothers had shot up an elementary school in southern California, decimating the classrooms and brandishing semi-automatic weapons. They herded teachers and children into the wire-fenced schoolyard, shouting demands in the face of an impromptu negotiator. A SWAT team was on the way.
The negotiator, a balding administrator with crooked spectacles, must have said the wrong thing. One of the gunmen lurched forward and slammed his foot against the administrator's gut, dropping the older man to his knees. Gripping his weapon with both hands, the teenager trained the gun's muzzle on the administrator's head.
For an instant the world seemed frozen. Black-rimmed clouds swirled against the heavens.
A deafening thunderclap rattled the buildings as twin lightning bolts arced from the angry sky. Flashes of electricity etched the swing sets and flat-roofed buildings in stark lines of glare and shadow. The teenagers fell to the ground, guns thrown from their fingers, wisps of smoke curling from their skin.
They were not breathing.
175 meters beneath the Franco-Swiss border, in the bowels of the Large Hadron Collider, Ilyona Varga watched the breaking news story on her laptop. The fading rolls of thunder prickled her skin even through the tinny speakers. On the GRID console behind her, Dr. Pierre Lefebvre stared, fascinated, at the hypnotically flaring dots that would tell him whether he and his research team had produced the world's first experimental validation of string theory.
"There!" he snapped his fingers and waved in Ilyona's direction. "T plus 2:57:05. Note the time. We might have something."
Ilyona committed the numbers to memory and stood, unable to contain her restless energy. The feeling was back again, a vague sense of wrongness that had permeated each of their research runs over the past three days. It was a fleeting, tentative thing, hard to put your finger on; like walking into a familiar room and finding all the furniture moved one inch to the right. Ilyona paced, her fingers twining restlessly at the tip of her long dark ponytail.
She stopped next to Pierre and said: "We must end the research. We cannot perform another run."
"Hm?" Dr. Lefebvre's eyes did not stray from the console. 119 seconds of luminosity left.
"The news. Something strange is happening."
"Coincidence. People get struck by lightning all the time."
"The other events, were they also coincidence? Bengal tigers attacking drug dealers? Bank robbers stricken with stomach cramps? Over the past three days, there have been 165 cases of criminals brought to justice by natural forces." Ilyona tapped the newspaper lying discarded next to Lefebvre's coffee. "And all of them, every last one, occurred during one of our five-minute luminosity peaks."
"There! 4:13:01. Check it during the analysis."
"Pierre, have you been listening to me?"
"Are you serious, Ilyona? Cancel an international research effort that took four years to arrange? Give up the search for the extra dimensions predicted by string theory, just because a series of absurdities occurred while we were accelerating particles?"
Ilyona bit back a sharp remark. It wasn't smart to snap at your thesis advisor. Especially not when you were sleeping with him to make sure your name actually ended up on the research papers. Irritated, she left Pierre to his flashing pixels and continued prowling the room.
On the news stream, a pudgy woman had fallen to her knees, thanking God for miraculously saving her little boy's life.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we have just provided experimental validation for string theory." Pierre tossed the charts he'd been examining onto the table and smiled at the jubilant whoops from his research team.
Ilyona, he noticed, did not join the applause, choosing instead to straighten the mound of disordered printouts in front of her. She didn't seem to have discussed her concerns with the other grad students, which was a mercy. He didn't have time for superficial nonsense.
He watched Ilyona fidget with her necklace, sliding the crucifix back and forth along the chain. He probably should not have slept with her. They always got arrogant afterwards. But he had such a weakness for students who were so obviously dazzled by his brilliance.
And he was brilliant. He had practically proven string theory, and it had only required half of their scheduled time at the Collider. He could use the remaining runs to refine the search, uncurl more than one dimension at a time....
He stopped, frowning.
Unfurling the dimensions had been Ilyona's idea. String theory predicted that space-time encompassed ten or more dimensions, most of them curled up so tightly as to be unobservable. Even the Large Hadron Collider was unable to generate enough energy to perceive them. Ilyona--Ilyona had first suggested using M-brane topologies to uncurl localized segments of higher-order dimensions--but only because she'd been steeped in his research and enlightened by their conversations. He, Pierre Lefebvre, was the mastermind behind this breakthrough.
Ilyona caught up to him in the hallway after he'd dismissed his students for lunch. "We have our evidence," she said. "The results from today's run will probably earn you a Nobel prize. So we don't need to do another one."
"Ilyona, if this is about that nonsense on the news..."
"Do you believe in God, Pierre?"
"What kind of a question is that?"
"Because if you'd ever believed in Him--really believed--you'd have asked yourself, eventually, why He allows horrible things to happen in this world. You'd have asked yourself how God can let children suffer; why He doesn't come down and do something about it."
"Well, according to every religious nut on a soap box, He did something about it today."
"Yes. He stopped wrongdoers in the act of doing wrong. But those teenagers were victims, too, Pierre. Or do you suppose they would have terrorized that school even if they'd led peaceful, affluent lives in which no one ever mistreated them?"
"I'd say it's a pity your God didn't intervene earlier. He could have prevented the whole incident."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Ilyona said. "Look. This morning's paper: Two school girls suffered acute asthma attacks while cheating on a math test. Four minutes later, in a different country, a father was struck by a meteor while yelling at his son. It all happened during the luminosity peak. During those five minutes, somehow, God punished all sinners."
"Co-occurrence does not imply causality, Ilyona. People see what they want to see, and that fluke with the lightning bolts got everyone riled up. When a man falls dead in the street, it's not hard to find something he'd been doing wrong five minutes earlier."
Ilyona took a deep breath. "There's more."
Pierre raised an eyebrow.
"I've been going over the GRID results from the other colliders. Yesterday, at exactly the same time as our research run, other scientists' research went awry. They think the disparity in their numbers is a measurement error, but look--" she held out a sheaf of graph paper covered with scribbles--"All of the results agree with each other if we assume a change in the generally accepted physical constants."
Pierre's brows drew downward, but he grabbed the papers and began flipping through Ilyona's notes. "Physical constants don't change. That's why they're constants."
"Well, yesterday, they did. For exactly five minutes, the gravitational constant decreased by 0.003 × 10−11. The speed of light increased by 512 meters per second. And the weak nuclear force appears to have fluctuated, as well."
"Preposterous." But Pierre could not take his eyes from the scratchy rows of numbers.
"Now do you understand why we must stop the experiment?"
"No! This is surely a miscalculation, but if it isn't... Well, if it isn't, then it's a scientific achievement even greater than we'd hoped." He kept looking at the numbers. "You may be on to something here, Ilyona. We must continue to investigate."
To Pierre's surprise, his student ripped the papers from his hands and tossed them on the floor. "There's something bigger going on here than our careers, Pierre. It's possible that, by uncurling the high-order dimensions, we've actually changed the nature of the universe. The implications are--"
"You think this is just about being the first one to write a research article? You think I am so small and petty-minded? Fine. Believe that if you wish, but the research will continue."
Pierre strode away without giving her a chance to reply.
Arrogance. They were all so blasted arrogant.