Trope

In eleven minutes and some odd seconds, I’d be dead. Not even twelve. Eleven! And I couldn’t do anything to change that less than salutary fact. The “timer” was ticking, but contrary to the popular trope, there was no loose red wire to cut and stop it all. No, the bomb wasn’t even a “bomb” bomb but a routine physics experiment gone terribly wrong, and I knew full well that it couldn’t be stopped thanks to the implacability of runaway exponentials and all that.

In the before time (let’s say an hour or two ago), the annihilation of our planet by a man-made black hole hadn’t even been a credible possibility. Moreover, this being something like the fiftieth such beastie I’d created in the preceding year alone, I didn’t have the slightest presentiment of danger. The 9.43 TeV might have been (just!) enough energy to create the smallest possible black hole, but it was by no means enough to sustain one; or so my colleagues and I believed. No, the theoretical work was unambiguous on this point: Hawking Radiation would make the whole thing go away in an instant.

Indeed, my one worry prior to clicking the “Run” button was that my undersized bundle of strangelets would evaporate all too quickly, wasting my last bit of budget without yielding a modicum of useful data. To hedge my bet, I decided to introduce a small pulsation into the Cassler timings—just a twiddly little dodge to stretch out the accretion profile by a few femtoseconds—but as matters proved, it was just the ticket to convert my supposedly benign experiment into a planet-killer.

A small pop from a discharged capacitor followed by a barely noticeable ramp-up of a fan as the computers began to grind on the raw data was the only signifier that something was going on. Thereafter, it typically took about twenty-five minutes for the first results to spew out, although in the present case it took something like forty-one. Even so, I didn’t have the slightest presentiment that anything might be amiss until the first numbers came in. Before this day, more time generally meant more interesting results, something the optimist in me very much looked forward to. If that tiny little graph in the Mass History window had simply tailed down to a reasonable value, then all would have been well even if from a scientific standpoint, the results turned out to be less than inspiring. It didn’t though. No, it showed a terrifyingly unexpected uptick.

My measly 9.43 TeV should have been converted into nothing more than a Planck mass—some 0.02 milligrams—and quickly tailed down to nothing. Woulda, coulda, shoulda. The most recent number on the graph had my black hole weighing in at whopping 41.3287 grams and growing. Grams! I didn’t even bother to calculate down into the decimals—the fact that my black hole was something like eleven orders of magnitude larger than expected was more than precise enough!—but expended all of my personal energy on bugging my eyes out. The numbers should have tailed down to…well, zero. Or at least something close. The only reason we put the stupid graph on the dashboard was to show those rare cases where it took an hour or two for the mass to decay from “almost nothing” to “literally nothing.”

There’s a long and painful history of receiving anomalous results from good experiments—due to bad detectors, poor setups, outside interference, and more—and I’d dealt with them all at some point during my career. Even so, I had never once encountered a variance between an observed and expected result that was off by so much as a single order of magnitude, let alone eleven. Even worse, the Mass History graph had never gone up before; it always went down. Always!

It didn’t take a genius to figure out what would come next.

Exponentials can be surprisingly deceptive. Take 30 linear steps, and you’ve moved only thirty steps away. Double the distance at each step, however, and you’ve gone a billion. A billion!

There’s no comfortable way to internalize such a thing. Humans are born to think in linear terms, not exponentials, yet my tiny black hole was well on its way to becoming an Earth-slurping glutton. For the life of me though, I couldn’t think of a way to stop it!

My only luck was that the mass had yet to outgrow its magnetic containment. If it had, then things would have gone to hell even sooner. Not that I had long to wait, mind. There were 312 pounds of argon in the system. It was more than enough to overwhelm a measly 6.14×10-7 Tesla field if so much as a tenth of the masss managed to accrete onto the black hole. Next, the whole kit and caboodle would drop to the bottom of the laughably named Containment Chamber, giving the insatiable beastie an even fatter meal. If matters progressed to that state, then the result would be inevitable.

The only bit of good news was that the decreasing pressure curve would grant me a bit of pause before all hell broke loose. Eleven minutes or so by my calculations, which brings us back to the start of things.

Well, not exactly eleven minutes. I was being a bit overdramatic; I wouldn’t “die” die then. It could take as much as seventy-five extra minutes for the black hole to chomp down hard enough on the planet for there to be worldwide effects. And thereafter, who knows? Minutes? Tens of minutes? Hours? It’d be anyone’s guess as to how long it’d take for the macro effects to come to the fore, but the end result would be the same: we’d all be dead.

I didn’t have one of those nifty countdown timers you always see in the movies. There was a big analog clock on the wall, and it wasn’t hard to do the math. Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick. If I could have managed to concentrate on such trivialities, I might have watched it tick all the way down to zero or, in my case, up to 3:19:11 PM. There was some hope. My calculations might be off by as much as a minute—I used the least optimistic figures when doing my calculations—not that it would matter one whit in the end.

Blanking out, however, the next thing I knew the clock said 3:14:22 PM, and humanity’s “timer” had less than five minutes to go.

I didn’t even have the solace of hope. Black holes were my field—with all modesty I could say that I was far and away the most proficient black hole experimentalist alive—yet I didn’t have the slightest glimmer of an answer, even though the soon to be deadly mass kept on creeping up.

I wasted my next irreplaceable minute thinking about a whole lot of stupid stuff like my first dog, Tippy, a lightbulb I kept on meaning to replace in the upstairs hallway but could never seem to get around to, my ex-, yet much missed, wife, Cordelia, and the name of a movie that was on the tip of my tongue but I couldn’t remember. The one thing I couldn’t quite concentrate on was what I should have: physics.

Four minutes left, give or take.

Then, without the least warning, in walked humanity’s salvation in the pimply faced person of Harlan Kates. Harlan worked for some contractor or another—I forgot which—but he worked on chamber mechanics.

“I thought you guys were off for the weekend…”

Ten more wasted seconds goggling at the boy, and then I suddenly got it! Now it was a race against time. “Which wire did you pull? Tell me! Tell me now!”

I must have appeared more than a little crazed because Harlan backed up a bit then told me in his best surfer dude voice, “Chill out, doc. You been sniffin’ the nitrogen or something?”

Under other circumstances, it would have been killer. Sniffin’ indeed; Harlan’s utter stupidity was peg on. In the present circumstance, I grabbed him by the collar and slammed him against the wall hard. “Which?”

It took forty seconds, but I got what I needed out of him. Turns out, it did come down to a wire after all. Not a red wire, mind, and I didn’t even need to cut it. But even so, a frigging wire.

An overpressure sensor in the chamber was the key to it all. Just a minor safety measure meant to protect the sensitive grounding plates. I’d specified the sensor years ago, back when we were still in the design phase, but had mostly forgotten about it. I say “mostly” because of a small screwup that happened about a month ago when Harlan accidentally unplugged the termination side of the sensor’s cable and delayed one of my runs by two long hours. I was pissed at the time, but he did at least turn up a failure node I’d forgotten about: whenever the sensor went dead (like when it was unplugged), the chamber dumped all of its argon as a safety precaution.

If my life were a movie, the action would cut to a split screen, one half showing a countdown timer in a baleful pulsing red, the other my mad scramble to get to the wire while an overly loud ticking clock cranked up the drama. In reality though, I walked around to the far side of the chamber, ducked under one of the bigger umbilicals, located the black and yellow striped wire that Harlan described in less than ten seconds, grasped it with my thumb and forefinger, and then without pause, pulled. No more drama and certainly no mad scramble since I was scared so witless I could barely stand upright.

As to the “timer,” it didn’t even come close to zero. My best guess is that I made it with something like 140 seconds to spare, more than two full minutes. Moreover, there was no controlled and slow venting of gas to draw out the transition from screwed to saved. Argon being inert, a servo-controlled valve simply dumped the gas into the room.

As to the black hole itself, the movie would have shown an angry pulsating sphere encircled by spiraling globs of matter, all vivid and quivering on the knife-edge; one way to oblivion, the other salvation. In reality though, the black hole would have been invisible. Even so, I didn’t bother to look up at the dashboard to see the graph go down. Not that there would have been anything to see. One instant, the black hole was growing, and the next, it was gone. Simply gone. No visual drama, no human-scale anything. In my mind’s eye, the chamber evacuated, the black hole tottered on the point of meta-stability for a few milliseconds, and poof, it was gone just like that. Humanity imperiled; humanity saved!

Relieved of the need to play the hero—after having played humanity’s worst villain—I didn’t even have that most essential trope on hand: a pretty girl to kiss and say, “We did it!”

All in all, I’d much prefer the movie version.

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