#FridayFlash: One Percent Inspiration

The flicker of the lab's fluorescent lights only bothered Shoshanna during all-nighters. The lights were always on, since Dr. Rudoleski kept his people hopping 24/7. She rarely saw him except during the marathon lab meetings on Fridays. He wanted a 10 minute summary from everyone about their week's activities, which meant a minimum of three hours. Usually, they ran for more than five, with him throwing out difficult, probing questions for everyone who'd had a good week and sarcastic comments for everyone else. God help anyone who had nothing to report.

Rudoleski had a nasty habit of deliberately calling the lab at odd hours; they were all sure to get yelled at during the weekly staff meeting if at least one person wasn't there to answer the phone in the middle of the night. Everyone worked on the 4th of July. Legend had it that Rudoleski called every year at 2:45 a.m. on July 5 and always asked, "Who else is there with you?" Tonight was just another Wednesday, though, and Shoshanna was alone in the lab.

Whenever a new person joined the group, or someone left after graduating or getting a job, the lab pecking order was resorted. It was partly based on seniority, but postdocs always outranked grad students, and doctoral candidates always outranked master's students. As she was the only master's student in the lab at present, it meant she had a bad time of it. It was frustrating as hell for her to have to kowtow to some knucklehead who didn't know jack about quantum oscillatory crystal magnetohydrodynamics, just because he or she was a newly minted crystallography PhD from some other, lesser university.

Shoshanna was one of the best, which was why Rudoleski had agreed to take her on. He practically never wasted his time with master's students; only if they looked very promising would he consider them. She knew that by "promising", Rudoleski meant "productive". Everyone who came out of Rudoleski's lab was well trained, but the last person he'd carried through the entire trifecta was a legend. That guy published three papers from his master's work, five papers and a patent from his doctoral dissertation and an astonishing eleven papers as a postdoc, one of which was published in PNAS. He'd gone on to a tenure track position at the University of Chicago, and was currently a favorite for a chemistry Nobel. Rudoleski frequently held him up as an example during the staff meetings, saying, "See what you could do with a little effort?"

The mass spectrometer was warmed up, the standards run and internal calibrations complete. As soon as the samples were ready, she could analyze them and have all the data in a spreadsheet by sunrise. She rubbed her tired eyes. Shoshanna's master's defense was three weeks away. With all of her cramming and memorization, she felt she knew more about how to capture and store energy in crystals than any other person alive, except for Rudoleski himself. Her thesis was solid, with important advances in the field. Still, it was all incremental work. The one thing she lacked was a punchline, a knockout piece of data that would make everyone forget Aleksandr Mikhailovitch Ivanaov. She wanted so badly to overhear someone say, "Sure, but what about that Shoshanna Epstein? You better keep an eye on that one, she's your *real* competition."

She crossed the analytical section of the lab and entered the magnet room. On the bench, the big superconducting electromagnets were arrayed around the test vessel, alternating with the ultrasonic resonator horns. The ultrasound had been her biggest idea yet, one she had told no one about. It had taken her a week to program the computers and set up the test bed, and then another three days to align and calibrate everything. Tuned properly, the nine sonics harmonized, forcing the solution to cavitate. Inside that little bubble, a small speck of plasma hotter than the core of the sun formed and re-formed a thousand times every second. Once she turned on the rest of the system, her calculations showed that the magnetic flux lines converging on that plasma would catalyze the creation of a crystal lattice from the yttrium solution.

All the delays were infuriating, but at last everything was ready. In just over an hour, the world was finally going to have the perfect quantum energy storage system. This would revolutionize everything, and she would be famous. She took a deep breath and pressed the activation switch. The small room grew loud with the sound of the cooling pumps kicking on in the pre-cycle.

Out in the lab, the phone rang.

Shoshanna closed her eyes and cursed. She wanted to watch it happen, but the only person who would be calling at this hour would be Rudoleski. Shoshanna turned and left the room, hoping that the call would be finished quickly.

Behind her, the control computer activated the system and tried to send nintey five kilowatts through the magnetic flux array. If the operation had been done during the day, when the rest of the campus was using normal amounts of power, Shoshanna's misplaced decimal would have tripped the main breakers and shut down the building's power. With a light load everywhere else, however, the equipment got the full ninety five.

The first crystal formed just as her calculations predicted, so far as they went. Yttrium was forced into mated electron shell configurations, and crystallized. However, under the press of the extra magnetic flux, triplet atoms fused together into a superheavy element, releasing massive amounts of energy. The new element twisted the crystal structure, and the bubble dimmed as all of the energy in the system drained away into the crude but fully functional allo-spacial quantum torsion well Shoshanna had unintentionally created.

The yttrium continued to fuse and the speck of hypercrystal grew, absorbing enough energy every minute to power a small city for four hours. At the programmed time, the superconducting magnets shut down. Within the little test vessel, yttrium fusion ceased and the glowing bubble surrounding the tiny speck brightened again. The ultrasonics remained operational; they were the only thing keeping the hypercrystal stable and containing the energy.

Shoshanna hadn't noticed the odd pulsing of the lights out in the lab when the magnets overpowered. Rudoleski's impromptu grilling about her thesis defense material had rattled her, badly. She was near tears when she was finally able to hang up and return to the magnet room.

With a shaking hand, she reached out to shut down the system so she could pull a sample. Please let this have worked, she thought, please!

===== Feel free to comment on this or any other post.


  1. I am too stupid to get this. Wow, this is really intelligent composition. :)

  2. Carrie said: I am too stupid to get this.

    Uh oh.

  3. I'm more of the dreamer/writer type. This was chemistry class. O.o

  4. So, how much of the planet disappears in the explosion?

  5. Huh. She gets it. Then again Scath also writes amazing stuff like this too. [sits in corner and eats paint chips]

  6. Bingo, Scath! I calculate the explosion to be ~12.3 megatons. Smallish by H-bomb standards, but more than big enough to wipe away both town and gown.

  7. I figured that something was going to go wrong in a big way. Not because of knowledge of chemistry but because any time one works with yttrium - and gets called away on a pesky phone call - things go BOOM.

    Was captivated by story despite my limited understanding of the science behind it!

  8. Loved the science behind this, made it all that more real and palpable (sp?). Peace...

  9. Despite an ignorance of chemistry, this had me absorbed with the science behind it.
    The characterisation is great.

  10. Thanks for the comments, guys. I think I might have gone a little heavy on the chemistry in this science fiction story.

    It would seem that, just as a martini is gin with enough vermouth to give it a not-gin tang, science fiction is fiction with a splash of science.

    Agree or disagree?

  11. Yes! Your comment is spot on. Science fiction with a splash of science is that wonderful combination. Shaken, not stirred.



  12. Jeez, all that work and pressure... I hope that professor was close by when she flipped the switch.

    Great story, Tony. I completely felt her frustration.

    Great science, too.

  13. As a PhD candidate in crystallography I approve of your science. It was super fun for the geek in me.

    Not everyone may get it but I think its very good.

  14. I liked this story. That Rudoleski is a real bastard.

    I agree with the other comments about the chemistry lingo. But I didn't lose the core of the story because of it.

  15. Intense stuff, but then I enjoy sci fi that sounds like it knows what it's talking about. I feel pretty sorry for Shoshanna. Waiting for the "Boom!"

    Unfortunately I couldn't read the first couple of paragraphs because they were overlapped by the oil leakage widget. It might be my screen resolution.

  16. "quantum oscillatory crystal magnetohydrodynamics" oh that old chestnut... If I had a dollar for every time that cropped up in a story...

    Seriously though, Shoshana Epstein sounds like my kinda girl, all that power thrumming through her fingers - who wouldn't? She's wasted on the unappreciative academic world

    marc nash

  17. I'm a nerd, so I had no choice but to like this! My chemistry knowledge is in its infancy, but this was like being allowed to stay up late with the grown-ups :-)

    The misplaced decimal...*shudders*

  18. I confess I didn't get exactly what happened, only that something went horribly wrong. But I really enjoyed the ride!

  19. The nice thing about this ending, Gracie, is that Rudoleski could be all the way across town and he would die, too.

    Thanks for the affirmations on the science, Antisocialbutterflie, mazzz in Leeds, & Jen Brubacher. Obviously, I was relying pretty heavily on the M.S.U. (make shit up) approach, so I'm glad it sounded OK.

    I mean, if crystals and yttrium fusion do it for you and you like that sort of thing. 8-)

  20. Tony -

    I don't follow chemistry... but I majored in finance... so I know the risks of misplacing a decimal or number... lucky in my field, people don't usually die if a number is misplaced... usually. :)

    Well written... the key here is that even though it's flooded with fancy lingo and shit I can't understand, I still got the story AND I kept reading it...


  21. As a science nerd, I can totally appreciate the effort you put in here to make this sound plausible..and it does. I'm enjoying playing out the rest in my mind.

    Boom! :-)

  22. I didn't get this until I read the comments. You're awesome with the science, but it's way over my head. :P

  23. Ah Yttrium, is there nothing you can't do?

    You know how much of a SciFi reader I am, so I didn't find the Chemistry daunting, even though I couldn't fully follow it. Love SciFi, studied Liberal Arts. I do think it was necessary though.

    The tension is caused by watching the reaction occur without her there to realize what was going on and stop it. It's that horror movie flavor of dramatic irony in which you're yelling at the character to turn around.

    By having so much introduction about her, the lab, the way too obsessed director, and her spot in all, it built the framework for the tension to bubble (like an Yttrium solution with an extra decimal point of power).

    I also, God help me, but I couldn't help but have this go through my head: "We like, we like, the Labs that go *boom*!"

  24. Chemistry, sci-fi, academia, and politics. You packed an awful lot into one flash (pardon the pun) Excellent story and telling, and finally Dr. Rudoleski's name made me laugh out loud

  25. I'm feeling nasty, so I'm hoping that the good Dr. Rudoleski gets taken out when it all goes to hell. I strongly suspect he'd need to be on the moon to escape.

    Wonderful scientific word-salad, and it all hung together.

    I wondered what you were building up to and the plot built steadily along with the experiment.

    Well done.

  26. D. Paul said: Ah Yttrium, is there nothing you can't do?

    Yttrium is one of my favorite elements. Bet you couldn't tell, huh?

    Thanks everyone for the comments! If none of the science terms made any sense, I hope they were able to wash over you like a Wookie's growling. Meaningless, except for the emotion behind the syllables.


  27. As a bartender for over 25 years, I like science fiction.

    The good doctor Rudoleski is just like that annoying kid who came from a chain restaurant and thinks he can manage people. When the Oasis machine blows up and he's covered in frozen mudslide goo, well... yeah, same sorta inspiration. :)

  28. Well, none of the science terms made sense (to quote you) but I did recognize the boss. I think I used to work for him. He used to call at 5:31 just to make sure I didn't turn the phones over to the service right at 5:30.

    Is there meaning behind all this science? What the hell do you do for a living anyway?

  29. I think you play on the science well here to tell a captivating tale (for me, not knowing all of the science did not impede in my enjoyment of the story). Man, that sucks when everything gets annihilated.

  30. Hard-boiled Sci-Fi's not for everyone, but for those who love it, it's awesome!

    And the MSU approach? Who knew?! Fooled me, but I'm an ignoramus. ;)

    A job well done. A technical read but it went through so well. Well written, nice job.

  31. I went for biol and physics rather than chem, but I got the gist. Delicious stuff. (Sodding decimal points...) Please don't dumb down your sci fi! :)

  32. I struggled with all the scientific terminology but enjoyed the story overall. Thanks for sharing

  33. Tony, yes you did go heavy on the science, technical and fudgy. It reminded me a little of Cat's Cradle. It's sort of justified from the first two paragraphs, where we're yelled at that there's to be nothing but scientific work.

    Since it's open-ended, I've decided nothing blows up. In a catastrophic underperfomance, the lattice internalizes and self-neutralizes far more energy than expected, such that you could only power a city with it if you could fit the city inside. Shoshanna uses it as the new battery in an iPad.

  34. Thanks for reading & commenting, everyone!

    I think Herms has it right - don't dilute the science. This story was supposed to be heavily salted with it. Like my old Uncle Willy used to say, "If you don't like salt, don't eat pickles."

    You know that I don't like to impose an authorial canonical structure on readers, John Wiswell, preferring to leave the stories open to interpretation, but don't abuse the privilege, OK?

  35. You don't need to know science to know something is going terribly wrong there. The jargon didn't slow me down too much. I enjoyed this one.

  36. Oh, Tony, of course it was the psychology that drew me in. I came along in my grad school lab a year after Golden Child #2, who, after he graduated, did a post-doc under Golden Child #1. I was never a GC, just another Ph.D. student, but with a good imagination, so I understand the pressure your MC is under. Bummer she's going to disappear in a flash of light.


  37. I had no clue as to what was going on through most of this, but I still enjoyed it. I'm glad for all the comments so I could finally say, "Oh, so that's what happened." My science is not up to snuff by any stretch of the imagination.

  38. Nice! You made a hard sci-fi story into something enjoyable and gripping. Hmm, well, I'm a geek so I might be biased, heh.

    Love the idea of storing energy in crystals. I wonder if there are people trying it nowadays... :)

    p.s.: Sorry I'm late!


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