by Tony Noland
The ozone stink of Dr. Hussman's laboratory was thick, thicker than Jenner could ever remember it, almost thicker than the roaring exhaust fans could handle. With the primary synchrotron running, there was only one spot in the lab where a man could work for more than a few hours without getting a headache, and Hussman was in it, staring at the readouts on the main control console. His gray hair ruffling in the breeze of fresh air coming from a dedicated air vent, he had his noise-canceling headphones on, eyes flicking back and forth among the dozen screens, lost in the miracle he'd created. At least, Jenner thought, it was the miracle he hoped he'd created. There were cheaper ways to make ozone.
Jenner stepped to the downstream positron injector array and unplugged one of the monitoring sensors. A yellow alarm light started to flash on one of Hussman's screens and the old man whipped around like he'd been bitten. His look of alarm turned to irritation on seeing Jenner with the fiber optic cable in hand. Jenner waved at him, pointed at the door to the office annex; Hussman gestured back impatiently, but nodded before turning back to his console. Jenner plugged the sensor back in and left the lab. Hussman watched the readout status, waited for it to return to green, then stood and followed Jenner out.
"Goddamn it, that's sensitive equipment in there! You can't just grab at whatever little piece of shiny you feel like playing with as though -"
"- as though I were a monkey in the zoo. Yes, Dr. Hussman, I know. Is it ready?" Jenner went to pour himself a cup of coffee, then paused to give the pot a sniff. He turned to the sink and poured the burnt, viscous sludge down the drain.
"Hey, what are you doing with my coffee?" said Hussman, "That was perfectly good coffee! I like it like that!"
"No you don't." replied Jenner, without looking back. "You just don't give a shit. You wouldn't know decent coffee if it bit you on the ass. And you didn't answer my question. Is it ready?" Jenner rinsed the pot, contemplated the discolored glass for a moment then reached for the sponge and dish soap. He began to wash it, raising a slick of gray-brown foam as he scrubbed at the network of dark stains. "Doctor?"
"No. It's not ready yet. There are some troubling instabilities in the auto-harmonizer sequence. There are spikes in the chrono-pulser network that I haven't been able to isolate, and one of the positron injectors is due for a recalibration."
"All of which means that it's ready, but that you don't want to turn it up to full power. We've been through this, Doctor. Everything will be fine. There's no reason to be afraid." On the third scrubbing, the soap suds remained white; Jenner decided the pot was as clean as it was likely to get. Final rinse, cold water, paper filter, seven scoops. When the first perks sizzled down and the aroma of coffee started to overtake the ozone, he turned to face Hussman. The scientist stopped biting his thumbnail and straightened.
"I'm not afraid. I'm not afraid of anything." said Hussman. "I just... want it to work."
"I know it will. Of course it will, I don't have any doubts of that. I built it, didn't I?"
"We, Doctor. We built it."
Hussman's face twisted and flushed. "Yes, Jenner, your money was essential, so I suppose you may claim that 'we' built it."
Jenner let it go; he was far too impatient to get the machine operational. Of course the guiding inspiration had been Jenner's all along, but Hussman's self-serving revision didn't matter. It was absurd to waste any time over his wanting to take all the credit for building the machine. So long as it worked the way Jenner had designed it to, that wouldn't matter at all.
So long as it worked this time; Jenner gritted his teeth at the thought of starting over yet again.
"Doctor, I'm going to charge up the primary vortex stabilizers and take the system up to 80%. As soon as the secondaries are charged, we'll start the injection sequence. We should hit full power in less than three hours."
"It's not ready yet!"
"Injection begins in a little over an hour, Doctor. If you're not there to assist me, I'll do it without you."
"You wouldn't dare. After everything I've done, everything I've sacrificed, you wouldn't dare exclude me from First Light, deny me my rightful place in history! Get out of the way, I'll charge up the primaries myself. And I'm not going to be assisting you, you're going to be assisting me, is that clear? For the record, YOU are assisting ME. You stay away from my machine until I call you in an hour. You hear me, Jenner? Don't come in until I call you!" Hussman almost tripped over himself in his frantic rush to go back into the lab.
Through the plate glass, Jenner watched Hussman muttering to himself as he began to uncouple the safety lockouts on the heavy power relays. The floor vibration changed pitch as the power cycles ramped up. Across the room, the control board began to shift from a placid, uniform green to a pixelated, flashing red as each subsystem went from STANDBY/READY to CHARGED/ARMED.
Jenner turned and poured himself a cup of coffee. It was OK. Not great, but OK. Made properly, coffee was a surprisingly delicious beverage. It was one of the few things he would miss about this place when he went home.
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