Another Day at the Collider

The users always thought it was a software glitch. We software types always thought it was a user glitch.

'Twas ever thus.

Most of my career has been spent wrestling with that space-age-old conflict. But in this case, it ended up to be neither type of problem. Or both, depending on how you looked at it.

I'd been rousted from sleep by a three a.m. telephone call. Maria, my wife, groaned and rolled over in bed. Our three-month old baby began to cry in her crib. Just great.

"Mmmm," I mumbled into the phone.

"Carson, we need you to get down here on the double. There are . . . problems."

The voice belonged to Dr. Lautens, a contract administrator at Cern's LHC--the Large Hadron Collider.

To be perfectly clear, he was a client, not my boss. My meat-and-potatoes guy, the one who deposited the salary checks into my--Dave Carson's--bank account, was probably just settling down into to his own bed for an undisturbed night's sleep in Boston, several time zones away from the one I presently occupied in Switzerland. I cleared away my mental cobwebs, searched hard and deep, and reclaimed my professional persona.

"What's the problem, sir?"

"We're hoping you'll tell us, Mr. Carson. On the double, like I said."

I dressed quietly, then roused Maria enough to make sure she at least half-consciously apprehended my apology for leaving her. She'd never wanted to come here on this long assignment in the first place, especially knowing that our first child would end up being born so far away from home. Thankfully, it was almost over; next week we'd be back in the States and she'd be happy again.

Or so I'd hoped.

"You'll observe that your Events Capture software is still active," Lautens said. He pointed to a huge, wall-mounted flatscreen monitor in the center of the LHC control room dedicated to large ion experiments, those which occurred in the test module they'd dubbed "Alice."

As hardware constructions go, Alice was one helluva big girl, no doubt about it. She towered several stories tall, looming like a monstrous metal banshee just outside the control room's Lexan windows.

"Those are some very fetching images I'm seeing there, Dr. L." I smiled at the false-color graphic patterns on the screen, a stunning, real-time record of subatomic collision particles tracing petite arcs and spirals across its surface, continually refreshing, sampled and slowed down computationally to viewable speed. God, I'd been so proud of developing that data-capture and display masterpiece!

I knew I was looking at all manner of teensy, exotic leprechauns generated by whatever the physicists were tossing together at that moment, recapitulating the earliest moments in the creation of the Universe. "Working like a charm, I'd say." I hit a key to capture a random still image and flipped it over to an adjacent monitor. "Heh! That one looks sort of like a fat cartoon bunny rabbit with two floppy ears, doesn't it?"

Lautens grunted. "Very funny, Carson. The point is, there is nothing circulating in the collider right now. We shut down the ring power well over an hour ago, right before I called you in."

"Can't be."

"Is. Your data capture software--which, I remind you, we agreed to pay more than three million dollars for--is undoubtedly caught in a repeating loop or something. Fix it. Posthaste."

All IT professionals have had to deal with guys like Lautens at some point in their career. As one who'd managed to survive the tribulations of our industry, I've often had to subdue my primordial urge to strangle users when they come out with this kind of supercilious, bullying crap. Like they ever actually knew what they were talking about! For me, the best reactive strategy was to think hard about my spouse and child, and of their well-being. I didn't want them to someday say: My ex-husband? The psychopathic workplace murderer? Or: My daddy, the man who totally lost it and burked his client?

"I'll get right on it, Dr. Lautens," I said.

I sat down at the workstation, terminated the events capture program, then restarted it to get all the variables reinitialized and to clear the data buffers. After reboot, the collider events continued on-screen, unabated. The program still showed Nature at large, the results of her precious particles being destroyed, smashed together at near light speed. Except, according to Lautens, no particles were being delivered to the capture module by the LHC ring. No sub-atomic events could possibly be occurring.

"I'm gobsmacked," I said.

"I'm not interested in your slack-jawed, rustic impressions, Mr. Carson. What of your software?"

"This can't be a software problem. This is . . . real."

"Nonsense. Your whole system is obviously a piece of merde."

I felt a surge of heat rise underneath my collar. "And I'm saying it appears to be working fine. Look, what do your radiation detectors show? They're completely isolated from the capture computers' input circuitry. Do they indicate any flux inside the target module?"

"Mr. Carson, despite your naive disbelief in my basic technical competence, that was the first thing I checked before calling you in." Lautens gestured toward a set of control indicators on the far wall of the room. "As you can plainly see, there is no radiation at all emanating from the target chamber. No flux equals no energy impacting the detectors. Which means no events for your system to detect. So what exactly is going on?"

At that moment, the capture monitor went dark. I checked the program; it was still running, seeking data input that was no longer there.

Lautens snorted. "So now we get a proper response at last, one hour and . . ." He glanced up at the wall clock in the room. ". . .fifty-seven minutes after cessation of the run. It seems obvious that your system isn't keeping up, Carson. This looks like a buffering problem to me. That means your software is not meeting its specs. Which, to the best of my recollection, I have already expressed to you--abundantly so."

I scratched the prematurely thinning spot at the top of my scalp in confusion. "But I cleared the buffers when I restarted the program. I . . . I'm just not getting this."

"You will 'get it' in sharp order, sir, else your company's final progress payment will be withheld--which, I remind you, is fifty percent of the value of the original purchase order. I'm reasonably sure that will not sit well with your company's executives. Prepare to put in some long hours in the coming weeks, Carson."

Lautens strode out of the control room. I banged my fist hard against the table, and was curiously satisfied with the excruciating pain it caused me.

"Another month or more? But we already have our tickets to go home next week!"

I hardly knew what to say. "Jeez, I'm so sorry, Honey. I think you and the little one should go on home, on schedule. I'll wrap this puppy up just as soon as I can, and be right behind you."

Her eyes erupted, spewing a torrent of tears. I didn't know how else to deal with the situation, save to hold her tight against me and let her cry it out.

"No, Dave," she finally said. "We'll stick it out with you. We're a family, after all."

God, how I hated having to work for a living.

Like any large government-sponsored project, the LHC didn't rely on any single contractor to deliver the goods. Redundancy is the catchword of the modern technical zeitgeist, and when one entity fails, a fallback is immediately there to take its place.

In this case it took the form of Hans Schmidt, a representative of Bremen IT Solutions GmbH.

"A bit of a problem, yes, Mr. Carson?" Hans said. "Nothing we can't solve together, yes?"

I detected the tangy taste of blood in my mouth, and realized I had bitten my tongue too hard. "Of course, Hans. Nothing that can't be solved in a nonce. I'm sure you'll corral all these quarky pests in no time at all."

At that moment, I found myself imagining what Hans's brain matter would look like after being run through a wood chipper.

Hans stuck one of his skinny fingers on a page in the thick document he held, the manual that described my system specs. "Your chosen data capture rate is perilously close to the hardware specification limits. That seems not only dubious, but also rather dangerous."

"Are you implying I'm overclocking my system to match up closer to the capture hardware capabilities? That's not so. As you will see clearly, once you inspect my parallel processing code. Of course, that might be a difficult format for you to understand, being one who's probably more used to writing simple sequential processing software to run on individual CPUs. By the way, doesn't your company also write kid's gaming software? Maybe I have that wrong."

That was the best insult I could come up with at the moment. It stuck in my craw that this Schmidt fellow could gain access to my code. Proprietary Disclosure agreement or not, he was, in fact, a competitor. It was like having a fox put his muddy paw-print on a contract that allowed him to inspect the conditions inside the hen house.

Hans grunted, frowned, and nodded his head, slightly too vigorously. I bet he, too, had just bitten his tongue hard at that moment.

The main LHC experimental schedule had proceeded--as it had to do. Other loop data capture routines had been installed in place of my own, powered by Schmidt's software. His code hadn't met the LHC's specs yet, but had worked half-assedly well enough in other test chambers. It was all I could do to keep from jumping on the man like a chimpanzee and hammering him to a bloody pulp. I only lacked a suitable tool. Perhaps an ox's jawbone? That would have fit my mood.

We often stumble upon needful things, like a blind hog rooting up an acorn now and again. That's the way I'd characterize my own life, anyway.

While my nemesis Hans Schmidt plowed through my hard-fought code, looking to steal the secrets thereof, I steered my own attention to the LHC logs. I discovered that the very next loop run they'd executed after the one which caused my system's problems had lasted for one hour, fifty-seven minutes.

Interesting, I thought. Could my software's "overrun" have actually captured subatomic events that had not yet transpired? It was beyond credibility. Surely, it was just a coincidence.

I believed that until I compared the event capture data from the two runs. Adjusted for the expected aliasing effects between the two different softwares' data sampling rates, they matched perfectly. Terabytes' worth, all lining up like a vast array of obedient ant pairs.

Gobsmacked again.

I struggled with what to do with my findings. Obviously, they violated every physical law ever formulated by mankind. You can't know what's going to happen before it happens. I wasn't a physicist, but I knew there was something in their canon that definitely prohibited that. Effects follow causes, not 'tuther way 'round. The thought crossed my mind that I'd gone bonkers--and that everyone around me had simply forgotten to inform me about it.

I concluded it'd be best to keep my data under wraps for the time being, lest this whole thing get away from me. In other words, I'd operate under the presumption that I was sane. And a sane person looks out for himself and his own self-interests, right? I had to know more. What in hell was it about my software that could possibly do this crazy trick? Or maybe it was something about the universe at large, a divine taunt from some capricious demiurge out there who was thumbing his nose at me. Perhaps it was in retribution for some juicy sin I'd committed in my past. Or, for that matter, some sin that I hadn't committed, but should have.

My own small universe consisted of my wife and child, and that was quite sufficient for me, thank you very much. Yes, I wanted to keep my job and do the right thing for my company, but neither Lautens nor Schmidt felt that was particularly pertinent to the situation. Lautens would as soon never have had me around to begin with, and Schmidt had plenty of motivation to bump me the rest of the way out of the picture.

How to get back into a position of control? When all else fails, I thought, read the directions.

"Dr. Lautens," I said, "per subsection 4.d.ii of our agreement, you have to give me access to my own system under adequate test conditions for the purposes of resolving problems. That has been unfairly denied to me in recent days." I thrust the hardcopy page I'd extracted from the relevant contract section out toward his nose.

He grabbed it out of my hands. I heard gutteral, atonal sounds coming from deep inside his throat while he scrutinized it. I never realized French people were even capable of forming those particular glottal phonemes.

"Merde," he said.

I could see an internal struggle play out in his rapidly mutating facial expressions: Is it better to suffer a lawsuit, or give this little shit his contractual due? That's what they seemed to say to me.

"Very well, Carson. For now. But don't interfere with Schmidt's work. You may test your revisions in parallel with his during future loop runs, but you may not perturb any official archive copies, understood?"

I nodded my head in agreement. I didn't know exactly what this would do for me, but it seemed enough of a victory at the moment to be able to scrutinize my code's operation under real-world conditions.

Over the next two loop runs, the same software results transpired. I was indeed capturing the future. It was all I needed to know. I wasn't crazy, after all.

Maria is a genius. Did I fail to mention that already? I guess it goes without saying: All wives are geniuses when it comes to transforming their husbands from drooling, doltish apes into paragons of forward-thinking, erect homo sapiens, the kind who mostly walk around on two legs and who don't often eat their own feces.

There is not much I've ever successfully managed to hide from my wife, and that included my recent travails at the LHC. It's not like I wanted to tell Maria about them, but nothing could ever escape her feminine perspicuity--especially the new furrows that had apparently animated my brow in recent days. Eventually, I spilled the whole can of beans to her.

"It's daffy," she said.

"Utterly so."

Maria sucked on her lower lip, which normally signaled the beginning of a heart-to-heart. "Dave, you know I'll always love you and support you, don't you?"

There they were, the words that always heralded the moment of my life's grandest epiphanies.

"But I think you've totally lost it," she continued. "Gone over the edge. Gone missing in La-la Limbo-land. Look, you've quit better jobs than this before. Who cares? I certainly don't. What's the big deal with this one? I won't think the less of you if you walk away from it."

Okay, so that wasn't quite the epiphany I had been anticipating.

"It's the principle of the thing, Maria. I could give a rat's ass about Cern, the LHC, Lautens and all the rest. I just have to find out what's going on. It's . . . it's important to me."

"Dave, if you honestly think you can predict the future, then why not take tomorrow off and go to the racetrack? Or play the market?"

That was the epiphany I was looking for. For heaven's sake, why on Earth was I limiting my thinking? I wrote data capture software that pulled in future events. That was a given. Why was I so obsessed with understanding it? Data are data. I might just as well capture the live feeds from the tracks, or from the stock market. Or from any other digital streaming output out there. Hell's bells--for that matter, why not the CNN news feed?

Me so stupido.

Before I lost my access privileges at CERN, I paid Alice a midnight visit and blew away all my software archives, wiped the slate entirely clean. Then, in a pique of vengeance, I blew away Hans's local archives too. No way would I let that haughty Teutonic bastard get away with any more freebie stuff from me.

And Lautens? I left him a lengthy email message, recapitulating all the previous year's insults and slights I'd suffered from his lips, and added my own inimitably creative responses to each and every one. It was amazing how easy they were for me to recollect, each one an irritating crystalline spike still rattling around inside my brain pan.

Of course, I didn't do all this before testing my software in the world of secular data-events. My ensuing online Pick-6 win at Aqueduct covered my family's flight home, and then some. I began to anticipate my four-month-old daughter's matriculation into an Ivy League University, after tasting the sweet results of a bit of international currency arbitrage on Wall Street.

And, not being one to shirk his responsibilities, I not only compensated my company for the entire value of the CERN contract, but also sent them some strategic information that would more than offset any loss I may have caused to their corporate reputation. That was right before I went incognito.

The other day, while sitting out on the veranda of our new beachside villa in Costa Rica, I read where the scientists at the LHC had discovered a new particle, some sort of imp that didn't quite fit their predictions, upsetting their "Standard Model." Knocked them for a loop it did, and--as best I could tell from the popular accounts--it had them all heading back to their Ivory Towers to scratch their heads. Said they'd have to rethink their ideas of time invariance, entropy, and prohibitions against superluminal data transference.

I figured one of those tiny scamps had affected my own software's odd performance at CERN--attracted by something enticing about the shape or tenor of my code, maybe. And, bless its pointy little head, it had followed me around ever since, like a junkyard dog craving affection.

Particle physics. Yeah, a dry subject, to be sure. Have another biscuit, lil' thang--and keep on keepin' on.

Gary Cuba

Another Day at the Colliderfiction, March 1, 2010

Gary Cuba lives with his wife and a teeming horde of dogs and cats in a rural area not far from the Congaree National Swamp in South Carolina.  His fiction has appeared in Jim Baen's Universe, Abyss & Apex, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Fictitious Force, Allegory, and many other genre and mainstream publications. He has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

His website is,

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