“Didn’t you even have a clean shirt?” his wife Cheryl demanded, jerking the gray BMW's wheel to pass the Volvo, cutting it too close for Al's comfort. His sons Roy and James, along with James’s girlfriend, chuckled while they were tossed left and right in the back seat.
Al finished putting on his tie and made the loops, a little difficult in the sun visor on the passenger side. He wore his black suit today, the only spare one he kept at the office. At one inch under six feet and a little underweight from working long hours without adequate food, Al enjoyed near-perfect health. Except for the occasional flare-up of what his doctor termed an early stage stomach ulcer.
“I haven’t had time to take clothes to the cleaners. I don’t think you understand how severe the situation is. We have major problems.” Al had tried dozens of times to explain his three-day absence from home. He loved his wife very much but sometimes she just didn’t understand.
“You know how much I want this. You’ve worked hard to earn this award. I think it’s time you took some time off to enjoy your family, while the kids are still with us,” she said.
His seat belt pulled on him and he instinctively put his hands out on the dashboard as the car came to a fast stop at a light.
He wasn’t having a nice day. Not at all. First off, he had some serious problems to solve for his company and secondly, he had to take time off to attend this award ceremony in his honor. He should be in his office working on this damned wall.
For that’s what it was. His company was up against a wall. There must be some explanation that was eluding him, but darned if he could see it. The more heat his system drained from the environment, the more energy it took to keep the drain going. What the hell was going on?
“We’ve arrived,” said Cheryl as they stopped in front of the newly rebuilt World Trade Center in New York.
Their eight year old son Roy and teenager James and his date, whose name Al could not remember, exited the car silently. The boys wore light blue suits, bought specially for this occasion, and both looked uncomfortable. The young girl that James had brought with him had on a yellow shirtdress with wide black trim—why black trim was so popular with girls these days, he couldn’t figure out—and she looked stunning.
He must be spending more time out of the house than I thought, instead of staying in his room playing computer games.
Roy seemed taller now. When was the last time we tossed a few footballs in the back yard? Al couldn’t remember.
He gave his spare set of keys to the valet. “We’ll be staying to attend the reception.”
He turned to see his family heading straight toward the building. Cheryl was dressed in a gray and red tight dress with a shawl of feathers, which she used strategically to hide her growing weight problem. Her long curly black hair bounced off her shoulders as she exited the car without another word.
Al caught up with her as they entered the front doors and hurried down the hall to the young man waving them forward frantically.
Late by almost twenty-five minutes, they rushed up to the double doors leading into the vast auditorium. He’d rather not be here at all, what with the events of the past four hours still on his mind. But his wife had insisted he attend this ceremony. If he didn't grant her this one wish, he had serious doubts their marriage could stand the strain. She wanted them to have this award far more than he did. If it wasn’t one damned problem, it was another. He wondered if he could solve them all. But first, he had to waste a couple hours here.
The two tall security guards, dressed in gray uniforms and sporting tasers, checked his ID and pushed open the double doors. Al entered…to the cheers and applause of thousands of pairs of hands. The bright flashes of hundreds of cameras and the glare from overhead floodlights made him squint. He smiled and waved as they walked down the long aisle. He paused at the front row to let Cheryl and his kids take their reserved seats next to his parents.
Al then made his way up the short stairs to the stage and walked over to the extended hand of the president of the Global Commerce Symposium.
“Hello, Al,” shouted the president over the cacophony of applause.
Al detected the smell of Scotch on the man’s breath. He couldn’t recall the old guy's name, so he smiled and shook hands energetically, hoping the man wouldn’t feel insulted. Al paused and waved to the folks who had come to the award presentation and then took the only chair on the stage.
The audience calmed down and took their seats. The auditorium was as big as a football stadium, at least two hundred meters in length and width. Overhead he saw metal rafters sporting lights, speakers, cameras, and huge air circulation tunnels. But only about one-fourth of the seats were filled. There must be over five thousand people here. Then he recalled that a symposium followed his award ceremony, so it was unlikely that all these people came just to hear him speak.
Al saw his family smile with obvious pride. Cheryl seemed to have forgotten her irritation. She had worked two jobs during the lean times so he could keep working long hours in his laboratory developing his new technology. She was a First Class Wife and he was lucky to have her. Now he had to keep her. He smiled back and nodded.
On her left, their son Roy waved back. His teenager James, with his long blond hair, resisted embarrassing himself by waving only his hand and then briefly. At least he didn’t wear that damned nose ring. When Al smiled at James’s date, she smiled back, revealing a mouthful of braces.
To Cheryl’s right sat his mother and father. His bald-headed dad had on his old brown suit that he was so proud of and his dark rimmed glasses. His mother was dressed in a pink print dress and rested her hands on her cane in front of her. She wore a dainty pair of glasses which rested a bit down on her nose. Apparently they skipped the eye surgery that is so much the rave these days among the elderly. Then he realized he had not talked to either of them in a long time, perhaps months.
My god! Is my company taking over my life?
The president leaned forward into his microphone. “Before we get started, will you please turn off your cell phones?” A flurry of noise followed as almost half the people pulled out and adjusted their mobiles. “Okay, let’s get started."
“Dr. Albert Zontee has done more for world peace and prosperity than millions of scientists and engineers put together. His…,” the man paused to look down at this notes, “discovery of the perfect way for us to eliminate the threat of global warming has saved us not only from ecological disaster, but has also provided a means for survival for untold millions who live in hot climates.”
The speaker gripped the edges of the podium with both hands as if to steady himself. Al wondered just how many drinks the poor sod had downed.
“All over the world,” the president continued, while glancing frequently at his notes, “folks who live near the oceans have been spared from its flooding their homes, their crops, and their businesses. By stopping global warming, Dr. Zontee has saved millions of lives and livelihoods. From the rising waters surrounding New Orleans putting the city under greater risk from another Hurricane Katrina, to the need for higher and higher levees right here in the city of New York as well as countless cities around the globe, people and businesses everywhere have been saved.”
The president paused to take a sip of water. Al noticed the man’s hands shook as he held the glass. I hope he doesn’t spill it on himself. The fool. He shouldn’t drink so much before a major speech.
The man found his place on his notes again and continued. “The Dutch need not worry about building even hurricane…ah…higher dikes against the rising waters of the North Sea. In the Pacific Ocean alone, dozens of island nations have been spared dropping out of sight underwater.” He turned toward Al briefly. “Like his namesake, Albert Einstein, his contributions to humanity have altered forever our understanding of the laws of physics.”
At the mention of Einstein, Al flinched. They always mention that, don't they? It's a temptation too hard to ignore. For him, it was an embarrassment, because just as the famous Albert had his “cosmological factor,” so did he. Only Einstein’s factor eventually became the opening in the theory of relativity for an understanding of dark mass and dark energy. No one knew yet what truths might lie hidden in his own factor, which he had added solely to make his complicated equations work.
As the president continued, Al recalled the long years of struggling to build thousands of cooling plants on every continent, each connected to a Zontee Thermal Tower that swapped local environmental heat for the super cold of another dimension. Every Zontee tower held hundreds of miles of closely spaced plates, with huge fans blowing air over them.
In came hot air, out went cold air.
By pairing one ‘back’ side of a plate with the super-cold properties of the alternate dimension and the front side with the atmosphere, they could get a net effect of draining heat from the atmosphere and sending it…well, sending it somewhere.
Where the hell is all that heat going?
His equations gave no hint. Instead, they bent the Second Law of Thermodynamics so it included the mass and energy of another dimension. He knew the heat had to go somewhere, and yet all their studies and theories failed to give an adequate explanation.
But why fool with what works, right?
In over one hundred thousand locations around the globe, cities were kept cool and power plants ran more efficiently, now that they had a better way to cool their power generators.
Thousands of eyes focused on him from people dressed in suits and warm attire. This auditorium had a reputation for being cool. Outside it was the middle of summer, but you'd never know it from the way people kept their legs together and their arms crossed. A draft of cool air chilled the left side of his face.
You'd think the idiots would turn down the air.
The speaker continued, “No longer do we have to worry about overheating our cities, our lands, and our oceans with the waste heat that naturally comes from our increased presence on the planet.”
As the man went on to describe Al's earlier life of poverty, Al took the time to work on his one remaining intellectual problem—that damned added factor. It made his equations look awkward and he regretted it.
What exactly is the alpha exponent anyway?
“Albert Zontee would call it a heat sink,” the president continued, “but for those who may not know the term, it means that our excess heat, our global warming, is being washed down the sink, so to speak, into another dimension.
“Al managed to connect his famous cooling towers with something extremely cold in that other dimension.
To give you an idea of just how cold that is, recall that the coldest it gets in Antarctica is minus 130
degrees Fahrenheit. The Zontee towers have plates that get down close to something the scientists call Absolute Zero, which is about minus 460 degrees. At that temperature, even the lightest gas, hydrogen, becomes something new called a plasma. Even electrons stop moving.
“That reminds me of how cold it is getting in here.”
A chorus of laughter greeted his remark.
Being an engineer, Al sometimes worried where the thermal energy went. Space was far larger than most folks realized and the chances that Earth's excess energy was pouring onto some unknown planet in that other dimension were vanishingly small. No, it was far more likely that the energy was venting into the empty space between the stars and it could go on doing that forever, for space was really big.
People in the audience fidgeted as some uncrossed their legs while others opened their jackets. Their body language made Al realize that he too was getting warmer.
Vibrations from his pocket alerted him to a call. Only his assistant, Jamie, had this number and she knew the importance of not interrupting him here. It must be an emergency.
He pulled his phone from his right hip, turned his head away from the audience, opened the cover, and pressed it to his ear while the president spoke of his early business struggles. He leaned to one side to avoid having his voice project to the podium. “What the hell is it?”
“I'm sorry, sir,” replied Jamie, “but Cary demands to speak with you.”
Cary Smythe was his manager of the critically important stations. Currently at Station One, he supervised the implementation of the new antennas. Cary knew of this ceremony and would never call unless it was bloody serious.
Al sighed. “Put him on.”
“Al, we've got a Problem.”
He could hear the capital letter in the man's voice. Have the terrorists managed to sabotage our quadrupled security on the stations? He found that hard to believe.
“We've activated the new microwave antennas,” added Cary, “but…the added energy isn't enough.”
They'd installed an array of twenty solar panels, of one hundred square kilometers each, in orbit around the Earth. These collected prodigious levels of solar energy and converted it to microwave radiation, which they then beamed by lasers directly to the new antennas of the Zontee stations. He hoped it would add enough energy to pump the portals.
According to his equations, the channeling of Earth's waste heat into the other dimension required additional energy. As the years went by, more and more energy was needed to overcome some as-yet not understood resistance in the channel. It was almost as if the energy required would eventually become infinite.
Cary asked, “Can I activate the reactors, sir?”
Al had nuclear reactors placed on his main stations in the event that the solar panels failed. He had to keep the stations running full throttle to keep up with the demands of billions of active people and businesses. They were beyond the point where they could turn off the cooling effect of his invention. Earth would surely cook to death if they did.
“If we don't, sir,” added Cary, “I'm afraid....”
Al knew what that man meant—shutting down the stations, the unthinkable option. I’ll have to do a thorough review when I get back to the office. He sighed. “Yes, go ahead.”
“Thank you, sir.”
He pocketed his phone. Jeesh, it’s getting hot in here.
One woman in the front row caught his eye with her fanning her face. Maybe the custodian had not only turned off the air but had turned on the heat.
Damned idiot! He would fire the man on the spot if he worked for him.
He recalled his private project to examine all the data from the past ten years to refine the value of his “cosmological” factor. Everything he tried in the past had failed but now he felt the stirrings of a completely new idea. He took out his ever present and newly enhanced iPad, impatient to try out the mathematical software he had purchased for it. He slid out the expanded screen and took up the stylus.
He tried dissecting his alpha factor into a constant plus a variable for time, which needed multiplying by another factor, one he called beta. Beta turned out to be a function of an imaginary number—one that contained the square root of minus one. He frowned.
But that’s impossible!
His mind now pumped up by his fresh insight, he scribbled more equations. A drop of sweat slipped from his forehead and blurred the glass surface.
Damned it's hot in here.
He wanted to take off his jacket but knew that would be impolite. He looked up and saw hundreds of men doing just that and he envied them. The women fanned themselves with their printed program sheets.
“Excuse me a moment,” said the president. He poured from the ice pitcher on the podium into a glass and took a long drink. When he set it back down, he turned to his left. “Can someone do something about the temperature in here?” Laughter and applause greeted his comment.
“Ladies and gentleman, in light of the warmth we are experiencing, I think it would be appropriate if you wanted to remove your jackets, ties, and any extra clothing you might be wearing. Excuse me while I take mine off.”
That brought a frenzy of activity and noise as people everywhere adjusted their attire for more comfort in the now blistering heat. Al doffed his jacket too and felt momentary relief.
The president added, “Would someone open the doors to let some air in here?”
The incompetence of the facilities manager irritated Al. This is my crowning ceremony, one Cheryl and I’ve looked forward to for a year now. And some jackass is ruining it.
Some folks stood to look at the doors. Others complained of the heat. It sounded to Al as if half the audience spoke at the same time.
His growing anger was tempered by the inspiration of his new beta factor. What would it take for that imaginary number to become real? His attention returned to his iPad. If I could just change that minus one to a positive one. What would that require? He thought of his inter-dimensional equations and that minus one. Where does it come from? What does it mean?
He pictured the equations that led to his invention and a light went on in his head. Why hadn't he seen this before? The imaginary number might not be imaginary in the other dimension. It might be an ordinary number there.
He leaned back in his chair and balled his fist. But what does it all mean?
For the first time, he understood why it took increasing amounts of energy to get the channels to work. His “heat sink” was running up against a limit. When he replaced the minus one with a positive one, he got something awfully close to the mathematical expression for a capacitor, an energy storage device. Most people used the tiny devices all the time without knowing anything about them, in computers and electrical circuits everywhere. Capacitors stored energy and then released it on command in one burst. Our civilization would fail without them.
Somehow, the place where his machines were sending the energy was storing it—and building it up. It wasn’t being dissipated as he had expected.
The realization came as a shock. In that instant, the reason for the rising resistance to more energy became clear. He looked around him. He had to get out of here and find a place where he could make a private call to Cary. It would not do to talk freely in front of thousands of prying eyes.
I have to warn Cary to shut down the stations.
As if on cue, his cell phone vibrated once again. It was Jamie and her voice carried her tears with it. “The stations, sir. They’re gone!” She sobbed hysterically.
“Get hold of yourself, Jamie.”
The voices from the audience complaining of the heat made so much noise he could not hear so he pressed one finger into his other ear to shut them out. He yelled into the mouthpiece, “Tell me exactly what is happening.”
“The stations are gone—every one of them,” Jamie wailed. “They all disappeared at the same time.” She burst into sobs again.
Al recalled her husband worked on Station Seven.
“And then…and then…” She struggled to get hold of herself. “And in their places are powerful white lights, blinding hot lights.”
Al froze and dropped his cell. He looked up to see light coming from all the open doors, light so strong it blinded him and he instinctively held his hand in front of his eyes. He heard shouts of panic and saw dozens of people running to the doors that led deeper into the building. The heat and light grew in intensity and became painful. The air became severely hot and he found it hard to breathe.
He scanned the room between squinted eyelids. Everywhere people jumped over chairs and trampled and shoved each other as they tried to escape amidst screams and shouts.
He knew what was happening. The strong rise in total energy going out from the Earth had been stored in a cosmic extra-dimensional capacitor. It had reached its maximum load and was now releasing its stored energy, including all the solar and nuclear energy they had added. All of it came out of those holes where his stations had been—and in a short burst.
It was probably cooking the atmosphere, searing the ground, cars, pedestrians, everything. Fires would spread everywhere. Those inside buildings would live a little longer. Those well below ground would be the last to feel the heat. But not for long, as the atmosphere boiled away.
His family looked at him with eyes that begged him to solve this problem, as he had done so many times before. They stayed in their seats despite the mass of people in front of them pushing to get to the side doors. Everywhere people raised their hands, jackets, printed programs, whatever, to block the heat and light. His eighty-year-old father bent over his mother, to protect her as much as he could, despite what must have been painful radiation burns on his hairless head.
It hurt to look in their direction, and even though Al shielded his eyes, increasing radiant heat cooked his hands and face. It was like he was standing in front of an open door of a roaring coal furnace. The whole room became an oven bathed in intolerable heat and light. Screams of fear and panic filled his ears as a mob of people flooded the stage.
His shoulders sagged in grief and he sobbed. He cried not only for himself, but for Cheryl, James, and Roy, as well as his aged parents. He cried for people everywhere because no place on Earth would be spared the onslaught of energy coming out of those damned holes to the other dimension.
What have I done?
Not sure how long he would live, he pushed his way through a dozen people to the edge of the stage and looked to his wife. He could barely see her in the glare of white light from the open doors beyond. She had one arm around Roy, the other outstretched in his direction.
Amidst the uproar of chaos around them, he mouthed the words, “I love you,” knowing full well it would be their last conversation.