The God Particle
by M. C. Tuggle
“Larry, are you trying to blow us up?”
The pulse current readout churned with data so nonsensical, so baffling, that I couldn’t turn away. Without looking up, I said, “No.”
I stabbed a button to complete the re-route of backup power, but the ping from the voltage substation monitor quickened its tempo. No matter what I did, the Level One alerts kept firing, and damned if I could understand why. Nothing in our standard operations guides worked.
Time to try something new. When I re-routed power through the surge overflow circuit, the backup kicked in, and the sprawling machinery of the magnet cooling system hummed at full capacity. Finally.
“Glad you got around to that, Larry. Particle accelerators aren’t cheap.”
I gave Claude a quick glance, though it wasn’t quick enough to avoid the leer on his face. I’d seen that look before, an amused glare crowned by a blazing white crewcut. He’d raked me with that look two months ago when he caught me emerging from the Faraday cage that screened outside particles from the tubes. It was such an accusing stare, I blurted out I liked to poke around in the accelerator’s lower level to learn more about it. He only walked away, shaking his head.
Before I explored the accelerator’s inner workings again, I made sure Claude wasn’t on duty.
On the opposite side of the control room, Miriam swiveled in her chair, letting dark hair cascade down the front of her red NC State sweatshirt. She gave me a look, just a flick of the eye, before tilting her chin down and turning back to her console.
My cheeks burned. Claude Holtz was chief engineer, my immediate supervisor. I was a newbie power engineer at the Ising Collider, and there was a lot I didn’t know. Miriam was the chief console operator and, like Claude, reported to the director.
The warning pings had stopped, and the late-night crew continued its experiments. We were at the end of our shift, and a few of the engineers and techs from the morning shift had arrived early to watch the action.
They knew something big was up. The bright control room echoed with the muted whine of subatomic particles racing in the 17-mile-long tube. The shift techs, of all ages and shapes, scuffled from station to station, occasionally huddling, joking, or arguing, then breaking up to stare up at the rows of flat screens on the walls. A few screens displayed the kaleidoscopic bursts from the proton collisions, others showed a tumble of raw numbers.
I didn’t dare relax. I studied my power console, alert for the slightest fluctuation in the cooling system. The accelerator’s 1,200 electromagnets had to be kept colder than deep space. At the moment, all appeared normal. But why had the cooling system flickered, even for a few seconds? That puzzled me. I tapped the controls to drill down through the data streams. The display shimmered with an array of blue graphs that drew me deeper into the mystery. The answer had to be in the readouts...
The control room erupted with shouts, yelps, and gasps. Adrenaline shot through my body, and I sat up in my seat.
The techs were yelling and pointing at the largest flat-screen monitor on the wall. I stared at it and had to catch my breath as I tried to comprehend what it revealed. Two proton beams had collided and generated a one-in-a-billion event: a Higgs boson was filling our high-def screen with golden spirals and the fiery paths of four runaway muons.
We weren’t the first accelerator team to produce one, but the data we’d just created would soon fly around the world to eager scientists. And some were desperate for data; a recent wave of unexplained accidents had stopped the accelerators at CERN and Oak Ridge, and that meant our work was vital.
Miriam stood and clapped her hands over her head. “Great job, team!”
She looked my way, and her eyes sparkled a moment before she sat down. I stared at the cartoon wolf mascot on the back of her sweatshirt, hoping she’d turn my way again. Finally, I gazed at my console.
I sank comfortably into my seat. Moments like this were why I put up with the pressures of my job. A lot of outsiders openly feared our work, convinced our experiments with subatomic particles would somehow “end the universe.” Many critics, including some scientists, had warned that a malfunctioning accelerator could create black holes or pierce neighboring dimensions.
But the jibe that really got under my skin was when some joker belittled our work as the equivalent of crashing two BMWs head-on in order to study the wreckage. It’s not a totally inaccurate analogy, but it’s not fair, either.
What our critics didn’t know was that when we steer protons into each other at 99% of the speed of light, we recreate the first moments of the Big Bang. People should show some respect. If they’d wander through the heart of this incredible machine as I have and appreciate the hundreds of interactive systems crafted by thousands of hands, they’d respect it, too.
Another alert blared, and the voltage substation panel lit up again. I sat straight in my chair and stared at the readouts. The cooling system had dropped to 97%. Worse, neither backup system had kicked in. The hair on the back of my neck lifted.
The Ising Collider was state of the art, with the entire tube assembly below us fully automated. The redundant cooling systems should have turned on. Without them, the electromagnets would blow in minutes.
I tapped commands into my console, but the systems did not respond. And the auto shut-off had failed to trigger.
Miriam spun toward me. “Larry, what’s happening?”
“I don’t know.”
Claude Holtz shot out of his chair and bounded to my station. “Mr. Bethany, are you having a problem focusing tonight?”
“Then what’s going on?”
I pointed at the display. “The cooling system’s going down. I can’t stop it from here. Nothing’s responding.”
Miriam stood up at her station. “Claude, what can we do?”
Claude glared at me, then at my displays at my station. He tapped the same buttons I’d just pressed, with the same result. He ran his fingers through his unmovable white crewcut. “This looks like the same problem they had at CERN before their magnets blew. Four techs were burned at their stations, and it could’ve been a lot worse. Protocol says we shut down the magnets. Now.”
A few shift techs wandered toward the exits. Others stared at the three of us.
Miriam leaned over her console, peered up at me and Claude. “All right. But of all the rotten times for this to hit us...” She shook her head as her finger dropped down onto the controls. “All magnets off. Damn!”
The room filled with chatter and nervous laughter. The techs and engineers shrugged shoulders, some threw their hands up in mock surrender.
But something wasn’t right. For some reason, I was jumpy, and I kept glancing around the control room. And then, despite the dozen conversations around me, I heard it: a whisper in the air that turned my stomach fluttery. I cocked my head and studied the main power use display. I stood and yelled, “Hey, hey! Everyone quiet!”
Heads turned toward me, and I waved my arms to hush the few remaining conversations. The shrill cry of the accelerated protons in the tube had not stopped.
“Something’s wrong,” said Miriam. She hit her switch again. “How about now?”
I shook my head. “We’re still online.”
“Larry, try powering down on your end.”
I tapped a red button. “No good. It won’t shut down.”
Miriam darted across the control room. “Can’t be.” She squinted at the display on my console. “Claude, what do you think?”
Claude leaned over my console, nudged me aside. He punched two buttons, peered at the readout. “The power control panels aren’t working. I don’t get it.” He turned to Miriam. “We need to evacuate.”
I glanced at Claude, then back at Miriam. After a quick gulp of air, I pointed at my console. “Well, there’s another option. I can reroute the main conduits down in the racks and restore control. It’ll only take a couple of minutes.”
Claude shook his head. “It’s possible, but it’s too risky. I’d say the circuit overloads triggered a mechanical failure. That’s nasty stuff.” He poked my ribs with a bony finger. “We’ll need a special team for this. No sense in you going down there and electrocuting yourself.”
I made a fist under my console. I knew the guts of this facility too well to get myself electrocuted. But Claude was my boss. No telling what he’d do if I crossed him.
“Claude’s right. We can’t risk it.” Miriam clenched her jaw, and through her teeth said, “But if the magnets overheat, we could be down for weeks. Maybe months.”
Claude shrugged. “I don’t see any other choice. Standard ops say—”
“Miriam, I can fix this.”
Claude gave me that look. “Excuse me, Larry, but I’m talking with the chief operator.” He pulled himself up to full height and turned to Miriam. “I say we get all personnel out.”
More techs crowded around the exits. A couple of them craned their necks at us before scooting out.
Her face tight, eyebrows knotted, Miriam bent over the power display a long, breathless moment. “Damn!” She stood straight and yelled, “All right, everyone out!”
Claude smiled. “Now that makes sense.”
Miriam touched my shoulder. “Larry, if you can go below and fix this in less than four minutes, do it. At four minutes, get out, because the magnets are going to blow in about seven minutes.”
“Got it.” I reached into a drawer, pulled out my toolbox, and headed toward the stairwell.
“Right,” said Claude, “whatever.” He jerked his head left and right. “I’ll make sure everyone gets out okay.” He trotted past me and pushed through the last of the shift techs.
When I heaved the stairwell door open, I glanced back and caught a glimpse of Miriam hunched low at her station.
The steel door thumped shut behind me. I passed through the Faraday cage and trotted down the circular stairwell in semi-darkness, making a drum-like rhythm on the steel steps. Emergency lights cast a twilight glow, and a sweet, metallic stench of ozone burned in my nostrils, the unmistakable result of an electrical arc. Damn! That meant Claude was right about a mechanical failure. That was supposed to be impossible.
I pressed through the maze of blinking electronic racks. How long did I have? A glance at my bare wrist made my heart drop. I’d left my wristwatch on my console. I’d have to find and fix the problem in the next four minutes. Now I had to count off the seconds while searching for the break.
From the main control room above, the muted rise-fall of three emergency klaxons did their damnedest to crowd out all thought. Did I have three and a half minutes left or just three? I shuffled faster in the dusky maze, searching the racks overhead for the auxiliary controls, when my knee rammed into something sharp and massive. I stopped, let out a howl.
But that was a good thing. When I opened my eyes and wiped away the tears, silver flashes appeared just inches from my face. High-voltage aluminum capacitors gleamed in the white glow of the emergency lights. Six of them, strapped together in a glimmering, deadly row like high-caliber shells.
Each capacitor packed 375 heart-stopping joules of stored electricity, and I had almost plowed right into them. I fixed my eyes on the capacitors and flattened myself against the opposite wall as if they could jump toward me any second. Holding my breath, I squeezed past.
And there it was, the cause of our problem, less than a meter in front of me. A black cable dangled from one of the cryogenic stations. A blue-white arc of plasma flowed between the blunt end of the cable and a junction box. The arc hummed softly, song-like, sweet camouflage for deadly power.
Bypassing the junction box required a physical disconnect and re-routing the circuit to get the cryo units working again. I selected a high-voltage torque wrench from my tool box, crouched low and slowly, slowly eased the wrench past the dangling cable deep into the housing and stretched until my shoulder hurt. A couple of full twists, then a quarter, and the wrench clicked as it hit the proper tension. The arc sputtered to a stop.
Without daring to pull my arm out yet, I took a few gasps of air. One more step to restore power. Both eyes fixed on the wrench in my fist, I eased my arm out. Just before the wrench emerged from the housing, I focused on the emergency rerouting controls in the shadows over my head. Then it hit me: There was a way to power both the main control panels and the cryo systems. The switches had to be pressed in a particular sequence—
My ears popped and total darkness dropped all around, as if I’d just plunged into water. Dark, cold, deep water. My first thought was that I’d shorted the emergency lighting, but I could still see, though the rows of equipment now looked hazy in the murky light. Had the room filled with smoke from a short circuit?
I halted, staggering from sudden dizziness. The haze that had fallen over everything made me light-headed, unsure what to do next.
Copyright © 2019 by M. C. Tuggle