Short Stories - Sea of Energy

Sea of Energy - © 2006 By Steven Dufresne, all rights reserved.

"It'll be weaponized sooner or later anyhow!", Alex slammed his palm on the table for emphasis.

Grace touched his arm. "Calm down, Alex."

Alex looked at Grace, then turned to the others and continued in a gentler tone, "This technology's of no use sitting in the lab."

Greg toyed with his beer in front of him and said, "Yes, we know, Alex. But if you do manage to get the military to look at it before it has a chance to go public, before we're sure it'll get into consumers' hands, then the military will classify it and compartmentalize it. No one will be using it, except the military."

"That's a little extreme, Greg, don't you think?" Larry was slouched in usual chair against the wall.


"I agree with Greg," said Helen.

"So do I, Alex," said Grace pleadingly. She didn't want this to come between them but knew it would.

Alex kept silent, thinking of all the work he'd done and all the work yet to be done, making him all the more determined.

"It's taken me three months to get Major Maneski to take me seriously. I've gotten it to the point where he'll at least come for a demonstration. And that's largely because he's my Uncle's friend." He looked at each of them around the table. "I'm not going to turn back now."

With that he pushed his chair back and slammed the door on his way out.

Larry downed the remainder of his beer and stood up to go. "You were a little hard on him. All of you," this last to Grace, whom he thought should have stood by Alex most of all.

In a hard tone Greg said, "It's the future, Larry."

"Yeah. Right."

Larry left to catch up with Alex. Grace followed immediately after. They had work to do to prepare for tomorrow's demonstration.

Greg and Helen sat quiet, staring into their drinks as if the answers to their hard questions could be found there.

"Another round, guys?" Jake approached the table from the bar.

Closing time was in thirty minutes and all other customers had left. The scene he'd just witnessed at the table was familiar to Jake. To him they were the crazy young professors with offices just down the hall and one floor up.

"No thanks," said Greg.

Helen suddenly had an idea. "Hey! Let's explain it to Jake."

Greg looked at her, puzzled.

"We're going to have to start explaining it to people sooner or later."

"Right!" Greg came alive.

Jake was used to eggheads explaining things to him. The whole University was filled with them and he was a handy, and captive, sounding board.

He shrugged and sat down. "Fire away."

Helen started. "We've figured out how to tap into a virtually endless supply of energy."

"Okay." Jake was used to such opening lines.

She continued, "You know that all matter is made up of atoms, right?"


"Well the space between those atoms is teeming with a virtually limitless amount of energy."

"Really?" This was a new one for him. "So you tap into that."

"Exactly. But it's not so simple," said Greg.

"How does a hydroelectric dam work, Jake?" Helen asked.

"Uh, you have a river with fast moving water and you put a turbine in the water. The moving water spins the turbine. The spinning turbine runs a generator which make electricity."

"Right," said Helen. "Now what if you took that same turbine and put it in the middle of the ocean, under the water?"

Jake pictured a turbine surrounded on all sides by nothing but featureless water for as far as the eye could see. "Is there any moving water there?"

"Let's say yes, but it's moving in every direction at the same time."

"Weird." Jake took a moment to think. "Okay. In that case the turbine wouldn't spin since it's being pushed equally in all directions."

"Right," said Helen. "That's the problem with taping into this energy. The energy is flowing in every direction at the same time."

"So what do you do?" asked Jake.

"Well," Greg picked it up, "we tap into the places where it's already being used. The various parts of the atom, for example, are constantly feeding on this energy. So we've built a device that interrupts the flow of energy into the atom in certain circumstances."

"Kind of like pulling the hose off a fire hydrant, and sticking your head in the way of the water," said Jake.

Greg and Helen looked at each other, impressed by Jake's quick uptake and excellent analogy. Then the analogy sobered Helen. Putting your head in front of the flow of water from a hydrant was pretty damaging and they hoped Alex wasn't going to do the equivalent damage by going to the military first.

"We've got to stop him." Helen said to Greg.

"Huh?" Jake thought he missed a step.

"Oh," Greg turned to Jake. "It's Alex. He's going to demonstrate this to the military tomorrow. They're sure to put it under a security blanket and use it themselves."

"Ah, can't help you there," said Jake with a lopsided smile. "Anything else you want to try out on me?"

"Nope. Thanks, Jake," Helen called out as he returned to cleaning up the bar.

"How do we stop Alex?" Greg asked himself as much as Helen.

"Sabotage. Major Maneski just barely believes that we can do this and the physicists he's bring definitely don't. Right?"

Greg thought a bit. "Yeah."

"So tapper B, the old version, is still in my office. Let's get it out, and see if there's something we can do to it to make it fail in a way that Alex wouldn't notice. Then we'll fix it so tapper C will fail in the same way."

"And when it fails to work at his demonstration tomorrow, all Alex's fragile credibility will be gone. Then we introduce it later in some way that can't be stopped."

With that they left.

The concept of tapping the energy between the atoms was so new, many considered it fringe science, and if word got out they were working on it, it could cost them the careers. So they used University equipment, but the moneys for parts came out of their own pockets. Most of the work was done during evenings and nights like this one.

Bookcases lined the walls of Helen's office, the shelves filled with books, old journals, and odds and ends of equipment. Where floor space wasn't used for bookcases, stacks of papers and journals sat, some piled waste high.

On top of one of these piles sat tapper B. It consisted of a half metre square wooden base on which sat a high speed motor. Through the middle of that motor, emerging from both ends, was a shaft for rotating two disks, one on each end of the shaft. Along with a few stationary disks that faced the rotating ones, a mass of circuitry, and some dials and lights, this was the entire device. The whole was enclosed in a Plexiglas cover so that you could examine it from all sides and from above. If any part came loose the Plexiglas would stop it from flying away and causing damage. It was rough looking since it was the version that they'd used while fine tuning their ideas. The new version, tapper C, the one that Alex was going to use for the demonstration, was the prettied-up one.

Greg used both arms to lift the device while Helen cleared some desk space for it. He lowered it gently onto the cleared space, not because it was fragile but because it weighed a much as a 25 inch tube TV.

"Okay," Helen started, "He'd notice if we changed the disk spacing, or altered the disk faces."

"The circuitry's a mass of confusion, even on tapper C, but if anything was wrong with that he would quickly realize it by looking at what's being fed into it. If there's nothing wrong with what's going in, then it's the circuitry."

"And making the motor not turn won't do either. Kind of obvious why the device was not putting out in that case."

They thought some more for a minute, then Greg suggested, "Why don't we turn it on and see if that'll give us some ideas."

"Right." Helen grabbed the chord for the motor and found a nearby wall socket. "Okay. It's plugged in. Turn it on."

Greg flipped the switch and they waited for the motor to spin up to the necessary 6,000 rotations per minute, or RPM, a little more than half the speed of a household vacuum cleaner motor. At first it hummed quietly, then as one dial indicated 2,400 RPM, the whole thing began to vibrate, resonating with the Plexiglas cover. At about 2,600 RPM the vibration stopped. After about a minute, the dial indicated 6,100 RPM.

"Hmmm," said Helen.

They'd both been watching the lights and the dials, but once it had reached 6,000 RPM the lights were supposed to come on and the dials should have indicated around 10 kilowatts of power output, enough to supply 5 houses.

"Nothing. Maybe we've been sabotaged?" Greg said it jokingly but genuinely puzzled.

"Here." Helen took an oscilloscope off one shelf and laid it on the desk.

Together they hooked up its probes while the device still ran. The waveforms shown on the oscilloscope's screen were not the expected sharp, tall spikes. Instead they were what would be expected if the whole idea was wrong from the start. They spent the next hour going over everything but found only that it should be putting out large amounts of power.

And then, without their having touched it for a few minutes, the lights came on.

"Ah!" Helen had been leaning over them at the time and fell backward to the floor, startled by the sudden brilliance.

"Ouch," sympathised Greg, bending down to see that she was okay. "What'd you do?"

"Nothing. I swear."

Having spent an hour failing to figure out why it wasn't working, they next spent an hour failing to figure out why all of a sudden it was working.

"Ha! Ha!"

Helen's laughter at the frustrating situation startled Greg.

She answered his questioning look, "If we were sabotaged, we can't figure out how. But this is just what we need to do to Alex."

Greg nodded his head. "Ironic."

"Come on. Let's get out of here. Sleep on it." Looking at her watch, she winced, "Yuck, 3:00am."

They flipped the switch and unplugged the device, leaving it in the dark to spin down by itself.

They exited the building but as they rounded the corner to get to the parking lot they heard voices arguing. Darkness covered them as they bowed low and walked behind a cedar hedge. Approaching closer to the voices they saw Alex, Grace and Larry standing amongst their cars.

"I'd expect you to stand by me!" Alex shouted.

"But why Alex?" pleaded Grace. "You know they'll keep it to themselves."

"No they won't. That's just Greg and Helen talking," countered Alex.

Grace thought for a moment. "And what if you're wrong? Meanwhile we go on polluting the planet, using up all our fossil fuel, stirring up the weather to something we're not evolved to handle. And future generations pay the bill, even if we don't."

Larry stepped in, "Necessity is the mother of invention. As the problems arise, we'll find solutions. We always do."

Grace turned on him hard, "So no more warm sunlight on your skin, no fresh air? We'll just wear new lightweight environment suits with practical, barely inconvenient gas masks! Sound like good solutions to you Larry?" this last a shout.

Larry grinned, humoured by her tone but ignoring her words. "Sure Grace. Sounds good to me." Looking to Alex he said, "The demo's at 11:00 right?"

Alex stared at Grace, affected by her uncharacteristic outburst. "Yeah, 11:00."

"See you then." Larry got in his car and drove off.

Grace looked into Alex's eyes. "Well Alex?"

For a moment he doubted himself, then said. "They won't cover it up. Trust me."

"I hope you're right. For everyone's sake," she said as she put her arms around him, hating arguing with him.

He hugged her back, then got into his car. She watched him leave.

Trying to be as noisy as possible so they wouldn't startle her, Helen and Greg stepped from behind the hedge and walked on the pavement toward her.

"Hey," Grace said, knowing that they'd probably heard at least some of the conversation.

"Hey," they both said back, likewise figuring it obvious that they'd overheard. It was the same tired, old argument anyway.

"We did one more test run," Grace reported, figuring they'd be interested. "A little over an hour with steady output. Then we spent an hour cleaning up so everything'd be spick and span for the demo tomorrow," a little bitterness in her voice.

Helen reached out and took her hand, offering reassurance, not only about the future but also for Grace's and Alex's relationship. "It'll all work out," she said.

They shared parting words. Grace got into her small car while Greg and Helen climbed into their battered pickup.

Helen drove while Greg sat silent, thinking hard. Finally he said, "I think I know why tapper B didn't work. And how to sabotage Alex."

"Huh? How?"

"Grace said they ran tapper C for a little over and hour and then spent an hour cleaning up. Right?"


"We ran tapper B. It didn't work at first and then all of a sudden, it started working. We then spent an hour trying to figure out why. The hour trying to figure out why was spent during the hour they were cleaning up. Ours didn't work while theirs was on. When they turned theirs off, ours started working."

Helen thought for a moment. "We don't have exact times to see if the events really correspond." She didn't believe this was necessary any more than Greg did. The coincidence was too good.

"Okay, here's a theory," started Greg. "According to standard quantum electrodynamics, the energy we're tapping really consists of a sea of virtual particles that are constantly popping into and out of existence."

"Right," confirmed Helen.

"I'm no more a dimentionalist than you are but what if the particles aren't really popping into and out of existence? What if they're entering our dimension and then leaving our dimension, coming from and going to a different dimension? To us they'd just look like they were being created and destroyed."

"Sure. That's a common dimensional explanation," Grace said.

"Well, what if in the dimension they're coming from and returning to, the space in your office is the same space as the lab where Alex was running the new version?"

"Ah!" Grace got it. "So we were both trying to get energy from the same space, but only one of us could get it at the same time."

"Exactly. So all we need to do is make sure that we have tapper B already running when he starts up tapper C tomorrow."

Grace tried to think of any potential problems. "We'll have to start B up just before 11:00, no sooner. He'll want to start C up in the Major's presence, but he'll probably do a test run before the Major gets there."

They were silent the remainder of the way home where a short sleep was all they'd get that night.

The next morning at around 10:55 all five of them were gathered in the lab for the demo. Greg and Helen had arrived earlier to find Alex already testing tapper C, frequently turning it on and off, looking for any issues that might arise. The problem was that if they turned tapper B on and then he switched C on, he'd find that it wouldn't work. He'd then have a chance to look into the problem before the Major arrived, or worse yet, to postpone the demo.

"The Major should be arriving soon, Alex. Don't you think you should stop cycling it on and off?" asked Helen.

"Nope. I want to keep testing until the last minute," Alex answered.

Helen and Greg exchanged worried looks. Alex was busy looking the device over yet again. Larry and Grace were standing by with nothing to do.

Greg said, "Someone should greet the Major, make sure he finds this lab. I'll take care of it."

Alex glanced up at Greg, taking it as a conciliatory gesture, "Thanks Greg. I appreciate it."

Five minutes later Greg returned with the Major and two other gentlemen who introduced themselves as physicists on contract to the military. Just as they'd entered, Alex had turned tapper C on and hadn't had a chance to turn it off again. It sat in the middle of the room producing kilowatts of power with its light shining brightly.

Once everyone was comfortable and holding mugs of coffee, Alex began a short preliminary speech he'd been practicing in which he made sure the Major had some understanding of the energy source they were tapping, that they weren't talking about a perpetual motion machine.

One of the physicists said, "I don't mind telling you, Alex, that we're more than a little skeptical. Some physicists have been trying to figure out a way to tap this source for years. Everything that's been thought of and tried so far taps only miniscule amounts of power, barely enough to run a watch. Nothing like the direct method you are talking about here and certainly nothing with this large output."

Alex, Greg and the others were a little bit surprised that the Major had found anyone already familiar with the energy source. Most physicists had either never heard of it or were convinced that it couldn't be tapped.

"We'd also like to see it starting from scratch. Seeing it already running like this is not very convincing," said the other physicist.

"No problem. We'll just switch it off, let it spin down, and then start it up again," said Alex as he flicked the switch.

Helen looked over a Greg. Her office was too far from here for her to get to in time to turn on the old version. Greg returned her worried look with a smile. He took his hands out of his pockets and stood behind her to give her a neckrub. She started moving toward the door when Greg put more downward pressure on her shoulders. She stayed put. Her worry changed to puzzlement.

After a minute the disks had stopped spinning.

"Okay gentlemen," Alex continued the demo, "I'll pull the plug. The cart that this device is sitting on has wheels so please feel free to have a look at it, move it around the room if you want, so you can confirm there are no hidden cables."

For a minute they did just as he suggested, even lifting the clear Plexiglas cover and looking in at the device.

"Now let's plug it back in and turn it on. Please Major, why don't you plug it in?"

The Major did so.

"And now, please turn it on," Alex said, gesturing to the Major.

The Major turned it on.

"Now watch these dials, but not these lights, unless you want to be blinded when it starts producing power. When that dial gets to 6,000 RPM, this dial will show the power output as 10 kilowatts."

They all shifted so each could see the dials. At around 2,400 RPM there was the expected vibration. At 2,600 RPM the vibration stopped. At 5,500 RPM, Alex looked over at Greg, Helen and the others, a grin on his face. They grinned back. At 6,000 RPM, the output dial remained steady and the lights did not come on. Alex frowned. At 6,100 RPM, the lights were still off. One of the physicists shuffled uncomfortably. At 7,000 RPM, the dials had still not changed.

"Alex?" asked the Major.

"I don't get it," said Alex. "I've been turning it on and off all morning. It was on when you got here."

Alex looked to the others for ideas. They all looked puzzled.

The Major looked to the physicists. "Gentlemen?"

One of them shrugged. The other gave him an I told you so look.

"Very well," said the Major. "We'll wait for a few minutes more to give you a chance to figure it out, then I've got a meeting to get to."

Alex was at a complete loss. He'd checked everything so carefully that he couldn't think of anything new to check. Despite this he turned the motor off and waited for it to spin down so he could check again.

While Alex was doing this, Helen looked over at Greg for explanation. He gestured for her to follow him out into the hall. Once there, he pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and whispered, "When I went for the Major, I called Jake. I asked him to go to your office and stand by for my signal, which was that I'd call him again, but not answer. All he had to do was plug tapper B in and turn it on."

"And let me guess. You gave him the signal just before giving me a neckrub, the purpose of which was to hold me back."

Greg grinned.

Just then the Major and the two physicists walked out of the lab and down the hall. Helen and Greg knew they wouldn't be back, at least not before the device could be gotten firmly into the hands of some businessmen.

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