The Extrusion Project

Gil Williamson

Who knows what problems the Large Hadron Collider will cause?

Faithful-2 Astrophysicist Bracle awoke in a foul mood. With a slap of his fourth tentacle, he expelled from his sleeping nook the young female with whom he had spent an energetic night. She fled gratefully to her own mate's quarters, nursing bruises and contusions. Bracle had scientific matters to consider, and reports to edit. Although it was not true, he really felt that the extrusion was his own discovery. He was a senior astrophysicist in the exploration vessel Pilgrim-4545676, which carried some 200 scientists and 500 clergy. It was not Bracle, but a junior astronomer, who had first spotted the extrusion amid a strong source of dark matter. Bracle had, by the strength of his authority and certain threats, seized a prior claim.

Most scientists now believed that the vast majority of dark matter was a leakage from another dimension. Dark matter was one of the great mysteries, accounting for much of the mass of the universe, but spread thinly over all of space, rather than concentrated in stars and planets where it could easily be seen and measured. The majority of the matter discovered tended to be individual atoms of hydrogen 2.5, which quickly decomposed into ordinary hydrogen with a brief spray of fundamental particles and a little energy. Very occasionally, concentrations of simple compounds of hydrogen 2.5 such as "heavy ammonia" or "heavy methane" appeared in deep space, and remained stable. These concentrations tended to be a few thousand molecules, almost invisible, resembling frost crystals.

The extrusion, by contrast, was in a totally different order of magnitude, an ordered cluster of long-chain polymers, millions of molecules bonded together in curves, clearly visible to the naked eye, and it was growing in intersecting layers. There was still some dispute as to whether it was debris from an unknown spaceship, it was so regular in shape, but the way in which it seemingly appeared from nowhere, and the fact that every hydrogen atom in it seemed to be Hydrogen 2.5, confirmed that it was dark matter in a hitherto unknown form.

His third tentacle ached from the blow he had delivered to his adversary's beak yesterday
However, all the scientists on the ship were here under the auspices of the Church of Continuous Creation, a wealthy religious sect who believed that God (the twelve-tentacled creator of the universe) could be discovered performing His creation if you searched hard enough, and they had financed and equipped this and many other scientific expeditions to investigate hotspots of creation, of which the current locus was one. The priests had taken intellectual ownership of The Dark Extrusion, as they called it, and forbidden further scientific tests on it, arguing that its closeness to God's creation rendered it a holy object for veneration only. Their belief was that as the universe expanded, God created an atom of Hydrogen 2.5 every so often in order to retain the overall density of matter. So far as provable fact went, to tell the truth, it was as valid a theory as any, but Bracle was keen to discover a more scientific basis for matter creation. He was also keen to establish a reputation for himself. At all costs. Especially if the costs were being paid by others.

Despite his eminence as a scientist, Bracle was ranked a mere Faithful-2, and that rank was conferred only as a result of his fudging his answers to the Church's faith test. In this, he was not alone among the scientists aboard. No-one below Faithful-2 level was permitted on these holy expeditions, so one had to pretend belief to participate in them. In fact, his personal beliefs were close to atheism. As far as Bracle and most of his scientific colleagues were concerned, there was a scientific reason for everything, including dark matter.

Bracle had expressed his views rather forcefully at the supper trough, striking a junior colleague in his fury, and he had to hurry from his bunk this morning to appear before a six-person Church Committee. An attendant in the corridor had informed him that The Committee had already issued a death sentence and a maiming this morning. Bracle's own minor crimes, last night's assault and a possible, but unsubstantiated, allegation of rape from the reluctant mate of his chief assistant, Adafle, would be unlikely to attract any penalty of that severity, but an accusation of heresy might conceivably be more forcefully punished. His third tentacle ached from the blow he had delivered to his adversary's beak yesterday, another limb was bleeding slightly as a result of a fresh bite from last night's bed companion, and he was seeing triple and quadruple because his eye-stalks were weary after the long night of intoxicating vapours and sexual activities. As a result of these discomforts , Bracle's rashness level was at a high today, and it was only the risk of heresy that dissuaded him from displaying a more arrogant attitude to the Church Committee.

"What impels you to deny the divine nature of the Dark Extrusion?" asked Chairman Rawale, a wrinkled oldster with a twitch in his eighth tentacle, who sat at the centre of the nest array.

A sudden flush of exasperation impelled Bracle to reply, "It seems to me that God may be behind this at some remove, but I find it difficult to believe that He would manifest His power by producing an artifact made of plastic. I would expect God's creations to be more elegant and complete in form, like a flower or a conscious being, and to be constructed of a variety of materials, rather than translucent polyethylene."

There was a brief silence as The Committee absorbed this idea, followed by the predictable priestly response: "Who are you to judge His ineffable wisdom?" from the sycophantic Dandle, an effluent-licking younger priest whose utterances seldom strayed from accepted dogma. Grunts of approval from the other inquisitors greeted this banal rhetorical query.

Bracle didn't attempt to answer the question directly. "I accept that this is an unusual source of matter. Unique, in fact. Most strong sources of dark matter are rather randomly distributed and sporadic in output. With this one, as well as a high concentration of conventional dark matter atoms and simple compounds, there is the so-called extrusion orbiting a minor black hole at a distance of 800 light-heartbeats, which is interestingly unusual. But we have to recognise that this source is located in what has to be described as a rather out-of-the-way corner of a conventional spiral galaxy, hardly the location in which the Deity would choose to reveal the Majesty of His creation. I feel sure that while God may well have set up the conditions for this phenomenon to occur, we would honour Him greatly by studying the extrusion in addition to, obviously, venerating it."

Some of the committee members shifted uncomfortably; eye-stalks turned towards Chairman Rawale. And Bracle delivered his master stroke: "And if, indeed, the Dark Extrusion does come directly from God, then surely he will have written a message for us upon it with his own tentacle. But it may not be easy to read. We must inspect it very closely, visually, chemically and topologically."

Further unrest and some whispering ensued within the six-person committee. Dandle was heard to say something about trickery, and was hushed by the rather formal Gossle, whom Bracle rather liked. Eventually, with a clearing of beaks, they appeared to reach a conclusion. Chairman Rawale stated the ruling: "You may study the artifact as closely as you wish; photograph it with reflected, not artificial, light; you may not touch it or permit it to be touched; you may not bombard it with electromagnetic rays. Is that clear?"

"Certainly, Chairman." Bracle did not feel it politic to report that the extrusion had already been photographed and X-rayed by a robot drone, which had also chopped off a small nodule and brought it back for analysis. Its identification as simple polythene had been made from that sample, though other organic compounds were also present, lying on the surface of the plastic.

But Committee Member Jowle had obviously been thinking about that. "What makes you so sure that the extrusion is made of polythene?" he asked.

"Spectral analysis," replied Bracle, hoping that no-one in the nest had the experience to ask supplementary questions. To complicate the issue, he hastily added, "To call the substance of the extrusion 'polythene' is an over-simplification. Various organic compounds have been observed in its composition, but most are describable as ethylene chains or rings, such as are found in plastics."

"Further," continued Chairman Rawale, "The Committee is assigning Moderaror Dandle to your team to ensure that appropriate respect is paid to the manifestation."

Bracle groaned inwardly whilst making a polite salute to Dandle. "Welcome, Moderator Dandle." he managed to say. Life was about to become more frustrating if that sanctimonious nit-picker was on his team. But overall it could have been worse. As well as the power of death, maiming and life, Chairman Rawale had the power to forbid any scientific activity at all. At least it hadn't come to that. And no-one had mentioned his recent violent conduct.

In a scrupulously clean but cluttered laboratory, a couple of kilometres below the Swiss countryside, Eric Peterson prepared another run of his experiment at twenty past two in the morning, one of the few timeslots available on the vast particle accelerator. It seemed that the smaller the commodity being studied, the larger the equipment required to study it, and the more people interested in doing so.

When atomic nuclei collide at high speed, showers of sub-particles are briefly detectable, some of which are suspected of having a component in another dimension.
In this case, various sub-atomic particles were being fired twenty-six kilometres down a tunnel, accelerating all the way, and arriving at the tiny target area travelling at nearly three hundred thousand kilometres a second. At that speed, the impacts of these particles on any atoms that got in the way was considerable. Eric was causing these particles to zap into a plastic beaker full of a sort of chemical soup of Eric's own devising. In this way, Eric hoped to prove that actual biological life could be initiated by the bombardment of inorganic solutions with high speed elementary particles. In this attempt, he was mirroring similar experiments performed by Miller et al using electricity and ultraviolet as the trigger. The partial success of these previous experiments in creating amino acids and proteins had given scientists the confidence that, in due course, some form of life might be created artificially. However, without some kind of boost, it might take time. Years, millennia, eons even. In point of fact, Creationists and other Bible-thumpers could point to the fact that after nearly a hundred years of trying, not even a smart bacterium had been created by artificial means.

Of course, the vast accelerator wasn't built for Eric's project. Hence, all Eric's time slots were in the early hours of the morning, and his slots were often cancelled because of maintenance or because a more important user had overrun. Really Important Research into elementary particle theory was the main thrust of the accelerator's purpose. When atomic nuclei collide at high speed, showers of sub-particles are briefly detectable, some of which are suspected of having a component in another dimension. Apparently, some particles which theory argued should be present had continued to evade detection and everyone was becoming a little worried about the millions spent on the accelerator's construction and maintenance.

So far, Eric's results had been disappointing, too. Amino acids and proteins were appearing in unprecedented quantities under the beam of very fast particles, but he had been hoping for something more interesting than the simple organic compounds he was seeing, which were similar to those which previous experiments seemed to have produced. He had expected that by increasing the intensity of bombardment well beyond natural levels, he might produce primitive life somewhat more quickly than God, or even Mother Nature, had done.

While nuclei collided in his beaker under the particle beam, Eric was analysing a sample of a previous batch of Life Soup at a nearby bench. Even a total failure can win you a PhD as long as you get enough details into the thesis. He was interrupted when Bruno, lab assistant and general fusspot, walked into the lab and immediately yelled at him, "Hey, Mr. Peterson, your container is leaking all over my target platform!"

This was a gross exaggeration, but some of the precious liquid was, indeed, dribbling from the bottom of the beaker. Eric reached for the vessel as Bruno had the presence of mind to switch off the beam. "Idiot!," Bruno shouted, "You nearly cooked your stupid hand in the beam just now! And get that slime bucket into the sink before we are all having to swim for it!"

Since the contents of the beaker represented some weeks of work, Eric quickly transferred the soup to one of the sterile bottles in which batches of Life Soup were stored when not actually being irradiated.

"Thanks, Bruno. Hey, look at how thin the bottom of this beaker is," Eric said, feeling he should make some excuse for the leak.

"It was your responsibility to obtain and check the container," replied Bruno, taking it from Eric and poking at the thin polythene, "But it is certainly defective. You must obtain another one."

"Yes, of course."

"Now you must, please, go away while I clean up your mess."

"I'll do it. It was my..."

"This is my responsibility, Mr. Peterson. My laboratory is more than surgically clean. The air is filtered. There is not so much as a fly in here, and it is because I am extremely thorough in a way that a scientist like you can never be. Do you want the place overrun with vermin? No, you do not. You might think you had created them yourself. Ha?" Bruno was still laughing at his own joke after Eric had left with his defective container.

Bracle's principal problem was not the complex space-borne scientific endeavour on which he was engaged, nor the increasing resentment he was causing by his continual exercise of droit de seigneur over colleagues' mates, but the interference from the irritating priest, Dandle, whose eyes were everywhere and whose tentacles were into everything. Had Dandle been a mere service person, or even a fellow scientist of inferior rank, Bracle could have had him removed from the project, or even from the land of the living, if necessary. Such was not the case with the ubiquitous Dandle, whose membership of the priesthood rendered him immune to deliberate harm of any kind, on pain of the assailant's death. Observation of The Dark Extrusion was constantly hampered by prolonged debates with Dandle as to whether even seeing the phenomenon by natural starlight constituted a violation of The Committee's restrictions. Whether, specifically, impact by stellar photons violated the stricture against bombardment by electromagnetic waves. Quantum dynamics, for example, a discipline with which Dandle had scant familiarity, and Bracle could claim little more facility, was called into play, necessitating much delay, during which time no investigation could take place. Further disputes arose over the placement of radiation detectors and positional radio beacons, which Bracle considered to be basic requirements. Did the radiation detectors in any way affect the extrusion? No. On the contrary, it was eventually agreed that the extrusion potentially affected the detectors. Did the radio beacons in any way affect the extrusion? Yes, but in an allowable manner under the terms of The Committee's embargo. This and other pettifogging disagreements required The Committee to reconvene, each event costing precious days.

Dandle was aware of, even gleeful at, Bracle's frustration, and familiar with his reputation for violence. He was, therefore, careful never to be alone with Bracle. When the scientific team made a spacewalk to inspect the extrusion at close range, Dandle's space suit developed a mysterious slow leak near one of the tentacle joints, but Dandle quickly repaired the puncture using a self-adhesive patch with which he had thoughtfully provided himself for the trip. A suit safety officer was condemned to death for endangering the valuable cleric. On another occasion, a mis-labelled airlock control unexpectedly expelled the intrepid Dandle into space, where he might have orbited the centre of the universe for ever, had he not been secured to the hull with a safety line. An airlock safety officer suffered amputation of a tentacle and an eyestalk for carelessness on that occasion.

Dandle's oppressive presence was removed in quite an unexpected and helpful manner. On the thirty-fourth cycle of investigation, a new layer of matter started to appear, a layer that was red in colour. Shortly thereafter, strange markings were observed on the otherwise smoothly curved section of the extrusion. The Reverend Dandle forthwith banished the excited scientists from the area, and proudly led a group of incongruously space-suited priests to the location.It had, for some time, been observed that changes in the extrusion took place in regular bursts about 140,000 heartbeats apart, and that they were accompanied by an increase in radiation, a fact confirmed by the recently installed radiation detectors. Dandle chose a time of maximum activity for his party, and strayed into a volume of space which was apparently filled with very fast particles and very hard radiation. Dandle was simultaneously freeze-dried and microwaved to a crisp inside a space suit that had suddenly become porous.

At Dandle's funeral feast, some diners remarked that he was far too well done and dry for their taste, and that they much preferred a freshly executed heretic to a spoiled priest. Chairman Rawale found it necessary to rebuke the complainers, remarking that the quality of the deceased's life was more to be celebrated than the quality of his meat. It was observed, however, that even Rawale found it difficult to eat more than a few scraps of tentacle.

The rather humourless Moderator Gossle was assigned to the team in Dandle's place, but he turned out to be more pragmatic and much easier to work with than his predecessor. The investigation proceeded with more despatch than before. It seemed very likely that the raised markings on the extrusion were writing in some form or another, but they remained incomprehensible, despite long and careful study.

It was during an attempt to make a cast of the writing that a remarkable discovery was made. The cast was successfully applied to a portion of the extrusion, but, when it set, it proved difficult to remove. Eventually, grapples were attached to the cast, and considerable force applied by towing it with a rocket-powered service vehicle. The whole red part of the extrusion twisted and suddenly almost doubled in size. The effect was as though it had been inflated, but study of a video later demonstrated that the additional volume had been pulled out of nowhere, as though it had been concealed in some invisible, intangible pocket in space. Bracle was the first to correctly conclude that the extrusion lay mostly in another dimension, and he proposed that there might be very much more substance available if a really good pull were organised.

The suggestion was vetoed by Chairman Rawale, who was already in a state of reverential shock and awe at what had happened. The Chairman declared that he required some days to meditate upon its significance.

"It is now apparent," said Bruno, "That the particle beam is destroying your containers. There is daily leakage of fluid from your messy experiment."

"Not today, Bruno. I bought a very substantial red plastic bucket from the Co-op supermarket."

"I see that, Mr Peterson, but it is already becoming porous, you see! There is a wetness on the outside of the bucket."

As they contemplated the experiment, the bucket suddenly lurched, a split appeared in it, and its contents spilled out. Eric gave a groan of horror which was drowned by Bruno's howl of rage. On inspection, the bottom of the bucket had been eroded to a wafer-thin shell and part of it had disappeared altogether. Bruno cleaned up the mess with many complaints, insisting that, in future, Eric should use glass or metal vessels, but Eric wasn't listening. It had dawned upon Eric that he had here a very interesting phenomenon indeed.

Over the next few sessions, Eric abandoned his Life Soup, placing only various solid substances in the beam. One, a celluloid ping-pong ball, vanished completely in four seconds; assorted other plastic substances were eroded to an extent; metal, glass, stone, paper, flesh (a pork chop), rubber, wood and ivory (a key from a scrapped pianoforte) were either unaffected or were physically damaged by the high energy beam, melting or burning as the case may be.

Only plastics, especially polythene, exhibited the disappearing behaviour. To confirm actual disappearance, Eric placed a plastic toy in a hermetically sealed glass container, and weighed it before and after irradiation. Afterwards, the container appeared empty, and was lighter by the weight of the toy, a plastic jeep.

Using a supply of thick plastic rods from Bruno's supply cupboard, Eric also discovered that if he switched off the beam before the rod had completely disappeared, and he then pulled it in the direction the beam came from, then some or all of the rod would often reappear. Setting up a careful bracket and stand apparatus, he further found that if the retrieval took place exactly along the beam line, then the rod was invariably returned undamaged.

Eric realised that this breakthrough was exactly the sort of thing that became the stuff of learned papers, PhDs and Professorships. He repeated all his experiments again, this time filming each stage with a fixed video camera.

Chairman Rawale's days of meditation initially coincided with a lull in activity at the extrusion site. Bracle began to worry that pulling the red extrusion had, in some way, damaged the production mechanism, whatever it was. Then came a cluster of small extrusions, apparently composed of a variety of substances, but The Committee forebade any tampering with them. Finally, coloured cylinders began to appear, one by one. Some stayed, some became twisted, others retracted. And still Bracle was forbidden to investigate more closely.

Such was Bracle's frustration that he continually provoked fights with junior male colleagues, all of whom he easily defeated. In accordance with ancient custom, he usually clipped off and ate an eyestalk from the opponent. The department began to fill with limping scientists, many of whom were regrowing eyestalks or nursing wounded tentacles. Between these bouts, Bracle repeatedly forced himself on any subordinate female too fearful to resist his advances and angrily coupled with them, often two or three at a time.

It came as a relief to all concerned when Chairman Rawale re-convened The Committee and summoned Bracle to hear their judgement. In short, study of the phenomenon was to continue but there was to be no more tugging or pushing. Further, Bracle was admonished for fighting with colleagues, but was congratulated on his endeavour to multiply the race. The priesthood frowned upon the recent popular enthusiasm for monogamy, promoted by secular movements on the home planet.

But Bracle was determined to circumvent Rawale's rulings. It seemed to him that great fame would accompany the person most closely associated with the extrusion, and he was determined to be that person. Within a short time of test resumption, Bracle was to be found crammed into a tiny converted escape pod, which was tethered by a steel wire rope to the latest extrusion, a red cylinder. In lip-service to The Committee, he was neither pulling nor pushing the extrusion. He was hoping to stay with it if it retracted and therefore to find out where the extrusions were coming from. He was armed with a projectile weapon and a laser side arm. He had never lacked courage, and had ignored the cautiously expressed misgivings of the technicians who had helped him organise the attempt. Bracle knew that, whether he returned or not, his name would be honoured in perpetuity.

In the event, he was forced to repeat his experiment three more times before the watching technicians saw his craft jerk and disappear as the cylinder to which it was attached smoothly slid into nothingness. As time went on, and he didn't return, some were enraged, others relieved. Work continued, however, on study of the mysterious writings.

Bruno was dismayed to spot what looked like a huge spider or other bug lurking in a corner of the lab, nearly four centimetres in diameter. Theoretically, this was impossible because of the de-contamination entry process, but careless researchers like Eric were capable of any outrage. Bruno bent to inspect the intruder, observing that it appeared to have even more legs than was customary for a spider - twelve or so - and that they were not jointed, but flexible. Judging it to be too large safely to pick up, but wanting to show Eric the evidence of a contaminated workplace, Bruno approached the creature with a specimen jar and a handbrush, surprisingly receiving several painful stings even before he touched it. He concluded that it must be spitting venom at him. Irritated, he flicked it out of the corner with his brush and stamped on it. A squashed exhibit would serve Bruno's purpose just as well as a live one. Later, he found a strange silver sphere attached by a wire to one of the plastic rods Eric had borrowed. Bruno had been saving these rods for an atomic model, but Eric's new enthusiasm for irradiated plastic was much preferred to the leakages of previous weeks. With a grimace, he tore the sphere off and tossed it in the bin. The sooner he was rid of Eric, he muttered to himself, the better.

© Gil Williamson 2009 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 18:08 Fri 19 Feb 2010
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