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Alchemy

Alchemy

by Michael Ray

Halfway through producing a block of yellow pine the printer caught fire, again. David trudged into the lab and blasted it with the fire extinguisher, just as he had the last two times.

“Damn it,” Akaash said over the wireless, “It was working this time.” The project was supposed to be the basis for both of their dissertations, but it was beginning to look like they would have to rethink the whole thing.

It took them five days to rebuild the printer. David recalculated the amount of heat they needed to dissipate and was certain that the new heat sink, soldered to a box fan, would be enough. It would be a few days before University maintenance missed the copper.

The lab was a filled with leftover robotics and computers hacked well beyond their original purposes. The refrigerator-sized printer stood in a cleared space against the back wall. David poured the slurry of kudzu and soybeans into the hopper on the side and fired up the laptop lashed alongside. He clicked his wireless for Akaash, who was in the Lexan-paneled control room setting up the livestream.

“What should we try this time?” David said.

“I could use some barbeque,” Akaash answered.

“Very helpful.”

“Have it make nine-sixteenths. Axe used another one.”

“He is hell on tools.”

“He welded it to something.”

“Nine-sixteenths it is.” David called up the schematics for a wrench on the laptop and fed it into the printer.

Their nanotechnology project was designed to manipulate matter at the molecular level. In the open belly of their machine three printheads converged and began their slow, coordinated efforts in a herky-jerky dance with a pair of articulated manipulators that held what the engineers hoped would become a wrench.

“You would choose metal. It’ll probably burn,” David said.

“Proof of concept, man. Cloth or wood or food should be easy. If the damn thing is for real, it’s got to be hardcore. Now get away from it.”

“Thanks for your concern.”

“Concern? You’re blocking the camera. No one wants you in the video.”

The printer project had a small, but loyal, following online. Akaash claimed that it was mostly grad students who were following along and trying to reverse engineer it before everything got published. They had streamed the videos and posted them online anyway, in the interest of scientific openness. The fires, however, were what had become popular. An ‘epic fail’ website had remixed the fire videos and added a Wagner soundtrack. Their server had crashed.

When the lab started heating up, David got in the bread truck and drove off campus to their favorite barbecue joint for sandwiches. He had decided not to be in the lab while the printer ran this time. It was making him anxious again. David drove through the amazing smell coming from the nearby bakery that had donated the truck. Their ‘third man’, Axe, had gotten a grant for welding copolymer solar panels to the top of the bread truck. The power was stored in a rack of batteries in the back that would power the truck. Sort of.

The place had just closed, but the waitress, Mamie, recognized David, so she let him in and made the boys their only meal of the day. They had forgotten to eat. Again. He thanked her and left a big tip. She patted him on the shoulder. “You take better care of yourself, now,” she said and let him out.

“Yes ma’am.” Axe says that David has a soft spot for little old ladies because he had been raised by his grandmother. More than once Akaash has had to retrieve him from helping their building’s custodian mop the floors.

David aimed the bread truck back towards the lab. It actually ran on bio-diesel most of the time. He had convinced an oil company to underwrite a project to use kudzu as an alternative fuel source. It made decent fuel, but he thought the vine would make even better source material for the printer and, of course, it was everywhere down here.

When he went into the control room Akaash was grinning. “It’s working, E.T. It’s working!”

“No fire?” David said. “Our fans will be disappointed.”

“Damn right. It’s about half done and it is hot as hell in there, but the copper is just what we needed.”

They ate. David stared at the printer, watched temperature readouts, and tried not to shake his leg. Akaash monitored the video of the printer’s progress and worked on his meticulous, but almost indecipherable, hand-written notes. Yet another downloaded old movie played on a nearby laptop. They shared the cups of coleslaw and potato salad.

“We should eat more often,” David said, with a full mouth.

“Yeah. We should sleep more and exercise too, but it’s not fricking likely.”

At 12:07 am, the printer stopped moving. “That looks an awful lot like a real nine-sixteenths,” David said. Smoke rose from the wrench.

“I just want to be able tell Dr. Atherton he can suck it,” Akaash said and opened the door to the lab.

When they had presented their proposal to Dr. Charles A. Atherton, head of the Bio-Mechanical Engineering Department, he had sneered at them. “Alchemy,” he said, “I wouldn’t publish this at the bottom of a birdcage.”

Akaash took it personally. His documentation of this project was even more obsessive than usual. “We’ll show that old bastard.”

They had put the ‘replicator’, as Axe called it, together without a project grant. David borrowed or creatively acquired almost everything they needed to build the thing. Akaash’s work for the Department of Agriculture on increasing the protein levels in soybeans and somehow converting it into something more desirable than edible glop had been less than successful, but they had thrown money at him anyway. He bought what David could not find.

David and Akaash lay on the concrete slab benches behind their building and watched the night sky turn morning blue. David pitched the wrench up into the reverse twilight and caught it. Over and over.

“What now?” Akaash said.

“Alchemy.” David said. He let the wrench clatter onto the concrete sidewalk and the echo rolled around the silent redbrick buildings. They slept.

“Wake up,” Axe said, and thrust a heavily altered coffee at each of them. He picked up the wrench. “It really worked.”

Axe was now an art major and he could build just about anything, especially if it involved a blowtorch. The solar bread truck and his engineering degree had not really panned out, but he still hung out at the lab and ‘helped’. He frequently said, usually from behind his welder’s goggles, that he just wanted to be there when they ushered in the Singularity.

“Damn right it worked,” Akaash said with a croak.

“We’ve been thinking about what to do with it,” David said.

“Do? Boys this changes everything,” Axe said, and began to pace. “There will be new patterns, new laws, new fundamentals, new uncertainties.” He swept his arms wide. “Do? Science has never really been about facts. Science is a state of mind. And this will make everyone rethink everything.”

“Slow down Isaac Newton. We’ve only made a fricking wrench, so far,” Akaash said.

“I know, dude. But once people wake up and see this thing, it will be everywhere. They’ll be coming for you,” Axe said, nodding.

“He’s right. We need to get the data together and write up a summary, at least,” David said, standing up. “And we need to run it again and see how far we can go. Axe, will you get us some more kudzu?”

“Sure, dude.”

Three days later David and Akaash stood in the narrow hall outside of Dr. McKimmon’s office. The printer had produced a reasonable sirloin steak and an American Beauty rose for everyone to see online. The day before it had also produced an ounce of what certainly appeared to be gold. They had not shown that video or even told anyone about it, yet. The reality of it was making them all anxious. Axe was over in the lab redoing the acid test.

Dr. McKimmon was their advisor. She was remarkably adept at deflecting faculty criticism of her students and at preventing interference by the University and the Department. They worshipped her, and her faded British accent. Dr. Atherton was in there and they could hear him through the decades-old frosted glass. He was raving. “It should be treated as an autonomous entity, separate from other factors, such as the inventors’ expectations or its intended purpose. This approach would open up the device to rich application and allow for many simultaneous purposes.”

“Dr. Atherton, you called this project rubbish from the outset and now you want to assert some sort of institutional authority over the work of these students? What sort of precedent will that set for our efforts here? One does something that is useful and interesting and the University will swoop in and claim your work? Great idea. Try finding a grad assistant for next fall if you attempt that. And be prepared to find another professor.”

Atherton muttered something and the legs of his chair scraped on the tile as he pushed himself up. David and Akaash moved away from the door and became very interested in their cellphones.

The old professor yanked the door open and stopped short when he saw the students. “You boys have done it this time. They’ll be down on all our heads soon enough.” They looked at him and said nothing. He set off down the hall and launched into a barely audible monologue.

“Come in, lads. We clearly need to talk,” she said.

Inside Dr. McKimmon’s perfectly organized, perfectly furnished office the engineers sat in chairs that were more comfortable than they looked, but they fidgeted nonetheless. “I’ve had a number of suitors in the last couple of days,” she said, “I haven’t been this popular since I burned my bra.”

Her students exchanged confused looks. “If you’re still here next fall, I’m making you both take a history class,” she said.

“Still here, ma’am?” David said.

“In about forty-eight hours Atherton will be back with more authority. I’m willing to bet you can’t account for the origin of every piece of that beauty.”

“You mean,” Akaash began.

“He’ll cite non-academic misconduct.”

“But why?” David said, trying not to whine.

“Don’t play naïve here boys. You know what you just might have down there. And you’ve told the world about it. You don’t create the holy grail of nanotechnology and then act surprised when everyone wants to claim it.”

“Everyone?” Akaash said.

“I got a call this morning from a very agitated man who said he was with the Department of Agriculture. I explained that they hadn’t actually paid for this project. He insisted that they would assert their rights and suggested that you two could go to work for them right now. He also made noises about jail.”

“Jail?” they said, not quite in unison.

“If Atherton doesn’t beat them to you, I expect to see federal marshals in here by Friday. With a court order, no doubt.”

“I’ll be damned,” Akaash said.

“You may well be, or you could be rich.”

“Ma’am?” David said.

“Your kudzu sponsor had a petrochemical engineer in here bright and early this morning. He said that they would deposit one million Euros for each of you in Caribbean bank accounts by close of business today. If, you turn everything over to them and sign a non-disclosure/non-compete. He said you could, of course, come to work for them if you wanted. He also implied, but didn’t quite say, that if you didn’t take the deal that they would claim that it was built with their funding and sue for the rights. Here’s his card.”

They shifted in their chairs.

“Despite my desire to drive a real car, I don’t think that’s why we got into doing this, Doc,” David said. “We found something funky with the nanomachines and realized what they might be able to do. And it seems to be working.”

“If we can replicate this,” Akaash began, and then sighed. “The point is that we want it to be available to people. This is something that could change things for the better. We want it online, right away, so everyone can put it to use. It’s fricking science.”

She smiled at them both and nodded.

“Duly noted. So you’ve made animal and vegetable. Mineral?” She tilted her head. “Meat, the rose, and what else?” she said, “Gold, platinum? This seems too fanciful to believe, doesn’t it?”

She waited. “Well?”

David looked at Akaash, who shrugged.

“Gold,” David said, “Axe is rechecking it now.”

She let it hang for a few seconds, and then went on. “So, no complex devices yet?”

“No ma’am.”

“Do you have a complete digital schematic for the printer and a source code release ready yet?”

“No ma’am,” Akaash said, “A week ago we thought this thing was dead, and until five minutes ago we weren’t in a real big hurry. I’ve got plenty of notes, though.”

“You’ll want to pick it up, I would think. Will it be able to print itself?”

“That’s sort of what we were planning to set up next, ma’am,” David said. “If it can make itself from what we give it, then we could start making and distributing printers.”

“That’s what I thought. Revolutionary. And worrisome.”

She considered them for a moment. “You boys could still save yourselves. It could get ugly. You could take the money and just walk away,” she said.

“No way is this thing is ending up in some warehouse somewhere,” David said, “Next to the Ark of the Covenant.”

“Then you had better get cracking,” she said. “If you wait around here, you’ll not have anything to show for your efforts by the weekend. Someone will get their paws on it and you’ll be calling on lawyers, instead of pizza delivery.”

Right about the time they should have been eating supper Axe torched a hole in the side of the bread truck so Dave could mount the heat sink. On top of the van Axe sacrificed a little solar panel surface area to weld on a used turbine attic vent. Neither David nor Akaash would ask him where he got it.

After dark, they moved in the printer and wired it to the rack of batteries with a DC-to-AC inverter. They gathered up their notes, laptops, chargers, powerstrips, and drives and got it all on board.

Around midnight they got Chinese food delivered to the control room and the three of them ate forcefully. On the movie laptop, Logan was Running.

“So where are we going?” David said through a mouthful of General Tso’s chicken.

“We need long enough to finish the write-up and schematics and then get the damn thing online,” Akaash said.

“I wonder if we can get a second one printed before they find us,” Dave said. “When they see it gone y’all know they’ll be searching for us.” All three focused on their food.

Ending the extended silence, Axe stood, spread his arms and began to gesture with his skillfully held plastic chopsticks. “What we need to do is ‘Draw them in with the prospect of gain, and take them by confusion’.”

“Fortune cookie?” Dave said.

“Sun Tzu, dude. Maybe we can buy you guys enough time to get this done. If I were these guys and I really believed in your printer I’d be here first thing in the morning trying to get hold of it. We just need to give them a reason to stay here for a while, thinking that they have what they need, but,”

Akaash interrupted, “You crazy bastard. That makes sense. I’ll make a fake.” He went out into the lab. There were plenty of scorched, useless parts around. Akaash rooted through them and created a mock-up of the printer from the leftovers. He checked it against the videos and made adjustments until he felt it had the look of authenticity.

David emailed the oil company engineer, the Department of Agriculture guy, and Dr. Atherton. He invited them all to a meeting in the morning to settle things.

Axe drove his rusty, two-toned pick out to the twenty-four-hour grocery and bought all the edamame and tofu they had. He harvested kudzu from telephone poles on the way back to the lab.

The sun came up somewhere beyond the trees as they were heading south from the University. Akaash hunched over the ersatz workstation in the back of the truck, converting his notes to 3-D schematics. “Damn, dude. This is taking me forever,” he shouted from the back over the dull roar of the wind that rushed in through the open doors and threatened his binder full of notes.

Axe leaned back from the passenger seat, “We’ll be alright man. You just keep fighting the Revolution.”

They had decided to head south towards the beach and David and Akaash had expected to take the interstate east and then south, to make sure they had cell service, but Axe had prevailed. “Dudes, you are just not paranoid enough. If we take the state highways south, instead of the obvious route, we’ll be harder to follow and you can still use my phone’s skynet data link to upload your schematics from anywhere.”

They rode on in silence, except for the wind, eating sausage biscuits they had gotten from Mamie just as her place opened. The bread truck passed the new neighborhoods of nearly identical redbrick houses that sprawled south of town. These soon gave way to trailers, cornfields, and abandoned horse barns overgrown with kudzu.

Akaash called from the back, “I’m posting the first section of the schematics and I’m feeding them into the printer. The files are pretty fricking big. It’ll be a few gigs once they’re done.” Despite the mods they had made to draw air through it, the back of the bread truck started heating up, fast. The printer’s heads extruded the shell of a copy of itself and the manipulators worked in unison, spinning, twisting, and assembling the results.

“Can other people get their hands on the nanomachines?” Axe asked David.

“Absolutely. They are pretty simple to make actually. It’s just that they took to this whole thing much more quickly than we expected. With the programming we gave them, they started converting the source material much sooner and more efficiently than we had hoped. Anyone who has any idea what they’re doing should be able to make one of these printers with the schematics,” David said.

“Dude.”

“I know, man. This could be ridiculously huge,” David said. The bread truck rolled on southward, David keeping it right at the speed limit.

They approached a state park located along the west side of the highway. Driver and passenger both stared at the Mississippian Indian mounds that rose into view. A great circle of the mounds surrounded a clearing between the highway and the river.

Axe looked out over the mounds and said, “The Mississippians were once the greatest tribe in what’s now the U.S., man. They had cool cities and a trading network that stretched across the country. But they and their way of life were replaced by a people who had advanced technology and tiny germs that no one could see. It wiped them out.”

“Don’t get carried away, Axe. We’re just trying to improve how things are made and trying to help people with our printer,” David said.

“Whatever you say, Dave. You can see where this is going, or we wouldn’t be here.”

Just past the mounds Akaash called from the back, “I’m posting more stuff, but it’s burning up back here and I’m having trouble staying awake. Let’s stop & get some go-go juice.” David pulled into a gas station at the crossroads of the little town that had grown up around the mounds.

The store was well stocked with road trip fodder and ubiquitous consumer tech. “They’ve even got thumb drives in the checkout, next to the Junior Mints,” Axe said as he held up his ‘treasure’ and smiled broadly at the girl behind the counter. She shook her beaded hair and laughed at him, covering her mouth.

David and Akaash filled the counter with brightly colored, but poorly flavored, cans of liquid sugar, caffeine, and taurine. “Looks like we’ll sleep sometime tomorrow,” Axe said, “When they put us in jail.”

“Damn right,” Akaash said.

David gave them both a look and smiled at the cashier, “Could I please have one of those pay-as-you-go phones too? And ignore these idiots.” The cashier laughed and rolled her eyes at them.

The heat in the back of the bread truck was nearly unbearable when they climbed back on board. The printer hummed and shook as it converted more and more of the source material into a clone of itself. Axe took the wheel while David activated the ‘terrorist’ phone, as Axe called it.

Akaash climbed into the sweltering back of the truck and got back to work. He posted each section of the schematics as he completed it on the messageboard their ‘fans’ had set up to discuss the project.

David called Mrs. McKimmon.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Doc,” David said.

“Oh. Hello Janet,” she said in her best Mary Poppins. “Don’t really have time to talk, dear. I came into the lab early and was greeted with a shouting match between a petro-lawyer and an Agriculture Department official. Dr. Atherton is with them now, in the lab. They’re arguing over my grad students’ silly project. No time to talk.”

David stabbed the power button. “They’re all at the lab,” he shouted and stripped out the SIM card, snapping it in half. He overcame his reluctance to litter and dropped it out the open door onto the roadside.

“Now you’re properly paranoid,” Axe said.

“How long?” David shouted to Akaash.

“A few hours still.”

“Any way I can help?” David asked.

“You know my fricking writing. I even have trouble reading it,” Akaash said.

David returned to the driver’s seat and Axe went into the back. Axe shoulder-surfed while Akaash kept coding and asked simplistic questions about the files, like where they were saved locally and where they were uploaded. The printheads and manipulators slowly fashioned circuit boards and seated them into their clone. The bread truck rolled on, by long rectangular catfish ponds, by acres of paper-company pine trees, and by more places overwhelmed by kudzu.

A half an hour later Akaash tried to upload the next-to-last set schematics. “Shit,” he yelled. “Axe, we just got three different cease and desist text messages on your phone.” Akaash worked the phone’s tiny keyboard. “And now your account has been blocked.”

David looked over his shoulder and made worried eye contact with his partner.

“Just drive, Dave,” Akaash said. “Get us to some free wifi and we’ll upload what we can. We are so screwed.” The printer and the wind were the only sounds in the bread truck for the next several miles.

Akaash finished coding the last of the printer schematics from his notes about halfway between Sunny South and Jackson. The middle of nowhere. He raised his hands in mock victory. “All we need is some bandwidth, and Doc Atherton will feel my wrath,” Akaash called from the back of the bread truck. “Maybe we can login at a burger place and get the files up onto P2P networks before we get tracked down.” Akaash motioned to Axe and they swapped places. Axe took a turn at the conn in the back, trying to understand the schematics and occasionally feeding the hopper.

In the distance, David could see a car pulled over on the side of the highway. He slowed the truck a bit and edged towards the centerline.

“Man, it would suck to be stuck out here,” Akaash said, as they drew up on the oversized sedan that was made in the last century by a carmaker that no longer existed. The car listed badly to its right rear, thanks to a flat tire and a low shoulder. The spring heat rose off the highway in waves.

Axe stuck his head between them, “Why we slowing down, men? The black helicopters will find us for sure,” he said, and grinned. They passed the brown four-door and looked inside. A small, silver-haired woman looked up at them as they rolled by.

“Oh man,” Axe said.

“She must be eighty. Damn,” Akaash said.

“We really should,” David said, slowing the bread truck.

“Dave, we are about to make a serious difference and put Atherton in his place. Is this is how it’s going to end? We have a world-changing device back there and we’re going to stop out here in B.F.E., waiting to be arrested, or worse,” Akaash said.

“So that’s how we change the world? We push on in our kamikaze mission and leave her stranded out here in the middle of nowhere?” David said. The truck rolled to a stop.

“Dave,” Akaash started, and stopped. He looked hard at his friend.

Axe leaned between the seats, drawing their attention. “There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted.” Dave and Akaash both squinted at him. “It’s Thoreau, dudes. We have got to get y’all out of the lab more,” Axe said.

Akaash sighed. “Okay. You’re right. We do this together and we do it fast. And then we get the hell out of here.”

“Thanks,” Dave said.

Axe stepped back. “Y’all go ahead. I’ll be out in a sec, after I load the hopper.” He turned towards the printer workstation.

The lady rolled down the window as they approached and smiled at them.

“Can we help you ma’am?” David said.

“Well. It’s mighty nice of you to ask,” she said. “I’m Emma Hoggle. I was headed down to Jackson to buy some tomato plants. It’s just about time to put them out. I like to buy them at the feed store down there. They have the best beefsteak tomatoes. I have a good-sized garden, but it’s not as big as it once was, since my husband passed away two years ago this May.”

“I’m sorry to hear about that ma’am,” David said.

“Oh it’s okay. He drank a bit,” she said, and smiled.

“Can we change your tire for you, ma’am?” Akaash said.

“I suppose. If it’s not too much of a bother.” She handed David the keys and they went to work.

Axe came out of the bread truck and struck up a conversation with Mrs. Hoggle. He squatted down by the door and talked to her. David and Akaash worked the car’s ancient jack and tire iron. Axe and Mrs. Hoggle laughed at a private joke.

“You boys will have to come and visit me, Eugene,” she said loud enough for them all to hear. Axe cut his eyes to David and Akaash, who were trying not to fall over laughing.

“Yes ma’am,” Axe said. “You just tell me your address we’ll come by and see you sometime.”

By the time shehad given Axe directions that involved nothing but landmarks and the required “when you see this you’ve gone too far,” the guys were finished with the tire and jack.

“Thank you boys so much.”

“It’s no problem, ma’am,” David said. “We’ll follow you on into Jackson.”

She patted Axe’s hand as he stood up by her door. “It was nice to meet you, Eugene. You watch out for your hardworking friends.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Mrs. Hoggle had more of a lead foot than they expected. Within the hour, she waved goodbye to them out of her window and David pulled into the parking lot of a chain burger joint on the outskirts of Jackson.

Akaash logged onto the BurgerNet and tried to call up the messageboard. It was no longer there. “Oh, man.” He began uploading the huge schematic files onto different filesharing networks. Within a few minutes, before the files were completely up, BurgerNet went down too.

The helicopter wasn’t black. It was a desert tan, it had government markings, and it was enormous. It hovered over the restaurant and then landed in the parking lot of the dollar store across the highway. Traffic stopped.

“We could run,” David said.

“Yeah. It would just make them mad,” Axe said.

“I could delete every damn bit of it,” Akaash said, without enthusiasm.

“You couldn’t do that. And neither could I,” David said and smiled at his friend.

They all began to giggle at the three men who crossed the highway. The agents appeared to have actively attempted to fulfill the stereotype by wearing dark suits, dark glasses, earpieces, and barely concealed side arms.

Three hours later the three enginners stood in the parking lot, beside the empty hulk of the bread truck, watching the helicopter lift off into the sunset. They were left there with their driver’s licenses and three government vouchers for bus tickets back to the University.

“I had never really thought specifically about what ‘cavity search’ meant before,” Axe said.

“I guess this is better than prison. At least they left us the bread truck,” David said.

“The way they stripped it down, I don’t think the damn thing is ever going to run again,” Akaash said. “And the inside of it looks as if the printer and all our stuff were never even back there.”

“It’s probably bugged too,” Axe said and started walking towards the bus station.

“All our work is gone,” David said. “The alchemy revolution has flown off into the sunset.”

“They’ll probably be watching us for quite a while,” Akaash said. “We are so screwed.”

They walked to the bus station and all fell asleep on the benches there, waiting for the next bus traveling north.

Two days later, they were eating barbeque sandwiches at Mamie’s when Axe finally told David and Akaash about the thumb drive he had given Mrs. Hoggle for safekeeping.

The End