The Nobel Prize winning scientist sat motionless, his eyes fixed on the two-foot tall, cylindrical, clear glass chamber. A deafening silence, broken only by the subdued hum of a small electrical motor behind the chamber, filled the laboratory. The lab, which had become his home-away-from-home for more years than he wished to remember, had become a prison, a prison with no hope of escape.
He drew nearer to the glass. Light from a nearby window reflected off the round object floating gently in the center of the chamber. It had a smooth, gray surface that radiated a distinctive metallic glow. Confirming that it remained unaltered, he closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and blew it out slowly.
Visions of exploding planets suddenly erupted in his mind’s eye, the death throes of the inhabitants echoing in his ears like nearby thunderclaps. He shook his head, and covered his ears, but the terrifying images refused to cease, or even diminish. Beads of sweat began to form on his brow despite the cool temperature of the room.
He rose from his stool, and lumbered toward the control panel on the east wall of the lab. As he reached for the panel door, his hand shook like that of startled newborn. He yanked it open. The ear-piercing screech from the rusty hinges shattered the silence of the lab. He flinched as a shudder ran through his tense body. He grinned. He nerves were shot. He felt the weight of the entire universe upon his shoulders, and wondered how his recent discovery would affect the future of that universe. He hoped he had made the correct decision. If not, the future would be more than uncertain; it would be nonexistent.
He confirmed that all of the circuit breakers were in the “ON” position except for the ones marked “MATTER TRANSPORTER” and “TELECOMMUNICATIONS.” It had been three days since he had disabled the circuits. He was sure the electronic engineers on Earth were frantically trying to determine what had gone wrong with the systems linking the two worlds. It would be several more days before they would launch a rescue ship to make the month long journey at top speed to his lab deep in space on Olimpia. He had needed this extra time alone to finish his work and, more importantly, to plan his next course of action.
As he walked back to the long black lab table, he glanced at his wristwatch. Time remained on his side. He resumed his seat on the cushioned lab stool, and pulled himself closer to the chamber. The plastic wheels rolled silently on the worn tile floor. He cradled his chin in the palms of both hands, and rested his elbows on the marble tabletop, shaking his head in disbelief as he inspected the sphere. It looked so innocent and harmless.
“How deceiving looks can be.”
Time passed unnoticed by the scientist. For almost an hour after he had checked the circuit breakers, he didn’t move. In fact, he had become so engrossed in thought that he was totally unaware of the woman who had entered the lab.
She made no noise and, in continued silence, went about removing her heavy, long, white coveralls. The zipper, running from her right shoulder to her left ankle, parted without a sound. She paused to observe her husband. He was still the same as the day that they had been married over fifteen years ago, except, she admitted to herself as she hung the coveralls on a hook adjacent to the doorway, for a receding hairline and several white hairs that had appeared recently in his thick brown mustache. She took her time adjusting the thick black belt holding up her bright red wool slacks, and brushed off the fine white lint from her matching red silk blouse. Although she knew that the coveralls were a necessity whenever using the transporter, she still hated what they did to her clothes.
When her attention returned to her husband, she noted that he was still totally absorbed by whatever he had in front of him, and still had not noticed her presence. She leaned against the wall to continue her observation of the man she loved. He wore his usual denim jeans and green flannel, long sleeve shirt that had earned him the title of “THE COUNTRY BUMPKIN SCIENTIST,” bestowed upon him in jest by his fellow award-winning scientists. Not only was he not bothered by the moniker, he had, in fact, admitted to her that he had become proud of it. “At least when they read my scientific papers, they’ll know which “country bumpkin scientist” had written them,” he had quipped.
She smiled to herself. Science was all her husband ever thought of, or cared about. Not that he neglected her. They had had a good marriage, and she had no major complaints. Their only mutual regret was their inability to have children.
Her husband then began to caress the glass chamber as if it were a cherished pet. This aroused her curiosity. What do you have imprisoned there, husband? She approached him silently.
When she touched his shoulder, he flinched, and snapped his head in her direction. “Oh, you’re back. But…the transporter…it’s disabled. How?”
“Yes,” she said, smiling with that broad smile that had attracted him to her so long ago. “They said something about defective circuit breakers here in the lab. They were able to bypass them so everything works now. They gave me new circuit breakers to replace the broken ones. That reminds me, I’m supposed to check in with them to confirm that that you’re all right. Don’t let me forget to do that later.”
A frown crossed his face as his gaze returned to the chamber. He shook his head as if he were disappointed with a wayward child.
She bent over to kiss him on the cheek. “I’ve also brought the supplies we needed.” Noting his somber expression, she paused, glanced at the chamber, and asked, “What’s the matter, John?” A frown that mimicked his expression grew on her demure face
He pointed to the object. “I’ve done it!”
A smile of understanding and pride sprang onto her face. She nearly leapt into the air as she threw her arms around him, hugging him as hard as she could. “That’s terrific, John. You’ll be awarded another Nobel Prize. This time they’ll give you the Arcadian Science Prize too.” Smiling wider, she added, “And it also means we can finally leave this God-forsaken place, and return to civilization.”
When he didn’t respond, her frown returned. She held him at arm’s length, but he refused to look at her, preferring instead to glare at the sphere. “Something’s wrong, John. What is it?” She waited for an answer, staring at his sullen expression. When he still didn’t respond, she used a curved finger to turn his face toward hers. The tear forming at the corner of his eye made her wince. She dropped her trembling hand from his face. “Isn’t this what you’ve been trying to do for the last ten years? Don’t you want to get off this planet? We’ve been isolated for so long.”
He took her hand into his, kissed its palm, and placed it lovingly against his cheek. “Of course I’d like to go home; but we can’t leave, Janet. Believe me, I do realize that these years have been hard on both of us…you especially…but, but…” He stammered, unable to finish his thought. Standing, he released her still trembling hand, and walked toward the large glass dome that occupied the entire north wall of the lab. He looked out at the universe lying before him. The splash of the stars that made up the Milky Way seemed to light up the sky brighter than normal this night. An asteroid streaked past, disappearing as it burned itself out in the planet’s thick, pure nitrogen atmosphere.
Returning his attention to his wife, he caressed the delicate skin of her cheek, allowing his hand to rest on her long, thin neck. He inclined her face upward to meet his gaze, staring into her blue eyes as he had so many times before. He took a deep breath as he prepared to hurt the only woman he had ever loved.
His voice cracked as he spoke. “Listen, Janet. We both agreed that this antimatter-isolation experiment had to be conducted on a dead planet like Olimpia. One mistake, and it could have cost millions of lives on a populated planet. The risks were just too great to do it anywhere else.”
Sensing the emotion in her husband, she encircled his wrist with her long, delicate fingers and pressed his hand harder into the side of her neck. “I understand all that, John, but you didn’t have any disaster. You’ve been successful, and we should be able to go home in glory.”
He hung his head, and whispered, “No.”
She released his wrist, and turned toward the antimatter. Could this piece of antimatter, whose appearance should have granted them release from their prison of isolation, really be the force that kept them here? Her eyes scanned the entire lab, looking for anything that she could use to sway her husband’s opinion. Spotting the cameras in each corner of the ceiling, she pointed at one of them and said, “As a matter of fact, now that the government’s monitoring equipment is working again, they’re probably listening to our conversation, and soon will be beaming here to pick up your records and computer files. I’m sure that they’ll insist that we accompany them back to Earth. There’ll be no reason to stay.”
He looked at his watch as another tear grew in his eye. “That’s what’s bothering me. In less than an hour, they’ll be here, and will have all the information they need to trap large quantities of antimatter.”
A puzzled expression crossed her face. “But isn’t that what’s supposed to happen?” She didn’t wait for a reply. “And besides, think of all the good it could do for mankind. They’ve been searching for this stuff for years.”
He smiled, and hugged her. “My naïve little bride. I’m more worried about the military uses it could have. The antimatter I’ve isolated here is very unstable, and very potent. It represents the most powerful energy source known to man.” He glanced toward the chamber. “The force field I’ve developed is holding that one-inch piece of it suspended in a vacuum. Without that force field, it would interact with the matter of the chamber, and the resulting combination would result in an explosion that I estimate would have enough power to disintegrate not only this planet, but this entire solar system. I’m just not sure that, in the hands of government scientists, an energy source of that magnitude would be put to only peaceful uses. Ultimately, in the wrong hands, it could be developed into a weapon that could cause the annihilation of billions of people…maybe all humanity.”
“But you shouldn’t have to worry about that. Your job is to discover things, not to decide on something’s usage, or concern yourself with any political implications. It’s not up to you to play politics.”
“I’m not trying to play politics,” he snapped, sternly staring at her. He paused for a few seconds, trying to both regain his composure, and to find the right words. “I believe I have a right…perhaps a moral duty…to withhold from our government any information that could be detrimental to society. I’m sorry I agreed to do this research. I should have considered the implications sooner.”
She said nothing immediately. Instead, she studied the sincere look on her husband’s face. They had had similar discussions about morality before, discussions with no simple black or white answers, just gray compromises between them. Finally, she asked simply, “What do you plan to do, John?”
He turned toward the chamber, and placed his index finger on a toggle switch on its top. “I cannot let them have this yet…maybe someday in the future, but not now. This switch controls the force field supporting the antimatter. I intend to turn it off before the government officials arrive.”
Her expression turned to panic. “But you can’t do that! You’ll be killed!”
Taking his finger off the switch, he turned to her, and smiled. “I have to Janet. If I try to escape, I’ll be hunted down like a common criminal. With their mind-probing equipment, they’ll be able to force all my data from me.” He held her hands as he continued. “But I want you to leave now. There’s still time for you to transport to safety.”
The shocked look on her face faded as tears filled her eyes. Her voice trembled. “We’ve known each other a long time, John. There’s no way I can change your mind, is there?”
He shook his head, smiling at how quickly she had adjusted to the terrifying act he had planned. She truly was his equal in intelligence, logic and love.
She smiled back at him, placed her arms around him, hugging him for what she knew was the very last time. She kissed him long and hard, harder than she ever had before. During their embrace, she lowered her hand to the top of the chamber, and threw the switch to the “OFF” position…