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The Bubble

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I stewed over the machine and the theory for another month, compelled to take the last step and know for sure whether the device would operate correctly and create the bubble but nagged by doubt and the fear that the device would fail and make a fool of me. No one else knew about the device, of course, but still I had invested a lot of effort in the device and it would be really disappointing to watch it fail.

Finally, I arrived at a test plan that would let me find out whether the device worked or not without risking anything important. I constructed a simple timer that would engage the device for twenty minutes and then shut it down, and I collected a stray cat from the neighborhood to be my 'test pilot.' One Saturday afternoon, I hauled the device and the cat (safely ensconced in a pet carrier) to a small valley out in the country. I set everything up, adjusted the machine to produce a bubble fifty feet in diameter, and armed the timer to create the bubble in thirty minutes. I jumped back in the truck, drove a quarter of a mile up the road, got out my binoculars, and waited.

Thirty minutes is a long time, you know?

Finally, the timer engaged the device. As I watched, I could actually see the bubble forming; the tall, thin grass around it shivered briefly as the bubble formed and then grew outward. Some sort of electrostatic effect, I guess; I was surprised to see it, but it's no big deal. After the initial ripple in the grass, I couldn't see the bubble at all. I knew better than to expect some kind of Star Trek force field effect, but even so I was a bit disappointed. I began to wonder if the bubble was there at all. I could see the cat, placidly washing its face with its paws as it sat in the carrier next to the device. That was good news, at least; my device had not killed the poor test pilot so far.

The minutes passed slowly. I began to get impatient, ready for the test to be finished so that I could try something else. Since I had felt no effects from the bubble from the bed of the truck, I decided to take a closer look. I climbed down, put down the binoculars, and walked toward the device. I covered the quarter mile in a few minutes, torn between worry about what would happen if I got too close to the bubble and consuming curiosity about how the bubble was running. I knew approximately where the bubble had stabilized, based on my observation of the grass when the device started running, and I stopped a dozen feet short of where I thought the boundary would be.

The cat looked up at me with idle interest, then rolled up in a ball and went to sleep. I smiled; the cat had a better attitude about the whole thing than I did. I picked up a handful of pebbles, then started pitching them at where I supposed the edge of the bubble to be. My first few tosses showed me nothing, and I began to suspect that there was no bubble there at all. As I tossed pebbles closer to the device, however, I observed an interesting phenomenon. When the pebbles hit the bubble, they seemed to stop in midair for a second. Then, they slid down along the surface of the bubble to rest in the grass. It was all so quiet, so simple, that I was mesmerized. I probably threw fifty pebbles at the bubble, totally entranced by the simple path they followed as they did something no tossed pebbles have ever done before.

The sound of a handful of pebbles hitting the pet carrier woke the cat with a start, and its howl of irritation mixed with my yelp of surprise. I stood there open-mouthed, wondering if I had dreamed the whole episode. I tossed another pebble, and the cat snarled and spit at me. Finally, my heart started beating again and I remembered -- the timer had run out, and the device was powered off. It was as simple as that. The test was complete.

I spent the next week in a haze of thought, wondering what to do next. That sounds pretty banal, doesn't it? Do you suppose that you'd handle an experience like that any differently?

I adopted the cat. I named him Gagarin, after the Soviet cosmonaut. I rather doubt that he was impressed, but he tolerated my company pretty well. After boldly going where no cat had gone before, getting along with an eccentric engineer was pretty easy, I guess. You've seen him on the news coverage, pacing around inside the bubble with me and (no doubt) arousing the ire of animal-rights activists around the globe. I like him; he seems so self-assured and confident compared to me.

Finally, I tested the device again. This time, I was inside the bubble with Gagarin. We drove out to the valley again, set up the device, and created another bubble. No muss, no fuss, just an invisible bubble fifty feet in diameter sitting there in the grass. Actually, to be precise, we were sitting in a hemisphere fifty feet in diameter; the bottom half of the bubble existed in the ground beneath us. I wondered what sort of effect the bubble had on any gophers, earthworms, or other subterranean life that might be underneath, but I was at a loss as to how to answer those questions.

Remembering how the grass had rippled on the first test, I watched the bubble form. Other than that, I felt no effect whatsoever from the device or the bubble. I don't know what I expected, but Gagarin and I sat there staring at each other while the bubble established itself and settled into its fifty-foot diameter. I know now that the bubble passed through me as it expanded, but I felt nothing.

We sat there for an hour, watching each other breathe and making history. The only odd thing I noticed was that the bubble stopped the breeze; I could see breezes washing the grass across the valley, but when the breeze hit the bubble the grass stopped moving and I felt only an eerie stillness. I watched this happen several times, and then I was siezed with fear -- what if oxygen could not cross through the bubble? Gagarin and I would suffocate! I switched off the bubble as fast as I could, and then I reveled in the feel of the breeze against my face.

And then I was immediately awarded the Nobel prize, given ticker-tape parades through New York City, and deluged with millions of dollars.

Ah, well... actually not.

Frankly, I didn't know what to do next. I fiddled around with the device, improving some of the circuits and studying how changes in various subsystems affected the size, shape, and nature of the bubble, but at the end of these efforts I still had basically what I started with -- a machine that could generate a bubble. I could make big bubbles and little bubbles, and I determined through experimentation and measurement that gases osmose through the bubble quickly enough to keep people inside from suffocating, but that was about it.

I briefly debated trying to install the bubble device in my truck, but abandoned that idea almost immediately. Despite my best efforts to change the geometry of the bubble, I could never get it to assume a shape that would work for a vehicle that stayed in contact with the ground. I could make a huge bubble and drive around in circles inside it, but the bubble does not move through the ground. Once it's established, it rather vigorously resists movement of any significance though its boundary. Aircraft tests were out of the question as well; although I could create a bubble surrounding an aircraft, the machine would stop flying rather abruptly if it were suddenly surrounded by a sphere of 'dead air.' I suppose I could create a bubble around a hot-air balloon, but that doesn't seem to have too much of a practical application. One could float above a battlefield in a bubble-protected balloon and shout rude comments at the soldiers in complete safety, I guess...

Anyway, that was my predicament. I was sitting on a new technology, one that was quite bizarre and marvelous, and I literally had no idea what to do with it.

I did a lot of daydreaming, but on my budget, the dreams were all I could afford. I wanted to take the device to the seaside and play with it; I'm not sure what would happen if I rowed out into the water and engaged the device, but I'd like to find out. I hatched one bizarre experiment after another in my mind, only to give them all up when I hit the limits of my finances, my ability to construct specialized hardware, or my worry about attracting too much attention.

chapter 3 > >

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