Prologue

Wednesday, November 9th - 11:40 p.m.



"Sunflower Mark eight stability test: series five, number fourteen, time..."

Arthur Cuadra yawned, then continued.

"...time, twenty-three, fourty-five. Begin at seventy-percent power on plasma, run up to one-twenty-percent in five stages."

As he said this, he slid the rheostat to the seventy-percent mark and punched the big red ENGAGE FIELD button. There was a distant THUNK as the main breakers in the room next door closed and, out in the test chamber, a ball of blue light about the size of a cantaloupe popped into existence to float between the four big magnetic coil drivers that created it.

Arthur glanced up from the dials, through the thick glass that separated the test chamber from the control room - and at the electric-blue glow of the fusion ball. This wasn't something you'd normally see even at a power station. There, they were tucked away behind about two meters of lead shielding and heat transfer coils.

But at this stage in testing, there wasn't to be any actual fusion, just the plasma, so shielding hadn't been installed yet. It made it much simpler for the techs to get at the coils.

He sighed and looked back to the board. He could remember when he found it fascinating to watch a running fusion ball. But after six months of tests, the fascination had dimmed. Of course, the fact that he'd only gotten six hours sleep in the last three days wasn't helping either.

"Time: twenty-three, fifty," he recorded tiredly. "Going to eighty-percent."

Arthur slid the rheostat up another ten clicks. The fusion ball got a little bit brighter, but over half-again bigger.

That was the problem with organized plasmas. You could only put in so much power before they "overballooned" and then cooled off.

Arthur "hmmph'd" at the sight...

"...Starting field reorg program 9319b..."

...and clicked the switch which allowed the computer to try the latest the physics-folk at the Retreat had come up with to shrink it back down.

Because of the overballoon power limitation, no reactor could be no more than about a tenth of a megawatt in size. This had been true ever since the first had come on-line nearly half a century ago. And for most of those five decades, Sierra Foothill's Goldfield Labs had been trying to get around this limit. It had been a frustrating fifty years, with little to show for it but minor improvements in existing reactors and one big breakthrough in an unintended direction.

Thirty-five years ago this research had, mostly by accident, resulted in a fusion rocket motor. While hailed as a major scientific breakthrough, unfortunately, the only people using it were a few of the bigger governments - and only one of those was paying Sierra Foothill anything like a royalty.

Still, that royalty - and those minor improvements - were enough to keep the "Sunflower" project funded and running, if at a low level. Low enough that both the Mark Eight - and the computer trying to tweak it into success - were the first completely new units the project had had in over fifteen years.

Given this long history of failure then, it surprised Arthur when, after only a few minutes of getting the "feel" of the plasma, the computer managed to pull it back down to nearly its original size - and then hold it there. Pushing his glasses back up his nose, he tapped the RECORD switch.

"Time, twenty-three, fifty-nine. Size re-stabilized. Going to ninety-percent."

This time, the increase in power brought only an increase in brightness, with no visible size change at all. Feeling fully awake for the first time in days, Arthur recorded the fact as he checked the rest of the board. So far, the field-monitor scope was showing no instabilities and the flux needles showed a steady draw. The thought was creeping through his mind that he just might be witnessing the breakthrough fifty years of research had been looking for.

"Time, oh-oh, oh-five. Going to one-hundred-percent."

He slid the rheostat to the red line that marked one-hundred-percent power input...



Seventy miles to the south-east, Naoko Shimatani was laying on a blanket in the middle of a near-freezing meadow, staring up at the impossibly black sky with its diamond-dust stars. For some reason, she couldn't sleep this night in the small, but comfortable, room she shared with another junior at the Retreat. So she had put on her warmest snowsuit, grabbed a blanket and, leaving the lodge, walked out into the middle of the meadow where she could see as much of the sky as possible.

She was twenty-eight, about one-sixty centi, just over a forty-seven kilos, with deep brown eyes and light brown (almost golden) skin. Her smooth, delicate features and high cheek-bones were all framed by jet-black silk hair that reached nearly to her hips. Her mother had named her after Naoko Yukio, the woman who had built the first fusion reactor fifty years previous and apparently this had exerted some influence on her life.

For she was also the Sierra Foothill's physics-unit's finest plasma-physicist.

Naoko had been working for Sierra Foothill for six years now, right after getting her PhD in plasma physics and another in analog computing. Her group had been made responsible for the latest plasma stability programs for the Sunflower project. 9319b was their latest attempt and something about it was worrying her...working around the edges of her mind like a mosquito with a perverse sense of humor.

She sighed and went back to looking for the elusive seventh sister in the Pleiades.

That's when all the lights at the Retreat lodge started going on in rapid succession.

The glare made her sit up. Her eyes widened briefly, then she stood, grabbed the blanket and headed for the lodge at a full run.

Inside was pandemonium

Naoko ran up to the Director's office, taking the broad, roja stairs two-at-a-time. The door was already wide open so she went straight inside.

Several of the center's staff were milling around the big chalkboard, arguing and sketching things that Naoko couldn't see because they were in the way. Others were waiting around the desk at the back of the room.

There, Se ora Shimatani had the phoneset on her head and was nodding at the voice from it as she took notes. She motioned Naoko to come over.

"Has anyone been hurt?" She asked, then sighed with relief as apparently an answer of "no" came back over the phone. "Good, just keep people clear of the area and we'll have someone down there as soon as we can. Just don't touch anything, please."

She disconnected, then pulled the phoneset from her head, deftly avoiding tangling it in her long grey-streaked-black hair.

"They were very lucky," she began to those by the desk. "In spite of the damage, no one was hurt. However, the plasma is still running and is behaving quite oddly."

Over by the chalkboard, Brandon Waller jerked. "'Oddly' how?"

"Well, primarily it's odd because they shut off the coils as soon as things happened and the plasma is still intact and showing no signs of dying down."

"As soon as what things happened?" Naoko broke in. "Sorry, I don't know what's going on - I just got here."

Se ora Shimatani looked apologetically in her direction. "I'm sorry, Naoko, I just assumed you knew. Twenty minutes ago - well, thirty-five now - during one of the test runs of the Sunflower, the fusion plasma 'broke loose', as they put, it from the generation coils. It then preceded to," she picked up her notes her notes and read briefly, "'bounce all around the test chamber like a rubber-ball'."

She sat the notes back down.

"At one point it hit and shorted out one of the main capacitors, which was unfortunately fully charged. This exploded and has blown a hole in the outer wall of the test chamber. After that, it appears to have settled down some and now is just drifting at apparent random about the chamber. But Director Baird is worried that the plasma will eventually escape through the hole the explosion made and he wants it shut down now. However, they already have turned off all power to the generation coils and it apparently hasn't affected the plasma at all."

"I knew there was something wrong with our program," Naoko said almost to herself.

"I've convinced him not to try anything else until some of our group get there," Rumiko continued. "Fortunately, the two-seater is in the hanger. Naoko, I'd like you to be there and Brandon," she raised her voice slightly. "You go with her. You've flown the two-seater before?"

Brandon looked away from the chalkboard towards her and nodded.

"Good, I was afraid I'd have to waste a seat on a pilot. Naoko, as soon as you get down there, I want an assessment of the situation so I can decide who else to send when they get the airbus up here. Everyone else, please go to the conference room. They're setting up a data-feed from Goldfield and we're hooking it into the main display there."

People started leaving. Naoko came up closer to Rumiko Shimatani.

"Any ideas, Mama-san?" She asked quietly.

Rumiko shook her head. "I'm sorry, no, aijou. I haven't seen the data yet, but from what they've described, the plasma is acting like no other ever made. At the moment it seems benign, but I want you to be careful."

Naoko smiled. "Don't worry, I will. Brandon? Let's go."

Dragging him away from the chalkboard, Naoko Shimatani left the room at a near run.

"Goddorakko, aijou."



Nearly two-hours later, both Naoko and Brandon were arguing over printouts as they sat in the Sunflower's control room. Through the cracked glass they could see the plasma as it slowly crawled all over the north wall of the test chamber. By the door, Goldfield Labs' director Steve Baird paced back and forth.

"Look at the field here," Naoko pointed at complex squiggle on the chart. "Even before they went to hundred-percent power it had coiled in. It shouldn't have done that."

"How about this," Brandon began. "We wanted a twist like this," he gestured in the air and Naoko nodded, "so we changed the stability loop in the program. But it looks like what we got was..."

"When are you going to shut if off?" Baird demanded.

They both looked up.

"Shut it off?" Naoko blinked. "We don't even understand why it's on yet. Besides, we can't just shut it off - we have to know how we created it in the first place. My word, we have to know what the 'it' we created is! Don't you understand that nothing like this should have happened. At the worst, the program should have just failed to keep the plasma from overballooning. But this..." she waved at the plasma as it passed the window "...by current theory Could, Not, Happen."

"And if we don't figure out how it did, it could happen again." Brandon added pointedly.

"I don't care about that at the moment," Baird said. "Because at the moment I've got a ball of plasma that could escape from this lab and then go anywhere. Can you imagine the damage that thing could do if it rolled into downtown Goldfield? I want it off now or I'm going to have to take steps."

Brandon sighed. "Look, it's not going anywhere..." he began

"...and we can't shut it off yet. It's 'feeding' off eddy currents from the building's wiring. That's why it hasn't collapsed..." Naoko added.

"...and why it's staying in the test chamber." Brandon ended.

"Fine. It's up to me then."

He stomped out of the room.

Naoko looked at Brandon. It took surprisingly long for what Baird had said to sink in. Then they both were scrambling to untangle themselves from the table and its pile of printouts to head off after the Director.

They caught up to him at the phoneset - as he was just setting it down.

"What have you done?" Naoko cautiously asked.

"I'm having the main grid for this wing shut down. If it is powered by this building's electrical system, that'll stop this mutant fusion-ball of yours," Baird said with finality.

Both of them looked at the Director in horror.

"You don't understand!" Naoko yelled. "The power being on is the only reason it hasn't left. It attracts it. If you switch off the power..."

All the lights went out.

As the electricity faded from the room's wiring, the plasma began to bounce slowly back and forth between the walls, ceilings - and floors. Inevitably, one of those bounces aimed it straight for the hole it had earlier blown in the wall. It drifted outside, then rolled down the gentle slope, away from the lab. Those inside that lab scrambled to get out and follow the run-away fusion-ball.

Picking up speed, the ball headed for - and shot off - the rim of the arroyo that backed the Lab's property. As such things go, it wasn't very deep, or terribly wide. But it was more than enough of both that those chasing the plasma were forced to skid to a halt at the edge.

Naoko sat down heavily on the deep green of the lawn and sighed. "Baird," she commented, "you're an idiot."

Standing a few feet away, Steve Baird didn't choose to disagree.

They watched in dismay as the plasma slowly floated south and out of sight...