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Fiction Science Fiction Urban Fantasy

  Jake was determined to scientifically prove that all his bad luck was the result of some unseen quantum complication — that somewhere in his DNA was a chunk of dark matter weighing down his whole existence.

  It was the ungodly hour of 4 a.m., and he was casting long shadows as he finished soldering a complex electrical component, the third in a series of three. Each did the same thing with a slight variation. He figured his notorious luck might be able to break two, but not three, before tomorrow’s test run. That luck was in full display, too. The building had lost power around 2 a.m., but Jake had a flashlight and battery stashed nearby. Rule #4: Spread out your backup plans.

  He pulled two small white feathers from his pocket and taped them to the top of two of the components, then produced a smiling, satisfied exhale.

  Danny, a junior at the college and close friend, was sitting back against the wall, resonating the room with a deep snore. Jake stifled a yawn as he gently kicked Danny’s foot to wake him.

  “Hey! It’s ready. Let’s go,” Jake whispered loudly.

  Danny started awake, then groaned into standing and said, “Thanks, man. I owe you for all this.”

  “Maybe. Just don’t credit me in the papers unless this all works,” Jake replied with a smile.

  The pair were uncommonly gifted in their understanding of particle physics, and had bonded quickly despite Jake being a younger freshman. Not many students grew up with the word “prodigy” in their ears and all the pressure that brings. Danny’s brilliance leaned into a more creative discipline than Jake. He had created a device that projected lasers of varying types to interact with ups, downs, charms, all the way through to the leptons and bosons. Jake thought this absurd given how short the lifetime of these particles can be, and how much energy it takes to even produce them, but was convinced after reading through Danny’s math and designs side by side. The whole concept was just a particle visualizer.

  He offered some modifications and brought his obsession with string theory to bear by proposing a phase of lasers that would guess at the gap in the standard model based on the bosons and illuminate any vibrating dark matter or extant particles present. To further test the theory that his notorious bad luck was just part of the universe, he provided some of his own cells and high speed microscopic cameras in specialized components. Three variations of them to be exact. Rule #3: Redundancy is key.

  This all worked great in a small vacuum, but to see it working at a larger scale, they needed a lot more power. The school’s fusion reactor, colloquially called “the disco” by students because of its mirror ball appearance, had achieved ten seconds of 53% net gain power last year. They had since made headlines by adapting a paltry ten second 108 megajoule output to nearly 450 sustained for an hour.

  Professor Elisa, the head of the school of physics and a usually quite warm woman, did not approve in the slightest of Danny’s experimenting with a hodgepodge device on a reactor worth millions. Not without more research. “Perhaps in a few more years when we can prove the visualization properly,” she had said. So the pair met at night here in a rarely used lab three doors down from the reactor.

  “And you’re sure it’s a good idea for you to be at the accelerator test tomorrow?” Danny asked as they moved toward the door.

  “If the professor sees wobbles in the power during the early phase without me there, she’s going to know we’re using the disco rather than just my bad luck jittering the dials. I’ll slip out once things get moving. She’ll be surrounded by press and faculty anyway,” Jake said. “If I don’t make it here in 25 minutes, I’ll just have to trust the camera recordings.”

  “All right, then. Good luck,” Danny said. “Well… you know what I mean…”

  Jake rolled his eyes and opened the lab door.

  Danny left through a side entrance of the reactor building, nodding to the security guard on the way out. Jake took the stairs to below ground and walked one of the service tunnels that stretched miles along the particle accelerator connected to the building.

  A quarter mile in, he ascended the stairs and pulled the handle for an exit he had used the day before. The door didn’t move, but the handle did. It fell off with a metal clang reverberating through the stairwell. Jake felt a familiar pang of frustration in a heart calloused from a lifetime of similar occurrences. He’d used this door three or four times now? Too many times. Rule #2: Bad luck loves a routine.

  He walked back through the tunnel to the campus and did his best to avoid being seen by the guard as he exited into the burgeoning sunrise.


  He woke in his dorm from the sound of his microwave timer. The other alarms he set had failed to ring, of course. He changed shirts, washed his face, and opened his safe. Lifting up the large white feather that lay on top of all his cash, he pulled out some bills. He replaced the feather and then checked the locket on his neck for the small down within it. Rule #1: Never forget a feather.

  His mother gave him these as a child. He didn’t want to believe they ward off bad luck. But after too many near misses with them and scars without them, he decided it was a dangerous theory to test.

  At the coffee shop nearby, he waited by the line for someone to order something with a double espresso. He ordered the same, took their order when it came up, and left hurriedly. This was the only way to actually get something drinkable rather than some monstrosity.

  He could hardly pay attention during his classes. The particle accelerator would initialize at exactly 2 p.m. The reactor was nearly two miles south, and Professor Elisa wanted it contributing power to the particle accelerator. It wasn’t necessary — mostly for press. Danny’s device would only “borrow” several hundred megajoules during the first peak at 2:30 p.m., and the rest of the accelerator’s dedicated hydro power plants would compensate. The accelerator will run for hours, but the visualizer only runs for about thirty seconds. It should all work out fine.

  Unfortunately, it was also all too predictable. He’d already given up on the idea of his luck allowing him to cover two miles in twenty-five minutes. There were too many specifics and too much time for his bad luck to “prepare”. His hope was that it would be so distracted with keeping him from getting to his destination that the experiment would go off without a hitch. He was aware how crazy it is to personify it. Maybe he’d get some answers from this.


  The accelerator control room was humming when Jake arrived. Several older students were looking at screens and chatting in low voices, giving the room a subtle pink noise that was inviting. His lower jaw cramped as he suppressed a yawn.

  Professor Elisa was engrossed with the dean and another well-dressed man full of feigned smiles and professional nods. She looked over at Jake with a smile. It seemed she used his arrival as a reason to depart.

  “Hope you don’t mind unwittingly coming to my rescue,” she said quietly as she approached him.

  “Any time. Just be prepared for it to go miserably sometimes,” Jake said.

  Professor Elisa smiled at him. He knew she didn’t fully believe in his bad luck, but she had the good sense to acknowledge the empirical evidence of it since he joined the project. The two had grown close. She appreciated how quickly and eagerly he took in knowledge, and he had a massive amount of respect for her, even if he disagreed with her cautiousness with Danny’s visualizer.

  “You look worried,” Jake said. “Nervous?”

  “Indeed,” she replied. “I’ve been in the field of physics for fifty years… We like to think things were relatively progressive back in the 90’s, but being a woman in science has its turmoils yet.”

  She subtly gestured back at the two men.

  “I’ve put my career and tenure in the pot for this. I’m all in. And it’s cost a lot of people a lot of money to build a small power plant on the river, tunnels, supercooled magnets…” She closed her eyes and forced a smile. “It’s been made clear a few times that if this doesn’t go perfectly, the only way this project gets more funding is if I’m not on it.”

  “Bullshit!” Jake said.

  “Ssh,” the professor laughed. “It’s not new. That fusion reactor was a poker game as well.”

  Jake was starting to feel a churn of anguish in his chest. Maybe he should send a message to Danny to cancel, or be there to shut it down if there’s too much power being drawn.

  “Well, I can sit this one out if you don’t want my entanglements—”

  “Absolute nonsense, Jake. You’ve poured heart and soul into this test for the last few months,” she said. “I’ll brave your entanglements.”

  Her phone began vibrating.

  “Sorry,” she said and answered it while stepping away.

  A knock on the lab door and a throng of people entering prompted her to find quieter spaces. Jake looked at his own phone, cracked as it was, and saw he had no signal. He convinced himself it would be fine.

  The goal of the test was simple enough: see the proton bunches smash apart. They’d worry with detecting higgs and X particles and all the established things by examining the output later. He knew it would be years before he could do the type of experiments he had in mind to validate his bad luck theory. Neither this nor Danny’s device would fix him, but something about proving it’s just fate made all the forced unpredictability and rules and stress bearable. It takes discipline to consistently embrace chaos.

  Professor Elisa returned and gathered the students away from the crowd of faculty and reporters.

  “All right, folks. There’s been a malfunction on one of the turbines and we’ll be at half capacity. Can we still do this test if we use the full capacity of the… ‘disco’?” She said.

  Jake felt a jolt of adrenaline and his ears pounded. He didn’t hear the responses. He knew the answer was yes. So long as someone wasn’t stealing two thirds of the power for a secret experiment.

  “Great! Then let’s continue,” she said cheerfully. She turned and greeted the crowd.

  Jake looked at his watch. 2:05 p.m. Dread settled in. No chance of making it on time. Maybe his phone would have signal above ground.

  He looked up at the atomic clock. 1:58 p.m. Yes! His watch was fast. Adjusting it, he gently slipped through the crowd, toward the exit. Danny can’t do the experiment now. He’ll be heartbroken, but we’ll just have to wait again for a few months.

  At the elevator Jake pressed the button, counted to a random number (23), and then ran to the stairs. Rule #5: Don’t be predictable.

  He pushed the exit door when he got to the ground floor. Not locked. Stuck. He rammed his shoulder into it as hard as he could tolerate. His phone flew out of his pocket, hit the floor, and went black.

  He picked it up and darted up the stairs, muttering expletives on his way to the second floor. He burst out of the stairwell and sped across the platform to the connected parking garage.

  Several alarms rang and all the garage exists had lowering metal cages as though it were lockdown. He took a hard left and did a practiced climb over the metal wires and concrete barriers on the bottom floor.

  His contemplation of how so many obstacles seemed desperate was interrupted by the shock of water hitting his face. The sprinkler system had activated. It’s the same old tricks. He cursed himself for not seeing that coming. He reacted quickly and entered a nearby building, turning heads as he went barreling through the hall sopping wet.

  He was a third of the way to the reactor, but his legs were burning from the effort. He stopped to catch his breath after he exited the building.

  The campus lawn was flooding. Clearly a main has broken. He heard snapping overhead. There were gasps and yells from nearby students. He backed up against the building as one of the tall ancient oak trees fell across the walkway, the roots loosened from the wet soil.

  He thought about how absurd his life is while looking for a different path. The only options were through the thick mud, which he was sure to get stuck in, or through the few inches of rushing muddy water under the trunk. He gripped the feather locket on his neck and ran ahead, using the slick of the mud to slide under. His right side was fully muddied from the effort.

  It ruled out a rideshare, but the bike rental station a few blocks on the way might speed this up. To his surprise several bikes were available and his student pass worked. He checked the tires and pulled one free, mounted, and took off.

  Riding so fast was risky, but it was 2:08. He didn’t know what other obstacles were coming, but he knew better than to think it would get easier. Rule #7: Never think it can’t get worse.

  The screaming squeal of tires suddenly distorted in Jake’s ears. A maintenance golf cart, its tires caked with mud, rushed toward him with the driver yelling, wincing, and apologizing.

  It’s a bluff. He trusted the feather and kept his momentum. The cart suddenly gained traction and abruptly stopped. Gravel and mud sprang from it and a broken piece of concrete rolled under Jake’s back tire. In spite of a hard clang, he maintained control of the bike. But the tire was flat and the rim bent from the trauma. He threw it down and started running.

  At 2:18 p.m. he was fighting the urge to think he might make it when he rounded the corner to see the reactor building. The doors were blocked by two police officers.

  “Sorry, sir. No students are allowed during the event,” an officer said.

  “Yes. I’m a student working on the accelerator, actually. I need to get to the reactor before the test starts,” Jake rattled out.

  “May I see your student ID?”, she said reaching for her radio.

  Jake started to offer it, but remembered the service entrance.

  “Wait, sorry!” Jake yelled, breaking into a sprint.

  It was a quarter-mile away, and he hoped the door handle was only broken from the inside. His lungs and legs were on agonizing fire in protest of his persistence. He scanned his ID at the door, and heaved it open. The stairs were a blur as he traversed down them. He was forced to stop at 2:25. His body demanded gulps of air at the base of the stairs. It seemed unguarded.

  After a modicum of recovery he ran up, through the hall, and into the lab three doors from the reactor. Danny jumped from the force of Jake throwing open the door and entering hunched over and gasping.

  “We can’t do it!” Jake blurted out before taking in a deep breath.

  “Jesus, Jake! Did somebody die?!” Danny yelled.

  “No, no,” Jake inhaled. “Turbine down…” another breath, “reactor backup…”

  “Okay. Take it easy,” Danny checked the time, pulled chairs over, and they both sat down.

  “Thank you,” Jake said attempting to coax his composure back in line.

  “Look. It’s no big deal. The first pass will just fail. They’ll reset and start again,” Danny said. “We only need thirty seconds —”

  “No, the reset will take too long without an extra turbine,” Jake said taking another deep breath. “The cryocoolers for the magnets… need constant power or we have to…” He inhaled again.

  “I’m running the experiment,” Danny interrupted as he stood.

  “If this fails, Professor Elisa gets fired.”

  “Oh, well then I’m definitely running it.”

  Danny walked over to the diverter switch. It was exactly 2:30 p.m., the reactor was online, and the accelerator test was starting. Last chance.

  Jake’s anguish solidified into resolve as he was forced into choice. He lunged and grabbed Danny’s hand. Incensed, he pushed Jake and flipped the switch. The lights went out and a cycle of colors illuminated the room as light from the lasers leaked from the small window on the device.

  Jake rammed a shoulder into Danny at full speed, hearing the wind forced out of his lungs on contact. They struggled and Danny kicked Jake back. He fell backward on the device. It rocked, shifted off of the stand holding it up and began a half meter freefall.

  A flurry of swearing came from both of them as they lunged to prevent calamity, but there was no chance. It crashed into the ground just as the sequence entered the last phase using Jake’s feather-bound components. A large crack opened from the impact and the room was flooded with deep red laser hues.

  The men froze. Their hearts raced, lungs halted, and terror electrified their limbs. It felt as though time halted. In the two-second red hues meant to illuminate Jake’s bad luck, the room was full of towering, long-horned, sharp-toothed, winged demons with eyes black as obsidian all watching Jake intently. And then the room went dark.

  Jake jumped forward and flipped the diverter. The lights came up in the lab and the pair appeared to be alone. Jake knew that they weren’t.

March 16, 2024 00:03

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1 comment

Gideon Bleak
17:32 Mar 16, 2024

A hellish week forced me to submit an early draft of this. By the time anyone actually reads it, I hope to have revised this to not start with a giant wall of exposition that no one wants to actually read. Edit: I decided to live with it. Perhaps my time is better spent focused on the next attempt at shaking my brain over a keyboard to see what pops out.

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