To understand the scope of Applied Harmonics’ work, you have to look at the startup scene in Austin, Texas around the mid-90’s, back before the scene itself had a name. Around that time, Austin was seeing an influx of Californian money, most of it by way of rich West Coasters who fled the high cost of living for the laid back, BBQ and beer lifestyle of the Live Music Capital of the World. They took the foundations of Silicon Valley and started rebuilding it here.
Austin never achieved Silicon Valley 2 status, but we did have our share of success. Dell, which sold personal computing devices to the common man, began its life just up the road from us. The city attracted giants like Borland, SolarWinds, and Tivoli Software. AMD, Intel, and Samsung had a huge semiconductor presence as well. Couple all of this technology with the University of Texas, and you’ve got a city ripe for cutting-edge theoretical research.
Applied Harmonics (abbreviated AHI thanks to a tacked-on “Inc.”), started as a thesis project by a UT student named Arthur Rubens. One of the major shortcomings of string theory at the time was that it didn’t explain particle behavior in all circumstances. In terms of gravity, the model behaved one way. In terms of space-time, there were gaps that just couldn’t be explained. Rubens, in his own words, stumbled upon a unified string theory after a night of heavy drinking during which he overwrote his boson equations with fermion equations on the same whiteboard.
History was never the same. Our history, anyway. Evidently, you people can create technological wonders that boggle the mind, but string theory is a bridge too far.
I don’t pretend to know anything about string theory, though perhaps if I did, I could return home a la Sam Beckett. All I know is that in the fall of 2016, Rubens and his team had a breakthrough, which would ultimately lead to the destruction of countless universes.
A little about November 2016. Life as an American in my world was about separating the micro from the macro. Our media companies weren’t as pervasive (and invasive) as yours, but they were no less harmful. Owned by rich, entitled white dudes who themselves were owned by political parties and larger companies, skewed the news to push whatever agenda they deemed most profitable. And when they had the opportunity to keep a self-proclaimed bigot and sexual predator from being elected president, they failed miserably. Protests, hate-crimes, and general anxiety pervaded the landscape.
For most of us, we kept watch on things closer to home: our family, our friends, our cozy little job and cozy little car. I was never the protesting type, nor was I someone who believed a president could do much of anything except drag us into another recession, for which my positions were prepared anyway.
All of this is to say that no one was really paying attention to the things that mattered: science, technology, medical developments, etc. They were too focused on a buffoon demanding security clearance for his children, as if his nepotism was a surprise to anyone.
That year, I’d been married to Maisie for about five years, and had worked at AHI for more than ten. My focus had been on her, on our attempts to start a family, and our never-ending quest to lose weight. At work, Monroe and I kept busy writing scripts to parse the massive amounts of data Rubens was pulling in from what he called other “shades” of universes. These shades had to be compared to ours on the atomic level, which meant our best computers (tinker toys compared to yours) needed to be told how to make that comparison.
Monroe had only been with the company about four years. He’d replaced a sharp guy named Han who quit to move back to Korea to take advantage of their burgeoning tech scene (of which I was completely unaware). Monroe and I became fast friends, mostly due to our hatred of Austin drivers and mutual love of the Dallas Cowboys football team. That year, they had been on a hot streak behind two new rookies, which meant Monroe and I would spend most of Monday reliving the highlights from the previous day’s play.
A little about Monroe. He’s the coolest black dude I’ve ever met, and though he prides himself in being a bad-ass mother who don’t take no crap off of nobody, he looks like a strong gust of wind might carry him off at any moment. I guess that’s why he wears his gold chains, to weigh him down. None of that matters though, because Monroe always has a smile for everyone. He’s a genuinely nice guy in front of the suits.
But in the lab? When the doors are closed? He’s just as depraved as the rest of us.
It was Monday, November 14, if I recall correctly. The week before Thanksgiving. Maisie and I had been dreading the holidays since both of our families were getting a little too pushy with their demands of grandchildren. The Cowboys had just pulled off an insane back-and-forth victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers and I couldn’t wait for Monroe to get in.
It was after nine before he finally rolled in complaining about the traffic.
“She saw me put my blinker on,” he said, dropping his backpack onto his desk, “and she sped up anyway. What the hell is wrong with people?”
“At least the Cowboys won,” I replied.
“Hells yes!” Monroe leaned over for a high five. “My man Zeke is killin’ it!”
I won’t bore you with the specifics of the conversation, but suffice it to say it ended with us agreeing that Jason Witten was the best thing since sliced bread. By the time we’d watched all the replays and discussed the playoff picture, it was close to ten.
“I’m gonna get some coffee before the data pushes,” he announced. “You want anything?”
“I’m good,” I told him, turning my attention back to my computer. I had a bunch of browser tabs open to various sport sites, so after one more replay of Ezekiel Elliot slicing through the Steeler defense, I closed the entire browser and launched SecureCRT.
Buried deep under the rolling Lakewood hills, AHI’s server cluster churned in the LED twilight. Environmental systems kept the cavernous data center at a brisk 64 degrees. The racks were protected by steel cages, and only a small team of engineers were allowed physical access. Everyone else had to go through multi-factor authentication to get command-line access.
I typed in my various passwords, consulted my keyfob a few times, and eventually got access to Pylon 18, which was due for a data push at exactly 1000 hours.
When I joined the company in 2006, Rubens and company were running tests manually, compiling the data by hand, and then offloading it to the software devs for analysis. Ten years later, the tests were all automated, and ran 24/7 but favored the evening hours when electricity was cheaper. Sometimes, Monroe and I could hear the Tuner in the next room popping on and off as it pushed particles from our universe into the infinite void.
They came back changed, and it was up to us to figure out exactly how.
Pylon 18 was running slower than usual that morning, though “top” didn’t show anything out of the ordinary. I finally figured out it was the disks. Despite having SSDs in a RAID array, the network throughput was overwhelming the file system, slowing down the entire server. I changed into the newest directory and watched a tar.gz file grow with every refresh.
Tests typically generated between 6 to 8 gigabytes of data per Pylon, but the archive file I was watching was already well over three hundred gigs. At five hundred it split (what developer saw that scenario coming?) and began writing a new file.
By the time Monroe returned with his coffee, Pylon 18 had sixteen archives, comprising just over 7.3 terabytes of data.
“Sweet Lady Gaga,” said Monroe, as an alert flashed on his screen. “You seeing this? Pylon 17 just absorbed an 8 terabyte dump. I didn’t know it could take a punch like that.”
“Yeah,” I told him. “18 just got the same. What the hell happened overnight?”
Monroe had no idea, and there was nothing in the logs, but as we began to comb through the data, certain anomalies began to emerge. We shared the same general library of scripts, but Monroe and I were always trying to outdo each other when it came to making a discovery. I ran my scripts, setting off a dozen of them in unison now that the server was running faster.
“Offset,” said Monroe.
I tabbed through my screen session until I found the offset script. It was generating a rudimentary scatter plot with standard deviations showing all of the harmonic offsets from previous tests.
Harmonic offsets aren’t hard to understand if you think of them in terms of piano keys. In the middle of the keyboard, A is defined at 440 Hz. One half-step up is B-flat at 466.2 Hz. Think of the keys as universes. A tone in universe A vibrates at 440 times per second. In universe B-flat, it vibrates at 466.2 times per second. If you could reach into a grand piano and deform the string, you could push the A key into the B-flat range.
That’s essentially what the Tuner does. It deforms the harmonic frequency of matter, pushing it from our dimension to another.
“Someone keyed this in wrong,” said Monroe. “I thought offsets were supposed to be plus ones.”
We’d figure this all out later, but what we were seeing at the time was a scatter plot of harmonic offsets between 1 and 1,000. On the very left of the graph, as an obvious outlier, was the offset from the previous night’s test.
“That’s…” I had to pause to do the math, but I wanted to start talking before Monroe shouted out the answer. “Two by ten to negative sixteenth power. That’s almost nothing.”
If it helps, you can think of a tiny–nearly microscopic–key between the A and B-flat key on the piano. You can’t see it, and God only knows how you’d press it, but it does produce a tone that is distinct–at some level–from the A.
I looked over at Monroe; he was staring back at me, some kind of freakish smile on his face.
“I want to send the email,” he said.
“We don’t even know what we have yet,” I reminded him. “Just because someone fat-fingered the offset doesn’t mean the experiment worked. It could just be an anomaly.”
Monroe stood and walked to the interior window. He stared at the Tuner in the other room.
“No, it’s not an anomaly. It’s like just like I said. The offset was too high. They were pushing too far too fast.”
That got me laughing. “Like you knew.”
“I’m the smartest motherfucker you know, and I saw this shit coming a mile away. White people and their manifest destiny mindsets can’t settle for anything less than a grand slam. But you know what, man? Sometimes a single is all you need. Bunt that shit, and go from there.”
“We should really wait for the scripts to run. Let the computers tell us if there’s anything worth passing on to the suits.”
Monroe shook his head. “Thirty-six Pylons. Six to eight terabytes each. Two hundred and fifty terabytes total. That’s gonna put us into overtime. What are we gonna tell them when their results don’t show up in their inboxes at COB?”
He had a point. If Rubens had truly broken through to a new dimension, it wasn’t something we wanted to sit on. The prospect of raising a false alarm was nil in the face of the greatest discovery our universe had ever known.
“Let’s see where we are in a couple hours,” I said. “If anything looks promising, you can send out the email.”
“Fuck yes. I’m gonna bring the other Pylons online.”
I left him to his work and started thinking about the day to come. I’d been too excited from the football game the day before to get any real sleep, which meant I hadn’t worked out in the morning like I’d wanted to. My body was tired and already achy.
Sensing a late night, I texted Maisie to let her know she might be on her own for dinner tonight. She wrote back that if I ordered food in, I should get something healthy. I sent her an emoji of pizza and fried chicken.
“The Monroe-Ortega Offset,” muttered Monroe. “Discovery of the century.”
I backed out of the conversation with Maisie and found the thread with Elena below it. I asked her if Angel had watched the game yesterday and whether she finally understood why men loved Jason Witten. She wrote back and implied that I was a homosexual.
On the screen, output from my scripts scrolled in thin columns.