Chapter 1: Dreaming in Spirals
Deutsches Technologisch Neuerungen Institut Annual Symposium
July 17, 1999
The dark, still presentation room is completely packed — not a seat left empty, not a bit of side or back wall left bare. A thousand eyes rest upon the man at the podium, the theoretical physicist Dr. Akira Katsuragi from Kyoto University.
Lecturing is nothing new to him, nothing to wrack the nerves. Over the years, he's lectured to peers and students, whether in his native Japanese or in nearly accent-free German. He's even had the benefit of having given this particular presentation two times previous. Delivering it has never been the problem. Being taken seriously — that always was.
He refuses to give them anything but his deepest confidences. He will not be broken. Akira offers a smile, and continues. “And it's taken seven years — seven long, grueling years — but this conundrum turned out to have a solution after all.” From his terminal, he changes the projected image, revealing a computer-generated model of a double helix in a ring configuration, not unlike a bacterial plasmid. With an inhumanly steady hand, he indicates it with the red dot of a laser pointer, and with whimsical excitement announces, “Ladies and gentlemen… the 'Super Solenoid'.”
Stifled murmurs ripple through those in attendance, as if on cue.
The tall, spare man seems to relish the reaction. Once it dies down, after a handful of seconds, he goes on. “It's perhaps deceptively simple — so much more than a toroidal double helix enclosed by a vacuum, when it comes down to it. But this is the key to unlocking the FIP equation… and to tapping the energy reservoirs of the Dirac Sea. This is the answer to the problem that has eluded physics for so long… This is the key to what is, for all intents and purposes, unlimited energy.”
Another wave of incredulous murmurs cascades forth from these unruly claims. Akira is entirely impervious, however; and he proceeds undeterred. The computer model launches into a simulation, perfectly timed to his vocal accompaniment. “The Super Solenoid, or S², forms the basis and bulk of a theoretical construct I've called the S² engine. A new breed of reactor.” A hypothetical rendition of the entire device, with all major components labeled, is displayed. “The S² itself works on the grounds of supersymmetry, as you have probably deduced, along with the principle of spiral super-strings, established in Amagiri 1991.”
He proceeds at a hectic pace through many more screens of calculations and intricate-looking simulations — the product of so much hardship and toil, reduced to mere fleeting images. But even so, Akira can sense the audience grow increasingly edgy. Many shift in their places and fidget constantly as though bursting with questions. He knows that he's being provocative, and that much is deeply satisfying.
“The super solenoid satisfies what has long been sought by perpetual motion enthusiasts. But no First Law is being broken here! The energy does come from somewhere — a place where our own needs couldn't hope to make a dent, and so, from our perspective, it would be an essentially infinite supply.” While the words themselves sound dry as can be, he unfailingly delivers them with child-like, borderline manic enthusiasm. “However, the greatest challenge we face is pushing technology to the point where it can, in fact, interact with the higher dimensions wherein Dirac Seas exist, and this is largely a matter of overcoming our own perceptual limitations...”
The physicist had been so embroiled in his dissertation that the coordinator's tap on his shoulder comes as a surprise. “I'm sorry, Dr. Katsuragi,” she says, “but you need to wrap it up. There won't be time for questions.”
“Ah…” He nods. “I'd better make this quick, then.” Quickly… How to conclude this in the couple minutes remaining? He skips through the remaining slides, all the way to the concluding statements. “Unfortunately, all that currently exists are the mathematical models, which I have perfected over the past decade, and some preliminary thoughts on the direction technology must go if we are to embrace an S² paradigm. The S² theory stands ready to take energy research and the entire physics world where they have never gone before. There may yet be an end to the energy crisis. The future is right here before us, and we need only to follow the path that's been laid.”
Akira proceeds to the final slide, which provides acknowledgments to his institution along with everyone without whom the S² theory could never have reached a publishable state. “Thank all of you for taking the time to listen. I'm afraid I don't have the time to take any questions. However, most should be answered in my paper, which is available at the publisher's table. Enjoy the rest of the symposium.” As the lights come on for a brief preparatory interlude, Akira takes a shallow bow, gathers his things, and departs the podium.
The hallways of the hotel's convention floors begin to fill with people moving to change lecture rooms, go out for lunch, or other assorted business. Akira Katsuragi doesn't get very far from the site of his own lecture before he is engulfed by a crowd, the pathogen to their phagocyte. He immediately closes up his schedule and straightens up with a resigned look on his tall, thin face. Security will break up the crowd soon enough, but until then he's trapped.
“Dr. Katsuragi!” innumerable voices clamor, all taking the liberty of launching their questions in one great cacophonous tumult.
He puts a hand out and makes a gesture indicating he wishes to speak. “I can only take one question at a time.” Akira quickly scans the crowd and picks out someone as arbitrarily as he can. “You there! The young woman in the aqua shirt.”
“Dr. Katsuragi, what distinguishes your work from those of prior individuals claiming they have found the perfect energy source? How do we know you're just not another esteemed scientist turned crackpot?”
It is painful how much he hears variations upon this. But, at least, it means his answer is well-rehearsed. With a playful grin, he responds, “All covered at length in the paper. There is probably no substitute for seeing the gritty details of how I came to my conclusions all laid out. If it’s too pricy, there is always the library. I understand it's available electronically, as well.”
A new person jumps in. “Dr. Katsuragi, how many people do you think will actually have that sort of patience? I mean — there is quite a huge stigma on the type of proposals you are making.”
“And it’s unfortunate, too,” Akira says. “The classical notion of perpetual motion is flawed; we can’t expect to get something from nothing. What I am proposing is not actually perpetual motion, and never was. That this error continues to be made, and continues to require correction, is a waste of everyone's time, wouldn't you agree?” A couple of attempts are made to interrupt, but he waves them off and continues. “I studied the history of ‘perpetual motion’ and ‘free energy’ advocates in quite a level of depth, and those who care to look should find that the Super Solenoid Theory avoids all of their mistakes.”
“That's well and good,” another member of the mob says, “but what real utility does this have beyond your native field, Dr. Katsuragi? As theoretical physics, it's fascinating. As a proposal for applied physics, it leaves… much to be desired.”
“Mere theories aren't going to solve the world's problems,” adds another. “Real, material solutions do.”
“And?” responds Akira. “Where do real, material solutions begin? Much of the time… in theory.”
“People have every right to be skeptical,” a new person interjects. “Even if this reactor is as feasible as you say, it is also, by your own admission, completely beyond current technological capabilities!”
He smiles impishly, undeterred. “I have quite a bit of work ahead of me, don’t I?”
“What, you plan on advancing technology as required to achieve this solenoid of yours? Don’t be foolish!”
“It’s far too late for that,” he replies. “And, with that…” Akira sees security up the corridor dissolving the traffic and decides to make his move. “I won’t be responsible for clogging the hall any longer. Any further questions will require ‘incentive’. Feel free to make me an offer if you catch me at one of the local bars, eh?” He excuses himself as charmingly as possible, and despite multiple protests they've no choice but to let him go.
Akira hides in a low-traffic alcove, casually sitting against the wall, cross-referencing between the conference's booklet of abstracts and his heavily-highlighted copy of the schedule. The presentation he had most anticipated had been scheduled shortly after the conclusion of his own, on the opposite end of the hotel, and there was no way to reach it in time. Looking over the remaining highlights, there is little he cannot do without. Especially given the fact that his height and physical distinctiveness make it difficult to move around without being stopped by the wrong kind of people.
Just thinking back to the previous two conferences he presented at this summer fills him with an overbearing weariness. He replaces the materials into his handbag and decides to retreat to his room while the halls are still quiet. Overhearing some passers-by discuss their midday meal plans, Akira contemplates pursuing nourishment himself, then quickly dismisses the idea. He doesn't actually feel hungry, despite eating almost nothing for breakfast.
On the elevator ride up to the sixth floor of the west tower, he hunkers in one corner, hands pocketed, hoping the one other passenger doesn't pay him any mind. The young European male looks intently in Akira's direction, like he's trying to make out the other's name tag. But before he manages to conjure any irritating questions, the doors open to the fourth floor and the European departs — taking one last look at Akira as he does. A close call... There will be many more before this trip is over, he is certain.
Room 602. After a couple of minutes of fumbling with the key card, Akira gets the lock to yield, and he escapes into his tiny, three-day sanctuary. The darkness is immediately soothing. The shoes come off and he sets them along with his handbag neatly near the doorway. Stretching creaky joints and releasing a delicate yawn, he wanders into the bathroom to heed nature's call.
Afterward, he washes his hands, and then his face. As he brings the drying cloth down, his eyes — solemn, and a deep, rich brown — meet their counterparts in the mirror's reflection, and ensnare them. Akira's countenance is all too familiar to him, as it's remained largely impervious to the ravages of time. This face has been with him since teenage growth spurts molded it into its final long, angular shape, while leaving him with an overall delicate — some would say effeminate — grace. Were it not for the white hairs sneaking in amongst the purples, and a few faint lines etched about the eyes and mouth, he could easily be mistaken for someone at least ten years younger.
He runs long, bony fingers through his mop of dark purple hair. Trimmed days before he departed for Aachen, but, somehow, no less unruly than it had been before. Akira seems to prefer it that way, though. As if, without the scruffy bangs and haphazard cowlicks, he wouldn't look appropriately eccentric.
It occurs to him that, even if he doesn't look his age, the sense of fatigue emanating from his eyes more than makes up for this. Without another thought, he lets himself collapse onto the room's single bed, and immediately feels his whole body go limp. Eyes wide open, he stares up at the wallpaper-covered ceiling and soon finds himself adrift in hypnagogia, neither asleep nor awake. But even this would be the nearest thing to sleep he's experienced in days.
The hours go by.
Countless tiny bubbles form a layer of white froth atop the pinkish alcoholic beverage. Sunken brown eyes gaze emptily down into the bowl-like glass, strangely absorbed. The transformations of matter — physical, chemical, or atomic — are all so transient. Even something as complicated as a multicellular eukaryotic organism is, ultimately, no different from one bubble in the froth. Whatever circumstances caused matter to take that form, eventually they will come to an end. The bubble will pop…
Akira raises the straw to his lips and takes a dainty sip. The saga of assimilation continues.
Afterward, he finds himself drawn into the reflections on the table's surface. Artificial lights, warped shapes beyond recognition. He has always found himself entranced by such mundane details, the kinds of sensory information that most people filter out once they've reached a certain age. For a mind constantly seeking temporary escape from itself, all these little things — cracks in a wall, the patterns of wood grain, the movements of city birds, dust floating on a cornea — provide tiny mental sanctuaries. Others call it “daydreaming” and “zoning out”, and maybe it is, but… labels render these things no less invaluable to him.
As his mind drifts in the meaningless array of photons, his left hand absentmindedly fidgets with something dangling from his neck, while the right cradles and massages his head.
Eventually, a couple of unfamiliar voices pop out from the low-level multilingual din of the bar. They're speaking English, for which his own fluency is mostly confined to reading and writing... but he understands enough to know that it concerns him. He simply listens, motionless as a prey animal trying to evade detection.
“Adrian, look!” A woman's voice. “Isn't that the Kyoto University professor we saw earlier? ...Dr. Kisaragi?”
A man. “Ah, yes, the solenoids guy. I think it was 'Katsuragi', actually.”
“Just testing you.”
“Yes, yes, of course you were.” Sardonic, but still playful. “I… uh… don't think you should get any ideas. I doubt the man's in any mood for further haranguing.”
“And what makes you think I intend to harangue him?”
“Because it would be suspicious if your intentions were anything but.”
“Oh, you. Always putting a negative spin on everything. I'm just going to say hi, that's all.”
As two sets of footsteps approach, Akira suddenly feels prompted to take another sip from his drink.
About a meter away from Akira's table, the woman bows, her nearly shoulder-length ash-brown hair draping the sides of her face. In perfect Japanese, she announces, “Good evening. I'm Kyoko Soryu-Zeppelin. Do I have the pleasure of meeting Dr. Katsuragi?” She slowly straightens, hair bobbing.
He sets his drink down and apprehends her with a weary, but not unfriendly, look. Ms. — or, rather, Dr., as a glance at her badge confirms — Soryu-Zeppelin appears quite young, mid-twenties at the most, and in all likelihood completed her doctorate recently. Her eyes are a vibrant, intelligent hazel; her proportions modest and attractive; and she's dressed well, with a very distinctive sense of style. Responding with Japanese in turn, he says, “I'm the only Dr. Katsuragi that I'm aware of.” Even in the dim lighting, it's clear she's of mixed ancestry. He supposes that the compound surname immediately answers all questions on that count. Japanese-German, and looks the part. Akira notes that she's quite tall for a woman, at least 5 cm taller than her average height partner — a blessing from the Zeppelin genes, to be sure.
The man makes a little throat-clearing sound to get both their attentions. In German, he says “I'm afraid I don't know the mother tongue well enough to not look like a fool trying to speak it. We can all speak German well enough, yes?”
Practically in unison, Akira and Kyoko reply, “Yes, of course.” They share a weird glance for about a full second.
Kyoko's other half quickly intervenes. He extends a hand to Akira. “The name's Langley. Adrian Langley.” Akira reflexively offers his dominant hand, the left, which he quickly realizes won't work so well. Langley immediately takes stock of the situation and offers his own left instead. An accommodating man, it would seem. Akira quickly notes the ring on Langley's fourth finger, all but confirming the obvious. The two men share a brief shake, firm and sincere.
Langley looks very Anglo-Saxon, and has rather refined, one might say “well-bred”, features, the most distinguished among them being his fiery red hair (neatly combed back, though hardly tamed) and piercing blue eyes. His personal grooming and attire are immaculate, in stark contrast to the devil-may-care attitude that Kyoko gives off. He can't be much older than her, but there's something about his manner… He's very dour and resigned, with the sense of someone who has left the spirit of youth far behind him.
“Pleasure to meet you, Herr Langley. Pleasure to meet you both.” The couple seem friendly, and half of the fun of these conventions has always been the people, so Akira gestures to the chairs opposite him. “Won't you two join me?” Kyoko accepts the offer instantly; Adrian, only after a moment's contemplation, as though still self-conscious about being a nuisance. “By the way,” Akira says, “please call me 'Akira'.”
“Oh?” says Kyoko, pleasantly surprised.
“Well, then, if we’re all going to be on a first-name basis,” Langley says, “you may as well call me ‘Adrian’.” He indicates Kyoko. “She's just like you, always telling people to call her 'Kyoko'. Are you two in cahoots, with this whole 'usurping the backbone of Japanese society' thing? I thought formality was everything over there.”
“Ugh,” Kyoko spits. “Japan… Adrian knows I won't go there any more than I humanly have to. Terrible place to be a woman.”
Akira nods. “It's slowly getting better, but… I agree.” A sense of deep melancholy momentarily appears in his eyes. “It's not a great place to be either sex, really.” Before anyone can respond to that, he adds, “I spent part of my formative years right here in Germany. I guess it was enough to make a significant impact.”
“Ohhhhh ,” Kyoko says. “I was wondering how you spoke German so well. That definitely explains it. You have one rare talent among Nihonjin. Cherish it well.”
Akira's face flushes ever so slightly. “Oh, I certainly do. I wish I had more occasion to use it. Beautiful language. So much more… textured than Japanese. But, really, my only opportunities are at conferences like this. Back in college I would do impersonations, like of Hitler or Freud, but… you know. Eventually that sort of thing just becomes stupid instead of fun.”
Langley offers a sympathetic nod. “I understand, completely.”
Kyoko… not so much. “Now I kind of want to see you do the 'just a cigar' thing.”
“Luckily for me,” Akira grins, “Freud never actually said that.”
Langley abruptly claps his hands together and stands up. “Right! I knew we'd come to this bar for a reason! After all the nonsense we had to sit through tonight, I really need to get mildly intoxicated. You'll have the usual, right, Kyoko?” She nods. “You want anything, Akira, or are you okay with—” He struggles to identify the pink stuff in the bowl-glass.
“Berliner Weisse. I'm fine, thank you.”
“All right. I'll be right back. Don't cause too much mischief, Kyoko. I know how you are.”
Akira watches Langley amble over to the counter and initiate the barkeep in conversation. He turns back to Kyoko. “What kind of mischief might that be?”
Kyoko's chin rests upon bridged fingers, and her hazel eyes bore into him with all-too-transparent meaning. “You’re much better-looking up close, Doctor.” A sly smile. “But I’m sure you get that all the time.”
Akira would be uncomfortable, if this weren't so typical that he'd learned long, long ago to shrug it off as one of life's cruel running gags. Mostly, he feels bad for Adrian. He takes another sip from his drink, and casually replies, “You have no idea.”
“So how do you do it, Akira? Stay so beautiful at your age. You must be in your… what, early forties?”
“You have a good eye,” he says. “I'll be forty-one later this year. And to answer the first question: inadvertently.”
That gets a laugh out of Kyoko. Her eyes continue to creep over him a short time more, then they suddenly stop, distracted, below his face. “You're Christian?”
At first he's confused, but his own eyes quickly dart down at his chest, where his pendant hangs: a Greek cross made of white metal alloy, with a chain attached to either side of the upper stipes. He's worn it so long that it's come to feel an intrinsic part of him, its presence taken for granted. “Ah, this?” He shakes his head. “No, I'm not Christian.”
“Oh?” Kyoko probes. Only now does Akira notice that Kyoko wears a little metal crucifix around her own neck — a common fixture on Westerners, it seems.
“This...” Akira nervously rubs the cross between thumb and index fingers. “I suppose you could call it a family heirloom.” His distant tone of voice and evasive body language all but say, “I don't want to talk about this.”
“I see,” she says, apparently getting the hint. A glass is then set in front of her, and she looks up at Langley, who sits down next to her with his own. “Thank you, dear.”
Langley nods in affirmation, then turns to Akira. “So, did my wife behave herself? Be honest.”
Somehow, Langley's casualness about the whole thing brings a smile to Akira's face. “I deal with far worse on a regular basis. Part of my job is interacting with college students, after all.”
Kyoko puts her hands up in a display of innocence. “Am I not allowed to admire the beauty of the natural world? Is a beautiful human any less worthy of awe than an exquisite sunset, or a most delightfully intricate protein?”
Langley sighs. “When I start seeing you make eyes at protein conformations, I'll believe that's all it is.”
“You can ogle Dr. Katsuragi, dear. I don't mind.”
While their banter is entertaining in its way, Akira decides that it's become a bit too revealing for his tastes. “...So! What's brought you two to DTNI '99?”
“I'm not here to present, sadly,” Kyoko says. “Sons of bitches turned me down!”
Akira shrinks slightly at her profanity, then elaborates. “Well, what I mean is… What do you two do?”
“Ah! In that event,” she replies, “one could crudely describe me as a genetic engineer.”
“I'm just a humble prosthetician,” Langley says.
Akira smiles. “Interesting combination.”
“They actually go together, in a way,” Kyoko says. “Both fields seek to augment the natural living form.”
“She makes mutants. I make cyborgs.” Langley takes a big swig of his drink, then drolly adds, “Perhaps, one day, we can unite our powers and create mutant cyborgs.” Kyoko chuckles at that.
“Is that what you two are after?” Akira asks. “Improving upon nature?”
Langley eyes Kyoko as if he knows what's coming.
“There are plenty of flaws to fix. And what's going to do it now that humans aren't even evolving anymore? Natural selection doesn't affect us one iota these days.”
“I'm not completely sure that's—”Akira begins, but sees Langley start to shake his head at him, communicating a sense of futility. Akira quickly changes course in response. “Well… uh, this is probably true…”
Kyoko, having been effectively activated, continues on her spiel. “I'm not actually interested in eugenics or anything like that. Giving your kid the 'perfect' genes? There's no such thing, so why bother? And even if it were, it's boring. Old hat.” She takes a nice, long drink. “I don't just want to shuffle around what's already there. I want to make new things. So, to that end… ” Another drink. “…I've been custom-designing new and better proteins. From there, it's a simple matter of reverse-engineering the CDS and inserting it into a genome.”
Akira, both impressed and perplexed, raises an eyebrow. “Have you… been having much success?”
Langley clicks his tongue. “It has a tendency to weird people out. Kyoko's first 'success' is something that's carried in the blood and makes it look dark purple or indigo when it's fully oxygenated.”
“Ssshh, Adrian! It hasn't been published yet!” Her tone shifts from admonishing to mischievous. “You must admit, though. The rats are rather impressive.”
“Well, yes. I'm sure any one of them could kill a small dog,” Langley quips dryly. “Truly the stuff of B movie horror. Dr. Zeppelin & the Blue-blooded Rats of Terror.”
“I would pay good money to see that,” Kyoko counters.
Akira wonders if talking to these people was a good idea after all.
Langley glances back at Akira. “Kyoko here is quite the eccentric researcher. But brilliant. I give her a hard time, but if she focuses her mind, she can do anything, really.”
“And now you're going to tell me that I need you to keep me in line and realize my full potential.” She kisses him on the cheek.
“Eccentric, eh?” Akira says. “I don't suppose you two have an easier time with funding than I do?”
Langley scratches his chin. “I was lucky enough to get into a commercial research group right out of school, so this isn't a problem I have much experience with.”
“I've been fairly blessed so far, myself,” Kyoko adds, “but I don't expect my current situation to last. I've been shopping around quite a bit and found a number of opportunities that could be promising. Not all of them are specifically for the biosciences, either. Who knows, Akira — some of them might be useful to you. I'd be happy to e-mail you what I know.”
Akira's face beams a little. “I probably have some leads that would be useful to you, for that matter. A swap sounds delightful.” He retrieves his handbag — a leather construction that looks quite old and weathered, but is holding up nonetheless — from under the table, unclasps it, and retrieves a copy of his card from a little pocket within to present to Kyoko. In exchange, she gives him her own, gracefully embossed with her personal information.
Langley digs into his inner jacket pocket. “That's not a bad idea.” He offers his business card, as well. Akira starts to fetch another copy to give Langley, but he dismisses the gesture. “No need. I can just get your info off Kyoko.” Akira nods and accepts the token of camaraderie. Langley continues, “You seem like a kindred spirit, Akira. We'd love to see more of you. Let us know if you're ever in Germany again, eh?”
“Ah, you two live here?” Akira asks. “Very nice.”
Langley shrugs. “It's decent enough. I'd rather be back in the Northeast, but… gotta follow life where it takes you.”
“He's American, if you haven't noticed,” Kyoko interjects. “Of course no country can hope to hold a torch to his own.”
“Oh, ease off, Kyo,” Langley says with a roll of the eyes. “You knew what you were getting yourself into when you married a Yankee.”
“I know.” She kisses him again.
Akira starts to feel a tad awkward again and tries to get the conversation back on track. “Well, anyway. Next time I'm in the Fatherland, I'll take you up on your offer. If you two ever find yourselves in Japan, don't be afraid to give me a call, either.”
“Trying to give me an excuse to pay my grandmother a visit, are you?” Kyoko winks at him. “I'll be sure to take you up on that.”
Akira finally notices that both of them have finished their drinks, while he's still not more than halfway through his. He gets the definite sense that the encounter is winding down, and decides to help it along. “Early morning for you two?”
“Actually, it is,” Langley affirms, standing up. “So we'd probably best be going. Meeting you was quite a pleasant surprise, I must say.”
“See?” Kyoko says. “My ideas aren't all terrible.” She tips her head to Akira and smiles at him. “Best of luck with everything. Don't let the doubters drag you down too much.”
Langley nods. “We like to romanticize the sciences, but what are scientists but people? They aren't impervious to the pressure to conform, or the resistance to radical change. Taking the wrong side too soon can blemish one's reputation. Trail-blazers like you and Kyoko will never have it easy.”
“I know…” Akira looks down forlornly. “I know all about the way it is.”
“Keep your chin up,” Kyoko says. “If your ideas have merit, people will catch on sooner or later.”
“Hopefully sooner rather than later,” Akira says. “Hope for the best… Expect the worst.”
“With any luck, we'll be able to help each other out,” Kyoko says. “Expect an e-mail from me no later than Monday.”
Akira nods with resolve. “For mine, Tuesday.”
“Excellent,” Kyoko responds, grinning.
“Best of luck with everything,” Langley says, issuing a little wave. Kyoko provides one of her own, along with a final piercing look.
Akira doesn't return her look, but he does wave back. “And best of luck to you two, as well.”
“Give that drink the love it deserves, now!” Langley calls as he and Kyoko walk off.
Akira watches them until they're out of sight. He isn't quite sure what he should think about what just happened. Maybe it's not important that he immediately know.
He stows their cards away safely, and sets about finishing his drink.