Later, Robert Marsh would blame his son for asking him for a set of Buckyballs. If they’d been easy to get, he would have clicked, paid, and forgotten about it. But he lived in a country where one of the utmost sins a company could commit was to make a product that was not idiot proof. By the time he finally found an online shop that would send him what was apparently more dangerous to his health and welfare than armour piercing bullets, he was thoroughly intrigued by what he could possibly do with them. Also, the shop only carried the largest set, so he had twice as many little niodymium magnets as he needed. The set was also a little more… okay, a lot more expensive than he was looking to spend on Marvin’s birthday, but he’d waited too long to get his present and by the time he ordered the damn set of Buckyballs he was down to getting his kid these or giving him a gift card, and Tina had a personal vendetta against any kind of gift certificate… he wasn’t going to do that again. No, Ralphie was going to get his awesome set of magnets on time (I have to pay how much for expedited shipping? Are you serious?) and he was going to like it.
And of course, when Ralphie opened the present a week later (a present I could have gone to jail for, damnit) he played with them for exactly three days. True, he was 17, and had a lot of other things on his mind, but Robert thought that maybe he could have gotten a little more time out of them. But that weekend, he went down to the basement to get away from Tina and her inevitable list of chores and saw them sitting exactly where they had been sitting a few days ago. Hell, he might not have touched them since that first night, when they spent a half hour playing with them together. Damn the boy.
He thought about just boxing up the damn things and sending them back, partly to get his money back and mostly to see if the boy would notice. But he had to admit, they were fun to play with. They’d attract and repel each other through a greater distance… and with a hell of a lot more force… than the little bar magnet that had come with a picture science book he’d had when he was in first grade. Three or four times, he meant to get up and he’d catch them sliding into each other across the table. They were strong enough to slide over anything, they were. And the things they could pull with them…
That Sunday evening, he was finally ready to show someone what he had discovered, so he charged up the stairs and grabbed Tina by the arm. She was doing the dishes (did I miss dinner? hell, did I miss lunch?) and didn’t look too pleased with him, but he was too excited to care. He half-dragged her down the stairs, not saying a word until the two of them were standing in front of his rotating, clicking contraption.
“You made a toy Ferris wheel. Gee, honey, I am so proud of you.” She turned to go back up to the kitchen and he pulled her back.
“It’s not a Ferris wheel, Tina. And it’s definitely not a toy.”
“You sure? You seemed to be more interested in playing with this thing down here than doing, oh, everything else that the house needed this weekend.”
“Look how it spins, honey. One of the magnets pushes another, which pushes another, and pretty soon they’re spinning in a circle.”
“Clever. Did you get that out of Ralphie’s science book?”
“No, Tina, it wouldn’t be in there.” He took a deep breath. “It’s spinning faster than it was when I started it.”
She finally looked at him, really looked at him. They had met in a college chemistry course, and while she eventually became an accountant, like him, she read Nature and the other prestigious journals from time to time.
“That can’t be, Robert.”
“It is ‘be,’ Tina. On top of that, I started this thing four hours ago. If I don’t stop it, it will go forever. It’s a perpetual motion machine, Tina.”
“Is, Tina! Look! All I have to do is hook up a turbine to it and we can power the house. We could get one of those plug-in cars and run that, too. Oh, sure, I’m going to test it a lot before hand, and maybe you and a few other people can look at it, too. But… damn, I feel like Alexander Bell when he heard Watson. Or that Swiss guy who invented Velcro.”
“This is wrong, Robert,” she said, quietly. “If that’s really what it’s doing, it’s a violation of the laws of thermodynamics. The first one, I think. You can’t create energy.”
“I am. And so what if it violates a scientific law? People said we couldn’t fly and we do, right?”
“By obeying the laws of science, yes. This…” She shuddered. “Take it apart. I want nothing to do with this in our house.”
She spun around and walked back upstairs.
He stared at the machine for a minute. To calm himself, he counted the revolutions and it had gotten even faster than when he’d called her down. There was a gently warm pool of heat around the device, and no matter what Tina had said to do, he knew that all he had to do was harness that and all of his problems would be solved. Hell, all of everyone’s problems.
Off to one side of the basement was a crawlspace that they used for a few old boxes of books and things that they couldn’t quite bring themselves to give away. The door also had a latch, and he had a padlock. He reluctantly stopped the thing from spinning, and after making sure everything was documented, he stashed it away where she couldn’t get to it.
The next afternoon, he came home from work and immediately noticed that something was different. He immediately knew what was different, too, but he didn’t want to accept that Tina and Ralphie had left. Finally, after looking around the house and trying to tell himself that maybe there had been a family emergency or something, he read the note on the kitchen table.
I know you didn’t get rid of it, Robert. And I and my son refuse to be around such a blatant violation of the very laws of physics. Please destroy it. That thing is an abomination. It’s also against the law. It’s not called the First Suggestion of Thermodynamics, Robert.
All that evening he seriously thought about doing just that. He pulled it out of the crawlspace and set it up on the kitchen table but didn’t start it. He’d heard of perpetual motion machines before, none of them ever panning out so far as he knew. Most of the ones he’d seen were obvious fakes, or only looked like they generated energy from nothing during the short window of observation their inventors allowed people. But this… this was different. Even without knowing what it did, it was a thing of beauty. Eventually, he called work and left his intent to resign on his supervisor’s voicemail. Then, after making a list of the things he’d need to actually harvest energy from the thing, he flicked it on and went to bed.
The banging on the door frightened him more than anything. He had shut himself in the house for four days, doing nothing but working on the Wheel (his sleep-deprived name for it) and occasionally napping on the couch. He’d made a much larger one, now, and this took up most of the table. The only access to the outside world he allowed himself were the windows; since he’d started up the rebuilt Wheel, the kitchen had gotten a little stiffling. But it was just him, after all, and he had no problem working in his boxers and an old t-shirt. He could tell that he was almost finished, almost ready to tell someone else, almost ready to show Tina that he had been right to…
The door swung open and he shrieked and ducked under the table.
Two men, dressed in casual grey sport coats and light coloured shirts, walked into the living room. The second pocketed some sort of key and closed the door. Neither of them were holding weapons, though of course, they could still be armed. Robert had heard of things like this happening before. A lot of websites (granted, not the most reputable of them) loved to tell about water-powered cars and cancer cures and, well, and free energy machines that were all kept in a secret storeroom where the Big Corporations paid lots of money to keep them away from prying eyes. And now, now it was happening to him. He wished he hadn’t shut his phone video recorder off. Not five minutes ago he’d taped the machine while it was running, and on top of that, the program on his phone uploaded all of its video to a website, especially if it were shut off in the middle of doing its job.
“Holy crap, it’s hot in here,” the one in front, a redheaded man about thirty or so, said. “That didn’t clue you in?”
“Who are you?” Robert said. “I have rights.”
“Calm down, calm down. We’re not here to arrest you.” The other guy, a black man with a pinhole-burned satchel and the absolute biggest pocket protector Robert had ever seen, walked over to the Wheel. After he took a few pictures, he found the lever to shut it off and the mechanism clattered to a halt.
“You didn’t notice the heat, Robert? That didn’t tell you something was wrong?”
“How did you get in?”
The redhead sighed. “Come out from under the table, Robert. Nothing is going to happen to you unless you attack us. I wouldn’t suggest it, by the way. I’m quite good at jujitsu, and Terry there would obliterate your bank account the minute I pulled you off of him.”
“They never proved I did that,” he said, still looking at the machine. “Hey, this one is actually pretty good.”
“I could have told you that.” He unbuttoned his coat and fanned his neck. “Your landlord gave us your key. The stack of mail out front clued him in that something wasn’t right. And something definitely isn’t right. Your machine is illegal.”
“You have to prove that,” Robert said. “I have…”
“First Law of Thermodynamics. You can’t create more energy than you use. That’s a very basic law of our universe, okay? I mean, consider this kitchen. Outside your house we were getting a reading of 35º. Maybe in August that wouldn’t be too big a deal, but March in Lansing, Michigan isn’t exactly known for its heat waves. And in here, it’s just ridiculous.”
“I was working on fixing that.”
“There’s no fix, Robert. You were making more energy than the system could handle. Changing energy is fine, but you just… can’t… do that. Long story short, we’re taking the machine. Oh, I’m sure if you want you can tell the conspiritards that the Men in Black came and robbed you so Exxon could still sell gas. But what it comes down to is that if you ran this for too long, your house would burn up. Then the next house. And then the next. That’s not good.”
Robert sat quietly on the kitchen chair and tried to think of some sort of objection, but he really didn’t have any.
“I guess I can help you take it down, then.”
“That would be nice. And going by the way Terry’s looking at that thing, we might just have a job for you, too. We’ll send you a proposal in the next week or so.”
“Helping us figure out how to use the crap you and other backyard inventors come up with, without breaking the universe. Terry’s buddy found what we think might actually be a time machine last month. Oh, and the infinite hard drive project… the one we have is probably the first black hole ever observed, but we need to figure out a way to back it up a little to just this side of physically legal. Sound like a plan?”
The grey Chevrolet hatchback stopped outside a greenhouse-style building about fifty miles outside Las Vegas. The building itself had just been finished a day before, except for the roof. Inside, there was nothing but a small platform about the size of the model the driver lifted out of the trunk. It only took him a couple of minutes to set it up, and then he took the dust cover off. The metal magnets in their Ferris-wheel-like pockets glinted in the desert sun.
He flicked the machine on and walked back to his car. From the road, he could see a few other buildings, most likely with their own machines inside, endlessly running. With the windows down, he could smell that peculiar scent this area had, something of ozone and open space.
Then he rolled up the windows and turned the air conditioner on full-blast. It was hotter than the last time he’d been here. Much hotter.