The Human Element
It was just a few drops the very first time. I still remember feeling the sweat on my brow as the cycle began. A pinpoint of light was suspended inside the chamber and grew to the size of a marble as a mechanical hum filled the room. We watched, transfixed.
Suddenly the light was gone and the hum cut out to silence, and there it was: a tiny puddle on a glass plate. I was thrilled, but Dr. Kemmis was over the moon. She could be animated, sure, but now she was downright exuberant.
"One-point-two milliliters of pure water! It's gorgeous!" I'd never described ordinary water that way myself, but then again, this wasn't exactly ordinary water.
It was—for lack of a better term—assembled. And not even with crude chemical processes. Every water molecule was new, in a manner of speaking.
Now while hydrogen atoms and oxygen molecules aren't particularly varied on their own (excepting isotopes like deuterium and oxygen-18), the ones in our little puddle didn't exist as such before just now. Not created, of course; that's impossible. Converted is much more precise. Dr. Kemmis and I had just successfully converted a chunk of carbon into energy and then turned that into water. It seemed appropriate somehow to use the building blocks of life.
"What's the energy efficiency?" she asked me.
I checked the nearby display crammed full of data and zeroed in on the one I was looking for. "Twelve percent."
A frown darkened her face briefly. "Damn. That's lower than I'd expected." Then corners of her mouth turned up and her expression flipped to the opposite end of the spectrum again. "No matter. Now that we know we can do it, we just have to make it better."
I wasn't sure if she was making a pun on "matter," given our project, so I ignored it. Her optimism was infectious, though, and operated on a level beyond anyone else I'd ever met. Some people thought it made her eccentric, a thought I'd been guilty of myself a few times since I'd started working with her four years ago.
"Change" seemed to be the mantra of Dr. Alexandra Kemmis. Changing the world through science, more often than not, which I was all for. I studied physics because I wanted to know how the world worked—and once you know how something works, you can usually find a way to make it better. Changing matter between physical states is easy: water boils, dry ice sublimates, and so on. Changing what the matter was was something entirely different.
There was a predictable slew of jokes when the project began, usually revolving around turning lead into gold. She was almost immediately dubbed "the Alchemist.” I was impressed at how well she handled it; her favorite counter-quip was that hydrogen was much more abundant in the universe than lead and would probably be more economical to use.
Economy was what we needed. Twelve percent efficiency meant that between the energy used to initiate the change and the mass-energy of the carbon we used to start, only about one-eighth of it ended up as water.
Still, though: a working prototype like this was worth its weight in gold. Or even one-eighth its weight in gold.
Dr. Kemmis was already using a series of eyedroppers to collect samples for testing. "Just imagine what we could do," she said. "The problems we could solve with the Forge! We could really–literally!–change the world!"
That was what she called it: the Forge. It wasn’t even an acronym, like how the word “laser” had started out. It was simply “the Forge.” I'd been pushing for "replicator," since I have a not-so-secret love of old sci-fi shows and thought it could lead to clever wordplay like “having your food ‘catored,” but she was the project lead. My only supporter in our department was Jimmy, one of the grad students.
I'd always liked the idea of such a device but I'd never really expected one to ever be feasible in my lifetime. The closest thing we had was 3D printing, but even in the decades since that was first introduced the technology had never reached this potential. Sure, it had been a big leap forward for industries like artificial limbs and custom action figures. What we were doing would eclipse that completely.
The Forge would literally build something from the atoms up. The Mark I was just a prototype and for all we knew at the time would only be capable of a few basic elements and compounds. Even so, this would be to 3D printing what nuclear missiles are to dynamite.
"If and when the water we made holds up to testing, I want to try a few of the other lighter elements: lithium, sodium, aluminum, etc." Dr. Kemmis said as she labelled the water vials. "After that, I'd like to see how the Mark I can approximate natural processes by forging some crystalized carbon."
I smiled. "You want to make your own diamonds?"
"Why not, Sarah? It's as good a test as any, and I believe there's an old saying about diamonds being a girl's best friend."
I chuckled as I picked up my tablet to record the data from our first trial. "Talk about making friends." She gave me a smirk and a wink for my wordplay.
She unsealed the deconstruction chamber where our lump of carbon had previously been. It was, of course, empty. One of my next tasks would be a thorough inspection to confirm that all of the carbon had been converted.
Dr. Kemmis then moved on to the imaging chamber where a small container of pure, distilled water sat and started inspecting the molecular scanning heads. We couldn’t take credit for inventing those–that belonged to another tech team–but their recent development had made the Forge a viable possibility. Dr. Kemmis had made a point of cultivating a close friendship with the team leads on that project because of the promise of mutual benefits.
I was making notes on my tablet for when we would be building the Mark II Forge when I looked up to ask her a question and noticed a glimmer in her eye. My original question was instantly forgotten and replaced with: “Doctor? Are you crying?”
She brushed the tear with her finger and looked at it for a moment as she tried to smile. “Don’t mind me. It’s just a little overwhelming to see that your life’s work might actually do some good.” I nodded. She’d been researching matter-energy conversion since I had been grinding through Newton's Method in high school calculus. Anyone who says that scientists are unemotional are either misinformed or liars.
I was at a loss for words, so I found tissue and offered it to her. As she dabbed her eyes I lightly touched her right arm to try to be supportive. She touched mine back as she collected herself. “Thank you, Sarah. Now let’s get these first few tests going. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
I took a deep breath and tried to avoid flashbacks of defending my doctoral thesis six years ago.
“Hello Internet, and welcome to the livestream of NewTechNow! I’m Marty Nutik, your host, and today my special guests are Dr. Alexandra “the Alchemist” Kemmis and Dr. Sarah Black of MIT. They’re here with something extraordinary, let me tell you. Ladies, it’s a pleasure to have you with us today.”
“Thank you, Marty," we chorused. Dr. Kemmis definitely sounded more confident than I did.
I was feeling warm already, despite the fact that the lights the studio was using were all arrays of LEDs and generated minimal heat. This is why I work in a lab instead of lecturing: I don't have to be "on" in front of a large audience.
Marty, of course, had no problems doing exactly that. Facing one of the front cameras, he said, "The doctors here are pioneers of a technology they call ‘the Forge,' which is starting what some are already calling 'the Non-Industrial Revolution.'"
It was a surprisingly fitting title. The Mark IV Forge (or 'Fourge') had been deployed in a handful of different factories and a few universities as a testbed. Physically it was only slightly larger than the Mark I had been, but all the internals had been scaled down to allow for more powerful hardware and a larger reconstruction chamber. This generation was capable of medium-sized objects like car parts and most foodstuffs.
Today, though, was about the Mark V: the model made for the common man. Dr. Kemmis had been planning for this from the beginning. "Forging a new world," as she liked to say.
"So tell us, doctors, what does the Forge do and why do we all need one?"
Dr. Kemmis smiled broadly. "Well, Marty, the Forge could be considered the ultimate in recycling: turning things we don't want into things we do. That alone should be reason enough to have one."
"And how does it do that?"
"Matter-energy conversion." She let that soak in for a moment, then continued, "Relativity was our first clue that matter and energy were more closely entwined than we'd ever expected. My research was mostly to find a way of making the exchange in a non-relativistic reference frame."
I noticed she couldn't help leaking in a few technical terms despite the show's efforts to tone down our "bookish" appearances (according to the show's makeup artists). However, I was confident that NTN's audience should be savvy enough to keep up.
Dr. Kemmis gestured to a nearby animated display to help illustrate her next point. "Since each element is essentially defined by the number of protons present in each atom—one for hydrogen, two for helium, etc.—by converting the original matter into something we can manipulate at the baryonic level, we can create whatever we might need."
Marty leaned in closer, angling himself so that he would still appear to be looking at her while also getting good coverage from the cameras. “So does this mean you really are a modern-day alchemist? You could really turn lead into gold?” It still amazed me how often people would still use that reference in this day and age.
She smiled slyly in response and produced a gold pendant that had been mostly hidden in the folds of her blouse. In the centre was set a respectable diamond. I saw Marty’s eyes get wide as he signaled for someone to get a better shot of it. “Did you… did you make this?”
One of NewTechNow’s infamous mini-drone cameras immediately appeared and hovered at chest height. I folded my arms, feeling self-conscious by proxy.
“Yes, we did,” I blurted out. The attention suddenly shifted to me… and I just had to keep going. I took a breath and continued: “The pendant was fashioned from gold that we forged out of approximately one kilogram of lead. I think we have a video…” I let the sentence trail off and suddenly worried how stupid I would look if we hadn’t brought it. Thankfully someone in the booth was on top of things. The display about shifting protons was quickly switched to the related visual log from the lab.
They only showed the actual conversion process and skipped the preamble that we always started each log with. It may have only been filmed on an inexpensive 1080p camera, but it was easy to see Dr. Kemmis and myself doing one of our last trials on the Mark I Forge. It had been her idea to make sure we had a decent quality video of us actually converting lead into gold, “for publicity’s sake.” Since people liked to ask if we could do it, she wanted to give irrefutable proof that we could. This particular conversion had seemed an appropriate sendoff for our prototype.
At the end of the video clip I continued, “The lump of gold you see there was made into this pendant by a jeweler.” Marty nodded, impressed. If he liked that, then this part would really get him: “...and the diamond was also forged by us, in another test.”
Of course the diamond had also been made in its raw form and since cut into its now more impressive shape by the jeweler. In a later version of the Forge, however, Dr. Kemmis believed we could get a level of control to shape these things ourselves.
“The technology goes beyond just metals or even base elements,” Dr. Kemmis said. “Our very first test was creating water. The Forge can produce a wide variety of matter in all states. We’ll show you.”
The cameras followed the three of us as we walked to the side of the stage where the Mark V had been seen up. We had worked hard to scale this one down to fit into someone’s house, as the doctor had always wanted. The main device was roughly the size of a fridge, maybe slightly bigger. Beside it sat a waist-high bulk matter container for raw material to break down, which the Forge could use if there wasn’t something given to it to work with. This version was also much more streamlined than its predecessors to help it fit in with other household appliances.
“So this is the Mark V Forge?” Marty asked for the audience’s sake. He knew full well what it was, of course—there had been a pre-show chat before we went on the air.
“Yes it is.” Dr. Kemmis and I took up positions on one side and Marty stood on the other. She rested a hand by the main control panel just below the integration chamber. Part of the streamlining process had been to combine the deconstruction and reconstruction chambers into one unit. “This panel controls everything: creating new items and recycling the old ones. This chamber here is where it happens. Do you have some junk for me to forge into something new?”
“Absolutely.” Marty signaled for a stagehand to bring in a bag of typical office garbage: stray papers, candy wrappers, pop cans, broken pens, and so on. The mini-drone buzzed along to get a good close-up of what was going to go into the Forge.
Dr. Kemmis picked up the bag, set it in the chamber, and slid down the safety barrier. As she started to press controls on the main panel, I picked up my tablet from on top of the bulk matter container to monitor the inner workings. “What shall we make?” she asked Marty.
“Let’s have a gas,” he smirked. It was a scripted—and in my opinion, outdated—line, since we had already discussed what our demonstration would be and pre-loaded the appropriate pattern. Dr. Kemmis selected it and hit the “Start” button.
The integration chamber glowed as the garbage was broken down and numerous photons were released in the process. It was part of the energy loss that we couldn’t get around, but at least the Mark V had over five times the efficiency of the Mark I.
A loading bar on both the main panel and my tablet inched along as the computer reprocessed the deconstructed matter into the form Dr. Kemmis had selected. The whole process took about a minute and a half, which she covered by showing off the currently-empty chamber and talking in more detail about how the Forge worked. I half-listened while I kept a close eye on the internal processes.
As the loading bar finished its progress the chamber glowed again and a small canister materialized. When the process had completed she slid up the safety barrier again and held it out for Marty to inspect.
“Wow.” He turned the canister in his hands and gave the nozzle on the end a test squeeze. There was a hiss of pressurized gas escaping. “This is real.”
“Of course!” Dr. Kemmis said, beaming.
Marty held up the gas canister for the cameras to get a better look. The mini-drone buzzed past my head and I had a momentary urge to shove the damn thing into the Forge and convert it into something less annoying, like soup.
“Go ahead, try it out,” Dr. Kemmis urged him. Marty produced a balloon from his pocket—more pre-show preparations—and inflated it from the canister. Once it was full he tied off the end, held it up for the cameras, and let go. The balloon gracefully rose out of his hand and began drifting towards the ceiling.
Satisfied, he held the nozzle to his mouth and took a deep breath. He started giggling in a cartoony way as the helium went to work. “This is amazing! You’ve turned that garbage into helium!”
“And the canister, too,” I added. I’ve always felt it’s important to be precise.
Dr. Kemmis nodded in acknowledgment and continued, “That’s just a taste of what the Forge can do. I’ve already started designs for a specialized version for just gases to extend the air supply for spacecraft and submarines. And another one for filtering water and air!”
I knew her designs were little more than rough sketches at this point, but I also knew that it wouldn’t take long to make them a reality. They were just specialized versions of the Forge, really, and we had actually started using older Forges to create the components of the new ones. It was really starting to take on a life of its own.
“I can see why people are calling this the ‘non-Industrial Revolution,’” Marty quipped as his voice returned to normal. He took another deep breath from the last of the helium and giggled to the cameras again. “The winds of change are blowing!”
I’d never liked the story of Icarus. I thought he was a dumb kid who wouldn’t listen to instructions and got burned for it. Little did I realize how easy it is to crash when you’re flying high.
After we unveiled it to the Internet community, news of the Forge spread across the globe like wildfire. Everyone wanted one. It was billed as “the last thing you’ll ever need to buy.” In many cases, it was true.
To this day, I’m not sure how Dr. Kemmis held onto control of the Forge like she did. But somehow she was able to influence distribution so that it would be simultaneous worldwide. She wanted her work to help everyone, not just the privileged. For every Forge that was purchased, she ensured that another one was made and sent to an impoverished part of the world where it could feed and clothe those that needed it. I deeply respected her for that.
The Mark V was barely off the ground before we already had a functional prototype for the Mark VI. She was insistent that we have it ready to go as quickly as possible. The major improvements for this new version was the integration of the latest molecular imaging technology and its own schematics—if you had one, you could make another.
Then as soon as the Mark VI was out, she practically disappeared. After over a year of working to make her dream come true she went into seclusion as soon as it happened. It was nearly two months before I received so much as an invitation for coffee from her.
And in those two months everything went to hell in a handbasket.
“Where have you been?” I blurted out in place of a more traditional greeting as she opened her front door. “The world is going crazy out there!”
“Hello, Sarah,” she said evenly. "Won't you come in? I was just going to have coffee." I stared at her incredulously, so she added, "I'll listen to whatever you have to say."
"All right, fine." I stormed past her into her living room and perched on the edge of an armchair. I was momentarily startled to see several of our former colleagues milling about the living room and offered them an awkward wave of acknowledgment. Dr. Kemmis wordlessly went around the corner to her kitchen and I tried to distract myself by looking around. Damn it all if she didn’t have a painting of Icarus plummeting out of the sky hanging on her wall next to a small framed coin collection. How oddly appropriate.
The global economy took a sharp nosedive after the debut of the Forge. People everywhere came to the same realization: why buy anything if you could just make it out of junk? Coins, gems, precious metals… it was all the same for the Forge. Pretty soon they were all shiny but worthless. Various industries tried to stall the crash by getting imaging tech and selling their products as software. Piracy and the Mark VI's surprisingly intuitive design interface crippled that idea.
I heard a familiar hum and saw the telltale glow from an active Forge spilling out from the kitchen doorway moments later. By the looks of things, the others had already started on their coffees. Dr. Currie, who had been momentarily interrupted by my arrival, had resumed his discussion of his custom home-forged power generator.
There were a lot of those these days. With the fall of currency, power companies pounced on the opportunity, trying to phase out money and make electricity into the new world currency. After all, it was one of the only un-forge-able things left. They tried to form a conglomerate to dole out kilowatt-hours to the masses to be traded and exchanged in place of money. They also conveniently glossed over the fact that they had a few Forges themselves to generate all the fuel that their power plants could ever want.
It was short lived. Between their lack of cooperation and the adoption of forge-able alternative energy sources like solar panels, wind turbines, and generators like Dr. Currie’s, their movement was doomed.
Dr. Kemmis entered the living room with a full cup of coffee and and a fresh pot and held the cup out to me. "Two cream, two sugar."
I wasn't surprised that she remembered my usual coffee order. I mumbled a curt "thank you" as I took the cup and she topped off everyone else.
"Alexandra, you've outdone yourself. The Mark VI is unparalleled," Dr. Currie complimented as he raised his coffee cup.
"Thank you. It's the pinnacle of my work."
"Or the biggest double-edged sword in human history," I retorted.
The Alchemist was surprisingly unfazed. "Oh?"
I looked to the others for support before I pressed my argument. I was mostly met with skepticism, but I thought I saw a glimmer in Dr. Li’s eye as she sipped from her mug. “The Forge’s effect cuts both ways! Many people now have food but they don’t have jobs! Anyone who wants books or computers can have them, but so can anyone who wants guns! Innovation is flourishing but so is bad taste!”
“That’s true! I have the perfect example,” Dr. Li chimed in. “My parents had a neighbor who used his Forge to cover his entire household in gold. They sent me a photo; gaudiest thing I’ve ever seen. Then he got paranoid and re-forged whole sections to create a small boatload of guns and ammunition to defend it.” She sighed.
“He turned gold into lead.” I would’ve laughed at the irony had the sheer idiocy of it not made me angrier.
“I notice you said ‘had a neighbor,’” Jimmy said thoughtfully. He was a quiet kid, but sharp.
“Yes. They had a big thunderstorm a couple weeks ago. His house became a giant golden electrical conduit with him inside.”
“Serves him right,” I blurted out. I tried to avoid the startled looks that followed by taking a prolonged swig of my coffee.
Dr. Kemmis stepped closer, a calming hand extended. “Sarah…”
I swallowed the bitterness in my mouth and made a poor attempt to match her calm demeanor. “It’s insane! Have you not seen the news? The Forge has turned everything upside down! The world is falling apart!”
“Sarah, could I have a word with you?” She gestured to the hallway and then looked to the others. “Excuse us, please.” I rose from my perch and left the others in the living room as they began to debate their opinions on what I’d just said.
“What’s wrong?” she asked as we stopped by the basement door. She folded her arms and leaned on the doorframe, awaiting my answer.
I was incredulous. “What’s wrong?” I nearly shouted, but didn’t want to make a scene where the others could still hear me. “The world is tearing itself apart!”
“No, it’s not.” Her expression became thoughtful. “The world is changing.”
I actually snorted indignantly. “That’s one word for it.” She was still ever the optimist. People everywhere are unemployed and building houses that can kill them and she marks it up to “change.” When she said nothing else, I prompted, “Well, what’re we going to do about it?”
Her eyebrows arched with amusement and she shook her head dismissively. “We? Nothing. We’ve already done it.”
"You mean set the world on fire?" I retorted sarcastically.
Her thoughtful expression snapped into focus–on me. "We lit a spark. The rest of the world is fanning the flame." I shivered in spite of the warm evening. She was prone to using some odd expressions now and again, but this one felt downright creepy. A knot started forming in my stomach and the voices from the living room went silent as I looked at her.
“Doctor, did you… did you know this was going to happen?” The words were out of my mouth before I’d fully grasped the thought. “Did you plan this?!”
She smiled grimly. “I’ve spent my entire career studying the elements and how to manipulate them. But the oldest one of all is also the most predictable.”
I never had a chance to ask what that was because at that moment air raid sirens that I’d never known existed started blaring and my phone started beeping uncontrollably with alerts. I only had to glance at the screen to see the headlines fighting for space.
Nuclear weapons were going off all over the globe.
My head started spinning as I skimmed the news. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to shake it off. I should not have been as surprised as I was. Nuclear bombs were surprisingly easy to make; virtually everyone in my undergrad physics classes knew the basics. The hardest part would be getting your hands on enough of the right material, like uranium-235. Some vengeful idiots out there had realized you could now forge that.
I tried to turn around to warn someone, to run to safety, to do something but abruptly found myself lying on the floor. My legs were weak and my eyes didn’t want to focus anymore. Through the haze that was forming around my brain I lolled my head in Dr. Kemmis’ direction and formed the words, “Did… did you.... drug…”
Only snatches of what she said next actually made it to my fading consciousness: “own good… shelter… understand someday… meant it for the best...” I had the sensation that my body was moving but I wasn’t the one doing it.
Even in my foggy state, one passing thought remains crystal clear in my memory:
The road to hell is Forged with good intentions.
The funny thing about the end of the world is... the world is usually still there after the end.
There was a lot of fallout (of all kinds) after that brief nuclear war. I still don’t know who actually set off the first bomb but the last one detonated less than an hour later. Large swaths of land in almost every country were uninhabitable for years. Humanity survived, of course, as we always loved to tell ourselves that we would. Well... nearly half of humanity, that is. Between the initial blasts followed by radiation and infrastructure collapses, almost four billion people died.
But we Forged on.
Plunging us right into the apocalypse and then out through the other side was–as always–the Forge. The shelter that Dr. Kemmis had secretly built in her basement had had one. So did shelters constructed by various governments and countless paranoiacs. The same technology that could make nuclear warheads and automated turrets could also make radiation suits and medical supplies. There was no shortage of raw material, either. Whether it was twisted rebar or irradiated soil, it was all grist to the mill–or rather, all fuel for the Forge.
I’d never expected to say this, but aside from being drugged, I came through the apocalypse pretty much unscathed. Dr. Kemmis’ secret bunker under her house had been well made. I awoke long after the devastation had finished and found not only my new host but our similarly-drugged colleagues from her living room. I also met her brother’s family of five, who I learned had already been down there when I was visiting. She had planned a lot further ahead than I’d expected.
She never outright apologized to me for what she did. I had forgotten about it initially in the face of global catastrophe and subsequently trying to rebuild. I hinted a few times but to no avail. After a while I started to believe she felt justified in her actions.
Once the radiation had been cleared and the Earth was healing, those of us who were left began civilization all over again. This time, though, the Forge saved us a massive amount of time and effort. I don’t think anyone had ever envisioned that we would have a post-scarcity post-apocalypse. In some ways, we were better off than we were before.
The closest I ever got to an apology was about two years after N-Day (or “End Day,” as we also called it) when she hosted me at her rebuilt house overtop of her shelter. It was the largest meal I’d seen since before the End Day: steak, roast chicken, grilled salmon, salad, mixed vegetables, mashed potatoes… It was the only time in my life I had ever been inclined to use the word “smorgasbord.” Stunned, I asked her if she’d made this all herself. She replied with a sly smile, saying, “No, I had it… ‘catored.” Damn if that didn’t mollify me a little bit.
It was a good meal, too; she picked her patterns well.
I realized one night, years later, that the Forge meant something completely different than I’d ever assumed since we’d started research on the Mark I. I’d always taken the image of the blacksmith’s forge fairly literally, in that we took raw matter and reshaped it into something useful. My token research on the subject indicated that a skilled smith could use it to make virtually anything. Forges were remarkably hot, too; most were around 1200 degrees or so, past where most metals would melt away.
But the Forge wasn’t about altering chemical elements or reshaping matter. It was about reshaping the oldest element of them all; the only one not on the periodic table.The human element.