Liminal is a story I’m working on with some inspiration from an AI project.
“I’m sorry doctor, but your project is being canceled.”
Turner had heard it all before. This job sucked. Corporate R&D labs never appreciated the most exciting kinds of scientific research.
“It was an interesting idea but the corporation is reallocating the entire exotic field research budget to the green tech division. Dr. Solomon is expecting a major breakthrough and we’re reallocating your budget to his project. You’ve got two days to wrap things up with your project before the end of the week. You’re being reassigned to helping Dr. Jenkins with his new carbon capture tech. Carbon credits are still selling like hot cakes. With Dr. Solomon’s breakthrough, we’ll be able to sell even more.”
Turner’s mouth dropped open, “You’re giving me two days?”
“Carbon capture tech is really exciting stuff,” the suit went on, “It’s already having a real impact on reducing net carbon emissions. Dr. Jenkins’ project has the potential to take the world to net neutral emissions within the next decade.”
Turner kept staring, and after a few moments, the suit turned and left the lab.
“Fuck this,” Turner thought, “Fuck incrementalism and solutions like carbon capture. These people don’t care about solving problems. All they care about is making as money as they can while appearing to take steps towards solving problems. If they actually solved these problems then there would be no more funding for problem solving.”
Turner stared at the fruit of his labor sitting on the table in front of him. The Liminal Field Projector was nearly complete, but now it may as well have never existed. This had the potential to be the most exciting advancement in the history of humanity, and it was being discarded by people who didn’t understand and didn’t see its potential.
He turned and looked through the large window that showed him the next lab down the hall, where his colleague Dr Solomon was working on his compact fusion reactor.
Solomon and his team had all the funding they could ask for, because his device had the potential to break the threshold for small modular fusion reactors. There was little the company wanted more than a small product they could sell to every city and state across the world. The small modular fusion reactor had the potential to solve all the world’s energy problems forever, or at least for those cities and states that could afford one.
Solomon was a good example of someone who made the right choices to succeed in the world of corporate Research and Development. His work extended the power of the company. His work fit within the scope of what the company could understand. Solomon wasn’t reaching for fundamental solutions to humanity’s problems; he was reaching for small and readily monetizable solutions — baby steps, increments.
Turner watched Solomon and his team sitting around a table working on many different versions of the small modular fusion reactor. Solomon had an adversarial management approach. Everyone was trying to accomplish the same thing in their own way. In the center of the table, a hologram showed their elusive goal, a fully functional and completely operational SMFR, something no one had ever done. Together, each member of the team struggled independently to be the first to bring the object of their labor out of the hologram and into reality.
Small modular fusion reactors were a great product. They were already the corporation’s main revenue source, but the small modular design had a hard limit that no one had ever overcome. It could fit in your pocket but it couldn’t provide more than a megawatt of power. Solomon and his team were working on crossing this threshold. If they could find a way to do it then he would become royalty within the corporation, and the corporation would become perhaps the most powerful in the world. Power was power, after all.
Their holographic prototype floating in mid air in the lab promised a hundred times their current technical limitations without the corresponding exponential increase in operating costs. It would be enough to power even a large city. It would even be more than enough to run the exotic field projector itself without the need for its banks of capacitors.
“I should have specialized in energy instead of exotic field projectors,” Turner mumbled to his empty lab, “Something that would make the corporation appreciate my work.”
Turner had taken the corporation’s research fellowship in exotic fields because he saw the untapped potential of manipulating the fabric of reality itself to accomplish real solutions to the problems humanity faced. The potential Turner saw wasn’t exactly something the company understood, but there was some small percent of the R&D budget allocated to taking an actuarially appropriate level of risk in each new bleeding edge field that emerged, just in case it panned out. Turner’s project must have crossed some line where the actuarial algorithms had decided the ongoing costs now outweighed the probability of a high pay-off, and so the algorithms decided to kill the project and move on to some even newer bleeding edge field.
“Algorithms are fickle bastards, Turner thought to himself, “I’ve got to at least try the projector before they shut me down.”
He wasn’t really anywhere near ready, and the projector would probably burn itself out if he fired it, but he spent the rest of the day hacking together his code and getting the hardware working well enough for one test run.
The project’s magnum opus was a brushed aluminum cylinder about two feet long and just a few inches wide. The cylinder sat on a tripod surrounded by the banks of capacitors that supplied it power and the banks of computers Turner had used to train the AI that controlled the cylinder’s contents.
Inside the cylinder was a simple field projector, not at all unlike a normal maser, but which had the added benefit of the phase shift compensator. This was the subject of Turner’s graduate thesis and with enough energy, the phase shift compensator is what allows the field projector to create its brief doorways.
Training AI takes a lot of supercomputer power and a lot of time, but once you train the AI, it can run on any cell phone. It’s one of the most remarkable things from Information Theory.; once you do the work of making a map, you don’t have to go exploring the wilderness to find a route.
It was well into the evening when Turner felt ready to test the exotic field projector. He sat back and took in view of the lab. The whole exotic field projector system was mirrored by a holographic duplicate floating in the air above it. This was more than just the plans for the work, it was also a diagnostic tool. As he watched, the hologram performed its checks and informed Turner that the system was ready for a test, but that the risk of damage was extremely high. Turner didn’t care at this point, he just had to know if it could work.
He pulled the trigger on the initiator and started the field sequence. The capacitor banks dumped their load of power into the aluminum cylinder, and the AI in charge of the field projector took hold of the delicate controls, slightly shifting countless variables until the whole symphony of equipment sang as one. Turner felt like he was standing at the very peak of human invention and leaping into the unknown, but with a pretty decent idea of where he would land.
From its perch on the tripod, a purple beam of light shot out from the exotic field projector and stopped in mid-air, a few feet away, spreading out into a flat disc which grew and spread until it had roughly the shape of a doorway that stretched down to the ground.
A few seconds after the beam started, it disappeared, leaving the purple rectangle floating like a doorway in mid-air. As he watched, the purple material turned transparent and vanished. The doorway had opened, and through it he saw the pocket dimension he had predicted.
As soon as the beam vanished, the sparks started. The delicate exotic field projector inside the aluminum cylinder exploded in a shower of glass and metal shards that shot out the ends of the cylinder. Turner knew the projector was now destroyed, but he also knew that it worked.
Turner looked back at the doorway. The edges began to fray and lose their color. Quickly he stepped forward and into the pocket dimension.
He looked back through the doorway into his lab and saw the edges of the field continue to fray and disperse for a few more seconds before the doorway closed completely. He had made it to the pocket dimension.
Turner surveyed the dim space he had just stepped into. According to his theory, Liminal Space, as he called this place, was a near-adjacent reality or sub-reality just a few degrees out of phase with our reality.
The way Liminal Space presented itself would depend on the person who pulled the trigger on the exotic field projector and opened the doorway.
There are an infinite number of dimensions, and the exotic field projector used the person’s situation in our reality to locate the proper reality into which to open the doorway.
The calculations were based on the field of Interstitial Symbolic Interactionism. Therefore Liminal Space would be a different pocket reality for everyone, representing the power structures and institutions that surround them in their life.
Turner found himself in a vast factory space with high ceilings. Large machines spread across the space. There were countless pipes and cables running up and down the walls. These connected from the machines, up through the ceiling of the factory. Some of them seemed to be carrying various objects up from the machines on the floor and through the roof of the factory space.
There were many of these machines scattered around the vast factory space, roughly situated in the position and arrangement of the labs at the corporation. Many of the machines were dormant, while others were very active, spewing out objects onto the conveyor belts and into pipes that carried them up through the ceiling.
He saw a large machine corresponding to the location of his own lab. It had many gears and lights, all in motion and brightly illuminated, and just like his lab, it was mirrored with one copy of the machine on the table, and one floating above it. But it wasn’t a hologram here, both machines were physical manifestations. The one on the table was shattered to pieces, but the machine floating above it seemed to still be in good working order. If only that was how it worked in reality.
Turner turned around and looked behind him, in the direction of Solomon’s lab. He saw what looked like a large hollow cube where the lab would be. Countless wires hung down from a bright light at the center of the cube. At the end of each wire was a smaller light that looked like a fruit hanging from a vine. These corresponded to the individual workstations where Solomon and his team were trying to bring their design out of the hologram and into reality. Turner walked closer and saw that what he at first took for bright fruits looked just like Dr. Solomon’s small modular fusion reactors.
Only they weren’t exactly like them. Turner saw that the brightest one in the center of the cube was the only one that was complete. The others were all missing some piece of another. This was like the way the team was all trying to achieve with their separate designs something like the ideal object they were all seeing in the hologram. As Turner examined the examples, he saw that one (Dr. Solomon’s?) was actually very close to being complete. He was only missing a few key pieces of the puzzle from the idealized prototype SMFR that floated in the middle of the room, across the delicate cable of meaning and purpose that connected the devices together.
“I wonder what would happen if I did something to these things,” Turner said to himself.
Just then, a loud sound came from outside the factory. Turner looked up as another loud sound came from the roof above, in apparent answer.
He decided to climb to the roof and see what was happening outside. Long stairways and catwalks led him up through what he knew were corporate departments, connecting through a long hierarchical network of power to the top of the building, where the executives and their algorithms made the decisions that ended projects like his.
Turner was careful to avoid opening any doors, knowing that any of the scarce doors he saw in Liminal Space would lead back to reality, not through to the next space. Liminal Space was above all a place of transition, and it didn’t want you to be there, it wanted you to transition to wherever you were going. But the rooms and spaces here didn’t exactly line up to reality. There had been no door corresponding to Turner’s office, but there had been a door in the hallway outside where he knew there was no such door in reality. He wondered where it would lead or from where he would emerge if he stepped through such a door.
After what seemed like a long time, he reached the top of the building, he saw that where the offices of corporate executives would be, there were instead huge gun emplacements directed out at other buildings.
Turner saw the pipes and conveyor belts from the factory space below, emptying their contents into these guns. The sound when the guns fired was deafening, but sound didn’t work exactly the same way here. Turner was aware of it, but didn’t exactly hear it in the same way we hear things in reality.
He looked out the window to see what the guns were firing at. Some of the shells seemed to travel across the world and far out of sight. Others were directed at other buildings nearby. Some of these Turner recognized as competing corporations. He saw the logo on one of another place he had interviewed before he decided to work here.
The corporation’s fiercest opponent was a global conglomerate that had been an old zaibatsu in the days when that distinction was unusual. Today, every large corporation could be considered something similar, with its own internal banking and investment, and its own versions of essentially all consumer goods and services on the market. He recognized the logo of the opponent on a vast arcology in the middle distance.
As he watched, the barrel of the opponent’s guns turned to face Turner and his own corporation. Most of the incoming shells he’d seen so far had been directed down below, at the factory space with its thick strong walls, but this time the gun seemed to point above, to the highest levels of the building. The guns fired what seemed like a tiny shell, and Turner watched as it soared gently through the air, such a little thing. It hit its mark a few floors above Turner, and while it hadn’t looked like much in the air, the sound it make on impact was louder than anything he had heard so far. The walls shook, and the whole building shuddered around him. Turner fell to the ground and crawled back the way he had come.
He made it to the first set of stairs and catwalks but found that the stairs were out. In their place, a slide had emerged. It seemed to descend gently, directly into the lab area where he was headed. He weighed his options. He sat at the top of the slide, and he felt confident that he could use the soles of his shoes to control his descent to the point where he would feel safe.
Turner decided to take the slide. A few minutes later, he was standing at the entrance to Dr. Solomon’s lab.
“That’s interesting,” Turner said, “I wonder if this is related to whatever hit the building.”
He walked over to his own lab and approached the floating copy of his holographic prototype of the exotic field projector. He reached out and found that he was able to touch it.
“Fuck it he said,” and pulled the projector from the air. In reality, this was just a hologram, a representation of an idea of what he was trying to build with his prototype. Maybe that meant that in Liminal Space, this was a physical manifestation of his perfect, ideal exotic field projector?
He considered that for a moment and then stepped back over to Dr. Solomon’s lab and pulled the prototype small modular fusion reactor from where it hung in the air in the center of the lab.
Turner knew that walking through any door would send him back to reality, so he concealed the small modular fusion reactor in his pocket, and put the exotic field projector in his sleeve, and opened the door in the hallway outside the lab. He found that it emerged into the restroom across the hall from his lab. This made sense when he considered that the restroom would be behind that wall, even if there was no door there in reality.
He stepped out of the restroom into the hall as casually as possible. A maintenance crew was cleaning up the glass that had exploded out from his work table during what everyone would probably assume was either a failed experiment or the tantrum of a fired employee.
Turner turned and walked towards the garage exit on his way home. He did not notice the holograms of the prototypes in his lab or Dr. Solomon’s, and how could he since they were no longer there.
When Turner got to work the next day, he expected some drama about the mess. He did not expect to be met at the door by security who took him up to the executive offices.
“Take a seat Dr. Turner,” invited a stern-faced suit.
Turner sat down, “What is this about, sir?”
“Last night, there was an explosion in your lab after hours. At the same time, we detected an electromagnetic pulse coming from that location which seems to have caused computer system corruption in some nearby systems. This is causing major problems for us.”
Turner thought about this for a moment. He had expected a reprimand for the mess, but hadn’t considered a small EMP might be cause by blowing the exotic field projector.
“That makes sense,” Turner said, “I was trying to test my exotic field projector and unfortunately the capacitor bank blew the maser. It was a pretty spectacular show. What sort of computer problems are happening?”
“Well doctor,” the suit said, “Your prototype hologram and that of your next door neighbor Dr. Solomon are just gone. The systems have been wiped clean. It’s very unusual for an EMP to cause such an intense effect in such a limited area. Typically something that powerful would affect a much larger section area of the laboratories.”
“I see. That is strange, sir. I assume IT has backups of everything we were working on in there, right,” Turner asked.
“Of course, it’s just a temporary inconvenience. But unfortunately that means your project will have to end now because they won’t have time to restore your work before your project’s deadline this evening,” the suit said.
“Well that’s a shame, sir, but I don’t expect I was going to have any major breakthroughs today. The project was nowhere near completion when the accident happened last night.”
The suit looked suddenly very serious and said, “I had been hoping to hear you found some success with your work. I have been following your project closely since it began. I was one of the biggest advocates for your work on the project committee.”
Turner thought the suit looked somewhat suspicious as though he knew more than he was letting on.
“What’s this all about sir,” Turner asked, “Why not just have security let me know? Why drag me up here?”
“Since you ask, and this is confidential, we closed a merger last night with our biggest competitor. They are very excited about the progress in Dr. Solomon’s work, and that deal is a big part of why we had to shut most of the other research projects down. The buyer is only interested in Dr. Solomon’s work.”
“I see,” Turner said, remembering the way he watched from Liminal Space as that competitor fired a projectile at the corporation last night which shook and rearranged the building itself.
Turner broke his concentration and noticed the suit was staring at him intently, catching him zoning out, looking suspicious.
“Security cameras,” the suit said, “saw you leaving the restroom across the hall several hours after the EMP accident, but did not record you entering the restroom.”
Turner met his eyes, “Well they must have lost some footage during the accident, sir, I mean it’s not as though I could have teleported in there.”
“Indeed,” the suit said, “good day Dr. Turner. I’m sorry your project didn’t work out.”