In the Space of an Atom

Jeremy Reynolds had been listless for a while now.  First, his girlfriend of 4 years dumped him, and he was in a funk.  Then, he lost his job as an accountant.  Yes, Jeremy was doing little and caring less.  But recently, he has found something that energizes him, something that gives him direction, something that gets him out of the house every day.  It’s called…running for his life. 
Just as Jeremy was finishing the last in a string of low-paying, temporary market research gigs, the study assistant pulls a gun on him and tries to kill him.  When Jeremy bungles his way to freedom, he realizes that the technology in this study is much more than it first appears.  It’s enough to kill for.  But he also knows he is in way over his head.  So, when the lab and the would-be assassin disappear, and the police close the case, Jeremy is desperate for help.  He finds it in the beautiful, young Diane Stapleton, MD.  Now, the two of them match wits with the killers, in chases that take them where no one has gone before…in the space of an atom.

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In the Space of an Atom
By Bruce M. Perrin

Text Copyright © 2016 Bruce M. Perrin
All Rights Reserved

What we usually consider as impossible are simply engineering problems...
there's no law of physics preventing them.
Michio Kaku
American theoretical physicist, futurist

Chapter 1

The crack of the pistol shattered the silence of the musty storeroom, as I dove to my left on instinct more than thought.  The bullet slammed into a support column, dislodging a chunk of concrete that struck my forehead.  Blood from the cut was already flowing toward my eyes, as I sprinted down a darkened aisle between two sets of shelves along the outer wall.
“What the hell, Thomas,” I yelled in confusion, wiping the blood away and continuing my rapid retreat.  My vision had not fully adjusted to the dark at the back of the room and I crashed into something laying in the aisle, falling to the floor on my knees.  I grimaced with the pain, swearing under my breath so as not to give my new foe the satisfaction of knowing I was hurt.  But it seemed he already knew. 
“Easy there, Jeremy ol’ boy,” Thomas Jones called back to me, pronouncing my name in the sing-song fashion someone might use with a toddler.  “You don’t want to kill yourself.  No, let me do that.”  His calm, mocking tone was unnerving.
“Is this about the money?  No one kills for a lousy $1,000,” I shouted.
“You have no idea,” Jones replied.  He was correct; I had no notion why he wanted me dead.
I pulled myself over to the shelves to stand, but as I got up, my arms and legs started trembling.  It was, I knew, the adrenalin pumped into my bloodstream as part of a fight or flight response.  The problem was, it was just wasted hormones.  There was no place to run and no way for me to fight someone armed with a gun.  I needed calm.  I needed to think, but my racing heart and sweaty palms were not making that easy.
“Let me shed a little light on your situation,” Jones said and a bank of lights about 25 feet over my head came to life.  When we had entered the storeroom, it had felt empty.  The pool of light on that end had revealed little except open space and the ends of three sets of shelves.  But now that the entire area was illuminated, I could see a space of perhaps 75 by 75 feet.
One side of the room was crammed with worn-out furniture – desks, tables, bookcases, chairs – all layered in years of dust.  On the other side, shelves spanned the entire length and reached at least 15 feet into the air.  They were filled with old computers, keyboards, displays, and terminals…there might have even been a card punch machine in there, as ancient as some of this equipment seemed.  In my blind flight down the darkened aisle, I had tripped over a broken desk lamp that had been left there.  Dust motes swirled in the stale air at the site of the collision.
I was still hoping that I could reason with him.  I swallowed the lump in my throat, trying to master any tremble in my voice, as I called out, “Seriously, Thomas, you can have the money.  I won’t say anything.”
“I know I can, and no you won’t,” he answered, just loud enough for the sound of his voice to carry across the room.
So much for reasoning with him.
I came to the end of the aisle and wedged myself into a narrow gap formed by the end of a set of shelves and the far wall.  But no sooner had I taken up my hiding spot than I realized how ridiculous it was to think it might conceal me.  Jones would simply walk to the end of the row, spot me cowering here, and it would all be over.
As I extracted myself, my fear and disbelief morphed to determination.  I clenched my fists so tightly that my nails bit into my palms.  At a minimum, I had to make him work for his kill, make him hunt for me, make him hit a moving target.  Maybe I could even inflict some damage along the way.  Hoping to create some misdirection to mask my location, I grabbed one of those lights that clamp to the edge of a desk and tossed it over into the pile of furniture on the other side of the room.
Jones started laughing.  “Nice try, Jeremy, but what…you think I’m blind?  Or was I supposed to shoot the lamp out of the air, like a clay pigeon?”
So much for misdirection.
The sound of Jones’ footsteps told me he was slowly working his way down the aisle between the second and third sets of shelves, while I was still ‘hiding’ at the end of the first set.  My eyes darted around the room, seeking a possible way out.  When I stood on my tiptoes, I could just make out an exit sign, most likely above a door on the other side of the storeroom, beyond the furniture.  But if Jones had spotted a lamp flying in that direction, what chance would a running man have?  And besides, the door would be locked.  Who left an outside door to a storage area open?  And yet, it was the only option I could see.
The aisles between the shelves were only about four or five feet wide, so in a break for the exit, my exposure would only be a second or two, before I disappeared behind the pile of desks and tables.  But was that too long?  I gritted my teeth and feigned a dash across the aisle – a quick step out and a lunge back.  No shot.  No word.  Hadn’t he seen me, or was he just baiting me?
“You pass out from fright, Jeremy ol’ boy?  Or just pee your pants and too embarrassed to come out?  Hey, we’re all friends here.  I won’t tell anyone.  Yeah, you can be sure.  I won’t tell a soul about anything that happens here tonight.”
What was with the ‘ol’ boy’ stuff?  In the five weeks I had known Jones, he had never addressed me that way.  In fact, he rarely said a word, other than to grunt in response to my ‘good morning,’ often failing to even look up from his newspaper.  He did so little around the lab that I had come to believe his job was to clean up after hours.  And was that what he was doing now, cleaning up some unfinished business for Dr. Johannes Schmidt, the man who had hired me and who conducted this research?  But no, Schmidt had left hours ago.  He knew nothing of this; it was all Jones’ doing.
“You know, I gotta lesson for you, Jeremy.  Before you shoot somebody with a throw-away, you really should pop off a few rounds.  I mean, take this one.  It drags a bit more than I’m used to.  But I think I got it down now.  Shall we give it a dance?” 
If he was trying to unnerve me and get me to do something stupid, I was winning the first battle.  The continual taunting was serving to strengthen my resolve.  What I was less certain about, however, was whether my life-or-death dash to the exit door was the stupid part he was trying to goad me into or not.  It was a ploy that was dicey, at best.  I took a deep breath and slowly released it, steeling myself for the sprint. 
Just as I was about to leap forward, I had an idea.
It had been a long time since I had played hide-and-seek as a kid, but I still recalled a strategy that had worked surprisingly well.  It was, simply, ‘go high.’  I was always amazed how climbing up a tree 10 or 12 feet seemed to almost make me invisible.  I remembered sitting there in the branches, while my cousins trampled down every bush and shrub, over turned every table and chair, and scrutinized every corner and crevice in our hiding area.  Go high now meant on top of the shelves.  Perhaps it would provide the cover I needed to get past Jones and back to the door we had entered.  I was pretty sure he had not bothered to re-lock it, believing there was no way I could get past him.  Unlike running to an exit I was nearly certain was secured, I saw a glimmer of hope in this new stratagem.
The shelves were wooden units, built at a time when lumber was solid and construction was designed to last a lifetime.  I had no doubt they would hold my six-foot-one-inch, 185-pound frame.  All I had to do was climb to the top of the first set, and then slowly make my way back to the wall where we had come in.  And fortunately, the top shelf on this outer unit was only lightly used.  The gaps between the antique equipment were wide enough for me to squeeze through.  And maybe I could find a hundred-pound computer terminal to drop on his head as I went by.  I allowed myself a smile at the thought…however unlikely it might be.
I started climbing up the outside of the first set of shelves, hand over hand, foot over foot.  Just as I was reaching the top, however, my foot slipped off the board and drove into the outside wall, jarring my hands free.  Falling backward, I grabbed the outer edge of the top shelf stopping myself from plummeting the 15 feet to the ground.
Even as solidly built as these shelves were, they were not that stable.  They started to tip.  Pulling myself up against the boards to stop the momentum just seemed to accelerate the fall.  I managed to get my head out of the way, just as the shelves smashed into the second set.  In turn, the second unit crashed into the third.  The room reverberated from the sound of the collisions, as a cloud of dust smelling of mold and burned-out electronics rose into the air.  Fortunately for me, the first set of shelves came to rest on top of the second, sparing me from being trapped between it and the floor.
Jones, however, was not as lucky.  The third unit slid away as the second hit it, allowing the second unit to fall to the ground.  Just as it struck the floor, a shot rang out.  Had it been aimed at me, or merely a reflex?  But whichever it was, it had missed and Jones was pinned against the floor, at least temporarily.  This was my chance.
I wiggled out of the gap between the shelves and the floor, my heart racing, the sounds of the collapse still pounding in my ears.  I ran to the door we had entered.  Relief flooded through me as the door handle turned and I slipped back into the familiar confines of the equipment room.  It housed the most incredible array of machines, with racks filled with computers, power supplies, and displays, all humming and aglow when in operation.  A reception room lay beyond, which was littered with posters and promotional materials that sang the praises of the company doing the research here.  But the focus of all this marketing and the reason for all the electronic equipment was the object between these two rooms.  It was the ‘Environmental Barrier,’ a door that had changed in form and appearance as the study proceeded.  Currently, it was a one-inch thick piece of solid steel – one of those plates that road crews put over holes or new concrete on the highway.
Over a week ago, I had watched as the plate had been slowly lowered into place with a thud.  What Dr. Schmidt had done then to make it the penetrable barrier it was now, I had no idea; the technology was well beyond me.  I hadn’t even been able to ask, as it was all confidential and involved tightly held trade secrets, a fact that was emphasized nearly every day I had worked here.  But for the last week, we had been conducting experiments with this massive sheet of metal.  And when I had returned from lunch earlier in the day, even Dr. Schmidt’s gray beard and mustache couldn’t hide his grin, as he declared in his thick accent that the project was a complete and unqualified success.  Even though it was only Thursday, he gladly counted out my $1,000 completion bonus and had given me Friday off. 
Everything was good…that was until Jones started trying to kill me.
Although I had no idea what all the devices in the equipment room did, I knew it could turn that sheet of solid metal into something with no more resistance to my passing than thin air…which was fortunate, because the door was currently closed.  Repeating a series of steps I had witnessed many times, I flipped the appropriate switches and the racks of equipment started to emit the now-familiar hum.  I took a run at the Environmental Barrier and the freedom beyond, hitting it square on at full speed.
I’m not sure, but I would guess that I bounced a full foot backwards when I hit, feeling the fillings rattle in my teeth and seeing stars swirl in my vision.
Sometime during that headlong dash, Jones had evidently freed himself, entered the equipment room, and was now nearly doubled over in laughter.  I looked up at him from the floor, his muscled arms stretching the fabric of his black T-shirt.  “Jeremy ol’ boy, you’re gonna hurt yourself.  Not that I much care, now that you slammed me to the floor under all that crap.”  And then, as if all my transgressions had become clear to him, his mouth curled into a sneer as he hissed, “Of course, I didn’t much care for you before that either.”
I shook my head, in an attempt to clear it, only to double the pounding at my temples and the ringing in my ears.  So, I closed my eyes, laid down, face-first on the floor, and mentally shoved the anger and loathing from my mind.  I had to think.  What was wrong?  The Barrier had worked perfectly earlier today, and every day for the last five weeks.  I was still trying to regain focus when Jones shouted, “Hey, quit stalling and get the hell back into the storeroom before I just shoot you here.”
I turned my head and slowly pushed myself from the floor.  But as I did, I noticed the data collection vest laying near a chair next to the wall.  The vest, Dr. Schmidt had explained to me, was loaded with the electronics that were needed to collect information each time I passed through the Barrier.  I had left it on the chair at the end of the last session; it must have been knocked off during my collision.  But I wondered, was it possible that the vest worked in conjunction with the equipment in this room?  It seemed the perfect security solution – if you had only one or the other, you had nothing.  And security was everything on this project.
It was time to test my acting skills.  I groaned softly and slowly dragged myself over to the chair, using it to raise myself to my knees.  But in the process, I grabbed the vest and hit the power switch, as I shielded it from Jones’ view under my body.  There was the familiar low-level vibration.  Everything seemed right now – the hum of the equipment rack in the background and the vibration in the vest hugged to my chest.  I just needed to create some distance between myself and Jones, to make one last attempt to gain my freedom.
While I wished that something more authoritative on the issue had come to mind, it did not.  What did spring unbidden to my thoughts was the Sandra Bullock movie, Miss Congeniality.  According to it, the instep was quite sensitive and stomping on it could incapacitate someone, at least for a moment.  And since I had not been sure at the time just exactly what the instep was, I had looked it up online.  Obviously, now that I had done so, I was fully trained and well-prepared for what I was about to do.  Well, as prepared as I was going to get.
Slowly, I got to my feet, still doubled over at the waist and holding the vest under my body.  For his part, Jones seemed to be playing right into my hands, as he stepped forward, grabbed my shoulder, and jerked me upright.  But his mistake ended there, as he quickly stepped back.  I don’t know if he was expecting trouble, or if this was just his normal defensive reaction, but he was nearly out of range.  I dove forward anyway, aiming my heel at the inside of his foot.  I missed.
But in the process, I had lunged so far that I lost my balance.  My other foot flew up as a counter weight as I fell backwards…and it caught Jones directly in the groin.  If I remembered the movie correctly, that area would also work…and it did.  He doubled over in agony.  I bounded for the Barrier.  Feeling some unease from the first encounter, I slowed a bit before reaching it, but this time I passed through as if nothing was there.
Once in the reception room, I made straight for the front door and grabbed for the handle…only to see my hand pass right through.  For a split second, I stepped back, my mouth falling open, eyes wide.  Was this door constructed of the same Barrier material as everything else we had used in the study?  Or was there no Barrier material, with a capital B?  Was it all just everyday stuff – wood and plaster and metal and concrete?  Surely, not everything in this room would have been treated, making it temporarily penetrable by the technology I was wearing and the contraptions in the backroom. 
So, I stepped to an empty expanse of wall and cautiously walked forward.  Almost before I knew it, I was standing outside the building.  I spun around, staring at the wall I had just negotiated.  The Barriers were not specially treated materials at all.  The technology worked on anything and everything.
I ran to my car, completely ignoring the pain in my knees and the pounding in my head.  Shutting off the vest, I threw it in the back seat, leapt in, and started the engine.  I knew exactly where I was headed, as I raced down the street.