Dr. Anatoly Iburruri hungered for nothing, and hungered for it relentlessly. It was out there, waiting for him to find — something that wasn’t something. While other scientists flash-heated liquids or supercooled solids trying to find new, undiscovered particles and elements to name after themselves, Anatoly searched for naught. Devoid of frequency and wavelength and texture and colour and value, lacking everything except his path to the Nobel Prize and his name scrawled across the annals of history — a substantive patch of absolute nothing.
Anatoly had a few hypotheses and, like any hypothesis worth a damn, all of his required expensive equipment and many man-hours dedicated to testing them. His yet-unproven Theory of Nothing would go nowhere without funding. So he went from university to university, looking for tenure, and with it a base of operations and commitment from forward thinkers to give him money for nothing. School after school turned him away — their limited tenures awarded to scientists cooling the crap out of copper or heating the hell out of hydrogen. Fools, Anatoly swore, limited minds indeed to say they couldn’t see the value in nothing.
Their refusals wouldn’t dissuade him. Surely, Copernicus had heard these same derisive guffaws. And what was the difference between yesteryear idiots who thought the Earth was the centre of everything and present-day idiots who believed something was everything? Small minds don’t grow, no matter how long you water them. He would show them nothing mattered.
His noble pursuit of nothing persisted, from scornful university to university, until he was ironically well-received by Catholic University of America, a school whose shared faith in nothing was backed by a Supreme Everything.
“If God created the Heavens and the Earth from nothing,” the board of directors told Anatoly, “then chances are there’s still some nothing left.”
Anatoly could see the logic in their logic even if he held no faith in their faith. His belief in nothing prevailed even in his spiritual, or rather non-spiritual, life. But whatever. He and the Catholics had nothing in common. Besides, he figured these guys owed him one for Copernicus. If they chose to see God in nothing that was their business; finding nothing was his.
His immediate future secured, Anatoly paced to and fro in his new office, his brow furrowed in thought. Nothing was on his mind. The easiest way to go about proving his theory was to create nothing. This was a lot more daunting than it sounded. He was perpetually surrounded by a world filled to bursting with somethings. However, his reasoning stood that if he successfully removed everything, he’d have nothing to show for it.
Anatoly built a special device to keep everything out he called the Iburruri blackbox. It was vacuum-sealed, airproof, germproof, lightproof, soundproof, heatproof, leakproof, waterproof, shockproof, rustproof, fireproof, bulletproof, shatterproof, weatherproof, stainproof, childproof and cold resistant. Despite being only the size of a two-drawer filing cabinet, it was impossible to carry because of the lead lining designed to keep out radiation. The design looked foolproof. Anatoly held supreme confidence that if anything was good for nothing, it was his Iburruri blackbox.
illustration by Paul Jackson
He flipped the switches to make the box a completely empty environment, checked the gauges with a keen eye, and ... something. Something was in his box. Stupid subatomic particles bounced around in his space reserved for nothing, swarming the box like roaches.
The particles tripped the electromagnetic gauge, making the needle laugh at Anatoly in small hops. Of course, Anatoly thought, the Earth itself was to blame. It was a giant magnet after all. And he couldn’t protect the blackbox against the surging, dream-crushing tidal waves of geomagnetism.
This should have been the end of his quest, as he could go nowhere on Earth to get away from Earth. However, fate intervened, through the guise of ever present political bickering, to ensure Dr. Anatoly Iburruri got nothing out of life.
The United States, more than a little sore at the competition posed by China’s runaway manufacturing industry and its flood of cheap products, decided to avenge themselves through U.N. resolutions strictly regulating all kinds of state-sponsored dumping. These were thoroughly heinous laws that went far beyond the “pick up your toys when you’re done” rule people learn when they’re kids, but most developed nations didn’t care since it only applied to state-run entities. It was not well received by Communists.
China, however, had learned much in becoming a manufacturing giant, to the point that they had reinvented fine print. They read the resolution carefully and asked the U.S., “So, when are you going to get your stuff off the Moon?” The lunar rovers and landing stage modules and surveyors and whatever else the Apollo Program left there and time forgot ... according to the law, everything but the flag had to go.
Stuck between saving billions by vetoing their own bill and proving a point to the Chinese, the Americans ramped up NASA. And Anatoly, sitting grief-stricken next to his blackbox of near-nothing, caught a spark of inspiration from the nearby newspaper’s headline, “Back to the Moon!”
Anatoly was sure nothing was out there, thriving miles away from Earth’s geomagnetic flux. He’d test his blackbox in space, en route to the Moon.
Getting a seat on the shuttle was easy. NASA had three key reasons for snatching Anatoly up: The university had money; they could use the extra pair of hands (while every astronaut wanted to go to the moon, nobody wanted to clean up somebody else’s mess); and virtually every other qualified scientist was busy with something.
After months of preparation, pilot, co-pilot and barely trained scientist were ready. The rocket t-minused to nothing and took to the sky with pomp and fanfare. It shook violently, more violently than the Apollo rockets had. This was due to the budget constraints which forced NASA to build the rocket as cheaply as possible. Many of the parts were made in China. Unbeknownst to both crew and onboard sensors, most of the protective siding layer shook off the rocket and fell back to Earth, splashing down somewhere in the Atlantic.
Nothing protected the crew from the Van Allen radiation belts, a vast swath of deadly energized particles and cosmic rays that swirled miles above the Earth, repelled and suspended there by the same magnetic field Anatoly sought to escape. Thirty minutes into their three hour ride through the belts and the radiation fried the delicate communications controls. It made the men’s hair fall out, gums bleed, lungs congest and stomachs heave. Mostly, it made them all aware despite the disorientating nausea this was a one way trip.
After both astronauts had long succumbed to the radiation, nothing kept Anatoly alive. It drove him forward, out of the Van Allen belts, towards the dark comfort of the Moon’s shadow. With shaky, blistered hands, Anatoly reached toward his beloved blackbox and flipped the switches that turned it on.
He checked the gauges with bloodshot, failing eyes and died with a smile on his face.
No one would see his smile, as the unmanned, or rather dead-manned, craft crashed into the Moon. The incident became a national tragedy. The media, and subsequently the public, focused more on the astronauts than the little-known scientist, their illustrious military careers, their crying wives, the sad faces of their children and dearest friends. Anatoly had none of these things, no one to cry over him during an interview.
His former patrons provided Anatoly a Catholic funeral service despite his professed beliefs because they felt it was better than nothing. They buried an empty casket in the auxiliary field on the seldom used side of the university, as he wasn’t one of the alumni, just a kook who had had nothing to live for.
Now it could end right here, with an empty casket and a life that came to nothing. After all, Anatoly was a man no one really knew and nobody remembers. But we have the luxury of being able to look to the future. So let’s see what nothing amounts to.
Twenty years after the shuttle disaster, a Japanese exchange student will be cleaning up the university archives as part of his work study and run across Anatoly’s old notes, his much ado about nothing. This student will recreate the experiment and discover those roach-like subatomic particles are quarks.
Apparently, quarks are pacifists, and don’t like when scientists bash particles together using Hadron colliders to get to the subatomic bits. No, quarks like quiet spaces, where they can relax and unwind, and that little black box was like a spa resort to them. Until this student’s discovery, no scientist other than the long departed Dr. Anatoly Iburruri had ever seen quarks in a solitary state. Truthfully, the quarks prefer their alone time; they just group together into hadrons to protect themselves from imminent collisions orchestrated by sadistic scientists. After all, there was safety in numbers.
These single state quarks will become the essential key to teleportation. It’ll lead to everybody teleporting all over the place and a Nobel Prize to the Japanese exchange student. They will erect a ginormous statue of him in Tokyo, with him standing as he holds his Hirotome bluebox.
Twenty years after this, the aliens from Gliese will officially announce themselves. They will find out about us from Anatoly Iburruri, who created the equivalent of a warp drive signature when he flipped the switches on his original blackbox seconds before he died. The anomalous signature will take twenty-two years to reach Gliese at light speed, and it’ll take the Gliesians six days to warp over and investigate. Of course, it will take another twenty years of studying Earth and discussing among themselves whether they should let humanity into the warp drive club. They’ll came to the conclusion that we do have the teleporter after all and it’s only a matter of time before someone enterprising among us incorporates crushed diamond into the Hirotome bluebox’s lead lining and develops warp drive anyway. Besides, their covert missions for Earth products were getting compromised; it seems like everyone has a camera on their cellphone.
So what the hell, they’ll come down and welcome Earth to the Space Age. They will show us the warp drive and set up trade agreements so they’ll no longer have to sneak around for the goods they hadn’t needed on Gliese to become an advanced species but wanted all the same: stuff like rap music, PlayStations and barbecue sauce. They’ll show us mashball and after we learn it we’ll start kicking their butts in it because we’ll be damned if they beat us.
So, look forward to a world dramatically different. Nothing changes.
Speaking of nothing, that’s the real secret of warp drive. Nothingness is the necessary layer to bring and hold anti-matter into a material world, where it’s able to power faster-than-light travel. Anatoly would have discovered this, or at least found nothing, without having to go into deep space if he had only thought of the aforementioned bling. Crushed diamond in the lead lining would make the box quantum entanglement–proof, keeping unsolicited quarks out. It was the only -proof the Iburruri blackbox lacked.
No one knows of Anatoly’s contribution to the world, save me and now you. No one remembers him because to be remembered one has to do something, a thing Anatoly was wholly against. And in half a century, after the world changes on account of nothing, Catholic University of America will dig up the auxiliary field and Anatoly’s casket with it to make room for a mashball arena. Right now, though, you can still go to this seldom visited part of campus and read his humble gravestone.
Here lies Anatoly Maldives Iburruri
Nothing stood in his way.
James Beamon’s stories have appeared in Penumbra, Daily Science Fiction, and the Unidentifed Funny Objects anthology among others. He is a member of Codex Writers' Group and is currently deployed to Afghanistan.