Sentience – Part One

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The flame of the alcohol burner lapped at the base of the round bottom flask. The contents inside were bubbling, the steam rising to a glass pipe that led to a tangled web of flasks and pipes. Judith took notes and checked her watch while Sam carefully regulated flames and drips.

Judith watched the flask and scribbled notes. “Release the steam from flask three.” Sam turned a knob and purple steam rose from the round bottom flask filled with a bubbling green liquid. Sam watched the steam rise. “Steam released.”

The twisting pipes all led to a huge round bottom flask in the center of the table that had two pipes leading into it. Slowly the flask filled with swirls of steam that condensed on the sides in a glittering dew, like drops of motor oil in water. Judith made notes and looked at the flask closely. The experiment was going on seven days and covered the entirety of the kitchen. An entire sleepless week and everything depended on a success, or a failure.

Judith made a note. “Release the steam from flask four and relight burner two. The central flask is almost ready for heat.”

Sam turned another knob. “Steam released from flask four.” He struck a long match and lit the wick of an alcohol burner beneath a flask filled with a thick, bright blue substance. “Burner two relit.” The steam from flask four filled a long, spiraling pipe with pink smoke and began to mingle with the black smoke coming from the flask above burner two. The color changed to a dark green color and spilled into the central flask where it condensed into a liquid the color of pine needles.

Judith made a note. “Central flask is full. Five minutes until the solution is boiling.” The new liquid dripped into the oily, rainbow liquid already in the flask. Three alcohol burners beneath the flask were lit, their flames tonguing the bottom of the flask, burning it a sooty brown color. Slowly the mixture of liquids began to bubble and boil, the roiling working to mix them into a dark, carbon black. Soon the mixture was so black it seemed to absorb light. The steam rising from the solution was an evil looking grey color. Before long, all that remained was steam, swirling around the flask like a storm cloud.

Judith scribbled notes furiously. “Release the steam from the central flask. Prepare the bowl.” Sam turned a knob and the steam slowly rose from the central flask into another long spiraling pipe that led into a covered bowl placed in the sink. Drops of black liquid started dripping from the pipe into the bowl. Sam dumped ice into the sink, covering the bowl completely. Judith scribbled more notes and sat down in the chair, yawing loudly. “Finally. One week of calculations, mixing, heating, note taking. I’m going to bed.”

Sam turned. “But we have to wait for the steam to dissipate. The experiment’s not over until the steam is done distilling into the bowl.” Sam bent down to examine the burners beneath the central flask, the flames wavered a little but otherwise kept on burning.

Judith leaned her head back in the chair. “Well that shouldn’t take too long. According to my notes the final stone shouldn’t be more than one and a half to two inches long.” Sam was giving her a look, his arms folded across his chest. “I’ve been awake for seven days monitoring everything.” He kept glaring at her. “Fine. I’ll wait till the steam is gone and the distillation process is finished. But then I’m going to bed.”

The drips fell into the bowl like rain. A steady and fast plopping. Whatever was distilling into the bowl was as thick as pudding. After ten minutes the plopping slowed down. After five more minutes it ceased and the grey steam was gone. Judith got up and started walking out of the kitchen. “I’m going to bed.” She turned, surveying the two hundred flasks of various sizes and the innumerable glass pipes that snaked up from the floor and covered the kitchen in a delicate spider web of chemistry. Sam was bent over the sink, watching the bowl covered with an opaque rubber top. “You should come to bed too.”

He didn’t turn. “Do you think it was worth quitting DOW for this?”

She shrugged. “I’ve been over my calculations again and again. If it doesn’t work that means it doesn’t actually exist.” He said nothing. “We’ll know for sure in the morning. The solution needs time to crystalize. We’ll check it tomorrow morning.” But Sam stayed in front of the sink, watching the bowl buried in ice.

The morning came with a gently chiming alarm. Judith opened her eyes and arched her back. Slowly she got out of bed, yawning and blinking in the grey light of a rainy day. She made her way through the little house on the hill listening to the birds in the garden and the cars on the road. The kitchen was still. No more bubbling or flames or chemical noise. She looked around at the mess and started. Sam was sleeping in a chair in the corner. She shook her head and walked over to him, planting a kiss on his forehead.

He jumped awake. “Is it ready?” He sped past her to the sink where the bowl was buried in a pool of icy cold water.

Judith walked over to him. “Good morning idiot.” He paid no attention. “I told you to come to bed silly man.” She looked down at the bowl. “Shall we see if it worked?”

He was already pulling the bowl out of the sink and putting it on the counter. He tore the rubber lid off and looked into the bowl. His eyes bulged. Judith looked into the bowl too. She caught her breath.

There was a black rock no more than two inches long and perfectly smooth and round. A beam of sunlight broke through the clouds and lit up the kitchen. The rock glowed with a sheen of gold. Sam picked it up and held it in his palm. There was a warmth in the stone and it was as heavy as lead. He stared at it, his mouth hanging open and his breathing heavy.

Judith clasped her hands together, a wild grin on her face. “We’ve done it. We’ve actually done it. I almost didn’t think it was possible.” She spun around laughing and giggling. “We created the Philosopher’s Stone.” She looked at Sam. His eyes were still focused on the stone in his palm. “Let me hold it.” But Sam would not let go and he would not look away.



Photograph by Kasto

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