Posted by: Kathryn Hulick | March 28, 2008

The Alchemy Machine

They’ll never believe that I invented it.  Me, Amelia Hermsdorf, age 15.

Why did I do it?  Because I wanted to save the world.  Doesn’t everyone?  But not everyone gets a chance like I did.  Not even my twin brother Owen was going to mess this one up.

See, we were raised in a chemistry lab.  No, we weren’t grown in test tubes like bacteria!  I mean, both our parents are chemists.  Picture your typical mad scientist – crazy white hair, singed eyebrows, stained lab coat – now picture two of them, and add two little kids crawling around on the floor, spilling the anhydrous potassium aluminum sulfate, chewing on the centrifuges, and generally having a great time.

I had no idea the world was in so much trouble until I got to high school.  Yeah, we learned about the rainforests and global warming in fourth grade, but freshman year of high school, they made us watch the news.  All I’d ever watched were bubbling test tubes.  War, theft, starvation – it was all out there.  For two weeks I sat in the dusty, dismal basement under the family lab, where all the discarded gobs of failed experiments congeal into a mass of brownish goo, and stacks of crates, unlabled chemicals and electrical wires form an almost impenetrable maze.  I sat there, and I thought.
When I was done thinking, I started working.  First, I had to clean the basement. I dragged boxes full of junk up the stairs and carried armloads of filched treasures back down.

“What are you doing?”  Asked Owen one day, as I passed him on my way to the stairs with a huge box of assorted carbon compounds.

“Saving the world.” I answered.

“Oh.”  Of course Owen didn’t ask how or why.  He wasn’t the brightest kid ever.  I decided to tell him anyway.

“You know how a photocopier makes copies of pictures or words on paper?  Well I’m making a machine that copies things.”  Owen popped his chewing gum and scratched his elbow.

“Cool.”  That was all he said.

“Don’t you get it?  Everything in the world is made up of the same 92 elements!  Well, the periodic table goes up to 118, but those bigger numbers don’t occur naturally.  Most things are made up of just the most basic ones.  All I have to do is hook them all up to a machine that can probe an object – I’ll have to start small of course – and then copy its structure!  It’s so simple I don’t know why no one’s done it before!”

“Huh.”  Said Owen.

“Do you know where Mom keeps the Bromine?”

“It’s in the third cabinet to the left of the hood.  What do you want that horrible stuff for?”

“I already told you.  To save the world, I need all 92 naturally occurring elements.  Bromine is number 35.”

“Well, try not to blow anything up this time.”

It took me three weeks of fine-tuning before the Alchemy Machine did anything other than creak and whir.  All the elements, bromine included, were in place.  The gases were trapped in huge metal canisters along the walls; some of the more finicky substances were stabilized in a deep freeze by the stairs; and still more solids and liquids were arranged in rows along the shelves, or hung in vials from the ceiling.  The heart of the machine was a mess of wires, lights, sensors, and computer circuits.  I’d dissected two photocopiers, three computers (Owen had not been happy when his spare hard drive went missing), a microwave oven, five cameras, a laser printer, a bicycle, and even a smoke detector.  The computer sensed the chemical makeup of an object, a camera imaged its shape, then robotic arms, funnels, and tubes took the elements from their storage containers and mixed, heated, froze, or melted them together.

The first object I tried was a handful of ordinary sodium chloride, you know, salt.  I placed it in the special mirror chamber, closed the door, squeezed my eyes shut, and pushed the big green “copy” button I’d made out of a bottle top.  Creak, whir, hiss.

I opened one eye, then the other.  Yes!  Streaming out of the chute at the back of the machine was a stream of fine, white, pure sodium chloride!

“Owen!”  I shouted, and pushed the other button, a big red one that said “stop.”

“What’s up?”  My brother peeked down from the lab upstairs.

“It works!”  Owen didn’t even come down the stairs, just tossed me a half-eaten apple.

“Here, copy this.”  I caught the fruit in midair.

“Eew, why didn’t you give me a whole one?”

“You said you could copy anything.”

The original salt I had placed in the mirror chamber was gone – vaporized.  I had expected that.  I put the apple down in its place, shut the door, and pushed “copy” three times.  Owen came down the stairs and stood by the chute.  Creak whir, whop, bang, hiss.

Out came an apple.  Then another two.  But something wasn’t quite right.

“Um, Amelia?  These apples are white.”  Said Owen.  And they were.  The bite was in the exact same place on all three pieces of fruit.  They each felt juicy and smelled sweet, but they were totally colorless.  Owen picked one up, then nibbled it very carefully. “Tastes OK, though.”

I frowned.  “Well that’s no good!”  I kicked the chute.  It made a hollow thud.  Then something creaked and hissed. Whop, bang.

“Uh Oh” said Owen.

Out popped another colorless apple, but this one was bigger than the first three, about the size of a grapefruit. Whop, bang.  Another one, this one as big as a melon.  I hit the “stop” button three times, but nothing happened. Whop, bang.  This one was as big as my head and the bite looked like a dinosaur’s chomp.

“Something must be wrong with the DNA converter!  It’s supposed to regulate size, I programmed everything just right!”

“Is that my spare hard drive?”  Said Owen, frowning over my shoulder.  He grabbed the thin black box and peered at it.

“Don’t touch that!”  I screamed, just as another apple tried to emerge from the chute.  It was too big.  The machine creaked and white apple juice trickled from the corners.  Owen unplugged the drive.  The machine sighed as juice dripped on the floor.

“Your machine sure can copy and enlarge, but you’re going to have to work at it to print in color.”  Owen grinned, and took a bite out of one of the normal-sized apples.

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