by Elisabeth Adams
Copyright January 1997; last revised December 1998. All rights reserved.

It's all Tessie's fault, and I can prove it. You see, Tessie (short for Nikola Tesla, the result of admiration for one of the greatest scientists ever and a little gender mix up) is my cat. She is a very cute cat, a calico with little white paws and the most adorable blue eyes. She also happens to be the clumsiest cat I have ever known (quite unlike her namesake, alas), and that's mainly why everything happened.

It was summer vacation, specifically the sixth day, nineteenth hour, and forty-fifth minute since I had been released from school, and I was already driving my mother up the wall. My father is one of those back-to-nature enthusiasts, and we live about as far outside of civilization as we can without having to commute to town by dogsled (which I doubt Father would have minded, but Mother said no, absolutely not). My older sister Amy and I do not get along under any circumstances, much to my mother's dismay, and so she constantly says that her biggest trial in life is keeping me entertained. I don't think that's quite correct, as I can almost always find things to do, but Mother for some reason doesn't think they're appropriate.

Like the time two summers ago when Tessie and I decided to figure out how the house electric system worked. I guess Mother wasn't too happy when Tessie chewed on a couple of wires and shorted the system. You know how cats get: when something catches their eye, be it sleeping parents' toes or older sister's brand new hundred-dollar crinkly dress (an incident Tessie is fortunate to have survived) or wires dangling in the attic, great mayhem is likely to erupt. Mother blamed me for the small fire that resulted, and my sister got mad at me because she thought it wasn't an accident that her room now had a scorch mark on the ceiling, and then the electrician charged double because the house was so far out of the city. I thought my father would burst an artery when he got the bill, which I didn't make any better by telling him that I could probably have fixed it myself at half the cost. I was grounded for two months and my allowance was suspended to pay for damages. Nobody cared that I had figured out the wiring system and had discovered how inefficient it was. I didn't even bother suggesting some minor modifications to them that would have saved quite a bit of money. My family can be rather irrational at times.

My mother continued to try to keep me entertained, but nothing worked. The summer camp she sent me to last year kicked me out for attempting to build a hydroelectric power plant and accidentally flooding the cabin area, and my sister Amy refused to have "the twerp" with when she went over to her friends. Not that I minded either: summer camp wouldn't let me bring Tessie with, and my sister is probably the world's dullest individual alive. She once spent the whole day drawing hearts around some boy's name, only to spend the next crying her heart out because he had said something mean about her to her friend Melody. Talk about stupid.

This summer, my mother gave up and said that so long as I didn't destroy the house or accidentally hurt someone (ie, my sister- I was obsessed with snares and traps when I was younger and devised several dozen ways of getting my bossy sister out of my hair), I could do as I pleased. The only condition was that I had to promise that I would not explore anything (I think she still remembers the plumbing incident when I was three). So that morning, when Mother had gone into town to run her errands, Tessie and I were sitting in the family den, reading some of Father's vast collection of books which he persisted in buying despite the fact that he rarely read them.

To be strictly precise, I was sitting and reading while Tessie was directly violating Mother's orders by climbing around Father's bookcase. You know the old saying, about how nature abhors a vacuum? I think you could substitute felis undomesticus for nature and it would be just as accurate. My father keeps his books pushed out a little from the back of the wall, resulting in a small space behind them that Tessie cannot leave unoccupied. I was reading a book on quantum mechanics which was familiar but nevertheless engrossing. I didn't notice Tessie freak out in her hiding place: maybe it was a bug, or she saw her shadow, or something else of that sort. (Besides being a klutz, Tessie is also a textbook example of felis trepidus.) Whatever it was, Tessie came flying out from behind the books, and everything on the top shelf followed her in her panicked fright.

I noticed my errant cat then, as about twenty large books came crashing down right next to me. One of them, fortunately only a paperback, hit me on the head. "Tessie!" I shouted at the feline shape now crouched under my father's desk. She was so pathetic that I couldn't stay mad at her for long.

"What did you do that for?" I asked. She looked at me oddly, and then proceeded to give herself a bath. Cats.

Just then, I heard the front door slam. My mother was home early! "Now look what you've gotten me into," I scolded Tessie as I hastily scooped up the books I had been reading and ran out of the room before Mother could find the cat-astrophe and throw a fit.

I was about halfway up the stairs when I heard her familiar "Leee-na! Get over here right now, young lady!"

Reluctantly, I turned back downstairs and went to face her.

Mother read me the riot act, first of all for being in Father's study without permission, and secondly for letting "that cat" into the study when she'd told me a million times that I was absolutely forbidden to (an untruth that I wasn't about to point out, in view of the situation), and then she scolded me for not paying attention to her and banished me to my room for the rest of the day.

"And take that stupid cat with you!" she shouted as I mounted the stairs and she went in to clean up the den before Father got home.

It certainly wasn't the first afternoon Tessie and I had been confined to our room. Mother probably didn't realize that there was a door to the attic in my bedroom closet and that I stored lots of interesting things up there, but if she did she would have been unimpressed. To her those priceless treasures were junk, but that showed how much she knew. Last summer, I built a surveillance camera from scratch and hid it in Amy's room to snoop on her and her friends. I modified my television so that I could use it to monitor the images, and I still occasionally keep an eye on her with it.

Today, however, I didn't have any inspiration for what to do with my upstairs stash, and so I decided to continue my reading. It was only then that I noticed that I had accidentally scooped up the book Tessie had knocked on my head in my rush to vacate the den. It was an obscure discussion of some of the more significant but little-known details of quantum mechanical behavior. I started to read the first chapter, entitled "The Tunnel-Diode Effect".

I finished it a few moments later. (My parents think it's "cute" the way their little girl will flip through thousand-page dissertations on, say,the practical application of general relativity. My parents just don't understand that I really can read almost as fast as I can flip the pages.) Tessie was curled up on my bed by now, trying to sleep off the traumatic experience of this afternoon. She looked at me thoughtfully, almost as if she was inquiring what I was going to do now. Either that, or she was contemplating the stupidity of the human race. Cats have this uncanny way of making it appear as if you are overlooking something obvious.

An idea struck me. Would it work? I didn't see any major problems. It was mostly an engineering problem, and that wasn't so bad. I began to smile, and then laugh, which caused Tessie to give me her Crazy humans! look. I didn't mind. I had something to do this summer.

Another Project (all my good ideas are uppercased) had begun.

By dinnertime that day, I was bursting with enthusiasm. Mother let me come down for dinner (I had almost forgotten that I was being punished), but she was still irritated with me. Tessie wisely stayed out of sight.

"So, Lena," my father began, obviously uninformed of my status as family outlaw. "What did you do today?"

I hesitated. Should I tell him about my latest Project? Then I remembered the results of the last one, and I decided that maybe, just maybe, it wouldn't be a good idea to mention that part of it yet. I decided to test the waters.

"I learned about tunnel-diodes today," I said.

Father laughed. "And what, pray tell, are these tunnel-diets, or whatever you said they were?"

"Tunnel-diodes," I corrected. Well, he asked for it...

"A tunnel-diode is a semiconductor diode that has a negative resistance region in its forward volt-ampere characteristics," I started. "Quantum-mechanical tunneling allows electrons to pass through..."

But it seemed nobody was interested in the ramifications of electron movement. Before Father had a chance to feign interest and then be submitted to a vigorous (albeit slightly incomprehenisble) lecture, Mother spoke up.

"Do you know what your daughter did today?"

"Nothing except for her newly-acquired knowledge of funnel-diodes," Father answered, not quite noticing the tone of Mother's voice.

That's tunnel-diodes, I thought, but I didn't say anything. My mother had begun detailing the incidents of the early afternoon, and my father soon forgot about my new discovery. I got a second scolding, and then Amy started to recount the story of her trip to the mall, chattering about all the positively adorable clothes she had bought, and I tuned out the rest of the conversation.

My father made one last attempt at impressing my misdeeds upon me a few minutes later.

"You do realize, I hope, how valuable some of those books in the den are?" he inquired.

So I responded that yes, I did know, probably better than he did, and then my mother got mad at me for being impertinent and sent me to my room before dessert.

Not that I cared. I had a Project to worry about.

I discovered after a careful review of my personal library that I did not have enough information to proceed on this Project. It wouldn't have been too difficult for me to stumble along and rediscover many of the laws of physics in the process, but that struck me as a most insensible plan considering the knowledge I lacked was nicely documented in the library in town. As we lived close (well, as close as my survivalist father would allow us to) to a college town, I had fairly easy access to a library containing the obscure data I often needed. So I arranged to go with Mother on her shopping trip the next day.

Now, you'd think that after so many years of loyal patronage the librarians would have gotten used to me checking out stacks of books taller than I was: I had been doing so ever since I taught myself how to read at age three. Most of the college students no longer paid me any heed. But the head librarian was one of those shrewish, meddling older women who always distrusted anyone under the age of thirty (as well as most of those over), and she seemed to be of the impression that I was incapable of understanding anything that was not found in the juvenile section.

After I had spent half a day pouring through the card catalogs and searching the musty upper reaches of the bookcases for exactly what I needed, I arrived at the checkout stand with about twenty or so thick volumes, some of which had not been borrowed in years. There were also a couple dozen fiction books- I had to have something to take my mind of my Project when I got stumped.

The librarian adjusted her glasses and scrutinized the titles I had selected. "The History of the Atom," she read. "Molecular Behavior, volumes 1-3. Quantum Electrodynamics. Twenty-One Steps to Building a Home Particle Accelerator. The Complete Guide to Atoms and Molecules, volumes 1-5. How to Manipulate the Atom: A Laboratory Guide."

She stopped, and looked at me curiously. "What on earth do you need this stuff for, Lena? You're only twelve years old!"

Actually, I was eleven, but I didn't think correcting her would have done any good. In her opinion, children were not endowed with brains until after having received a college degree-- and sometimes not even then.

"Just some light summer reading, ma'am," I replied. Politeness never hurt.

Except that far, far more than courtesy would have been needed here. "Light reading?!?" she exclaimed. "Lena, I've seen you pretending to read before. There is no way you could possibly understand any of this stuff at the rate you flip through it."

I naively tried to reason with her. "What harm would there be in letting me check it out then? I always return my books in good shape."

She muttered under her breath something about cat fur in the binding, and then stopped, and resumed her ridicule of my selections. "What about these dozen books by this Niven person? You've already checked them out at least a hundred times." She wasn't exaggerating.

"I like re-rereading them," I answered. "He's one of my favorite authors." Also, if I remembered correctly, he had written some stories about something similar to my latest Project, and I wanted to see what insight he might have had into the engineering problems.

The librarian gave up. Sighing, she began to check out my stack. She brightened, however, when she got to the last two books. "Well, at least you have some sense," she remarked, holding aloft two of the most popular teen fiction books, about being popular or getting the right boyfriend or something equally important. "Now this is what a girl your age should be reading."

"Actually," I replied, "they're for my sister. She asked me to pick them up while I was here." Her expression left me wishing for a camera.

My next stop was the local electronics/computer store. I already had a preliminary three pages of supplies I needed, and I wanted to be sure to order some of the more obscure items right away. I'm quite well known there also.

What followed can only be described as the most frustrating and most enjoyable part of any Project. I had a good idea, and some vague plans on how to implement it, and a bountiful supply of information should I find myself in need of some critical fact. If I ever found myself wanting either equipment or more knowledge, it was just an hour's drive to town (with my mother; with my father, it only took forty-five minutes). So I effectively sequestered myself in my room and tried idea after idea, experiencing numerous setbacks (remember, I was attempting sensitive engineering with the "help" of Tessie- fortunately, she only cost me about a day's worth of work when she chewed up my plans towards the beginning of the Project) but also having the thrill of realizing that when I made something work, I was in the process of creating a device long discussed in science fiction but never created in fact. I wondered why. The Tunnel-Diode Effect had been known for quite a while, and what I was doing was simply a logical extension off it. It was actually relatively simple, if a bit tedious.

By the end of several weeks, I had completed half of my Project. This was the most difficult part, where I was working pretty much blind and with little clue as to whether it would work or not. The result, however, was beautiful: one eighteen inch hermetically-sealed metal box sat in the corner of my room connected to my supercomputer (which, thanks to my continuous tinkering, performed considerably above what the manufacturer's specifications would lead you to believe), ready for testing as soon as I would be able to create another one. Had my parents come into my room at all during the course of its construction, they would have discovered it, for with all the wires coming out of it it was pretty conspicuous. I covered it with a sheet more to keep Tessie out than to hide it, although even that was pretty much a lost cause.

It occurred to me halfway through construction to check the house specifications as to how much weight the upper story could support; that took a day of earnest searching through records-- that's not the kind of thing I could have just asked my parents about-- but I was relieved to find that the upper floor would easily support twenty of these boxes, if I needed that many, which I didn't.

I believe my parents suspected I was up to something: I spent all day up in my room, and the amount of stuff I brought home was a dead giveaway. I told them I was working on my computer (which was the truth, but nowhere near all of it) and they chose not to press me further. My parents learned long ago that ignorance is often far more blissful than the alternative...

Towards the beginning of August, I finished the second box. It was located in an old barn that I often used as a second laboratory, being as it was about three hundred yards from our house and therefore far from prying family. The spot turned out to be ideal because it was at approximately the same height as my bedroom, so that I would not have to worry about having a difference in gravitational potential energy; having to absorb extra energy was one headache I could do without.

Tessie, in addition to ridding my workspace of any intruding rodents, made sure that I had to travel to my room or the electronics store often to get replacement equipment for the ones she sat on, chewed, swatted at, or engaged in mortal combat. She distracted me enough so that I did not become so absorbed in my problems that I overlooked obvious solutions, and so her hindrance and her genuine help about cancelled out. Inadvertently, Tessie also provided me with the first live test of my machine.

Now before you animal rights activists start to take up arms, let me tell you that I had absolutely no intention of testing my Project on my beloved cat. She just insisted on being the first live guinea pig. It was about mid-morning, and I was in my room putting on the finishing touches to the box up there. When I finally finished, I sent through one of my sister's romance novels (I didn't want to use something valuable). I was torn between shock and elation- shock that it worked the first time (science fiction shows to the contrary, that almost never happens in real life), and elation that I had engineered it perfectly the first time through, that it really worked-- the Project WORKED!! On the first time, at that! I brought the book back, and it was unharmed, and in my rightful pride and excitement I accidentally left the door to the box ajar.

Maybe Tessie was jealous that I was ignoring her; maybe she just chose then to freak out, which she does quite regularly. She ran straight towards the open door of the box and disappeared.

I looked over just in time to see her tail flicker out, and I knew instantly what had happened. Suddenly, I was very worried. I hadn't meant to test the Invention (which is what I call a successful Project) on a living creature yet, with the possible exception of my sister who doesn't count. I quickly turned the machine off and raced out of the room, only locking two of my customary seven door locks in my haste.

Fortunately, when I reached the barn, I found Tessie to be fine, if a bit disoriented form her trip. She couldn't understand why her owner (from her viewpoint, ownee) was so excited, but she accepted the cream from the kitchen fridge a couple of minutes later in due course. I treated myself to some ice cream and bathed in the warm glow of success.

It is only now that I can truly appreciate the delicious irony of what happened next. I had finished testing my now-Invention at about one in the afternoon, and I planned to demonstrate it for my parents when they got home around five or six. Although they didn't necessarily approve of my Projects, I was sure they would appreciate the value of this particular one. Naturally, Amy ruined all of this.

My sister rarely deigned to be home during the summer, but she chose today to have a friend over, Stacy, a veritable gossip who was even more ditzy than Amy, if such a thing is possible. Usually, I would be bored enough to take full opportunities to eavesdrop on them (occasionally, they talked about me). This time, however, I was in my room, celebrating with Tessie our success (yes, our- Tessie, after all, knocked that book on my head oh so long ago.) I couldn't have cared less what my sister was doing right then. So of course, that's when she found the surveillance camera.

My first premonition of danger came when I heard my door being pounded on hard enough that I thought for a fleeting moment that it might break (but only until I remembered I had had it reinforced with a sheet of steel six months ago, in anticipation of just this sort of dilemma).

"OPEN UP, YOU CREEP!" shouted Amy.

I had no such intention. "What do you want?"


So that was what she was so upset about. I decided to play innocent. "Camera?"

Amy quieted down; her voice became all of a sudden far more menacing. "Listen to me, creep. When Mom and Dad get home, they are going to hear about this, and you are going to be dead, because they will know that this is your camera. DEAD."

I heard her walking away. She knew better than to try to force her way in, and so she had appealed to a higher authority to instill fear in me. It had worked. Although Mother and Father might not be too upset if I showed them a working Invention that would benefit the human race in general (and their pocketbook in particular- they're rather mercenary), they were absolutely against me using my superior technology to annoy my sister. They would demand that I turn over everything related to the surveillance camera system, and then they would punish me. "Hell hath no fury like a sister scorned..."

Then I realized the really horrible part. My parents would take any suspicious object in my room as components of that camera, even if they were something completely different. All my Projects were in mortal danger of being tossed out by indignant but ignorant parents.

Including my newly-successful Tunnel-Diode Invention.

Amy hadn't succeeded in turning off the camera, and so I was able to hear her say that she wanted to get out of the house and away from her #!$!%(@^%#% sister before she did anything she would later regret. (That surprised me. I wasn't sure that she would regret murdering me, right then.) I watched her and Stacy get into her car (with the security camera, of course) and drive towards town. Fairly soon, I became convinced that they weren't going to turn around and come back, and so I began the painful task of carting down all my recognizable Projects (alas, my black boxes were just too conspicuous). I lugged them into the forest several hundred yards from my house and buried them there, grateful for small mercies like soft soil. By the time I came back to the house, my parents were home, and Amy was filling them in on my latest misdeed.

It was dinnertime again, several weeks later. Amy was raving about this most fabulous shirt she had seen today at the mall, where she'd spent the day shopping with Stacy. Amy spent a lot of time at Stacy's house, and during the summer my father jokes that he has one daughter and one occasional house guest.

Not that anyone was particularly pleased with the daughter right then. I was officially grounded for the next three months, which I considered lenient given the fuss Amy had raised. I think it was partly because I had promised her on my somewhat disputed honor that I had never shown anyone else (except Tessie, of course, who doesn't count) what I had seen on the camera, and also that I hadn't bothered to record what I saw.

(Later, I found out that Father had examined the camera and found it to be much simpler, and more sophisticated, than the videocameras available commercially. He took out a patent in his name and promised Amy a portion of the royalty checks. She forgave me when she got her first one. Mercenaries...)

"Well, Lena," said my mother, who couldn't ever drop anything involving my misbehavior. "What have you learned because of this incident?"

So I apologized to everyone once again, repeating for the umpteenth time that I had learned never to invade the privacy of another person, and that I would be more respectful to my sister in the future. I certainly had learned my lesson, although not quite for the reasons Mother would have approved of. My Projects were too important to be jeopardized by foolish teasing of my sister. (The real tragedy was that I had decided I would remove the camera from Amy's room anyway, after about a month of listening to Amy prattle on and on about boys and clothes. Then there was her music... But I'd never gotten around to it. Live and learn.)

"Well," said Father when I was all through. "I am curious about one thing."

"Oh?" I asked. "What is that?"

"What was it you were working on all summer, up in your room?"

I knew they had suspected something. I hesitated, unsure of what their reaction would be, then decided that I couldn't get in any more trouble than I already was in.

"Um, do you want a technical.... no, I guess not," I said. Well, here goes, I thought.

"It was a transporter."

Dead silence.

Then: "What did you say?"

"A transporter."

"Like, 'Scotty beam me up!' transporter?" scoffed my sister. She laughed at me. "And how, pray tell, does my obnoxious twerp of a sister think she's made a transporter?"

"Do you remember when I told you about tunnel-diodes?" I asked.

I could see from their expressions that they didn't. I tried a simpler tack.

"You all know that everything is made up of atoms?" I asked.

Vague recognition. My father nodded for me to continue.

"Um, good. And also, um, for an atom, or more strictly speaking a sub-atomic particle, such as an electron, to go from one place to another, a lot of energy is required. Well, what the tunnel-diode effect does is allow these subatomic particles to pass from one point directly to another, without going through any in between, if they can do it fast enough. My machine simply applied that principle on a large scale."

Blank stares.

"Just get to the point, Lena," my mother begged.

"If I placed a book in that machine, the characteristics of its atoms would be transfered so that it would arrive practically instantly in Tokyo, if I had some equipment located there," I said. "Or on the moon."

That got their attention.
"You what?" my father demanded. "How on earth.. uh, never mind, I don't want a technical lecture."

"It was simple, really," I began. Whenever a physicist says that, it's time to duck.

"So what happened to this machine?" asked my mother, aborting my coming lecture on quantum mechanics. "Did it not work?"

So I explained everything, including the successful tests and the lousy timing that led Amy to find the camera. "I didn't feel it would be a good time to bring up an unauthorized Project just then," I added.

My father understood. "So, where is it now."


When I told him it was buried in the forest, and I wasn't sure where, I could almost feel him wince.

"Well..." he started. "You at least kept the plans, didn't you?"

So my father spent the next week digging up the forest. I must have hidden the equipment better than I thought. I was sure that he would hit the roof quite literally when I told him that the plans were inside the machine, and thus buried with it in the middle of the forest. He took it in stride, however, and called his boss to say he would be taking a week of sick leave. He spent long hours out digging, so great was his confidence in his daughter's abilities (or his greed; I think both were factors here). When he came home after a particularly hard day of digging (made worse by one of our August thunderstorms, and the resulting mud), he would tell me about how this machine would change the world, and how we were going to be rich, and how I had better be able to get that machine working or I would be in big trouble.

He had to go back to work eventually, and so he took to spending the weekends out digging in the forest. His backpacking partners wanted to get him a psychiatrist after the third weekend he cancelled on them, which only increased his irritableness with me. In a spirit of uncharacteristic helpfulness, Tessie would accompany him each day, thoughtfully sitting on a particular mound of dirt and watching him.

About mid-September he finally got the hint and started digging under where my cat was sitting. Sure enough, there were two black boxes buried underneath.

I still managed to get in trouble, however, even though he found the transporter. My teacher got mad at me for turning in an "obviously fictional" story about what I did on my summer vacation, and so I started school with a failing grade and a suspicious teacher. Meanwhile, the transporter was tied up in the courts forever, with lawsuit after lawsuit contending that the machine was "unsafe even at no speed". Predictably, about ninety percent of the opposition to my Invention came from the transportation industry. (The rest were from people who shun all new technology on general principle.) But I didn't care. Tessie and I had moved on to other things. Suffice it so say that the ecofreaks would have a fit if they ever heard about my latest Project, which they won't. You see, it all started with a certain calico cat...

© Elisabeth Adams. Hand-coded since 1998. Universal Rights Reserved.