"Ta da!" John announced.
There it sat, gleaming on the wall, the pinnacle of modern towel
-dispensing technology. He yanked on the length of paper protruding from its underside, causing several more feet of it to pour onto the floor.
Peter poked at a scuff mark on the faceplate which slightly obscured the M in Moebius
. "You dragged me in here to show me this?
It's a paper towel dispenser
. It doesn't even look different from the old one." That wasn't entirely true- the remains of a sticker clung to one corner, and would have proclaimed in half-inch silver-foil-backed letters that this particular model Never Needs Refilling- Guaranteed
had the installer not begun to remove it and given up a quarter of the way through.
John's enthusiasm refused to be dampened. "Oh, this is no normal towel dispenser. Didn't you read that link I sent you?" Just barely stopping himself from sighing and rolling his eyes simultaneously, Peter indicated the negative. One look at the domain had told him it was one of those
pages- either a tantalizingly implausible conspiracy theory
or a juicy anecdote of unverifiable pseudoscience
. From John's glee at the discovery he had just made and his insistence that Peter inspect it himself, it was probably both at once.
"Aren't you even a little
bit curious about how this thing works?" John was examining the seam where the box joined the wall, which seemed to be perfectly normal caulk
at first glance. He started working his fingers into it, prodding and prying at weak spots.
"Sorry, I don't think about paper towel dispensers as much as you do," his friend shot back. "Go get a screwdriver
A few grunts of effort and one torn fingernail later, John stepped back. "Yeah, I think I will," he said ruefully. Peter was left alone with the dispenser as the door banged shut behind him.
He'd never admit it, but he usually ended up skimming through links from John anyway. Sometimes boredom got the better of him, and the more far-out ones were good for a laugh. The paper towel conspiracy
hadn't been one of those. It started out by quoting the company's marketing, an explanation of how it had installed thousands of its new paper towel dispensers all over the world, and how not one of them would ever need to be restocked. The prospect of infinite paper towels
had failed to tickle Peter's fancy, and then the page had dissolved into a morass of differential equations
, semicoherent particle physics
, and theories named after dead scientists
. A quick glance at the conclusion had told him that had he tried to comprehend the mess, it would have told him exactly how it was Guaranteed
that the dispenser Never Needs Refilling
, and why the manufacturer had worked so hard to keep its technique a secret. Some sort of egregious pollution, probably.
His train of thought returned to the station and, having run out of higher concepts to occupy his time, he lazily reached over and gave the towel a tug of his own. The pile of paper on the floor grew. Another tug, another layer, and another. He was wondering how long it would take to disprove Never Needs Refilling
once and for all when he noticed it. His hand was clenched around the paper, just under the dispenser's lower surface, but there was a faint light glimmering on his knuckle.
Without quite knowing why, he bent over and peered up the slot. The only thing he could see was a pair of rollers clamped onto the paper, but the mysterious light seemed to come from deeper inside. He pushed the top roller aside and moved in closer, to look straight along the towel as it descended from the feed mechanism, but the powerful spring slipped the roller off his finger and dropped it back onto its partner with a surprisingly loud clack
. Peter started momentarily as the echoes
died away, and had pushed it back again when he realized what he just heard. Echoes? Inside a twenty-centimer cube?
The inside of the machine was pitch black
. Peter couldn't see the slightest hint of where the walls or corners of the case were, or any of the paper after it swept over the rollers and left his field of view. The glow he had seen was emanating from a hazy, miniscule light source directly above. As he squinted into the slot, something subtly wrong about the vista revealed within the box began to nag at him. It may have been some trick of perception, but the light seemed to be quite a fantastic distance away- tens of meters, if he was judging it correctly, which he couldn't possibly be. And as his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he began to perceive the dark metal surface behind it- a roof of sheet metal mottled with shadows cast by the support beams crisscrossing its hypnotically tremendous expanse.
John slammed open the door, panting and brandishing a screwdriver. Peter, jolted out of his reverie
, banged his head on the towel dispenser's underside and stumbled back. John's excitement momentarily shifted to concern. "You OK, man? What were you doing down there?"
"Nothing." There had to be a logical explanation
. It was dark in there. He was standing at a funny angle. He didn't know what the inside of a paper towel dispenser was supposed to look like in the first place. "C'mon," he said, more to move on from his mishap than from the curiosity too great to admit to John to see the device opened, "let's get to work." Maybe the towel dispenser was larger than he had expected, and extended a ways back into the bathroom wall.
A few minutes of prying later, the creaking of strained plastic accompanied the two boys pulling on the dispenser with all their might. Most of the caulk was on the floor around them; the only remaining obstacle was whatever fastener remained in the thin gap between the box's rear and the wall. "OK," Peter announced, "on three." The count finished, and in response to their synchronized yank the dispenser escaped their hands and clattered to the floor, landing on its already-blemished face and revealing on its backside a small hole where a chunk of casing had been ripped out and left wrapped around twin wall-mounted bolts. Next to the hole, in the center of the case, a thick cable extended from a recess in the casing. The socket
on the wall from which it had been torn by the fall had been hidden behind the dispenser's body. And through the hole the bolts had left was a tantalizing glimpse of a circuit board
The screwdriver made unsurprisingly short work of the screws holding the rear plate onto the dispenser, and they were able to lift it off and leave it dangling around the power cable. John's eyes lit up at the cornucopia of technology he had uncovered, but Peter simply gaped.
The paper towel dispenser had a motherboard
to rival Peter's computer; four hundred square centimeters of densely packed resistors, transistors, and anonymous microcircuits sealed in black plastic
. An LCD screen
displayed meaningless and rapidly oscillating numbers, all of which had at least five digits, and an upside-down message that neither of them bothered to read. Behind the circuit board was a rats' nest
of wires, and behind that was what looked like a large transformer
, a solid bar of metal wrapped with countless orderly rings of fine copper wire.
"This is amazing." John pushed the dispenser around to get a closer look past the board, discovering in the process that the thing was amazingly heavy. The coil inside it seemed to be a square, covered on all four sides with wire. There were two more squares inside the box, intersecting the first to form a perfect cube
. Deeper inside, near the bottom, was a long and narrow plastic enclosure that seemed to be the final destination of at least half the hundreds of cables snaking around inside the dispenser, and probably covered the towel slot on what had been the underside. On the opposite side of the box was a large black rectangle with exactly two thick cables emerging from it. One entered the component near a faint gray plus sign, the other near a minus. Between them were four red diodes
, all of them lit except the rightmost.
John had only just realized he was staring at a high-capacity battery
when one of the diodes blinked off.
Peter's attention had been drawn by the small display his eyes had skipped over before. He had never been particularly good at reading upside-down, but he almost recognized the medium-sized word at the beginning of the first line that wasn't obviously a number. He scooted around to get a better view.
RECONNECT POWER IMMEDIATELY
His eyes met John's, and they scrambled to lift the dispenser, struggling with its weight. Peter spared a hand to grab the power cord and jam it into the socket; he had just returned to balancing the device on the edge of the sink when the cord fell back out. The prongs on the end had been bent nearly flat when the falling dispenser ripped it out of the wall. Peter attacked the prongs with the screwdriver, but the metal was too thick to bend easily.
" John shouted, and before Peter could reply he had dashed out of the room again. A deranged sense of duty made him stand next to the sink, balancing the machine on its edge, watching the battery charge counting down.
SYNCHROTRON CURRENT <100A
A faint whine began to emanate from deep within the innards of the dispenser. Peter could feel a faint but growing vibration through his death grip on the case.
μ-SOLITON FOCUS 50%
John frantically rifled through his toolbox, tossing aside Allen wrenches, an assortment of clamps, and various other tools before noticing the absent pliers lying on the table above it, where he had placed them while searching for the screwdriver. He grabbed them and started back to the bathroom.
ORBITAL ECCENTRICITY EXCEEDS 0.01
The dispenser was truly shaking now, threatening to wobble itself off the sink, and screaming like a jet engine
. Peter could barely hold onto it, and he was beginning to smell burned insulation.
SCHWARZSCHILD NEXUS COLLAPSE
John sprinted around the corner just in time to catch a glimpse of the brilliant bluish light
shining out of the bathroom before the scream emanating from inside turned to a deafening roar and the light blazed up to pure, burning white
. The last thing he saw was the bathroom door exploding off its frame
Mr. Tanaka washed his hands, glanced at the neon
blur of the Tokyo
skyline through the executive washroom's frosted window, and reached for the paper towel dispenser. He wondered why he bothered noticing that it was a brand-new one; a perfectly polished box with its surprisingly verbose brand name emblazoned on its faceplate: "Loop Towel Dispenser", preceded by a longer English word he didn't recognize. A slight blemish marked the place where a caretaker had diligently worked at removing some sort of sticker, but given up in the face of adhesive tenacity
. He pulled a towel from it, and had nearly finished drying his hands when he realized its trailing edge was strangely blackened, almost charred
. Frowning, he reached for a second towel, but the machine had none to offer. With a shrug, he tossed the last towel in the trashcan