Firestorm: Descent

Chapter Two: The Machine

Michael Ronson closed the heavy triple-glazed steel and lead  door and rotated the handle into the lock position. He walked the five paces across his lab and into the control room. Through the two intervening windows he could see the small concrete pod clearly, though he knew there would be nothing to see. Almost two hundred experiments, each exactly the same as the last. The computer in the control room would give a countdown from five to zero, a moment’s pause, then a count back up to five. Nothing else, just that.

But it was that moment’s pause that was important. There would be nothing to see in the control room, the lab or the heavily reinforced room in the corner. There would be no sound, no seismic rumble in the fabric of the building. But the computer and its fifteen daisy-chained slaves would capture over a million lines of data. And one day, deep in that data would be the key to the most fundamental property in the universe.

Professor Ronson slipped his glasses onto the end of his nose and took his Mont Blanc from the little pen rest on the left of his desk. It was his lucky pen. Or it might be one day. If he used it every time, it might be one day.

23 February 2013, he wrote. Pod test 197. Contents: Rana temporaria, photograph XC26998. Parameters: file PT13.278.

There were sixty pages of almost identical notes preceding this one in his current book. There were two other such books on the shelves behind him. He was tempted to continue writing, to fill in the next line – Result: Mission fail. He would be writing it soon enough, but superstition kept him from filling it in in advance. As the magnetic field within the sealed room dissipated he would write it, and then the real work would begin. He would sift through the data the computer had captured, always trying to find the tiny glitch that might explain why the experiment had failed again.

He scooted his chair up to the computer terminal and initiated the countdown. The monitor began its descent from five to zero.

He opened the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet and took out a box of kibbles. At the sound of the food rattling in its box, Tigger lifted his head from his paws. His tail wagged, but he didn’t move even when Professor Ronson shook a generous helping into the bowl which was placed just under the corner of the desk. Tigger put his head down again.

Michael Ronson glanced back to the screen. The display had reached 5 again. The only other thing it showed were the two now familiar words, in red, centred at the top: ‘MISSION FAIL’.

He froze, still holding the box of dog food. The hairs on his arms rose and he felt a sudden, deathly chill creep along his spine. Like a man who looks in a mirror and sees the face of a stranger staring back, he could not make any sense of what he was seeing. The display always taunted him with those two words: ‘MISSION FAIL’. Always just those two words.

But this time the display read: ‘MISSION COMPLETE’.

Had the computer found a new way to malfunction? Was it reading a failure as a success? He couldn’t believe those two words. He almost didn’t want to believe them after all this time. A universe of new possibilities crowded in on him. He jumped when his hand involuntarily dropped the kibbles back into the filing cabinet drawer.

He sprang from his seat in the control booth and ran the five yards to the door in the corner of the lab. He span the handle to ‘open’ and stepped into the little room that contained at its centre the pod itself.

The frog would most likely be dead. But that was OK: it would still prove something. It would prove that the pod had performed some operation.

But what if it was still alive? Would that mean nothing had happened, that the experiment had failed… that the computer was merely teasing him with that novel new message? Or would it mean that this little creature had actually been capable of surviving the experiment? For among the millions of lines of computer code, the white-boards of scrawled equations and the books full of notes, the one factor Professor Ronson had not been able to determine was perhaps the most important of all.

Could any living thing survive inside the pod in that Planck moment of utter oblivion?

He rested his hand on the pod’s handle. Yes, most likely the frog would just be dead.

But if was still alive… What next? A dog? A monkey?

A man?

No. One thing at a time.

He swung the handle to the open position and tugged the door. The air seal broke with a faint hiss. His heart rate went up another notch. Pressure differential. There was no reason for that. Space-time was warped, not reconstituted. The air (and everything else) inside the pod should be exactly the same, down to the last sub-atomic detail, as it had been when he closed the door five minutes ago.

The door must have been opened and reclosed at some point. And if it had been opened, it wasn’t the frog that had done it.

With a deep breath he pulled the door open.

He staggered back as if hit by an electic shock. After a moment of dumb, paralysed panic, he threw his weight against the pod’s door. There was a sickening crunch but the door stayed open a few inches. Even as he ran from the room and slammed the door between the small research booth and the main lab his mind began to throw possibilities at him. He pressed his face against the thick window and tried to see into the pod. His mind whirred.

The experiment had worked. The maths was right. The pod had created a quantum vacuum and initiated exactly the kind of hole through the space-time foam that it had been created for. But it also now posed questions that the computer data would not even begin to answer.

The frog he had used as the living element in so many previous experiments may or may not still be alive; it may or may not even still be in the pod.

But someone was. Someone had come back in the pod.

Where the hell had he sent it? Nowhere. The geographic coordinates were right here. But what if he was wrong – what if the maths had been wrong? One missed digit in the mass of a proton, an eighteenth power instead of a nineteenth for the elementary charge… then there were all the assumptions he’d had to make…

What else could be brought back? Plague? Hemorrhagic fever? Something newer and more deadly than HIV?

The man inside the pod had died of something.

There was a knock at the door. Michael jumped back from the booth’s window, convinced for a moment that the sound had come from the pod. A voice from the corridor outside the lab called his name, but his mind was spinning too fast to respond. He turned clumsily and leaned against the booth’s hermetically sealed door as if his weight might further seal it against the horrors that lay within.

A knock again, this time most definitely from outside. He had to keep whoever was out there, out there.

‘Michael?’ Three hard knocks on the door. ‘Are you there?’

It was David, his secretary’s lad. Not Simon Winchester, the head of faculty, telling him he was late (again) for an evening class; not even a student fishing for an extension on an assignment. Not a student of the university at all for that matter. Just David, but in a way he was more of a problem than any of them. David was inquisitive. He wanted to know stuff purely for the sake of knowing it, and despite his quiet, reticent nature, he was as sharp as any student Michael had taught in over twenty years. If he got in here now they would be here until Christmas discussing questions to which Michael had no answers.

‘Just a minute, David,’ he said.

He tiptoed across the lab and glanced back at the pod. From here it just looked like a concrete box with its door ajar, nothing suspicious. He turned the key and opened the door into the corridor a couple of inches.

‘David,’ he said, trying to resist the temptation to look behind him again. ‘What can I do for you?’

‘You said to come. It’s seven o’clock.’

‘Is it?’ He looked at his watch but didn’t register what it said.

‘We were going to go over my maths project. De Moivre’s theorem? You said it would be complex.’

‘Did I?’ Tigger trotted over from the control room and sat at the professor’s heel, wagging his tail. He liked visitors.

‘I think it was a joke,’ David said. ‘Complex numbers in trigonometry?’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘Are you all right? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’

‘Fine. Just, in the middle of an experiment.’

‘Can I help? You always say the best way to solve a problem is to recruit another brain.’

‘No, really, it’s quite sensitive at the moment. But look, there’s a faculty get-together tomorrow night. Your mother’s coming, so why don’t you tag along too? Rajiv Lahar’s going to be there. I’d like you to meet him.’

‘Rajiv Lahar as in the Lahar conjecture?’

‘Yes. If you’re looking for a university for next year, you could do a lot worse than study under him.’

‘Wow. Thanks.’

‘It’s not a free pass, but it can’t hurt. Leave your project with me and I’ll give it look. We can discuss it tomorrow. Maybe even show Rajiv if it’s as good as I’m guessing it will be.’

‘Great.’ David handed the slim folder of notes through the crack in the door. ‘You’re sure you’ll be here? The project’s got to be in first thing Monday, or I’ll get a fail on that unit.’

‘Of course. I’ll be here. But David, I’ve really got to get on.’

‘Yes, absolutely. I’ll see you tomorrow then.’

Professor Ronson closed the door and leaned his head against it for a moment, breathing hard. Tigger looked up at him, disappointed.

‘I know, I know,’ Michael said. ‘If he can’t even grasp imaginary trig without me giving it a once-over, what hope has he got with Lehar? But I had to tell him something.’ He bent down and ruffled the Jack Russell’s fur.

As the sound of David’s trainers squeaked away down the parquet flooring outside, Professor Ronson walked back to the little room that contained the pod. Tigger wandered back to the control room. With the disconsolate crunching of kibbles as his accompaniment, the professor opened the booth’s door and stepped over to the pod.

The pod’s door was held open by the wrist-bones of a human forearm. Bones, just bones, no trace of flesh left on them at all. If there had been anything airborne in there, it had been released the moment the door first opened, so there was no point worrying about it now. He opened the door a little further.

Lying along the length of the floor was a complete human skeleton. That, at least, was a good thing. Whatever had happened there could not have been enough time for the total decomposition of a body. The skeleton must have been placed inside the pod as a skeleton, not a living person, and it was unlikely that a skeleton would be carrying any deadly pathogen. If he was careful, the risks should be minimal.

But why had it been put in the pod… and by who?

He prodded the skeletal human forearm with his lucky Mont Blanc pen and wondered how the hell he was going to explain a dead body in the lab.

Then, almost in the same mental breath, he decided he wasn’t going to bother trying. No one from the university, not even the head of faculty, ever came into his lab. All the tutorials were conducted in the physics lecture theatre, and Brenda Tweed had her office at the end of the corridor with the other departmental secretaries. The death of this stranger was nothing to do with the university. It was nothing to do with Professor Ronson for that matter. The pod had picked him up somewhere, and even if the police did ever stumble upon the remains, no amount of forensic trickery could ever tie the man or his death to anything in the university.

The guy (or possibly gal; he hadn’t looked closely enough to know) was dead, and that was that. There were far more important questions to answer than why.

Like, had anyone tried to operate the pod manually while it had been away? The thought occurred to him, somewhat incoherently, that even if they had, they had clearly not succeeded. He had sent the pod back to the time of the Great Exhibition at the height of the industrial revolution in England. It was for no reason other than the first of May 1851 was the first date he thought of. So sure was he that the computer would again taunt him with the words MISSION FAIL, that he gave the destination parameters no more than a passing thought. He had simply chosen a time before the university had been built, when he was fairly sure this land was uncultivated heath – somewhere the pod would not be found. Except that someone had found it.

The logic that led him to assume the pod had not been operated manually was that if it had been, he probably wouldn’t be standing in it right now. If anyone had discovered how it worked it might have been sent somewhere else and, to all intents and purposes, been lost. Which led him to the brink of philosophical black hole. If the pod had been hijacked and lost, then it couldn’t still exist in his unique slice of time and space. And that meant that nor could he, or Tigger, or the university, or anything else. Time itself would have been changed, and there would be no place in it for him.

So the fact that the pod was here (or at least he perceived it as being here – another gaping logical void), suggested it had not been tampered with.

Eager to be rid of the body and get back to the main computer across the lab, he did only a brief survey of the pod’s interior. The little panel on the back wall, which may one day enable the machine to be operated independently of the lab, showed nothing unusual. The LED display mirrored the control booth’s monitor with the words MISSION COMPLETE. He navigated through the menus using the arrow keys beside the display and the coordinates too seemed to be unaltered.

He fancied that the hatch which hid the return capacitors may be slightly open, but he put that down to Tigger’s inquisitiveness. The roof hatch too seemed to be not quite fully into the lock position, but again that could be explained. He had obviously been a little sloppy in his preparation of what was almost certainly going to be another failed mission.

So, someone had found the pod (and left him a present), but had made no headway in discovering how it worked. No damage done. No philosophical event horizon breached.

He returned to the control room and found a large filing box. In under five minutes he had dismantled the skeleton, arranged it haphazardly in the box and stuffed the whole lot into an empty cupboard in the main lab.

It was only as he sat before the computer in the control room with a mug of strong coffee that the enormity of what had just happened really began to sink in. For so long the experiments had failed. He had got used to that failure. Success was going to take a lot more getting used to.

Phase one of the test was complete, and it had been a total, if rather shocking, success. Of the frog there had been no trace, so there was still a big question mark over the survivability of the process, but there was time for that. Now that the machine worked, there was all the time in the world for that.

A little more tweaking and he would try again with the dog – not for a long trip, just a few months maybe. If the pod was being found by someone (and it certainly looked that way), that someone would probably look after Tigger for a while. If not, the dog would be a casualty of science, just one of those things.

He had proved that the pod was capable of making the journey; now he had to know whether anything was capable of surviving it.

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