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?
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…
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