Chapter 3

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Chapter 3: Into the Unknown

Three sets of footsteps sounded along the deserted corridor: the gentle creak of tentative trainers, the scuff-shuffle of careless boots and the delicate click-clack of sensible but not-quite-flat court shoes. The clink of glasses and the burble of intense conversation from the party – if that was the right word for it – gradually thinned and faded behind them.

In making his arrangements to meet Michael and Rajiv Lehar, David had forgotten that he had also bought one of three tickets for a Saxon gig at the Danemere festival that night. He could take or leave 70s heavy metal, but Toby was militantly committed to it and, for now at least, where he went Sarah always followed. And where Sarah went David did his best to tag along.

By the time they were half way along the corridor to Professor Ronson’s lab it was almost dark. The light from the lecture theatre shone from polished doorknobs and the glass of blacked-out windows, but was growing weaker by the moment. It was also unnaturally quiet. The only sound was three sets of footsteps, one of which was sounding more and more guilty by the second.

Sarah was David’s oldest, best, and possibly only, friend. They had known each other since before infant school, and they knew about all that mattered about each other. David had been responsible for the little, almost invisible scar above her right eye; she had been (at least partly) responsible for his broken arm when he was eight. She knew he was terrified of spiders; he knew her middle name was Beatrice, and very few people knew facts like those.

But Sarah was also Toby Mann’s girlfriend. David knew that it was a short-term thing, certainly no longer than their A-level years. Toby was just a distraction. He was mad, bad and (in his own eyes at least) mildly dangerous. But the time would come when she would move on to do a sports science degree and develop her blossoming swimming career. Toby would move on to be unemployed for as long as he could get away with it.

They weren’t exactly a happy trio, but now and then David was allowed to go along with them and he took whatever opportunities he could. He was patient. He could play the long game. He and Sarah shared a past; they might just share a future. He lived in hope if not expectation.

They had arrived at the university at seven, leaving enough time for David to meet Rajiv Lehar, impress him with his grasp of De Moivre’s theorem (he hoped) and still make the gig for eight o’clock.

Things had not quite worked out that way. David had left his friends parked in the Vice Chancellor’s reserved space and followed the sound of the low-key party into the physics lecture theatre.

He was the youngest in the room by a good thirty years. Worse, other than his mother, Michael Ronson’s long-suffering secretary, he knew no one. The head of faculty, who David knew by sight from his photograph in the entrance lobby, was on the stage setting up a microphone. About forty other guests, mostly in casual chinos and sweaters or dresses which never had been and probably never would be quite fashionable, milled around with glasses in hand. David wandered among them. None of the guests paid him any attention. He was dressed just about smartly enough not to look like a student but at seventeen, he could not have passed for an academic either.

He did one circuit of the lecture theatre then went back to the main doors straight through the crowd.

Michael was not there.

After much enquiry, it transpired that Professor Ronson had taken Rajiv Lehar, Clair Welbeck (a maths professor from a prestigious American university) and Maurice Fournier (holder of the Stein prize for particle physics) out for dinner. They were coming back, but curtain-up for a Saxon gig was not part of their calculations for when. Michael had made another huge stride in his research into the nature and uses of the quantum vacuum and he wanted to explore some ideas with like-minded colleagues. (He would be discrete, but if they wheedled the whole story from him after their fourth bottle of wine, that was OK. He had all the proof he needed now; Tigger was alive and well and sleeping in the control booth back at his lab.)

For David, missing the gig would have been bad; missing out on a chance to meet the author of the famous Lehar Conjecture even worse, but there was something that trumped even those two scenarios. The professor still had his maths project in the lab: the project that had to be handed in on Monday or he could forget studying with Lehar or anyone else next year.

And if Michael wasn’t here now when he was supposed to be, there was no saying he would be here over the weekend. David needed that assignment, and he needed it now.

He had returned to Toby’s ancient Vauxhall Astra to explain that there was just one more thing he had to do before they could leave. Toby (and therefore Sarah) had accompanied him back into the university to make sure he didn’t dawdle.

Again, no one paid them any attention.

In near darkness and running out of time, they reached Professor Ronson’s lab.

David knocked, but knew the professor hadn’t returned early from his dinner. There was no light under the door and the room was too quiet. He tried the door handle with a similar lack of expectation. Tigger barked from within (which meant Michael planned to be back at some point this evening), but however much the little Jack Russell loved visitors, there wasn’t much he could do about a locked door.

‘So what now?’ Sarah said.

‘Mum’ll have a key in her office somewhere. Wait here.’

‘No need, Dave,’ Toby said. ‘I bet I could pick it before you’d even get to the end of the corridor.’

‘No!’ David said. ‘Just wait here.’

‘The Wheels of Steel won’t wait, Dave. And if they roll before we get there…’

‘Then let’s not waste any more time debating it. I’ll get the key.’

David jogged off along the corridor.

It took him five minutes of hunting through drawers, under piles of paper and even down the backs of the filing cabinets to find the key. He found three keys in her raincoat pocket. One he recognised as their front door key; one was of unknown provenance; the third was at least of the type he had seen Michael unlock his door with before one of their maths masterclasses. He couldn’t be certain it was right but it was the only likely candidate he could find.

His five minute absence had been about four minutes too long. Toby and Sarah had gone. The corridor was empty and even Tigger had stopped trying to encourage his visitors to make that final bit of effort to visit him. Certain now that his evening would consist of nothing more exciting than sitting in a corner nursing half a coke and waiting for Michael to return, David slipped the key into the lock. It turned uselessly. He withdrew it and leaned on the handle.

The door swung open.

‘Told you I’d get in here long before you could,’ Toby said. He flicked on a light and David rushed into the lab and closed the door behind him.

‘Very clever,’ he said. ‘Let’s just get my notes and get out of here before anyone comes.’

David pushed past Toby and went into the control booth where he and Professor Ronson usually had their meetings. His manilla folder of notes were on the end of the desk. He clicked on the desk light and flicked through the pages to make sure everything was still there. It would be just about par for the course if he handed the work in only to discover an hour later that Michael had taken the final page of proof out of the back.

‘So what is this place? Sarah said. She was standing in the corner of the control booth with Tigger in her arms.

‘He’s working on something to do with quantum clocks,’ David said without looking at her. ‘For long distance space travel. Ordinary clocks don’t work.’

‘So what’s that?’ Toby said nodding in the direction of the pod. ‘Looks like a bog.’

‘I don’t know. He said something about trying to create a quantum vacuum. I’m guessing it was to test the clocks. Come on.’

‘We’ve got a minute,’ Toby said. ‘I want a look.’ He strode over to the booth in the corner and heaved the heavy door open. The pod’s own door stood ajar and Toby went right in.

‘Don’t touch anything,’ David said. By now he had followed Toby into the booth. Sarah stood behind them in the doorway still holding the dog.

‘What, like this.’ Toby pressed a button marked ‘OPERATE’ on the back panel of the pod. A small display flashed into life. Tigger wriggled out of Sarah’s arms and ran as fast as the polished floor would allow back into the control room. He looked a little fatter than David remembered, and also better brushed.

As Tigger scurried into the safety of the control booth the computer on Professor Ronson’s desk whirred into life. On the monitor was a mirror of the display inside the pod. One by one the slave processors came on line until a bank of red LEDs flashed expectantly at the back of the room.

‘Operate what?’ Toby said.

‘I don’t know,’ David said. ‘Let’s just get out of here.’

Toby pressed a random combination of buttons on the control panel and the display changed. In small, demure grey letters it read ‘REPEAT DESTINATION?’ A flashing cursor hovered at the end of that ominous line of text. On the left of the screen were the words ‘CONFIRM’ and ‘DENY’.

‘Destination?’ Sarah said. ‘This thing can move?’

‘I doubt it,’ Toby said. ‘It weighs about ten tons by the look of it. But it’s worth a try.’

‘No!’ David tried to pull Toby away from the panel, and was surprised that Toby did actually move. He pushed past David and Sarah to the pod’s door and heaved it closed. Immediately a dim red light mounted in a wire cage on the back wall came on. Inspired by the fact that he seemed to have breathed life into the machine, Toby squeezed back along the pod to the control panel.

‘Let’s just see how brilliant your Mr Ronson really is, shall we?’ he said.

‘No!’ Sarah said. ‘We’ve no idea what this thing is!’

‘Well he wouldn’t have left it lying around where students can get at it if it was dangerous, would he?’ Toby said.

‘It wasn’t lying around,’ David said. ‘The door was locked, remember?’

‘Not very well.’ By chance Toby found a combination of keys on the pad that moved the cursor around the screen and navigated to the word ‘CONFIRM’. He pressed the ‘OPERATE’ button again, still not expecting much.

And not much was exactly what he got. The machine wanted more confirmation before it would actually do anything.

The display changed to three lines of numbers. The top two consisted of four pairs of digits; the final line a group of four followed by four more pairs. There was no indication what these digits referred to. At the bottom of the screen were the words EMERGENCY RETURN; on the left side the familiar CONFIRM and DENY.

In the control booth the RAID drives chattered and the thick three-phase power cables send a surge of electricity to the return capacitors in the pod. Ten seconds later it switched half of its power to buffering the electricity required to send the machine into the quantum vacuum.

‘Con-firm-or-de-ny?’ Toby said in a poor impersonation of a Dalek.

‘We’ve got to get out of here,’ David said. ‘Now.’

‘One button. It can’t take long. It’s not as if this thing can actually go anywhere. Yes, no, yes, no.’ He toggled the cursor up and down between the two words on the left of the screen. In the control room a second monitor changed its readout to CHARGED.

Toby turned to Sarah with a mischievous grin and, without looking where the cursor was, pressed OPERATE.

‘Shit, Toby, turn it off!’ David shouted. Above the three lines of numbers a new display had appeared. In the time it took for David to speak it had moved from ‘5’ to ‘4’.

Shocked by the panic in David’s voice (at most he usually just whined) Toby turned back to the screen. ‘4’ became ‘3’.

He stabbed at the cluster of buttons and got the cursor to the middle line of numbers. Suddenly sure he had gone too far this time, he tried to get the cursor to something that might terminate whatever it was he had done, but he succeeded only in making the final two pairs of digits change slightly.

‘2’

‘Not that!’ David said. ‘Hit OPERATE!’

‘What?’

‘1’

In a final desperate attempt to abort the operation, Toby got the cursor to the bottom line of numbers and then stabbed repeatedly at the ‘OPERATE’ button. The bottom line of numbers disappeared.

‘0’

The was a slight shudder in the pod, followed by an instantaneous lurch which each of them would subsequently remember in entirely different ways. The moment was so short that none of them were really aware it had happened at all at the time. Only later did it form into real memory, the kind none of them would ever forget.

Sarah spoke of the feeling of diving into ice cold water – an instant locking of all the body’s autonomic functions, a gasping feeling of being suddenly mortally exposed. It was an adrenaline rush, but it was horror too.

Toby never shared his experience with the others because his recall was of an incident no one, not even Sarah – especially not Sarah – could ever know about. Six months ago, his brother had briefly experimented with crystal meth (Ben was one of the lucky ones who had been able to make the experiment brief) and Toby had tried a hit. It was a laugh; it was a piece of secret knowledge that would set him apart; it was a way to save face as Ben had waved the little glass pipe at him. He inhaled, not deeply, but not deeply was quite deeply enough. His mind slipped. Everything was turned up maximum, his brain surged and buzzed like powerlines in a thunderstorm. He was invincible, powerful, on the brink of anything and everything he could or ever would do. Then just as suddenly the hit had crashed into paranoia and fear. The machine did all that, but it did it in less than a heartbeat.

David felt very little, just a momentary sensation of weightless free-fall, the lurch of stepping up to a step that isn’t there. His stomach tightened and his eyes, already wide with panic, widened further. Then it was gone, his foot safely on the ground.

As each of them stood staring at the others, the display silently counted back up from zero to five. Then it changed to MISSION COMPLETE and everything else on the screen vanished. None of them saw it; no one was looking.  

‘Told it was useless,’ Toby said. ‘Didn’t do a thing.’ His voice was dull and quiet in the confines of the machine. ‘Let’s get out of here.’

He pushed his way to the pod’s door and turned the handle. The door did not move. He swung the handle back to LOCK then again to the OPEN position and tried again. Still it wouldn’t not move.

‘What the hell is this?’ he said.

‘It’s a door,’ David said.

‘The you open it, smartass.’

David tried, but the door would not move.

‘Are we locked in here? David?’ Sarah reached over his shoulder and pushed.

‘I don’t know, do I? Toby got us into this, so maybe he can explain how we’re supposed to get out.’

‘As a matter of fact, I can,’ Toby said. ‘There’s a hatch in the roof. Give me a leg-up.’

With Sarah pressed against the cupboard that held the return capacitors, David cupped his hands and lifted Toby to the small circular hatch in the pod’s roof. Toby rotated the handle and pushed.

A thin grey light filtered in through the hatch. Toby peeped out over the rim and looked around. Silently he motioned for David to let him down.

‘This some kind of joke?’ he hissed.

‘No,’ David said. ‘Why?’

‘What the hell is this thing? What’s Ronson working on here?’

‘I told you. It’s a machine that creates a quantum vacuum. It can compress space, maybe time, down to virtually nothing then rebuild it.’

‘And did he tell you it can rebuild it somewhere else?’

‘You’re joking,’ Sarah said. ‘So it can move? So where are we?’

‘I have no idea,’ Toby said. ‘But I’m going to find out. And when I do, I’m going to find Ronson and I’m going to push him through his damn vacuum.’

‘No,’ David said. ‘On that display was a line saying ‘EMERGENCY RETURN’. Let’s go back now, while we can.’

‘No way,’ Toby said. ‘You think anyone’ll believe us if we do?’

‘I wasn’t thinking of telling anyone,’ David said.

‘Forget it. We could have been killed by this thing. I’m going to find out where we are, and get proof of what he’s done. Now give me a leg-up.’

Reluctantly David heaved Toby back to the hatch. This time he opened it fully and wriggled up onto the sill and rested there half in and half out of the pod.

‘What’s up there?’ Sarah said.

Toby looked down at her and drew breath to speak.

He didn’t see the figures behind him. He never heard a thing until one of them slipped the black hood over his head and grabbed him under the arms.

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