by Chesney Parker
It all started with the deafening explosion that threw Jason Millstone to the ground. Then a wall collapsed on top of him and he could not get free; his leg was pinned by a large girder.
Rubble and debris was scattered everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except for the spot 200 metres away where the laboratory had stood a just few seconds earlier. In that area there was nothing; nothing at all. It was absolutely clean and totally devoid of any man made item. The large square of red sand, marking out the spot where it had stood, was completely flat and smooth, as if a road roller had just passed over it. The whole building has just vanished, leaving the rest of the site complex in ruins.
When Jason saw this peculiar aspect of the scene, he almost forgot the pain that wracked his body and tried to sit up in order to get a better view. As he did so, the jagged edges of the broken bones in his leg grated against each other and he gasped in agony. Then he collapsed into unconsciousness. He was still comatose when someone pulled the rubble away from him a few minutes later and took him to the makeshift field hospital; a large tent that was still being erected on the outer edge of the destruction. They brought him in and laid him carefully beside about twenty other mangled and injured project workers, two of whom were already dead.
To say that the experiment had gone horribly wrong, was, of course, an understatement. Everyone knew the line of research was risky, especially since the actual scientific principles involved were still not fully understood. This was why the lab had been located in the Simpson Desert, in the remote centre of Australia. It was one of the few places left on Earth that was not populated. Even so, many critics of the project had said for some time that the research should really be done in space, well away from any of the populated planets in the Solar System. Those critics, including Jason Millstone (scientific adviser to the Minister of Science and Technology), would now be able to gloat over how right they were.
The day before the explosion, when Jason had first arrived at the base, he had been in the laboratory with Professor Gleeson. Gleeson was a tall, thin man, with thick black hair and very deep set, antagonistic eyes. Jason had been questioning him on the safety procedures when Gleeson had suddenly whirled on him with a fierce look in his eyes.
“Look here Millstone. Let me make one thing absolutely clear. I don’t like you and I don’t like what you stand for. I tolerate your presence because there is a very explicit directive from the chief that says I should not interfere with your work, but I will thank you to grant me the same courtesy!” He turned sharply away and bent over the apparatus he had been examining on the work bench, presenting a very cold back to the Government man.
Jason became flushed with anger as he moved to Gleeson’s side to try and gain some degree of eye contact. “But this is my work. I need to know what precautions you’re taking to prevent a premature activation of the field. I know enough about this technology to realise you still haven’t the slightest idea of the level at which the thing will activate.” He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and then replaced them quickly as Gleeson glared sideways at him. Jason had forgotten that smoking was forbidden in the laboratory.
“Alright. Alright!” said the Professor, straightening up and stepping forward so he towered over Jason. “We know the particle speed they achieved in the Johnston Experiment just before it blew up. There were remote recorders monitoring all aspects of it. On top of that, we have now learned much more about the behaviour of antimatter and we can detect the resonance associated with breakdown before it actually occurs. “There is absolutely no way we can experience a premature activation of the field.”
Then he took Jason by the arm and, with an unnecessarily strong grip, propelled him to the other side of the large room. “And see this?” He indicated a bank of super computers. “This is an independent monitoring system. It tracks every aspect of each move we make. It sets up an electromagnetic grid that encloses the entire laboratory so that nothing is missed. If anyone makes a move that appears to be dangerous, it shuts the whole place down and sounds the most god awful alarm you’ve ever heard.” Gleeson swung the Government man around and pinned him by both arms in his vice like grip. “Are you satisfied? Can I get on with my work now?”
Jason nodded and waited for the Professor to release him, noticing that, despite the outward show of emotion, the man was icily calm in all his movements and gestures. The Professor held his gaze for a few seconds, then turned on his heels and walked quickly back to his work bench, dismissing Jason as if he had never existed. There was obviously no way Jason could reason with Gleeson. He was totally fixated on his own rightness.
Jason shuddered as a chill ran down his spine. He was not at all comfortable about such a man being directly in charge of the most important (and possibly the most dangerous) scientific undertaking since space flight had been achieved three centuries earlier.
He turned to look at the watchdog computers Gleeson had indicated. They were sitting on a small table near the wall. There were five of them in all, each with its own sensing antenna pointing out into the room. They didn’t look very impressive, but then, they didn’t have to be large to be powerful. There were undoubtedly trillions of circuits inside each one of those small boxes. “But,” Jason wondered, “were they programmed with sufficient data to be able to detect all possible forms of disaster?” With his scientific background, he knew there was no possible way they could have been. No one really knew how antimatter would react in this context, so if the experimenters did something that created a yet unknown danger, the super computers were useless.
Jason left the laboratory and headed across the hot red sand to the office buildings on the other side of the complex. It was afternoon and the relentless sun shone down from a cloudless blue sky. Out beyond the main compound he could see the scruffy desert grass stretching all the way to the hazy horizon in a dead flat pattern of shimmering yellows and reds. There were no hills in this area; only the occasional large rock formation which stuck out of the ground as if to defy the reality that this was an ancient worn down continent. Outback Australia hadn’t changed much since it was first colonised nearly 500 years earlier. In fact, it probably hadn’t changed much in fifty thousand years.
He stepped into his office, lit a welcome cigarette, sat down at his desk and told his portable communicator to connect him with Canberra. He added the scrambler code as the screen on the opposite wall lit up with a three dimensional view of the Minister’s secretary. She was gazing back at him with an air of important efficiency. “Hello Doris. Is he in?”
“Yes, but he has someone with him. He’s almost finished though. Hey, I thought you stopped smoking”
“I did. But I took it up again this morning when I met Professor Gleeson. Boy, he’s a nasty piece of work. You know…”
“Just a second Jay. The boss is free. I’ll switch you through.”
The picture on the screen shifted smoothly to the office of the Minister of Science and Technology. “Hello Jason. How’re you doing out there?”
“I’m not too happy, sir. It’s pretty much as I suspected and that’s not good.”
“But, damn it! We’ve got to have that space warp. It’s the only answer to the population problems. If we don’t get some positive results before the next election, I’ll be out of a job and so will you!” The Minister stabbed a black finger at him to emphasise the point.
Jason shifted in his seat, but held his ground. “I know that, sir. But there’s a very real safety issue here. I’m convinced these neutron heads don’t know what they’re dealing with. Oh, they know they can produce certain results that indicate the possibility of being able to project matter across vast distances instantaneously, but they don’t know why it happens. They don’t understand the underlying reasons for it all and that means it has to be dangerous. I still think the whole project should be moved to a space station out beyond Jupiter somewhere. I mean, who knows what would happen if they accidentally activated the field?” He was flushed again and was also sweating, despite the cool atmosphere in his office.
“Well, I’ve told you before. I’ll need much more than your theories to take that course of action. It would delay the whole project beyond the next election and I don’t think we’d survive that, not to mention the untold billions it would cost to relocate. So get me some proof – some concrete proof – and I’ll consider it. By the way, I thought you gave up smoking.”
Jason looked at the cigarette in his hand and realised he had just lit it from the stub of the previous one while the Minister was talking. “Er, yes I did. But that was before I found I had to come out here and work so close to Armageddon.”
“Oh, come on! You’re exaggerating again.”
“No sir, I’m not. These guys are flying so blind, they could make a wrong move and send the whole of Australia to the other end of the universe and then where would we be?”
The Minister smiled briefly at the unintended pun, then said, “Well, you get me some solid evidence that such a thing is possible and I’ll take a look at it. Meantime, better keep your passport up to date.” He grinned broadly and then switched off. The screen went blank and Jason sat there staring at it for some time before he broke the circuit at his end.
The next day, after a sleepless night, he was again in the laboratory, observing the work and asking questions of the staff. He avoided Professor Gleeson as much as possible, but found those cold eyes piercing him from across the room on many occasions. At one stage, Jason was engaged in a discussion with one of the technicians about the probable results of activating the field prematurely, when Gleeson came over and interrupted.
“Haven’t you caused enough disruption for today?”
“If you consider it disruption, I’m sorry, but I consider it vital to the safety of everyone on the project and maybe even beyond. Kent here was just telling me that the Johnston Experiment exploded because of conflicting vectors; that the energies were attempting to send the same piece of matter in two directions at once. Now that didn’t come out in the original enquiry. I’ve read the transcript. What are you doing to prevent such a thing from happening here?”
The ferocity in Gleeson’s eyes increased as he stared at Jason for several cold seconds, apparently debating with himself whether to answer or not, then he said, stiffly, “The phenomenon of conflicting vectors is one of the many discoveries this team has made. We know about it now and we can control it.” He began to turn away.
“But, don’t you see? This is my point. There’s so much we don’t understand about the whole subject. What if there are other aspects to the thing that still remain undetected? Are you going to stumble about blindly until you fall over another one?”
“Now that’s enough Millstone! I have agreed to allow you access to the laboratory and to question my staff, but I will not tolerate inane questions and scare tactics.” The man Jason had been talking to began to say something, but Gleeson cut him off with a quick, vicious glance. The man shut his mouth, but retained the worried look on his face. “So,” continued the Professor, “If you’re quite finished with your infernal questions, I’d like to get the next phase of today’s schedule under way.”
Jason did not move. “And what is that?”
“We are taking the particle speed up to the next level, if you must know.”
“How close is it going to the danger level in the Johnston Experiment?”
Gleeson whirled on him and grabbed his arm, dragging him away to a quiet corner before saying, “Look! I’ve had enough of this. You’re beginning to upset the staff. So, either you agree to confine your paranoia to those occasions when there is no one else in earshot, or I will call a halt to the project right now and report the whole matter directly to the Minister.” He was still holding Jason’s arm and it was beginning to hurt.
Jason looked up at him and thought carefully about the implications of what had just been said. “Ok. You’re right, of course. I should be more discreet with my approach to this.” He realised it would do no good at all to drag the Minister directly into the fray. That would put Jason in a bad light, making it seem he was incapable of handling the situation.
Gleeson visibly relaxed and let go of Jason’s arm. “Good. I knew you’d see reason, eventually.” Then he smiled. It was the first time Jason had seen him smile, but there was no warmth in it. “Now, why don’t you come and watch the run. All the systems are primed and ready to go. And I have a feeling we’re getting close.” He smiled again; professional excitement getting the better of him.
“Er, no thanks. I have some things to do back at the office. I’ll check with you later.” The truth of the matter was that Jason was still somewhat frightened of the whole thing, and needed a cigarette.
“Suit yourself,” said Gleeson, assuming his more normal appearance of antagonism.
Outside, the weather was an exact duplicate of the day before and Jason tried to stay in the shade of the buildings as he made his way back to the office compound. It was as he was passing the large storage facility, where they kept the ancillary scientific equipment that the explosion occurred. Everything in the immediate vicinity of the lab was destroyed, including the building beside which Jason was walking. It was a miracle more people weren’t killed. But it was more than miraculous that the lab itself disappeared completely, leaving an empty space on the smooth flat sand. The area where it had stood was bounded by a sharp straight line, beyond which there was only devastation and destruction.
Three days later, Jason was sitting up in bed looking out the window of the new hospital ward that had been set up in the canteen; one of the few buildings to sustain only slight structural damage. His leg was in a cast which was strung up in a support jig at the end of his bed. He, and most of the others who were injured, should have been transferred to the Alice Springs hospital, but there was a tight security blanket over the entire place. No one was allowed to leave.
Jason had been pondering the fate of Professor Gleeson and his team. It was obvious that the warp field had, indeed, been activated prematurely, sending the entire laboratory to some unknown spot elsewhere in the universe. If the transition had not killed them, they undoubtedly died within a minute of arriving, for their most probable destination would have been the open vacuum of space.
Outside Jason’s window, the clean up was still in progress, but no one had touched the peculiar blank area where the lab had once stood. That section had a fence around it now, with armed guards posted 24 hours a day. The scientists didn’t know what to make of it and they wanted no interference with the bizarre blank patch of sand until they had figured out whether or not they could learn something from it.
Jason could see the fenced off area quite clearly from where he sat, now that the buildings in between had been levelled and most of the debris removed. And he was actually looking at that enigmatic patch of sand when the entire laboratory suddenly reappeared, followed by a deafening crash, like a clap of thunder. The guards were knocked flat by the displacement of air when the the lab landed, but they quickly got to their feet, apparently unhurt.
Jason stared in amazement at the unbelievable sight for several minutes, unable to grasp the enormity of the event. Finally, as he sat there with his mouth gaping open, the door of the lab slid aside and Professor Gleeson stepped out. He was smiling as he came through the door, but his smile quickly turned to utter confusion as he looked at the chaos surrounding him. He stood there for quite some time, steadying himself against the door frame.
Jason’s thoughts were racing. The implications were mind boggling. How had they managed to survive?
The fifteen members of the laboratory team were quickly isolated from the rest of the people on the base and brought to the hospital for a check up. As soon as the examinations were complete, a debriefing was convened. Jason insisted on being taken to the room in a wheel chair to hear what was going on, then the doors were locked and an electronic security screen was set up to keep the meeting absolutely private.
None of the team was injured in any way. They all sat around a large canteen table, looking somewhat bewildered and talking in hushed voices amongst themselves. The Director of the base called the meeting to order and addressed Professor Gleeson. “Jim, what happened in there?”
Gleeson looked at the Director, then at Jason. “We ran the scheduled test with the particle speed up to 73.4, that’s two points higher than the maximum recorded in the Johnston Experiment. And the vectors held. Everything appeared normal. In fact, the test proved that we could, indeed, hold the vectors steady under maximum stress conditions. If I hadn’t seen the devastation outside, I was ready to go to the next step and actually send a piece of matter across the room. But what happened out here? And how did it happen so fast?”
Jason was frowning. He had no idea Gleeson was planning to exceed the Johnston maximums, or that they were so close to actually operating the warp field itself. “Good God man! Why didn’t you tell me that last Wednesday?”
Gleeson looked at him with a superior expression on his face. “You weren’t here last Wednesday. You only arrived yesterday.”
Jason stared blankly at him for several seconds and then comprehension suddenly dawned on him. “What time is it, Professor?”
Gleeson looked at his watch. “Fourteen thirty five,” he said and several others in his team confirmed his statement.
Jason wheeled himself over to the window, which had been opaqued ever since they had entered. “I don’t know how to tell you this gentlemen,” he switched the window control to clear and the red rays of the setting sun streamed into the meeting room, “But it’s not fourteen thirty five on Wednesday, it’s nineteen fifty three on Saturday.” He whirled round and faced the silent group. “You, the laboratory and everything inside that space, have been missing for over three days.”
Everyone started talking at once. Most of the men stood up and went to the window to look at the impossible sight. The Director let them babble for a full minute, then he called them to order and they sat down again.
Gleeson was the first to speak when the room was quiet, addressing the Director and avoiding Jason’s eyes. “But the vectors held, I tell you. I’m absolutely positive of that.” He sat there, clinging to his scientific position; flying blindly in the face of reality.
Jason said, “How many vectors are you talking about?”
“Why, three of course. There are only three spatial vectors; length, breadth and height.” He looked at the Government scientist with open contempt.
“What about time?” said Jason. “Isn’t that a dimensional vector under some circumstances?”
Gleeson opened his mouth to speak and then shut it again. He turned to one of his men and began a highly technical discussion that very few in the room could follow. Everyone could see, however, that the longer they talked, the more excited they became.
Jason was right, of course. With three of the four vectors held in stasis, there was only one way to go when the particle speed exceeded maximum.
And that’s how the technology we are so familiar with today was discovered last century. The ability to safely transport objects and people instantaneously in any of four dimensional directions, including time, is an established fact of life today. And it’s difficult to imagine what it must have been like before the space/time warp was fully developed. It must have been terrible to have been imprisoned in just one time zone, inside one tiny planetary system.
Today, the stars belong to us all and we can explore new planets and exciting time zones any time we please. It makes life so much more interesting, don’t you think?