By Ronan Frost
Copyright 2015 Ronan Frost
Rain wept through the canvas and clung to the sagging roof, a fat drop growing, quivering, then dropping to strike Fisher’s collar at the neck line, startling him from his somnambulant state. The Major leant across the desk, moustache twitching, hands splayed upon the map spread between them.
“Let’s get straight to the point, Doc. You Bletchley Park boys are neck-deep in national security already, so I don’t need to stress the importance of keeping all you see here under the same blanket of strict confidentially.”
“Of course,” answered Fisher quickly.
“National security,” re-iterated the Major, and with such gravity it merited a certain pause of introspection on Fisher’s behalf, despite his fatigue. In the distance, above the tattooing rain, there came three evenly spaced dull thuds of artillery fire.
The Major nodded. “At approximately oh-two-hundred we received reports of a flash in the sky in this area. On the assumption it was an unexploded Hun rocket we investigated, and what we found is unlike anything we have ever seen. There is a code printed on the top of the device: not German, not Japanese, which is why you have been called in.”
Fisher looked startled. “Is it a bomb?”
“Just how far away…” He swallowed. “Where, exactly, is this bomb?”
“A few paces from here, the next tent, in fact. This coast is sparsely populated and it was deemed wise to not move it.” The major snapped his sleeve away from his wristwatch. “The others are inbound as we speak.”
“A delegation are being flown in by the top brass. It’s going to get crowded in here very quickly, you’re lucky you were in the area. However, I suggest you don’t delay any further.”
“Look, I really don’t think that –”
“We don’t know if there is a timed fuse.”
“Fuse? Major, I think you’re got the wrong guy, there must be some mistake. I’m a code breaker, not a –”
Fisher felt himself being led by the elbow and through to an adjoining tent. Still mouthing his protests, his head ducked under the flap and he found himself in a space where the air hummed with spotlights focused upon a man bent in study where the canvas tent floor had been cut out in a rectangle, exposing white beach sand beneath.
“Professor, let me introduce you to Doctor Fisher,” said the Major.
The man bend over the hole raised his head and, looking distracted, spared Fisher a glance and raised himself upon his knees then crossed the space between them, his eyes hardly leaving the object he had left behind. He gave a cursory limp handshake.
Fisher saw the object, nose buried in the sand.
“That’s it?” he asked. “That’s the bomb? It’s smaller than what I imagined.” Already he felt his apprehensions fade as he took a few steps closer to the slender device. It looked like a javelin that had somehow been expanded about the midsection like an inflated balloon. The glazed sand around the impact crater made a crunching noise under Fisher’s feet, slick and hard like the crust of candy on a toffee apple.
“And just what did you imagine?” asked the Professor with some agitation. He looked at the Major. “What has he been told?”
The Major shook his head. “The first he heard was ten seconds ago.”
“Well, you know, for all the fuss,” Fisher cast his arms about, in a gesture meant to encapsulate the tent and the banks of lighting and the buzz of military activity.
“One thing I learned from the Manhattan Project,” said the Professor, “is not to judge the bang something can make by its size alone.”
Fisher squatted upon his haunches, mesmerized by the inscriptions. He reached out, and the Professor gave a sudden hiss of warning.
“Careful, it’s still warm.”
Fisher snatched back his fingers, then more cautiously reached forward, this time with hand outspread, judging the radiant heat against his palm. Warm, but not too hot. He drew his hands back, waggled his fingers before his eyes as if to prepare them for what he was about to do, then reached forward again, his fingertips fluttering over the surface of the impossibly ancient-looking surface and the indentations of what appeared to be some kind of text. When he drew his hand back he rubbed his forefinger against thumb, feeling a strange tingling sensation.
“I was just about to open one of these side panels,” said the Professor, putting on a pair of heavy duty asbestos gloves and then picking up a flat-headed screwdriver that lay upon a cloth by his side. He then proceeded to apply no small amount of torque to a side panel on the object.
“I’ve really got to be going,” said the Major in a strangely high voice, ducking out of the tent with an alacrity belying his size.
“Wait!” cried Fisher. “Are you sure –”
There was a sudden flash.
“– you should be going that?” finished Fisher, lamely.
The Professor looked up, blinking dumbly for a moment, then shook his head and coughed.
“Now hold on just a moment,” Fisher said, moving closer while eying the Professor suspiciously. “Let me get a look. These lines, they look like symbols; diagrams, orbits, mathematics.”
The Professor shook his head. “We have open this baby up if we’re to find out anything.” He had his fingers around the edge of a second panel and again there came a pop and flash like a shorting electric bulb.
“Empty again,” huffed the professor to himself, tracing his gloved finger through the thin ash residue.
“These markings, they look like some sort of alphabet…” Fisher reached for a pencil in his breast pocket and snatched a piece of paper from a packing crate. He reversed it to the blank side and began scribbling.
There was another flash and fizzle, and Fisher could have sworn the imprinted markings on the device had become less distinct, as if the metal had turned into mercury for a moment and had begun to smooth over.
“Professor, please, would you stop? We need to figure this out.”
“My directive was to investigate this bomb, and that’s what I shall do!”
Fisher lay his paper that was rapidly filling to overflowing with his pencil markings against the side of the nearby packing crack and sat back to study it, tapping the pencil against his teeth, then lunged forward and drew connections between groups of symbols.
“I think I have something,” he said.
The Professor had moved to a large free-standing toolbox, the type they use to work on cars, and was just returning carrying a large crowbar in his hands. His brows raised as he saw Fisher prodding at different symbols with his forefinger, the hollows of each symbol lighting up under his touch as if they were being filled with some strange fluorescent fluid.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?”
Fisher looked up and his gaze narrowed at the sight of the huge and obviously weighty crowbar between the Professors hands. “I might ask you the same.”
“Time is of the essence!”
“I think I have it figured out.” With a final push, Fisher illuminated a central circle, and suddenly a low buzzing noise filled the air and the whole outer surface of the device started to vibrate.
“Are you trying to get us killed?”
“No, it’s ok, look!” Fisher pointed, and a new set of symbols had illuminated in that strange blue inky glow. He hurriedly transcribed the symbols onto his sheet of paper in the margin where there was a tiny space left. “It’s a message!”
“Hitler sends his regards. Good job. Now, move out of the way, my boy!”
“No! Wait!” Fisher threw a leg over the device to try and shield it from the Professor’s advances, then gave a little dancing jig as the warm metal touched against the flesh of his inner thigh.
“Now what do you think you’re doing?” asked the Professor, resting the point of the crowbar in the sand and holding it at a jaunty angle to his body as if it were a magician’s staff. “Get off that, right now!”
“Give me some time, please Professor. This… this could mean something.” Fisher held out his sheet of paper. “This is a message. Let me see if I can decode it. Come on, you don’t honestly believe this is a bomb do you? It’s way beyond today’s technology.”
“The Japanese – ”
“Are not this advanced.”
“I’m not falling for your nonsense.” The Professor narrowed his eyes and hefted his crowbar again. “You’ve heard they’re sending Marshall and his boys? As soon as they get here, we’ll be kicked out.”
“You don’t know the man?” The Professor shook his head, as if to clear away a thought that had risen. “We have our history together. Suffice to say, this time I won’t be humiliated. No, this discovery is mine!”
“Professor, please, this is very important. Just give me an hour.”
The Professor drew in a breath, held it, then exhaled noisily through hairy nostrils.
“Don’t do anything,” said Fisher, getting off the device and brushing the sand from his pants. “I’ve got to make a phone call. I’ll be right back.”
The Professor watched Fisher dart through the gap in the tent, and then he was alone. He drove the crowbar into the sand and then took a walk around the circumference of the tent in a deliberately slow manner. He had barely completed one lap, however, when he cast a look at the motionless hanging tent flap and, reaching sudden decision, crossed to the center of the tent and crouched beside the device.
“One more, just to be sure,” he muttered to himself. This panel came away with no little work, and he was forced to remove one of his gloves to get better grip. He felt sure that under this panel would be the linkages that would be the key to solving the mystery of the device.
There was simply, however, a limp flash and pop. The Professor withdrew, shaking his head to himself, and checked his watch.
He was still pacing when, eleven minutes later, Fisher returned.
“Galactic co-ordinates,” he said, panting. “They’re galactic co-ordinates.”
“Now what in the world are you rambling on about?”
“I rang a friend at the observatory. It’s a star, four hundred and thirty light years away.”
Fisher looked at the device. The imprinted markings were shallow and rounded.
“Have you opened another panel?” he asked.
The Professor gave a nonchalant shrug. “Maybe.”
Fisher bit back whatever comment he was about to make and calmed himself. “There’s something communicating through this thing, I’m sure of it.”
“Preposterous!” exclaimed the Professor, but after a pause of several long seconds of noisy breathing, he said: “Who? You’re not suggesting…?”
“What if this is some kind of probe? From deep space, that has taken hundreds or maybe thousands of years to arrive.”
“The aliens have sent us a telephone?”
Fisher gave a hesitant shrug. “Come on, does it look like anything that has come from Earth?”
The Professor inclined his head, conceding the point.
“Then how does it work? If they are hundreds of light years away, then it’s impossible you can be communicating with them. Ever heard of a little theory called Relativity?”
“Yes, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. But what if this were some kind of quantum communicator? Electrons are entangled then forcibly separated, the spin information on each becomes opposite the other, undefined but correlated even when separated by distance.”
“Rubbish! Such a link cannot carry any meaningful message.”
“It goes backwards through time. Entanglement ignores time as it ignores distance.”
“Spooky action at a distance,” replied the Professor with a knowing smirk. “Rubbish! You think aliens prepared this little box,” he gestured at the device, his brows raised sarcastically, “With a special set of elements that were linked to another box, and the they sent one of these boxes off into the vague unknown of deep space –”
“Maybe they’ve got good optical instruments. Maybe it was deliberately aimed, maybe they saw us.”
“The us of a thousand years ago. We weren’t doing a lot to attract attention at that time.”
Fisher shrugged. “Even so, they took a bet. We get one of the boxes, and by manipulating parts of it the corresponding opposite parts in their box activate. We have instant communication!”
“Come on, you can’t be that stupid. Quantum mechanics is inherently statistical.”
“There’s a lot we don’t know. Come on, admit it, it may be possible.”
“With every button push, you’re using up the entangled particles.”
“It’s got a limited lifetime, yes. But by opening the panels you are exposing the particles to observation and destroying their wavefunction.”
“The wavefunction that extends hundreds of light years away? Give me a break!”
“No wait – ”
With a flourish the Professor drew away the last panel. The glowing symbols faded completely.
“Gone, it’s all gone!” Fisher ran his hand over the flank of the device, pushing hard, but there was nothing upon the now-cool metal but a slight surface roughness.
“Humanity’s only chance to communicate –”
“To aliens? Come on, get serious.”
“They are now further away than ever.”
“Hey, it’s your crackpot theory, not mine.”
“Well whatever it was, it’s useless now, there’s no way to recharge it.”
The Professor gave the device a kick with the toe of his boot. It made a dull hollow sound.
“Just supposing you’re right. Look, there’s no point getting everyone worked up about this. I mean, water under the bridge and all of that.”
They both looked up, startled like two school children caught red-handed as the Major suddenly burst into the tent. He looked at them both suspiciously.
“I heard shouting. The delegation is on its way.” The Major’s eyes narrowed as he sensed something suspicious. “Just what exactly has been going on here? Have you figured out what it is?”
Fisher pressed his fingers against the bridge of his nose and shot the Professor an accusing glare. The Professor, in response, gave an elaborately innocent shrug.
Fisher exhaled heavily.
“No sir. I guess it’s a dud.”