On 25 April 2053, the most important day of my life, everything in the world seems to be conspiring against my success.
I am hunched over the massive console that dominates the middle of the cavern. Our facility – the LOBE – consists of two rooms – the one I am in now, where we search for Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, or WIMPS; and the Neutrino Chamber, a vast tank half-filled with water and lined with sensors.
Dark matter is what we search for.
My name is Dougal Carles, and I am a man on the brink of insanity. It is a strange thing, searching for something that may not exist. Does strange things to the mind. And now, after fifty years of this search, I think I am beginning to see patterns. This leads me to ask two questions. 1) Am I finally decoding the mystery? And 2) Am I finally going insane?
I have made a resolution not to speak of it to anyone. Not even Agathe.
The buzzer goes off. Someone up top.
“No, no, no, no, NO!”
“What is it?” Agathe asks. I put up a hand, silence her. “Not… not now, dear,” I say, trying to keep my train of thought. You know when you’re trying to remember and it’s on the tip of your… brain… I squint harder at the readouts, trying to block out all distractions. The sound of a door creaking open, damn it! Raffy is just leaving the neutrino chamber. But couldn’t he do it a bit quieter?
Through the intercom, a low-res voice: “Professor? It’s Sam. I’m up top. Can you buzz us in?”
It’s hopeless. I let out a sigh, lean forward and push the talk button.
“Hi Sam. Can’t buzz you in, sorry. It’s not working.”
“Don’t worry lad. I’m on my way up.” I pause. “Did you said buzz us in?”
“Yeah. I’ve got my girlfriend with me. Tabitha. I’ve was going to show her around.”
I stand, sighing again. “On my way,” and flick the talk button off.
“That coffee ready?” I ask Agathe.
She gives me one of her shy little smiles. “It is.” She walks over with a cup. “Here you go Dougal.”
As the lift doors open, Raffy appears by my side. “Professor, can I quickly show you something…”
“Not now, Raffy,” I snap, stepping quickly into the lift, sloshing coffee on my lab coat. “Damn it.” I reach down to brush it off, then look up to see Raffy’s hurt expression disappearing behind the lift doors. He looks like he’s about to cry
As the lift starts ascending, I instantly regret my shortness. “Shit,” I curse quietly. Poor old Raffy. Wonder what he wanted to talk to me about?
The lift picks up speed. I watched the rock walls accelerate past the perspex. Have to get back to those readouts. Hopefully Raffy or Agathe could give Sam and his girlfriend the guided tour.
After about 20 seconds we are up to a respectable speed. I take a sip of coffee, watch it swirl. I remember my readouts, again… Damn it, it was just starting to form into something, which simultaneously excites and annoys me. After all, what business did particles have making sense? But it’ll get the American excited, which means money. Money we desperately, desperately need.
A good 7-8 minutes later the lift slows and the doors slide apart. Without disembarking I lean out and punch the release button for the outer door, which pops open, letting in an ice cold, howling wind.
That’s right. Cragness, for Newton’s sake. It always comes as a surprise, even after 20 odd years. The LOBE is on an island off the northern coast of Scotland, reachable only by ferry from John O’Groats. Two kilometres above our little underground paradise is a miserable, rain-drenched hell.
Sam and his girlfriend appear in the doorway, soaked head to toe.
“Come on lad, let’s go. In you get.”
The door automatically closes and seals behind them, and we’re enveloped by silence once more. Sam and his girlfriend start taking off their raincoats. She looks flustered, a bit out of her element.
I switch the mug to my right hand, lean forward. “Hi. I’m Dougal.”
She smiles, shakes my hand. “Hello Professor. I’ve heard a lot.”
“What was your name?”
“Oh, sorry,” she laughs. “It’s Tabitha. Tabs for short.” She is exactly like Sam in girl form. Bit awkward, dark hair, tall, quite charming. Perhaps a bit more confident than Sam though. Bit older too, I think.
“Right. Tabs. And what do you do, Tabitha?”
“I’m a nurse. Well, studying to be a nurse. Doing a placement at Caithness Hospital.”
“Poor you,” I say. She laughs. “Student loan?” Ooh. Probably a bit personal.
“Nope. All paid for by the NHS.”
I nod appreciatively. We are plummeting now, hewn rock faces flying up transparent walls. Tabitha looks a bit queasy. “And who pays for all this then?” she asks.
“Oh, the LOBE? An investor. American bloke.”
“Wants his name attached to a Nobel Prize before he croaks. Can’t blame him for that.”
“Sorry Professor,” Tabitha says. “At the risk of appearing ignorant, what does LOBE stand for?”
“I told you this, Tabs,” Sam whispers, poking her in the ribs.
“I can’t remember your geeky stuff, Sam. Just like you don’t share my enthusiasm for Famecast.”
“Oh come on, that’s hardly -”
“Large Obscure Bolometer Experiment,” I butt in. “That’s what it stands for.”
“Right,” Tabs says, face registering total incomprehension.
“He wanted to call it LUBE,” Sam chuckles. “I convinced him not to. Replace underground with obscure, I told him.”
“Sam’s big contribution,” I say, giving him a thwack on the back.
“You are 1 kilometre from the LOBE facility,” the lift interrupts.
“Professor,” Sam says. “You looked a bit pre-occupied when I called on the intercom before.”
“Have you found something?” There is the slightest hint of maniacal enthusiasm in his voice. He leans in eagerly. “New scintillations?”
For a second I consider telling him my crackpot theory. “I -”
The lift intercom crackles into life. “Dougal?” Agathe’s voice.
“Agathe? What is it?”
“It’s Raffy… please, you must…. just come quick.”
We hit bottom and the doors slide open. I walk quickly over to Agathe who is seated at the console. She points up at the monitor where I see Raffy, inside the neutrino tank, in the little inflatable dinghy.
“Repairing sensors?” I ask.
“No,” Agathe says, sounding worried. “He’s just sitting there, staring into space. He won’t answer me.”
Behind me, Sam is hanging up his and Tabitha’s backpack and coats. Tabitha is gawping at the sheer size of the place. “Bloody hell,” I hear her mutter. “What’s that big metal thing?” She’s pointing at the detector, which is no doubt a shock to behold the first time. 30-odd feet of shining metal, tubes, sciencey-stuff.
“That’s the WIMP detector. The Professor uses it to look for dark matter particles.”
“WIMP detector? Really?” She lets out an incredulous laugh. “How come its not going off now that you’re here?”
I turn my attention back to the monitor. “When did he go in there?” I ask.
“Just after you left… He was muttering, and then he went back in the neutrino tank. He’s locked himself in there, Dougal,” Agathe says. The image of Raffy was small, lost amidst row after row of sensors. Hell, its like a cathedral in there. A huge cathedral of sensor-candles, half filled with water. Quite spooky.
“He’s been spending more and more time in there lately,” Agathe says, just holding back the tears. “I didn’t…”
“Why didn’t you tell me, Agathe?” I demanded. She looks down. Always so quiet… Twenty years together, and it’s always me in the limelight, getting the accolades, giving the lectures. I suppose that would make anyone fade into the background.
“Well, just open the bloody door from here,” I say impatiently, leaning forward and smacking the release button. Nothing.
“He’s disabled it somehow.”
“I don’t know!” she says frantically, looking near breaking point herself.
Christ, what have I done?
I look up at the screen again. Sitting limply in the dinghy, Raffy has gradually drifted back closer to the camera. What the bloody hell is he up to in there? I take a breath, clear my throat, and find the button to patch the mic through to the neutrino chamber. When was the last time I used that thing? Years.
“Raffy,” I say evenly. “It’s Dougal. What’s going on mate?” I leave his end open, switch the intercom to the Genelecs to pick up more sound.
Something indistinct comes back. A muffled sentence. I’m gonna… what?
“What was that, mate? I couldn’t hear you.”
Agathe puts a hand to her mouth. “I’m gonna bring it all down,” she says. I turn to look at her. Her eyes are wide with fear. “That’s what he said, I think.” Sam and Tabs are beside us now, looking concerned.
“Has he got his netphone in there with him?” Tabs asks.
“His phone? What’s that got to do with anything?”
Tabs is calm, despite my rudeness. “I don’t want to call him, Professor.” I have no idea what she’s talking about. I pull out my own phone, quickly find his number, thrust it at her. She pulls out a slim black unit, like a cellphone but narrower, and copies in the number from my cell screen. A few seconds later, a bunch of oscillating readouts and graphs pop up on her screen; Raffy’s vitals.
“He’s ingested something,” she says. “His heart rate is elevated, look at this.” She holds the screen up to me. 176 bpm.
I’m getting bloody worried now. I hit the talk button again. “Look Raffy, whatever it is mate, we can talk about it, right? No need for all this carry on, mate!” I laugh nervously.
“I’m gonna BRING IT ALL DOWN!” roars through the Genelecs, making the cones pop.
Holy shit. He’s lost it.
Then a sob. Raffy is facing away from the camera. “I can’t fucking take it any more.” His voice is strained, tortured. “Can’t take being down here. You don’t respect me, I’m not your equal, am I Professor? Just your facilitator. Your servant. After all those years at Cambridge together. And to think,” he laughs bittery, “I had the naivety to suppose you might want to see what I’d found! Haha! Ha!” He turns, looks up at the camera, teeth gritted. “I wanted to show you. But you chucked it back in my face. You don’t deserve to see it! 20 years, Dougal. 20 fucking years, you bastard!” HIs shout causes the Genelecs to pop again. I cool the volume a little.
“Show me what Raffy?” I say, trying to keep my voice calm. But inside I’m scared shitless. This is my oldest friend. “Tell me, Rafael, tell me what you’ve found.”
“He’s gone quiet again,” Agathe quavers.
I clear my throat. “Professor McCord,” I state firmly. “I demand that you share your findings with me!”
“I’m going to try and get in,” Sam says, jogging over to the door.
“I was going to tell you I found a pattern,” Raffy sobs through the speakers, voice breaking, mind breaking. “In the neutrino readings.”
“A pattern?” Agathe breathes, shaking her head. “He’s mad.” I glance at her.
“It’s jammed,” Sam calls from the other side of the room. “I can get it open a little bit, but he’s wedged an axe under the push bar. I can’t get to it.”
“A pattern?” I breathe, trying to collect my thoughts. “Raffy?” My head starts spinning, conflicting emotions, possibilities. Excitement mixing with dread mixing with panic. “Raffy? Come back, damn you…”
“Goodbye Professor.” The sound of the intercom being flicked off at the other end. How did he do that? I look closer at the screen. He’s got some sort of unit in his hand. A remote. Must have made it himself.
“He’s losing it,” I say.
Tabitha shakes her head. She has taken on a brusque professional air. “He’s far past that point, Professor. We need to get in there now. He’s going to try and kill himself.”
“What?” Agathe cries. “How can you know that?”
Tabitha looks me straight in my face. “Get in there, now,” she says flatly.
We watch the monitor. We can see Raffy’s actions, but they are accompanied by utter silence. He pushes a button on his little box, and in the background the tainter gates start to rise, water gushing through the openings.
“Holy shit. Holy shit.” I stand up straight, eyes moving from the monitor, to the console, to Sam. Sam. Quickly, I run over to the door to the chamber.
“Out of the way, boy!” I shout, grabbing the door, pulling hard. It’s jammed. Heart pounding, I move to the edge of the door and look inside. The axe, wedged behind the push bar, has a metal handle.
“Who the fuck makes axes with metal handles?” I growl, and try again to wrench the door open. Shame mixes with a feverish desire to know. What patterns? Raffy is my friend, but now a part of me wants to save him so I can see what he’s talking about.
My brain is imploding. I’m a terrible shit of a person.
The door is not budging, it’s never going to budge, and now water is streaming out through the opening. Sam stands, panting, looking hopeless. I turn to look at him, and at Agathe and Tabs who are standing over by the console. The horrible truth invades my mind.
You have to close the door to the chamber.
Agathe has read my mind. Tears are flowing freely down her face. “You have to do it,” she says.
I stand there for what seems like forever, water gushing out of the door and around my ankles, stronger now. Slowly, with limbs of stone, I turn and place a hand on the door. Leaning in, I push, waiting for the click.
Nope. The door is shut all the way, but it’s not clicking shut.
I let it go and the water pushes it open, jamming it back hard against the axe handle. It’s flooding out now, about a foot high beyond the door.
“Sam, come here!” I shout. We both lean into the door and give it all we’ve got. But it’s not closing, and now the water is too strong.
This can’t be happening.
“Professor, we’ve got to go,” Sam says, putting a hand on my shoulder.
Numbly, I walk over to the console. Spread out over the far side are my readouts. Agathe is feverishly downloading everything onto an external HD.
“How long will that take?” I ask, feeling suddenly strangely calm all of a sudden. Twenty years of our lives, gathered into a little silver box.
“Done,” she says, picking it up, and sliding it into her pocket. Grabbing the paper readouts, stuffing them in my pockets, I look around. The place is bare apart from the instruments, we never kept much down here, apart from coffee. Up on the monitor, water has half covered the view, and Raffy is nowhere to be seen. Light from a thousand sensors has turned the water a bright golden colour.
“Professor, let’s go!” Sam shouts, shaking me out of my reverie.
The lift is a foot deep in water. We board. “One passenger must leave the lift,” it announces. the voice malforming digitally.
“Just go, you bastard!” I shout, punching the emergency door close button.
“One passenger must le-eave the lift.”
I turn around, wide eyed, gazing at the others. “I’ll do it,” I mutter, and just then the doors start closing.
“One paa-a-aasss-ee-eeenger,” the voice breaking up. Now the doors are closed, and we start the ascent, ankle deep in water. We’re all standing there, panting, shell-shocked. Then I see the little black unit in Tabs’s hand. Its still showing Raffy’s vitals, but the bpm now reads 0.
Breathing heavily, I pull the readouts from my pocket and start to fold them carefully. The tears come without warning, bursting out of me in convulsive sobs. I collapse to my knees in the water, and Agathe comes to my side, kneels down, embraces me, crying. Sam comes over and gently takes the readouts from my hand. “I’ll look after those, Professor,” he says quietly.
We’re moving up slowly, steadily. I breathe, composing myself.
Something hits me.
“Yes?” she says, shocked that someone is speaking to her. Her eyes are wide, shot with red.
“That little… unit. What else can you get from Raffy’s netphone with that thing?” Tabs looks blankly at me. “Everything,” she says, wiping her tears. “I can get everything.”
BBC World Service, May 1st, 2053:
“Two Scottish Scientists Crack The Dark Matter Mystery: The international scientific community is this week praising the achievements of Professors Dougal Carles and Rafael McCord, who have made a breakthrough in the study of dark matter particles. Carles and McCord have discovered how the elusive particles interact and shape our universe, bringing a fifty-year search to a close. The scientific community have said the pair have “cracked the code of physics,” and it has been intimated that a Nobel Prize is imminent. Unfortunately, for Professor McCord, the Nobel Prize will be posthumous. Condolences from scientists, academics and dignitaries around the globe are flooding in following the laboratory accident which resulted in Professor McCord’s death not long after their breakthrough. Professor Carles could not be reached for comment…”