A few days later, Michael wandered into the workshop for the first time. It wasn’t quite as impressive as he’d expected; a small room with bare brick walls and bare wooden floorboards. There was a single large window covered up with translucent fabric, then a long wooden workbench running along the adjacent wall. Opposite the window was a large projector screen on a stand.
With a loud snap the screen rolled up back into the stand, revealing a rather distressed Professor Ashcroft. Red in the face, shirt sleeves rolled up, he sucked his thumb and jumped from one foot to the other, “Well, don’t just stare. What are you waiting for? Come and help me, Jones!” he snapped.
Michael rushed over and grappled with the projector stand. Together they pulled up the screen and secured it in place.
“So, this is the workshop?”
“It is. I wouldn’t start setting up in a random room now, would I?”
“I was just making sure…”
“Put those chairs out, will you,” interrupted Ashcroft, gesturing to no place in-particular. Before Michael could say anything more, Ashcroft left the room.
Glancing around, he spotted a set of wooden stools under the work bench; putting his bag and coat down, he began to pull them out and arrange them in front of the screen. He hadn’t been expecting a big presentation. Then again he hadn’t been sure what to expect at all, having been given so little notice. Would there be more people working on the project he hadn’t been told about?
Turning to put a third stool in place, Michael bumped into someone behind him, “Oh, sorry, I didn’t see you there.” He turned to see a gangly Indian man in a coffee-coloured tweed suit; the man’s big round glasses reflected the light from the ceiling light, obscuring his eyes.
“Can I help?”
“Um… you don’t happen to be Mister Michael Jones, do you?”
He offered a cautious hand, “I’m Doctor Kieran Watson. I believe we’ll be working together under Professor Ashcroft.”
Michael shook the hand hesitantly.
“Is there a problem?”
“Not really, it’s just you don’t look like a Kieran Watson, if you know what I mean.”
Watson almost looked embarrassed, “Ah… um… yes, well… by birth my name is Kiran Wason. Kieran Watson is just… easier for people to remember.” He seemed quiet, withdrawn, like a nervous child wanting to hide behind their parent’s leg.
Before Michael could inquire further, Professor Ashcroft barged into the room brandishing a heavy-looking slide projector. Dragging up a chair, he dumped the projector atop then wiped his brow, “Watson, plug it in, will you.”
Michael stood by as Ashcroft began adjusting the feet on the projector; the professor looked up, “Well, don’t just stand there. Sit down, we’re about to start!”
He obligingly sat down, followed by Watson, while the professor closed the door and switched off the lights. By the screen, Ashcroft put on a blazer and tied a cravat in a bow around his collar; he might as well have been preparing for an audience in Stockholm.
“Good morning gentlemen,” he announced, “glad you could both be here. There’s lots to talk about.” He clicked a handheld trigger, which was connected to the projector by a long wire, and the previously white screen lit up with a photograph of Professor Hobbes, “A couple of years ago the now recently retired Professor Sir Hobbes completed his research into matter transmission technology. The research was based on theoretical findings which had emerged from quantum theory in the late nineteenth century, which indicated that, at least on the smallest if scales, it was possible to transfer the identity of an object into another object, such that the initial object is effectively transferred to another location without crossing the intervening space: matter transmission.”
He glanced over to his audience of two. Doctor Watson, of course, already knew it all; Michael Jones’s eyebrows were slowly becoming more and more furrowed. He continued with gusto.
The screen switched to a photograph of some monstrous assortment of wires, tubing, metal containers and banks of electronic equipment, “This is what he eventually came up with. It was a device capable of transmitting a tiny diamond from one container to another. It was a remarkable scientific achievement, but not as remarkable as it might at first seem.
“You see, you can’t just create something out of nothing, you need some arrangement of the right atoms at the destination to work with, that being another diamond. Also, diamonds have a very basic structure, so you need to transmit much information to completely recreate the diamond in another location; Hobbes used a laser to transmit the information in his apparatus, which was a remarkable achievement in itself, might I add…”
“Sorry,” Michael interrupted, much to Ashcroft’s annoyance, “where are you going with this?”
Ashcroft rolled his eyes, “Don’t interrupt! If you would just be patient I’m about to get onto that…” The projector clicked onward to show the front page of an academic paper,
Prospects for Practical Matter Transmission in the Modern Age
“…Professor Hobbes concluded that matter transmission was impossible with technology available both now and for the foreseeable future.” He clicked the trigger once again to reveal a second academic paper,
Unlocking the Shackles of the Universe
“Professor Hobbes was wrong.”
Ashcroft paused for dramatic effect. Noting the curious title of the paper, Michael drew his attention to the name of the author, expressing first curiosity, “Irena Spargo…” then shock, “isn’t she the one who died two weeks ago?”
“Yes,” Ashcroft replied with an almost grim seriousness, “the committee is aware of that and has accepted this experiment partly on sentimental grounds but the death of Irena Spargo is still a highly sensitive issue and this information will not leave this room, do you understand?” The question was addressed to both of them. Hearing no protestations, he nodded, “Good.”
“Using descriptions from Spargo’s paper, I have painstakingly designed the following device…” The screen displayed a blueprint of considerable complexity; labels crowded for space on top of dizzying arrays of cables and tubes connecting collections of components of wildly varying shapes, sizes and names. Above all this was the befittingly confounding title,
Watson’s back straightened and he leaned forward with interest; clearly this part was news to him; Michael squinted to follow the string of letters, “The Spargo Hyper… what?”
Ashcroft waved the question away, “That’s only a working title.”
“Is it appropriate to include Spargo’s name in this?” asked Watson.
“It’s only a working title;” repeated Ashcroft with slight annoyance, “to everyone else this whole project is called the ‘Alternative Matter Transmission Experiment’, but I thought that was a bit of a mouthful.”
“You think that’s a mouthful?” Michael exclaimed with more than a hint of incredulity.
“No more questions!” came the staunch reply, “I’m doing a presentation and in presentations the audience doesn’t talk back. Now, back to the Spargo Hyprorthogl… Spargo Hyperorthogonaliser.
“The machine requires a number of extremely high-precision instruments, some state-of-the-art, in a number of different devices which will need to be calibrated perfectly for the experiment to work. Everything comes down to this central sphere, with a diameter of 36 inches; this will be the transmission chamber in which objects will undergo matter transmission. The prudent among you may notice that there is no reception chamber – that is, a location in which the object appears after undergoing matter transmission. This is a property unique to Spargo’s matter transmission scheme; as far as we are aware there is no way of determining where an object placed in the machine will reappear after undergoing matter transmission. Doctor Watson will explain the details…”
He gestured for Watson to stand, receiving a confused look in return. He gestured again and Watson leaned forward to stand, only to sit back again and resolve to speak from where he sat; directing his attention toward Michael, he said, “Professor Hobbes’s system converted physical objects into information by making them interact destructively with something else – usually a laser beam. Now, an everyday object like an apple interacts with the rest of the universe all the time, so with the right equipment we can see exactly how the universe interacts with the apple then transmit onto the apple exactly the opposite interaction.”
“What does that do?”
“It cancels out. Negates any interaction with the outside world. The apple effectively leaves the universe.”
“Does that even make sense? I thought the universe was everything that exists, by definition.”
“Exactly!” exclaimed Ashcroft, happy that Michael finally understood, “You can’t put something outside the universe, so we can only assume the… apple – in Doctor Watson’s example – must turn up somewhere outside the transmission chamber!”
Ashcroft shrugged, “We don’t know. That’s one of the things this experiment is meant to find out.”
“If the device works,” added Watson.
“Of course it will work!” scoffed Ashcroft.
Michael nodded, “You said you needed me to keep track of logistics and budgeting. What kind of money do we have for the experiment?”
Suddenly realising he was meant to be doing a presentation, Ashcroft hopped back into place and skimmed over some notes on the end of the workbench, “The committee wasn’t too enthusiastic about our prospects, but they still wanted to give us something to show the university was building on its previous discoveries. This is what they gave us…” he clicked the screen onward to a table full of costs, “…taking into account various overhead costs, the funding we have available for the device itself is about fifteen pounds, three shillings and sixpence.”
“Fifteen pounds? We can’t build a device like that on fifteen pounds!”
“…three shillings and sixpence. Don’t be so pessimistic, Mister Jones or you won’t be much use here. Our status as part of the university gives us certain advantages in procurement over private individuals. I’m confident we can complete the device on this level of funding.”
But Michael was sceptical, “Is there any way we can cut costs?”
“We could make the device smaller. A lot smaller,” suggested Watson.
But Ashcroft overruled with a firm shake of his head, “No. The transmission chamber needs to be this size for experimental reasons. The device will remain as planned.” Not able to suggest many other changes after the professor’s stubborn overruling, Michael and Watson said no more.
After a moment of awkward silence, Ashcroft chirped up again, “Well, I think I’ve said all that needs to be said. Mister Jones, I’m sure you’ve already received the blueprint and provisional parts list I sent you yesterday. You may begin procuring parts immediately.” With not even a glance, he strolled out of the room, “Pick up that projector will you, Watson.”
Watson stood up and cleared his throat, “Well, good morning,” then switched off the projector and began to unplug it.
Michael switched the lights on, “A strange man, that Professor Ashcroft.”
“Um… yes, I suppose,” came the quick reply. He had suddenly become very quiet, as if he had lost all capacity in his confidence to communicate.
Michael pressed on, “I mean, why make a presentation for two people like that? I suspect you already knew most of it.”
“No, I didn’t actually.”
“He can be quite spontaneous with these things… likes to do things on his own.” He put the projector under his arm and went to walk out of the room.
“I mean, what was he thinking? That he was speaking in front of the Royal Society?”
At the threshold of the door, Doctor Watson turned his head back to Michael and pushed the glasses up his nose. “He wants to,” he said solemnly. Then he left.
Michael scratched his head and looked around the workshop as if he’d dropped a slice of normality somewhere. The next few weeks were going to be very interesting indeed.