The next few weeks were indeed interesting, but there was little time to linger on the fact. There was work to be done. That meant Michael sitting at his desk all the daylight hours going through itineraries and parts lists, or telephoning warehouses and stock rooms for rare and unusual components,
“…thank you, what we’re looking for is a proton tomography scanner… yes, just the active component, the, um…” he shuffled through a folder Ashcroft had given him, “…the ‘proton beam’ component. Yes, that should do for now.” He went to put the receiver back on the cradle, only to snap it back up to his ear as he realised the person on the other end hadn’t finished, “Oh yes, let me check…” He flicked through the folder again,
Requires miniaturised components operable at micro-Boltzmann temperatures. System will be placed in Hobbesian high-multiplicity quantum superposition for long periods of operation. Niobium-coated components strongly preferred due to fluxon prominence conducive to effective wavefunction merging…
“Um, about this component… the instructions do come in English don’t they?”
It was becoming more and more clear to him that whatever they were working on was far beyond his paltry experience in science. Even the paper written by Hobbes, which he’d gone out of his way to read for context, didn’t seem to cover it all.
* * *
Eventually, miraculously perhaps, the equipment started to trickle in and they could get to work. On the first day of proper work, as porters wheeled in the first boxes of carefully packaged magnetic coils, Professor Ashcroft stood by the doorway, hands on his hips, in a rare moment in which he looked genuinely satisfied.
Michael poked his head through the doorway, before stepping in with a clipboard, and began counting the boxes being wheeled in with short, mid-air jabs of his pencil. Ashcroft turned to him, “This is what it feels like, lad, after all the paperwork and talk, when things finally feel like they’re going somewhere. When things really get started.”
“Yes. Yes, I suppose it is,” muttered Michael, still counting boxes. He knew what the Professor meant; with all the checks that had to be made deliveries of such sensitive components weren’t exactly prompt, and it had started to feel like he was doing everything for nothing.
Ashcroft’s mellow demeanour broke in an instant as he hurried over to one of the porters, “Don’t put them down like that! You’ve got to keep them this way up or you’ll damage them inside their casing!” The porter muttered something apologetic and skulked off. “If any of these are defective I’ll be expecting replacements!” Ashcroft shouted after him.
Returning to Michael’s side, arms tightly folded, Ashcroft grumbled his complaints, “They should have had better porters for bringing this in – people who know what they’re doing – not these unskilled… removal men.” He raised his voice so the others in the room could hear, “We’re not moving house here!”
Michael quietly shook his head at the professor’s all-too-common loss of temper; clearly this was something he was going to have to get used to.
“Professor Ashcroft, how long have you known Doctor Watson?”
Ashcroft shrugged passively, “A good few years. He was a student of mine. Always a quiet lad, but then I don’t blame him.”
“And he still works with you today.”
“Yes, he’s an assistant of sorts, I suppose. Better qualified than myself, mind. Unified field theory. Studied for the best part of a decade, you know.”
“I won’t tell him you said that.”
Ashcroft snorted, “He’s well aware.”
“Has he ever gone out and done something of his own? His own experiments, a professorship…?”
Gazing over the piles of boxes and electrical equipment scattered across the workshop, Ashcroft stuck his hands in his pockets and shook his head, “No, not really. He’s always just been an assistant in whatever I’ve been working on. Haven’t even thought about it, it’s just how it’s been. He could easily go to somewhere like Glasgow and get a decent academic job there but…” he turned to Michael, “…I don’t think he has it in him.”
Yet he clearly had it in him to deal with a grouchy Professor Ashcroft all these years. Michael thought about that for a moment. It didn’t seem right.
* * *
The weeks wore on. For Michael, minutes spent in the workshop to check on progress and take inventories turned into hours as the final deliveries – a few parts which had to be specially made – were checked off and he joined the others. Early on there seemed to be little real progress as they arranged the dizzying array of parts which would eventually make up the finished device, but momentum soon built up and the project began to move along. Ashcroft had refused to pay for labour for all but the most specialist activities, so the three of them spent most of their time in the workshop performing the most menial of tasks. Michael was the only one of them who was any good at soldering, while Watson proved to be surprisingly proficient with computing, so the two of them spent most of their time working together on the device’s complex electronics and computer systems.
“I heard you and Ashcroft have been working together for quite a while,” said Michael, as he knelt at the back of one of the wardrobe-sized computers and compared the multi-coloured mess of wires with the diagram laid out on the floor.
“Erm, yes, I suppose we have,” returned Watson, tapping idly on a keyboard. Sitting in front of the flickering screen on a metal control panel the size of a dining table, he seemed more interested in work than conversation.
“Don’t you think he can be a bit… grumpy?”
To Michael’s surprise, Watson chuckled, “Yes, I suppose he can be.”
“Doesn’t it bother you? I mean, I’d be out of here as fast as possible if it meant I didn’t need to see him every day!”
Watson’s smile faltered. He took off his glasses and cleaned them with a handkerchief so as not to make eye contact. “You know, it’s not so easy getting through life when you look like me, with my… family background.”
“You said your true name is Kiran Wason. You’re Indian, right?”
Watson gave what might have been a curt nod, “My parents were Indian – they came here for the military at the start of the Great War – I’ve never seen India myself.”
Michael nodded. He’d never met someone with such dark skin before, and had never formed an opinion himself; his father often complained about such types ‘keeping to their own’, and there were sometimes pieces in the paper about civil rights, though the government censors still bit hard on anything that might cause social unrest – even three decades after the Great War.
“Have you tried becoming a professor yourself? You’re a doctor of physics; that has to count for something, surely?”
“It’s not like that,” sighed Watson, “Ashcroft… he isn’t like most people think. Not quite, anyway. He taught me when I was a student here, and if it wasn’t for him I never would have got as far as I am today.”
“He encouraged you?”
“Oh, I didn’t need encouragement – I knew what I wanted to do – but it’s very difficult to stay at a university for any amount of time these days. Though the system is meant to be based on merit it’s rarely the case that you get a completely unbiased review. Especially for someone like me.” He was understandably reluctant. Michael thought it best to change the subject, but he wanted to know more, “So Ashcroft helped you get accepted, to continue studying?”
Watson had stopped working and turned to Michael, “When I applied to study for a doctorate I was rejected. Ashcroft requested that I work under him as an assistant. Me specifically. Such requests aren’t too unusual so they let me in; I couldn’t have done that without him. Since then he’s just taken me under his wing; I find it’s much easier to get things done by making requests through him rather than trying to do it myself, believe me.”
Michael almost found it difficult to believe, “It’s really that hard?”
“Believe me, it has been.”
With that, Watson returned to staring at the screen. Michael was about to his job, but he cautioned a comment, “You know, sometimes, I know how it feels.”
Watson returned a glance of what might have been scepticism, “What do you mean?”
“Being trapped,” he replied in an unexpectedly solemn tone, “Having the means to go somewhere and do something but… you can’t.”
All Watson said was, “Oh,” and, shying away from what was turning into a sensitive conversation, returned awkwardly to typing.
“It’s my parents. My brother and sister and I were adopted when we were very young, but they really wanted a biological child of their own. They did have one a few years ago but it was born with some pretty bad mutations. I don’t know, I think it… I think it scarred them.” He slumped back against a box, “Now my brother’s starting to ask questions and I don’t want them to have to relive that; my sister knows but if I just stay close, at least I can be sure they…” he glanced up at Watson, “Sorry, I’m rambling.”
Watson glanced down at the floor, then over at Michael, “Actually, I think…”
“Doctor Watson! Mister Jones! Over here!” Their heads snapped round in the direction of the sharp exclamation. Either they had done something terribly wrong or they were about to be asked if they wanted tea; with Ashcroft it was impossible to tell. The two looked at each other and made their way over through the maze of boxes and computers and half-unpacked machines.
Trumpeting his experience as military engineer during the Great War, Professor Ashcroft had taken to working on the more structural and mechanical aspects of the project. When they reached him they found him with a set of giant stainless steel hemispheres. Atop a stout cylindrical metal pillar, they would form the transmission chamber of the matter transportation device.
Shirt sleeves rolled up and wiping beads of sweat from his brow, Ashcroft pointed down at the parts like litter in the park, “Help me with these would you. They weigh a tonne.”
Michael and Watson went to pick up a hemisphere. “Lift with your legs, not your back,” chirped Ashcroft. Together, with much puffing and cursing, the three of them lifted the hemisphere and slotted it into the metal pillar. Then Ashcroft stood back, both hands on his back, breathing heavily, “Okay… good work men…” he flapped a hand in the direction of the second hemisphere, “do the other one yourselves… I’m going to make tea.” Then walked off.
Michael pointed a thumb at the professor, “Is he okay?”
* * *
The transmission chamber was bolted together. The computers were wired up. The plumbing for the coolant tanks was connected. Slowly but surely, the machine came together and finally began to resemble the diagrams they began with. That wasn’t the only thing that changed; after many weekdays of idle conversation Watson began to open up and become more comfortable around Michael. It seemed Watson was used to working on his own or with Ashcroft, but after Watson got used to his presence Michael found him most agreeable. Michael soon knew Doctor Watson as ‘Kieran’.
Professor Ashcroft, meanwhile, was still indubitably ‘Professor Ashcroft’, and hadn’t changed in the slightest. One afternoon Michael and Watson sat, as they often did, on one of the workbenches enjoying tea together.
Michael chuckled, “This morning I accidentally gave the professor an internal phone directory instead of a spare parts inventory. He gave me such a look.”
Watson smiled and nodded, “Yes, he’s not one for ‘funny business’ as he calls it. I think he’s been under pressure from the committee lately; they may be having second thoughts about the project.”
“Surely there’s not much they can do now. The apparatus is already built; the biggest cost is already paid.”
“I think it has more to do with the connection with Irena Spargo – perhaps not such a good idea in retrospect – it’s an ambitious experiment and even Ashcroft knows this probably won’t work. The committee will want to sweep all this under the carpet if we don’t get results soon.”
Michael scrunched up his nose, “That seems rather unfair.”
Watson shrugged, “That’s how it is. The government is very eager that it gets value for money on its science spending so science and politics are never too far apart.” He gestured to the equipment arranged across the workshop – computers the size of wardrobes, barrel-like tanks of coolant, intricate electronics enclosed behind fine meshes – all connected together with a mess of cables and tubes, “I wonder what they’ll do with it all.”
“You’re talking like we’re already doomed to failure!”
Watson tapped his knee nervously, “Not at all! If something goes wrong you just have to brush it off and move on; we gain just as much from our failures as our successes. I was just… wondering.”
Michael leaned back against the wall in thought, “Well… let me think… most of this is pretty specialist – at least the expensive stuff anyway – so it probably won’t be used anytime soon. There’s a storeroom somewhere else in the city for these kinds of things, if I remember correctly. Everything will probably be taken apart, categorised and kept in there somewhere.”
“Never to be seen again?”
“Depends. They keep all sorts in there in case it ever comes in useful. I should know, I’ve seen the list.”
“He’s been working you hard, I assume? Professor Ashcroft.”
“I’m sure that’s no surprise. That man is such a grumpy sod. I still don’t know how you put up with him!”
“Clarence Ashcroft is a good man.”
Michael snorted into his cup.
Watson sighed, “Just because he isn’t nice doesn’t mean he isn’t good. Ashcroft has done a lot behind the scenes; he’s stood up for a lot of people in his time here, even if it put his reputation at risk.”
“People like you?”
That moment, Ashcroft burst through the door, “Afternoon. Off the workbenches, please. This is a workshop not a public house. We have work to do…” then turned on his heels and walked straight back out again, “…hold that thought. There’s someone I need to kick to death first…”
Michael glanced over to Watson, who met his eyes with a knowing stare, “Good, not nice.”