Joe Bryant attempted to wipe his misted-up glasses with one hand as he pushed the little red Vespa scooter to the maximum without actually crashing into anything. It wasn’t easy as the tiny wheels wobbled and bumped on the High Street’s ancient cobblestones. The pedestrian precinct was strictly a no go area but he managed to avoid the early morning shoppers, who didn’t seem particularly interested anyway in his eccentric route. He was tired and agitated, and now potentially late. The strange dream had been stressful. Almost drowning usually is, even if you are distantly aware it’s only a dream; that in reality you’re not a small boy desperately hanging onto his last breath in a swimming pool. Dreams are insubstantial things but this one in particular seemed to have some kind of internal logic, however improbable. It wasn’t the first time either.
He was actually on his way to an interview at the town’s Science Park, an important opportunity yet also a pretty hopeless one. Rather than dwelling on that inescapable fact, his thoughts turned to Karen again. He wondered if she was still living in one of the converted warehouse flats hugging the River Wey.
Karen Clarke was in this country to study for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature at Surrey University. They’d met at some crappy rock concert up at the Uni halls on the far side of Stag Hill. He’d taken her to dinner, to the cinema and, of course, to his local pub The Druid. They’d slept together at her riverbank apartment just three times, each one seared on his memory. First when they were both drunk after the concert (that one more woolly-edged than seared), secondly when he confessed to falling in love with her and, lastly, when she’d said they should ‘cool it’ for a while. The break-up sex had been kind and near fatal to his frail libido. Her last words as she shut the door, asking if he’d ‘be okay’ in their sinuous West Coast drawl, still echoed in his mind.
Why couldn’t he just dream about Karen’s long blonde hair and beautiful body instead of unfortunate near death experiences? Come to that, why couldn’t he just move on? In anything…?
Joe had a mawkish tendency to cling to things. He’d never even left this place for instance; stayed put in Guildford for his entire life, which was surely a bit odd for a twenty-four year old guy? He seemed to have missed life’s starting gun and was now laps behind everyone else. What the hell was wrong with him? Maybe today’s interview would be the catalyst for a new start.
Leaving the town behind he puttered around the foot of Stag Hill, almost standing on the scooter to make it go faster, reluctantly replacing Karen’s memory with the worry of what he was actually going to say. He had just a moderate English Lit BA to fall back on, not anywhere near good enough for a global research and development corporation like Trans-Port.
Oh well, best try and make a fist of it, if only for James’s sake. James Peterson was his only buddy these days and he was more grateful than he’d ever let on for his moral support. Not just moral; James had actually fixed up the interview for him. Mike and Joanne would give him their customary sympathetic hearing but his foster parents had long since grown immune to his abject career failures. James still had faith in him. He’d make sure he stood him a couple of pints in The Druid later that evening no matter what happened in the next few minutes.
He glanced down at the stacked roofs of the University’s student flats in the fields below, remembering the one he’d shared with James. Happy days. He reluctantly jogged his mind back to the present; this was cutting it a bit fine, even for him. He optimistically stood on the accelerator again as the scooter buzzed down the lane running parallel with the cathedral’s looming presence, the machine straining at the edge of its forty mile-per-hour limit. At last the Science Park’s gates appeared dead ahead. There was a tall board at the entrance announcing various companies, dominated by a large Trans-Port logo of complicated twisting arrows. He noticed a small rider beneath stating ‘An Institute Company’.
A uniformed security guard had seen the scooter’s frantic approach and stepped out of his hut. Joe needed to re-focus but found the technical details of the companies projects emailed to him a week ago had already evaporated from his mind. He was directed down an avenue of large box-like buildings constructed of dark glass, grey concrete and dull metal tubing that had probably been sun-burnished chrome sometime back in the early nineties. Each had a very big letter, A to G, painted on its side in peeling yellow. His instructions had been ‘report to A Block: Reception’ but that area was surrounded by a sea of cars. By the time he’d located a gap he was definitely running late. The booming clang of his helmet hitting A Block’s revolving glass door caused the receptionist to look up frowning from her laptop. She listened to his out-of-breath apology then waved him over to a plush leather couch.
“Professor Carver is expecting you. Claire will be out to collect you shortly.”
“Thank-you… sorry about the door.”
“You’d better leave that out here.” She indicated the helmet and smiled at his awkward nod then spoke into her mouthpiece; “He’s here Professor.” She smiled again, this time a full professional beam. “Would you like a coffee?”
“No I’m fine. Thanks.” He actually felt slightly nauseous.
There was just enough time to take in the walls’ blown-up photographs of Trans-Port staff impressively squinting at computer graphics and staring goggle-eyed through laser beams when a door opened and an attractive dark-haired woman in an immaculately cut suit walked briskly up to him. She extended a perfectly manicured hand as he hurriedly stood to shake it.
“Good morning Mr Bryant, welcome to Trans-Port Incorporated. I see you found us awl-right.” He was instantly reminded of Karen’s honey-smooth West Coast accent and tried to push the unsettling image back inside its private memory slot.
“Yes, no problem, sorry I’m a bit late.”
“If you’ll follow me then please…’ She stalked away, not waiting to see if he would. “We don’t want to keep Professor Carver waiting any longer.”
Professor Carver’s office was almost as large as the reception area but then he filled it well.
“Mr Joe Bryant.” The girl told him redundantly before Joe had the time to take in the virtual giant sitting before him. In contrast with the receptionist, dwarfed by her desk, Carver made his look like a toy.
Joe noticed two metal-framed photographs on the wall behind his head. One was of Carver at some conference shaking hands with assorted science luminaries, the other a faded sports scene of a mud-spattered boy’s rugby team hoisting a large silver trophy. There were no family portraits on the smoked glass desk but there was, strangely, a small picture of a white rabbit in a silver frame engraved with the name ‘Oscar’.
“William, call me William,” a deep Scottish baritone voice boomed at him, “and you’re Joe Bryant. Your friend James Peterson has told us a good deal about you already so today’s more of an informal chat; tell you some bits and pieces about us and vice versa. Not really an interview as such... if you get my meaning.”
‘Not really’ Joe thought as he surreptitiously studied Carver’s granite-like reflection in the glass and chrome desk. There was a benign smile draped across the lantern jaws; pale blue eyes that seemed to twinkle with genuine warmth rather than the guarded suspicion he usually got on these occasions. Despite the man’s brutish fuzz of crew cut and his club-sized hands, Carver was actually attempting to be nice. For a crazy moment Joe had the impression the job was being dangled right in front of his eyes. Then the giant fist snatched it away.
“Of course, we like to take this approach with all our interviewees. It’s not necessarily the smartest person with the best degree we’re after today; more the right one...”
Carver seemed to lose his train of thought. Joe attempted to fill the awkward silence.
“I see you’ve got my CV.” He pointed at the single crumpled A4 page poking out of a plastic folder before realizing how idiotic that sounded. Of course Carver had his CV, after all he’d posted it to him. He’d meant to say ‘read my CV’ although from the enthusiastic welcome he’d begun to doubt Carver actually had.
Joe was a lightweight, light middleweight at best. Since graduating from Surrey University he’d, in rapid succession, taught English Language to foreign students at the local Tech, worked in tele-sales, then insurance, then for a small advertising group (if four people could be called a group). Eventually he’d been only too grateful to accept the position of Assistant Librarian in the ugly sixties building at the top of North Street. From then on it appeared his career had been settled.
Now here he was at Trans-Port being interviewed for a job doubtless well beyond his limited capabilities. He knew nothing of science. He wasn’t stupid; when the mood took him he could be competent and hard working but that was about it. He was a complete fraud wasting this good man’s precious time. The interview was as good as over.
Joe stood up to make his excuses but Carver also jumped to his feet. “Right, good point, nothing to be gained hanging around here; see you’re ready for the grand tour. Stick by my side. Claire, if you’ll attend?”
“Of course William.” The woman, who hadn’t bothered introducing herself opened the door for Carver then joined Joe as they proceeded down a corridor of blurred figures trapped behind darkened glass. She turned and smiled pleasantly enough as she offered a handshake. “I’m Claire by the way, seeing as William hasn’t formally introduced us.”
“Joe Bryant...” He replied, stupidly.
“Yes, I know,” then in a voice he was sure she’d lowered so Carver wouldn’t hear. “I know who you are.”
She paused for a moment to study him closely, forcing him to stop as well. She gave an unexpected laugh, frowned then shook her curly black locks.
“Never mind.” She promptly continued walking.
She had a bizarre manner he thought. Distracted, he bumped into Carver’s broad back. They were in the middle of an open plan office full of orderly cubicles. Young men and women poured over laptops, rainbows of bending curves and fluctuating waves danced across screens spewing lines of digital readout. He thought it all looked pretty intense.
Carver assumed an eccentric pose, massive chest pushed proudly out. He swept an arm around the room. “These are just some of my Team, the brilliant boys and girls who do all the nitty-gritty; the engine room of Trans-Port. We’ve a whole bunch more in the next block too. He put the flat of his large hand to his mouth. “Of course, neither knows exactly what the other is doing. Actually it’s exactly the same thing; one Block crosscheck’s another’s. We don’t tell them that of course.”
“I don’t think Mr Bryant knows what you’re talking about William,” Claire told her boss abruptly.
“No, suppose he doesn’t. Forgive me Joe, I get so carried away in this place; taken so much of my life. Who’d have thought when John and I first started...?”
“Shall we show Joe the rest of the complex?” Claire cut him off again even more bluntly. “Including the Projection Chamber?”
Carver hesitated, “Yes, I suppose we should cut to the chase. That’s why we’re all here after all. It’s all prepared I take it?”
She nodded. “Security have been informed and the crew’s standing by.”
“Excellent, thank-you Claire.” He turned to Joe with a patronizing grin. “She’s on the ball, our Claire.” The grin turned to a lame smile. “Right then, shall we cut... shall we proceed?”
He strode off again. Joe looked at Claire questioningly but this time she kept her eyes pinned on Carver’s broad back. “Watch out for William,” she murmured, “don’t underestimate him.”
“What do you mean?” Joe asked.
“I’m here for you Joe; remember that.” She told him obliquely, still not looking at him.
“Okay, I will. Thanks.”
They followed Carver through another set of double glass doors, which swung apart at a swipe of his security card, through another workspace identical to the one they’d just left then after yet more swiping into what Joe calculated to be E Block.
This was an almost empty space in comparison to the other Blocks. Two white-coated technicians walked towards them from some offices but apart from a collection of hefty looking electric cables the entire area consisted of just two identical dark grey plinths set a few yards apart and a thick mesh-lined glass wall.
“Shatterproof glass,” Carver told him.
Joe looked closer. Poised above the first plinth was a metal tube stretching up into complicated technical apparatus hanging from a gantry across the ceiling. The second stood on it’s own.
Carver noticed his attention. “What do you suppose that is Joe? You’ve presumably read the basic outline we sent you?”
He remembered just enough to hedge a vague reply. “Some kind of particle acceleration device; maybe an electromagnetic force field or a... I’m sorry...”
“Yes, good guess, or at least an intelligent supposition. You do realise we’re talking about teleportation of course.”
“Yes, I’d got that much. Actually I’ve seen something like it before, theoretically.”
“Hmm, well it’s not theoretical now. Would you like a fuller explanation?”
Joe glanced over Carver’s shoulder at the two approaching figures. “Okay.” He told him.
“Actually we’re about to give you a demonstration anyway. He glanced around. “Ah, these people are Professors Harding and Swannell; Dorothy and Christian. You two, allow me to introduce Joe Bryant.”
Joe surveyed both scientists as they awkwardly shook hands with him; Swannell was a blank-faced man in his early-forties, an interchangeable lab-rat. Dorothy Harding was taller than him; a handsome if hard faced fifty-ish with greying wavy hair. She turned a quizzical smile on Joe then took the lead as the other hung back.
“Joe, it’s nice to meet you. We’ve heard so much about you, I mean about all the candidates.” She gave Carver an awkward glance he appeared to miss.
“Dorothy, I was hoping you might provide our guest with a brief summation of how this thing works, just the theoretical part of course.”
“Certainly William.” She turned back to Joe. “As I’m sure you’re aware, successful teleportation requires the binding energy of the atomic force that holds the nuclei together to be reduced to pure radiation.”
Joe nodded. He hadn’t been aware of that actually.
“I won’t confuse you with theories of spin and entangled particles but suffice to say we have found a way to capture that radiation in the form of a photonic beam, a ‘Projection Beam’, then move it to a new location and rematerialize it back into its original atomic structure. That could be just a few yards away or, theoretically, on the other side of the world. When the total process has completed we will have achieved successful matter transference; what the layman would refer to as teleportation. Do you understand?”
“I understand what you’ve just told me but I don’t really see why I…”
“Anyway, let’s begin; seeing is believing after all. If you’d all put these on to protect your optic nerves,” she produced a set of eye-protectors from a bag slung over her shoulder, “and take a seat over there.” They all sat down on a metallic bench behind the screen.
“George, would you mind placing Einstein?” Dorothy asked a young man wearing a brown lab-coat who had quietly appeared from behind the glass screen. George produced a ragged-looking teddy bear from a plastic bag and placed it on top of the left hand plinth. It sat at an acute angle threatening to topple over, its glass eyes staring inscrutably at them through the thick screen.
“Are we all ready, ladies and gentlemen?” Carver asked, as if introducing a cabaret act. “Very well then...” He made a twirling motion with his fingers and the room lights dimmed. A wide window appeared high up along the far wall showing a long spot lit room. Vague figures moved inside it. A low mechanical whir came out of the darkness followed by rapid clicking sounds as the first plinth was picked out in a dull cone of light. The tube above Einstein lowered until it enshrouded the plinth completely.
“Set up complete.” A wall-mounted speaker informed them. “All readings check green; ready for Projection to commence.”
“Carry on Control Room.” Carver replied, jutting his jaw out.
A powerful white beam pulsed inside the tube. Joe squinted, trying to make out Einstein’s shape but the teddy bear’s form had become an insubstantial phantom, like dust particles trapped in sunlight. The intense beam shut off. The tube was empty.
“Have you got it?” Carver asked.
“No problem,” the speaker confirmed, “we’re shifting capture now.”
On top of the lone second plinth the random light points reappeared. Joe watched, mesmerised as they coalesced then solidified. The concentrated light lent the toy’s glass eyes a reproachful expression at the indignity of its short journey.
Carver gave an enthusiastic clap and the others half-heartedly joined in. As the full lights came up Joe found himself studied by the scientist. “I trust you enjoyed that young Joe? You’re lucky, not many have witnessed a full Projection. We’ll go back to my office for a quick chat then we’re finished for today.” He jumped enthusiastically to his feet and marched off.
As Joe hurried after him he noticed Claire had already left, although he couldn’t say if she’d done so before or after the demonstration. More to the point though was the growing impression they’d met before today. It was unlikely of course but then Guildford was really quite a small place, especially when you’ve spent your entire life there.