Previously

The teleporter looks like a gigantic metal hand reaching out of the lower right wall of the building, enclosing with eight evenly-spaced iridium steel claws (each machined to exceptional tolerances and tipped with foam when not in use to prevent people losing eyes and ears) a spherical volume roughly fifteen metres in diameter. There is a small wooden bridge leading over the lower two claws, between the rest and into the sphere they describe, where there is a round wooden platform, on which stands an assembly supporting two bell jars.

Both bell jars are evacuated. One of them has a two-microgram speck of boron suspended inside with magnetic fields. The other is empty.

Behind the metal claw and plugged into it is a forty-five-foot stack of machinery which is the power generator. In theory, that is to say, in a perfect universe, almost no power should be required to teleport something. The whole process should be frictionless, metaphorically speaking. In practice, both the teleportation machinery and the quantum fabric of the physical universe in which said machinery is embedded is unavoidably imperfect, which means a fair whack of energy is required, in a carefully shaped and directed pulse.

Arranged around the rest of the cavernous laboratory are other control desks, banks of capacitors, cables of thickness varying between one millimetre and one metre snaking off into the desks, the walls, the machinery and each other, physicists of all levels of education and experience, two forklift trucks and seemingly hundreds of flat panel computer monitors. On the walls are big projection screens, and on the ceiling, lights, air conditioning units and a mobile crane rig for the heavy lifting.

It is late morning. Fast had been broken. People are well-fed, confident and upbeat. Every element of the experiment has been laboriously confirmed as being in a state of readiness.

Dr Adrian Ashmore clicks the box on his screen marked "OK", mildly disappointed that there is no big red Button-with-a-capital-B for him to press. Fwa-zapp! The capacitors fire. Bright light flashes. Paper is swept off his desk by a sudden blast of wind. There's a thunderclap! The experiment is a success! The--

Wait, why is there a thunderclap?

*

"Is everybody okay? What just happened?"

"Anne's gone!"

"What?"

"Anne?"

"Anne's gone."

There is a brief moment of silence. "Gone where?"

Dr Ashmore stands up. He is gangly, ginger - right now, authoritative. "We need to run the experiment again," he announces. "Now! Quickly! The coordinates are still in the computer. We just need to run the same program again to swap everything back. You've got one minute. All of you."

Quite a lot of frantic shouting ensues. Ashmore's job is relatively simple and he finishes resetting his station within a second, leaving him to clench his sweating hands and wait fretfully for everybody else to finish.

Thomas Muoka is a theoretical kind of guy - he works with paper, not his hands, and has even less to do at this point than Ashmore. So he moves over to his colleague in the brief moment that is available and speaks his mind. "Adrian, what just happened should be impossible."

Ashmore laughs hollowly and doesn't meet Muoka's gaze. "I don't think Anne is going to find that to be much consolation."

"But you know what I'm saying. You know I'm right. And our chances of rescuing her--"

"Look... we have to try, Tom." Ashmore looks up. All the telltales on his screen are beginning to flick over to green again. "Are we ready? Are we ready?" he calls. "Ready? Okay, everybody stand back. Three-- Jan? Three, two, one, go!"

There's another thunderclap where the first one was - in the middle of the room, in front of the tall stack of blinking physics processors which is Anne Poole's workstation. But that's it.

"Do it again," says Ashmore. "And... somebody try phoning her!"

"Adrian, this isn't going to work," says Muoka. "If it didn't work the first time, why should it work the second time?"

They do it again anyway.

"It's saying 'not available'," says an intern, a phone clamped to his ear, halfway through the warm-up for the third run.

After the third time Ashmore quits. The machinery is supposed to be overhauled after each experiment. Four in quick succession has done it permanent damage; it simply won't run anymore. And there's still no answer on the phone.

There's a long and nervy silence. "What now, then?" somebody asks.

In a soft voice, Muoka says, "It was important to try. But I think now we should call the police."

*

It has taken years for them to build the teleporter, but the next weeks seem to take much, much longer.

Over and over again, the same story is retold from different angles:

There was a storm the night before the accident. During the storm, the lab was struck once. The lab stands at a relatively high altitude and this eventuality had not gone unanticipated; a lightning conductor earthed the strike and the teleporter's delicate electrical systems were well shielded from the electromagnetic effects. But computer mainframe storing the teleportation program was not. By a million-to-one chance, the program was very slightly corrupted - just a few bytes were changed, but they were enough to make the difference.

The theoretical range of the equipment is infinite - though the probability of a successful translocation decreased dramatically once you go beyond, say, fifty kilometres. But that range goes in every direction. Anne Poole could have been plonked on the ground somewhere else in the country, but, all things being equal, it is significantly more likely that she was sent a good distance upwards or downwards - into the air or even into space, or alternatively, deep underground.

Teleportation isn't just a matter of transplanting something to a new location. It is an exchange of two portions of space. If something goes there, then whatever is there already has to come back. If Anne had been sent underground, then instead of a thunderclap there would have been a perfectly Anne-shaped piece of rock left standing in her place. If she had been sent to another location that was a short distance above ground level, then nothing would have happened - she would have just disappeared and been replaced with air. But neither of these things happened. Anne Poole was replaced with an Anne Poole-shaped volume of near-vacuum. As pressure equalised in the room, that caused a thunderclap.

That thunderclap - as half a dozen of us knew instantly - meant that Anne could not be rescued. Teleportation programming is an extremely protracted process even with the bare minimum of safety precautions observed. Coming up with an entirely new program - even a corrected version of the corrupted one - in less than a full day is humanly impossible. If there had been no thunderclap then there was a chance, however slim, that Anne would survive the fall to ground level and be found, or make her way home. If she had been replaced with a mineral likeness, then that meant she was fixed in space - fossilised alive - inside the coal seam. We could have run the corrupted program a second time and pulled her out again within moments. But the thunderclap meant she had been transported to a high altitude, and that meant she had started falling. Her location had changed and running the experiment again - which we did, in spite of all of the above - could only have realistically served to rescue more chunks of low-pressure air.

Anne Poole's body is never found and the search of the surrounding countryside is called off after a few months.

Dr Adrian Ashmore is deemed ultimately responsible for failing to spot the corruption to the program during the check-up process, and sent to prison for involuntary manslaughter.

Eighteen months pass.

*

"Jeff, who is this guy and is he supposed to be down here?"

The short man with the bushy moustache standing behind the newcomer in the weighty coat waves a grubby yellow piece of paper. "It's clear. He's from the police."

"What, so it's a crime to dig stuff up now? I thought they were going to get an archaeologist."

"Detective Haddon. The archaeologist's on his way," says the newcomer. "It's actually a more serious criminal offence to dig a body out of the ground than it is to dump one in the ground in the first place. Although how in heaven's name somebody dumped a body this far underground I don't know and why they need an archaeologist I also don't know. Can I see what you found?"

Adam Mansell nods and leads the tall man - who is almost bent double in an ill-fitting helmet which nevertheless connects with almost every overhead beam - into the deeper areas of the utterly dark and equipment-crowded tunnels. Jeff, the manager, follows them both. It is a longwall mine, sixty percent dug out.

Eventually they reach a shearing machine sitting at the coal face. It is broken. Jeff points out the dented machine head.

"What did that?"

"The body."

"...The body?" Haddon flicks the machine head. Tenk. "This thing's made of steel, or something, right? Is the body fossilised?"

"Look, you have to see it," says Jeff. "Over here. They only made one pass over it, that was enough to do the damage. Look here. At the face."

"It has to be made of diamond or something," says Adam.

The newcomer follows them up to the black coal face and all three aim their head torches at the place where Adam is standing.

There, sticking out of the rock wall, pale white, unmoving, are four knuckles and the tip of a thumb of a human's right hand. The hand is small, and probably female. About an inch of it has been revealed altogether. There is a ring.

"I guess the jewel in the ring might be diamond," says Jeff. "But a diamond that small won't do anything to our equipment. And as for the rest of it, I don't know. It's like... well, I don't like to say the word."

"Any of you touch it?" asks the policeman.

"Don't think so."

Haddon pulls on a plastic glove and gingerly prods the ring, then one of the fingers. "It feels hard. Not like diamond but pretty hard. But it still looks and feels like skin, somehow. I'll give you the skin colour is paler than most but it looks like it might be natural. Could be the light. I suppose it could be fossilised. But I never heard of a fossil hard enough to dent drilling equipment. And you don't get fossils in coal seams anyway, do you?"

"Coal is fossils."

"What's directly above here?" asks Haddon.

"Fields," says Jeff. "Fenced off. Danger of subsidence. Outright certainty by the time this seam's empty."

"Any faults in this coal seam? Any... I don't know... chasms?"

"Look, you're asking me? This is a solid chunk of coal. She's baked inside it. She's not made of diamond but she's hard as. Telling you, man."

"She must have been doing geology or something. Measuring rocks up above. Fell down a fault and wound up here."

"You're not listening to me, man. That doesn't make any sense. It's solid coal. And signposted. No fault, a single block. Anthracite. Low quality, but low quality anthracite is still good quality coal. You can't sink through solid rock. You know what the alternative is."

Haddon turns around and stands up, knocking his helmet on another beam. "Is-- ow. Is what? Somebody killed her, went back in time three hundred million years and dumped her in a tar pit in prehistoric Yorkshire? As a rational, thinking human being you'll forgive me if I take the stance that that, at least, makes more scientific sense than having tunnelled into purgatory and collided with somebody's immortal soul."

Jeff points.

Small pieces of coal are crumbling away from around the fingers, which have begun to move.

Next: The Astronomer's Loss

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Discussion (4)

2010-02-22 17:22:21 by Dziugas:

So she did end up underground? So how come they didn't get coal in the lab if she replaced a bunch of coal? And how is she alive?

2010-03-01 17:11:51 by david:

I'm wondering that too. Where did the vacuum pocket come from?

2010-05-25 19:39:40 by Sudrien:

Million to One chance?

And the program still executes?

████.

2012-03-09 11:32:28 by Acacia:

That makes sense now. She was teleported into the upper atmosphere and then again a microsecond later into the coal seam.