It was late January and the seasonal weather had brought with it a cold and bitter winter. By 3.00AM the soft wind had become a freezing chill and the windows of the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford were showing the first signs of frost.
This was one of the bases of operations for the Biomedical Research Centre, a defining partnership between the University of Oxford and its surrounding Hospitals.
Throughout the empty corridors and closed reception areas an eerie stillness hung in the air, like a school playground with all the children missing. Only the Accident and Emergency Department remained open, responding to the infrequent patients arriving throughout the night for treatment.
In the west wing of the Hospital, in a laboratory, sub-basement level to the Medical Sciences Office, a young postgraduate student sat alone in the darkness, slumped over his desk, a solitary desk lamp offering the only light in the room.
James McCarthy sat in his wheelchair, arms crossed out in front of him and head rested. He had one half of a pair of headphones plugged in to his right ear and was listening while an mp3 player slowly made its way through his eclectic music collection. His left ear was free to listen to the instruments on his desk purr and click with another kind of repetitive rhythm.
In front of him, his laptop ran a search program connected to a frequency emitter. The program was rotating through EM waves, continually modifying the emitter with new frequencies, oscillating at varying units of gigahertz and terahertz.
A digital microscope observing a small glass slate of cells sat linked up to a desktop computer running continual scans, poised to record the imagery based on movement.
A seismometer, commonly known for its use in recording earthquakes and other seismic shifts, read the activity fed back through the CPU whilst drawing a continuous and uneventful straight line down the middle of its digital display panel.
Alone in the dark, James remembered the sense of pride he had felt when this first started. When he was enlisted to be part of a project that could one day change the world, something that would triumph over every scientific accomplishment achieved in the past century.
His disability had made him accustomed to sitting and observing for great lengths of time. Composure was everything, but overnight research was taking its toll, overpowering any enjoyment he could get from the covert nature of his work.
He had been at this for weeks now, weeks of nothing. It had seemed inevitable at first, simply a matter of time. Every hour lost was an investment. But as the days and weeks rolled by his patience had begun to fade. Someone else needs to take over, it’s only fair.
James hated this laboratory. During the first few nights of the experiment his fear of the dark that he had suppressed as a child had almost resurfaced. The silence of the laboratory at night offered a chilling atmosphere, like a morgue under a full moon. But he understood why it had to be this way; the access to the equipment, the isolation, the necessity of secrecy. It was all essential.
James slowly raised his head and rubbed his eyes, jaded and semi-conscious. He couldn’t hold out much longer. He squinted, barely making out the time on the monitor; it was 3.04AM. His eyelids were heavy and his head was cloudy. This had become an all too familiar feeling. His secret second bedroom was beginning to feel comfortable again, a home away from home. He had two more hours before he needed to clean up and get out. There was time to rest.
His thoughts became more and more distant. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply to relax his upper body, letting the white noise from the equipment fade away whilst the glow from the desk lamp kept his face warm. Slowly darkening, he soon passed, accepting the eventual drift into a peaceful sleep.
Within minutes James was resting comfortably. The laptop on his desk clicked as the program switched to the next frequency. The repetitive purr and ticks soon followed.
It was faint at first. The seismometer offered a minor ripple, but another soon followed, then another and another.
With a sudden twitch the lines grew thicker, darker and wider in succession. The PC responded with an alarming ping, recording the cellular reaction being sent through the microscope.
James heard the beeps as if from a distance. He was slower to react. Gradually opening his eyes, he stared with a narrow gaze at the monitor. The alert sounded for a second time. A message was now displaying on the screen in front of him. ‘Processing…’
He froze, disorientated, so used to the rhythm and ticks. Seconds passed before a third alert sounded with another message. Frequency Registered. James could feel himself waking up, his head beginning to focus. Registered?
His head rose from the desk as he rubbed his eyes, yawning, stretching. He stared again at the message. Has it just? No… Yes, yes! The realisation snapped him into action.
Peering through the microscope, his face lit up with excitement.
‘Oh my god,’ he whispered, scanning through the readings.
He took a breath and reached out to snatch his mobile from the desk, pausing for a moment before selecting a contact and dialling. His pulse raced as he lifted the phone to his ear.
‘Please be awake,’ he pleaded as the dialling tone began to ring out. ‘Pick up, pick up!’
* * *
A mile away, in a small one-bedroom flat off St Clements Street, Ellie Swanson lay sound asleep in her bed.
A copy of The Power of Your Subconscious Mind by Joseph Murphy lay open face down on her bedside table.
In the darkness, her studio room was lit up only by the light blue glow that came from her alarm clock. You could barely make out the stacks of books and research material laid out over her desk and floor.
Her TV sat in the far right corner of the room, disused, collecting dust on a wooden stand that cased equally neglected DVDs and music CDs. Her laptop rested on the floor in the opposite corner, charging from an electrical point.
Her mobile was next to the book on her bedside table. The display lit up and a soft ringtone began to play out across the room.
It rang for several seconds before Ellie stirred, giving out a slight groan. She peered at the clock making out the time. It was later than usual but she knew what had woken her; this wasn’t her first late night phone call. She’d stopped counting the false alarms weeks ago.
With her eyes still half closed she instinctively reached out, pressing the phone to her ear as she answered the call.
‘Hello,’ Ellie whispered. It was her first word of the day and her throat was dry.
‘Ellie, I think we’ve done it. I think we’ve found Hawking.’
She lay motionless on her bed.
‘Are you sure?’ Her tone was doubtful.
‘Pretty sure, this isn’t like anything we’ve seen before. You need to see this.’
Ellie leaned forward to turn on her bed-side lamp and gather herself.
‘What are the readings?’
‘The program is at full alert, we’ve never had a probability rating this high before. Cellular response is at fifteen percent.’
‘Fifteen?! Are you sure?’
‘Fifteen point six.’
‘Who have you rung?’
‘Just you, I figured you were the most likely to answer this time of night.’
Ellie smiled, appreciating that her commitment was acknowledged.
‘What’s the metabolic activity?’ she asked, now getting out of bed.
‘Hold on.’ James swung round and stared briefly at the monitor before putting the phone back to his ear, smiling uncontrollably. ‘Cellular growth. There’s been an increase in cytoplasmic and organelle volumes. It’s taking.’
‘You’re sure?’ Ellie reached for her clothes.
‘We’re at sixteen point seven.’ James glanced back at the monitor. ‘Seventeen percent, Ellie, she’s climbing.’
‘OK, OK. Call the professor, I’m on my way.’ She hung up her phone and tied back her long brown hair into a pony tail. It was 3.12AM; if she hurried she could be there in twenty minutes…
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David P. Philip