Authors: Bill Napier
Tags: #action, #Adventure, #Mystery, #Suspense, #Thriller, #Science Fiction, #Fantasy, #Alien Invasion, #First Contact
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For Bruce, Ailsa, Hazel and Jim.
In writing this novel I have benefited from many discussions with colleagues, friends and family. Dr Anna Gavin helped me with matters medical and biochemical; Martin Murphy advised me on computer matters; Tigran Khanzadyan and Georgi Pavlovski helped me with Russian, as did my son Bruce with Norwegian. Dr Peter Herring gave me insights into the mysterious glowing wheels sometimes reported at sea: the cited reports are from the logbooks, deposited in the Met Office, of numerous trained observers in the Voluntary Observing Fleet. I am indebted to the Met Office for permission to quote them and to Sir Arthur C. Clarke for pointing out that this strange luminescence has been given the evocative name ‘Wheels of Poseidon’. The lyrics in Café Roland are from
The Beggar’s Opera
by John Gay. I am especially grateful to my wife Nancy who assisted me in countless practical ways, not least in photography at various locations used in the book.
The Tatras in winter: a barren, snow-covered massif in Eastern Europe. Heavy, snow-laden clouds hid the tops of the highest peaks, and fingers of mist drifted down the valleys between them. And inside the massif, under the feet of the skiers and the mountain ramblers, another world.
Entrance to this other world was through a plain steel door set into a natural recess in the rock. There were no signs to proclaim ownership, or to say what lay behind it. It was reached by a steep, three-hundred-metre climb up a snowy path which zig-zagged between the conifers. The path was unmarked, and led off from a highway along which the skiers, ramblers and climbers came and went in their snow-chained cars.
The man approaching this door had a wide, turned-down mouth and narrow lips which made him look vaguely like a giant frog. Low gun-metal sunlight and white mountain peaks reflected from his bulbous sunglasses. The same sunlight was glittering off his companion’s sapphire earrings. She was about the same age, taller, long-faced, with a naturally severe expression and long dark hair. She had light blue eyes. They were both puffing slightly from the climb.
The man fumbled for a key, pulled at the heavy door. It opened smoothly and they stepped through it, out of the cold sunshine and the snow, into the subterranean world.
Harsh lights, fixed at intervals in a rocky wall, lit up a flight of roughly carved stone steps. The man led the way down these, gripping a handrail. The steps ended at a small, flat concrete platform. Next to it was a metal cage, its wire-mesh sides painted a dirty yellow. It bobbed up and down alarmingly as they squeezed into it. He pulled the elevator door shut with a metallic
The woman glanced up. In the semi-dark, twenty feet above them, she could make out what seemed to be miles of braided steel cable wrapped around a giant cylinder, and a confusing array of black-painted girders and steel pins driven into the rock. A rivulet of water was trickling down a rock face. ‘Tell me, Charlie. Are these girders ever checked for rust?’
The man grinned, said, ‘Nope,’ and pressed a red button.
The cage plunged, reaching a brisk, near-silent terminal speed after some seconds. The woman’s stomach settled back in place and she gave the man an embarrassed little smile. The overhead elevator lights revealed a coarsely cut tunnel of rock hurtling upwards, inches from them. The cage was held in place by black plastic sleeves through which four shiny metal tubes, squarely placed at each corner of the tunnel, were sliding with a faint, high-pitched whine.
She had done the cage hundreds of times, but still it left her feeling vaguely uneasy. Cold air was billowing around them, driven by the ram pressure of the plunging cage. ‘By the way, I had a BBC producer on the line.’
The man took off his sunglasses. ‘Really?’
‘Yes, they’d like to do a documentary. But I put them off.’
The man’s round face showed surprise and dismay. ‘Hell, Svetlana, why did you do that? We can use all the profile we can get.’
‘I didn’t trust her. It was something she said, almost in passing. That we’re not even sure these particles exist. That we could be on a wild-goose chase and all this public money could be for nothing. What use is this stuff, we could heat a thousand pensioners for the same money – that sort of thing.’
‘All of which is true.’ A lion snarled. There was a brief glimpse of a narrow ledge, and an illuminated tunnel, and fifty metres along it a cloud of spray from a roaring river; but in an instant image and noise had vanished upwards.
Now came the climax of the joyride, the bit she hated. The tunnel suddenly opened out and the cage was hurtling down from the roof of a cavern the size of a cathedral. She blinked at the sight of giant stalactites, and machinery scattered around a rocky floor rushing up at them. Then the black rings were gripping the metal tubes and there was a metallic screech and the elevator had slowed to a halt, and the grip of the rings loosened and the cage bobbed slowly up and down just above a concrete platform.
* * *
The room adjoining the cavern was small, brightly lit and bleakly furnished, with no more than a few grey lockers and a table on which sat a black box attached to a Geiger counter.
They picked up heavy yellow torches and made their way to another metal door. For a moment, they were in pitch black and there was a gust of cool air, but then the torchlight was showing a long, low, natural tunnel, curving out of sight. Overhead, millions of stalactites hung down like needle-sharp fangs. The man led the way along a rough path to a narrow rope bridge about twenty metres long. It swayed dangerously as he marched over it; blackness lay below. Then they were over it and turning into another tunnel, this one smaller.
Wavering torchlight, scattering off a pagoda-like stalagmite ahead of them. A man in a hurry. A deep Slavic voice echoed along the tunnel: ‘Charlee!’
The torch appeared, dazzling their eyes, held by an immensely fat man dressed in a thick, blue one-piece suit.
Vashislav Shtyrkov, the Russian. He was waving urgently and there was tremendous excitement in his voice. ‘We have a signal!’
They broke into a trot, following Shtyrkov. A short, final stretch of tunnel, and they were through another door and blinking in the fluorescent lights of a large, low-ceilinged, warm room.
The room was carpeted red, with light yellow wallpaper and a blue ceiling. It was furnished with leather armchairs and desks and computers. At the far end of the room, an open door led off to a corridor. The wall on the left was taken up with three panels, each about six feet by six, and labelled
in black letters. The
panel contained thousands of little red light bulbs, laid out in rows. The bulbs in the
panel were green, and the
bulbs were blue. None of them was lit. On the right, a large black blind had been pulled down; it took up almost half the wall. To the right of the blind was a wooden door, and to its left a digital clock labelled
showed 07:17; below it another clock, labelled
showed 09:17. A long teak desk, cluttered with computers and printers, took up the centre of the room.
‘Look at this,’ said Shtyrkov, tapping at a computer terminal. Rows of numbers tumbled down the screen, most of them zero.
‘Our first hit?’ Charlie’s voice was jubilant. ‘We finally got a dark matter particle?’
‘No, Charlee, not a hit.
‘And all within the last seven hours.’
Charlie stared at the Russian, open-mouthed.
‘Charlee.’ Shtyrkov’s face was grim. ‘That is not all.’
‘The hits,’ Shtyrkov said. ‘They are arriving at regular intervals.’
‘Regular intervals?’ Charlie’s tone was one of utter disbelief.
‘Every one hour and twenty-four minutes.’
There was a long silence while Charlie assimilated this. Then: ‘I’m sorry, but that’s just lunacy.’
‘Charlee. The particles are arriving at regular intervals.’
Charlie’s voice was flat. ‘Don’t be absurd, Vashislav. That can’t happen. It’s impossible.’
‘It has to be a bug. Some equipment failure,’ Svetlana said.
Vashislav shook his head. ‘It’s your equipment, Svetlana, and you know it can’t be that. The photodetectors work independently of each other. Each particle is being picked up by hundreds of them.’
‘Vashislav, what’s the alternative?’
Shtyrkov’s eyes were staring. ‘That it’s real?’
‘Don’t be crazy. It has to be a bug.’
Shtyrkov shook his head like a stubborn child.
‘When’s the next one due?’ Svetlana asked.
‘The next particle will come in … forty-five seconds. It will arrive at seven twenty forty on the UT clock.’
‘Are the speakers on?’ Charlie asked nobody.
Svetlana was shivering. ‘This is weird.’
‘Weird?’ Shtyrkov raised his voice. ‘Svetlana, it is supernatural.’ He looked at the wall clocks. ‘You are just in time. We have thirty seconds.’
‘It won’t come.’
‘It will come, Charlee, it will come. Ten seconds.’ The Russian’s eyes were fixed on the clock showing Universal Time.
loud and clear, from all three speakers. Three streaks of light showed briefly on the panels, one red, one green, one blue.
‘Yes!’ the Russian shouted.
Charlie said, ‘My God.’
Another trio of streaks.
They fell silent.
And then the speakers roared.
Light blazed from the panels and Shtyrkov shouted something in Russian, his voice barely heard over the roar, and Svetlana shrank back in fear. Charlie ran to switches on the wall and they were momentarily in blackness. But then an electric motor slowly raised the big blind, gradually revealing another cavern, this one filled with a lake. The lake was a kilometre across and it was glowing, its rocky bottom visible in detail as if lit up by searchlights. The walls of the cavern were like a cloudy sky, reflecting the milky-white light from the water.
How long it went on Svetlana didn’t know. She became aware of Charlie shouting, ‘Come back, you idiot!’ and then through the big window she saw the black silhouette of a man running towards the lake, arms spread wide. At first she thought Shtyrkov was about to jump into the water but then he was running on to a catwalk, jumping and pirouetting above the water, arms spread wide like a boy playing at Spitfires.
Then, suddenly, silence.
Svetlana praying quietly in the dark.
Shtyrkov singing, some Russian ballad, his voice echoing around the huge cavern, the song giving way to an outburst of insane laughter.