Welcome to the A.P.T.

Alex Morton

  Claire staggered bleary eyed into the control room, clutching onto her empty cup like a life raft. She made her way over to the coffee machine and automatically selected a double expresso.

 

  “Morning beautiful.”

 

  She shot Kyle a cold look, following it up by giving him the finger whilst stifling a yawn with her other hand. Claire knew she looked terrible, but they all did. None of them had slept properly in thirty six hours.  She poured two sweeteners into the paper cup. A multi-billion pound company and they refused to splash out on proper sugar. Giving her coffee a half-hearted stir, she joined the others by the terminals, leaning on the edge of the desk for support. Wave patterns filled the two screens in front of her, occasionally spiking wildly before collapsing down on themselves. Streams of numbers were displayed on another screen, moving too fast to read. It gave her a headache.

 

  “Where is he now?” She asked.

 

  There were four of them in her team: Kyle, Mai, Christof and Simon. Only Mai looked fresh; she had her hair up in a tight bun and Claire was sure she had re-touched her make-up. Hell, she even looked pretty next to the others. 

 

  “Spain. About 1940-ish,” Mai answered. 

 

 “Ish?” Claire snapped. 

  Kyle sat with his feet up on the desk and keyboard balanced on his lap, sweat patches staining his vest as he picked at the tepid remains of yesterday’s jalfrezi.  Despite his untidy appearance, Kyle was their physics guru. Unfortunately he knew it, and thought it gave him an excuse to be a patronising ass. 

  “Listen, this isn’t easy,” he said, scratching at his stubble. “We’re making up a whole new science here. Plus Christof’s data is unreliable at best.”

  It was the Russians’ turn to glare at Kyle.

 

  “My data is reliable.”

 

  “How can you possibly know that? We have no way of testing-"

  Claire decided to head Kyle off before he launched fully into one of his favourite rants. 

 

  “Simon?” 

 

  Simon was their data analyst. With three PHDs, he was almost as smart as Kyle, but much more reserved. He ran his hands back through his thinning hair, like he always did when stressed.

  

  “I’m worried, Claire. I’ve been looking at the data and there’s no real pattern to it. I’m not sure it’s a linear progression at all. And that’s not the only problem, you see-”

  “This is a wild goose chase.” Cut in Kyle. “But hey, I’m getting paid for this crap.”

  Clair looked quizzically at Mai for an explanation. Mai turned her chair around and leant forward, hands together.

 

  “OK, let me put it simply. Imagine time is a lake.”

 

  “Oh please.” 

 

  “Shut up Kyle. Sorry Mai, time is a lake, go on.”

 

  “Well did you ever skim stones as a kid? The subject is like one of those stones, jumping from one place to the next. Now we can’t detect the stone when its mid-air, but when it hits the water, Christof’s machine can detect the ripples. Do you follow?”

  Claire nodded, and took a deep sip of caffeine. It was too sweet. 

 

  “But this isn’t like a normal stone,” Mai continued. “If it was, we could predict how fast it was moving, when it would next hit the water. But like Simon says it’s not linear. It’s random, chaotic even. All we can do is detect the ripples, and by that time the stone has already moved on.” 

  As if to prove her point, the computer alarmed. The waves on the screen started to spike repetitively and the numbers stopped appearing altogether. Christof hit the machine in frustration. 

 

  “He’s jumping again,” said Kyle calmly.

  “He can’t be jumping again; it’s too soon,” said Mai. She sounded concerned.

  Simon was scribbling frantically on his note pad. The man had never trusted computers, always relying on his own mathematics. It made him slower, but he said it gave him more time to think. Simon was muttering to himself as he wrote. He ran his hands though his hair again. He was tense, anxious. Claire was about to ask him about it when Sue’s head appeared from around the doorway.

  “He wants to see you Claire.”

 

  “Tell him I’ll swing by later.”

 

  “He said now.”

 

***
 

  Claire wrapped her hair up into a bun and tried to flatten the creases out of her blouse before she entered the office. She glanced at her Rolex; it was six twenty in the morning. She needed a shower. A shower and twelve hours sleep. 

  She knocked and entered without waiting for a response. It was an impressive space, sizeable and modern. Unlike the control room, the office was situated up on the third floor and morning sunlight was beginning to slide through the blinds. Standing the other side of a large mahogany desk was the imposing figure of Malcolm Threst. 

Threst was a well-built man, standing at six foot three with broad shoulders filling his fitted peacock suit. He smiled disarmingly at Claire and stretched his open hand towards a seat opposite him. She sat down apprehensively.

  She had worked with Threst for the past eight years, but she was still uncomfortable in his presence. A relationship built on monthly meetings had been fast-tracked in the last fortnight to the point where Threst was calling her to the office almost three times a day for updates. A ruthless businessman, Threst had built up the company from a scratch himself. He worked hard, and had a formidable reputation. Threst was a man who could make or break a career. 

  That was not the only reputation he had though. The man happily worked in the moral grey, almost bullying investors to pledge large sums toward his next venture. His past was shrouded in rumours of plagiarism and back-stabbing, rumours which Claire was willing to believe. 

  Threst remained standing whilst Claire sat. It was a cheap power play, and completely unnecessary, but she imagined it was done more out of habit than intentional humiliation.

 

  “What news from the depths?” Threst asked, flashing that white toothed smile at her again.

 

  “Not much,” she sighed, the tiredness creeping back over her. “The boys can’t seem to get a fix on the subject.”

She always referred to her team as ‘the boys’, despite Mai’s objections. 

 

  “Pity,” said Threst. “We need the subject back here Claire. You said we could do it.” 

 

  “I said we thought we could do it.” Claire clarified. “But it’s more complicated than we thought.”

  She considered sharing Mai’s lake analogy with Threst, but somehow she thought he would find it patronising. After all, the man was a theoretical physicist himself. 

 

  “I actually asked you here for a different favour,” said Threst, interrupting her thoughts. “I need you to run point on a PR thing.” 

  “PR?” Claire raised her eyebrows. “That’s not my area Malcom; get Teresa to do it.”

 

  “Teresa’s busy.” A shift in his eyes as he avoided her gaze told her that was not the full story, but she let him continue.  “It’s simple really, just some journalist from a low level physics journal, wants to do a piece on the company. Something about jobs at the edge of research bla bla. I need a pretty face to give him the tour.”

  “I’m too busy to play babysitters, Malcom. You know what my team are trying to do, they need me right now and I-“

  Threst leant over and put both hands on the desk.

  “Just sweet talk him a bit, show him the quantum image generator, the computer lab, just nothing on the lower floors.”

  “The quantum image generator?”

  The quantum image generator, or QIG, was an old piece of pseudo-science - a party trick rolled out for the investors come grant season. The machine had no real world applications; it was really just a 3D printer with a fancy name. It must be a very low level journal not to see through that farce.

  “I don’t know Claire, show him the damn museum for all I care. Just keep him happy, then get rid of him.”

  “Fine.” Claire agreed through gritted teeth. In reality she knew she had no choice, if Malcolm Threst gave you a job, you did it.

 

“Oh and Claire,” Threst shouted after her as she turned towards the door. “Maybe take a shower?”

 

***
 

  Zain Al-Raj sat alone in the foyer of the A.P.T building idly toying with his I.D. Claire spotted him easily as she stepped out from the lift and briskly made her way over to introduce herself. 

 

  “Hi I’m Claire Richards. Mr Al-Raj is it?”

  “Yes, from the Bulletin.” He flashed a badge and shook her hand firmly. “Please, call me Zain.”

  Claire had taken Threst’s advice and taken a long shower. The cool water had bought some life back into her tired limbs, and quick touch up had transformed her appearance to the ‘pretty face’ Threst wanted her to be.  Her clothes were still yesterday’s, but she hoped Zain would not be looking too closely. 

  “Welcome to Applied Physical Technologies, Zain,” she said, smiling broadly. “I’m here to give you the tour.”

  The reporter followed Claire back into the lifts and up to the second floor. Claire kept a steady monologue as they walked, telling him all about the company. She explained how it was founded, their recent partnership with ComTech, and their equal opportunities employment programme.

  As she droned on, Claire had the impression that Zain was barely listening. Admittedly it was not riveting information but the reporter did not take notes, or have a Dictaphone handy and he was not asking any questions. He just looked around distractedly like an ignorant tourist. He followed her out the lift like an obedient puppy, and together they entered the ‘museum’. 

  The museum was really a long corridor, with various exhibits along the walls chronologically mapping the history of physical sciences. It stretched right through from the Ancient Egyptians through to CERN and the Higgs Boson. Claire almost felt embarrassed walking the reporter through the displays; it was designed more for school children than for journalists, but to her surprise the man seemed not to notice the patronising level of their tour. 

  “Hey, I know him. That’s that Einstein bloke,” said Zain, correctly pointing at a portrait of the scientific pioneer.

 

  That Einstein bloke? Thought Claire. I really am babysitting. 

  “Hey this looks cool. What’s that?” Asked Zain.

  They had stopped in front of a colourful light display, projecting a three dimensional image of a classic Feynman diagram. It was the sort of pretty gimmick that she now expected him to focus on. 

 

  “It’s a Fenyman diagram. The electron and positron are annihilating to produce a photon, which becomes a quark-antiquark pairing.” Claire sounded bored as she said it. She did not have the time or energy to explain fundamental physics to this moron. 

  “Positron? Sounds like a supervillain,” joked Zain.

  This reporter was beginning to irritate her. 

  “Yes, Feynman’s use of Ernst Stueckelberg’s interpretation of positrons as an electron which moves backwards through time in order to make a pictorial representation of subatomic particles is just like a supervillain,” she said sarcastically. 

  “Backwards through time? Cool.” 

 

  “This is theoretical physics, not Hollywood,” snapped Claire. 

  She was saved from further ignorance by the sound of her cell phone ringing. Apologising briefly to Zain, she stepped into a meeting room off the corridor and shut the door on her tourist. It was Simon.

 

  “What is it Simon?”

 

  He sounded on edge.

 

  “It’s Christof’s readings Claire; they’re all over the place. I’m not really sure what we’re seeing here, but if they’re true-“

  “Does Christof think they’re true?”

 

  “He won’t hear anything against his machine, you know him.”

 

  “Okay, listen I won’t be more than another half hour with this imbecile and then I can take a look. Until then…” She hesitated, Kyle was too impulsive. “Mai is in charge.”

 

  “Also Kyle has a theory you may be interested in. He thinks he’s found a way to make contact with the subject.”

 

  “Contact?” Her heart leapt. “How is that even possible?”

 

  “He won’t tell us, and he’s being a smug git about it.” Simon’s voice filled with exhaustion. Claire was not sure he had even left the control room in the last twelve hours. “Just come back quickly alright? We need you here.”

Claire hung up and stretched, gearing herself up for another round of Zain’s insightful comments on modern physics. But as she brushed back into the corridor she found it empty.

  The reporter was nowhere to be seen. 

  Swearing under her breath she jogged back along the timeline. She passed Schrodinger and Planck with no sign of her lost journalist, and made it all the way back to the lifts. When she called it, the lift door opened immediately, so she assumed Zain was still on the second floor. She had not been long on the phone. He could not have gone far. 

Her mind filled with thoughts of industrial espionage as she searched. Maybe the stupid comments had all been part of his act?  Had she told him anything important? She didn’t think so.

 

  A scuffling noise directed her attention to a side corridor, and as she turned a corner she found Zain. The reporter was crouched down by a locked door, jiggling his I.D card around the lock. The door was clearly marked ‘Staff Only’. 

  “Can I help you?” said Claire, crossing her arms.

 

  He leapt up and spun round like a child found with a hand in the cookie jar.

 

  “Miss Roberts. I was just trying to find the lavatory…” He tailed off, silenced by the stony look on Claire’s face. 

 

  “What newspaper did you say you were from again Mr Al-Raj?”

 

  “The Bulletin,” he replied.

 

  “And who are you really?” Claire asked.

 

  Zain’s face seemed to change. The innocent youth replaced by a mocking sneer of disdain. He walked confidently up to Claire, almost nose to nose, and grabbed her I.D Badge.

  “I think a better question is who are you really? Why has Threst sent a high level manager to give a tour to a local reporter? What are you hiding, Miss Roberts?”

 

  Claire stepped back, snatching her badge out of his hands. 

 

  “I’m calling security,” she said. “And I suggest you leave.”

 

  “Of course.” His voice was full of derision. “But why don’t you pass on a message to that benevolent boss of yours for me? You tell Mr Threst that I know people have gone missing, and if he thinks people won’t start asking questions then he is sorely mistaken.”

  “Missing? Who’s gone missing?” spluttered Claire. Her whole head was spinning, who was this man? 

  “Goodbye Miss Roberts. I’ll see myself out.” Mr Al-Raj pushed past her and entered the stairwell, choosing not to wait for a lift.  Claire was left alone in the corridor, leaning against the wall for support. She found she was panting and tried to control her breathing, counting slowly to five with each breath. Trembling, she took out her cell phone and dialled for Threst.

  “Claire?” His voice was strong, in control. It was good to hear it. “What’s the matter?”

  She told him what had happened. The words tumbling out of her mouth in a flood of exhausted emotion. When she got to the end, Threst paused, taking it all in. 

  “Thank you for telling me Claire; I knew I could trust you,” he said. 

  “Will you call the police?”

 

  “No, no need for that,” he chuckled. “These little problems have a tendency to take care of themselves. And if not, I have ways of making them disappear.”

  Claire was not sure if it was fatigue or paranoia, but there was something in the way Threst said disappear which filled her with an inexplicable dread. 

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