Originally a (self-evident) engineering concept, this term has been widely abused by the business world. At least in my business world. Fine - it's something my boss says all too often.

It still means "one way this could go wrong."

To whom it may concern:

You may or may not know this, but there is an enormous building made of solid stone on the outskirts of the city of Tucson, Arizona. It is as if somebody took a mountain and dropped it on the edge of a light industrial park, and then chipped it and sculpted it into the perfect shape of a fairly slickly-architectured modern science laboratory, and then added signage and parking and maybe roads and paths around it. It looks like the biggest piece of stone sculpture in the world. It weighs over a million tonnes.

You probably have no idea why it is there. Or where it came from. Or what happened to the original.

That's unless the rock has sunk into the earth under its own weight and there's just a hole there now. That's a possibility too. Or you may not even be able to read this because English, as a language, has been lost. Or, most likely, it is a million years later and this message is dust, having never been read.

I think something is wrong with the universe.

*

Adrian Ashmore's adrenaline rush has begun before he even hits the floor. The lights went out and his chair disappeared from under him; a dinner hour prison break? No. Ridiculous.

He hits the wrong floor. Thin carpet, not the tiled floor of the dining hall. He fumbles around and finds a wall where there shouldn't be one, and then he knows.

He knows.

Somebody runs into him, completely unseen. "Who's this?" she says, feeling around for his arm and helping him up. "Sorry! I think a breaker got tripped or something." Forced cheerfulness.

"Who are you?" he asks her.

She tells him her name. He tells her his. And she stops dead in her tracks. Ashmore hears the sharp gasp and the shuffle backwards. Marie knows he is supposed to be in prison. And she knows Ashmore has been present for at least one previous botched teleportation experiment. And she knows, secretly, even if she hasn't allowed herself to realise it, that it is the middle of the day and that even if all the power was cut and the sky was overcast there should have been some ambient light in the Michaelson Group Arizona headquarters.

Ashmore hears all these facts coming together in Marie's mind and tries to keep her focused, distracted. He grips her hand and tells her, "Okay. You need to take me to the control room right now."

But she panics at being touched and shouts "Get away from me!" and scrambles away down the corridor.

*

I believe that the universe operates on certain fundamental principles. These are principles which, I believe, human beings are capable of deducing in full. One day, some years ago, I found a flaw in the universe, a loose thread, and started tugging. Was I messing with forces I didn't understand? Certainly. This is something I and many others have been called to do. We did it in a safe way. We did it in an attempt to understand what we were mucking about with. Or so we told ourselves.

We were blessed with inspiration from more than one source, from diverse viewpoints. But it was not so simple. My colleagues and I were forced to construct skyscrapers of theory before we had something sturdy enough to base a real machine on.

But science is never just for the sake of science. It should be, I wish it could be, but just think about the possibilities: To go from the Earth to the Moon in a second and a quarter without passing the space in between. To mount a device on a space telescope designed to trap photons emitted in another star system and thus study them up close, from mere Earth orbit. What couldn't we do, if we had teleportation? If we made the whole world into a single place with everybody next door to everybody else? How good could it have been? We actually dreamt about stuff like this. We thought such huge, impossible thoughts. "Everything will be different in twenty years", we said.

So maybe this is about hubris.

*

Ashmore follows the humming. He can hear a faint vibration in the ground so he follows the right-hand wall until he finds somebody who knows their way around, and holds their hand while he is led to the stairs and down however many flights. Eventually he locates the control room and announces to everybody who can hear him that the generator for their machine must be shut down, immediately. Immediately. They need to plan their attack before they do anything.

"Why?" people respond, to the unfamiliar, British-accented voice.

"Because there's nowhere for the heat to go. We're embedded in rock. No ventilation. It's just going to get hotter. Until it roasts us all. Shut it down and let's talk about getting out of here before that happens. I'm Adrian Ashmore. Where are the scientists?"

*

This is how the universe works:

Medium and meaning are separate. In the end, everything is just information: "I am a proton", "I have this wavefunction", "There are this many of us". When you describe something, you give information about it. It is impossible to describe something totally, because the act of description alters the thing being described. So, if you want to move something from place to place, you can't just read all the information from where it is and write all that information onto unformed vacuum at the place where you want it to be. "Heisenberg Compensators"? No. It's not the right answer.

Instead, you can separate off the information from the spacetime it describes. At the quantum level, information is substance. It can be manipulated. It is possible to cleave the quantum information about a volume of spacetime away from that volume. You can't look at it. You can't read it. But you can fire it off somewhere, anywhere. It's just a matter of calculation and energy input. And when the informational packet arrives at its destination point-- well, obviously, there's information in the way already. And that gets displaced, or knocked, like two steel balls colliding in an executive toy, and is catapulted back along the trail to point zero, on a mirror-image trail. So the two informational state volumes get exchanged. The whole thing happens at light speed. What's here goes there. What's there comes here. A lightspeed exchange of spacetime. Matter transportation.

This discovery was profoundly shocking. Quantum physics often has this effect, even on its close friends. Meaning/medium duality is like physically extracting the moral from what is really just a page of ink. It is like painting a hole in the ground and then diving through it.

We discovered this. And then we built machines to do it for real.

And somebody didn't like that.

*

They gather together-- the scientists and the engineers-- in a board room, around a single candle which casts only a few faint highlights on each face. Ashmore closes his eyes and imagines himself in a conference call. The leader is Drew Levenberg. Ashmore deems him too young by at least a decade.

Ashmore knows the whole story before anybody even starts speaking. The Michaelson Group Arizona laboratory was attempting an independent teleportation trial and something went wrong. The entire building became the subject of the transfer, and was flipped underground. At the same time, Adrian Ashmore was brought thousands of miles from the UK to be trapped under the ground along with it. The building is now completely encased in solid stone. There's no way to dig their way out - even if there was, they could hit magma if they head downwards or water if they head up. At least one component of the transfer moved thousands of miles to be here. They could be directly under the Atlantic rift for all they know. That's the bad news.

The good news is that the teleportation machinery runs off an independent local generator which was brought along with the building during the transfer. They're cut off from the Arizona electricity grid so their conventional computers won't work, except for the laptops, whose batteries will last at most two hours each. But with some of the world's most scintillatingly intelligent electrical engineers working on the task, they can build an AC transformer to run the TP rig and the computers off the generator simultaneously.

More bad news is that they don't know where they are. They can't know without unpicking the anomalous teleportation programs which were somehow inserted into the experiment. That would be time-consuming. Running the same program a second time would only move the entire building further in the same direction as before; this would eventually result in their hitting magma. But more good news, according to Ashmore, is that he thinks he can perform a relatively straightforward mathematical inversion on the anomalous program data, to make one which will put everything back where it came from.

They'll need to ration the power carefully - the longer the generator runs, the more the facility will fill with heat. And there are almost no other light sources of any kind. It's going to be getting hotter anyway, hour on hour, even if nothing happens; it could have been worse if they'd been sent deeper. Oxygen will not be a problem. Humans can survive three weeks without food and they have loaded snack machines to pillage. The major problem will be water. Full tanks and full storage cupboards of water cooler refills will last... well, somebody will have to calculate that. Perhaps three days. With death following in another three.

It takes too long to get all of this firmly established and Ashmore is itching to get the project moving. But everybody is waiting for Drew's say-so, and Drew's spending too long thinking.

"Let's get going. I've done projects like this before," says Ashmore, to break the silence.

"Successfully?" responds Levenberg. "This is about more than just science. There are a hundred and fifty people in this building. I'm talking non-scientists. Admin, catering, janitorial. With no idea what's going on and nothing to do except panic. I'm going to start distributing tasks. But first I have a task for all of you. When we walk out that door... we have to be convincing."

"Who's not convinced? We can do this."

"Yes," says Levenberg. "Sure. If we cooperate, concentrate, stay focused, stay human. This can and will be done. In seventy-two hours. We know this, but we have to make them believe it. You all understand? We can't do this without faith."

*

Everybody's down here. With the Michaelson team and myself, that's everybody who knows anything concrete about teleportation. There are others in the world but they'll probably be scared off the project by now. Not that it would do them much good to come back to it.

When Tom walked away from everything, he told me it was because he feared reprisal from somebody far more powerful than him. He cited evidence: impossibly timed lightning strikes, seemingly impossible teleportation events. I was sceptical, because I feel it is my job to be sceptical until something works ten times in a row and can be pretty certain to work another hundred. Science is the opposite of belief. I do believe in God, but not one who can't fit in the cracks; not a God who interferes directly in the affairs of mortal men, just a guy who wound up a Big Bang one day and walked away and let it run. Maybe he's found the insanely beautiful patterns inside his experiment, maybe he hasn't, but he's only watching, not even tapping on the glass. That's enough of a supreme being for me.

But you--

*

Day two.

"Someone help! Help!" cries a voice. "I think he's having a panic attack!"

Ashmore rushes over to the source of the sound, bringing a tiny light with him, fearing the worst. It's Marie. She's kneeling over a man who is thrashing about on the floor. "What is it? What's happening? Is he okay? Jesus--"

"I think he's claustrophobic. I don't even know who he is. Hold him!"

"Can we sedate him? Why's this gone off now? Have you told him how close we are?"

"I don't know! There's no medicine, there aren't any medics or nurses! I don't know what to do!"

Ashmore tries to restrain the man, who is flailing dangerously and about to injure himself or someone else. "What's your name? Sir, what's your name? Calm down. Shhh... (Hold his other arm.) Listen: We're going to get out of here. My name is Adrian. I'm a master of teleportation science. I can tell you for certain that this time tomorrow you'll be home. We're confident about this. We're going home. You don't even have to be awake for it to happen--"

"Listen to him, he's trying to help you--"

"It's a bad dream, okay? It's just a bad dream. Except we can wake up. We're going to pinch the universe and it'll wake up and everything will be okay. I promise. I promise. It's just going to be a long night. A few more hours. And you need to-- ow-- go back to sleep. Aaagh! Ow!"

The man gets an arm loose. Ashmore takes an elbow in the eye. Then the man is out of their grasp and skittering away into the darkness. He'll have to be dealt with eventually.

Marie gasps. "...He's... ah. He's gone. He's gone. I don't know where. That was awful. Are you okay? Let me look at that--"

"I'm okay. I'm okay. I'm sorry. Ah... counselling the disturbed isn't something I do. I didn't know what else to say."

"...I'm sorry about what happened earlier."

"It's okay."

"You really believe all of that? What you said?"

"...Absolutely. Ah... Yes. Absolutely."

*

I know you're reading this.

*

Day four.

"This isn't right."

"Ashmore, I hope to God you're joking because we don't have time to get this wrong again. What's not right?"

"Drew, you don't-- Look at this graph. This is what we're picking up. This is the test curve. It's how teleportation was discovered. There was an anomaly on the curve and that's how we knew we could exploit this quantum loophole. Understand?"

"And you're saying what? That anomaly is--"

"This is our curve. Which we're picking up now. This is precisely as predicted by pre-2004 theories. This, however, is what it should look like, according to the post-2004 theories which superseded them. Okay? The anomaly's gone. There's no loophole."

"Meaning what?"

Ashmore says nothing for a moment. "Okay. Go and get Ralph and Holly and the rest of your smart guys to look at this. I need a minute."

Ashmore feels his way out of the control room and along the corridor to the adjacent kitchen. The taps are empty, both hot and cold. The cooler's empty and all the plastic bottles he can find are rattling, empty. He really needs water and it's extremely hot and there might not be any left anywhere. He knows all of this already and checking again hasn't changed anything. He leans against the wall and spends a long moment preparing himself for what he knows is coming next. And then, he returns to the control room, and the single TFT monitor with the single incriminating graph on it, around which nearly a dozen men and women are now gathered.

"So you're sure this isn't another--"

"--erature and pressure don't come into this! Depth doesn't! Universal laws are the same everywhere, that's what makes them--"

"--with all the other false starts, surely it's possible this is just another--"

"--No--"

"--No, he's right--"

"--If the machine wasn't working, we wouldn't even have a graph--"

"--It's working perfectly! It has to be, but--"

"--So teleportation has just gone from our universe? Is that it? The laws have just changed? So how do we fix that?"

And then there's silence. And everybody turns to face Ashmore. And in their eyes he sees the need for something to believe in. There's a long pause. He knows what he should say. But his tongue won't let him and "I don't know," is what comes out instead. He can't help it. "I'll have to think about it before I can be sure," he adds quickly, but the damage is already done.

Day five is very bad indeed.

*

I don't believe in the unexplainable.

The universe operates on rules. You operate on rules.

If the rules upon which the universe operates can change, then they, too, must change according to higher rules. Somewhere up there is a rule set to which you are beholden and humanity, I promise, will find a way to exploit those. There will come a time when everything is possible for us.

*

By day six it's nearly over. The facility is hellishly hot and all the light sources have expired, except for the one in Ashmore's hands.

"What are you doing there, Adrian?" asks a voice.

It startles him. It's Drew.

"I didn't know anyone was... I found a PDA. Full battery. No one was using it. So I wrote something for my family. And I'm putting together a record of what happened here. Just on the off chance that... someone digs us out, eventually."

"Can... can I write something? To my family?"

It's absolutely silent in the room for a second. There's just the light illuminating Adrian's face. Then he hands the device to Drew.

"You have much family?" asks Drew, slouching down against the wall next to Ashmore.

"Divorced, one daughter," says Adrian. It hurts to talk. "She was grown up by the time we split up. Grown up enough to take my ex-wife's side in the argument. And it was quite messy, so... I haven't seen either of them in... well. It feels like a long time."

"Wife and three kids," says Drew, tapping on the virtual keyboard with the stylus.

"You're wife's maiden name wouldn't happen to be Michaelson, would it?"

"Heh. Not bad."

"You struck me as--"

"Look, I may just be another business manager to you. But at least I was good at business management. I knew to stop talking when the physicists got started."

Adrian notes Drew's use of the past tense.

Drew types for a very long time. Ashmore is in no hurry.

Eventually, Drew hands the PDA back. "It could have been worse," he says, desperately. "I mean, I think I did okay with organising the water rationing. For the most part. We could have been dead a long time ago."

"I guess so," says Ashmore. He opens his old file and picks up where he left off. They've both stopped sweating. That's a bad sign.

*

By now the flaw is nearly repaired. I don't know who you are. Maybe I'm about to meet you. More likely you're just a smart, smart man. Whatever happens next, as for right now, I am still alive.

Adrian Ashmore, 4th April 2008

 

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