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Flint's Folly

The great hall of Antarctica's National University recalled ancient glaciers that once covered the land. Panels of glittering white quartz covered the walls and ceiling. It was filled to capacity for the press conference.
I was one of the few fortunates to get a seat and still be able to see the dais. Professor Bah sat next to me. I smiled but didn't say anything. There were only two Professors who'd ever filled me with awe to the point of vocal paralysis; he was one and we were waiting for the other along with everyone else.
"It's Mattius, isn't it? One of Professor Flint's protégés?" said Professor Bah.
I nodded enthusiastically.
"Good to meet you." He held out his hand. I shook it vigorously, willing anything, however inane, to come out of my mouth.
"I don't suppose you have any idea what this is about? Global news conference, has to be something huge."
I shook my head. It seemed to loosen my tongue. "We knew he was up to something. He's been distracted for over a year now. Hasn't spent so much time with us."
Bah grinned. "I know that glint in his eye."
The buzz of anticipation was tremendous. We were waiting for Antarctica's greatest scientist to announce something bigger than all his other achievements put together. Bigger than his development of fusion reactors, or his work on artificial soil. Bigger than human bioluminescence in a land where night lasts six months.
Silence rippled out from the front when he entered the great hall. He carried a large box and walked towards the dais, age making his movements careful and considered. His grey hair was swept back neatly, for once, from his face, although his insistence on glasses instead of eye repair gave him an old fashioned, eccentric look. I couldn't imagine him without them.
He cleared his throat, a thunderclap in the silence.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to thank you for indulging an elderly man, and express my gratitude that so many have attended. To those watching from all over our planet, I hope humanity can share this moment. That is why, instead of publishing in a journal where only a fraction will read and understand this breakthrough, I have chosen this unusual method of communicating a scientific discovery."
He opened the box and took out a model plane.
"Few of you will recognise this, I should think. It's an exact replica of a twentieth century Concorde. I chose it on a whim. Its name means harmonious union, and it was constructed by two countries who had been ancient enemies and then fierce allies. The first supersonic airliner. And you will see a device is attached to it. Now, I need the measuring machine. Mattius, is Mattius here?"
My face flamed as I stood up and squeezed past legs. The idea that the world was watching made my head light as I climbed the steps.
"The machine is just off stage there, would you wheel it in?" he said. I nodded--speech had fled again--and walked towards the box of dials and knobs. It was heavy, but I got it next to the Professor.
"You can stay here if you like, Mattius."
He winked, and I knew he always meant me to be his assistant that day. He knew I was too shy to agree to do it, but that I would, without a doubt, have crawled on lava to get here.
He'd decided to make me part of history.
"What I wish to show you all today is something that I think will excite you. This vehicle will travel faster than the speed of light, and this machine will measure it precisely."
My mouth hung open. I don't know what anyone else's reactions were, because in that moment the only thing that existed to me was that model plane.
He placed the Concorde on the floor at one end of the stage, with a chunky round device on its back breaking the smooth lines of the plane's design. Instantly it was at the other end of the stage. A cracking sound ripped at the air, leaving my ears ringing in protest. My eye seemed to capture a sense of movement, but I was never sure that was real.
There was a moment of shocked silence. Then the hall erupted, a great roar of applause and cheers. The Professor smiled happily at the plane.
Professor Bah helped me escape after the press conference, through a maze of poorly lit dingy corridors that was the less seen side of the University. As we got outside, I thanked him.
"I wouldn't have wanted to do any interviews."
"I guessed that," he said. He seemed distracted. I didn't blame him. I felt as though the whole world were a little unreal compared to the little plane I'd seen break the light barrier.
"Did you pick up a copy of Flint's paper?" said Bah. "He had a huge pile of them at the front."
"I didn't get a chance."
He handed one to me. It was remarkably short. "I picked up a few, for interested colleagues who couldn't attend." He looked up at the sky. "Only a few months of daytime left. I've never really gotten used to six months of almost continuous night."
I was born to it and couldn't imagine the pattern of night and day elsewhere.
I scurried home, sure at any moment someone would recognise me from the press conference. I was lucky. I got back to my apartment without incident, and threw myself into the paper. But it was beyond me. My field is bioengineering; I was part of Flint's team that worked on human bioluminescence. I'd been lucky, one of the ones he'd picked out on the very first day of his class to assist him on some of his projects. He would mentor us at his modest home, where we'd share ideas, surrounded by bits of machines and shelves of actual, physical books, though he preferred twentieth century science fiction to volumes of ancient journals. I'd even found one of his Nobel prizes, thick with dust, perched on a scope.
I went from channel to channel on HyperNet. The world was alive with FTL travel. We could go beyond our solar system. We'd found single cell life on Europa two decades ago, the consensus was it must exist elsewhere in the galaxy. Now we dared hope for alien, complex life.
That was the one that thrilled me. My mind populated planets with fantastic creatures, inspired by the Professor's books.
Billions of dollars were spent all over the world in those first few weeks, on building replica machines and repeating the Professor's results. Everyone wanted to be a part of this future. Governments diverted resources, scientists in every field dropped lifelong work to have a go.
I went into hiding, trying to avoid requests for interviews with the assistant who must, surely, have worked on the project.
The truth is, I was as ignorant and spellbound as everyone else.
I waited nervously in the coffee shop on campus, nursing a chilly coffee. I was relieved when Professor Bah strode in.
"I'm glad you got my message," said Bah.
"Sorry, I switched off direct calls. Avoiding the media."
He sat down. For a while he said nothing but stared out of the window at the faculty building, glinting crystalline blue in the sun. His message had sounded urgent.
"Have you read the Professor's paper?" he said at last.
"I've glanced through it. To be honest, it's so far outside my field."
He nodded. "You know, we both arrived in Antarctica at the same time. My parents fled Senegal as the waters came, he managed to survive in the Britannic Islands. I've known him, worked with him, for fifty years. He truly is a genius. He's a Da Vinci, a polymath. He's not limited by the traditional boundaries of science. He's one of my dearest friends. But he has enemies."
"Why would he have--"
"Have you heard of polly water?"
"There have been whispers containing that phrase directed at Flint. In the twentieth century a Russian scientist discovered a new form of water with a lower freezing point, higher boiling point, and syrup thick. Other labs all over the world succeeded in producing it."
"Then how come I've never heard of it?"
"Only tiny drops were ever made, and it turned out to be regular water with impurities. Sometimes it was just sweat from the scientist's hands. It was a phantom result. A similar thing happened again later, in America. A couple of chemists thought they'd produced fusion in a glass of water."
"But other labs are getting the same results as the Professor."
"Initially, at least, other scientists confirmed the results of polly water and cold fusion. They repeated the methodology and the mistakes. You're close to the Professor, you can defend him against malicious rumours."
"He can always rely on me."
"I know, but to defend him, you'll need to know the experiment inside and out."
"I get it." I was going to crusade for the Professor.
I read the methodology over and over. I borrowed equipment from the lab and came up with a cucumber in place of a model plane--I wanted to observe the effects on biological matter. I borrowed one of the Professor's devices to measure speed.
I'd made a gherkin glow as a student by sticking electrodes in it. Now I was accelerating a cucumber faster than light.
It worked perfectly. My cucumber went 1.4 times the speed of light. I repeated it again, and then again. I couldn't see any changes in the cucumber. Then I used a different measuring device.
As I stared at the monitors the gore rose in my throat.
I called Professor Bah. As his face appeared on the air screen, the expression of pain was obvious.
My voice trembled as I spoke. "You knew. You knew there was a flaw in the measuring device."
"Why didn't you say?"
"Would you have listened? Have you ever studied relativity?"
"Not my field."
"Well, it is mine. And I read his paper. It didn't make sense. He didn't even try to address causality or the light speed barrier because he couldn't. And then I found the flaw in the measuring device."
"Have you spoken to him?"
There was a pause. One word carried a lifetime of friendship. "No."
If I had found out, then thousands of other scientists already knew. They would have followed the instructions in his paper for the construction of the measuring device--then many would have repeated the experiment with their own. It's in our nature to take a closer look.
I don't know why they didn't come forward straight away. Perhaps it was the way Flint's announcement had captivated the world, instantly accepted as truth. Or maybe it was the love and regard the Professor still commanded.
But the next day the dam burst. Universities and Institutions all over the world held press conferences. Then the accusations; incompetence, arrogance, fraud, delusions. Pathological science. I'd thought, after everything he'd done, this mistake would be forgiven. I couldn't have been more wrong. His career spanned decades, his destruction took days.
Flaws in his work, previously eclipsed by his achievements, were magnified. History re-written. His role in the development of artificial soil was reduced, the collegiate nature of the work on fusion was pointed out, as was the importance of the work others--like myself--had conducted in the development of human bioluminescence. We who'd understood those achievements had always known that their discovery was more complex than was commonly understood. But as his achievements had been exaggerated in the public's mind, that exaggeration now swung the other way and wielded as a weapon against him.
A few days after the storm started, I found the courage to visit the Professor.
"Ah, Mattius," he said, delighted as he opened the door.
My relief was overwhelming. He hadn't broken under the strain. Nor should he. As a few had pointed out, his discovery, the speed, was still impressive.
He led me into the parlour with its familiar, comforting smell of antique books.
"Perfect timing, as always, Mattius," he said. I smiled as I realised that glint in his eye meant he was already working on something new. We sat down and I eagerly waited to hear what he was up to.
"I've constructed a craft," he said. "Applied the FTL technology. I've done it, Mattius. I've visited other worlds. I've discovered new complex life."
On the table between us was a pile of sketches. He pushed them towards me. My mind reeled as I stared at the pages.
"I pointed my craft at rocky planets," he went on, and I wanted to beg him to stop, but I couldn't find the words. "Look at what I saw."
The sketch on top was of the Martians from 'The War of the Worlds.' Every drawing was recognisable from the works that surrounded us. The works he'd loaned me.
I stared into the Professor's grinning face, and saw the tears in his eyes.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, September 20th, 2010
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