Infraction

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
517,
Page:
116
Date published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/517116a
Published online

Rapid progress.

Illustration by Jacey

I've read the Daily Bulletin religiously every work day since I started at the Accelerator Division. It gives me a picture of what is happening on the site, who is joining or leaving, when the research seminars are and even what is on the café menu. A few years ago, just after I'd taken over as project manager, I noticed a crabbily terse message in the Bulletin from Tony, the security chief: “All staff are reminded that access to areas within the radiation perimeter is strictly controlled. No unauthorized access is permitted or permissible. Offenders are subject to disciplinary action under Section 14 of the Code.”

As most of my project is in that area, I wandered down to the Main Gate and found Tony lodged in the back office, surrounded by video monitors, binders of reports and the other paraphernalia of his trade. He slid his boots off the console as I knocked on the door frame, and stood to greet me — offering coffee. The coffee was dark and bitter, like his mood. A career in the Marines has left Tony with a distrust of non-military government employees and what he views as the slack way we do business. When I asked about the note in the Bulletin he sighed and waved me to a seat.

“Some joker has been using the road next to the beam line as a running track after hours,” Tony reported. “And it isn't the first time. My guys tell me they've seen something before, only this time we've got a picture.” He slid a print across to me. The image was murky and blurred — the output from a low-resolution surveillance camera. It showed a figure, perhaps male, jogging east along the off-limits access road, beyond that it gave little away.

“Is this the best image you've got? Is there any more footage?” Tony shook his head slowly. “Nope, this is the only one. The cameras on the gantries are hard-wired to grab a frame when an object goes past — they don't record anything else. They've promised us an upgrade to HD streaming but, hey, they've been doing that for years. I take it you can't ID the guy?”

I couldn't, and it remained a mystery. No one confessed to being inside the perimeter at night, and there were plenty of nicer places on campus to take a run if you wanted to — like across the range-land to the ridge, for example. We agreed that Tony would keep me posted if he got any more sightings and left it at that. Time passed, and occasionally an internal envelope would arrive with a printed report from Tony and a screen-shot paper-clipped to it. Always indistinct and blurry, sometimes little more than an oval blob, the runner remained enigmatic. I filed the reports under “Weird” and got on with life — until Emma, the programme director, saw the folder on my desk and asked about it.

When I explained, she flipped through the reports, then stopped — frowning. “I'm sure you've checked, but doesn't there seem to be a pattern to this?” I shrugged, it hadn't occurred to me to look. Slightly chastened, I plotted the dates of the sightings and, after a struggle with the site geolocation database, the positions of the figure. Emma was right, the events were broadly correlated — but when I swapped the time axis to a log scale the fit became almost perfect. As time passed, the sightings were getting more frequent — and all were moving west along the beam line track. When I extrapolated from the data, the events looked set to become almost continuous ten years hence — at a location about 500 metres from the first encounter.

I realized that my hands were slick with sweat. Wiping them on my shirt, I dropped an overlay onto the plot — adding the physical site layout. The end-point of the image trail would be close to the centre of the new Experiment Hall, the huge unfinished concrete bunker where we were building the new-generation detectors. Emma was oddly pleased, but sceptical — suggesting that we think hard before risking two promising careers on a wildly improbable speculation. I pondered this for a good long while, looking out of my office window at the distant hills — now burning red in the evening sun — then headed off to see Tony.

He was already on his way to find me, with a look that urged me to talk. As I told him about our analysis he kept passing an envelope to and fro between his hands, as though it might be alive. Tony perched on the low concrete wall at the side of the walkway and pulled a sheet of photo paper from the envelope, handing it to me. “The new HD cameras finally got commissioned last week, so I thought you'd like to see what they make of our friend ...”

I slumped down beside him, shock building like a breaking wave as I studied the image. A lean, dishevelled figure in an unfamiliar style of labcoat was captured in mid stride, coat tails flared by his rapid movement. The face showed unmistakable fear, distress, horror.

Tony leaned across. “Now that, my friend, is what I call full haul-ass!” He rubbed his chin in a contemplative manner for a moment or two, then looked into my eyes.

“When did you say the lines cross on this graph of yours? Ten years? Hmm ...” He held the photo up in front of me and pointed at the frozen figure. “Well heck, John. I don't know what you're running away from, but I'd say you're making pretty good time for a man in his late sixties. Good to see you'll be losing some weight though ...”

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  1. John Gilbey writes from the academic seclusion of the University of Rural England.

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