Quantum Defect

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Rain wept through the canvas and clung to the sagging roof, a fat drop striking the collar of the somnambulant young man, startling him awake. The Major’s moustache twitched and he leaned across the desk, hands splayed upon the map spread between them.
“Something wrong, Doctor Fisher? Let’s get straight to the point, laddie. You are a cryptologist from Bletchley Park, I’m taking that means you can keep a national secret?”
Fisher didn’t answer immediately. Such was the gravity of the Major’s voice it merited a certain pause of introspection. In the distance, above the tattooing rain, there came three dull thuds of artillery fire.
“Yes, sir.”
“At approximately oh-seven-thirty we received reports of a flash in the sky in this area. On the assumption it was an unexploded Hun rocket we investigated, and what we found is unlike anything we have ever seen: a metallic cylinder, impacted in the sand. We speculate the Germans have developed their own nuclear weaponry. There is a code printed on the top of the device: not German, not Japanese, which is why you have been called in.”
Fisher’s fatigue from the long drive evaporated. “Just how far away is this bomb?”
“A few paces from where we stand. This coast it is sparsely populated and it was deemed wise to not move it.” The major snapped his sleeve away from his wristwatch. “I suggest you don’t waste any more time and take a look for yourself.”
Feeling detached from reality Fisher felt himself being led by the elbow and through to an adjoining tent. The air hummed with spotlights focussed upon a man bent in study where the canvas tent floor had been cut out in a rectangle, exposing beach sand beneath.
“Professor, let me introduce you to Doctor Fisher.”
The Professor, looking distracted, spared Fisher a glance and cursory limp handshake.
“The Professor worked with the Yanks on the Manhattan Project,” said the Major. “His experience is unique.”
Fisher saw the device half-buried in the sand. Smaller than he had imagined, it did not look like a bomb. Squatting upon his haunches, mesmerised by the inscriptions, he reached out and fluttered his fingers against the impossibly ancient-looking surface.
“That’s no code. It’s a key.”
“You’re just in time, I was just about to open it,” said the Professor, easing away a panel. There was a sudden flash and all jumped back, the Major letting a high-pitched cry and falling over his own feet. An illuminated indicator on the side of the device faded in length.
“Wait, stop!” Fisher cried. “Those are symbols; diagrams, orbits, mathematics. It’s trying to tell us something.”
The Professor shook his head. “We have to be sure of what’s inside.” He had his fingers around the edge of a second panel and again there came a pop and flash like a shorting electric bulb. As before, the indicator on the side shrunk.
“Well?” asked the Major.
“Empty, same as the last one.” The Professor traced a finger through thin ash.
“Please, wait,” said Fisher. “Give me a moment!”
As the Professor worked at a third panel Fisher studied what undoubtedly were the markings of an alphabet and what looked like a keypad. He reached for a pencil in his breast pocket and snatched a piece of paper from a packing crate and began scribbling.
Time passed. The Major left the room.
Another flash and fizzle. Fisher was beginning to get irritated.
“Professor, please, would you stop? We need to figure this out.”
“My directive was to defuse this bomb, and that’s what I shall do!”
Fisher knew he had no time to spare. He punched in a sequence into the keypad. With every press the indicator bar crept a little lower.
“What are you doing man?”
“I think I have it figured out.”
“Are you trying to get us killed?”
A screen winked into life on the device.
“Now look what you’ve done!”
Fisher transcribed the symbols, hardly hearing the Professor.
“It’s a message.”
“Oh great, so now the huns know we are here.”
“It’s galactic co-ordinates,” said Fisher, looking up from his pad in wonder.
“Come on, just look at this. It’s way beyond today’s technology.”
“The Japanese - “
“Are not this advanced.”
“I’m not falling for that.” The Professor pulled another panel and again the impotent fizzle and the indicator light hummed to almost empty.
Fisher tapped once again at the keypad.
“Dammit, would you stop that?” cried the Professor. “Just what are you doing?”
“I’m asking how long they have been waiting.”
The screen remained blank for some time. Fisher noticed the Professor no longer prised any more panels. The screen lit up.
“Well, what does it say?”
“This probe has taken thousands of years to arrive....”
“And now you have instantaneous communication? Impossible! Ever heard of a little theory called Relativity?”
“Quantum communication! Electrons are entangled then forcibly separated, the spin information on each becomes opposite the other, undefined but correlated even when separated by distance.”
“Rubbish! Such a link cannot carry any meaningful message.”
“It goes backwards through time. Entanglement ignores time as it ignores distance.”
“Come on, you can’t be that stupid. Quantum mechanics is inherently statistical.”
“No wait - ”
With a flourish the Professor drew away the last panel. The indicator winked out.
“No! Humanity’s chance to communicate -”
“To aliens? Come on, get serious.”
“- who are further away than ever now that you have destroyed the wavefunctions!”
“Me?! It was your tapping that used up some of those wavefunctions.”
“Hah! So now you agree!”
The major burst into the tent as their voices raised higher and higher.
“What’s going on? Have you figured out what it is?”
Fisher pressed his fingers against the bridge of his nose and shot the Professor an accusing glare. The professor, in response, gave an elaborately innocent shrug. Fisher exhaled heavily, wondering if the truth would ever come out. Only time would tell.
“No sir. I guess it’s a dud.”