Voice On The Wind

It takes Doctor Baros eleven minutes to reach the pressure door of the facility that he’d been heading for and pass the security check to be granted access. He still doesn’t understand the need for a security interrogation, as he calls it, to be conducted out in the freezing temps. After all, who is going to be trying to get into the facility other than a researcher? No one and that is why it makes not an ounce of sense. After all it’s not like anyone is going to be out for a stroll. And nobody is going to stumble upon this place. Orion station is on the opposite side of the continent, far away from other more established and longstanding facilities, plus with the temperature as it is there is little chance of someone traversing from there to here. Even if they somehow managed to they’d be picked up on scanning spears and tracked along every step of the way. To be pinged by one of the trackers you’d first have to leave the substantial security ring around the facility. Alexi, clearly returning from a short excursion, clearly did not get anywhere near that perimeter so he could only be a member of either the facilities staff or part of one of the research teams. He’d even argued the point when on one occasion a research group had almost been blasted across the island by severe gusts because of a particularly difficult security officer who had refused to let the team in and then carry out the relevant checks. Alexi does note that he hasn’t seen that difficult man since, which is probably just as well as the physicist could easily imagine him having fallen foul to one of that security officers overly rigid checks when the moment least called for it. Thankfully, everyone knows Doctor Baros well enough, through reputation more than conversation with the man, to be aware that he frequently takes short jaunts outside to get some air. The security teams think him mad for it, as the researchers had but seem to have grown accustomed to, yet they’ve never tried to put a halt to his actions. Likely for fear of the repercussions that might come when he would inevitably complain to their pay masters. After all, they are all paid by the same group.

The physicist will admit he’s pleased to be back in the warmth of the research station. Alexi refuses to call the viro-suits warm. They are… He doesn’t have the word for it. Warm just doesn’t quite seem right to him as they don’t keep him at what he would consider a suitable temperature. Instead, they seem to keep him just below it. It’s as though a single extra layer in the suit would fix that. Whether that is true or not, he cannot rightly say but it is how he has felt since having grown accustomed to the suits and their bulkiness.

Either way it matters little now he is out of the suit. He’s thankful that it isn’t as difficult to peel off as it might look. Especially as in the regulated climate of the station wearing one the suits is rather uncomfortably hot.

With the suit stowed and the tank slotted into the refuelling system the black haired man with stubble and hazel eyes quickly finishes pulling the zip of a pale blue jumpsuit up to the base of his neck. It isn’t the sort of attire he would normally wear but as he intends to head straight for the labs and their clean room he sees little reason to clad himself in much else. If he did he’d only have to slip into a jumpsuit then, which would, in his eyes, eat into his teams work time. Just as well there are no windows in the station, Alexi reminds himself with a chuckle, and he has a point as during the summer months Antarctica has little that could be considered night. Instead, it is almost permanently day. Humans can struggle with the adjustment to endless light. He’s seen the research data. It’s quite fascinating, and a tad worrying to be honest. But with the station having no windows it helps to eliminate much of the issue and helps to provide a clear differentiation between the daylight hours of work and the night-time hours where rest is encouraged. Even if the day/night cycle that is encouraged is a simulated one.

Alexi barrels out of the locker-room having taken note that he is dangerously close to being late. In as far as if he doesn’t get a move on he’ll arrive at his destination, the labs where his team are working, late. He hates being late. He loathes it in fact. That’s why he often arrives at things ten to twenty minutes earlier than is necessary. He’s been told many times that there is no need but it’s a habit he can’t break, and doesn’t wish to either. Still, he won’t be that early this time and that puts him on edge.

Now in the corridor he turns the corner, only just managing to avoid slamming shoulder first into the fabricated metal sheet that serves as a wall, and then hurry down the corridors length. He wouldn’t call his hurrying a run. A jog would be a more suitable term the physicist decides as he ducks and sidesteps around other station residents who are going about their daily routines. He can’t think of a better name for them other than residents without resulting to the rather lazy term of people. It’s overused, in his eyes, and not all of them are researchers or staff. They are a mixture and so the term people while appropriate is still not one he wishes to exercise on this occasion, because of its overuse. So residents will have to suffice. At least for now and until he can settle on something that is more appropriate, if there is such a word at all.

A few of the residents, newer ones not yet used to the physicists frequent rushing about, exclaim in surprise. But they are singular short eruptions that are lost the next second as the originators return to their daily routines. After all, that is all there is out here, routines. Everyone lives by one. For some it can get boring, for others it is essential. It depends on the person, their life up to that point and perhaps a half dozen other things as well. Still, Alexi is not so rude as to not apologise to every exclamation that reaches his ears. Some are not even a result of his rushing, which he is always doing. It’s like the man is always late, except he isn’t, usually. This is a rarity, an exception. He is so very close to being late on this particular day. He doesn’t know how. He should have had plenty of him and that’s why he continues to chastise himself as he takes a left turn and continues his rush undeterred.

When he’d first moved into the station for this project he’d been rushing about blindly, taking wrong turns here, there and everywhere. He often got himself turned about, but he’d still been early even then, twenty seven minutes on his first day to be exact. Throughout his life friends and colleagues have often queried as to why it is Doctor Baros rushes everywhere. His reply had always been the same succinct reply, a shrug. He doesn’t know. It just feels right to him. Exercise to get his blood pumping and his mind racing so he is better prepared for the hard day of thinking ahead perhaps? He can’t say. It’s an answer he gave once. Or was it something someone suggested? He isn’t sure and takes another turn, right this time. His research teams’ labs are the furthest from the pressure door he re-entered the facility through. His section doesn’t have nearby pressure doors. Even if it did he wouldn’t use them as the view out that side of the facility is not one he finds calming, soothing or beautiful. Mainly that is a result of the energy generation structure that stands slap bang in the centre of any view that you might otherwise have. Plus, there is a myriad number of other station essential equipment out there that further helps turn the site into an eyesore, in his opinion.

One last turn, a left, and with the corridor empty Alexi manages to traverse the relatively short length of the run to the door of his research teams section. He swipes his security pass without looking, take a deep breath and then strides over the threshold while taking a quick glance at his wrist. He smiles noting that he isn’t late. In fact, he’s now two minutes early. That pleases him to see as he quickly manhandles his thick black hair to ensure that none of its long strands are loose and having fallen forward to cover parts of his face. If they are and he made no attempt to brush them back into position it might reveal his rush. Alexi hates looking unkempt or scruffy, especially in front of his team. They need confidence in him and what better way to invoke that than to be well groomed, he thinks. It’s why he never lets his stubble grow longer than a few days before giving it a trim. Plus why he insists on having a comb in his pocket. Not the pocket of his jumpsuit as that would screw with the protocols of passing into a clean room. Instead, it resides in the top pocket of the shirt he has underneath it. After all, when Doctor Baros is done in the clean room he intends on shedding the upper section of the jumpsuit, which he’ll tie around his waist, and continue working. If he had bottoms on, other than the jumpsuits, he’d shed the clean garment entirely. To him however that seemed wasteful, in regards to time.

“Morning Doctor!” One of Alexi’s research assistants, Martha Allen, says with a quick flash of her pearly white teeth and her smiling brown eyes.

“Morning.” Is Alexi’s brief courteous reply not just to Martha, who is one of the newest additions to his team and works on calculations, but to all of the others who help develop and check the formulas and mathematics that have kept the project, titled Clean 01, moving forward. He hates the name. He didn’t pick it. To him it sounds like something a focus group would have come up with.

The physicist doesn’t stop moving forward though. Rather, he b-lines it across the calculation lab, as he terms it, to the pair of double frosted doors. Alexi doesn’t quite know how to explain their composition. They aren’t plastic yet nor are they glass. In truth he isn’t sure what they are. Most likely they are a composite made from both but whether that is right he isn’t sure. Not that it matters, he reminds himself pushing the thought aside as he stands in front of them, swipes his ID security badge and waits the three seconds, which he counts, before the beep and a green light signal the release of the locks. The locks disengage silently and then with a low whoosh the pair of doors part permitting Alexi access. He takes two steps. The first takes him over the threshold while the second puts him at dead centre of the space. The doors slide closed just as silently four seconds later, again Alexi counts it like he does on every visit into the clean room. Jets fire right after the lock is engaged. Alexi has never quite been able to term the gap as he can’t hear the lock engage to accurately gauge the timing.

He still remembers the first time he’d stepped into a cleansing chamber and the jets had fired. He’d jumped out of his skin. It must have been quite the sight and to make matters worse he hadn’t been alone. Yet, his colleagues, all of whom had been older and much better versed with such things, had managed to keep themselves in check. Not one of them had erupted into laughter, or even sniggers. He expects they did later, when he was out of sight and earshot, but he’d been quite relieved to have been spared the mockery in the moment. Though, it did little to stunt the embarrassment he felt.

In fact, it had taken four passes through the cleansing chamber before he’d stopped reacting in any way. The third and fourth times he’d made sure to expose himself to while alone, so there had been no audience forced to restrain themselves as he’d flinched. After that he’d done several more passes and been calm. Though, he did have to explain why he’d been rapidly passing in and out of the cleansing chamber. The ID scanner had recorded every swipe, which is something he hadn’t considered when he’d been swiping his badge with reckless abandon. His superior, Doctor Percival Friden, had taken his explanation well and had even admitted that he’d done something similar before growing accustomed to airlocks.

Doctor Friden had served as a scientist on one of the orbital research stations back in the day. Alexi still misses him and often recalls the chats they used to have in his youth. Percival taught him a great deal. Yet, Alexi always insisted on calling him Doctor Friden. In the end it had become a running joke they shared until his death.

The cleansing jets flick off more abruptly than perhaps most would suspect might happen, were they not used to such things. Then the doors release and ripple open. Doctor Baros had asked engineers several times why these doors ripple and the others not. All he’d got was a perfunctory shrug. It had been an unhelpful and uninformative response but after having been met with the reply from the third engineer who had been called to fix something else, Alexi can’t recall what, he’d settled on giving up on seeking an answer. He’d just have to simply accept its presence. Not that it elicits any sort of concern in him that there is a ripple. He’d simply been curious. He is about most things, but the vast majority he lets fall to the wayside, usually in favour of his research. He’d done the same on this occasion. Though, he’d had to force himself with the doors after being unable to get an explanation. When he’d been in his teens such things had been impossible and had seemed treacherous to him. As he got older however, and with the help of some mentors including Doctor Friden, he’d managed to get to a point where he could tolerate not getting answers. That only worked with some things. Other things, like his research, he could never go without getting answers, however long it might take him.

Alexi strides out of the open doors of the cleansing chamber and into the clean room, where a half dozen identical looking forms stand waiting. If this were the first time he’d stepped foot into this space he would fear, and did, that they were lost and waiting for orders. But the owners of these white jumpsuit wearing faces the scalps of which are covered by tight fitting hoods while much of their faces are hidden behind masks know exactly what they’re doing. They are simply standing here waiting for Doctor Baros’ arrival, so they can get started. The looks in the eyes of those before Alexi, as he casts his gaze from one to the next, is that of eager anticipation. He feels much the same. After all, they have been here in this station for a little over two months and today marks the fourteenth test run to see if they can pull clean burning matter from the space between dimensions.

“Are we ready?” Is the short query Alexi issues to his team, a subset of the full sized team, of scientists.

“We are Doctor Baros.” One of the chief scientists’ team says in response.

Alexi can’t tell who they are. All the voices sound pretty similar in the space they’re in because it’s deadened against sound and reverberation. The only thing he can tell is which mask it is that is moving as the person speaks. He smiles and takes five steps forward. Doctor Baros, unlike everyone else in the room, isn’t wearing a mask. He has a hood up covering his scalp and hiding his hair. The hood pulled a couple centimetres lower than his hair line. For him, and in his eyes, there is little reason to wear a mask. The air in the clean room is circulated and cleaned by scrubbers built into the space above the ceiling and below the roof proper. It isn’t the only thing up in that space as there are also temperature regulators, sensors, power distribution systems, lights, cables, pipes and lord knows what else. Alexi hates to think what it might look like up there if he was to pull a panel loose and take a peak. The image he gets in his mind’s eye is that of a tightly packed hive filled to the brim and permanently ready to burst. He does not envy the engineers that have to erect, check and service these spaces. He thought the fabrication of a simple shelter in such a desolate and inhospitable environment would be achievement enough but this station would make a shelter like that without any frills seem prehistoric by comparison.

“Good. So everything is ready?” Alexi asks right after and while again concluding that wearing a mask for him would be pointless. After all, he’s already been exposed, many a time, to whatever it is that might be coming from the portals he’s generated before. Thus far there have been no adverse effects. Though he understands their pay masters would never be so willing to throw caution to the wind. At the end of the day, one scientist who is well aware of the risks and obsessed with his work is not the same as a team brought in to work on this with said scientist. Those are the sorts of people that if not properly protected, unless because of their own hubris, could and often do mount lawsuits if they contract anything in later life.

Still, the view of the room, circular in shape and all white, is not impressive in any way. In fact, it is a largely empty space measuring eight metres across with a bulkier than necessary console bank off to Alexi’s left. From that console bank, where he and his team will stand, extends a screen that connects with the ceiling some three metres above their heads. Alexi is pretty sure the console bank being bulkier than necessary is in part to carry the weight of the screen as well as to help offer protection if anything should go wrong with the experiment. In truth, if anything were to go wrong a screen would offer no protection and the entire section could quite easily end up swallowed by the portal that is sat at the centre of the room. It’s tiny at the moment and atop a wide white pedestal that is a little above waist height. The pedestal is littered with sensors, as well as laser nets that everyone hopes will be capable of containing the portal if anything were to go awry. It would contain it forever but should, at least in theory as there is no way to test it to be certain without risking life and limb, last long enough for it to be closed via a power severance order. Whether that order is sent from the console bank or delivered manually from one of four separate locations is another thing entirely.

Contingencies are a plenty in the Orion facility. After all no one wants an experiment gone awry that might actually end the world and every living thing on it.

“It is Doctor Baros.” Someone says. Alexi thinks the voice belongs to a different person than before yet cannot be sure. Not that he needs to know who has said what and why. It’s all positives, which is why he replies, “Then let us begin. Get to your places everyone. This will be our boldest test yet.”

With that everyone scurries to their relevant positions, except for Doctor Baros. He walks casually to a point behind the screen where he will watch everything. As the lead on this project he isn’t permitted to get hands on with the equipment during the tests. In some ways he laments that, but he can’t argue that it does make it much easier to not only make progress but perform a better quality experimental test run now that he doesn’t have to do everything. He still recalls when he had been forced to. That was back when he’d been based out of an old warehouse on the outskirts of Phoenix and had been forced to run from one side to the other just to throw the power and then engage or terminate the power distribution. That in itself had resulted in more than a few hairy moments of excessive power spikes and one particular occasion where Alexi was lucky not to get obliterated by arcing energy. All that had been early on in his experiments before he’d put much needed but ignored safety procedures and failsafes in place to curb the possibility of such occurrences being fatal. Yet, it had all worked. He’d opened a series of small portals. The problem was the power draw and the instability of the portals as a result, or so he had thought. One is still an issue even out here in Antarctica, stability. However, it can no longer be the result of power draw. They have more than ample generation to draw the necessary current, and more. Yet, they have not been able to generate a portal of significant size, a metre in height and half a metre in diameter without it collapsing in upon itself barely thirty seconds later. Without that stability they will never be able to siphon the relevant matter, dubbed Molecule Alpha-3, from the space between dimensions to properly test the viability of its energy generation.

The small, microscopic to be exact, traces they have managed to secure thus far have yielded promising but wildly varying results. In fact, those results range from being capable of powering a vehicle for a mouth to being able to power a city of eleven million people for eighteen hours. That may not sound like much, but when you consider the upper limit of that spectrum especially it really is a substantial volume of energy generation potential. Without larger, perhaps richer, samples they will never be able to accurately assess the true effectiveness and viability of this matter for use as a new form of fuel for humanity and all its technologies.

“Test commencement in twenty.” Someone calls loud enough so that everyone can hear as the seven figures all dressed in clean jumpsuits stand behind the screen. Everyone has a clear view of the pedestal, the tiny portal at its summit and the stalactite-like clone of the pedestal that is lancing down from the ceiling above to act as a hard limit if the portal were to manage to break containment and attempt to grow unchecked.

Alexi is nervous. He always is. It doesn’t matter the progress he’s made, not just since getting here to this facility, but in general throughout his profession life, he always feels the same. Yet, at the same time he feels exhilarated. An odd twinning of emotions that he has never gotten used to but can’t decide whether he enjoys or despises.

“The time is almost here. You’ll succeed soon and then the portal will be open, stable and traversable.” The familiar voice says as Doctor Baros watches intently the hands of his team glide right, left, up and down across the consoles before them. A few call out vital statistics and readouts which others react to with what Alexi can only describe as equally positive replies. A smile splits across his lips as his left hand lingers in front of his mouth. His fingers loosely folded toward his palm, his wrist angled and bent as the pointed elbow of his left arm rests atop the wrist of his right arm. The digits of his right hand meanwhile are splayed across his left flank and tap nervously a random pattern which the physicist is completely oblivious too, much like the rest of his team who all have their backs to Alexi.

“Firing energy burst.” The call soon comes and with the countdown having completed. Then the energy burst is offered, immediately taken and converted to other matter. That matter swells the portal which quickly grows from the size of a walnut to the size of a grapefruit. It’s marvellous, Alexi has to admit.

“Yes. It’s working. Yes.” The familiar voice mutters pleased with the promising display thus far.

Alexi’s eyes are wide. They are every time he sees this happen. He can’t help it. It’s all so exciting and enthralling. It’s enough to make him want to scream with joy, but he doesn’t. He keeps himself in check. This isn’t a breakthrough after all. This is just a repeat of what has come before. To many it might not elicit such emotional responses. Alexi doesn’t and wouldn’t understand that if it were the case. After all, just because you achieve something, like this, once it does not mean you will be able to consistently replicate it. True, the research team and Doctor Baros have certainly struggled on some days to perform even this much of a miracle. At one point Alexi had even wondered if there were other forces at play he hadn’t considered. That perhaps Antarctica was not suitable for portal generation, which had been on the first day when nothing could be generated at all in regards to a portal. Since then they’ve managed to create a permanent link, as tiny as it is, to the space between dimensions. That had been a relief. Alexi had played out in his head, through the first night without getting a wink of sleep, how he’d explain the failures to his pay masters at the UN and how Antarctica was not suitable for his work. He knew they’d have been furious, even though Antarctica had not been his idea in the first instance. The UN were the ones who had decided on the location. It was the only option they deemed suitable because of the potential risks. After all, they weren’t about to risk a portal, sanctioned by themselves, to be opened on any continent inhabited by people, which just so happens to be every other continent on Earth.

“Portal is holding and stable. We are approaching record limit.” One of the science team exclaims sounding joyous.

“You’re doing it. You’re really doing it. I can see the headlines now. Scientist saves mankind with revolutionary breakthrough.” The familiar voice continues to congratulate, singing the praises of Doctor Alexi Baros as he watches with baited breath. He ignores the compliments, more interested in whether they will break the previous portal stability record of twenty nine point three seconds. He really hopes they can. Even if the record were only to be broken by a fraction of a second that would be enough, for Alexi. Then they would all have a spring in their steps, more drive than normal that would undoubtedly carry them through the day, eager to build on their progress and run the second test in the late afternoon, like they always do.

“Energy is beginning to spike.” Is the call that wrenches Alexi back into the here and now. At hearing those words the chief scientist holds his breath. He’d been inhaling, but now he does nothing except wait. Many things go through his head; questions, answers, mental notes, ideas, conclusions, memories. None of it is helpful or necessary right now but he can’t help it. It’s automatic and no has no control over it. Thankfully, they pop into his mind and linger for not even a moment before vanishing as if banned by an angry parent. Yet, Alexi doesn’t feel angry about any of it. It’s strange as others might he knows and so he attempts to follow the strain in hopes of reaching a conclusion as to reason why he is not.

“No. It’s failing. So close. It won’t hold. The stability is insufficient. There is still more that needs to be done. Alexi, you have to do more.” The familiar voice declares pulling Alexi back to the present and out of his thoughts. He forgets what he’d been doing in the moments before the voice spoke but does hear one of his team announce, “Integrity is subpar. Failure count: three…two…”

“Shut it down.” Alexi commands before the countdown is concluded. He doesn’t want to hear it. Not today. It had started as such a good day. Now it feels like a failure. Still, he needs to know as the whir of the excess power cut prematurely can be heard diverting to an isolation conduit that will compound and then flush the unused energy back into the research station energy grid.

“It’s over.”

“How long did the portal sustain?” Alexi asks ignoring the obvious statement uttered.

“Twenty five point seven seconds Doctor Baros.” Is the reply that comes right after, which does nothing to ease Alexi’s deflated mood.

The physicist closes his eyes in frustration, nods twice and then unfurls his eyelashes before letting out his too long held breathe. It feels unsatisfying to have held the air in his lungs as long as he did. Much like it feels unsatisfying to hear that the portal had the briefest lifespan of the last four days worth of tests ran.

“Close down the lab. I’m suspending the afternoon test. We need everyone on the calculations to see if we can understand why the portals sustainability is as inconsistent as it has thus far been.” Are the next words out of Alexi’s mouth. There is no argument. Everyone concurs. It is the only logical decision seeing as everything had been building toward breaking through the record time for portal stability. Yet, since setting that record however the research team have suffered nothing but variations, often close but always below, that duration.

“Maybe you need more minds. More help to crunch the numbers. More might hurry things along. Why not ask for more?” The familiar voice remarks in what Doctor Baros suspects is an attempt to be helpful. At first he’d found such remarks borderline insulting. He’s since grown used to the alternate suggestions and even finds them comforting, in a strange way.

“That won’t work.” Alexi mutters in reply. He is sure that it is not a matter of more minds being the answer to reach the root of why they are suffering these setbacks. In fact, he believes that even if all the minds in the world looked at this the conclusion would come no more swiftly. If it worked like that it would be joyous but it doesn’t. Many wouldn’t even be able to fathom the complexity of the mathematics that they need to wade through, and explaining it to them in a sufficient enough capacity that they might be capable of lending a hand would take nearly as long as Alexi has been working on this theory. That alone, in his mind, rules out the efficacy of simply throwing more resources at this conundrum they are faced with.

“You must succeed.”

“I know I must, but it isn’t as simple as throwing something at the problem and that being the solution.” Alexi retorts. He isn’t annoyed. He is calm, disappointed but not by the insistence of the reminder that he must succeed, as the words pass his lips. He is simply explaining. As he would to anyone if they uttered such a statement whether that statement is in regards to his work or anyone else’s.

“You are the only hope.” Alexi hates those words and yet cannot bring himself to exclaim otherwise. In all honesty it is true that he is humanities only hope. No one else is looking into a new form of clean seemingly endless energy. At least none that has absolutely no delay in getting the matter necessary for combustion and energy generation. There are plenty of hopeful projects, thousands in fact, but they will all take decades to get up to speed. His project would take days, at the most. And with the Earth cooling as rapidly as it now is, humanity can’t wait decades. It needs a solution and it needs it about twenty years ago.

He notes that the rest of his team have shuffled out of the clean room, he can’t say how long ago that happened. He decides to follow suit now that he is aware of his solitude. The cleansing chamber is empty which allows him to step in without delay. He doesn’t have to swipe his ID badge. It would be pointless as the only way you can be in the clean room wishing to exit is after first having swiped and being granted access to step inside in the first place.

The doors slide shut. He doesn’t see them ripple this time as they slide back into place, as they are at his back. Instead, he waits for the jets to cleanse his jumpsuit. He’ll be happy to get the top half of it off him as he’s starting to feel a tad warm with it over the thick shirt he has on underneath it. Plus, the tight hoods are always infuriating. It’s why he’s already pulled that from over his scalp. He shouldn’t and he knows it but doesn’t rightly care. No one here is going to argue, he’s in-charge in this lab after all.

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