It is a notion beloved of conspiracy theory buffs and other cranks that science and technology have advanced a good deal further than is made known to the public. Urban myths of everlasting light bulbs and inexhaustible substitutes for petrol abound, and when the government is not suspected of creating false evidence for moon landings that allegedly never took place, it is suspected of covering up evidence of contact with advanced alien civilisations. As with many such myths, however, there is a grain of truth behind this one, and one stupendous technological advance of the last half century has never been made known to the general public, nor indeed to anyone else.
Austyn Roke, Ph.D., M.Sc., etc., (1942-1988), was perhaps a genius, certainly—latterly—a madman. He distinguished himself at the age of barely twenty with his theoretical projections of the form and function of the subnuclear particles that are commonly known as “quarks,” and worked with Doktor Rudiger Hentschler on the isolation of the first free quarks and the codification of the force thus released, which became known as the “introctive force” or “force of introction.” Roke at this time was a spindly young man with a habitual air of dishevelment and a tendency to be rather too easily distracted.
The assassination of President John F Kennedy of America hit Roke particularly hard. He had been a fervent, not to say avid, admirer of the man and his principles. He became obsessed with the idea that the world he lived in was not a safe place. Whereas another man might become neurotically fastidious about germs, or compulsively accumulate weapons, Roke's approach was characteristically different. If this world was not safe, he would find one that was. The force of introction was the key that, properly shaped, focussed and directed, could open the boundaries between universes; if the mathematics was correct, it should be possible to forge a connection between this world and any other world, whether it existed in what is called ”reality” or not. In other words, according to Roke's theories, it would be possible, using the apparatus he envisaged, to travel to worlds of one's own creation. The energy requirements simply to make that first connection were colossal, but thereafter, according to Roke's theories, the apparatus would have access to unlimited energy from the interstitial realm and would be able to pay back to the grid the initial outlay in full and with interest. Sealing himself into an unoccupied laboratory in the former BRG premises in Cambridgeshire, he set to work.
It should be remembered at this point that Roke had no inkling of the possible ramifications of his idea, nor any intention of doing anything with it apart from fulfilling his own selfish desire: to find, or create, a safe world to live in. The rest of the human race, to him, were no more than shadows, already dead and simply unaware of the fact; if he thought about it at all, it is possible he imagined that others coming after him would be able to fathom the operation of the machine and find their own refuges. As with many clever people, it was immensely hard for Roke to conceive that other people were not as clever as he was.
The initialisation of the machine blacked out half the country for several seconds. Doctors Emmanuel Gilchrist and Erasmus Jilt, working in the same establishment, readily identified the location of the energy drain, and Doctor Gilchrist succeeded in breaking down the door of Roke's laboratory only to find him already vanishing into the whirling vortex at the heart of the machine. Gilchrist's first impulse was to use the power supply switch to turn the machine off—a fatal one, as it proved, for incalculable amounts of energy were already being pumped back from the interstitial realm, and when Gilchrist attempted to open the switch on the main power supply the arc was intense enough to reduce him to a small pile of powdery ash. Jilt, more cautiously, studied the controls from a safe distance, and from Roke's minimal pencil notes on the actual consoles was able to close the link and bring the machine to what would nowadays be called “standby” mode.
It must be noted, when evaluating Roke's achievement, that the year was 1964. Computing was still in its infancy, the CERN particle accelerator in Switzerland had only been commissioned five years previously, and the world of science in general was still grappling with the implications of the quantum mechanical theories of Heisenberg and Schrödinger. (It was in this same year, in fact, that Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig independently formulated their own brand of quark theory.) The technology Roke had hit upon, in his blind obsessive search for a bolthole, transcended all this: and yet there was no means to understand it. All Roke's notes, all his research materials, had either been destroyed or disappeared with the man himself.
It turned out, when all the facts were unravelled, that Roke had been using the laboratory without authorisation, taking advantage of the unforgivably lax security arrangements and forging Doctor Gilchrist's signature to obtain supplies. Other people had seen him walking around the place in a white coat with a clipboard and an air of abstraction and simply assumed he belonged. Thus the project, and the machine, had already been enshrined in the bureaucracy as belonging to Doctor Gilchrist. The tragic death of the eminent scientist, thanks to Roke's self-centred carelessness, merely set the seal on a determination, among the scientific brotherhood, to obliterate the name of Roke completely from the annals of science, and let the false attribution stand. It is only in the last ten years, after certain documents were released under the Thirty-Year Rule, that the truth of the matter has come out; and by now, like "brontosaur," the name is too well established to change.
Over the next four years, cautious experimentation with the machine was carried out by a team assembled by Doctor Jilt. The team included Willard Karloman, a rising star in the field of theoretical physics; Heidi van Joost and Etta van Haaren, psychology students from Rotterdam; Humphrey Surcease, a competent engineer but primarily there to provide oversight for the directors; Gerald Scutella, in charge of security but also qualified as a physicist; and of course Jilt himself. The objectives were twofold, of equal priority: to establish how the machine worked, and to recover Roke, alive and with his notes if at all possible, dead and with his notes if necessary. It had been possible to work out from the controls the relatively few worlds he had accessed before making his getaway: he must be in one or another of those.
The first actual expeditions were undertaken solo by Karloman in the late summer of 1968, but this practice was terminated after he found the fifth world he entered to be inhabited by beings whose first act on meeting him was to teach him their language. The teaching process was so effective that it took the team two years to reacquaint Karloman with English, and he is still prone to lapse into the alien language when under stress, which is most of the time. After this incident, the entire team except for Scutella took up the search.
In 1969, they finally ran Roke to ground, though regrettably his mind was now gone and so were any notes he might have taken with him. He had been hiding in a city of ornately decorated black buildings by a sluggish river, whose people used no form of spoken or written language to communicate (although printed books were readily available: one example of the contradictions produced by Roke's unbalanced psyche). It was on this expedition that Heidi van Joost was very nearly lost, and she has never gone into the machine again. Etta van Haaren chose to leave the group shortly thereafter, saying that the primary purpose for having two psychologists—to unravel the tortuous convolutions of Roke's insanity—had now become academic. Whatever other reasons she may have had are a matter for speculation.
One factor which immediately became a problem for the group was the cumulative effect of the infusion of energy experienced by each traveller on passing through the interstitial realm. It manifested in the form of a well-nigh irresistible compulsion to move, the faster and further the better. At first this might only seem like a sensation of exhilaration and well-being, but if the traveller yielded to it the sensation merely intensified and became a deep-seated addiction. Fortunately, Karloman—the first victim, and a remarkably strong-willed individual—was able to subdue the urge the first few times till it passed off. Other members of the team were not so fortunate, and some had to be retrieved, against their wills, from quite distant locations. Van Joost, who had by now gained her doctorate, plunged herself into the discovery of a cure, and did in fact succeed in creating a prophylactic, which is now administered to all travellers before departure. Other side effects have yet to be comprehensively tabulated, but it is worthy of note that despite the passage of time no member of the team who has passed through the machine appears to have aged at the normal rate.
It was perhaps unfortunate that Etta van Haaren should have chosen, on leaving the team, to take employment with the security services. Inevitably the government came to hear of the Gilchrist machine, and at once dispatched a team of specialists of their own, to appropriate and investigate the machine for possible defence applications. This team, led by Doctor Gilbert Prycklow, ignored as prevarication the earnest recommendations of Jilt and his colleagues, and succeeded only in disrupting the machine's systems and triggering an overload cycle which could have had catastrophic consequences. It was only at the last second that Karloman and Surcease managed to overpower Prycklow and his group and bring the machine back under control. Some tense negotiations followed, with the then Minister of Defence poised to order a limited tactical nuclear strike against the machine, and disaster was narrowly staved off thanks to an impassioned plea from Jilt.
At this point the Master of Avevale College, a person of considerable influence, stepped in with a proposal designed to satisfy all parties. The College would provide a secure location, away from major population centres, to which the machine could be moved, and would also furnish funding for an expanded research team and enhanced security arrangements. Jilt, in his turn, would undertake to pass all the team's findings on to the government “immediately on completion of the research.” To this Jilt readily agreed, and the Minister, perhaps uneasy as to the consequences of this dangerously hot potato falling into the hands of a possible future Opposition government, also acquiesced.
One problem remained. How to move the machine?
Only one person could be of assistance. Austyn Roke, under close guard and in conditions of absolute secrecy, was removed from the mental home in which he had been placed, and brought to Mildenhall to supervise the disassembly and transportation of his brainchild. Though Roke was far gone in his delusions, Jilt succeeded in gaining valuable information from him which enabled the team to achieve their objective, and the machine was loaded on to a fleet of Army trucks for the move. Roke was returned to the asylum, where he eventually died in 1988 of natural causes.
At this point Prycklow made his last move, a surprisingly daring attempt to hijack the convoy and seize the machine for his own purposes. Where he obtained the resources for this operation remains a mystery; suffice to say that it was frustrated, and the machine was successfully reinstalled under a geodesic dome on a hill outside the village of Avevale, where it remains to this day under the care and protection of the College and its original team. Prycklow, with his two assistants, escaped arrest and has not been seen since.
Willard Karloman, tall, raw-boned, loud and irascible, has become the team's de facto leader, supervising all operations involving the machine.
Erasmus Jilt seems to have yielded responsibility to Karloman quite amicably, and is content to study the data which continues to accumulate. He has the air of a man in his late fifties, small of frame and gentle of manner.
Humphrey Surcease is the group's mediator, as well as the public face of the team on such rare occasions as it has need of one. An excellent poker player, well able to retreat behind a smooth and impenetrable mask when necessary.
Heidi van Joost has evolved into a competent general medical officer for the group. She makes no secret of her aversion to the machine, but does not let it interfere with her work.
Gerald Scutella, big, brash and cockney, delights in baiting Karloman. His security duties have become relatively light since the move, but he runs a tight ship and takes his responsibilities seriously, if nothing else.
With the increased funding from Avevale College, it has been possible to form an “away team” of specialised travellers, freeing the original group to man and maintain the machine.
Michael Feux is a weapons expert, skilled in several forms of armed and unarmed combat, and takes responsibility for the safety of the team.
Gaby Mistral is a specialist in communications and fulfils the function of liaison officer and diplomatist in the event of any offworld encounters.
Rafe Wasserman is a qualified first aider and serves as the group's field medic and adviser on xenobiology.
Yuri Zemlyatin has no defined function, but assists each member as necessary and also functions as the group's synthesist and problem solver.
The machine continues to confound and infuriate all those who have to deal with it, to pose more questions than it answers, and thus to ensure that the research will never reach its “completion.” For this, we can only be grateful.