Chapter 12 - Patch
While Keith showered, she made his sandwiches and put them in his office bag, and placed the bag by his car keys so he wouldn’t forget it. He came down the stairs at a run, patted the slumbering Patch, kissed his mother’s cheek, grabbed his office bag and drove the 45 minutes to the Lab. En-route he listened to a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake on his iPhone through the car speaker system.
By 8.45 AM, he was in his office, with a coffee in his favourite mug. The mug had the periodic table of elements printed on it. The beautiful ballet music still playing in his head. He was just typing in his password to logon on to his computer (the name of his pet dog p_a_t_c_h followed by the first 6 digits of the mathematical constant pi π), when to his surprise his boss Professor Helen Collins walked in. This was unusual because he saw Helen usually about twice a year in her office in a different building, and at the Christmas party. She almost never bothered him in his office. Most of the time they communicated by email. It wasn’t that they disliked each other, it was just that they had very little in common.
‘Keith,’ she said, ’have you got a minute?’
As usual Helen was slightly horrified but not surprised by Keith’s appearance. He wore size 16 shoes that were never cleaned, jeans that were frayed at the bottom, and a faded Oxford University sweatshirt. He was muscular, she knew he worked out at the laboratory gym most lunch-times, but he was a gentle giant. He was also incredibly clumsy.
‘Yes of course’ he said automatically, and pointed her to a vacant chair. In fact, it was the only one in his office that wasn’t covered in books or papers. It just had a small office bag on it. Helen could tell by Keith’s raised eyebrows that he was more than a little surprised to see her.
‘No don’t get up’, she said. Not wanting him to have one of his clumsy moments and send his coffee mug flying. She put the bag on the floor and sat down. Dusty the chair free of food crumbs before she sat.
Helen was a distinguished academic herself. She was not unattractive, even though she was the wrong side of 40. Some said she resembled the actress Sigourney Weaver who appeared in the film Alien. Today she had dressed in a new business suit today, and had her hair done in a new style at the weekend. Unconsciously she shook her hair as she sat, and brushed her suit skirt flat, gestures that she hoped Keith would notice. But he failed to notice her hair or her clothes. Like Keith, Helen’s intellect was much greater than her social graces or ability to make small talk. Talk of the weather, your state of health, or ‘would you like something to drink?’ were not considered important or relevant by these great scientific minds. Although Keith was drinking a coffee and Helen did not have one, it never occurred to Keith to offer her a coffee and it never occurred to Helen to ask for a cup.
‘I have got something to ask you,’ she said without preamble. ‘I would like you to go to Zurich to present a paper on the detection of gamma particles. I have checked your diary and you are free.’
Helen said it as a statement not as a question or request. She knew Keith wouldn’t want to do it, but the advantage of electronic diaries was they were easy to check.
Helen added, ‘This is a commitment that the Lab Director had asked me to ensure that the Lab covers’, what she didn’t say was that she didn’t want to do it herself.
Keith stood up from his desk, almost sending his coffee flying. He stood with his hands in his pockets and looked down at Helen.
’Helen, we have had this conversation before, detecting these types of particles is a total waste of time. I know it makes good publicity for the Lab, but if the PR people just want to write another press release about the search for extra-terrestrial life then can’t you get someone else to do it? We both know that if you wanted to search for little green men you wouldn’t look for gamma particles. It makes no scientific sense.’
Helen had no answer because she knew everything that Keith said was true. Helen usually hogged these trips, but she knew how incredulous the science was and she didn’t want her scientific reputation tarnished. She was up for a Promotion Board soon.
Keith was a brilliant scientist but not a team player. She also knew that Keith hated travelling. He spent less on travel than anyone in her group. He didn’t mind flying or anything; he just hated being away from his routine, his work, and most of all – Patch his dog. She glanced up as the screensaver on the large computer screen on Keith’s desk refreshed and a picture of Patch appeared.
Keith was still standing and she didn’t want to debate the point with him, so she looked at her watch, said she must run and said over her shoulder as she disappeared down the corridor that she would ‘email him the details, and if he didn’t want to go then to find someone else to cover the presentation’.
As her footsteps receded down the corridor, Keith decided he would wait for Helen’s email and then see if he could fob the trip off on one of the research students at the Lab.
Keith logged on to his computer and began the daily work, he soon forgot about Helen and the trip to Zurich because the first results of a new set of tests were in. He had been working with a team at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany on a new sensor data simulation model. The idea was to look at many different and apparently random particles, radio waves and background radiation effects so that patterns could be distinguished. These patterns could be monitored over time, and could point to developments far out in the universe. Perversely they may also detect life, but none of the researchers wanted to claim that because they knew the PR people would be all over it.
The data was also analysed to look for concentrations of activity on earth. In this way, it was hoped that meteorites and other space debris might be found. While Keith had slept, the power of four of the world’s most powerful supercomputers had crunched hundreds of terabytes of data derived from seven different satellites. In fact, one of the reasons NASA was involved, was that some of the data was from satellites so secret that officially they didn’t exist. All of this computing power was focused in the production of three graphs and a map of the world. He printed the email, and as it was printing looked at the graphs and the map on his computer monitor. There were 17 points of interest highlighted on a map of the world, to his surprise one was near his home in Hartley Wintney.
By typing the grid reference from the NASA data into Google maps he could pinpoint the site to a few meters. It turned out he knew the site well, it was a non-descript area of Hazeley Common near where he had walked Patch that morning. His iPhone had a GPS App, so he stored the map reference. By mid-afternoon he had locked his office and then drove the 45 minutes’ home to walk the dog and have supper with his mother.
As he drove and listened to Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece, the beautiful Swan Theme finale, Keith’s thoughts turned to his father. His father had died when he was a young-boy. He didn’t remember him, but his mother kept a ‘shrine’ to him, his study was still as it was the day he died. His father had been a publisher of scientific books, and his mother said that Keith’s love of science came from reading every volume in his father’s study. Keith father’s scientific passion was game theory and the science of probability. Keith found out later that he had a secret life as a gambler, and would often visit casinos to test his game theories. His mother was tight lipped on the subject, she obviously had not approved of that part of his life. But he knew that his father had some books on local history and of Hazeley Common, he would read up on them to see if there could be any relevance to the site in question.
Keith took Patch for her evening walk up onto Hazeley Common. Keith strode along passing the occasional horse rider, a few other people walking their dogs and some kids on their bikes. It was a breezy evening, cool but not cold. It was good to be out in the fresh air. Patch ran ahead sniffing as she always did. Nose to the ground, trotting in random directions, totally absorbed in her constant quest to find foxes, rabbits, squirrels and pheasants.
She squatted on an area of short grass and did her business. Keith took a plastic dog waste bag from his pocket and deftly picked up the waste, then turning the bag back inside out, tied the bag with the plastic handles so the solid was contained inside. He saw one of the plastic rubbish bins with wood surrounds that the local council had placed at regular intervals across the common, and threw the bag in the bin.
He then took out his iPhone and selected the GPS App which showed he was a few hundred meters away from the stored location, it looked as if he was heading towards some old World War II workings. He had once attended a local history society lecture, where he had been told that before D-Day there had been a contingent of Canadian Engineers based in the area. They had built a concrete ramp down a hill to test winches on trucks. At the top was a concrete structure where the trucks were reversed in. The winches were then extended and attached to rail cars loaded with heavy pig iron. The Canadians tested the winches by pulling the rail cars up the concrete ramp. The strange concrete structures still survived 70 years later. He would check these facts later in his father’s history books.
Within a few meters of the workings his phone beeped indicating he was exactly on the spot. He looked around. This was open space owned by the local council, known as common land. There were no buildings, there were a few pine trees, but mainly it was brambles, bracken and gorse. Footpaths stretched into the distance. Ideal for the dog walkers and horse riders. There were no distinguishing features at all on the spot where he stood, or indeed nearby. In fact, as he did a deliberate 360-degree circle, and he saw no distinctive features of modern civilisation. He could hear the distant sound of the M3 motorway and of light aircraft from the adjacent Blackbushe airfield. The darkening sky was still blue and he could see the vapour trails of the high-altitude jets heading to Heathrow.
Disappointed but not surprised that there was nothing here of merit, he placed three stones on top of each other to mark the spot, and walked Patch home for their supper.