Friday 3 January 2020

The Vanishing Box

by Nick Gisburne

“Jenna, what’s this?”

Professor Daley pointed at the table on which she had set up experiment 230A. To an outsider the apparatus might appear to be nothing more than a metal box, connected by means of several coloured wires to a large, heavy power source. An empty metal box.

Jenna, her laboratory assistant, was of a similar opinion. She peered at the box. All she could muster was, “It’s empty.”

Daley fished in the pockets of her lab coat and pulled out a badge, a plastic imitation police badge, upon which were written the words ‘Captain Obvious’. It was not the first time she had shown it to her assistant. Not even the first time this week.

“It’s empty, Jenna. I see that. But why is it empty? Where is the sample?”

“It should be in the box.” When she saw the same badge being waved toward her, Jenna declined to comment further and merely shrugged.

“That sample,” said Professor Daley, “is highly carcinogenic in its powdered form. A small specimen of powder is now missing. We need to find it. Would you like me to look at the video footage, or are you likely to remember where you put it, Jenna?”

She was already looking at the relevant video clip, so that Jenna knew she need not answer. Jenna waited, as curious as her superior to find out what indeed had happened to the sample once the experiment had ended.

Professor Daley appeared to be playing the video file from the same position, over and over. Eventually she moved the display forward one frame at a time, then back again, peering ever more closely at the screen as she did so.

“Gone.” The discarded police badge beside her spelled out its response to her observation.

Jenna stepped towards the experiment table. “It was definitely here. Then it wasn’t. And it still isn’t. So that means...”

“Vanished.” Daley paced between her desk and the apparatus. “Current applied to sample. Current removed from sample. But between those two points, no more sample.”

She pointed at her equally bemused assistant. “Let’s try again. Experiment 231A. Identical sample. Identical conditions. No, one more condition – we’ll add a second camera. Go and borrow Professor Morgan’s video equipment. Steal it if you have to.”

“Experiment 242A. One cheese sandwich, one green apple. Professor Daley, this isn’t sounding as scientific as I’d like. I’m just thinking of my dissertation. I will have to put this in there won’t I?”

Daley was pacing around the laboratory with the look of a child about to open yet another Christmas present, knowing that there were more gifts to come.

“Back, back. Here, Jenna. Ready? Switch on. And... gone. Vanished.” She clasped her hands together and looked around for more ‘samples’.

Jenna frowned. “That was my lunch.” She moved to defend the contents of her rucksack.

Professor Daley had already picked up a glass beaker, one of the few remaining on the rapidly depleting shelves, and was filling it with water. “243A. 500 mils of water. In. In. Come on, Jenna. Switch.” She pointed at the empty box. “There! Gone!”

Daley threw her arms around her reluctant assistant, who quickly shuffled the locked-together pair away from the metal box. Lunch was already missing and Jenna did not want to follow it.

“Do you know what this is, Jenna?”

“Time to buy your assistant something to eat?”

Daley stepped towards the table and made an ‘I present to you’ gesture with both hands. “This is the answer. This,” she slapped the table hard, “is the answer to everything. Everything!”

“And the question was...?”

Daley scrunched up her face, disappointed that Jenna was not sharing her excitement. “How can we make things disappear? We... WE just made things disappear!”

Jenna nodded and raised her right arm, very slowly. In it she held the small plastic badge printed with the words ‘Captain Obvious’. Professor Daley grabbed it at once and threw it into the box. Seconds later it too was gone.

“Jenna, go and fetch Professor Morgan. If he’s in a lecture, tell him his wife is having a baby. Or tell him I’m having a baby.” She gazed at the metal box, then touched it, gently. “Tell him I’ve already had one.”

Jenna looked longingly at the sandwich in Professor Morgan’s hand. Every time he raised it to his mouth he shooed it away with another question.

“You’ve checked the wiring? You’ve looked at the energy readings? Radition levels? I would hope you’ve checked those. Sure?” He thought for a while, almost took a bite, then, “This isn’t some kind of practical joke is it?”

Daley grabbed the sandwich from his hand and threw it into the metal box. Ignoring the look of utter misery on Jenna’s face, she flicked the switch. The sandwich vanished. Jenna sighed. Professor Morgan scratched his head. He took off his glasses to clean them, as if the presence of some small smear would explain what he had just witnessed.

“Impossible. Physics will simply not allow this. Conservation of matter. Miss Carter.” He pointed at Jenna. “Conservation of matter?”

“Matter cannot be created or destroyed in an isolated system.”

“Isolated. Yes.” Morgan thought on that for a moment. “Is this an isolated system? A box. Isolated enough. Just a box. Matter in. Energy applied. Matter... gone. No. Impossible. Conversion to another form then. Energy?”

Daley shook her head. “We’d need a nuclear reactor to convert any of our samples directly into energy. We used a high voltage, high ampage connection, but nothing out of the ordinary. That’s all we applied to every sample, and everything we put in there just vanishes.”

The senior physics professor looked at the box, looked at his colleague, looked at their sad-faced laboratory assistant, and declared, with great passion, “Lunch! Come!” He strode out of the room, heading towards the university canteen, with the folds of his gown and Professor Daley close behind. Jenna was already several steps ahead of him.

“Professor Daley,” said Jenna, “if the matter isn’t being converted to energy, could it simply have been moved away? Moved to somewhere else?” Her words were expertly woven around a mouthful of half-warm pizza.

Daley nodded. “Moving something out of the closed system would do it. And that would naturally require far less energy. Smash a brick to atoms: hard work. Move a brick out of sight: much less work. But if our samples have been moved elsewhere, where are they now? Where is this ‘elsewhere’?”

Professor Morgan’s forehead mirrored his doubts. “It would have to be far away, or we’d have found the samples. Glass containers would have dropped and smashed at the end point, unless they were miraculously sent into a nearby cupboard. And you checked all the cupboards I take it?”

There were nods.

“Far away then. But the further they go, the more energy is required. So there we are, back to our impossible conundrum. Energy is required to move your samples out of the laboratory, but your readings are clear – sufficient energy to do so was not being applied to the box when the samples... er, vanished?”

He frowned. “Could we quickly think of a different word? I simply cannot bear to imagine the faces of our distinguished peers in higher places once they see the words ‘vanishing box’ within the title of your paper. There will be a paper, I take it?”

“Eventually. Yes, of course.” Professor Daley shrugged. “Although I’m at a loss to explain anything we’ve seen so far. It would be a very short paper.”

Morgan beamed. “In science one does not always have to provide an explanation. One merely has to describe the methods for demonstrating a phenomenon. We then allow others to reproduce that phenomenon. If they can – science. If they cannot – failure. Can you reproduce what you’ve done?”

“More tests?”

“Tests. Yes. With bigger samples. Better samples. And a better box. Build another. Bigger and better.”

“And you!” He prodded at the edge of Jenna’s plate. “Late nights. Poor sleep. No money. Little thanks.” Jenna looked into the eyes of the professor, hoping to see in them a brighter future for herself. It was not to be. “Work longer. Sleep less. Spend your pennies wisely. Be grateful.” But his aspect softened, just a little. “Because alongside my esteemed colleague, Professor Daley, you will most certainly achieve some small measure of greatness.”

The canteen chair clattered behind him as he stood quickly. “I will of course bask in the light of your wonderful discoveries, while forever lamenting that I was not the one to make them. Well done.” In a rush of air, gown and bombast, he was gone.

“He seems to be pleased for you, Professor. And he doesn’t even want any of the credit.” Jenna munched contentedly on more pizza.

Daley shook her head. “We’ve made a discovery, but we don’t know what it is. And when – if – we later find that we have ‘discovered’ the next cold fusion experiment, or have built a perpetual motion machine, my ‘esteemed colleague’ will not want his name to be mentioned anywhere near it.

“Is that what we’ve done, do you think?”

“Oh, I hope not. Because if we can build a bigger and better box, and if that box works, we will publish our findings. And then we will certainly be noticed, so it absolutely must work. Finish your lunch, Jenna. I won’t be letting you out into the light again for quite some time.”

They emerged, with a new and bigger box, some eight months later. While the original box took up no more space than the average microwave oven, their new apparatus had been scaled up to a far more substantial three-metre cube.

The energy requirements for such a box correlated directly to its size, as expected, but that imposed some limits on what they were able to achieve at the university. The chancellor refused to authorise any new, commercial-grade power connection to the physics department, on the grounds of safety and cost. Instead, Professor Daley was allowed to rent some floor space from a company already working with the university on other projects.

Infinite Industrial welcomed them, as they welcomed anyone with a decent business idea and the offer of a 25% share in future profits. Non-Disclosure Agreements were signed, and once the properties of the box had been explained to the resident engineers, Daley was allowed to pay for materials and manpower directly from the company. Jenna Carter directed the day-to-day operation on site, while Professor Daley went to and from the university to fulfil her responsibilities to a number of other research projects and to her students.

The appearance of the new box was very different from that of the old one, which had been open-sided so that experimental samples could simply be placed inside, or dropped in at will. It was assumed that a three-metre square would be far too dangerous to leave open to the possibility of a random employee wandering inside. While the top and bottom were permanent fixtures, holding the field generator required to ‘vanish’ whatever was put inside, the four sides were each protected with heavy, lockable, steel swing-doors. Material could be pushed in on trolleys, or tipped in directly. The box itself would only operate once all of its doors were fully closed.

Eight months after their accidental success with the original box, the were ready test the new box for the first time. Those assembled – Professors Daley and Morgan, Jenna Carter, and two technicians from Infinite Industrial – stood above the box and many metres away, on an overhead gantry, behind a shatterproof observation screen. This was Professor Morgan’s first in-person view of the full-size box and he pointed at four large flexible tubes which fed into its roof, one at each corner. “Air vents?”

Jenna, clipboard in hand, on a mission to stride with great purpose and authority back and forth along the gantry, said, “Not quite. Those are air intakes. We determined that not only was our sample being sent elsewhere, so was most of the air inside the box. When we switch on, whatever is taken away will be immediately replaced by new air, fed in from outside, through those tubes. Without them, the vacuum inside would destroy the box as the air pressure crushed it.”

Professor Daley motioned towards two men who were pushing wheelbarrows towards the box’s only open door. “That’s our payload. Shredded waste paper. In theory we could fill the thing with anything we want to get rid of – old cars, industrial waste, anything at all – but today if the worst happens we should have nothing more than a small fire to deal with, or a factory full of confetti.”

The men emerged with their now-empty wheelbarrows and closed the steel door, locking it in place. They quickly left the area through a side door.

Jenna spoke into a small communication device. “Ready for the pre-charge.” A hooter sounded somewhere below and several flashing red lights were switched on.

On a monitor screen nearby, a series of progress bars quickly advanced from zero to 100%. The siren was silenced but the red lights continued to flash.

“Pre-charge complete.” Turning to the two technicians she said, “Confirmation please.” Each touched a thumb to an allocated area of the screen.

Daley whispered to Morgan, “Joint responsibility. If the dog explodes, we pay only for the box. They pay for the building.”

Morgan squinted at his colleague. “If the ‘dog’ explodes?”

Professor Daley’s arms moved outwards and upwards in a dramatic, expansive gesture. “Woof.”

A new virtual button appeared on the screen. It said simply, ‘GO’. Jenna turned to her small audience and smiled nervously. “We’re ready.”

Daley nodded. Morgan offered a tentative thumb’s-up. The two technicians, far from reassuringly, backed away from the observation window and averted their eyes.

Jenna’s index finger hovered over the green button.

“Press GO to collect your salary,” Professor Morgan breathed.

Jenna Carter touched the button.

Below, nothing happened. Nothing seemed to happen. The four tubes designed to feed air into the box swung lightly on their supports. But they had been motionless before the box was activated.

Professor Daley removed the hand from her mouth, found the remnants of a small voice, and said, “All good?”

Jenna looked at the monitor. “Full discharge. No structural failures. Air gauges report a total intake of 24.7 cubic metres. That’s within the expected range. Internal cameras are down though. Damn.”

Daley put a hand on her shoulder. “I think we’ll find the cameras are no longer there, Jenna. A small oversight. We vanished them. We vanished everything. Oh my. Oh Lord. We did it.”

“And now, my friends,” said Professor Morgan, eagerly shaking the hands of everyone in the room, “now the fun really begins.”

“I like it.” Professor Morgan gazed at the huge backdrop looming over the stage of the empty auditorium, a simple black wall adorned with two words: ‘Vanishing Box’. They were the only three people in the room, but the seats around them would be filled in less than two hours. They would all see those words, and so would the world.

The world was not ready for a ‘null state dissipation chamber’. Nor was it ready for a ‘quantum erasure vessel’. But the world was ready for a ‘Vanishing Box’. It was snappy. It told the story. It made for great headlines. And a striking backdrop.

“You used to hate the name,” said Jenna. “You wanted it to be called anything else but that.”

Professor Daley looked up from a laptop, where she had been scanning through the text of her presentation. “Dominic Morgan is a fickle creature. When you can convince him he is wrong about something, he will switch sides and claim he championed the idea from the beginning.” Narrow eyes dared him to question her words.

“I merely suggested that others would be less accepting of the appellation. As a populist I am of course...”

Daley snorted. “Populist? I looked at a draft of your new book, professor, and I needed a machete to hack through the impenetrable jungle of your prose.”

“Physics is a complex discipline.” Morgan shrugged. “Perhaps some light editing before sending it to my publisher...”

“Have you found one yet?”

The question was met with another shrug. Professor Morgan’s book would be published. He had an excellent editor, an editor who now snapped shut her laptop and unplugged a memory stick.

Professor Daley handed the stick to Jenna Carter. “I’ll need that on the teleprompter, and two printed copies for backup.” As Jenna reached the door she added, “And coffee. Black. With extra black. I’m too calm. It’s not normal.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am honoured to be able to introduce a speaker who most of us will know, if not personally, then by reputation, from her work in theoretical physics and quantum dynamics at Riverdene College, Oxford. She is an accomplished author of many papers and articles, published in the most respected journals within her field, who I am certain will today leave a lasting impression on the scientific community. Please join me in welcoming Professor Elizabeth Daley.”

The applause was warm and long, but began to falter when Professor Daley did not walk out to meet it. The host, who had turned to clap and greet her, gave a hurried apology, then rushed off stage to investigate.

“What the blazes did you put in that coffee?” hissed Professor Morgan. In his hands was the head of Professor Daley. Seated, barely conscious, she was making small retching noises. A bucket had been found, and not a moment too soon.

Jenna looked on, horrified, unable to distance herself, holding, as she was, the bucket. “Coffee. Just black coffee. I didn’t...”

“Black coffee or black death, this woman is going nowhere. You!” Morgan pointed at the man who had announced her, now fully cognisant of her whereabouts. “Professor Daley will be in this bucket for some time. This,” and he shook his head at Jenna, “is her learned assistant and part-time poisoner, Miss Jenna Carter. She will deliver the speech if, oh dear God, if she resists the urge to faint.”

Jenna had blanched to a shade of fine porcelain. Morgan wrenched the bucket from her hands. “Miss Carter, you know more about this project than anyone in this building. More than any fully conscious person that is. Get out there, read the words in the order they are written, and make those people believe that you know what you’re talking about. Because you do. Go on. Go!”

Jenna stumbled towards the lectern with all the confidence of a child at her first music recital. The announcer hesitated and whispered to Morgan, “And the 30-minute Q&A session after the presentation?”

“If I’d mentioned that, she’d be on the floor and we’d have need of another bucket. She’s a capable woman. Once she’s up there, once she’s delivered what they’ve both been working on for almost a year, she may be confident enough to hold her own with that roomful of hyenas.”

“And if not,” he muttered, “I’ll shove whoever made that damned coffee into the box myself.”

“I think that went quite well, all things considered.” Jenna Carter was beaming, brimming with new-found confidence, having delivered the full speech and taken questions for well over the allotted time. Eventually the announcer had had to gently but firmly lead her away from the stage.

Professor Daley was now fully conscious, though still seated, still weak. “Well done, Jenna. A star is born.” She sipped a little water from a paper cup. “And a woman is back from the dead. Almost.”

“Who was that onion-faced boy with the question about relativity?” Morgan said.

“He said he was a PhD student,” said Jenna. “I don’t recall where. Speaking as one myself, I’d say that he needs to conduct a little more research before he comes up against me again.”

Morgan let out a hearty belly laugh. “Indeed! Indeed he does. My word, Miss Carter, you have wrestled with the lions of the physics world and they have submitted, all of them. Of course, the lioness is invariably the stronger in the wild, as you so ably proved out there.”

“Doctor Carter, these men have asked to see you.” A young woman, one of the students employed for the evening to clean up after everyone had left, entered the off-stage area, accompanied by two middle-aged men, tall, wearing identical, expensive suits. Even their shoes matched perfectly. Only one of them wore glasses, small and round, curiously old-fashioned.

“It’s Miss Carter. I’m not a doctor, not yet.” She held out a hand to the two men. It was not taken. Instead, two ID cards were shown, first to Jenna and then to the two professors.

“Elston, Military Intelligence.” said one of the men, he with the glasses. “Hanson, my colleague. We’d like to ask you some questions. Questions about your... device. If we may.”

“Military Intelligence? Of course. But you’ll be wanting to speak to Professor Daley. She knows more...”

“We will be speaking to all the members of your team, naturally,” said Elston. “But to you first. If we may.”

Morgan rose to his feet and moved towards the two men. “I’m very sorry, gentlemen, but you may not. One of my colleagues has been taken ill and we must get her home. If you’d like to leave your cards, we will certainly try to contact you within the next few days.” He held out a card of his own. It was not taken. “Excellent. Well, I am quite sure you know where to find us. Good evening.”

He hurried Jenna and Daley through a door, which he closed very firmly behind them.

“Ah, yes. Physics. The tools with which to build a universe, or to destroy one.” He marched along the corridor at a rapid pace. “And which one of those do you think the military will want to do with our clever little box, eh? Military Intelligence. Now those are two words I would be extremely reluctant to put together.”

The next few weeks passed by in a whirlwind of media interviews, meetings and video conferences with the CEOs of various industrial giants, and messages from seemingly every science professor and PhD in the world. Everyone wanted to know how they could get their hands on a Vanishing Box.

“They’ve capitalised it, so it’s official now,” said Professor Daley. “Vanishing Box it is.”

“Someone’s set up a Twitter account.” said Jenna. “They post pictures of things they want to get rid of, then the next day they delete them again. Very clever.”

The two of them were being driven by taxi across London from one radio interview to another. Both were glued to their phones, answering emails and reading media coverage of their work.

“Are we on Twitter?” Daley asked, unsure as to how she might check for herself.

Jenna narrowed her eyes. “I am on Twitter. Professor Morgan is on Twitter. You... are not on Twitter. Would you like me to set up an account for you?”

Daley thought for a moment, seriously considering what she might do with such a thing, and said, “Perhaps not. I’m already spending too much time posting selfies on my Instagram account.” She laughed at Jenna’s startled reaction. “Joke. I know of such things, but I don’t touch them. And Morgan shouldn’t be anywhere near a social media account. He already torments people too much in real life with his opinions, face to face.”

“Sorry about this ladies.” The voice of the taxi driver cut through their conversation. “Some idiot in a van’s gone and blocked the whole bloody road.”

Both women leaned to look out of the side window. A large black van had inexplicably veered into the wrong lane, two or three cars ahead of them. It had stopped dead, and was now angled towards them, blocking both lanes. Nobody was going anywhere.

“Delivery man taking a wrong turning?” Jenna guessed. She turned her attention back to her phone, expecting the situation to quickly clear of its own accord.

“I don’t think so love,” said their driver. “Unless these two have got a parcel for you.”

There were two tall, middle-aged men directly outside the taxi, one at each side. Both wore identical, expensive suits, but only one of them wore round, old-fashioned glasses. That man, whose name they knew to be Elston, knocked impatiently on the window, then motioned towards the van.

The driver pointed at his meter angrily. “If you’re getting out here that’ll be twelve quid.”

“He’s paying.” Professor Daley watched as Jenna stepped out of the taxi, but refused to follow until the other man, Hanson, managed to find a twenty pound note. It was thrust at the taxi driver, whose cheery mood returned.

“You wanna receipt mate?”

He did not.

“Have a seat.” Elston pointed at a long, leather sofa.

It was not the stark interrogation room they were expecting, but neither was it an open, airy office. There were no windows, but the lighting was warm, subdued. The only door had been closed behind them, but remained unlocked. Two black sofas, each facing the other, were the only furniture, but they were plush, rather than utilitarian. Both were empty.

“I’d like a phone call, a lawyer and an explanation, in any order you like.” Professor Daley said.

“Your phones and other belongings will be returned to you as you leave,” said Elston. “And you are free to go at any time.” He saw both of them eye the door. “After our little chat, naturally. Do take a seat.” He himself took the lead and sat down.

“We’re not spies. What are we doing here?” Daley demanded.

“Spies? Of course not. There are no spies here.” He thought for a moment. “Of course, that may not be entirely true. But you are not accused of anything. We simply have a few questions for you.”

“So you keep saying. Well, ask away. But we’re not selling secrets to the Russians, or to the Chinese. We’re not planning to start a war. We’ve invented a box, a Vanishing Box, and that’s all I have to say on the subject. Everything else is described on our web site.”

“Indeed it is. Most informative.” Elston took off his glasses to read from a printed document. “‘Our invention will revolutionise the industrial sector... make waste management redundant... pollution eradicated... clean up the environment.’ Excellent. All very commendable.” Replacing his glasses he looked up at the two women. “But these are commercial concerns. My interests, our interests, are of a more... technical nature.”

Jenna dropped into the sofa opposite Elston. She leaned towards him and said, “Ask us if we can build a weapon with it.”

Elston’s gaze flicked back and forth between Jenna Carter, seated, and Professor Daley, standing. Two formidable women.

“Well, can you do it?”

Jenna leaned still closer, her lips almost brushing Elston’s ear. She whispered, “Yes. But don’t tell anyone.”

Elston swallowed. As Jenna returned to her seat he said, “And what kind of weapon would that be?”

Daley took a seat next to Jenna. “What do you need? What do you need taking care of, Mr Elston? Can we vanish a tank? Yes. Vanish a jet fighter? Definitely. Can we take a missile and make it just disappear? Oh, we could do that. We could even take a person, maybe even someone like you, and we could make them go away – forever.”

“Is that what you wanted to hear?” said Jenna. “Is it enough? What about a city? Could we make a whole city vanish?” She looked at Professor Daley, who shrugged, and back at Elston. “Probably.”

Elston was scribbling hurried notes, first with a pen which refused to provide ink, then with a pencil, whose point was quickly broken and useless.

“Incredible. Incredible. And this weapon, this device, of course it will be for the British Armed Forces and its allies. It’s why we wanted to speak to you so urgently. Nothing can get into the hands of others. That is, our enemies must not have such a weapon.”

“Oh, they wouldn’t want a weapon like that.”

Elston froze, then looked at Jenna, who shook her head.

“They wouldn’t? Why would they not want such a weapon, Miss Carter?”

“Because of the Daley-Carter constant.”

“The... what is that?”

“A limit. A practical barrier. Mr Elston, we can make a box so big that you could vanish an entire city, but we’d need a power source to match.”

“A big power source,” Daley added.

“How big?”

“We could power it with the sun I suppose.”

“Solar power? How much solar power?”

Professor Daley and Jenna Carter spoke in unison. “All of it.”

Elston jumped to his feet. “You’re not making any sense. How much power would be needed for this vanishing weapon?”

The two scientists stood to join him. Daley grabbed the man’s pencil. “Imagine a lever. You want to lift a heavy load, so you place a pivot as close to the load as possible, then push down on the other end of the lever. Up it goes.” She demonstrated with the pencil on her finger.

“But imagine the load is bigger. Much bigger. As big as a building. As big as a city. Now you need to exert much more force. Too much. The lever will break. Or, use a longer lever. Again, the lever will break. Stronger lever? There’s a practical limit. With enough force you can bend or break anything, so the lever itself will bend or break.”

Jenna joined in. “Our box is the both the lever and the pivot. Electrical energy is the force we use to vanish things. We can build a bigger box, but at some point we won’t be able to build a big enough power source.”

Elston stared at the pencil. “But you mentioned solar power.”

“Yes. Solar power. All of its power. A box big enough to vanish a city would need to be plugged directly into the Sun.” Daley smiled. “In practice, the biggest power supply we could build on Earth, and so the biggest Vanishing Box we could ever power with it, would be much, much smaller, and that’s assuming we had unlimited resources, and 100% efficiency.”

“That’s the Daley-Carter constant.” Professor Daley pointed to herself. “Daley.” And then to Jenna. “Carter.” The words were deliberately elongated, as if she were speaking to a baby.

Jenna continued. “It’s the most we could ever vanish in one hit, given perfect conditions and materials – which we do not currently have. With current technology we could build a 30-metre cube, but that would need its own dedicated nuclear power station. For industrial purposes we are looking at 10-metre cubes at phase one, then 15, perhaps even 20 metres within a decade.”

All three took their seats again. Elston looked punch drunk, but was not yet ready to admit defeat.

“A tank. A missile. A plane? You could still build a box to vanish something like that?”

“Certainly. All you need to do is convince the owner to give you their tank or missile, or whatever, and let you transport it to one of our boxes. Just put it inside, hit the switch and it’s gone.” Daley handed the pencil back to Elston. “So how many boxes would you like? Five? Ten?”

“This is not quite...”

“Not quite what you were looking for, Mr Elston? Really? What was it you were looking for?” Daley spat the words at him. “Cards on the table. What you want is a ray gun, Mr Elston. Something you can shoot or launch or drop onto the bad people, because all you know about is guns and bombs and bloody Star Trek. You want the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but we’re telling you that you need to use a power cable and plug it in. So that’s much less exciting for you now, isn’t it Mr Elston?”

“I think we’re done here, professor,” said Jenna. Both women stood and made for the door.

It opened before they reached it. The other man, Hanson, entered the room. He was accompanied by Professor Morgan.

“Outrageous!” bellowed Morgan, as he recognised his two colleagues. “We will not stand for this!”

“We’re leaving,” said Jenna. She and Professor Daley marched through the open doorway.

“Yes! What?” Morgan turned to Elston, then to Hanson. Elston waved him away. “Quite right! And if you ever... Elizabeth! What on earth just happened?”

There were no more incidents with Military Intelligence. Once it was clear that Vanishing Box technology offered limited practical possibilities for the armed forces of any government, good or bad, export contracts with every industrialised country in the world were quickly drafted and signed.

Professor Daley presided over a corporation dedicated to the swift and permanent eradication of waste materials, a worldwide enterprise spanning every continent and country. Within two years almost all industrial waste was being Vanished, and now it was no longer a case of finding new landfill sites. Instead, old, historically buried waste, was being dug up and disposed of, using Vanishing Box technology. Toxic dumps were made safe. Nuclear waste, which would otherwise have stayed buried and radioactive for ten thousand years, was gone, forever.

Jenna Carter receieved her doctorate. Her dissertation explained how a Vanishing Box could be made constantly active, rather than being periodically switched on and off, filled and re-filled. Instead of activating the whole box, a thin, charged field at one end now took material away, and the vacuum left behind pulled more material forward onto the field, perpetuating the process. With such modifications, power stations and chemical factories could simply channel their pollution and waste products, via chimneys or pipes, into a Vanishing Box, and thereafter to... well, to wherever it was going. Still nobody knew where that was, but it was certainly nowhere on Earth, and that the important thing.

Professor Morgan’s pet project oversaw investment in desalination plants, providing fresh water from the oceans, pumping it to areas of greater need. Separating salt from water was not challenging, but the mountains of salt created by the process had to go somewhere. Now the salt was Vanished almost as soon as it was extracted. Morgan was eager to take Boxes off-shore, to eradicate the waste floating around the great ocean gyres. Research into suitable power sources for such sea-borne Vanishing Boxes now occupied much of his time.

Naturally, everyone involved found themselves ridiculously wealthy. Every nation wanted to buy Vanishing Boxes, and the Daley Carter Morgan Foundation built them and sold them, and later licensed other franchises to build and sell them. Vanishing technology was the most important engineering milestone since the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, it was now healing the scars left by those centuries of dirty energy.

Already, trucks and trains were being fitted with Vanishing Box exhaust systems, and work was continuing on further miniaturisation to allow smaller vehicles to take advantage of the technology. Air pollution, in the dirtiest cities on the planet, would soon no longer be an issue. In a decade, the very idea of temperature rises caused by man-made climate change would be a filed away and forgotten.

“I knew I’d seen him before. Knew it. Never forget a face, never. Certainly not a face like that. It’s the onion-faced boy, the one from Carter’s first lecture. You had your head in a bucket and I was...”

“You were holding the bucket. Yes, Dominic. Thank you. Again.” Daley knew that it was one of Morgan’s favourite stories, and was resigned to read about it one day in his memoirs.

They were walking along the edge of the site of the company’s new corporate headquarters, wearing hard hats and high-vis jackets, as were the many workers milling around the area. Only one person was not similarly dressed, a furious blonde-haired man trying to force his way between the two enormous security guards holding him back. Their grip was never going to allow it, and eventually the intruder relaxed, defeated. The guards began to drag him away, only for his frenzied efforts to begin again.

“He’s obviously here for a reason,” said Daley, arms folded, watching with interest. “Not your typical intruder.”

“Some form of protest? Grafitti?” Morgan pondered.

“A protest against what? Cleaning up the world? Bring back the waste! Hardly. Let’s see.” She blew an ear-splitting whistle through her fingers, chuckling as Professor Morgan covered his ringing ears. “Hoy! Bring that man here!”

“What a delicate flower you are, Elizabeth. Wrestling’s loss is our gain.”

The struggling man was dragged to within ten feet of Daley and Morgan. When he realised who they were, he unleashed a stream of seemingly random syllables, which any other audience might have dismissed as gibberish.

“That’s... isn’t that one of Dubrowski’s Pocket Equations?”

“Yes! Let me through!”

Professor Morgan took a step closer to the man. “I am familiar with much of the fellow’s work. He had some quite remarkable conjectures, as I remember, but sadly not able to resolve some key issues, poor fellow. Dead?” He thought for a second, then nodded, confirming his own recollection of the scientist’s demise.

“Solved! Completed! I have it!” The man was short of breath, but was no longer pulling against the grip of the guards.

“Student of his?” said Morgan.

The man nodded. “I was. For a time.”

“Well, we’d better have your name then, unless you want me to refer to you as onion boy.”

“Frans Ekberg, professor. Please, I must speak with you, both of you, urgently. And with Doctor Carter. It has been impossible to make an appointment, at least that is what I was told, but here I am.”

“Well, Doctor Ekberg, my interest is piqued. And yours, Professor Daley? Piqued?”

Daley shrugged.

“Sorry, not Doctor Ekberg. My PhD was not... I left my studies before completing them.”

Morgan rubbed his chin. “And yet you claim to be the academic heir of Igor Dubrowski? How so?”

“When the Vanishing Box was invented, I took an immediate interest. Of course, we all did. But Professor Dubrowski’s work seemed to me to be closely connected to the Vanishing process. At the time there was no explanation for the whereabouts of the matter, once it left the Vanishing Box.”

“And there still isn’t, Mister Ekberg,” said Professor Morgan curtly. “Are you claiming to know more than we do?”

Frans Ekberg nodded energetically. “I know where it all goes. And that’s why you must stop it. Stop the Vanishing.”

They were standing around a table in the site manager’s office, a small, temporary structure close to the main gates. Ekberg was quickly fishing sheets of paper out of a battered rucksack. Some he discarded, others were arranged on the table in a rough jigsaw, in which only he seemed to see order.

There was a hole in the pattern. Ekberg, now holding an empty rucksack, gave a whimper. He dove back into the pile of unused papers, found what appeared to be the missing piece, and completed the puzzle. He pointed to the table in triumph. “There!”

The notes were all hand-written, scruffy, written with different pens, crossed out in places. The two professors gave them no more than a cursory glance. Ekberg realised he had given them a blueprint but had failed to tell them what he was trying to build with it.

“I will explain. The Box, the Vanishing Box, takes matter away, but we do not know where. But it does go somewhere. Annihilation? No. Impossible. Conversion to energy? Also no. So, somewhere. To a parallel dimension perhaps?”

Morgan said, “Disproven. Curtis and Chen. And Daley, of course.”

“Yes. Excellent work. Most excellent. But Dubrowski’s Pocket Equations describe other, partial dimensions, small pockets of space, each existing in parallel with our universe but not separate from it, like bubbles on the surface of a pond.”

“But if I’m correct,” said Daley, “pocket dimensions can never exist. Any attempt to create such a pocket would distort the fabric of our own universe to such a degree that the whole dog would explode.”

“The... dog?”

“Colloquial expression,” said Morgan. “Never mind. Dubrowski could never reconcile his Pocket Equations with the Standard Model. So... no pocket dimensions.”

Ekberg’s hands were visibly shaking, his voice quivering, as he turned to the table and stared at the expanse of his hand-written notes.

“Not pockets in space. Pockets in time.”

“Curtis and Chen are giving a TED Talk in Brussels tomorrow. Tell them to drop it and get out. I want them here on the EuroStar – tonight. Find out who’s leading our research team at MIT and get them set up for video. Is it Craven, or is it Cavallero now? And why does everybody’s name begin with the bloody letter C?”

Carter, Doctor Carter, tactfully ignored Daley’s final question, but followed her orders. Everyone made calls. Important calls. Life-changing calls. And then they waited.

In a small office in central London, the three heads of the Daley Carter Morgan Foundation were joined by nineteen of the world’s leading physicists, seven in person and twelve more via video conference screens. At 10pm Frans Ekberg, a failed PhD student with only two years of independent research and no published papers to his name, began the task of making them believe what none of them would ever have thought possible.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I will give you a brief summary of my findings, and then we will discuss the details. Forgive me if I do not follow a straight path. I have worked on this, and on nothing else, for many months. I do not speak well in public, and, other than this morning, this is the first time I have tried to explain my work to anyone.

“I will say this first. The Vanishing Box does not make matter disappear. It gives the appearance of moving matter, of course, but it does not. The matter is still there. It occupies the same space. But it does not occupy the same time.

“Using the work begun by Professor Igor Dubrowski, which I have now extended and completed, I can show that all matter Vanished from these Boxes is now within a Pocket dimension. This is not a dimension in space, but in time. When matter is Vanished, time appears to be suspended, away from our own time. A Pocket dimension contains everything which was formerly inside the Vanishing Box. Every time a Box is activated, another Pocket dimension is created. That is where our Vanished matter now exists – it is still in real space, but it lies outside of time. In the Pocket, space and time do not move in any direction. They are merely set aside.

“Of course, this is a wonderful discovery. The question is answered: where does it all go? And yes, we did ask the wrong question, which should have been: when does it all go? If that was the sum total of my discovery, I would be extremely happy. But there is more.

“Imagine putting a coin in your pocket. You forget about it. You move around in your clothes. The clothes move. Wash them, wear them again. Do not take out the coin. But eventually the movement of your body and your clothes will rub against the pocket so often that it will become weaker. The cloth will fray. One day the coin will fall out. It will return to your world.”

There was muttering in the room. Faces eyed each other nervously. Ekberg continued.

“The Pocket dimensions in which our matter, the matter from the Vanishing Boxes, currently exist, are indentical in one respect. They were all created using identical parameters. Each pocket is as strong as the next. And they will all wear out in the same way.”

The voices were becoming louder. Ekberg raised his own voice.

“My calculations, which I will share with you shortly, take into account the energy used by every Vanishing Box to create the Pocket dimensions. Larger boxes require more energy, but consequently move more matter, so that each Pocket has an identical duration. We all know the date of Professor Daley’s first Vanishing. The samples in that first box will return after 2392 days – ninety days from now.”

Ekberg was almost shouting over cries of alarm when he told them, “After that, everything which has ever been put into a Vanishing Box will return. Small things from small boxes. Big things from big boxes. Neatly packaged? No. They will all be dumped exactly where they were Vanished.

“Waste. Chemical. Biological. Domestic. Industrial. Nuclear. It will all return to us to contaminate our world again. The coffins and corpses we thought were gone, when we replaced all the crematorium funerals with Vanishing Boxes – even our dead relatives will come back, every last one of them. Every speck of dirt we disposed of and didn’t care where we put it because we just assumed it was gone forever... it will all be coming back to us.

“Ladies and gentlemen, every day we flush away our shit and forget about it, until the day our drains are blocked and our floors become flooded with filth. That day is coming, for the entire world. We have less than three months, and we need to work out how to dig ourselves out.”

Ninety days later, in an empty room which had once been the laboratory of Professor Elizabeth Daley, a small sample of powdered chemicals appeared, as if from nowhere. More items followed, all quickly whisked away for analysis by waiting scientists. Among the items were a cheese sandwich and a green apple, both still perfectly fresh. Most curious of all, though, was a badge, a plastic imitation police badge, upon which were written the words ‘Captain Obvious’.