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   Chapter 1 No.1

A Girl Named Sandy By Paul Kater Characters: 11339

Updated: 2018-02-11 12:04


The envelope

"Doctor Carmichael, please tell me that this was an accident."

Paul Eric Carmichael, the man who was supposed to answer the question, was still blinking his eyes after the blinding flash that had come from the monitor. "It was an accident, professor. I hope you are content with that."

"I am certainly not. Are you in any way aware of the cost of the equipment that you just attempted to reduce to useless parts?" the first man asked. This was Professor Doctor Sams, leading the astrophysics department of the University of Bristol.

"Hardly attempted, " a third voice joined the conversation from behind a moderate mountain of displays and measuring equipment, on which most lights had gone out. "Sorry, professor, but it looks as if we actually managed it."

The professor turned his head. "Managed what, Doctor Donahue? Do you mean that the experiment worked?" A flicker of hope showed on the professor's face.

Don Donahue, who worked with Paul Carmichael on the project, looked around from the equipment to face the professor. "No, sir. We actually managed to reduce all the equipment to useless parts, just as you said. Although, not all of it seems to have blown up yet. The power cable still looks usable, " Don grinned. "Care to go for the rest, P.E.?" He loved angering the professor but because he excelled at his job no one dared to send him packing. His announcement etched another look of despair on Professor Sams's face.

"We should wait for another time, " Paul Eric Carmichael commented, leaning back in the chair where he had spent most of the afternoon and evening. He stretched his arms over his head and felt parts of his spine pop back into place. "Perhaps after supper. Or tomorrow."

Don silently nodded as he made his fingers dance over the sea of buttons and switches on the grey control panel in front of him. Slowly the steady hum of the equipment they hadn't touched diminished as their power sources were cut off, until all that was audible in the experimental laboratory was the background sound of the air conditioning, the buzz of one of the ill-fitted lights overhead and the exaggerated breathing of Professor Sams.

"Gentlemen, " said Professor Sams, "I had hoped for something more substantial and uplifting than your childish jests about destroying equipment that isn't yours."

"I am very sorry, sir, " Paul responded, "but setting up a reliable model of the oscillating universe, while at the same time keeping track of the spectral changes regarding a significant number of irregular quasar clusters proves to be a bit more complex than we had assumed." Slowly, as he lowered his hands behind his head, he turned towards the balding professor. "I think we made some progress today though."

Professor Sams pointed a hand holding an envelope towards the burnt-out monitor. "That is progress, you mean?"

Don flipped his glasses onto his millimetered hair. He shook his head, which made his glasses tumble down to his nose again. "No, that was just bad luck and worse wiring, sir." He then caught his spectacles as they slipped off his nose. "We discovered a few flaws in two of the algorithms we developed. Tomorrow we'll take them apart and see what went wrong. Supper sounds good, gibbon."

Paul glared at Don. "Gwyddon. Scientist in Welsh is gwyddon, not gibbon. Although I have to admit that you resemble a gibbon closer than a gwyddon now."

The two astrophysicists then rose from their chairs.

"You will have to find another place to eat, " Professor Sams said, a lot gentler in tone suddenly. "The restaurant closed several hours ago. As usual, for you. And before I forget, this has been delivered for you." The professor handed the envelope to Paul. Its contents had clearly been checked.

"Thank you, sir." The envelope disappeared into a pocket of the coat that Paul retrieved from a wobbly hook near the door.

Don switched off the last bits of equipment. "Maybe we can go up to the scope first, tomorrow, " he suggested, "and see if we can get some fresh readings from there."

Professor Sams stared at the skinny man. "Please, promise me you will not use that expensive radio telescope any more to send a morse-code message to your sister?" He did not wait for an answer; he just turned and left the room.

Paul looked at his colleague. "Morse-code?" This was new even for him, and he was quite aware of many of the strange things Don thought of - and got away with.

"Let's go and find a place to eat something, " Don avoided the subject as he looked for his coat, which Paul already held up for him. "Oh. Thank you."

After switching off the lights in their laboratory they walked down the long, silent corridors of the School of Physics, meanwhile theorising about the problem they had run into and how they might tackle it. They were still talking and arguing as they found a late night restaurant near the university where they ordered something, hardly interrupting their discussion. The waitress had listened to their rambling for a while before shaking her head and walking off to serve other late customers.

The high-level, academic and mostly theoretical discussion dwindled only when their orders were brought to the table. As they sat and ate, Don suddenly pointed a fork at his colleague. "So what's in there?"

"In where?" Paul looked surprised. "In me? You should know that. Blood and bones."

"No, no, the envelope that shining Sams gave you." Don loved calling the honoured professor 'shining', because of the man's bald head that always looked as if it had been polished to a shine.

"Oh. No. I wouldn't have an idea..." Paul lai

d down his fork and knife, and extracted the crumpled envelope from his pocket. He pulled out a few sheets of neatly folded paper and started to read.

Don Donahue took the time to liberally add pepper to his co-worker's food, as his plate was obscured from view by the paper. "So what is it? Your dismissal?"

"No." Paul looked at Don. "Quite a surprise, really. Remember that invitation Sams told us about, for you and me to go to that conference in Maryland?" He cleared his throat, pushed his glasses up and then read out: "Confirmation of attendance. The Joint Space Science Institute, the UMd Department of Astronomy and NASA-Goddard are hosting a three day scientific meeting. Topics covered will include black holes, active galactic nuclei, the high-energy astrophysics of galaxies, galaxy clusters, and cosmology. The meeting will conclude with a discussion of high-energy astrophysics missions and a strategic discussion of future missions. And all this will happen in Annapolis, Maryland. In the rebel colonies." That last part was a little joke Paul always entertained with a select group of people.

Don almost felt sorry for the amount of pepper he had distributed. He stared at his colleague, then at the letter, and snatched the latter from the former's fingers to read all that himself. When he lowered the letter, his eyes were large behind the thick glasses. "We're going to Maryland next month, " was all he could say.

Paul nodded. "Yes. And I am glad you did not use sugar."

"Sugar?" Don was now on the surprised end of the talk.

"Instead of the pepper."

"I see. How on earth did we get invited to that conference in the first place?" Don then wondered. "I have thought about it, but never assumed that to be something attainable for us. And suddenly we get this invitation, Sams does some of his dark magic, and off we go."

Paul shrugged. "I don't know either. At least we're out of his hair for a while." They both grinned at that.

***

The two astrophysics researchers had been absorbed by their work and the classes they taught so much, that they almost got caught by surprise by the fact that their trip to the United States was less than one week away.

"Don?" Paul asked his telephone, as his sister was running around in his apartment, to make sure that he would take clean clothes. "Wilma sends you her best and demands that I inform you that you have to pack clean clothes."

Wilma was not his real sister; he had been adopted into her family at a very young age. His father had died before he was born and his mother had not survived a car accident when he was only two years old.

"Tell her not to worry, " said Don. "I have some. And yes, they are in my suitcase."

Paul relayed the information to Wilma, his sister. "He says he could fit some clothes into his suitcase, next to the books and dissertations."

"And don't forget the theories, " Don reminded him. "Theories are most important."

"And theories, " Paul duly conveyed.

Wilma rolled her eyes as she took the telephone out of Paul's hand. "Listen, Don. I am not impressed by the titles you two have around your names and god knows I am never impressed with the way you dress. But please make sure you look at least presentable." With that she handed back the mobile phone. "Here, good luck talking sense into him."

"P.E., tell her to stop worrying. I am a grown man and I can take care of myself." The voice from the telephone was accompanied, almost drowned out, by the sound of something fragile falling and ending its existence in its current shape. Paul did not bother to convey that part of the conversation. Don should live in a house made of rubber, with furniture made solely of rubber and durable plastics.

"Tell him not to forget his suitcase!" Wilma yelled, loud enough for Don to hear her.

"As if I would forget the paperwork, " Don snorted. "I'll see you tomorrow, P.E."

"Doubtful, " Paul replied, "I have three classes scheduled for tomorrow and that's it. It is Friday tomorrow, after all. Remember, we have the day off after the weekend and we have to be at the airport on Tuesday. Very early."

"I know, I know, and you will come and pick me up with the taxi and I had better be ready." Don sounded slightly annoyed, but with reason. He had forgotten to wake up for journeys before.

"And see that you find someone to look after your plants, " Paul said.

There was a long and meaningful silence from Don's end, after which he said: "I don't think that is necessary any more."

"Very well. Just be on time. I shall call you when I wake up on Tuesday and pray that you will hear and answer your telephone."

"Lost cause, " Wilma commented, who was still going through Paul's closets and drawers.

Paul saw what she had done while he was on the phone. "Wilma, what is all that? I'll be gone for about a week, I am not moving there!" He heard Don's laughter coming through the phone.

"At least you have me to look after you, " Wilma shot back, "you are not so convinced that you can manage on your own, like a certain Donahue!" She had come close enough to make Don yelp on his side of the line, so loud had she yelled into the phone.

Paul heard Don disconnect and grinned. "In fact, I am quite certain that after forty-eight years I can manage just fine by myself, " he told Wilma. It proved impossible to convince his sister of that.

"You haven't been my brother during all that time, " Wilma pointed out as she pulled yet another pair of trousers into the light of day, "so I am not taking chances. And in what century did you acquire this?" She shook the innocent garment.

***

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