Bridgebuilders Chapter 5

Strickert Girls Academy
Oxford, England

Moira Sherman peeled off her t-shirt as she entered the locker room, too hot to leave it on another minute. She continued to strip on her way to the showers, carting the sweat-soaked clothing with her just long enough to toss it all into the hamper in the corner. The laundry bots would take care of it from there. She could have left it strung out on the floor and they still would have taken care of it, but Moira had principles. Besides, she didn’t need the demerits the bots would have recorded against her.
She reached the shower just as a group of girls entered the locker room, breathing hard as she was, but full of jeering energy, anyway.

“Did you have a date, Moira?” The call came from Leslie Dick-Read, casually removing her clothes in ways that showed off her admittedly nice body. The taunt was taken up by several other girls, all of them unhappy that Moira had out-run them to the extent she had.

She turned on the water, drowning out their voices, soaping up quickly. This late in the school year, she didn’t have bruises to hide from them, but she’d found it was better if they assumed she was shy. It was the reason she ran so fast, so she could get to the locker room ahead of everyone else. But that wasn’t her only reason today.

It wasn’t often the track coach made them run the perimeter, and she wanted to take the chance to plan a possible escape route. Getting away from school unseen was a high priority, and essential to every escape plan she had. Yet she had few choices in that regard. Headmistress Lioness (okay, Amanda Spencer-Lionel, but one couldn’t blame the girls for the nickname) was just too firm in her hold over her school. Girls did not escape.

Not that Moira wanted to. In all her life, there had never been a better place than Strickert Academy for Girls. She wanted nothing more than to finish out the year and return for her final year next fall. With a diploma in her hand and an eighteenth birthday on the heels of it, she would truly be free.

Fifteen months. She just needed fifteen more months.

She wouldn’t get them. Moira knew that with every nerve in her body.

#

The late afternoon sun was a novelty, but it filled the classroom with glare. Moira paused in the doorway. “Mr. Green?” Silence responded to her query and she moved over to the teacher’s desk at the front. A computer chip on the right had a note attached: M, please grade. She carried it to the table along the windows, tossing it down in minor irritation before closing the blinds. Better.

Loading the chip into her Pad, she settled down for the hour or so it would take her to grade the younger students’ lab reports. The sun had warmed the room, bringing the usually chilly temperature of the old building to something almost comfortable. As she worked, the peacefulness of the classroom relaxed her. The clock ticking on the wall, the occasional sound of footsteps as a teacher or student hurried by, were all comforting sounds. The vague smell of chalk teased her nose. It wasn’t used much anymore of course, but centuries of use had left it ground into every fiber of the building.

She sat on a stool at the high table, her feet hooked around the bottom rungs. Moira considered everything about herself to be average: she was neither short nor tall, her hair was medium-brown and medium-length, pulled into its ponytail with a plain brown band. Her eyes were medium-brown as well, the lashes not overly long, her brows thin and straight. Her build was medium, too, although after a year at school, her weight was up to normal. The school-girl uniform hid any hint of femaleness, a pleated skirt to just below the knees, white button-down blouse, blue blazer. She wore tights against the cold days, and her shoes were brown and clunky.

If pressed, she would have admitted that her intelligence was not average. Her teachers would have laughed at the understatement.

Approaching footsteps did not pass, and Moira glanced over her shoulder as Mr. Green entered, his backpack slung over a shoulder, and arms full of old-fashioned paper books from the library at Oxford. He’d just returned from the university, as was usual for Thursday, and also as usual, he smiled broadly when he saw her.

“Miss Sherman! Busy already, I see.”

She raised a brow in acknowledgement, sharing her smile between him and the screen in front of her. “I have about fifteen reports still to grade. How was your class?”

“Fine, fine,” he answered absently, searching intently through the backpack. “I have something to show you.”

“Okay.” She watched him a moment, always happy for a chance to observe the rather plain features of his youthful face. His expression was intent, but he whistled softly as he rummaged around. Ignoring the warmth his presence evoked within her, Moira shook her head in fond amusement, and turned her attention back to the reports. “Did you collect more data?” she asked.

“That’s what I want to show you.” He appeared at her side, tossing a data stick up and down in his hand. He loaded it onto his Pad and brought up a screen. “What do you think of this?”

The screen held a splash of dots scattered randomly across it, the heading indicating it was a graph from the Neutrino Detection Device at Oxford. This didn’t surprise her. Mr. Green’s thesis work was in neutrinos and she had been thrilled when he asked her to assist him, for college credit, with his data analysis. This work allowed Moira to participate in physics at a level she’d never imagined. Mr. Green did not give her make-work, and their debates over the data sometimes went on for days.

Moira’s brows went up as she took it from his hand. “Wow. Noisy.”

Her first impression of the dots was of left-to-right, and after scrutinizing it for another minute, she thought she detected a bottom-to-top tendency, as well. Mr. Green propped himself on the stool next to her, and she was aware that he watched her closely. She ignored him. He had told her once, in jest she thought, that he was afraid to take his eyes off her when she looked at data. That he couldn’t stand the thought of missing the moment when she saw what the data were saying.

She always saw it. It was part of her brilliance, he said.

Now, as she stared at the page, the pattern emerged, but it made no sense. A longer moment, as she closed her eyes to banish the silly impression. It couldn’t be that, but she was afraid that now she’d thought of it, she wouldn’t see anything else. This proved true when she opened her eyes and saw the same pattern in stark contrast to the background. She sighed and held the Pad up for Mr. Green to see, pointing at the splash of dots.

“There’s a pattern, here.”

He studied the screen, and the smile he’d worn while watching her widened. “There is?”

She nodded, looking at him with mock exasperation. “Yes, there is.” Her finger traced a space then stopped. “It’s very noisy, but it’s there.”

He leaned down a bit to look her in the eye, arms folded across his chest. “Can you isolate it?”

“Probably.” She looked thoughtful, then glanced up at him. “It will take a while.”

He picked up her Pad. “I’ll grade. You isolate.”

#

Andy Green settled at the table, took over Moira’s Pad and applied himself to the reports. At twenty-two, he did not fit the usual profile of a teacher at Strickert Academy. It was not unheard of for the school to have a male teacher, but never had they had one as young as he, or unmarried. His appointment was through the welfare office, and on the order of a favor: Andy’s thesis advisor was on the Strickert board, and two years ago had requested they hire his star pupil, who was orphaned, poor, and working his way toward a masters in physics. Headmistress Spencer-Lionel had been uncertain about hiring a precocious twenty-year-old boy to teach her girls, even if that boy was not particularly handsome. But Andy had proven honorable for the two years of his term, and he knew the Lioness was aware of this. She kept a close watch on him.

So he was careful that no one noticed how often he looked at Moira. In discrete moments, he admired the gold highlights in her hair, the delicate line of her high cheekbones, and he harbored many secret thoughts about her lips. But he kept all this to himself, and concentrated on teaching her physics. He mentioned her often to his advisor. Andy was convinced his beautiful pupil was on a par with Einstein and Hawking. He was both humbled and terrified to be her mentor. There was no doubt the physical attraction complicated things, even beyond the fact that she was a minor and his student. He never mentioned that problem to his advisor.

Thirty minutes later, she moved next to him at the table and placed the Pad in front of him. The scatter graph now contained a pattern, which Moira had indicated with a red line, as if connecting stars in a constellation. He blinked in shock.

“I’ve never seen neutrinos do that.”

“Was this all of it?” She continued to stand, making them almost the same height.

Andy squelched a desire to put an arm around her waist. “It looks like a worm hole.”

“Looks like one?” She sounded amused and he hiked a shoulder in answer. Peeking over his shoulder, she murmured, “Well, it does look like a bridge.” At his quizzical look, she explained, “An Einstein Rosen bridge.”

He spread his hands. “That’s what I said.”

She laughed. “Okay. Where is it located?”

“Belfast.” He laughed at her shocked stare. “I’m sorry, but that’s where the signal came from.”

“Then it’s not a wormhole.”

He chewed his lip, not quite as certain as she was. “I know a wormhole would not meet our current understanding of how they work. But what else could it be?”

She hesitated.

He held up a finger. “The first step is always the same, remember.”

“Define the problem.”

He nodded. “Neutrinos are doing strange things in Belfast. It looks like a wormhole. What’s the second step?”

“Figure out what questions to ask.”

He just raised an eyebrow, fielding the ball back to her court, seeing her amused annoyance. She’d learned not to just blurt things out in his presence. Taking a cue from his own advisor,  he always demanded she explain the logic behind her thinking. He waited with satisfaction as she gave it some thought, his own mind still struggling to make sense of it. A few possibilities occurred to him, but he waited to see what she would say. At least her questions didn’t have to appear in syllogistic order.

Finally, she spoke. “How can a wormhole exist on Earth?”

“What would be the result if one did?”

“The planet would explode.”

“Would it?”

“Wouldn’t it?” She was honestly confused.

He shrugged again. “I would think so. But it hasn’t. So this line of questioning brings us in a circle.”

He loved how her lips tightened and danced from side to side when she was faced with an annoying problem. She was deep in thought, staring at the screen. He waited … and watched.

“An opening.” Her finger traced the right side of the screen, before she lifted her head to look at him. His lips twitched to one side. He always got chills when she pulled an answer out of the air like that. She’d never been wrong, yet.

But he glanced skeptically at the spot where her finger rested, toggling between her isolated pattern and the original graph. Without her red outline, it still looked like a splotch of random dots to him. He sighed. “I’ll take your word for it. But an opening in what? To what? The gates of Hell? Are we going to start chasing demons?”

A flash of anger tightened her face. What had he said to anger her? Then it was gone and he couldn’t be sure he’d seen it.

“I doubt it,” she said, her gaze back on the Pad. “There’s not enough data here to figure out what opened. These data show us the neutrinos. Do you have equipment that will measure other things? Did the atmosphere change in that spot? Pressure, temperature? Was there an earthquake? Any unusual activity at all?”

“Good points.” He turned to the room interface, entering a search for Belfast weather. But before he sent it, his fingers went still on the keyboard, while he stared at the 3D holographic display. When he turned to Moira, she was watching him, puzzled. “I’d rather do this from uni,” he said. “In case the Sun Consortium has picked up on it and wants it classified.”

“Classify the weather in Belfast?”

He shrugged. “No. But we’ll be looking for specific patterns and other data, too. I’d feel safer on Oxford’s equipment. It’s authorized.”

She looked unhappy and he didn’t blame her. There was something ominous and exciting about the busy dots on the screen. She was smart enough to know she’d be missing out on a possible major discovery. He touched her arm. “I’ll bring you everything I find. You’ll have access to all of it. I promise.”

“When will you look for it? We have that field trip tomorrow.”

To the Kielder Observatory in Northumberland. An overnight trip with the advanced science students. Andy had been looking forward to the informal time with Moira. He closed off the interface. “I’ll do it now. You can review it on the trip.”

She nodded. “Sure. There’ll be plenty of spare time.”

He grinned. “I’ll try to keep the slower students out of your hair.” He waved the Pad. “This is great stuff, but let’s not forget we have data to verify with that telescope. At least, I do. And you,” he leaned down, daring to tease her, “have sworn your considerable talents to helping me do it.”

“Which I will do. Assuming I’ve got these reports graded, so that you can go, tomorrow.”

Her retort kept him chuckling as he went back to his car.

#

In his lab at Oxford for the second time that night, Andy set the computer to search for anomalies of various kinds in Belfast. He had not been entirely truthful when he told Moira why he wanted to use his equipment at Oxford. It was true that the university had authorization for many types of research. The government would not question his search, or even notice it. But the Consortium might. Andy walked a fine line in regards to Sun Consortium. On one hand, they offered the best opportunities for research in faster-than-light travel. He hoped to be hired on once his master’s degree was in hand. They had several programs for doctoral students to work part time while earning their degrees. He wanted one of those positions.

But on the other hand, he didn’t trust them for a single minute. Their surveillance systems were everywhere, purchased by governments and warlords, alike. Their public persona was a thin veneer covering a wide array of classified projects that put rulers in their debt. As an advanced physics student, Andy was aware of a few of their past projects, since completed or otherwise phased out. There was too much secretiveness. Too many data blackouts, too many rumors of people blacklisted or disappeared. Too much history rewritten.

He had no doubt they knew of the strange signals in Belfast. And would be alert to anyone in the world looking for information about them.

This wouldn’t be the first time he’d had to be careful. So his equipment was not just authorized. It was protected.

Illegally, of course.

He’d done it himself and he wasn’t the only student to do so. It was considered a rite of passage to figure out how to circumvent the Consortium’s extensive spying protocols. Andy suspected that many who thought they had done it, were really not successful. He would never be certain that he was. But he was pretty sure.

The signals could be from a Consortium experiment. If that was the case, he wanted in on it. This was his field. He expected to own it one day. Especially now that he knew Moira Sherman. If he could get her to keep working with him, there was nothing they couldn’t accomplish.

Read Chapter 6

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