Travelling At The Speed Of Light

by Steve Stringer ©

Professor Jackson and his pet rat, Chloe set up their laboratory at a small wooden bench they shared with the spiders in the corner of a storeroom of the Beaverbrook Institute For The Insane. The doctors gave Jackson a chemistry set, after carefully removing any potentially active chemicals, on the condition he stopped running up and down the corridors, his hair looking like he'd just plugged himself into the national grid, waving his arms and shouting 'the aliens are coming!' When Jackson told them he was going to travel at the speed of light, they just said, "We don't want you running down the corridors at any speed."

Equipped with plastic containers of copper filings, salt and a metal teaspoon, Jackson and his assistant Chloe starting searching for light speed travel. It was soon after he gained the nickname professor that he discovered the secret. The caretaker was the catalyst.

"Hey, Prof," he said, entering the storeroom one morning, "you been at my cleaning liquid?" Jackson hadn't but liked the idea and several hours and a lot of mess later, he and Chloe were ready. Jackson put one teaspoon of copper filings, one heaped teaspoon of salt, the contents of a contac 400 cold capsule and five drops of cleaning liquid onto a metal tray and mixed them round. Chloe, who had been rummaging around Jackson's strawberry jam sandwiches all morning, poked around the mixture with her nose. Then Jackson placed an old Coke can on top, strapped Chloe climb aboard, tapped it with his spoon and started to time the world's first round the world journey at the speed of light.

"Shit! he exclaimed, "my watch has stopped." He tapped it several times with the spoon and the second hand flicked back and forth before starting again. It took several more runs before Jackson realized his wornout watch couldn't time the journey and for the first time he began to wonder if he was under-equipped for the job. He thought long and hard.

"God, I'm stupid."

"I could have told you that," he said to himself.

"It's obvious. I just need to find somewhere to go that will take at least a second."

"Such as?"

"I don't know."

"And how will you know which direction to point the Coke can?"

"Shit! I hadn't thought of that."

Jackson was relieved when the dinner bell sounded. He carefully scooped up his speed of light power source and placed it in a matchbox. After dinner, he decided, he would see if he could borrow a typewriter. If the ribbon was decent he might send his ideas to a scientific journal.

Twenty-one milliseconds of light travel away at MIT, Boston, MA, Dr Martin was singing to himself. It was exactly a year since he'd seen his ex-wife or the child that wasn't his; his new partner was pregnant and his lifetime's quest for speed of light travel was within his grasp. Over twenty years of long days and even longer nights, backed by tens of millions of US government money and finally, he knew he was close. His bank of parallel processing Kray computers were scanning the last of the theoretical data he'd provided looking for the final piece in the jigsaw. Dr Martin was confident he was just hours away.

Then his ex-wife marched through the lab doors, pushing away security guards with one hand, dragging her six-year old son by the ear with the other.

"Here," she said, "he's yours today."

"He isn't mine any day."

"Yeah, yeah. Whatever. You scientists can prove anything with DNA. But the au pair's left and I'm late for my colonic irrigation so he's yours." She walked out and the kid starting running up and down the huge lab with his plastic aeroplane.

"Stop running, Matthew."

Matthew continued running, his F111 fighter plane banking left, then right, firing an unlikely amount of imaginary missiles.

"Sit down!"

"Catch," said Matthew, launching the plane. For a lump of moulded plastic bearing no resemblance to any piece of precision built military equipment, it flew surprisingly well. So well in fact, that Dr Martin could only watch as it crashed through a number of test tubes and beakers.

"Sorry, Dad."

"I'm not your dad! Now just sit down and keep still."

Matthew sat in a corner, removed a baseball from his pocket and began bouncing it. Dr Martin scanned the computer screens. Could he sense a heightening in the computer's hum or was it just his blood pressure? He took several deep breaths, then spun around as the doors flew open again. For his next project, he'd employ some decent security but at least this visitor was welcome.

"Hi, honey," he said. He walked over to the woman and stroked her stomach. "How's my little baby doing?"

"There's something I have to tell you," she said, but before she could finish, a large man strode in.

"It's my kid," he said "and if you come near my fiancee again, I'll break your legs." He punched Dr Martin in the face and left.

"Hey!" shouted Matthew, "that's my dad.'" He threw his baseball, which hit the lab door as it closed and rebounded into one of the computer screens, which exploded. Then there was silence. Not even a gentle hum of powerful computers crunching data. Dr Martin slumped to his knees, sobbing. Matthew went over and put his arm round him.

"It's okay, Dad. I cry, too, when someone hits me."


Matthew returned to his corner and ate his jam sandwiches. Eventually, Dr Martin got up. Maybe he could salvage something, he thought.

The computer was just one ingredient short. Surely he could guess or work out what this was. He read the computer's theoretical prediction and scratched his head. Everything on the list was commonplace. Most of it inert. Theoretically, speed of light travel was achievable by any householder rummaging through their bathroom and kitchen cupboards. Except for the final piece.

He followed the computer's instructions and placed 7.5 g of sodium chloride, 50 mg of Phenylpropanolamine Hydrochloride, 4mg of Chlorpheniramine Maleate and 1mg of Sodium Hydrochlorite into a steel tray and added the catalyst, 5g of copper filings. On top of this tray, he placed a small aluminium travel capsule. To achieve speed of light travel, the computer said you simply tapped the capsule with a silver plated metallic rod.

Dr. Martin tapped the capsule. Nothing happened. He tapped it again. And again. Then he checked the instructions, his measurements and his timing device at the other end of the lab. Matthew walked over, his hands and face covered in jam. Dr Martin, who was 100 metres away, ran.

"Matthhhheeeeeewwwwwwww!!!!! Nnnnooooooooooo!!!!"

Too late. Matthew had poked his finger in the tray then hit the aluminium travel capsule with the silver plated metallic rod. The capsule flew across the lab taking just 0.3 nanoseconds to cover the 100m between the two sensors. It continued, at the speed of light, through the lab wall and outside, into the sky.

Dr. Martin didn't say or do anything for several minutes. Then he checked his timing sensors and did a few calculations.

"Yeeeehhhhhaaaahhhhhh!" He turned to Matthew. "Son, what was in your sandwiches?"

"I'm sorry, Da- I mean..."

"It's okay. Call me Dad if you want. Just tell me what was in your sandwiches."


"Jam? Who'd of thought?" He ran over to a bench and started scribbling. After a few minutes he turned, "What sort?"


"Strawberry jam. Of course!"

For the next three hours, the only sound in the lab was of Dr Martin typing his Nobel prize winning paper to Nature on his laptop. When he'd finished, he scooped up Matthew and swung him round and round. "How about a McDonalds?"


As they were about to leave the office, a pack of suited men entered.

"We're closing you down," said the leader.

"'You can't. I just discovered speed of light travel. I've just written the paper."

"Too late. Some professor in England got there first. His work's been published in The Sun."


"And then there's Russia."


"'They' don't like being bombarded by aluminium capsules travelling at the speed of light. They think we've testing advanced missile launching devices. We were seconds away from World War 3. You nearly caused the total destruction of the planet."

Dr. Martin was stunned. "What's his name?"


"'That English bastard."

"Jackson. Professor Jackson from the Beaverbrook Institute. Bit of a genius. Probably get the Nobel prize. And all on his own, the British government hasn't give him a penny towards his work, just free board and lodgings."

Dr Martin raced out the lab and caught the next plane to London.

Inside the Beaverbrook Institute For The Insane, there was an air of perplexity. Logical thoughts purveyed the atmosphere as doctors sought to come to terms with Jackson's sudden genius status. If Jackson was sane, so the arguments went, when they thought that he was insane and that they were sane, didn't that mean that they themselves were actually insane? Several of them recognised neurological imbalances in themselves and sought psychiatric help. Beaverbrook was suddenly understaffed and over patiented. Which is why the first person Dr. Martin met as he raced through the entrance and down the corridors of the Beaverbrook Institute For The Insane was a lost locum doctor.

"Who are you?' asked the locum.

"Dr Martin."

"Ahh. Good. Can you tell me where the staff room is?"

"I've just got here."

"Another agency doctor?"

"Are you mad? I'm looking for Professor Jackson."

"'You did say you're a doctor?"


" Qualified.

"Of course."

"In medicine?"

"No, I'm a proper doctor. Now, just tell me where that bastard is."

The locum put his arm round Dr. Martin's shoulder and led him down the corridor. "Dr Martin," he said, "do you know where we are?"

"Beaverbrook Institute."

"Good. And do you know what we do here?"

"Course I do. World class bleeding scientific research. Looks like some run down old hospital to me though you've probably got some bloody great particle accelerator under the car park."

"Yes, we have," said the locum, "It's huge. And this Professor Jackson?"

"The guy who invented speed of light travel."

"Oh yes, I know who you mean. I was getting confused between him and the one just back from Mars."

"Jesus Christ! You do space travel here? Does NASA know?"

"Here we are, Dr. Martin." He opened a door, pushed Dr. Martin in and shut it quickly. Dr. Martin looked round the empty padded room and started banging on the door. "Let me out."

The locum spotted one of his fellow agency doctors down the corridor. He called out after him, "Give us a hand. I've got one that needs sedating."

It was several months before Dr Martin's medication was reduced and he was allowed to leave his room. He'd totally forgotten who he was and what he did. All he could remember was he had to kill a professor by the name of Jackson, though he couldn't remember why. He wandered up and down the corridors, trying every room.

Professor Jackson had just finished breakfast and was working with Chloe at the small wooden bench they shared with the spiders in the storeroom when Dr. Martin walked in.

"Professor Jackson?"


"What are you working on?"

"Time machine."

Dr. Martin laughed. He moved towards Professor Jackson who was sitting on a wooden meal tray with Chloe and a small heap of chemicals. As he got close, he saw Chloe poke her marmalade covered nose into the mixture.

He was about to put his hands round the Professor's neck when Jackson tapped the tray with a spoon.

Professor Jackson had just finished breakfast and was working with Chloe at the small wooden bench they shared with the spiders in the storeroom when Dr Martin walked in.

"Professor Jackson?"


"What are you working on?"

"Time machine."

Dr. Martin laughed.

x x x

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