There was a mild-hearted summer breeze on the evening of the reunion party in Oxfordshire, the same night Ollie disappeared into the dark water and Simon looked on helplessly.
I hadn’t seen Simon for four months prior, but reports of his behaviour had drifted back to me from his colleagues, Jake and Luke. I’d been briefed in advance that he’d changed for the worse: that he was fading somehow in both his mind and body. This disturbed us all, not least because he was so young (in his early thirties), but because we all remembered how he used to be: seemingly invincible, and so alive.
The lake on the grounds of the manor house, surrounded by weeping willows and chestnut trees, had been bright and still at the height of the day. By the early evening, the sun was low and burned gold through the trees, warming the water and casting long shadows on the lawns. At night though, by the pale moon, the cold water appeared black and uninviting, reflecting only the faintest sliver of light. But this had not been enough to dissuade Ollie, foolhardy after an evening spent drinking, from heading into the water alone to skinny dip. His cries for help had gone unheard at first, by everyone but Simon.
Simon, having spent much of the night shuffling slowly around the venue, leaning on his silver-topped, black cane – a prop he’d not required until recently – was suddenly transformed when disaster struck at 1:03 a.m., just as the party had begun to die down.
He was stood chatting to a couple he barely remembered from university, feigning interest just inside the large, open French doors that led down from the manor house exterior on its west-facing side, towards the lawns, the topiaries and the tree-lined water’s edge, which curled around to the left, on to the manor’s frontage. His brown eyes, previously half closed with dark wheels of weariness under them, were now wide open and alert. His posture straightened as he stepped out through the French doors and, although he didn’t relinquish the cane completely, he broke into an uneven jog along the open terrace in the direction of the cries for help – towards the stretch of lake at the front of the house.
And it was Simon’s hand that Ollie grasped onto, desperately; Simon’s hand that nearly put things right without having to involve the Booths, which Simon would have happily never used again, given the choice. But just as easily as he’d located Ollie’s hand, he let it slip. Simon had become weak, and his grip had now failed him when he needed it the most. Ollie disappeared, presumably submerged in a tangle of weeds at the furthest reaches of the lake’s icy depths, unseen and unheard in the pitch dark.
By the time I arrived on the grass embankment, next to where Simon clambered in the mud – desperately calling out for Ollie and fishing in the water with both hands, his arms almost shoulder-deep – I could see it was too late. There was a screeching, almost insane quality to his thwarted cries, enhanced by the fact it had begun to thunder and rain.
Lightning washed the manor house exterior in stuttering light, its mullioned windows briefly illuminated, as a literary term (‘pathetic fallacy’) that Simon and I happened to have talked about only the last time we’d met suddenly entered my thoughts – quite unhelpfully – and was gone again just as quickly.
We were soon aided by other party guests, as well as members of the local fire brigade, whom Simon called almost immediately after seeing Ollie go under. The rescue team wore windbreakers, carried large umbrellas and brought along powerful torches and thermal imaging cameras. They were soon joined by a rescue boat and a helicopter.
We dedicated the night to the search, blinking hard in heavy rain as we kept a vigil on the fifty-foot-wide section of lake where Ollie was last seen, as well as the surrounding area. An edge of moon, like the white crescent of a thumbnail, floated ominously overhead.
As we patrolled the soft earth of the embankment in the dark, sliding around in the muddy grass, we encountered many obstacles that obscured our view of both sides of the lake, including tall reeds and a thick belt of trees. Less than forty metres to the right of where Simon saw Ollie go under, the lake narrowed to a point with a drainpipe for rain and a thirty-foot-long wooden bridge for vehicles to cross.
After a while, visibility became too poor to continue and we spent an awful, restless couple of hours in the manor house. Simon and I spent as much time pacing in the lobby along with a cluster of other, similarly distraught guests as we did in our rooms.
When we did take the stairs up towards our rooms (in an annex of the house) to rest, Simon led the way, holding his cane, but leaning instead on a carved-wood balustrade. He appeared to almost faint at one point, and I had to steady him.
We spoke briefly on the landing, in private, and he expressed great regret about his ‘slowness of response’. For as long as I’d known him, Simon’s voice had been almost abnormally resonant and strident, with a laugh that had a braying quality to it. Tonight though, his speaking tone was more a whisper, spidery thin, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard him really laugh.
At dawn, when the search effort resumed in force, everyone but Simon remained cautiously optimistic that the outcome could be positive. Our combined search parties, which still included members of the local fire brigade, had studied a bird’s eye view photograph of the grounds – there was a large one in the lobby in a frame on the wall – and so we knew it was a significant area to search. The lake – technically a series of lakes – was thirty feet deep and stretched out for a mile to surround the house. Still, we reasoned Ollie could be somewhere out of sight beyond the trees, shivering without his clothes on the rain-soaked grass, embarrassed about the whole debacle.
Simon had something else in mind, though. I suppose he knew better than to believe Ollie could be anywhere other than the bottom of the lake – his crumbled tux had now been found, hidden amid reeds at the foot of a tree on the embankment, a short walk from where Simon had last caught sight of him.
It was our old friend Andy who realised Simon had vanished from the hundred-strong search party, which had grown again to include standby paramedics; and it was I who caught up with him, on the damp shingle driveway at the front of the house, where he was attempting to start Ollie’s car, a red Ford Fiesta, which still had its key in the ignition.
I was some twenty metres away and, as I walked forward – my black brogues splashing in deep puddles of rainwater – I shouted his name three times and then hastened my pace to a jog. He couldn’t hear me above the noise of the engine, which grumbled and died just as it had done for Ollie the day before.
Then the engine caught.
Simon gunned it, and it roared.
Before I knew it, Simon had driven away in the modest old Fiesta – which was a vision of neglect, with scratched red paintwork and dented doors – bobbing violently, almost comically, up and down on the shingle, over the wooden bridge, past a pond containing a fountain and, finally, through the open black gates and out of sight.
I stood alone, inwardly despairing in the wake of his dust trail.
Simon knew as well as I did – more so, of course – that if he planned to alter history, he’d better make it count.
The two Booths, A and B, had been left active for three weeks straight. This meant he could travel back in time one whole week, a distance never before attempted. He’d have days to orchestrate his next move, but despite his current, weakened state, he needed to ensure precision. There could be no further do-overs after this one, not without severely tempting nature, the universe or fate, or whatever unseen force had penalised him previously. Attempting to fix history this one last time would have its inherent risks, and these risks were significant.
Each time a subject travelled back in time, a doppelgänger, or ‘Shadow’ of that subject, was created for a set period. In this case it would be a week, maximum – the same distance travelled back in time. This new, second version of Simon, aiming to arrive at the water’s edge in time to grasp Ollie’s hand before he submerged (where one version of him had already failed) was an enormous risk. The lake, although large and scarcely lit, was not necessarily vast enough to keep both Simons apart during this time-critical, pinpoint exercise.
Nor was visibility poor enough to guarantee Simon’s Shadow could avoid detection, even if he managed to reach Ollie at an earlier point in his struggle, a point preceding the critical moment of submergence at 1:03 a.m. Locating Ollie in the dim light had been difficult enough the first time around. This time, he could carry a torch, but then that would also render his efforts more visible to his doppelgänger.
Rearranging events so that Ollie never set foot in the water at all would be more desirable – but this was easier said than done, especially when avoiding public suspicion as well as one’s own doppelgänger were of paramount importance, second only to saving Ollie’s life. And how do you talk someone out of doing something that is in their original timeline? Someone who’d been drinking all evening, as Ollie had? Simon could, of course, try; however, in doing so he must bear in mind that while there is time, there is also fate, and the two seem to have a strange and near-inexorable link.
Even riskier was a scenario in which three versions of Simon patrol the lake at the crucial moment of submergence, in some frantic free-for-all. This type of action might save Ollie’s life, but it would also practically beg a paradox to occur.
And paradoxes, as you’ll see, are not something to be treated lightly.
Part One: The Cat / Safe Houses
My first ‘business meeting’ with Simon Fulbright was in a drab bar called The Navigation, in Camden Town, North West London, on a damp Friday night in mid-December. This was nearly six months before Ollie disappeared, presumed drowned.
We met at nine, when the crowded pub vibrated with the noise of giddy punters in the DJ room where Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was playing.
Between short stints getting served at the heaving bar, Simon would lead the two of us out onto the rain-soaked street at the front of the pub, where he’d smoke his Lucky Strikes, and we would converse on metal chairs beneath a parasol that creaked in the wind and rain. I too was known to smoke on occasion, socially, but tonight I was discouraged by the formidable pace at which he chain-smoked his way through a seemingly endless supply from his cavernous pockets.
Simon, an old University of Oxford friend of mine, had been informed I was nowadays a bona fidé investigative journalist. I myself had spun him this embellishment, though in truth I was honing my investigative journalism skills in a part-freelance capacity (covering such diverse topics as politics, film and music), which was in turn limited to what free time remained outside my day job – as a staff writer for a corporate finance publication that was subscription-only.
I’m Richard Depledge, but Simon consistently called me ‘Dick’. We were old friends, first and foremost, and he insisted he’d not got back in touch with me on the strength of my journalism credentials alone, of which I did have a habit of over-egging. He said it was about time we caught up; though, in truth, it seemed he was primarily looking to use my credentials to his advantage. The problem with Simon Fulbright was that, for him, people were nearly always a means to an end.
After a brief period of desultory conversation, Simon returned to a topic he’d touched upon previously, during our recent e-mail exchanges. He had a fantastical story tied to his own scientific advancements that he desperately wanted me to hear; moreover, he wanted me to document it. And so, as I sat in the rain-dampened breeze at the front of The Navigation, I tuned my ears to Simon’s account of recent weeks, the din of the pub melting away to background noise.
As Simon explained it, the three of them (including his colleagues Jake and Luke), all assiduous tech engineers in their early thirties, had sat in the lounge of Luke and his homemaker wife Kathleen’s four-square Georgian house in Camberwell, South London, one evening a week and a half ago, as they often did after work. They were dressed in their work attire: starched white shirts, black ties and black trousers, appearing more like young businessmen or stockbrokers than engineers.
Jake had said: “At this point, we’ll struggle to get expansion capital – which is a joke when you consider what the Booths can do.”
“You’re not thinking big enough,” had been Luke’s reply, during a rare display of affection with his baby, Martha, whom he was gently rocking to sleep in his arms.
Kathleen was in the kitchen, making herself a bedtime mug of hot chocolate. By now she knew not to ask questions about the men’s extracurricular activities, and so she’d vacate the room during any and all business discussions of this nature.
“With Jon Roberts as our sponsor, we could take the Booths further than ever in the New Year,” Luke had said.
Simon had replied: “The problem is, Jon Roberts doesn’t know what he’s funding, which is why he’s losing interest.”
“That’s because you’re adamant about marketing the Booths as a matter transporter, rather than calling them what they are,” said Luke.
“Less is more,” said Simon. “We'll aim to unveil the Booths as a transporter for shifting non-living cargo around, first and foremost. We can reveal their true function from our deathbeds, after we’ve exploited our real discovery in extremis, for our own benefit.”
“I just don’t understand,” said an exasperated Jake. “Wouldn’t we rather take credit for the invention of a spacetime machine? What discovery could possibly be more significant than time travel?”
“What would be the benefit of telling the world a machine exists that can manipulate time?” said Simon. “Money would be one of the first things to go. Financial wealth would be rendered meaningless – there’d be no risky investments anymore if the clock could be wound back, undoing said investments – whereas we can ensure continued funding for the Booths and still make a fortune if we present them as a transporter. What is a transporter, really, to the layman? It’s a teleporter. Ridiculously impressive in its own right. To call it a strong Nobel Prize contender would be an understatement. We’ll need to obfuscate some of the science – in order to really sell the lie. Unveiling the time machine is more of a long game.”
Approaching ten p.m. that same night, with baby Martha and an exhausted Kathleen fast asleep, Luke had driven his cohorts to an industrial site near the decommissioned Battersea Power Station on the South Bank of the Thames, where they could record footage of the Booths in action for their project manager, Jon Roberts’, benefit. Their rationale was that if Jon saw the Booths operating as a transporter, he’d think twice before cutting off the project’s funding, which was starting to seem like a very real possibility due to Simon’s perceived lack of progress. The always-oversubscribed Mr Roberts would ultimately request to see the Booths in person – but footage of the project in action was required first and foremost, in order to secure an audience with his greatness.
Simon bounded out of the car to negotiate a padlock on a chain-link fence. He then hopped back in (less theatrically, but just as energetically), before Luke drove the men into the industrial site containing the laboratories in which they worked during the day. They set about their errand in a further locked and fenced-off outdoor area of the site, home to a pair of garages that were also kept locked. This had become their home from home for the past year.
They were all brilliant, all former students of applied quantum physics and astrophysics. They’d each led ground-breaking experiments, attracting recognition from the US – from NASA and the California Institute of Technology (‘Caltech’) in particular. Simon had also worked with the Large Hadron Collider, the largest and most powerful particle collider on the planet, at CERN in Geneva.
Near the decommissioned Battersea Power Station was not the most discreet location to house the Booths, but this secret tech operation was unlikely to attract much in the way of unwanted attention, owing to the sheer modesty of its appearance and approach. However, the oddball assortment of labs and research teams based at Simon’s workplace represented just one satellite location of a significant operation, QST Labs, which he pronounced ‘Quest Labs’. QST – the wider organisation – linked twenty-three research facilities across the Western world, working in collaboration with the European Space Agency as well as CERN.
The invention had its genesis in a pioneering quantum physics project that the men had been tasked with at work, which they’d furthered outside of work hours. It concerned the transportation of minute matter.
As Simon explained it to me, somewhat austerely (and some of this may be lost in translation, as it is impossible for a mediocre intellect such as mine to render the workings of a superior one such as Simon’s): although Special Relativity forbids objects to move faster than light within spacetime, it is known that spacetime itself can be distorted. It takes an enormous amount of matter or energy to create such distortions, but distortions are possible. To give an analogy used by NASA: even if there were a speed limit as to how fast a pencil could move across a sheet of paper, the motion or changes to the paper is a separate issue. In the case of a wormhole, a shortcut is made by warping space (folding the paper) to connect two points that used to be separated.
Simon et al’s first task had been to acquire a large quantity of superdense matter – matter left behind in space after the explosion of a star that had run out of fuel. This matter, densely packed, was used to create ‘rings’ within two separate Booths, Booth A and Booth B, on the industrial site connected to QST Labs. These rings were then supercharged with electricity and spun to near the speed of light.
The result was the creation of a near-invisible, potentially traversable wormhole, linking the two Booths. The wormhole could be kept from collapsing, for a limited time only, by flooding the Booths with negative energy – in the form of Dark Matter, which had been discovered several years prior during an experiment by a research team at CERN, a decade after the Higgs boson (the ‘God Particle’, or ‘building block of the universe’) had been detected there.
Sitting outside The Navigation, Simon explained: “A wormhole is a ‘tunnel’ or shortcut – predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity – that links two places in time and space. And wormholes are all around us, in nooks and crannies of spacetime, only they’re too small to see. Down at the smallest of scales, smaller than atoms, there is something called quantum foam – where tiny wormholes constantly form, disappear and reform. But they’re only a billion-trillion-trillionths of a centimetre across. What our tech does is identify a wormhole, bombard it with superdense matter to enlarge it, and then keep it open for a period. The Booths turn quantum-foam wormholes into usable passageways.”
I said: “Jesus Christ, Simon . . . I’m not sure I can simply take you at your word on this, you know? The superdense matter you mentioned: are you telling me the European Space Agency just gathers it up from outer space, and gives it to you?”
“No,” he said. “They fabricate it. Well, not the ESA, but the ESA has access to it.”
“Who makes it then?” I said, thrown.
“The University of Gothenburg was the first place to manufacture it. We at QST use their processes now, too. We deal in enormous quantities of the stuff, as well as Dark Matter, all fed into the Booths from underground. We produce Dark Matter in a laboratory setting, through high-energy particle collisions. We operate like a business – a very slick operation; hundreds of QST workers create the superdense matter and Dark Matter for my research team, without having a clue what we use it for.
“All the heavyweight scientific discoveries are coming out of Europe these days, Dick. Kip Thorne once said: ‘Europe forging ahead is symbolic of the US beginning to cede technological leadership to other countries.’ He suggested this was due to dysfunctional science management by NASA under the Bush and Obama administrations, which, back in the day, let Europe steal a lead on high-energy physics.”
I nodded confidently, despite not knowing who Kip Thorne was.
He continued: “As for the superdense matter – in Gothenburg, in Atmospheric Science at the Department of Chemistry, scientists have been able to manufacture this material that is a hundred thousand times heavier than water and denser than the core of the Sun. What they have arrived at is an energy process that is more sustainable than the nuclear power used today. I now deal with this material myself, daily; it feeds the Booths.
“The material is produced from heavy hydrogen, also known as deuterium, and is therefore known as ‘ultra-dense deuterium’. Ultra-dense deuterium plays a role in the formation of stars, and is an extremely efficient fuel in laser-driven nuclear fusion. It’s possible to achieve nuclear fusion between deuterium nuclei using high-powered lasers, releasing vast amounts of energy.”
Simon paused this seemingly memorised, dry spiel to tap excess ash from the end of his cigarette into the ashtray on our table, before brushing yet more ash off his black suit trousers (we were both dressed smartly, post-work), where the cold wind swept the embers away before they hit the ground.
He continued: “We can design the deuterium fusion so that it produces only helium and hydrogen as its by-products, both of which are non-hazardous. It won’t be necessary to deal with the highly radioactive tritium that is planned for use in other types of future fusion reactors – and this means laser-driven nuclear fusion really is a strong contender for the leading energy source of the future. Do you follow?”
“No,” I said. “But I don’t suppose I’ll ever understand this stuff, will I?”
The rain fell harder, pattering on the road. The pub door opened, and light and noise spilt out into the street. A young city gent, dressed in a navy-blue suit with his shirt collar open, carrying a brown satchel to match brown brogues, staggered drunkenly out of The Navigation and into the pelting rain. The moon, which was full that night, shone brightly, and the sky was a riot of sparkling stars despite the spread-out rain clouds.
Simon also explained that the time travel function of the Booths appeared to be variable, and was not yet fully understood by his team.
“We’ve learnt that the wormhole takes the subject back in time a matter of minutes or hours,” he said, “although it doesn’t seem to be a set distance. Nature appears to allow such a configuration. Logically, though, since we can make a wormhole open and close, it stands to reason there’s probably a way for us to program in a set distance of time to travel back to – although we don’t know how yet. Because the inanimate subject enters Booth A and exits Booth B – albeit in the past – we can choose to highlight the transportation – meaning teleportation – function of the Booths. We don’t need to allude to the time travel capability at all. Think about it: an object enters Booth A and disappears, reappearing in Booth B, which is stored some distance away. The object has teleported. No one need know it has also travelled back in time, and has been sitting, waiting in Booth B for minutes, hours, or days.
“Theoretically, the Booths could be separated by any distance and still retain their teleportation function – so that in itself is an incredible achievement, especially if we can make it happen reliably each time. However, we haven’t separated them by more than thirty feet yet. What I need from you, Dick, is absolute discretion. Jake and Luke mustn’t know I’ve told you about the time travel capability; further, no one – and I mean no one – can know about the Booths, at all, until we’ve found a way to break news of the transporter. People aren’t ready to accept that a few engineers in the UK achieved this – and I’ve worked too hard to have everything go tits up now.”
He said this last part so sharply that I, instinctively, began to nod, before giving him my word. Of course, I was yet to fully believe his story, not before I saw the Booths in action for myself. I was no fool, and I stated as much in case he needed to hear it, which he probably did these days, now that his ego had clearly inflated to megalomaniac proportions. But I agreed to his terms nonetheless. He’d permitted me entrance to this inner sanctum, this clandestine research endeavour, and I wasn’t about to call him a liar. I knew he was brilliant enough for his story to contain more than a shred of truth. I had no real reason to doubt the veracity of his – albeit outlandish – claims. He was, after all, an old friend.
Our friendship had its roots in our University of Oxford days when, back then, I – a student of English and journalism rather than physics as he was – maintained blogs and wrote for local newspapers as well as the University of Oxford’s own The OxStu student paper.
Towering over me at six foot two, with his short, dark brown hair, brown eyes and leonine, Jewish Byronic facial features, Simon proved more popular with the fairer sex than I. Nonetheless, it was on a night out with him, towards the start of our second year at university, that I met Rachel Cavalier, my live-in girlfriend for a while. For an overlapping period, Simon and his own girlfriend at the time, Karina Glass, lived with us in a student house on St Clement’s Street in Cowley.
My official housemates were named Andy Wade and Ollie Spector. However, we also had a spare room we never officially refilled when a former tenant, our friend Dave Stanley, left Oxford following the death of his younger brother in a traffic collision in their hometown of Ipswich. It was in that spare room that Simon and Karina would stay so frequently that they became unofficial tenants.
And it was in that house that he and I became close friends.
Like me, Simon was an only child. He grew up in a Victorian terrace house in Sunnymead, North Oxford. His childhood was relatively unremarkable, save for the fact his father – also a scientist, albeit a lowly physics professor at a university (not an ancient or redbrick one) – was prone to alcohol-induced fits of rage, and had walked out on the family unit, rarely to be heard from again, following a particularly violent episode in which he broke Simon’s mother’s jaw. This happened during a skirmish punctuated by a series of blows as she lay on the ground. Simon had been in his room at the time, and was scared into staying put due to the sheer volume of the fracas he overheard.
He once got teary-eyed relating this story to me in the house in Cowley, claiming that although he was only twelve at the time, he might have been able to spare his mother this abuse if he’d intervened somehow. He might even have persuaded his parents to separate sooner, thus bypassing this critical turning point entirely. The incident in question (‘the broken jaw fiasco’ – ‘fiasco’ not seeming a strong enough word, although that was the word Simon himself used when relating the incident), as well as his feelings of regret associated with it, were not something we spoke of often. But he did say the ‘fiasco’ led his mother – a homemaker, and already a shy woman to begin with – to mistrust men in general, meaning it was unlikely she would ever remarry.
Simon sailed through secondary school and college before heading to the University of Oxford, financially bolstered by a scholarship he received after evaluation by Mensa on his mother and teachers’ recommendation. After graduating from Oxford with a master’s degree, he headed to Geneva, where he enlisted in CERN’s ‘Graduate Engineering Training’ programme. Here he positioned himself at the forefront of scientific research – working daily with the Large Hadron Collider.
Although I’ve established that his childhood – before it was discovered quite how many aptitudes he had – was, on the whole, relatively unremarkable, one event did stand out in his pre-secondary-school years. Simon is the only person I’ve ever known to have been struck by lightning.
When he was just seven years old, he was riding his bike home through a football field in Sunnymead on a weeknight in May, during flash floods that marked the end of a heatwave caused by a Spanish Plume. For those who don’t know, this is where warm air moves up from the Spanish plateau, initially causing warm weather over the UK, and meets cold air from the Atlantic, forcing the warm air to move rapidly upwards – producing thunderstorms.
On this occasion, initial temperatures had soared, and many opportunistic Englanders had headed to the beaches and parks. Weather warnings had been issued but were directed solely towards the vulnerable and at-risk groups, guiding them through coping with the heatwave itself rather than detailing the potential severity of the impending storm. Perhaps the Met Office underestimated what was to come, although in fairness, what happened to Simon was out of the ordinary and would hardly reflect the nation as a whole’s perception of the weather that day. One freak occurrence does not make a freak storm.
By seven on the weeknight in question, the thunderstorm was in full force, and Simon cycled his shortcut home across the football field in sheeting rain. Fork lightning splintered the sky in intermittent bursts; the thunder growled gutturally.
The weather had turned in the blink of an eye, and Simon was the only person in his neighbourhood caught out in it. He was soaked to the bone, blinking hard in the downpour; his trainers slipped and slid on the bike’s pedals, failing to make their grip. So heavy was the rain all around he could barely see the wet grass beneath his feet, let alone the row of tan-bricked terraces that should have become visible up ahead. It was as though he’d taken off inside a tornado and was sky-high.
Suddenly, a bolt of lightning struck the top of his head. He felt it move downwards through his body in an excruciatingly sharp, hyperfast-travelling shock. Then his feet jammed the bike’s peddles with a spasmodic jerk and he was flung off into the long, cool grass, the rainfall now slowing, coming to its end.
It was an hour before a woman walking her dog found him, twitching on the grass beside his fallen bicycle, and called for an ambulance.
He was stuporous for two days before returning, for all intents and purposes, to normal – except for a scar on his head, next to invisible within the natural whorl of his hair crown; and new markings along the outside of his right arm, which, strangely, did not appear straight away but instead arrived at the same time his stupor ended. These new markings were his ‘Lichtenberg figures’.
In our university days – having unveiled his markings to me in the house in Cowley following a raucous night at the student union bar (he’d flung off his shirt and stumbled around our lounge in just his jeans and, inexplicably, a red bandana) – he provided a dry, yet fascinating, spiel of exposition he’d no doubt lifted wholesale from the Internet. This is (close to) what he said:
In 1777 or so, a German physicist named Lichtenberg made a curious discovery. When dust in the air settled on electrically charged plates, tree-like ‘dust figures’ formed. Lichtenberg believed these figures showed the motion of the electric field. The figures, which were later named Lichtenberg figures, sparked a great deal of interest among scientists because they believed they demonstrated the true nature of the electric field. Today, we know that Lichtenberg figures are branching patterns that may be created when high voltage electrical discharges pass either along the surface or through insulating materials.
Lichtenberg figures can also occur on people who are struck by lightning. Lightning, which is a huge discharge of static electricity resulting from an imbalance in electrically charged regions between the Earth's surface and a cloud, is one of the leading causes of weather-related death and injury. Around ten per cent of lightning-stroke victims die, and seventy per cent will suffer serious long-term problems such as brain damage and personality changes. (I remember drunken Simon outwardly delighting as he told me this part about brain damage and personality changes . . .)
When lightning strikes some people they develop Lichtenberg figures. This striking skin pattern – a red, brown or pale-pink effect upon normal skin tone – is likely caused by the rupture of capillaries beneath the skin from the electrical discharge. They are sometimes called ‘skin feathering’ or ‘lightning flowers’, but the medical terms are arborescent (tree-like) erythema or keraunographic markings.
Simon’s own markings were red and, unlike most other documented cases, they’d not faded over time, not even a little, even though the scar on his head had faded almost completely.
The name ‘Fulbright’, his fiercely burning intellect and the prominent branch markings – which looked a little like fork lightning and ran almost the entire length of his right arm – combined to form a superhero’s origin story in my mind. (To this day he only ever wore long sleeves because, as a boy, he’d grown so tired of fielding questions about his arm.)
I can’t help but think that if the more fantastical, pioneering workings of his great mind could somehow be attributed to that near-death experience when he was just a boy, then that would perhaps simplify my attempts to quantify his genius – and may have provided the impetus for his research into starlight, Dark Matter and spacetime.