The Drill Hall Incident

Gil Williamson

“The unassuming youth seeking instruction with humility gains good fortune.”
I Ching

Matt Davidson had lived in Edinburgh for most of his adult life; he had walked past the Drill Hall's unprepossessing entry a hundred times. It was a short, dark, lane running between tenement buildings, paved with the grey cobbles that still abounded in many run-down corners of the city. The lane was just wide enough for a single large vehicle. Scrapes on the walls of the lane indicated that it had proved too narrow for some. Matt entered the lane, automatically noting the smells of used beer, urine and vomit which such a Saturday night haven inevitably attracted. The lane ended a few metres in, at a huge double door in a featureless wall. A wicket gate and a new entry phone were set into the right hand double door.

“Before the beginning of great brilliance, there must be chaos. Before a brilliant person begins something great, they must look foolish in the crowd.”
I Ching
Now, having checked the address in his iPda and read the tiny notice on the door's flaking green paint, he pressed the bell push on the entry speaker. The speaker hummed for a second, and Matt drew breath to announce himself, only to be interrupted by an impatient voice saying: "It's open!".

The "Drill Hall" wasn't so much a building as a contained space, a tapered quadrilateral about half the area of a football field. White-painted brick walls without windows rose to an impressive height. Around the perimeter were iron columns, patterned after the classical style, sprouting at their capitals a remarkably intricate tracery of iron frames, the support for a domed glass roof. Most of the panes were the original glass, totally obscured by the soot of decades of Edinburgh smoke. Students of Victorian railway stations would recognise the architectural style. Fluorescent strip lights dangled from cables strung across the width of the building. In the centre of the hall lurked a jumble of heavy machinery.

A lean middle-aged man with a couple of day's growth of beard was walking towards him. "Calvin Yelland," he said. "You'll be Davidson."

"Yes, Professor." They shook hands. Yelland's was wrinkled, cold, dry.

"Graduate Research Assistant Matthew Davidson," said Yelland, with the unfocussed look of one quoting from a remembered document, "Four years of university, resulting in an impressive degree in Oriental Studies. Hardly ideal for an pioneering physics project in a cold laboratory, one might think, and a strange decision from you, I dare say, but we want a non-scientist for a change, while you, according to your application, want something completely different. Welcome to the fridge."

Matt couldn't be sure whether Yelland's sour expression was for himself or for the building. "I... Er... Unusual location."

"We're lucky to have it. Lots of room, but it isn't ideal, either. Damned cold, roof leaks, and it was full of junk you wouldn't believe when we got here, but no rats at least. They probably have more sense. Belongs to the University."


"Oh, yes," Yelland's gaze became distracted again as he appeared to visualise another remembered document. "Originally built in the late 1800s as an off-site lecture hall, but it has hopelessly echoing acoustics and was only used for one semester. The Natural Philosophy department has sporadically rented it out since 1890. It's been used as a church hall by various religions and denominations, as a museum warehouse, a dance hall, a variety theatre, a stable for the Co-op draft horses in the 1930s - hence the faint dung heap aroma - a cinema, and, during World War 2, as the HQ of a Royal Signals regiment. That's when it was first called 'The Drill Hall'. Most recently it's been an indoor karting track - hence the lingering air of petrol fumes and burnt rubber - a five-a-side football court, and a karate studio. I gather that in none of its many rôles has it proved ideal."

"I see. Cold, though, as you say."

"It's heated, to an extent, by these massive iron radiators, powered by an oil-fired furnace that seems have been salvaged from a scrapped ocean liner. But the volume of the building and the single-glazed glass roof means that it never feels anything but desperately cold unless you're actually leaning on a radiator... " His manner cheered a little, "No need for air conditioning, though, even in summer. One of the previous tenants built a few hutches for offices around half a dozen radiators at the back. They're warmer. Come."

Two offices were busy with several young men debating equations on whiteboards, another with two older men in overalls surrounded by racks of equipment. Two offices appeared to be filled with machine tools. Yelland and Matt entered a near-vacant office, which was only half full of equipment, leaving room for a desk and a couple of chairs.

"You know what we're doing here," said Yelland, but with a question in his voice.

"I gather it's some kind of physics research. Eh, quantum something. Black holes. 'Exotic', the notification said."

"Hmm..." Yelland almost smiled. "Refreshing to speak to someone who isn't either totally convinced or thoroughly sceptical. Yes, it's original research. Wormholes in multi-dimensional space. The future of faster-than-light space exploration, time travel and other science fictional dreams. Look up the Wikipedia article on wormholes. Let me know if you understand it.

"It is not widely known," Yelland continued, "that, last year, using an amazing amount of energy, a research team at Caltech created a wormhole a few millimetres in width and about a metre in length. Nevertheless, this tiny hole nearly killed the researchers and destroyed a laboratory, because the other end of the wormhole was in the vacuum of space, and naturally began to suck the air out of the lab. Luckily, the wormhole closed down, pinched off. They usually do."

"How was the other end in space if it was only a metre long? This is a silly question, isn't it?" said Matt.

"Not really, and the answer may clarify what our problem is here. A wormhole connects two points in space-time, and we tend to think of space as regularly structured as we experience it in our lives, but a wormhole spans space in a totally different fashion. In principle, looking through a one metre wormhole, you might perceive something that is half a million miles and a year away in our space-time, and it would appear to be just one metre away at the other end of the hole. Though, in reality, a view through a wormhole would necessarily be misleading."

"And my situation here?"

"First, there's a lot of reading to do, some mathematics to learn. Nothing too taxing, and the young Fountain here will help you. But we need someone to observe what we're doing, and to make sense of it. The rest of us are too busy with the technology. There's a PhD in it for you if you make a success of it. You see, I've read some of your essays on oriental culture, beliefs and customs, and you have a proven and rare ability clearly to communicate alien ideas, such as Zen, Confucianism and the Book of Changes, for example, to readers like myself with no background in the subject. You are to be the eyes, ears and voice of the project."

Matt buried himself in mathematics, from which he learned little, and read primers on special and general relativity, which stretched his ability to visualise space and time.

“Perseverance alone does not assure success. No amount of stalking will lead to game in a field that has none.”
I Ching

Every couple of days, the gas turbine would be started, generating, according to the engineers, enough electricity to supply a small city. The generator was a bulky green machine which lurked like a giant toad, as high as a man, against one wall. The Drill Hall briefly warmed up as the jet exhaust glowed red hot, and the noise was enormous, despite the fact that the exhaust was directed in a pipe up the wall and outside. The resulting electric power was directed into the Wormhole Reactor, an even larger machine shaped ike a cotton reel, basically a fat cylinder the diameter of a railway tunnel with a one metre hollow space down its centre.

On a good day, a sparkling sphere the size of a grape would blink into existence just inside the hollow for a moment. The entrance, Matt was told, to a wormhole. A sphere, because it was a three-dimensional hole in multi-dimensional space-time. These unimpressive phenomena gave immense satisfaction to the physicists. Matt learned that these wormholes were the largest, by a factor of a thousand, that had ever been created anywhere in the world, and that their short flicker represented a thousand-fold lengthening of their existence, wormholes being inclined to collapse very quickly.

And so it continued for some months, the climate in the Drill Hall gradually softening from arctic to mere terribly cold, and moisture condensing on metal surfaces so that alarming elecric arcs accompanied the powering up of the Reactor, snaking around the cylinder until it heated up. Pools of water accumulated around the bases of the pillars. Drips from the glass ceiling spattled on the turbine exhaust, causing little clouds of steam. The tiny spheres appearing in the cylinder were sometimes larger, often longer-lived, than Matt had originally seen, but as the project seemed to be in stasis, he began to show signs of discontent and doubt over his decision to join the project. Only Yelland, Fountain - one of the young physicists, Gazzer the technician and Matt himself turned up on a regular basis.

Then came the breakthrough. Fountain attempted a re-formulation of the equations they were using. Yelland and he noisily disputed the validity of Fountain's idea for days, covering the whiteboard in symbols, crossings-out and parenthetic notes. Eventually, in face of the slow progress they had been making, Yelland agreed to give it a try, despite the fact that it would require a partial rebuild of the Reactor and re-programming of the cybernetic control functions.

“When the way comes to an end, then change. Having changed, you pass through.”
I Ching

The scientists and engineers turned out in full force, overnights and weekends being worked. Yet it took a full six weeks to make the changes.

In the meantime, excess to requirements, Matt seized the opportunity to take a two-week vacation in Beijing, studying documents and artifacts he had previously only known at second hand. He therefore returned to the Drill Hall refreshed and enthusiastic. The Wormhole Reactor had sprouted a few more bulges and cables, and there were signs of extensive surgery in a ring around the edge of the outer cylinder.

For the first three weeks, the remodelled Reactor appeared totally useless, and not even the little ephemeral spheres appeared. The other researchers and one of the engineers drifted away from the project. Yelland spent much of his time moping in his office.

Then Fountain discovered what he called a 'schoolboy error' in the cybernetic program.

At the next test of the new Reactor, the sphere representing the wormhole entrance was much larger than any previous, and it persisted until the Reactor was switched off.

In great excitement, some adjustments were made and the Reactor powered up again. Matt couldn't follow the details of the activity, but he could see the glimmering sphere getting bigger at each attempt, and it showed no sign of collapse while power was applied.

A few days later, a maximum size appeared to have been reached. The sphere was by then about the size of a grapefruit. Fountain was particularly triumphant, Yelland somewhat gratified. Cameras clicked, measurements were taken. The wormhole entrance glowed.

A Monday morning in August, daylight struggling through the glass roof, and the air tingling with anticipation, the Reactor was fired up for a serious test run. Serious it might be, yet it was primitive in its aims.

“The responses of human beings vary greatly under dangerous circumstances. The strong man advances boldly to meet them head on. The weak man grows agitated. But the superior man stands up to fate, endures resolutely in his inner certainty
I Ching

Fountain took a wooden ruler and pushed it cautiously at the sphere, making sure that his fingers stayed outside. The ruler disappeared into the surface of the sphere, but did not emerge from the opposite side. He withdrew it carefully. It appeared intact. It was a weird sight. The longest piece of wood that could readily be found was a walking stick. It proved possible to push it into the sphere so that it disappeared to nearly its full length and to withdraw it again, unharmed.

"If it's connected to somewhere distant, why can we not see that distant place?" Matt asked Yelland, as they contemplated the sphere.

"Unfortunately," Yelland replied, "the exotic material that lines the wormhole and keeps it open attracts any photons that come through from the other side and scatters the image, so it will always be out of focus."

"So why don't we send a camera through and record what's there?"

Yelland stared at him. It was clear he hadn't thought of it. "Anyone got a smartphone and selfie stick?" he called.

Gazzer the engineer obliged, but when the camera was withdrawn, the image was just as blurred as the sphere.

"C'mon. Any more ideas?"

"How about sending a cat through?" suggested Fountain.

"It's a bit tight," said Matt. "We could send a mouse down."

It took just half an hour to fetch a couple of white mice from the University's Easter Road pharmaceutical lab. Matt made a little harness and lead from a length of thin electrical wire. The mouse slipped easily into the sphere, disappeared and pulled the lead a short distance further, then stopped for a while, and finally reappeared, apparently none the worse.

Emboldened by the mouse's survival, Matt stepped forward and poked a tentative finger into the sphere. Yelland shouted "Careful! You could lose the finger if it collapsed!"

Matt withdrew the finger. "I expected it to tingle, but it didn't. Nothing at all, really." He pushed his whole hand in.

"No, no. Careful!" said Yelland, but he made no move to stop him.

"How long is this wormhole, anyway?" Matt asked.

"We don't know exactly," said Fountain, "Could be anything from a few centimetres to a few light-years. The quantum calculations are typically non-specific as to their solution."

"Ok," said Matt, "what say I reach a bit further?"

"Well..." said Fountain.

Matt took a deep breath and thrust his hand and forearm deeper. "Feels smooth, a little above room temperature. I'm twiddling my fingers. Yes, it's slightly slippery, and quite straight. I can't feel any passage of air. I'll just..." He withdrew the arm and stripped off his pullover and shirt.

"Are you sure?" said Yelland, though it was clear that he and Fountain were no longer going to dissuade Matt.

Matt pushed his arm back in, cautiously this time, past the elbow. "Mmm... No change, it's... Ow!" He jerked and pulled back a bit. The other two jumped as well.


"I felt something. It moved. I'm just trying again. Yes. It's still there." It feels like... Weird."

Yelland and Fountain were staring aghast. "Weird? What is it? Metal? Plastic? What temperature?" asked Yelland.

"It's, ah, like... flesh, really."


“If one is not extremely careful, Somebody may come up from behind and strike him. Misfortune.”
I Ching
"Yes. Yes. It's a hand, and it's moving again. Just feeling it. It's a human hand all right! I'm clasping it. Wait. I think it's my own hand! I'm shaking hands with myself! I'm reaching a little further. Yes. I can feel my wristwatch, and I can feel the other hand feeling my watch. It's a loop, isn't it?"

Stunned silence. Fountain and Yelland looked at each other.

"Yes, it is," said Yelland. "We must take another look at these equations. Congratulations, Fountain, I think we've just built the first multi-dimensional Möbius doughnut."

© Gil Williamson 2017 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 10:50 Thu 24 Aug 2017
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