Outward: Chapter 3: Lighting the Way

“You and what army?” Luke Aaronson crossed his arms and planted his feet in the doorway to the anechoic chamber.

“Jesus Christ, Luke,” Todd Wright replied. He shook his head in disbelief and rubbed his temples with one hand. “You knew this was coming. It’s been on the schedule for at least a month.”

“And I was against it then, too.”

“I know, Luke. I was there, remember? I didn’t like the idea either. I still don’t. But we lost that battle. There’s nothing we can do about it now.”

Luke tried spreading his feet a little farther apart. He knew he wouldn’t be able to stop the two burly movers standing impatiently behind his coworker. Not so much because of being outnumbered three to one, or the difference in muscle mass — or really, just mass in general — between them. No, it was mostly because the door was far too wide to be blocked by one person. The movers could just walk around him if they really wanted to. He knew he wasn’t going to win.

Still, it was the principle of the thing.

Luke tried a different tactic. “Todd, how long have you been an engineer?”

“Twenty years, plus or minus,” Todd answered.

“And in all that time, how many live demos in front of the customer have you ever seen work without having done a dry run?”

Todd sighed. “Never. But we had dry runs scheduled. They just got rained out.”

“What if it rains again? The research prototype will be ruined!”

“So we’ll make another one. It’s not like we’re not ready to start production on the engineering test model anyway. Besides,” Todd stressed, “there’s not a cloud in the sky.”

“We should push the demo back. Do a dry run tonight, and then–”

“Not gonna happen. Do you know who’s coming up to see the demo?”

Luke hung his head. “Geemler,” he replied quietly.

“Exactly. Joseph freaking Geemler. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get on the schedule of the prime’s CEO? To have him make a site visit? At night?!”

Luke sighed. “All right. Fine.” He stepped out of the way.

The two movers entered the anechoic chamber. Inside there were two rolling carts. One carried a stack of computers and black boxes with wiring running out the front and back sides. On the other was a gray cube, tethered to the other equipment via several cables. It was clearly a research prototype, as marketing hadn’t been allowed to slap any sleek lines or corporate logos on it. Its only distinguishing feature was the odd texture it had, the way the light from the overhead lamps struck it and got confused which way it was supposed to reflect.

Luke and Todd had had a lot of practice figuring out how to confuse light like that. It took a quick mind to confuse light. Light’s pretty quick on its own, after all.

“Just be extremely careful with that!” Luke called out to the movers as they rolled the two carts out through the lab’s door. “It’s very delicate! And not even remotely waterproof!”

“Wheel it up to the roof,” Todd said. “There’s a big square marked out in duct tape for where it should go. You can’t miss it. Come on,” he said, turning back to Luke, “grab your gear. We’ve got two hours to make sure everything up there is calibrated.

The access door to the roof opened. The light coming through outlined a tall man in an impeccably tailored suit. He stepped out onto the roof, and was followed by a slightly less tall man in a less impeccably tailored suit. Following him was a shorter, rounder man wearing a sport coat at least one size too small.

Luke had no trouble figuring out that the first one was Joseph Geemler, CEO of Forney Junip. But clothes aside, he didn’t quite fit Luke’s mental image of a Fortune 500 executive. Or, in Geemler’s case, a Fortune 10. It was the excited grin on his face.

It took a certain kind of person to be excited about a ten o’clock business meeting on the roof of a building two time zones away from corporate headquarters. It made Luke nervous.

“Welcome, gentlemen,” enthused the marketing director that Luke never bothered to remember the name of, “to the Applied Office Group R&D headquarters!” The director shook each of their hands vigorously, and then pointed them to three executive-style office chairs that had been brought up to the roof for the occasion. They looked a lot more comfortable than the old metal folding chairs he and Todd had been sitting on until a moment ago. Probably a lot warmer, too.

“For decades,” the marketing director began, “lasers were the gold standard for applications requiring focused light. CDs, DVDs, fiber optics, without lasers, all of these would be but a dream. Without lasers, we would be unable to pass information at the speed of light. Why, without lasers, even in the information age it would still take ages to pass information across the country.” Insert chuckle here.

Luke turned his attention back to the equipment and septuple-checked the settings on everything. He had been forced to listen to the speech dozens of times. His role had been coaching the marketing director on how to pronounce the name of the product he was demoing. No, the product that he and Todd were demoing. The marketing director was just narrating.

“But lasers have limitations. They excel at pumping out light at a single frequency, photon after photon marching in lockstep, but what if a single frequency isn’t enough? What if you want the entire spectrum at your disposal? There are plenty of sources available, but the energy disperses far too readily. Just like a light bulb: pure white light, but scattered every which way. You can try to aim it in one direction with mirrors, but that only takes you so far.”

Luke had tried to get the word “incandescent” added in there, to no avail. Everyone knew modern compact fluorescent bulbs didn’t pump out true white light. At least, everyone who knew the first thing about optics did. But apparently knowing optics wasn’t a requirement for working at Applied Optics Group. Optics was their middle name! Literally, even! Luke shook his head and adjusted the aim knob by a few milliangstrom.

“Luckily, the Applied Optics Group can take you farther. Introducing the cutting edge in optical technology–”

“Please say it right please say it right please say it right,” Luke silently muttered to himself.

“– the Advanced Hyperspectral Collimator, Generation Three!”

This was about the time that a spotlight should shine down on the gleaming new product. But they were on the roof, and light didn’t so much gleam off it as stumble.

Luke turned on the flashlight, illuminating the gray cube. Shockingly, no “oooh”s or “ahhh”s were forthcoming from the audience.

“Allow us to demonstrate what the Advanced Hyperspectral Collimator can do,” the marketing director continued. He pointed to a building several miles away, on the outskirts of the city in whose outlying areas AOG R&D headquarters was located, and continued, “On the roof of that building there is a highly polished mirror, facing almost directly back at us.”

Geemler and his two associates partially stood up to look where the marketing director was pointing. Unsurprisingly, given the distance involved and the fact that it was ten o’clock at night, they couldn’t see anything, but went along with it anyway.

“And on this rooftop, we have the Advanced Hyperspectral Collimator, and a standard off-the-shelf commercial flashlight. By itself, of course, the beam of the flashlight would never even reach the distant rooftop, let alone be reflected back onto this wall here. The flashlight’s output is too diffuse, spreading too widely too quickly.”

On cue, Todd twisted the neck of the flashlight, narrowing its beam so that its light shone entirely on the gray cube.

“But the Advanced Hyperspectral Collimator, composed of the latest nonlinear composite metamaterials, adaptively refocuses light across the entire output spectrum into an impossibly focused beam, effectively eliminating diffraction effects and ensuring the beam remains at full strength for mile after mile.”

“Impossible” in this case was hardly an exaggeration. Todd’s doctoral thesis had been on defeating optical diffraction effects with techniques that, even after years of working with him and even helping him to build the device, Luke could only describe as “quantum trickery.”

“Gentlemen,” the marketing director said, turning towards the two engineers, “if you please.”

Luke gulped and flipped the switch, powering the gray cube. According to the monitor, everything was working normally.

According to everything else, however, quite the opposite. The marketing director stared meaningfully at Luke.

“Just a second, here,” Luke said defensively. “I think it’s the temperature. The lab’s about twenty degrees warmer, so in theory it’ll take a little longer for–”

The collective gasp from everyone who wasn’t Todd interrupted him. On the wall, one foot away from the equipment, was a circle of light, as sharp as it would have been had the flashlight been positioned not three feet away and directly at it.

Todd exhaled.

“And just in case you aren’t convinced…” the marketing director said. With a flourish, he passed his hand in front of the gray box. Instantaneously, the spot of light on the wall was obstructed by a shadow. He moved his hand back and forth a few times for emphasis.

“Incredible,” Geemler said.

“Amazing,” the man to his right added.

“How does the delay in responsiveness correlate with the decrease in ambient temperature?” asked the man to Geemler’s left, the one will the ill-fitting sport coat.

Luke smiled. A fellow engineer. “We haven’t tested it thoroughly yet,” Luke replied, “but from this one data point, it seems roughly consistent with the performance of the Gen Two model, so I’d assume the delay with the Gen Three increases polylogarithmically with decrease in temperature.”

“Of course,” Todd added, “the production Gen Two has stages in the adaptive pathways that compensate for 99% of the thermal effect, which this prototype doesn’t have. The production Gen Three will actually have an improved version of those components, plus an optimized algorithm that reduces the time for a anti-diffraction solution by an additional 5%.”

“Meaning…” asked the marketing director.

“Meaning it’ll be even less of a problem than with the version we’re currently shipping to you,” replied Luke.

“Which isn’t even a problem at all,” added Todd.

“Outstanding,” Geemler said, standing up. His associates followed suit. “Go ahead and double our order for the Generation Three AHCs. My people will call you in the morning to work out the details.”

Geemler and the marketing director started exchanging pleasantries with one another as Luke began powering down the equipment. Marcus Rubio emerged from the shadows by the door, along with the two movers.

“Go ahead and move the equipment down to room 317,” Marcus instructed the movers.

“Um,” Luke asked, “how come?”

“We’re going to need to anechoic lab for another project that came up. Just got the call. And by ‘we,’ I mean the two of you. And by ‘two’, I mean one and a half; Mr. Wright will be splitting his time between the AHC and this new project.”

“What new project?”

“Yeah, it’s a bit of a long story. Have I ever told you two about our AFEXOCOM contract?”


Chapter word count: 1,909 (+242)
Total word count: 5,556 / 50,000 (11.112%)

One Response

  1. “The light coming through outlined a tall man in an impeccably tailored suit. He stepped out onto the roof, and was followed by a slightly less tall man in a less impeccably tailored suit. Following him was a shorter, rounder man wearing a sport coat at least one size too small. ” I like that.

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