The pounding on the door sounded like it was being made with the butt of a rifle. We couldn’t tell what the armed guards were shouting — the thick laboratory walls muffled their words — but they were angry about something, probably us.
“We’d better hurry and finish this up,” you said calmly.
“I can’t catch this light beam,” I said, less calmly. It was being elusive and thoroughly uncooperative.
“You didn’t bring the right kind of net.”
“What kind should I have brought?”
“A double-layer internally-reflective anti-absorbent laser-safe nano-fiber net.”
We had broken into the lab for a good cause. Researchers there were conducting experiments on beams of starlight in an attempt to develop a new ingredient for shampoo — “to get that lustrous, shiny look you’ve always craved,” as the ads claimed. Some of the instruments included glass prisms that cruelly split apart live light beams into separate colors, a sort of optical vivisection.
That was clearly unethical. So at three in the morning we were there to free the captive starlight.
Each beam was kept cooped up in a light-proof metal container about the size of a thermos, dozens of which were crammed onto shelves. We gathered those and placed them in the large nylon stuff sacks we had brought along. The plan was to take them outside, remove the caps, and let the light beams escape.
“You’re sure we’re supposed to release them into the wild?” I asked.
You glanced over our instructions. “Yes. Just let them go back where they came from. The stars, apparently.”
“That’s a long way to go. Like one of those ‘incredible journey’ stories where the pets find their way home by traveling hundreds of miles.”
“Not one bit like that.”
Unfortunately, a starbeam had been left in a spectrometer overnight and managed to wriggle loose. It was bouncing around the room, shaken and terrified, by the time we showed up. The prudent decision would have been to leave it there so we could make a quick getaway. Instead, we chose to rescue the poor thing with all the others and chance being discovered. But we had to catch it first, which was tricky.
“It moves too fast,” I complained.
“Because it’s going at lightspeed. Or maybe a little less. They have it under sedation.”
“Yes, it does look a bit reddish.”
The delay in trying to catch the beam proved to be our downfall.
Two guards patrolled the grounds together. We had seen them earlier from the bushes and had waited for them to pass before sneaking in. We thought we’d be done and gone by the time they made their rounds, clocked at twenty minutes, but we missed our window.
When they came around again and checked the doors, the electronic lock to the lab had recently been activated and the door was bolted from the inside. Someone had entered and was still in there, they concluded, which excited their interest. Hence, the pounding and shouting outside.
“This could have gone better,” I said, still trying to grab the errant light beam.
“There are only the two guards,” you replied, as if that made it better.
“We might as well have knocked on the front door and announced ourselves.” I was annoyed at having been caught.
The facility was a long, single-story building with a flat roof, painted a deep green and covered with scrub brush to help it blend into the surrounding woods. The whole place was camouflaged, for good reason — it was there illegally on National Forest land, high in the Sierra Nevada backcountry.
The only way to approach the lab and avoid the surveillance cameras involved trekking through a dense forest, fording a rushing stream, and scaling a granite cliff. That part was simple enough — for us — and it was why we had been hired to carry out the rescue mission.
All the “Free the Light” activists were too cultured — too soft, you had called them — to undertake such an excursion. Most would rather click a “Donate” button than engage in a little outdoor activity, such as breaking into a remote facility in the middle of the night.
Yet one of them had somehow procured, or stolen, the key-card that got us into the lab. That took guts, I thought. You weren’t impressed.
“How hard is it to seduce a lonely, nerdy lab technician and grab his security card?” you had asked, flirtatiously tilting your head, flipping your hair, and raising your eyebrows to prove your point.
“Well, I couldn’t do it, anyway.”
As to whether our mission was lawful, federal statutes decree that light beams from natural sources cannot be considered anyone’s property, so releasing them is technically not illegal. Breaking and entering is another matter, but the lab itself operated outside the law, and wasn’t even supposed to exist, so who was going to prosecute?
Our only concern was getting caught by the armed security personnel, who were probably ex-military mercenaries with no qualms about shooting a couple of intruders. That danger helped boost our fee, but the way things stood we might not get to collect the balance.
A metallic thunk followed by a wrenching sound suggested that the guards were trying to pry open the reinforced door with a crowbar. Meanwhile, we still had to save that last starbeam.
“Look at these.” You had pulled out a handful of small mirrors from a cabinet.
“Those might do the trick.” No light can resist the allure of a mirror.
We set them around the room in strategic locations, angling each one carefully, and placed an open empty container in their path. The curious beam soon tried going through the nearest mirror and was surprised to find itself reflected from one to the next, then right into the trap we had set. I flipped the top on and fastened it down. “Got it!”
I held out the cylinder to you. “Did you want to try some of this in your hair?”
“Not my brand.”
Now we just had to get out, but knew we were cornered. The room had only one door, which led directly outside. Eventually the guards would wrench it open, or just wait for the morning shift to arrive. We couldn’t hope for something as civilized as being arrested, not after having seen their illegal operation.
“Wasn’t this assignment supposed to be straightforward?” I asked.
“Up to a point.”
“And this is the point?”
“At least we should make sure all these critters get out of here,” you said, “even if we don’t.”
I opened a bag and looked at the cylinders. We would only have a few seconds to release the light once the guards started shooting. “Too bad all the beams aren’t in one container, though that might be too—”
“That’s it!” You yanked open a bag and started pulling out the cylinders. “Put these all together and we could make one hell of a light show.”
“That much force would…” I tried to calculate the combined energy of the various wavelengths. “It’s worth a try,” I said, giving up on the math.
We unfastened the tops, one by one, and transferred the light beams into a single container. When that was done you tucked it under one arm, with your other hand poised to remove the cap. I began to muse on the ethics of weaponizing wild starlight, then shrugged it off.
“Ready?” I asked. You nodded.
I threw the bolt, flung open the door, and stepped aside. The guard who had been pounding earlier was just a few feet away, holding an AR-15 style rifle. This guy meant business. The other one stood back in the darkness, gripping a handgun.
They looked surprised at our bold move, then brought their guns up. You aimed the long cylinder at them and snapped off the cap. The effect was blinding.
Pent-up starlight blasted out toward the men like the proverbial lightning in a bottle, though without the deadly electricity. They were slammed back by the intense glow born of a hundred burning suns. The nearest guard dropped his rifle as he flung his arms up in front of his face and sagged to his knees. The other cried out and fell on the ground, letting go of his gun.
This was our chance.
As we stepped out, we saw the Milky Way shining brilliantly above, framed in a silhouette of evergreens. After knocking down the guards, the newly-liberated starbeams immediately scattered into the nighttime sky, each drawn to its place of birth.
But we had no time for fond farewells. The guard had started blindly groping for his rifle.
“Split up and meet at the cliff,” you said.
“Right.” I jogged over to the man writhing on the ground and kicked his gun into the bushes, just to give him something to do after we had gone.
You were still holding the metal container. As you ran past the kneeling guard you swung it at his head. I heard a clang! and when I glanced back the empty cylinder was rolling away on the gravel and both men lay on the ground, groaning.
Two days later, we reported in to collect the remaining payment. After counting out the money, our contact handed us a thick manila envelope.
“That starlight you freed was captured by an observatory up in the Andes,” she explained, as I peeked inside the envelope. A substantial down payment was included with the photographs and instructions. “They’re responsible for most of the illegal trade in wild light beams. We want them shut down.”
“Okay,” you said, without hesitation.