There was a debate in the lab as to whether today’s experiment would be historic, or ahistoric, or suprahistoric. Cassie opted for counterhistoric, but nobody ever listened much to her.
Atun Bosepkale, who had dreamed up the mathematical basis for what they intended to test, checked the clock hash. “Igor, activate Derivative Sequence now,” he said.
The words YES MASTER appeared in the sequence box.
“We should really have installed a button,” Hunter said.
“A button is more satisfying.” Atun kept his eye on the rapidly filling check boxes, not yet looking at the camera views of the distant lab. “When we do the human version, there must be a button.”
The team, two physicists — Atun and Hunter Torrence — and their six DARPA lab technicians, were watching the lab on monitors, from an old H-bomb firing room. One hundred meters of rock, much of it salt, along with two massive bank vault doors, kept the outside world from nosing in. The air-conditioning gave the room a musty odor, despite the dry air. Much of the equipment dated back to the 1970s.
The lab they were watching was more than two klicks away, in a salt dome that had been carved out for a bomb test that never happened. That space was enormous, but the lab seemed trivial in comparison. Two government doublewide engineering trailers parked near the entry door, full of remotely operated testing equipment, with a few cables and five PVC pipes tying it to civilization. All that took up less than half of a half of a half a percent of the empty space in the salt dome.
Hunter, oozing self-satisfaction in advance of the test data, said, “I’ll be going first, of course. You’ll hit the button.”
An automated voice said, “Seventeen,” bringing Atun’s attention back to the event of a lifetime. “Thirteen . . . eleven . . . seven . . . ”
The event of a lifetime, whatever happened.
“Five . . . three . . . two . . . ”
On the target table was the subject of this experiment: a 100-gram cube of almost perfectly pure nickel. It had been smelted from ore and cast into shape twenty-two years earlier, and stored in a scientific supply warehouse. Before that, its material had been part of the Acasta Gneiss formation, having hardened into rock 3.7 billion years ago.
If you think of time as one moment after another in an endless sequence, then this sample had quietly and persistently existed day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute for the better part of four billion years.
Now, after all those hundreds of trillion of minutes, it left off and skipped a few.
The gasps in the firing room didn’t come until two seconds after the test object disappeared. In those two seconds, Atun realized that there was something unconvincing about watching such an important event on video. Too easily faked, video.
The mass monitor — really just a scale under the apparatus — indicated the absence of 100 grams from the baseline. Radiation sensors showed nothing.
One of the techs was humming the “One Minute Song” with annoying flourishes. The computer showed a countdown clock, running off the seconds from one minute to zero.
Atun tried to accept as a fact what he had insisted on in theory for four years. It is possible to travel in time. Things can be sent forward in time.
And ergo, things can be sent back.
The song ended, the countdown clock had zeroed. Nothing appeared in the test chamber.
Hunter sighed. “That’s awkward,” he said.
What was the odor of the first nuclear chain reaction? Sweat, dust, American cigarettes, and Balkan pipe tobacco.
What was the odor of the first time travel event? Moldy air, and hazelnut double lattes.
It took them four more minutes to decide to open the champagne, anyway. They toasted Time Travel. They toasted themselves, the Herbert Project. They toasted a simple mathematical formula, that redefined a more famous one.
They tried to believe this was happening. They wondered what had gone wrong. Each one hoped the “wrong” wasn’t their fault.
Then someone caught a glimpse of the mass sensor graph, which was back at baseline. The test object had reappeared in the chamber. It was 1.3° Celsius cooler than when it had left. Otherwise, time travel had left it unchanged.
They would have to replay the tape to see when it had returned, because none of them had been looking.
Twenty-two minutes, and a few seconds.
Mighty Georgette trembled in the middle of the small cage, in the test chamber. They had considered sedating her, to keep her from moving during the “launch,” but had decided against it.
The object, after all, was to see if a live mouse could survive time travel. Some amount of motion was inevitable.
Mighty Georgette was the seventh in a series of test objects. She had been preceded by the original test cube, a 500-gram cube, a hollow glass cube containing water, a 1-kilogram block of salt, a beaker filled with dry ice, and finally, a carrot.
Hunter had won the coin toss, and gave the instruction, “Igor, activate Derivative Sequence now.” He managed to sound condescending.
YES MASTER snapped up, but there was no automated voice countdown. Everybody’d gotten tired of it by the third run. Atun, annoyed by this change of procedure, swiveled in his chair, staring at his partner in science. He thought, You will NOT be going first.
Even as he thought this, Hunter Torrence, asshole physicist, disappeared. Not his fancy metal coffee mug sitting on the desk, not the small lapis lazuli Egyptian scarab that he insisted on toying with wherever he was. Just him. And his clothes.
Atun immediately felt ill, or very strange, and wondered if he was going to faint. Nonsensically, he turned to the big screen, with all the views of the test chamber.
Mighty Georgette trembled in the middle of the cage.
The world went dark, and Hunter fell on his ass. Power failure. But why had somebody pulled his chair out from under him?
He rolled onto one hip, cursed, and then realized how wrong everything was. This was the wrong carpet. The faint lighting did not match the facility’s emergency lighting. The smell was wrong, the air had become warm and a bit muggy.
The room had no equipment in it, and no lab techs.
His eyes began adjusting, allowing him to see that he lay sprawled on a wide step, maybe two meters deep, and the next step was the height of a low bench above it. He crawled over to the step, and sat up on it, without standing up. He feared trying to stand.
Fear was his dominant emotion. His stomach knew that everything was wrong. His genitals were tingling with fear.
He thought about pulling out his phone, but it didn’t work in the lab, so why should it work here? Then he tried it, anyway. No network connection.
He put it away, then pulled it out again to check the time and date. They seemed right. He made a quick panoramic video of the room he was in, even though it didn’t show much, then put it away.
In a few minutes, his eyes adjusted again, and he examined the room, still without standing up. It had to be a room. Carpet, no visible sky above. Not much air movement. The steps rose steadily above his seat, and dropped as steadily below. He figured he could see about sixty meters. The steps had a very slight curve, so he imagined some kind of amphitheater.
There must not be a play, today, he thought.
He wasn’t alone. Two steps down, and away off to the right, were three very large snakes, or lizards. His presence bothered them, and they gradually retreated from view. There were other shapes, too distant to distinguish. He felt sure that one of them was a mushroom.
Exploring might not be a good idea. He could not imagine how a rescuer could find him here, but moving might make things harder. He realized that his mind simply would not address the question of how he could have gotten here. He could think that, but not beyond it.
After three hours, the waiting was tedious, and Hunter laid a handkerchief on his seat to mark his place, then went looking for a restroom. There were no aisles, and after a couple of hundred meters, he found himself approaching a group of creatures, on the next step up. They seemed to be rather like crabs, knee-high, and about two meters across. They did not seem comfortable with his approach, and then little blue laser dots appeared on his pants. One of the things had a flashlight, which was briefly aimed at him.
Hunter turned around, and walked back. He passed his marker, and hesitated when he heard a distant roar, like hearing a zoo from across town. He went onward again, a couple of hundred meters, but stopped abruptly when the sound of a great sheet of metal being shaken filled the air, followed by what sounded like a sheet of metal being torn in two.
He stepped down one level, once the tearing had died away, and opened his fly. He pissed a healthy stream onto the carpet on the next level down, then zipped his fly back up, and went to his original location.
By the fourth day, according to his phone, Hunter assumed he was going mad. Or, if he hadn’t started already, he would soon.
He had finally come to two tentative conclusions. The first possibility, he thought, was that he had been kidnapped by someone who wanted the secrets of time travel. If this was the case, he’d probably been unconscious for a while, and they had fiddled with his phone to make him think otherwise. This didn’t explain his location, or how it was that the carpet seemed to clean itself; but clearly it had the capacity to break him mentally.
The other possibility was that the experiment had malfunctioned, and displaced an area large enough to include the control room.
That didn’t explain the location he was in, either, or the lack of anything else familiar. Which made it just as dissatisfying as the other explanation, but no more so.
Neither theory explained the machine, or creature, that now approached him out of the darkness. It flowed down the steps from above, quietly, rather like a snail. The shape was confusing, and much of it looked like stacks of lens-like disks rather than a solid body, but the assemblage was three meters long, with a torso-area that seemed a meter-and-a-half high, and then there was a head and neck region rising a meter above that. Some of the disks had pits along the rim, but he saw nothing resembling organs of sense, or sensors, or tools or clothes.
Hunter had watched the thing’s approach for several minutes, and he’d tried to work up a convincing sarcastic remark. Sarcasms had been the wedge he’d used to cut a path through life, through every uncertainty, through every uncomfortable moment, through every inadequacy. They failed him when faced with this pile of oversized lentils in this bleak afterlife of a setting.
A voice that seemed more of a sigh, or a humming, than speech, said something. For all the world it sounded like the Latin sentence, “Explice mihi.”
“I speak English,” Hunter said.
“Not very well,” the voice said.
How can I have screwed up in three words? Hunter wondered — but didn’t say. Instead, he said, “Please, could you tell me where I happen to be?”
“You would not understand the answer,” he heard. “Your ignorance is too vast.”
That finally goaded him into a sharp demand for an explanation.
“You invented a machine to interfere with the surface of the universe. You then employed the device.” There was a pause, but then, “Clearly, you are too ignorant to understand anything important.”
Atun looked at the four techs who were attending this experiment. They were all pale and distracted, and seemed to be ignoring Hunter’s disappearance. They would not meet Atun’s eye.
“Igor,” he said, “cancel sequence.”
The techs still wouldn’t look at him, but a glance showed the YES MASTER, and the suspended countdown at 6. He asked Igor to display the control room surveillance cameras, then to play them backwards. Hunter quickly appeared in the video, seated in his chair. Played forward, the video showed him simply disappearing, and the dent in the chair left by his body slowly getting shallower and shallower and finally disappearing as well.
“I think I’d better lie down,” Atun said, meaning to go to the lounge. Instead, he slid out of his chair and lay on his back, hoping he wasn’t going to throw up right there. Little boats floated in his vision, and his face felt hot. Maybe it’s the flu, he thought, like the other two techs who were too sick to attend today’s second-most-important-experiment-ever in human history.
He closed his eyes.
“You can open your eyes,” Hunter’s voice said.
Of course, Atun thought, it was a gag, and I fell for it. The humiliation of illness, of having helplessly slid to the floor, was nothing compared to this additional shame. How could it be that he had managed to invent time travel, and instead of it being glorious, it had become an embarrassment?
Opening his eyes confused him. The dark didn’t make sense. “Who turned out the lights?” he said. “And how did you pull off the disappearance?”
“I wish I knew, partner. I wish I knew.”
The gist of the matter, Hunter had explained, was that they were prisoners. Aliens of some kind were holding them. They could go back home, it seemed, if they agreed to drop the experiment, and agreed to keep the physics a secret.
Hunter told him he wasn’t really sure about that. The aliens were awfully rude about the whole thing.
“Why?” he asked the moving statue, when it showed up.
“Because you don’t understand what you have done,” the thing, or creature, or alien, said.
“Told you,” Hunter said. “No respect for brilliant breakthroughs in the science of Time.”
Atun said, “What, exactly, don’t we understand?”
“Time,” said the voice. “If you understood time, at all, you would not be here.”
Atun took that in. But hadn’t the experiments worked?
“If you understood anything, you would know that time travel is a very bad idea.”
In the lounge, down the hall from the firing room, the four technicians were just trying to keep it together. They all had feeds from the firing room surveillance video on their devices, but nobody had actually completed a sentence in forty-five minutes. Wang-lei seemed to be davening in his chair, zoned out. Cassie finally suggested that they should call Security, or the police, or the Funding Agency, but was ignored.
Georgina was thumbing into her keypad the line: There is no real connection between the device and the experimenters. Despite the phrasing, she was thinking that everything on the planet was sort of connected, that there were wires and pipes… But there was no way the time machine could operate at that distance.
She popped a window onto the screen and displayed her assertion.
The machine was not behind the disappearances.
Sergei stood up at the whiteboard, and wrote: If this was a biological event, their clothes would have been left behind.
Atun said, “Premise. We understand nothing about Time.”
“Yet still, we have traveled in it,” Hunter said. “And I’m going to pass out soon.”
“It’s only been a couple of hours–”
“This is day 6. There is no cafeteria, there is no beverage service.” Hunter lay back on the carpet, sprawled his legs.
Atun pondered. “For me, it’s only been a couple of hours. I think we can agree that we understand nothing about Time, then. I object to the traveling assertion. We seem to have moved objects, including a carrot, in Time. But for ourselves, we may only have been moved in space.”
Hunter didn’t respond, at first. “Granted,” he said, finally. “I see that we are both assuming we were moved, rather than that we moved ourselves. We are both discounting our time machine as the mover, am I right?”
Harper sprawled his arms out now, too. “I stipulate that these folks understand more than we do. I stipulate that they agree that time travel is possible, and that we achieved it. We win on the experiment. They stipulate that time travel is a bad idea. Why?”
For three hours, the two physicists theorized the downsides of time travel. Having achieved it, they found this much easier than they would have before.
It slowly dawned on them that a) it might have been cleverer to think about this in detail before building the machine, and b) there was no scenario in which time travel produced a simpler, more elegant Universe.
Time travel meltdowns, time travel Total Collapses, time travel Big Bangs, those seemed distressingly probable.
Hunter wondered if time travel increased the toxicity of mothers-in-law, but they had insufficient data to proceed.
Sergei wrote: Something overrode the mouse transfer. Something from outside the experiment.
Georgina wrote: At what point do we decide to leave the building??
Cassie plugged her laptop into the lab Ethernet. She checked her email, then her social media.
“Okay,” they said to the lens creature, “so we’re giving in to the blackmail.”
“That is acceptable,” it said. “I am sorry, but you will need a new phone when you get back.”
Hunter pulled his phone out and found it unresponsive.
Atun asked, “Will there be some Butterfly Effect from this then? Is that why the phone…”
“You understand nothing about Time.”
“Okay, but help us out here,” Hunter said. “How can we just pull the plug on this thing? There are people who took part. Are you gonna nuke the facility? I assume not, because you kept us alive. But…?”
From somewhere, a projection of four lines of symbols appeared. “We offer this theorem. It should make you famous, and lead the lambs astray.”
Atun swallowed. “And if someone sees through it?”
The creature was still for a bit. “We will defend the Universe, if pushed to it.”
Sergei, Georgina, and Wang-lei would never mention the Mouse Transfer Day events again, to anybody, even each other. Even to themselves. They accepted the pause in the time travel experiments, they accepted the poisoned formulae, they got advanced degrees and published papers based on the poisoned formulae, moved on, got tenure.
Cassie was the only one asked to help with the dismantling of the machine, and the decommissioning of the whole salt dome operation. She, too, had studied the revised equations. She put them aside, never to be mentioned again. She switched fields soon thereafter: astrophysics.
Colleagues and journalists would ask her about what it was like, being part of the team that made the Big Breakthrough. She could have said a great deal, but she didn’t.
Talking would probably be a bad idea.