The Forever Engine – Snippet 02
“I hardly believe it myself. It wasn’t meant to be. It was intended as a weapon, very hush-hush. I don’t completely understand how it was supposed to work, something about quantum tunneling projectiles going straight through the earth without actually touching it, that sort of thing. I suppose that’s all academic now, in any case, because that’s not what happened. When they test fired the device it sent the projectile out as planned, but instead of it appearing at the target point, a different object appeared back here, at the launch site.
“And what happened to the projectile?” I said.
“No idea. So far as we can tell it simply vanished. They’ve done quite a number of test fires. The projectile always disappears. The accelerator brings back a small solid object — sometimes rock, sometimes a molten slug of metal, but sometimes an intact artifact. Artifacts from the past, Jack. Artifacts from our past, we thought, until this.”
Reggie tapped the coin with his finger. I looked at it again, looked at the coin from the third year of a reign which, in our world, had lasted only six months! For a moment blood pounded in my ears; the room spun. I leaned back in the chair and held its arms to steady myself, breathing slowly and evenly.
“This . . . this can’t be right. A time machine? A different past? How do you know all that? Maybe it’s just a movie prop you snagged by accident from the Fox back lot.”
“I understand how you feel. Honestly, I doubt you can say anything I didn’t say myself when I first heard about all this. If you want the technical explanation of radioactive decay dating and something I think they called electron cloud shift, one of the boffins can trot it all out for you later. I don’t really understand any of it myself, but I know when people are lying and when they absolutely believe they are telling the truth. You do as well, don’t you? Well these scientists are telling the truth. And they are frightened.”
I stared at the coin. Emperor Galba, huh?
“Okay. If it’s not from our past, then what gives?”
“The boffins believe someone else has accessed the past, perhaps someone from our future â€“ or perhaps even us â€“ and either deliberately or inadvertently altered it.”
I shook my head. “No way. We still remember our past, we still have museums full of artifacts from it. How can the past change and the present stay the same?”
“Well, of course it cannot. But among the theories being bounced about, the most compelling one is that of a temporal event wave. If you drop a rock in a pond on one side, its effects are not felt immediately on the opposite shore, but eventually they reach there. The notion is a change in the past takes time â€“ whatever that means in this context — to manifest its effects in the present, that it moves forward through time destroying the presents it passes through and replacing them with the alternate. The wave simply has not yet reached us, but when it does . . .” His voice trailed off.
“Everything changes,” I said. “But we won’t know it changes. As far as we know, it will always have been like that, right?”
“It’s more than that I’m afraid. My mother was married before she married my father. Her first husband, who so far as I know she loved very much, fell down the steps of the church as they emerged on their wedding day, broke his neck, and died. Several years later she met my father, married, and I am the result. But had her first husband not found his death in remarkably unlikely circumstances, I would never have existed. Someone else would have, in all likelihood, but not me.
“I don’t believe in predestination, Jack. Although we’ve never spoken of anything so esoteric, I don’t think you believe in it either, or you would not behave the way I have seen you do.
“Men like us believe we make our own destiny, to the extent we are able, and for everything beyond that the gods roll the dice. Leaving aside whether someone else would have saved your life in Khost that one time had I not been in the world, what is the likelihood you would exist at all? How many times in your ancestry, stretching back thousands of years, do you suppose a future hinged on whether a man looked to his right and saw the love of his life, or to his left and saw the woman he settled for instead? The gods rolled the dice, Jack, and as a result of all those rolls here we are. But change something and, aside from its direct effects, the table is cleared, the game begins anew, and all those dice are rolled again. What are the chances they will all come up exactly the same? And what if even one of them is different?
“No, when this temporal event wave passes, it may leave a world full of people, but they will be entirely different people. I cannot conceive you or I or anyone we know and love will actually be among them, no matter how much some of them may coincidentally resemble us. We will all be dead. Well, we will never have existed, but I’ll let the philosophers argue that distinction in whatever time they have left. To me it amounts to the same thing.”
It was a terrifying prospect, or at least would have been if I believed any of it. Wave effects taking time to move through time, theories spun on top of other theories, none of it was real. But across the desk Reggie absent-mindedly tapped the plastic coin case.
That damned coin was real. I felt sweat on my forehead. What if . . .?
The lights dimmed for a moment and came back up. I heard a soft chime from somewhere deeper in the facility.
“Ah,” Reggie said. “Firing up the accelerator for tonight’s test shot. They’re sending something really large back this time, so we’ll see what we get in return. The white lab coats think there’s some sort of conservation of matter and energy thingie at work — we send something back and automatically displace an equivalent mass here to keep things in balance.”
“How long have we got if this wave effect theory is real?” I asked.
“We don’t know, but they’re playing with different settings, power and that sort of thing, trying to find as many artifacts from different times as possible and see if they match our expectations, or if . . .Â well, they are somehow different.
“And you want me to look at whatever shows up here.”
“Precisely. We need you to look for historical discrepancies like this coin. We have a few other historians I’ll introduce you to shortly, but to my mind you’re the key, Jack. You see, you always had an eye for detail, for little things not quite right, and a preternatural ability to see relationships no one else could. That’s why we really need you here: first to find out how much time we have, and then to help formulate a plan. If someone has altered our past, we need to change it back, and I suspect we will have only one opportunity to do so.”
I sat back and thought about that, and I didn’t much like it. This was their plan? Poke around, see what turned up, and hope I could pull a quantum rabbit out of the hat? Jesus Christ!
He drew a polished metal flask from his pocket, took a drink, and handed it to me. I noticed his hand trembled as he did so. I’d never seen Reggie’s hand shake. I took a long pull. Irish — Reggie always preferred Irish to Scotch.
“If I’m going to do this,” I said, “I need to talk to someone from the physics side, someone who can explain things in English instead of foot-long equations on a blackboard. I’ll need to see the existing artifacts as well. Presumably you have a data base started?”
“Okay. I need to know the plan, the logic of their search for artifacts, and see if we can tweak that to get better results. Well, that’s a start.”
“Right. I’ll go find the others, introduce you to the team â€“ your team. I knew you were the right man for this.” He rose and turned to leave.
“One more thing, Reggie. I want to call Sarah. My phone’s not going to screw anything up, is it?”
“No, certainly not, but you may have trouble getting a signal once the accelerator starts, so I’d call now.” He left through a door opposite the side we’d entered and I took out my phone.
“Call Sarah.” I heard the line ring at the other end three times and then she answered, voice foggy with sleep.
“Mmmmm . . . hello?”
“Hey, Kiddo, it’s just me. Sorry I woke you.”
“Mmmm . . . Dad?”
“Yeah. Go back to sleep. I just called to let you know I’m safe and sound and . . . to tell you I love you.”
The sleepiness vanished from her voice. “Dad, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Everything’s fine. I’m â€“”
The lights dimmed again, more this time, and flickered. The phone crackled, the connection starting to breaking up. “. . .ad . . .oo . . .and . . .”
“I can’t hear you, Honey. The connection â€“”
My phone sounded the three quick beeps of a dropped call. The lights came back up, brighter than before, and an alarm chimed from deep within the facility. I started to redial but the phone just displayed the searching for service message. Reggie burst back through the door looking confused and alarmed.
“Something’s gone wrong,” he said. “I’m not sure what, but you’d better go back to the front entrance for now.”
I slipped the phone in my pocket and started to stand.
The world turned white, unbearably hot. The thundering roar of dying atoms and molecules tore through every nerve in my body and drowned out my scream of agony, and all I could think was, The Event Wave!