TIME SPIKE – snippet 31:



Chapter 23



            After they were ushered into the room—chamber, it might be better to say—that served The Project as its operations center, Nick Brisebois and Timothy Harshbarger spent a minute or so looking around with interest. Their companion, Harshbarger’s police partner Bruce Boyle, even lost the apprehensive expression that had been on his face since he arrived at the site in northern Minnesota.

            Eventually, Boyle whistled softly. “This looks like something right out of a sci-fi movie.” He gave the big table at the center of the chamber that the scientists used as a conference table a somewhat reproachful look. “Except you oughta have a captain’s chair and a pilot’s chair.”

            Richard Morgan-Ash chuckled. “And how, exactly, would you fly an iron mine?”

            Boyle shrugged. “Don’t ask me. But it wouldn’t seem any stranger to me than the rest of this does.”

            “Why’d you put it down here in the first place?” asked Harshbarger.

            “We didn’t, actually. This facility was originally built back in the 1980s to study proton decay. That phenomenon was assumed to be so infrequent that they could only detect it if they could filter out the cosmic rays that would otherwise flood all the observations. Cosmic rays are so penetrative that you need an incredible amount of shielding to filter out their effects. Enough water would do the trick nicely, but it was more practical to use half a mile of earth.”

            “Yeah, I can see that. Especially when the half mile is iron.”

            “There’s not much iron ore left, actually. Most of the rock above us is Ely greenstone. That’s ancient rock, dating back almost three billion years. But it doesn’t really matter what the exact substance is, as long as there’s enough of it. Water would have done just fine, except that building a laboratory at the bottom of Lake Superior or somewhere in the ocean would have cost a fortune. This was expensive enough, even as it was.”

            “So how many decaying protons did they find?” Brisebois asked.

            Richard smiled. “Not one, as it happens. Eventually they decided there was something wrong with the theory that predicted them. The whole thing would have been a bit of a boondoggle except the facility could be modified to study neutrinos and look for the postulated dark matter of most current cosmological theories.” He nodded toward his colleagues. “That’s what they were doing here when the Grantville Disaster happened, and their equipment picked up traces of it.”

            “Traces of what?”

            Leo Dingley snorted. “Good question. We’re still trying to figure that out. Me, I’m partial to a WIMP side-effect of some kind. That’s capital W-I-M-P, not slang. It stands for ‘weakly interacting massive particles.’ They’re one of the proposed solutions for the dark matter problem.” He gave his own nod toward his colleagues in the chamber. “Most of them, however, think that what we’re observing will eventually be explained by some variant of string theory.”

            Nick held up his hands. “Folks, I’m a trash-hauler and Tim and Bruce are cops. Can you put this in layman’s terms?”

            Most of the scientists looked very dubious at that proposition. Morgan-Ash smiled. “You have to make allowances. They’ve lived their whole lives in academia. I, on the other hand, once had to be able to explain things to paratroopers. Even more valiantly”—here he puffed out his chest—“I have to explain things to a teenage daughter.”

            Nick grinned. “Tough, isn’t it? I had two of them. Thankfully, they’re now both off to college.”

            “So I’ll do my best. You can think of what’s happening this way. Our planet regularly gets hits by objects from space. Many of them are simply isolated occurrences, but many others are part of more concentrated impacts.”

            “Like meteor showers,” said Boyle.

            “That’s one good example, yes. Most of these bombardments are barely noticed, beyond a show in the sky, because the objects are too small to have much effect when they hit the earth. If they hit it at all, which most of them don’t because they burn up in the atmosphere. You’re with me so far?”

            The three visitors to the lab all nodded.

            “Well, we’re looking at much the same thing. Except these objects seem to be oriented along a different dimensional axis. If you think of time as a fourth dimension, perhaps that one. If you believe, as most of us do, that string theory is onto something, then we could be looking at as many as eleven dimensions.”

            Dingley jeered. “All of which except the first four—even you admit this much—don’t get beyond the string itself. Or exist in some hypothetical multiverse that we’re just a tiny four-dimensional part of.”

            Morgan-Ash looked patiently long-suffering. “Leo, can we hold off on the debate for a moment? I’m simply trying to explain to our guests what we think is happening. Not how it’s happening. The point is, gentlemen—regardless of what’s causing it—the way these objects strike the earth has most of its effects along a time axis instead of a spacial axis. Where a normal bolide from space that strikes the earth—a meteorite or an asteroid or a comet—would expend its energy moving mass through space, these objects move it through time. They don’t leave three-dimensional craters, they leave time craters.”

            Brisebois scratched his chin. “In other words, you think Grantville was destroyed by what amounts to a time comet.”

            Richard shrugged. “If it was destroyed at all. It’s far more likely that it was simply carried back in time and left somewhere in our past.”


            Margo interjected. “Somewhere in a past, he should have said. That much we’re certain of. No matter which way you calculate the problem, there’s no way to account for what happens without assuming that a separate universe is created by the impacts. Or separate timelines, if you prefer. Anything else produces insoluble paradoxes.”

            Nick shook his head. “That’s not what I was getting at. I know the old saw about time travel being impossible because you might kill your own grandfather or just do something by accident that has the same effect. What I meant was—”

            But he got no further, because Harshbarger exploded.

            “Wait a fucking minute! Are you telling me that Joe Schuler is still alive?”

            “Yeah,” said Nick. “That’s what I was trying to get at.”

            The scientists in the room looked at each, even more dubiously than they had before. So did Morgan-Ash, this time.

            “Well…” he said.

            Margo stood up. “I think we need to quit beating around the bush. It’s not as if we haven’t all been kept up nights wondering the same thing.” She turned to face Harshbarger. “Tim, we can’t tell you whether or not your friend is still alive. The truth is, he might very well be dead. What we can tell you—and we’re pretty sure of this, now—is that the time impact wouldn’t have killed him.”

            Harshbarger’s face, flushed red a few seconds earlier, was now rather pale. “How sure are you about that?”

            Margo hesitated, but O’Connell now spoke up. “As sure as we can be short of meeting the transposed people and talking to them.”

            Harshbarger stared at him. “Why?” asked Nick.

            “Two reasons. First of all, there’s no mathematical reason they should have been destroyed. As cold-blooded as it sounds, I can give you an exact mathematical explanation of why someone gets killed when he gets hit by a bullet in the right place or has a big rock dropped on him. It’s just a matter of mass and energy, really.”

            He turned and pointed to the diagrams that were displayed on a big board toward the far end of the huge chamber. “The same is true here—and it doesn’t matter which way you calculate it. The point is, whatever these bolides are, almost their entire impact is along a time axis. They’re no more capable of shredding three-dimensional objects like a human body than a bullet from a gun or a falling rock is able to send someone back in time.”

            “Jesus,” whispered Harshbarger.

            “What’s the second reason?” asked Brisebois.

            The mathematician shrugged. “Hell, Nick, you saw it yourself.” He nodded at the two policemen. “We’ve finally been able to identify the creature they shot. One of our… call him a fellow traveler, is a paleontologist at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana. He’s a dinosaur expert. We sent him the carcass you gave use and he says it’s definitely a dromaeosaurid of some kind.”

            “A what?” asked Boyle.

            “Dromaeosaurid. The common name for them among dinosaur people is ‘raptor.’ They’re one of the families in the theropod group of dinosaurs.”

            Boyle’s eyes were wide. He gave his partner a glare. “You crazy bastard! Tim, you had us both out there in the night shooting at a goddam velociraptor. I saw that movie too, y’know? It’s a good thing we’re still alive!”

            Harshbarger made a face. “Oh, cut it out. The thing was nowhere near as big as Spielberg’s monsters—not to mention that it was trying to run away from us.”

            Margo cleared her throat. “She, actually.”

            The two cops looked at her.

            “Well, sure, of course we dissected it,” she said apologetically. “Or, rather, sent it to the Museum and had them do it.”

            “As a result of which,” Richard added, chuckling, “I don’t believe our colleagues at Bozeman can be described as ‘fellow travelers’ any longer. Rabid converts to the cause, would be a more accurate way of putting it. And I believe you can put your mind at ease, Officer Boyle. There are—were—a lot of dromaeosaurids. The name itself is just Latin for ‘running lizard.’ The velociraptors and their huge cousins the Utahraptors were just two genuses among many in the family. Our expert told us the one you shot is related to them, but was probably a scavenger. No more dangerous to a human being than a very large coyote would be, in other words.”

            Nick ran fingers through his hair. “Okay. I see your point. Yeah, that’s evidence, all right.”

            Harshbarger was looking back and forth between Brisebois and O’Connell. His face was starting to get flushed again. “Well, I don’t get it. What does the critter me and Bruce shot have anything to do with whether or not my buddy Joe is still alive?”

            “Hell, Tim, you can figure it out for yourself. Think about what it means to say that a bolide’s impact happens along the time axis instead of the three space axes. What happens when you shoot a bullet into a body?”

            Boyle’ grinned crookedly. “If I shoot it, the body dies.” He jerked a thumb at his partner. “If Ol’ Tick-eye Tim here shoots it, who the hell knows? The brick wall eight feet from the target might get dented up a little.”

            Harshbarger scowled at him.

            “I am the one who brought down Slavering Sue,” Bruce said cheerfully. “Not to mention that my scores on the target range—”

            “Ah, shaddup.”

             Nick waited for the banter to end. Then said: “But what else happens? Does a neat hole just appear in the body? Does the flesh and blood vanish? Does the residue from the cartridge vanish? If the gun you used was a .357 Magnum instead of a target .22, was the recoil the same?”

            His friends still looked puzzled. “There’s always a re-action, is my point. And the reaction, just like the action, only happens in the three spacial dimensions. Well… yeah, sure, there’s also a time element, but it’s not distorted from the time around it. You follow me so far?”

            The two policemen nodded.

            “Then figure out what happens if the impact is fourth-dimensional. You get a reaction also—which is the residue of whatever time period the bolide is passing through getting kicked back..” He looked at Malcolm. “Is that the right way to put it?”

            “Uh… not exactly. Mathematically, it’s more like a loop. But keep going. You’re doing fine.”

            The air transport specialist turned back to the cops. “Don’t you get it? If the re-action showed up alive and kicking—that’s your Slavering Sue, fellas—then why wouldn’t the same be true of the ones acted upon? The bolide can’t shred them, in three dimensions. All it can do is shift them around in time.”

            Harshbarger’s expression cleared. And, again, his face paled. “Jesus H. Christ. Joe—all of them—they’re still alive somewhere.”

            O’Connell winced. Before Harshbarger could get emotionally see-sawed again, Margo spoke up hastily. “We simply can’t say that, Tim. I’m sorry. All we can say is that the time shift itself wouldn’t have killed them. But what happened afterward…”

            The state policeman shook his head. “Yeah, yeah, sure. They might have landed in the middle of battlefield. But Joe and them were—are, dammit—pretty damn tough. I’m betting they can cut it.”

            Margo wondered if she should leave it at that. But…

            These men weren’t children. If nothing else, they had a right to know.

            “No amount of toughness could have saved them, Tim,” she said gently, “if they ended up in the wrong time. This—event—was a really deep one. For all we know, they might have gotten driven back two billion years ago.”

            Now, Brisebois winced. “Oh, hell.”

            Harshbarger looked at him. “What? Dammit, I don’t care how big the dinosaurs ever got, I’m still betting on Joe Schuler and those men and women at Alexander.”

            Nick shook his head. “There weren’t any dinosaurs two billion years ago, Tim. There weren’t any land animals of any kind. Nothing. Not even lichen.”

            “Jeez,” said Boyle, rubbing his face. “They’d starve. It’s not like a maximum security prison has more food than maybe a month’s supply.”

            Margo sighed. “They’d have died almost instantly, I’m afraid. That far back in time, the earth’s atmosphere was completely different. There wouldn’t have been enough oxygen to keep them alive.”


            Harshbarger’s jaws tightened. He looked around the huge chamber, full of scientific equipment whose design and function meant nothing to him. “Isn’t there any way you can figure out where—when—they ended up?”

            Margo shook her head. “I’m afraid not. We just—”

            Karen Berg cleared her throat. “Uh, Margo, you’ve been out of the loop for a bit. As it happens, we now think we can. Malcolm and I have been working on that almost round the clock, and we’ve got a lot more data than we did when you left.”

            O’Connell looked smug. Everyone else in the chamber stared at her.

            “Well. Roughly,” she said apologetically. “It’s sort of like a circular error of probability thing—and the farther back in time you get, the bigger the error factor.”

            “Still!” exclaimed Richard. “That’s fantastic, Karen.”

            How big?” demanded Harshbarger. He made a gesture with his hands, as if juggling a basketball. “That circular error thing, I mean.”

            Karen Berg was normally given to being cautious in her projections. But, seeing the so evident distress on Tim’s face, she clearly decided it was a time for being as precise as she possibly could.

            “They ended up somewhere—somewhen—in the Age of the Dinosaurs. We’re pretty sure it was the early Cretaceous, approximately in the Hauterivian stage. Say, one hundred and thirty-five million years ago. But, that far back, the error spread is something like plus or minus eighteen million years. They could conceivably have landed as far back as the very late Jurassic, although that’s not likely.”

            Harshbarger looked at Nick.

            “Hell, I’m not sure, Tim. But I think—”

            “The air was almost certainly quite breathable any time during the Mesozoic, which that period was in the middle of,” said Richard firmly. “Probably thick with moisture, quite warm, and I wouldn’t begin to guess what it smelled like. But your friends wouldn’t have suffocated. Dinosaurs may have gotten them, but they’d have been breathing till the end.”

            Harshbarger slumped into a chair nearby. “I’m not worried about giant lizards. Joe and his people handle human lizards every day. Maybe not as big as dinosaurs, but every bit as mean and a lot smarter. They’ll make do.”

            His eyes started to water. “Damn, I’ll miss him. But at least I don’t have to grieve.”