Fixed Point by Liam Hogan
“Look,” I said, “I get what you’re saying. Some of it, anyway. I don’t believe it, but I get it. What I don’t get is that!” I pointed the end of the plastic trumpet at the mass of pipes and wires humming in the corner of the Prof’s lab. “Are you really trying to tell me that thing is a time machine?”
Professor Nolan peered at me through glazed eyes and gently swayed. “No.” He replied.
“Thank God for that!” I exclaimed. “For a moment, I thought you’d gone mad – or worse, developed a sense of humour.”
“It’s a time anchor.”
I paused, staring at him, trying to work out if he was serious. His paper hat had begun to tear, and an unruly explosion of grey wiry hair poked out through the rip. His glasses were askew, and there was a Rorschach of a red-wine stain on his rumpled white shirt. “A... what?”
He shrugged. “A fixed point in time and space. Something a time-traveller could use to latch onto, to guide them as they travel to and from.”
“So... next you build a time machine?” I asked, still unsure if he was joking.
He smiled, a wry, weary smile. “Me? No, probably not. I’m not even sure where to begin, and I don’t have a lot of time left.”
So the rumours were true. Christ. The buzz from the Lab’s annual party went very, very flat.
He looked up at me with sad eyes, and answered my unspoken question. “Six months, or thereabouts. Sorry, Alex, I didn’t want to saddle you with that little bombshell today. Shall we rejoin the party?”
We did, but the life had gone out of it, or out of me. It was winding down anyway, so I made my excuses. As I was leaving, the Prof asked me to come see him the next morning. He was decent enough to amend that to midday.
Whether it was my new and unwanted knowledge or merely the cold harsh light of day, the Prof looked drawn and tired and though the thought of alcohol wasn’t going to be appealing to me for at least a day or two, he insisted we went for a drink at lunch. “My treat,” he said. “In return for listening to an old man’s strange request.”
I guessed he was looking for someone to take over his work, but I was far from being his brightest PhD student. I wasn’t even a particularly able lab assistant. I pointed this out to him as we sat not-drinking and waiting for the food to arrive.
“Quite.” He agreed to my blunt self-assessment. “But in this scenario, that may work to both our advantages. Tell me Alex, do you still plan to go into banking?”
I nodded. “I already have an offer – they’re keeping it open for me until I finish my thesis.” There was a respectful silence. We both knew my thesis wasn’t going anywhere. I’d reached an impasse, the results had not come through, and though negative results might still be good science, a thesis they did not make.
“I want you to publish a paper for me.” He said.
I looked at him, surprised. “Why?” Despite being my PhD supervisor we hadn’t exactly done much science together.
He scratched the side of his head. “I need to ... publicise the existence of my time anchor, so that any future time travellers know that it exists. I can’t publish it myself - I’m too well known, and it would attract scrutiny from my peers. But if you do it, it should slip under their radar.”
“I thought you wanted to publicise it?” I pointed out.
He waved a hand dismissively. “This is a message to the future. And they’ll be suitably intrigued in a paper by a mediocre PhD student, one who never publishes anything else, detailing not the device itself – that’d be too obvious – but a core component, something that could only be part of a temporal fulcrum.”
I might have bristled, but I’d long ago come to accept that I was never going to set the Physics world alight. And since the paper he was asking me to publish would suffice in-place of my moribund thesis, I was more than keen on the arrangement.
The paper had been out in the Journal of Physics quarterly review for about a month when I got a call from the Prof. “Come see me.” He said.
“Is this... is it about..?” I fumbled.
“Come see me.” He repeated, and put the phone down.
The basement lab was as I remembered it – perhaps even a little more disordered. The time anchor sat humming in the corner, and despite the chaos of the rest of the lab, there was a clear space around it, marked off by yellow and black striped tape. In the middle of this space there was a small box, no bigger than a sugar cube.
“You’ll need this.” The Prof said, handing me a magnifying glass.
I walked carefully over to the box, and saw that there was writing on it - “Eat me”, it read, “after a meal.”
“A practical joke?” I suggested.
The Prof shook his head. “The doors have been kept locked since I initiated the device. And only I have the key.”
I’d have thought that after a lifetime in academia, the Prof wouldn’t so easily dismiss the ingenuity of students in anything that might be considered a jest, but then, it would be an odd trick to play unless you knew what the time anchor was. And as far as I knew, I was the only person who did. “You think someone from the future has been here, and that’s all they left?” I said doubtfully.
“No,” he replied carefully. “I think that was the biggest thing they could send.”
I looked towards the corner of the room. “Shouldn’t it be IN the device?”
“What?” He looked baffled for a moment. “Oh! Heavens, this isn’t a teleportation capsule in some bad science fiction film. The device is simply a reference point. It’s virtually solid. Anyone attempting to time travel into it would come to a very sticky end. No, the cube was sent with a precise offset to the anchor.”
“How did they know how big an offset to use?” I mused.
The Prof blinked. “Perhaps there’s a photo in the archives. Perhaps we should go take that photo now, and put it in the archives, just to be sure. Or perhaps the device – maybe the whole room – is preserved for scientific posterity. Who knows?”
“So what happens now?” I asked.
“I open up the box, take the pill and ... whatever happens next, happens next.”
“How do you know it’s a pill? And how do you know it isn’t poison, that someone in the future isn’t trying to stop your experiments?” I asked.
“Time is poison enough for me.” he said, theatrically. “Anyway, it’s not poison.”
“Yes, but how do you know?” I persevered.
“I’ve already taken it.” He admitted.
I looked at him aghast. “And?”
“What do you expect? I felt nothing. I don’t know if it’s done anything. I don’t know if it’s a tracer, or whether it’s supposed to cure me, but as yet, it has at the very least not killed me. Only time will tell, I guess.”
He called me up two weeks later. He’d been to the hospital – they were still debating whether to try chemo, and had run some fresh scans to check the spread of the cancer.
“I’m still dying.” He said bitterly. “The cancer has shrunk, and the doctors are delighted. But it’s not a cure, and it’s still inoperable. They’ve upped my life expectancy to maybe eighteen months.”
“Perhaps another pill will come along?” I suggested.
I can’t say I thought that much about him over the next year. I guess I was busy, trying and failing to forge a career as a quant. I’d been worried that my math skills would let me down, but in the end, that wasn’t the problem. My inability to apply those skills to come up with winning trading strategies was.
So when I got the call from the Dean’s office I suddenly felt guilty and was dreading the news I suspected would follow after I’d confirmed that yes, I was an ex-student of the Profs. Even the use of the word “Ex” seemed portentous. “The Professor would like it if you paid him a visit. As soon as possible.” The Dean said.
“How... how is he?” I asked, momentarily relieved.
“Not good. He’s been working far too hard for a man in his condition, and he won’t let up. I don’t know why he wants to see you, but if you can convince him to take it easy, well, I’d be grateful.”
I promised him I would try.
The Prof looked frail; his mad mane of hair had thinned and his eyes were dark hollows. “Thank you, Alex” he said with a catch in his voice. “I’m so glad you could come, you ought to be here for this.”
“For what?” I asked, looking around the lab. Not a lot had changed. The barrier tape was gone, but there was still a cleared space around the device. A cleared, and currently empty space.
He shuffled over to his desk, and pulled out a long print out. “This is the energy consumption of the anchor.” He said. “And this is the night the pill arrived. Notice anything?”
I peered at it. It just looked like random squiggles.
The Prof stabbed impatiently at the readout. “There!”
It wasn’t much; just a blip, easily missed. His finger traced back along the page. “And there, and there... and...”
“What I am looking at?” I asked, baffled.
“The anchor registered the arrival of the box, but for almost seven hours before the arrival there’s a peak every five minutes! It’s an echo – a resonance of the impending transfer. Look, it’s clearer on this print out.” He pulled out another sheet, and this time the regular and growing spikes in the trace were obvious.
I looked at him suspiciously. “This isn’t the same graph, is it? It’s smoother.”
He nodded, his face lit up in excitement. “After I’d isolated the signal, I started – I guess the right term is tuning - the anchor to minimise the noise. It took a lot of work, almost a complete redesign, but it looks like I was successful. Previously, I think the device was woefully inefficient and that’s why they could only send a single pill. But now, well! This signal is bigger. Much bigger; I reckon it’s about the weight of a grown man. And Alex, the trace is from today!”
I looked at him astonished. “So – you’re about to get a visitor?”
“Yes! In about an hour’s time, if my predictions are correct! I knew you’d want to be here. You know how to work a camera, I presume?” He gestured to the camcorder mounted on a tripod.
The hour passed with mounting excitement, and then another, with rather less. I’d changed the card in the camcorder three times, and was getting bored of being beaten at chess. The bottle of single malt whisky the Prof had cracked open shortly before the first hour mark was approaching empty, and I was beginning to feel light headed and hungry.
The Prof pulled the readout from the monitor. “Well I’m not sure I understand it, but the signal is still getting stronger.”
I looked over his shoulder, at the peaks marching along the page. “More than one person?”
He nodded. “Perhaps. But I can’t make sense of it. I was sure our visitor was due an hour ago!”
I ran my fingers along the chart, comparing the peaks against further back along the page, against the time the Prof had said it would be a fully grown man. I did a quick calculation in my head. “I’d say it’s at least a dozen people.”
“A delegation!” He said, excitedly. “Wouldn’t that be wonderful! Think of it – perhaps a future Nobel Prize committee, come back to bestow their greatest honour retrospectively upon me! Do you think we might need some more chairs?”
And then something about the graph clicked. The peaks were getting stronger in a way that had misled the Prof, the brightest man I’d ever known. So what if it wasn’t from the single transfer he expected? What if it was the sum of lots of different transfers, one every five minutes, each hiding behind the last? Then the signal would build more slowly. It would still mean the weight of a dozen or so people, but it would also mean...
The tumbler of scotch slipped from my fingers, crashing to the lab floor in an explosion of crystal. “Prof! Turn off the device!” I shouted.
He looked at me confused. “Turn it off? Why?”
My heart raced. The pill had kept the Prof alive just long enough for him to improve the device. Was that an accident? The best future doctors could do, or a cold and brutal calculation? I’d suddenly remembered the quote – “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Well, so too surely was the future. And foreign countries don’t always have the warmest of relations with their neighbours – especially if those neighbours are busy plundering all of their resources, and belching out pollution across their respective borders.
“Turn it off!” I yelled, as the air in the lab shimmered and sparked, as shadows merged into solid form. But it was too late. The first of the black-clad soldiers had arrived.
© Liam Hogan 2013
Liam Hogan was abandoned in a library at the tender age of 3, emerging blinking into the sunlight many years later, with a head full of words and an aversion to loud noises. His work has been performed by others at Liars' League (London, Leeds, Hong Kong, and New York), and 'Are You Sitting Comfortably?', and by himself at StoryTails, RRRantanory's Little Stories, and even ScienceShowoff. You can find it in print in 'London Lies' (Arachne Press), 'FEAR: Vol II' (Crooked Cat) and Litro, as well as online at Stimulus-Respond, and Synaesthesia Magazine He dreams in Dewey Decimals.http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk/
Fixed Point was read by Erika Iverson for the Invention & Discovery Show on 5th June 2013