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Brad R. Torgersen
IT WAS TWO in the morning on a Saturday when I finally got back to the office. Nothing seemed wrong when security passed me through the gate, nor the booth at the front desk, nor even the checkpoint at the mouth of the tunnel. I took an electric buggy down to Accelerator level and didn’t realize something was up until I walked through the doors into the main lab and found two women and one man with silenced, semi-automatic pistols aimed at my face.
“What the—” I said, reflexively putting my hands into the air.
“Stay quiet,” one of the women commanded. “Don’t move, and keep your hands where we can see them.”
Whoever they were, they weren’t security. Their uniforms were digital camo, temperate forest pattern. Third-generation Army Combat Uniform. Not too different from what I’d once worn in Iraq. The way they held their weapons and the coolness in their eyes made me suspect they were some kind of military. But without name tape, unit insignia or rank, I could only guess.
Still frozen in place, I turned my head gently—so as not to spook the people with the weapons—and saw at least a dozen other ACU-clad men and women. They were busily unloading huge backpacks and duffels off the beds of several other electric buggies which had been driven in through the service corridor. They worked without speaking—their actions fluid and rehearsed. Nobody bothered to look up at me.
Well, almost nobody.
“Lil,” I said to her as she stared at me, swallowing thickly, “what the hell is going on?”
“Cody—” my co-worker and sometimes girlfriend began to say, but she stopped short and dropped her chin to her chest. “Oh jeez …”
When she looked up again, her eyes brimmed with tears.
Doctor Lilith Kensing’s face was contorted. She looked both frustrated and sad. Very sad. But even in sadness, her sunflower beauty tugged at my imagination. Full mouth, golden brown hair, bright eyes, and high cheeks patterned with freckles. She looked strange in the ACU, which was a bit too big for her, and saggy. Her hands reflexively found each other and twisted together nervously.
Another woman, who had been standing next to Lil, finally looked at me. She was trim, with pepper-colored hair that had been buzzed short. No makeup. No jewelry. Fiftyish. It seemed I knew her from somewhere, and couldn’t quite recall her name.
“Who is he—and what’s he doing here?”
“Cody Cranston,” Lil said regretfully to her companion. “Computer programmer and robotics specialist. Among … other things.”
“I forgot to load my conference presentation onto my thumb drive,” I said. “VPN was down, and my flight for D.C. leaves in five hours. So I had to come back and get the file. Lil, did you let these people in here? Where is security?”
“Another Code Orange?” said one of the women with a pistol.
“No, not yet,” said the woman standing next to Lilith. “We don’t want to hurt anyone else if we don’t have to.”
Finally, it hit me.
“Senator Petersen,” I said.
She nodded at me, if just slightly.
Without her hair, and without makeup and camera lights, it had been hard to tell who she was. Now I remembered. She’d come out to the facility and toured, just two years before. I hadn’t met her then, but I’d been told afterward she really liked what she saw. So much so she became the project’s most aggressive backer in Washington D.C.
Which was odd—for an environmentalist politician. She was on the short list for the Democratic Presidential ticket in November. A real fire-breather on green energy, and fighting industrial corporate lobbyists.
Now here she was in my lab, dressed like G.I. Jane.
I wondered if the people with pistols were Petersen’s security detail.
I also wondered if any of my co-workers on the graveyard shift had found out what “Code Orange” meant. They were nowhere to be seen.
“Let’s finish this,” said the armed male.
The muzzles of the pistols advanced on me. I backed up.
“Stop!” Lil yelled. “We can … he can come with us. He’d be valuable.”
“Sorry,” said the Senator. “I told you before. We don’t need computer people where we’re going.”
“And I told you he’s prior service,” said Lil. “Right, Cody?”
“Two deployments,” I said. “Once for OIF and once for OEF.”
“See any combat?” Petersen asked.
“My purple hearts and CAB say I did.”
The Senator seemed to consider me more thoroughly, while I continued to flick my eyes from her, to the armed trio, then to Lilith—who looked impossibly bothered—and finally to the others who were hurriedly working. Petersen’s people still ignored me and kept lugging heavy backpacks and duffels through the orifice into the heart of the lab’s cube-shaped reaction chamber.
I wondered: Was it sabotage, or espionage? Were those explosives? Environmental activism writ large?
For an instant I thought Lil and the Senator—who was obviously calling the shots—might actually be working for the Chinese. Or maybe that ancient bastard Putin.
But as I watched the big bags and backpacks being taken into the chamber, I intuited that none of these men and women had any intention of leaving the Experimental Retryon Accelerator Facility. Not through a door, anyway.
I drew a deep breath.
“It’s the Hideki Line, isn’t it, Lil?”
My girlfriend’s chin trembled and she averted her eyes—which was all I needed to see. We’d been together long enough for me to tell when I’d guessed something correctly, something she didn’t want to say with words.
I looked around at them all, and then back at Senator Petersen.
“Ma’am, I suggest you think twice. We don’t know exactly how far back the Hideki Line goes. You have no idea what might happen if you take it. We were going to send a robot next month. I was flying to Washington this weekend to brief the funding committee. Looks like that won’t be necessary.”
“No,” said the Senator. “It won’t.”
“But why?” I asked, finally spreading my arms in appeal, despite the pistols in my face. “What are you hoping to accomplish?”
“They’re cutting the project, Cody,” Lil said angrily before the Senator could speak. “You would have found out on Monday. The committee made up its mind already. That’s why Catherine called me.”
“And where do you figure the Senator plans on taking you, Lil?”
“It doesn’t matter, Cody. The Hideki Line goes back at least ten thousand years or more. That’s plenty.”
Bill Hideki, along with Dan Stadtler, was one of four Nobel-winning theoretical physicists who had been with ERAF from the beginning. It was Stadtler who discovered the Lines, and Hideki who extrapolated upon Stadtler’s math.
It took a large room of supercomputers to do the rest, and the end results were the Stadtler Lines: mathematical corridors through time itself. They could only be calculated backwards, since variables for future Lines were impossible to nail down. In the three years since ERAF had gone live, the supercomputers had spit out a new Line every couple of days, and each of those lines had ranged in “length” from a few millionths of a second, up to two minutes into the past.
Except for The Big One. The one Hideki himself had reported, four months ago.
That one went off the chart, back across millennia.
We checked it four times with the machines, and each time got the same result. Hideki and Stadtler agreed it was a singular phenomenon. Something we weren’t likely to find again. Not in ten or a hundred years. Maybe not ever again. And as we learned through experimentation—sending objects, mice, dogs, and even people—once a Line got used once, it was gone. The energy necessary to open the Line and send anything back disrupted the brane of the universe just enough to erase that particular Line from existence. And the longer the Line, the more juice it took to send stuff back.
Opening the Hideki Line was going to suck every bit of power we could crank out of the project’s attached fusion reactors—enough electricity to keep the west coast lit from British Columbia to Baja for the entirety of time the reaction chamber was energized.
Naturally, Bill’s discovery was decreed top secret and very few non-project people, beyond the D.C. committee which managed us, had even known about it.
Sending a robot probe was my idea. I argued that we needed to use the Hideki Line as quickly as was feasible, both to test the max envelope of our operational capability, and to ensure that such a long Line got burnt before one of our competitor projects used it first. Here in the States we could be sure that such a discovery was used for scientific purposes only. No untoward disturbances in the historical record. No time terrorism.
Or, at least, that’s what all of us on the project had assumed.
Seeing the Senator and her little commando group taking the last of their belongings into the reaction chamber gave me the queasy feeling that Bill, Dan, me, and all the rest had been spectacularly naïve.
I began to get angry. The feeling of betrayal was hot in my throat. I glared at Lilith, but I addressed myself to her apparent boss.
“What’s your plan, Senator?” I said, beginning not to care about the guns. “Go back in time, set up your own little kingdom? What are your people humping in those sacks? Weapons? Ammunition? Enough to carve out an empire in the late Pleistocene?”
“Maybe that’s what a man would do,” Petersen said, arms crossed over her chest. “Conquer. Dominate. Use. Destroy. The entire history of our species, down through the ages. A product of the male drive to feed, screw, and control. If that’s all your imagination can conjure, I think it’s best if we leave you here. Where you belong.”
“No,” Lil said. “Cody’s a good man. Catherine—”
“That’s Senator—” Petersen hissed at Lilith, but Lil kept talking.
“Not anymore, it’s not!” She said. “Catherine, he has to come. We have room and supplies. Please. I know we can use him.”
“Who says I want to go?” I said, perhaps too sarcastically. “What’s waiting for me in ten thousand B.C? No doctors, no dentists, no hospitals. No antibiotics or hip replacements. No electricity, nor industry. No grocery stores. No hot showers. No satellite high-def television. Lil, we’ve talked about this before, you and I. We both agreed that the distant past was a place we’d probably like to visit, but never live in. The Lines are one-way. No coming home. And what about the damage that can be caused? The brane damage? That’s why we agonized over the design and programming for the probe: so it would bury itself. Keep out of sight and—”
“Cody, shut up!”
I shut up. Lil looked frantic enough to break something.
She walked towards me.
“Cody, I know you’re angry. But you have to understand. The project is being cancelled. They’re going to introduce a treaty at the United Nations to have all of the retryon facilities in all countries closed permanently. Further research will be monitored and blocked. Protections and safeguards are going to be erected. It’ll be like the nuclear ban in space. No nuclear rockets to Mars. No expeditions to the past, either. So it’s now … or never.”
I didn’t say anything after that. I could tell by her eyes how absolutely Lil believed what she was saying. In addition to my feeling of betrayal, there now came grief. My budding romance with Lilith had been the happiest discovery of my post-divorce years. And now I was going to lose her, one way or the other.
“It won’t work,” I said softly.
“Why won’t it? We don’t have to take a lot of people. Just enough to get the ball rolling. We’ll find a tribe, or tribes. With modern weapons and science we can establish ourselves as chiefs, shamans, and teachers. We take the children and we teach them. They teach their children, who teach their children. They’re still human. All they lack is the knowledge. We take tough, solar-powered computers. We teach the tribe how to use and access the databases. By the time we’re dead, they’re on their way. And they’ll be able to avoid all the pitfalls. Manage their environment. Fight off enemies and bring in friendly tribes. Grow food and mine ores responsibly. No need to cut down all the trees. Industry without poisoned lakes and rivers. Electricity. Civilization! In harmony with the natural world. No extinct species. No deforestation. No pollution, overpopulation, or global warming.”
“And what about everyone left behind? What about me? What about us?”
Tears finally sprang from Lilith’s eyes and ran down her face.
“I wanted to bring you. I begged them to let me bring you. Catherine said you’d never agree to it, and would blow the whistle. She said if I told you, I’d be off the team.”
“She’s right,” I said. “I’d have tried to stop this.”
“Cody, oh God, why couldn’t you have just gone home and gone to bed?”
Lil turned from me and walked away, weeping. I called after her and she ignored me, heading instead for one of the buggies where she struggled to put a pack onto her back, and then walked towards the reaction chamber.
I felt tears on my own cheeks, and redirected my anger towards the Senator.
“It’s mass murder, and you know it.”
“You can’t murder people who never existed.”
“Convenient,” I said.
The Senator regarded me for another moment, then let out a long sigh and said, “Code Orange.”
The male with the gun grinned and suddenly they were backing me up again, muzzles unwavering.
For the first time since I’d walked into the lab, I began to sweat profusely. My heart rate jumped and time slowed perceptibly as adrenaline dumped into my bloodstream.
Ghosts of Kurdistan flirted with the present, and I was seeing double.
My truck commander, grinning and telling a story about his kids. The growl of the humvee’s tires as we moved up the packed earth highway. Our Kurdish interpreter bouncing quietly in the back seat, next to an equally quiet PFC whose name I never did remember. Dirt spewed into the air like a geyser as an IED took out the humvee in front of ours. I reflexively stamped on the accelerator, turning onto the shoulder so as to maneuver past the ruined truck, when an RPG slammed into the passenger side of my own vehicle.
Next, I was on my back, and I couldn’t breathe.
How had I gotten out of my humvee?
There was a loud buzzing sound, and my kevlar was gone.
When the pain finally hit, I gagged.
“He looks like he’s going to puke.”
Visions of the past evaporated as I realized I’d been forced into the doorway of an equipment closet. This wasn’t Kurdistan, and the three people with pistols regarded me as one might regard a mental patient escaped from the hospital.
One of the women with a pistol opened the door behind me and I found myself backed inside. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the others from the graveyard shift. Mouths taped. Wrists and ankles bound tightly. There was blood on the floor—lots of blood. Rick Tamayo’s face was too pale.
Like my truck commander’s face after the IED.
I might have been twenty years older than my foes, but I’d never stopped working out at Army levels. And even though I’d lost my knack for combatives, I’d taken up a modified form of Taiwanese grappling—after my divorce—just to keep myself sharp and not let myself slide into blubbery oblivion.
The adrenaline rang in my veins.
I spun and grabbed the woman who had been closest behind me. With both arms I wrenched, feeling a crunch and hearing a scream as she lost her weapon. I bore down and lunged, putting my entire body into hers and pushing her into the two who remained in the doorway. They yelled and stumbled back under the first woman’s weight.
I let go and dove for the pistol that now lay free on the cement. Rolling, I scooped the weapon up and ran back through the door.
I had to get to the control room. Even one shot through the main board would do the trick. I could also pull the fire alarm, which would automatically cut main power and sound alarms back at the mouth of the tunnel.
Illustration by Paul Pederson
Shouts echoed through the lab as I sprinted madly for the steel staircase that would take me up to where I needed to go.
I hit the stairs, three at a time, and reached for the door handle.
It was locked. Damn.
My access card!
I fumbled at my belt, yanking the ID on its spring-loaded tether, then heard a loud and all-too-familiar noise split the air.
Getting shot hurt just as much as it had the first time, outside Baghdad.
I wobbled and fell, barely arresting myself on the railing and feeling an immense pain in my left side.
My weapon clattered down the stairs.
Someone was screaming my name. It sounded like Lilith.
I saw the two remaining pistol-wielders stop in mid-stride and throw Lilith aside as she rushed towards the bottom of the stairs.
A glance at the reaction chamber showed Senator Petersen slapping the backs of her people as they rushed their final bags inside. Then she turned towards the stairs and shouted, “Leave him! Marsh, Brown, we have to go NOW!”
Marsh and Brown looked back up at me as I hung to the railing with one arm, the opposite hand clamped over my wound. Warm, thick blood flowed through my fingers and I gasped.
Lilith leapt back to her feet and pelted up the stairs.
“Cody!” Lil half-sobbed. “Didn’t you realize it wouldn’t matter anymore? Why did you have to do that?”
“You know why,” I whispered to her, feeling light-headed.
Her hand froze an inch from my belly, afraid to touch the blood.
“Lilith,” I said, feeling the shock overtaking me. “You must stop this.”
“No, Cody. It’s too late. I’m committed. I just … I never wanted you to get hurt!”
“I won’t forget you, Cody. You were a good man.”
“Cody, I am sorry.”
Suddenly her lips and mouth were covering mine. The electric warmth of her lips cut through the pain, if only for a moment, and I held my breath and closed my eyes to savor it. Then she released me, and I opened my eyes again. Her face was damp from weeping and she stroked my thinning hair, just like she always did.
I tried to grab her but she was already moving back down the stairs, and I groaned and slapped my hand back over my side as she jumped off the bottom of the stairs and sprinted for the reaction chamber—Marsh and Brown already in the lead.
Lil dashed through the orifice without looking at me, and then only Petersen remained.
The Senator watched me impassively as I struggled back up the stairs to the door, managed to get my access card to the reader plate, and spat obscenities when the plate didn’t respond. Maybe if I’d not dropped the gun I could have shot my way inside, but I was bleeding out, and every muscle was turning to water. It was all I could do to slump down on my butt and heave air.
A klaxon sounded, and an automated voice warned people to clear the area.
Lil must have set an automatic countdown.
A hum filled the lab as the power of several hydrogen bombs began to crouch in the super-cooled coils that surrounded the cube-shaped reaction chamber. Soon, everything within that space, down to the last molecule, would exchange places with everything in an equivalent space, far back in time, according to calculations that took into account the relative position of the Earth, the Sun, where the solar system was now versus where it had been then, and—
I glanced towards the equipment closet. Those who could do so had squirmed their way out and were thrashing like beached fish, eyes wide in realization.
The ERAF’s execution cycle began to pitch towards crescendo.
Petersen kept looking at me intently, then frowned once and raised a hand in salute. Turning, she too ducked into the reaction chamber.
She never looked back at the comrade she’d left behind. The woman whose arm I’d broken lay motionless near my writhing co-workers.
I must have hurt her worse than I’d thought.
I felt shame for that.
But then, I felt calm, too.
As conscious thought faded, I figured I’d probably not have to worry about it in another couple of seconds. If Lilith and the Senator were right, very shortly, everything in the current day would cease to exist. I would never be born. Nor my parents. Nor their parents. Nor their parents’ parents. The ERAF would be gone, along with everyone who had built it. The United States, and all its history, would never happen. Nor Europe’s. Nor would anything else be the same, going all the way back to when Lilith and her group suddenly popped into existence on some impossibly ancient tundra, like colonists come to settle an alien world.
The ERAF countdown reached zero. As in previous experiments, it produced a muffled thunderclap that shook the lab.
I blacked out.
Waking up was an absolute surprise.
It was Wednesday morning, and I was in a hospital bed with tubes running in and out of me. Doctors and nurses came and told me I’d been in a coma, and that they’d barely gotten me to the operating room in time.
I’d lost a kidney. Almost bled out. Lucky to be alive.
I thought, they don’t know the half of it.
I wondered what had gone wrong.
Nobody came to talk to me, though they had hospital security guards posted at my door.
So I just kept wondering. Throughout the next week in the hospital, then home for paid leave and convalescence—or house arrest, depending on how one chooses to view unmarked police cruisers perpetually stationed at one’s curb.
I watched on television as the new Retryon Research Treaty was introduced at the United Nations, and unanimously signed by all parties. I didn’t hear a thing from anyone with the project until Bill Hideki showed up one day, seven weeks after I got shot, and told me the rest of the story as we sat in my townhome’s living room.
It all came down to a single, huge piece of ice.
That’s what they found in the reaction chamber when they went in the next day to clean up the mess.
Besides myself, one other project worker got shot, and he was dead even before I got there.
Damn. I knew Rick had been too pale.
The woman whose arm I broke turned out to be one of Petersen’s campaign staffers. She blew air into her IV tube the moment they left her unattended.
So much for her.
Everyone else recovered, and we were all under super-strict orders to not say a damned word about anything to anyone.
There was a lot of hush money to make it worth our while, too.
Fine with me.
Late morning wore on, into afternoon.
The whole time Bill talked, I kept going back in my mind to that huge block of ice he’d mentioned.
No wonder history survived.
Somewhere back in time, Lilith and the Senator had found themselves transported into the belly of a glacier, with possibly a mile or more of frozen water above their heads. They’d have needed heavy equipment and explosives to bust their way out. Assuming melt water—raining in from the bottom of an exposed crevasse—had not drowned them first.
The glacier’s movement had doubtless ground their remains and equipment into powder. Nothing left for anyone to discover.
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About the Author
BRAD R. TORGERSEN is a healthcare computer geek by day, a United States Army Reserve Chief Warrant Officer on the weekend, and a Science Fiction and Fantasy writer by night. He has contributed multiple stories and novelettes to Analog Science Fiction and Fact, has been included in several anthologies, and has a novel—The Chaplain’s War— forthcoming from Baen Books.
Torgersen was nominated for the 2012 Campbell Award for Best New Writer in professional Science Fiction and Fantasy. Married 18 years, he now lives in northern Utah with his wife and daughter.