There’s been an incident at the lab.
‘Okay’, Dee muttered as she read the text. ‘Nothing good has ever come from those seven words.’
Please come immediately.
She quickly hailed an Uber and went downstairs to tell her husband that she would have to return to the office. It was probably going to be a very late night.
Fifteen minutes later, as the driver was taking Dr. Lorean from her home in Medford to the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, she reflected on the young physicist, George Herbert. If there was ever a man who deserved the term ‘genius’, it was he. By the age of eight, he was enrolled in AP science classes at Palo Alto High School. He earned a degree in physics from Stanford at fifteen and a doctorate from MIT on his eighteenth birthday. Dee had never met anyone quite like him. George didn’t just study physics; he absorbed physics. He was physics. The most intricate, multifaceted concepts in the field were instantly understandable to him. Not only could he grasp the principles which were in front of him, he could intuit those that were still out of sight. He could look down the dark, nebulous passageways of science and ‘see around the corners’. Things that were not yet in the view of modern science were already visible to him. He observed time and space like it was a Picasso portrait, with all of the dimensions being represented at once.
On the other hand, all of that knowledge and supreme awareness made it difficult for him to enjoy a normal existence. He had trouble with relationships. He was erratic and disorganized. In conversation, he tended to meander. So much focus on his gossamer work caused him to sometimes be oblivious to the mundane details of life. Dee smiled as she remembered the day that George had arrived at work, excited to present some new idea to his colleagues, only to realize that he had neglected to put on shoes and socks before leaving home.
All of which led George Herbert to where he was now, working under Dr. Lorean in a Department of Energy laboratory; tucked away in his own little basement kingdom, largely unsupervised and unrestricted, trying to create - god help us all - a time machine.
When the Uber dropped her off in front of Building 510, George was already waiting for her at the entrance. The July evening was oppressively warm. Through the glass panels that made up the outside walls, Dee could see lights inside the physics lab but no sign of any other people. Usually crowded with guests attending seminars in the large conference room, it was eerily quiet.
George looked haggard and weary, grasping a can of Red Bull in one hand and a weathered notebook in the other. His Jim Morrison and The Doors shirt was buttoned incorrectly, with one side hanging down lower than the other. Unshaven and unkempt, he could have been mistaken for an incongruous vagrant rather than one of the most brilliant minds in the nation. Dee glanced down. ‘Well, at least he’s wearing shoes and socks.’
“I….I didn’t know who else to call…,” George said softly; hesitantly.
“That’s okay. Just tell me what’s going on.”
They walked into the facility as George began his story. “As you know, I’ve been experimenting with temporal displacement…”
George shook his head, as if to object, then changed his mind. “Well…okay…sure. But it’s not so much traveling through time as it is just sitting still while time passes around you. As Einstein pointed out, as you approach light speeds, you experience time more slowly. Same thing when you encounter the gravitational fields of a massive object. Spacetime is malleable, after all. Hawking said that….”
“George?” Dee gently interrupted, “Do you remember our conversation about your tendency to lose your train of thought and ramble?”
George blinked. “Right…right.” He took a long drink from his Red Bull. “Okay...so, yeah…time travel.”
They got into the elevator that took them to the second basement level where they signed in with an armed security guard. “So sending someone forward in time is easy, relatively speaking.” He paused to see if Dr. Lorean got his joke. No reaction. “We have already produced forms of time travel using satellites with atomic clocks or when pushing photons through a super collider. The trick is to get the stuff back again. Getting them to swim against the tide of time, so to speak.
“So what I’ve done is to create a chamber which accomplishes three things. First, it deconstructs a human subject into particulate matter, which can then be manipulated without damaging the body. Kind of like the transporter from Star Trek. Second, it stimulates those atoms with lasers until they vibrate at nearly the speed of light. They will thus experience time at a much slower pace than the rest of the world. When they are reconstructed, they will have arrived at a future point in time.”
George smiled broadly. “Now, here’s the truly inspired part. I adapted this idea from Mallette’s work. He really has been ahead of the rest of us for some time now. Did you know that he was inspired by H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine? After losing his father in the same year that Einstein died, he….”
“Rambling,” Dr. Lorean said tersely.
They stopped at the door to the laboratory and George got out his electronic passkey.
“Anyway, in order to get a person back from the future you need to create a corridor that will connect disparate points in time and space. Imagine that you have a Persian rug and one end has dinosaurs embroidered on it and the other end has characters from The Simpsons. Instead of having to walk from one end of the rug to the other, which could be tedious, we simply fold the rug in half so that Homer and the T-Rex meet in the same place.”
He paused to make sure Dr. Lorean was still following his explanation. She motioned impatiently for him to continue.
“So the third thing the chamber does is to increase the gravitational levels to epic proportions in order to bend spacetime back to the point where the subject began. Again, traveling as tiny particles inside a beam of laser light.
“Light has gravity. Gravity affects time. Ergo, light affects time. Voila!" George gestured proudly, his palms up.
The door lock buzzed and the two physicists entered the lab. Dr. Lorean was somewhat taken aback by its appearance. It looked as if no one had bothered to clean it for months. Maybe years. On one wall was a blackboard covered with mathematical equations and graphs. At the point where the blackboard ended, the equations continued in black marker on the walls. There were notebooks and science textbooks and empty food containers strewn everywhere. And empty Red Bull cans by the dozens.
Roadhouse Blues by The Doors was playing loudly from speakers mounted on the walls. ‘The future is uncertain, the end is always near’, Morrison crooned.
In the center of the room was a large metal box, eight feet high, with a windowless door on it. Wires connected the chamber to a bank of computers to the left and a series of video cameras to the right.
“Am I to assume that you attempted to use this contraption without informing me?” Dr. Lorean asked, dreading the answer that she already knew.
George gulped. “Um….yes?”
“Please tell me you did not try to send an actual person into the future.”
George hesitated. He gazed at his feet and oscillated his Red Bull nervously. “I cannot tell you that, ma’am. No.”
“And who exactly did you send through this machine, please?” Dee could feel her skin begin to crawl.
“Well, um….one of my lab assistants. I think his name is Dave.” He paused. His eyes narrowed slightly. “Or is it Charlie? No…no. It’s Dave.”
Dee spoke very slowly and softly. “And where is Dave now, George?”
George didn’t answer. He just nodded his head toward the metal chamber.
She sighed. “Can you open it for me, please?”
George nodded. “Yeah, sure. But it’s…you know…messy in there.” He looked away.
Dr. Lorean’s shoulders tensed and she took a deep breath. She had overseen this facility’s operations for eighteen years and had never had a serious injury befall any of the people in her charge. That was all about to change.
George went over to a control panel on the side of the apparatus. He pushed a green light and the door made a hissing sound as the inner chamber decompressed. The door swung slowly open and Dr. Lorean was nauseated by what she saw inside. There was something that looked like a man sitting on a chair in the center of the enclosed space. But it was somehow…rumpled. As though its skin had been stretched to the point of breaking and then suddenly released. The epidermis now hung loosely on the skeleton. The eyeballs had ruptured and it gazed hollowly out at the doctor.
“Close it. Close it.” Dee demanded, fighting the urge to vomit.
George did so immediately. He began to talk again, gesticulating wildly. “I only sent him six months into the future. And he was only there for a minute or so…..” He trailed off and shook his head. “It should have worked. The math all checks out. It should have worked!”
Suddenly the door to the lab buzzed and a young man entered followed by two police officers.
The young man approached Dr. Lorean and held out his hand. “Hello, Doctor. I don’t know if you remember me but I am one of Dr. Herbert’s assistants. My name is Dave.”
Dee turned and looked at George quizzically. He smiled weakly. “Right. Right. That one’s Dave. That one…” he pointed to the chamber. “That one was Charlie.” He shrugged embarrassedly.
Dee raised her hands to her head and began massaging her temples. It was going to be a very long night indeed.
As the police began to explore the scene and interrogate George and Dave, Dr. Lorean wandered over to the chalkboard where she scrutinized the scribbled equations. Some of it she understood. Much of it she did not. She did notice something unusual, though.
Tentatively interrupting the police, Dee called over to George. “Could you tell me what this is, please?” She pointed to a particular line on the board.
“Coordinates,” George responded. “The exact three-dimensional spatial coordinates to the lab. To the chamber. That’s where Charlie was sent from.”
“And these?” She pointed at the same set of numbers occurring later in the equation.
“Those are the coordinates that he was sent to in the future. I wanted him to emerge in this same lab six months from now. Why?”
Dee lowered her head and closed her eyes. “My god….”
George frowned. “What?” He stared at the chalkboard. “WHAT?"
Dr. Lorean turned to look him full in the face. “Six months from now, it will be winter. The earth will be on the other side of the sun. You transported Charlie to the same spot he left. But by then, there will be nothing there but deep space.”
George’s eyes opened wide.
Jim Morrison’s voice shouted out in the background. ‘Break on the through to the other side. Break on through to the other side' as the song slowly faded.
Everyone in the lab grew silent. Somewhere a clock could be heard ticking away.
The stereo in the lab began to play The End.