Erstwhile and Again

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Temperatures expected to drop today, with a high of 43, rain all day with a chance of sleet or freezing rain this evening, low of 23, so make sure and salt those sidewalks and stairs today. This weekend’s set to be colder still, high of 32 on Saturday with a 30% chance of snow accumulation greater than one inch. That’s your local weather, it’s 6:45 am on December 12th, 1997. Up next, Tschaicovsky’s famous Nutcracker Suite performed by the Boston Philharmonic orchestra.

Dr. Thaddeus Xyank rubbed a bit of sleep out of his eyes and pulled himself into a sitting position, arching and cracking his back. A morning much like a few dozen others that had passed in rapid succession. Routines have their charm. Glasses, toothbrush, shirt and tie. Lab coat, keycard, coffee and bagel. Briefcase, hallway, "Good morning, Phil." "G'Mornin' Dr. Xyank, sleep well last night?" "You bet," office, check for mail. Close the door, roll up the blinds. A dreary Friday morning, damp and grey. He was glad, for once, for oil heat and basic climate control. The mindless inconvenience of "roughing it" among ancient savages was finally becoming comfortable. He took a sip. Still a little too hot, but it would do to start drinking it.

~You have Four new voice messages.~

"Dr. Xyank, it’s Marcus. We’ve hit a snag. Transport is working, but the field size is proving to be a little unstable. Last test object was a chair and only half of it went through, and the other half was pretty seriously irradiated. I’ve reviewed your notes about timing, and I think the precision required might be beyond our equipment’s capability. I’ll be in the lab around 10 if you’ve got a minute. No rush, still a few more things to check."

The white board was turning pink, it had been written, erased, and re-written so many times. Notes were beginning to slip out of the margins everywhere he looked. His calculator booted, loaded at 50% opacity, and transcribed everything lightning-fast for the double-check. The problem Marcus Kitterman had called him about only required nanosecond precision. That shouldn’t be out of reach of a Pentium… unless the radio chatter around the site…

Xyank sighed and relaxed, suddenly very glad the department was working exclusively with inanimate objects, at least for the time being.

~Next Message~

"This is Athena Anastasakos calling in a shift-end report. Experimentation progressing nicely, however the topology of our model is causing difficulty. Request permission to recruit two additional engineers from Extra-D at Level 4-Delta clearance to finish the device. Please let me know as soon as possible."

Athena was doing a wonderful job keeping up with the Tachyon emitter design. 281 was a smart little object but it offered almost no insight into the nuts and bolts of temporal displacement or dilation. It was, after all, just a large battery tied to an alarm clock. However, it was about three kilos heavier than it should have been, and the circuit board in/out voltages just didn’t add up. Something else was hiding on the ‘seventh’ side of the device.

~Next Message~

"Hi Doc, Burt Tomlin. Expect a visit today at… 0800. Can’t tell you more here. Bye."

Bertrand ‘for christ’s sake just call me Burt’ Tomlin? Whatever for? He hadn’t seen Burt for more than five years, since the 176 incident. A chill momentarily lingered at the top of Thad’s spine as he sank into his chair and opened a very empty briefcase where he kept a few blank files to ‘read’ from in case someone with the wrong clearance came in unannounced. Tomlin wasn’t one of those, though. He had the right clearance. He should. He was on the recovery team when…When. If he was coming so soon…

~Next Message~

"Good evening Dr. Xyank this is Dr. Piedmont. I just wanted to thank you for… crap, it's 1997, isn't it? Never mind, Thad. We'll be in touch."

~End of Final Message~

…Doctor what? What could he possibly be thanking… Oh.

In that case, Thad considered it was best to start work for the day. The sooner he actually cracked this damned nut, the better. A receiver, five key presses, and a ringing on the other end. Trees outside blew in the rapid wind, knocking the last of the autumn leaves loose.

"Junior Researcher Anastasakos," she answered, her exhaustion obscured by a thin veneer of professional demeanor.

"It's Xyank. Can you secure the line please?"

Five atonal beeps.

"That should do," Athena groaned. Thad could practically see her rubbing her eyes over the phone. "I presume you're calling about the request I left for you?"

"I am," Thad replied. "Do you have any techs you'd prefer to work with? Anyone you've dealt with before?" Thad booted up his device and began to scroll through the roster.

"Not particularly," Athena answered. "I just need someone's help bringing the last board into view. We… it's been a very long week, and we've made a lot of progress, but if I can't actually see what I'm reverse engineering-"

"Understood. How many do you need?"

"I thought I said two, but… Yes, two is fine."

"Alright, I'll have the paperwork in by this after-lunch. Gotta go now. Visitors ought to start popping in any minute now."

"Oh? OH! Right. Thank you," Athena said, relieved.

"One more thing, Attie; get some sleep. You're no good to me exhausted."

"What about the deadline?"

"Ms. Anastasakos, we are working on a temporal displacement device. There are no deadlines." Thad glanced at his watch. 0700 exactly. One hour remaining.

"Except when there are," he corrected himself. But he had already hung up.

Thad was making passionate love to a phase transformation when 0800 reared its ugly head and the door handle jiggled. Sigh. "Come in!" he hollered, not looking up from the red marks flying frantically across the page. His left hand slipped under the desk and grasped the Beretta 92 service pistol waiting there… you know. Just in case.

The door hesitated for a moment as the latch slipped and when it opened a gust of dust, wind, and desert heat burst across his senses like an atom-bomb. Dr. Xyank winced and coughed and raised his hand as two khaki-clad folks pushed the door shut behind them and pulled off their glasses. One male. One female. Loaded for survival in a hostile world. Carrying concealed firearms. Tired.

And neither of them were Burt Tomlin.

"Dr. Xyank! Thank Christ, it worked." The woman pulled off her headscarf and pulled off her goggles, spraying dust around the office like it was someone else's job to clean it up and no one was trying to get some work done here today. Thad cleared his throat conspicuously.

"Can I help you?" Xyank asked impatiently, the pen finally dropping. He peered at them over his lenses as the male dropped a rucksack, grabbed a small waterskin, and started filling it from the water cooler in the corner.

The man in the desert drab chuckled, and shook his head. "That's funny. Real funny. I bet you get a chance to do that a lot." He drank deeply and voraciously as though it had been days since he'd last had a drop. "We made the rendezvous just like you told us. Fifty-seven days, eight hours, twenty-one seconds exactly. Now if it's all the same, I'd like to be debriefed so I can go home and see my cat, please."

Thad's head cocked to the side. The specific time interval meant something. It always did. Reduced to seconds, that was 4953600 s. Divide by the basic "now" interval of 11.25 s and that's 440320 temporal units. So they either missed the drop or… "…What year did you start in?"

"Doctor, enough is enough," the female said, slumping into a chair and taking the skin from her partner. "I mean, you mentioned you might be a little confused when we got back-"

"Did I?" Thaddeus had never before realized his talent for understatement. "Well, so I am. Humor me, please."

The realization washed past the pair of them as they looked around the office. As though things were missing. Crucial things. The male looked at his companion, leaned over to the door, and opened it on a busy hallway. Tentatively, he stuck his be-watched wrist past the jam, and sighed. "…We're Agents Gregory Hartford and Vanessa Freedman… From July 5, 2019 CE."

"And you're on assignment for whom?"

Vanessa closed her eyes and slumped forward. "…For you, Doctor." She reached into a satchel and produced from it a small gilded-clay cup, placing it on the desk before him. "It's Safe… But don't put any water in it. And be careful. It's come a very long way."

The Doctor's lips drew into a tight frustrated line. The visitors had made it right on time, according to the current model. He cursed his future self for all the extra work, but realized it was no use. This was exactly the kind of hole he was making it his life's work to close. "Thank you both for your contributions. Welcome to 1997." Thad archived the time, date, names, and object recovered, then picked up the receiver and pressed no less than 19 buttons in rapid succession. "12, please… Dr. Thaddeus Xyank, regarding a 'pick-up'… Yes, I'll hold." This was going to be a very busy morning.

Marcus indelicately picked his nose and wiped it on a bit of wrapper left over from the breakfast sandwich he purchased at 9 o'clock. To his credit, he used the hand sanitizer next to the console before doing anything else. The smoldering remains of a chair were still laying on the floor of the test chamber. "…Two minutes," he said, sliding down the computer bank and re-checking the in-room Geiger counter.

"How many of these tests do you run in a day, Mr. Kitterman?" Thaddeus peered at a screen showing the recorded event. 281 activated synchronously to the EM transmitter. A temporal bubble erupted and retracted in the center of the test chamber. There was a flash of light and a radiation spike, and then the bits left behind collapsed.

"Anywhere from ten to twenty, slowly turning up the Δt as we go. Everything between 3 seconds and 5 hours works fine, but past that, the field starts getting irregular and—" across the room, the counter erupted in a series of clicks. "Oop, here we go."

A loud cracking sound and a bright flash of light later, 2/5ths of a chair fell into the pile of remains. Alpha, Beta, and Gamma radiation, and a few million free neutrons to boot flew across the room in every direction.

"Yikes," Thad said flatly, leaning back in the chair. "Thaaat's not supposed to happen…"

"Mmmmmhm. At that level of radiation a human traveler loses all their hair in a few days and their pancreas soon after," Marcus said, shaking his head. "I'm thinking it's because the event-horizon ends up shearing so many atoms when passing through a solid object, but until I can get a success under my belt, it's hard to tell."

Thaddeus looked over the bank of monitors as his calculator began printing to his vision to check and recheck the expected values. Everything turned up green. And so it was time to ask the stupid questions.

"You've rebooted?" he asked.


"Verified the timer's accuracy?"

"To the picosecond." Marcus said, tapping the cesium clock in front of him like an old friend.

"And the Faraday Cage is closed?"

A loud banging sound in the adjacent testing chamber made their hearts jump into their throats. A steel I-beam, 2 m in length with the word "NO" plasma-cut out of its center had just slammed into the floor, apparently from nowhere. Marcus Kitterman looked sheepishly at the displeased Dr. Xyank, who rubbed the bridge of his nose and sighed.

"…Mr. Kitterman. Please take greater care to account for radio chatter in the future." Thad looked out into the testing chamber and let the air flap out between his lips. "Now get a Faraday cage built in here and resolve that paradox. Immediately."

"Yes, sir," Marcus answered, with a phone already in his hands.

After lunch there was another man in his office uninvited that was still not Bertrand Tomlin. What's more is that he was busily staring at the contents of the briefcase. Or rather, the lack of contents. And the badge hanging off of his belt only had a bright red "EC-3". This man did not belong here.


The L3 jumped out of his skin and spun on his heels hands up and clenched, ready to pound the shit out of whatever he saw. The look in his eye was easy to recognize. This man had seen things… A lot of things. Some of them above Thad's pay grade. Fist cocked back, the L3 caught himself, blinked back to his senses, and relaxed, slumping onto the desk, gripping his chest.

"Jesus Thad, you scared the shit out of me!"

"It seems you have me at a disadvantage. Who, may I ask, are you?" Thad asked gruffly. The voice sounded familiar but he couldn't place it.

The L3 stood and offered a hand which Thad reluctantly took. "Dr. Lowell Piedmont, EC-3," he said, a smile creeping back onto his face. "You know, you're not a very easy man to find. Even when you do exist."

"Yeah, I get that a lot," Xyank said, kicking the door closed behind him and hurrying behind his desk. The briefcase closed with a thwack and latched shut on its own. "What is it I can do for you Dr. Piedmont?"

"Nothing. Well. Nothing yet." Dr. Piedmont replied. "But… I don't know, I suppose later there will be something. Only… huh. This is hard."

"Only I've already done it?" Thad offered as he tapped a cup of water and sipped it slowly.

"Yes… You've both already done it and haven't done it yet, apparently. Which is confusing." Dr. Piedmont ran an unwelcome finger along one of the side tables, looking at it like others had before him, as though something should be there.

"This may come as something of a surprise to you, Doctor, but this isn't my first temporal anomaly," Thad said, watching carefully. Waiting for an excuse to call security or kick him out or something. Anything. Some manner of clue that he'd seen something he shouldn't or knew something he couldn't but something about the bags under Dr. Piedmont's eyes said there wasn't much fitting that description.

"Don't I know it!" Piedmont finally said. "This whole office… Well… I guess you'll figure it out, soon enough."

"Pardon me, sir. But is there anything at all you have for me apart from cryptic references to future events?" Thad's patience was at an end.

"…Only that the 'Esoteric Containment' department is your friend. And if you find yourself in need of any…let's say pertinent information… Well, you've shaken the right hands." Dr. Piedmont winked and left a card on Thad's desk, and left. "Good Afternoon. Glad we could meet. Again."

Dr. Xyank looked at the card for all of forty-five seconds before he decided 'what the hell' and picked it up.

Dr. Lowell Henry Piedmont

Ethics Committee / L-3

Ex. 8-065-92

"…Oh Goddammit."

The rest of the afternoon was blissfully uneventful. Quiet calculation, a good tasty and nutritious meal followed soon thereafter by a relieving and cleansing bowel movement, some postulation and speculation and one or two calls to Attie and Marcus to see how they were progressing. His own tachyon field detection project was about to make the 442i a reality. Six dozen years early, too. And it was as he looked at the whiteboard proving it could be done, head propped up on one hand, and wondered how it was possible to invent something before it was invented, that a knock came at the door.

Quickly, Thad pulled a projector screen down in front of his notes. "Door's open."

Around the jam and into the room came one Agent Bertrand Tomlin, looking awfully dapper in a bowler hat with a handlebar mustache, muttonchops and brown tweed jacket. He peeled the facial hair off and spat some stray fibers from his lips. "Sorry I'm late. Missed the drop by nearly half an hour."

Before Xyank could mention that it was just as well and he had quite a busy morning regardless, a magazine was dropped on the desk, in mint condition although the date of publication said clearly "1892" right there on the plain blue cover. Just beneath the white text: Foundation. "Would you mind telling me what the hell your name is doing in this journal?"

"What?!" Thad grabbed it up and flipped to the contents page. Sure enough, there he was. And Athena's name, too. "This really doesn't seem like me. Why in hell would I publish findings that haven't been found yet?"

"I was hoping you could tell me." Tomlin said, pulling his collar apart and kicking off his ill-fitting shoes. "Now that you've…Wait, you said it hasn't been found yet?"

Thad looked at Tomlin's stupid face in a manner that made it clear how stupid that face was.

"Don't you look at me like that, Thad. Don't you dare look at me like that. I have been holding your hand for five years of my life, trying to get you caught up with yourself and I'm going to damn well tell one of you about it!" He slammed the chair onto the ground, and sat in it, staring at the Doctor as he purposefully mussed the pomade out of his hair. "You told me time travel was invented today. You told me this, from my perspective, thirty-seven hours, fourteen minutes and… seventeen seconds ago. Factor in that 18.47 hours of that was on May 1st, 1892 CE. What does your model say?"

Thad picked up a red pen to write it out and Bertrand knocked it out of his hands.

"Just. Calculate."

"…August 19th twenty… no…forty-sev… Yegods! There's no way that's right!"

Tomlin's eyebrows kissed the ceiling as his arms and legs crossed, mouth drawn in a tight frown. "I'm going to be honest with you, Thad. I don't even remember meeting you anymore. How old I was or how old I'm supposed to be or which Causal String is fucking which. Now, I'm tired. I'm achy. I smell like dog piss, horses, and rail-yards. Something has fucked our shit up royally. Either we've gone too deep or not deep enough, and I need to know from you, right now, at the very least, that Time travel was invented today!"

The phone rang, and Xyank picked it up. "Thad Xyank…"

"Dr. Xyank, it's Athena Anastasakos. Can you-"

Thad's fingers flew across the keys as his face lit up. "You're not serious?"

"We got the last board in view. It's so simple I'm embarrassed we didn't think of it ourselves. The device employs a novel enzyme. Dissolve it in water, and it acts as a superfluid at room temperature. All you need to do is shake it and the motion of the molecules actually causes a luminous bloom! Relativistic motion in a test tube! At room temp!"

Thaddeus, as though he'd seen a ghost, glanced at the title of the paper he had not yet written. "And we can reproduce it?"

"With a goddamn high-school chemistry set! Erm. Pardon my language," she replied.

Burt Tomlin, just barely able to hear it, breathed a sigh of relief, finally allowing himself to relax.

"Okay. First thing tomorrow morning you and I are writing a paper. And then we're going to test it."

"But Doctor, we're months away from a safe, functional prototype!" she protested.

"I understand, but right now I know of at least twenty-seven open loops that need closing and if I find any more there's no way we'll be able to keep track of…" A light bulb turned on in his head. "…Check that. Let's talk more about this tomorrow. Something's just come up." Thad slammed the receiver down and spun in his chair, raising the projector's screen so that Tomlin could see it. "Does any of this look familiar to you, Burt?"

"Yeah, that's a Temp Ex, for TVM."

Thad frowned and rubbed his nose. "Burt… for the love of whatever god you wish, hold my hand for just five minutes longer and repeat what you've just said in English, please."

Tomlin rolled his eyes and sat back. "Fine. It's a Temporal Expression."

Xyank's blank, wanting stare bid him to continue

"…Temporal Expressions are a memetic/info-nomalous method of temporal displacement, allowing any event boundary to serve as both horizon and vehicle to the chosen destination. This one resolves to 'TVM', or, 'This Very Moment.'" Tomlin checked the board. He grabbed paper and jotted the expression from memory. Then pulled a watch from his pocket and studied it closely. "Yeah… it's a little archaic, but that's definitely a Temp Ex. I thought you said you hadn't invented it yet."

The Doctor smiled. "Apparently, I have."

Thaddeus Xyank cleared his throat half-heartedly as he looked at his own office window and slipped the package inside. Had it really only been a few months since all of this had seemed so hopeless? He considered for a moment opening the door and stepping inside, patting himself on the back, giving him the pep-talk in person as living proof that one day, one day very soon, all the work would pay off…

But he already had not. And so he did not.

Instead, the good Doctor Xyank pulled a pad of paper from his pocket, and jotted down a quick equation. He walked slowly past stock-still bodies of friends and colleagues, through all of the rats stuck stubbornly in the maze of causality, to the door at the end of the hall where Eternity awaited him with arms thrown wide.

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