by Graham Adair
A whining, nasal voice drifted across the air from an unseen radio somewhere above and behind, and the words were buzzy and incoherent.
"Shut that damn thing off!" Sir Bernard Archibald split the air and shattered the calm serenity with his growl of a voice. He was out of sight beyond the rim of the pit.
Luther Verchen sat heavily within his harness and tried to relax. A sigh escaped from his lips and for a moment he wondered why he was anxious. The surroundings should have been familiar, the creak of the harness beneath him should have been comforting, and the soft play of cold air upon his face ought to have brought cool collection and focus. But such feelings eluded him. He glanced around the interior of the Dimension Chamber, at nothing in particular, then wondered why he'd done that too. Was he looking for a problem? Something that might delay the launch? Did he really want the launch delayed? Anyway, nothing presented itself and he returned his attention to the short control bar set across his lap, and the myriad of coloured lights set into its flat surface. Everything was in order.
"Verchen, your perspiration just went up a notch. You okay?" The piercing voice came through his earpiece and snapped him back to attention.
"Fine. No problem." The steadiness of his own voice surprised him as he spoke into the mouthpiece.
"Beginning pre-launch checks. All teams report status."
Verchen ignored the voices as they relayed in their confirmations. Instead he took another cautious glance around the interior of the Chamber. Cold grey walls surrounded him on all sides, two metres out. Their surface was a criss-cross design in relief. A black circle beneath his harness was the floor. His feet didn't touch it. Above his head was the open mouth of the pit, five metres up, ringed by a low fence of shining aluminium and lit by dozens of pin lights set into the distant ceiling. The cool air on his face abruptly stopped. "Launch engage in thirty seconds."
In knee-jerk reaction Verchen passed his gaze over the control bar and said, "All systems green."
And now he waited. He was suddenly aware of the sensor pads on his forehead and the temporal feed cables at the back of his neck. He ignored them and thought of his task, trying to focus on the job in hand. All he could think of was the absurdity of his mission, the chain of circumstances that had brought him to this moment. This would be the temporal excursion to end them all.
* * *
He recalled the conversation he'd had with Sir Bernard when the opportunity had first come up. "Think of the glory," the man had said. "Think of the history!" But all he'd thought of was the salary. A chance to get out of the claustrophobia of the Historic Research Institute and do some real Sightseeing for a change!
The Big Bang ...
The Dimension Chamber was a home from home for Verchen. He'd spent fourteen hours a day in this harness most months of the last year. His fingers knew the control bar inside out and back to front: didn't even need to look any more. His missions for the Institute had been exciting at first, then predictable, then routine, and eventually dull. Yes, dull! A job every historian would give their right arm to do: pilot the Dimension Chamber back through time, making detailed recordings of key moments in history. Dull. Wading through the past in search of answers: pieces of the puzzle. Exploding myths. Reconstructing civilisations. Exposing the truth.
But here was a real challenge. To stretch back further than ever before. To reach right back to the Big Bang, to the birth of the universe, and record it. And further: to penetrate the moment of Creation and witness what had gone before, what had existed before existence itself.
Time travel had only been a living science for two and a half years; Luther Verchen had been involved for the last two. Never one to understand the complexities of the underpinning physical principles, he'd been content to take the job of pilot and follow instructions. Good money. Hours were a little long, which seemed ironic for a time travel job. Secrecy was always an issue though. His girlfriend hated to be kept completely in the dark.
In those two years, he'd watched the Institute do its best to focus the new branch of science into a tool for pure -- and innocent -- research, with limited and dwindling success. Inevitably the various factions of the scientific community had wrestled for control. Politicians had throttled it with budgetary controls. The media, with few facts to go on, had concocted stories of danger and revelation, hinted at great secrets and equally great expenses, and defied the Institute to deny it all. The public had clamoured for more. And finally, after a masterful piece of media manipulation, the Universal Research Institute had gained the upper hand and seized the Dimension-4 pit and its resources for their own brand of misadventure.
Verchen recalled the ferocious arguments he'd witnessed in the committee room, with all the leading temporal physicists of the day. All the theories put forward, the models, the facts. He remembered the huge opposition there had been to this whole project. Dozens of scientists had refused to condone the actions of the U.R.I.; had stood up at their places around the table and gesticulated and pointed at complex diagrams and elaborate models. He remembered talk of extreme danger, to himself, to the Dimension Chamber, and to the universe itself.
Could mankind break every law of physics and expect no repercussions? Would the laws of the universe allow such an intrusion to take place at all? Would the Dimension Chamber, and Verchen within, be crushed in the Big Bang? Would their existence outside the boundaries of the seconds-old universe cause a temporal paradox? Or a physical paradox? Would Verchen's emergence outside the three
dimensions give rise to a second universe? If so, what would be the effect? Would we be destroying ourselves to even try this experiment?
And what of pre-Big Bang conditions? More than just a scientific argument: a theological one too. Could it be possible for a man and a machine to exist there at all?
"But he won't exist there," the chief physicist, Doctor Engles, had said. "He'll exist here, in the twenty-third century, inside a machine at the bottom of the Dimension-4 pit like he does every other day of the year. At least in length, breadth and height he will. He'll only exist in the past inside the fourth dimension, not the first three. In theory, his presence at the birth of the universe should not interact with it in any way."
"But you don't know that," his opponents had argued. One man -- an old gent with grey hair whose name Verchen hadn't caught -- had said: "Nature will provide a law to cater for any eventuality. Count on it."
And on it had gone, Verchen scarcely understanding one word in three. He remembered vividly when Sir Bernard had stood up from his seat at the head of the table and bellowed: "It doesn't matter -- all this conjecture! The mission is too expensive to throw away on technicalities. I've got a dozen news agencies ready to sign billion-dollar contracts for coverage of whatever we find. Those are your salaries for the next few years." (Verchen too had seen his way to clear to sorting out a lucrative suite of interviews upon his return.) "The pilot is happy and ready to go," -- and how he'd felt a yawning pit in his stomach when Archibald had said that! --". And there's too much to be gained. You can lecture me about the Big Bang and atomic soup and all that nonsense, but what's always haunted the imagination of mankind is this: what was there before all that? Forget your theological arguments, gentlemen. We're going."
* * *
"Launch engage in three ... two ... one. Go launch sequence."
And Verchen was back in the present and bracing himself for the violent
sideways lurch that always accompanied the insertion into time travel. No, not sideways. More kind of inside-out.
And then it came, and Verchen was consumed by the experience. In his mind he saw violent motion in all directions. Impossible directions. Though he knew his body hadn't moved an inch, his mind raced to hang on to what he was seeing, to stay in some kind of control. A sensation of sheer terror pervaded his senses as he fought to keep up with the rushing motion. Always, he had these feelings when he entered 4D travel. Two years of experience had taught him nothing about this part. Every time, he wondered what would happen if he stopped fighting to keep up and instead allowed his mind to drift off into infinity. Would he be lost to insanity? Or would the temporal regression continue unabated, leaving his mind to look after itself, then step back into the picture once they'd arrived?
He was travelling faster than he'd ever gone. More distance to travel, he told himself. Distance across time, that is. Every journey began with the same sequence: a jump back to a point before he'd been born, before the real time travel could begin. Four previous pilots had been killed learning that lesson: time and consciousness were linked; a man could only exist once at any given point in time. Every journey Verchen took started from a different point in the timeline. He jumped through the bits he'd lived already.
He was sure his knuckles must be white with gripping the control bar: he always thought this during regression, yet never remembered to check when he came out of it. Always too consumed with relief.
Infinite colours whirled. Violent twists battered his consciousness. On previous journeys, this process had been brief, though intense. Now it was almost unbearable. Already he'd reached back millions of years further than any of his previous jumps. In terms of temporal physics, the process was the same no matter how far back the destination. In real terms, it was scary as hell, and Verchen could feel the instrumentation around him begin to strain. Suddenly he'd arrived and it all stopped.
Not at the Big Bang. Not yet. The physicists had decided it was too risky to send him all the way back in a single jump. This was stage one: minus five thousand million years, give or take a few. Roughly halfway between the present and the point of origin. Verchen brushed a hand across blue lights on the control bar and opened up the view outside.
Of course, the casual observer would have seen nothing change inside the Chamber. But Verchen was now seeing -- in his mind -- a view of the universe outside the metal walls, as seen from the point in three-dimensional space he hadn't budged from since the journey began.
In the present day, the Dimension-4 pit hung in orbit at the Lagrange point between the Earth and the Moon. Balance of gravity. Verchen knew that was important, but not why.
But there was no Earth or Moon to be seen at this 'when'. In fact, Verchen recognised nothing: he hadn't expected to. The solar system was a vast swirling nebula. No sun shone at its centre: it was yet to be born from the compression of gasses and dust. No planets existed yet either. They would form when the cooled dust began to clump together and amass into asteroids, then gravity would do the rest. The view was a neon sea of purples and whites and yellows extending in all directions.
He flipped the recorder on: images from his mind's eye flowed into the machine. A soft copy for posterity and, from a certain point of view, for all things preterit too. Better not to think about that. But time and energy were precious; he completed a full sweep of the heavens, then made ready for the next jump. This time Verchen had control of the Chamber, no launch countdown, and he took only a second to compose himself for the next bout with thrashing infinity. He pressed a button and was on his way.
* * *
There was something subtly different about it though. His mind chased colours, but this time they were strangely irrelative, their movements unconnected. Normally the blend of shades and motions was chaotic but ordered somehow. Why the difference? Something to do with how far back in time he was? Maybe the state of the universe at this point in the timeline was different to the other whens he'd visited. He'd asked the physicists to explain the phenomenon before and they'd been evasive and vague. He doubted they'd be able to explain what he
was seeing now, but he'd mention it in his report just the same.
The Minus 9000 million year point came and went: the approximate era at which stars and galaxies began to form after the violent activities of the Big Bang had begun to cool down. Verchen stretched on through it to penetrate towards the universe's early childhood. Besides the maelstrom in his mind, he could sense the Dimension Chamber careening at velocities previously untested, machinery hammering, enormous magnetic fields churning violently.
His exit vector from 4D clicked into place and he dropped out into normality again and drew a breath sharply, then looked around.
He nearly choked on his own breath. What a sight!
He was caught up in a blaze of light, engulfed in the shuddering energy of the young universe. Instinct told him he was seeing only a fraction of the real picture. His brain was compensating for the rest, avoiding an overload. It ached with the effort of seeing. Alarm bells in his subconscious were screaming. It couldn't be safe to remain here for long. Move!
His instrument panel fed data through the wires at the back of his head and superimposed the information onto his view of the outside. He checked his temporal location. Then checked again. It took a second to realise what was different. The readout had changed from "minus time" from present day to "plus time" after the Big Bang. It read plus three hundred thousand years, which would put him at somewhere around twelve thousand million years back from present day. The engineers must have changed the readout specially for this mission. Nice touch. Would've been nicer if they'd told him in advance.
He flipped the recorder on once more.
He fought to suppress anxiety. The Big Bang beckoned.
It took significantly longer to compose himself for the next jump. When next he looked upon the universe, it would be moments after the act of Creation, and he himself would be outside it, looking in. This was where physics and theories and predictions and fear all collided. Verchen knew he might not survive the next phase of the journey. He steeled his nerves, breathed deeply, thought of the money and stabbed the button.
The roller coaster ride began again, and ended almost immediately.
He looked ...
No dazzling white fireball. No fireworks display. Only a blackness so pitch it chilled his soul. Verchen waved at the controls and data flicked into his mind's eye, and in a few seconds he had the answer. He felt like a fool. Of course there was no light: at the inception of the universe everything, including light, was contained within it. Nothing would be emitted. He himself was outside its boundaries. The data indicated that the point of origin was somewhere to his left and above. Nothing was moving.
Which was wrong: the universe ought to be exploding out towards him at
incalculable speed. Verchen checked his instruments again. Ah. He was stationary in the timeline. Paused at the moment of Creation. Of course, it had to be those engineers again: they'd thought of everything. (Everything except giving him a damn briefing!). In order to record the Big Bang, they'd arranged for him to hover outside the universe's periphery and make observations.
Obvious really. He scolded himself for not thinking this through. Two years at the Institute should have taught him to ask questions. A pilot was merely the pusher of buttons, in their opinion.
He reached to activate the recorders and found them already running. Why? They were set to come on automatically, it seemed. In case Verchen hadn't survived the jump to do it manually, he supposed. Nice thought.
Even though there was nothing to see, it was quite a thing to look upon one's universe as an outsider. Peering in at one's home from a position of exclusion. He had to pinch himself: he'd just taken the single most significant step in the field of temporal physics. Maybe just the biggest step, period.
Scanning through the data readouts, Verchen marvelled at his view of the development of quantum physics caught in freeze-frame. Before his vehicle's sensors, electrons combined with atomic nuclei to form neutral atoms, giving rise to the cosmic background radiation.
But he knew already that it was time to leave. What was there to fear now? Now that he'd stood aloof from existence itself and, apparently, lived to tell the tale. (Had his acts already caused untold mayhem in the future? Had he rubbed out life on Earth? No way to tell, so carry on regardless.)
He jumped, and the universe collapsed around him.
This time there was no rushing of colours, no thrashing motion or swirling visions. Instead, Verchen felt a wave of nausea sweep across him and a sense of unreality consume him.
Numbness. Disorientation. Discontinuation.
Memories rushed. His childhood flashed in stilted bursts. Adolescence through adulthood. His time at the Institute, the days before the mission. The laws of physics swam before him as obscure equations. He heard the voices of the scientists challenging one another's predictions. Sir Bernard's bark of a voice: Before all that. What was there before all that?
Darkness gave way to soft crimson opacity. Then white. A silence fell, then evaporated before a rising swell of white noise. The sound overwhelmed him. The white light intensified to a glare, a blaze that cut clean through him. He was screaming. The numbness suddenly vanished and a powerful force gripped every nerve in his body, and wrenched ...
There was a loud crack.
And then nothing.
Verchen's subconscious mind counted off the seconds and waited for the conscious part to catch up. Was he dead? If he was asking himself a question, how could he be dead? The elements of logic and reasoning stirred within him. Sluggishly, his brain began to settle and processing recommenced.
There was blackness and silence. No, there was a distant whine from somewhere. Verchen did a mental check of his faculties: Breathing? Yes. Thinking? Apparently. Moving? He reached to the control bar and brushed a hand across a sensor. Numbers blinked into existence in his mind's eye. The recorders were active: that was the whining sound. Had they recorded what had just happened to him? Maybe. The temporal locator was counting. It read: minus one year.
So where was this? When was this? Had he really just passed through the Big Bang and emerged on the other side? In which case, what was there to see? He focussed his wallowing sensibilities and pulled reins on his deductive reasoning. Looking around, he saw blackness and nothing. And then a thought occurred to him: was the Dimension Chamber stationary in time?
He flipped a sequence on the bar and the temporal locator began to count backwards. Two years. Ten. A hundred. A thousand. At this speed, he was able to keep viewing while he travelled. Still nothing to see. He waited. At close to four million years pre-Creation, white light erupted all around him.
He stopped dead.
Total whiteout and nothing to see. He reactivated the Chamber and crept backwards a little further, jumping at set intervals. As the millennia unpassed, cracks of orange began to show against the whiteness, which dimmed to red and then black in places. Great sections of the white began to break apart and drift outwards, away. As they shrank, they split down further to smaller and smaller pieces. Now Verchen was surrounded by a myriad of spotlights against a hazy red and black backdrop. Tiny pinpoints of white sprang into existence in the dark patches, growing dimmer all the time. To his left was a glare where the pinpoints converged and bunched up.
Stars? Another universe then? Another universe in existence before his own had been born? Results at last! And had he just travelled through the final moments of a Big Crunch? If the cluster of stars to the left was anything to go by, the old universe had ceased to exist at precisely the same point that the new one -- his own -- had detonated. Fascinating.
But what did this imply? Was his own universe a direct result of the death of the previous one? Why had there been a pause of four million years in between? Did this hint at a new level of physics concerned with the dynamics of universal detonation? And what about this earlier universe -- what had come before it? Another? Was this a testing ground for the gods? A place to practice Creation?
He pushed the Chamber deeper into the past and watched the stars sprinkle away. A thought crossed his mind: was there a limit to how far back he could go and still be able to return? The engineers had said he'd be fine all the way back to the Big Bang, but after that it was impossible to guess. He'd just have to hope.
The sky darkened as the stars dissipated. The universe around him began to resemble his own, though orders of magnitude brighter.
Stars swirled, grew, faded.
Nebulae shimmered and twisted.
He increased his speed and plummeted into the past at a hundred million years per second, pausing briefly after each jump to view. The shape of the cosmos changed and shifted like an organic being, reorganising itself, regrouping, rearranging. Still the pinpoints grew fainter.
After about a minute and a half Verchen noticed a small spherical object behind him and to the right. It slowly appeared out of blackness as a brown disk, now red, yellow, and finally white. It was not big, but the instruments in the Chamber showed that it was close by.
A dying star. Looked like he was getting the opportunity to study the life cycle of a star. Very convenient that it should take place right beside him, but the law of averages alone was responsible for that. As millennia ticked, he watched the star glow. He remembered his own sun. This white dwarf had only a fraction of its luminosity.
And now the star was gone. Instead, a vast planetary nebula stretched across this local region of space, extending around three sides of the Dimension Chamber. It was a sight to behold. Blues and reds merged and mingled in a spherical shell of gasses and dust. Verchen slowed down to watch it move. He'd studied the life cycle of stars a little in his teenage years, and remembered bits and pieces. The shell seemed to be shrinking in upon itself a little. Something glowed at the centre. And suddenly it was all aflame and Verchen flinched.
Red giant: the nebula had been composed of its outer layers, cast off as depleting fuel supplies dwindled within the heart of the star. Now it was a vast ball of orange flame and for the first time Verchen noticed a dark mass at its edge. Was that a planet? It was about the right size to be. He checked his recorders to make sure they were getting all this. Who could guess what lessons all this would teach the scientists of the Institute? Were the laws of interstellar physics that governed what he was seeing compliant with the ones in his own universe? Or were there discrepancies? He hadn't enough knowledge of his own to guess. Verchen adjusted his travel rate to jump back in million-year steps and watched the slideshow unfold.
Now other planets were drifting into view. A whole solar system: fantastic! Verchen could count three planets. Four. One seemed to have an atmosphere and glowed a pinkish orange. Two large bodies crept into view from behind the red ball of fire, which itself was shrinking and becoming more yellow-orange before his eyes. The two planets looked big at this distance. Gas giants? A large yellow one with dim stripes, and a blue one with what looked like a ring system, a little like Saturn from his own time.
The sun continued to shrink. Anxiously, Verchen eyed the instruments and wondered how far back he dared to go. Then he saw something that made his heart skip a beat.
Beside one of the gas giants was a tiny gleam of light. It seemed to be orbiting, travelling around the equator. Verchen slowed the Chamber and stared hard. A second glint flashed his way and the first receded. It was almost as if he was seeing reflections of the sunlight bouncing off a structure with straight sides, like a cube. But on that scale it would be the size of a moon. The aeons continued to flick past at a gentle pace. The sun had shrunk back to a fraction of its previous size and taken on a brilliant yellow-white colour. Revealed now were not one but two small planets within the volume of space previously occupied by the orange fireball. One of them clearly had an atmosphere: white clouds spiralled against blue ocean. Verchen noticed that the pink planet seemed to have become a dead rock now, red and barren.
With each jump, the planets appeared in different phases of their orbits around the star. The mysterious glinting object around the gas giant was gone now. Had it been civilisation? An alien technology? Whatever it was, there was no sign of it now. Perhaps he should revisit it on his way home.
The other planets were changing. The blue gas-giant no longer had a ring-system, while the yellow one now did. Curious. Other planets were visible further out. Verchen flicked a control and jumped back another million years. Suddenly the blue and white planet appeared directly in front of his field of view, blotting out everything. Verchen got the fright of his life. He was sitting almost directly in its orbital path. In the second before the Chamber jumped another million years, Verchen looked upon its surface and felt a pang of nausea within his belly.
He checked the temporal locator. Minus ninety thousand million, plus change. Images flicked in succession. The star remained steady. The planets blipped around their orbits in unpredictable fashion. With a frantic hand gesture, he signalled the control bar to slow down further, and time trickled past him at a century a second.
The blue white planet remained elusive, flicking about in its orbital path in seemingly random patterns. He slowed the machine still further. He spotted a large satellite around the world: a grey moon. At a dead-slow pace, he waited until the planet emerged in front of him, then slowed down still further, almost to a dead stop.
He looked at the planet and recognised it for what it was.
* * *
Questions flooded in, plus a feeling of sickness and panic. Earth? But how?
Had the Dimension Chamber malfunctioned somehow? Sent him forward to the end of his own universe then allowed him to trawl backwards to where he'd started? Or was this universe a duplicate of his own? Was Creation stuck in a loop, igniting, expanding, evolving, then collapsing and crunching, only to ignite again? Did this version of the universe contain a Luther Verchen?
The moon rolled below him. He saw a structure built in the dead centre of the Sea of Crises. The Historic Research Institute. Which meant he was almost back where he'd started ...
No! How could this be?
The Earth revolved before him and passed along its orbit, around the sun, leaving him numb with confusion. Was he in his own future? Or his past? What would happen if two of him were to co-exist at the same time? He watched the Earth roll around the sun and head back towards him. The words of the scientists rang in his ears: "Nature will provide a law to cater for any eventuality."
Count on it.
A feeling of resignation swept over him as he watched the Earth and the Moon approach along their orbits. They rolled silently into place, Moon on one side, Earth on the other, Verchen and the Dimension Chamber caught perfectly at the Lagrange point.
Already he knew it was too late. In a few seconds, he'd be back where he'd started, ready to begin his mission all over again. There was nothing he could do to break the cycle. If he returned to the future, he'd only come back to the beginning again, and flow into the loop from the other direction. If he stopped the Chamber, here he'd be trapped in temporal exile for all eternity. He thought of himself, sitting in his harness at the bottom of the Dimension-4 pit, seemingly in control of the mission, but in fact a man whose very consciousness was locked inside a closed loop outside the three dimensions. Forever ...
It was upon him already.
He felt the Dimension Chamber run down to a standstill, watched the temporal locator click over from minus ninety thousand million and a few hundreds of thousands, to zero.
A whining, nasal voice drifted across the air from an unseen radio somewhere above and behind, and the words were buzzy and incoherent.
Story copyright 2001 by Graham Adair firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration copyright 2001 by Patrick Stacy pld895
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