With time you can do almost anything
The first note was timed almost perfectly. It bounced off my workstation in the IT Lab just as I walked in. I froze and watched the ping pong ball roll across the floor.
"Where did that come from?"
I looked to see who had tossed the ball but, as usual, I was the first one in. I picked it up and saw that it was almost covered with writing:
DON'T LOSE THESE NOTES!
Leave 15 minutes early tomorrow
Tune to KSEZ and take I-90
8/17/2026 6:56 am
I glanced at my smartwatch and saw that the time on the ball was exactly 30 seconds ago.
"This must be a gag - but is that my handwriting?"
I wasn't sure what to think. I looked more closely - it was just an ordinary ping pong ball marked up with a Sharpie. I was tempted to ask my co-workers, but something held me back. A forged note seemed too weird for them, and if they spotted my handwriting, they'd think I was trying to pull a prank. I put the ball in a drawer for safekeeping and went on with my day. I had several laptops to flatten and refresh for new users, and one that was seriously broken and needed a new motherboard. By the time I finished I'd decided to just follow the instructions on the ball and see what happened.
The Highway 520 Bridge is my most direct route to the University of Washington. But if I left fifteen minutes early, I could detour south, take I-90 and still get to work by seven. I even tuned in to KSEZ. I felt a little foolish though - if this really was a prank, then I'd never hear the end of it.
"Hey, hey, it's Randy J, spinning the tunes from yesterday."
I rolled my eyes, what a cornball! Still, the mellow music took some of the edge off the commuting stress. I'd grown up to this music riding in the back of my parents' car and it was actually kind of nice to hear it again. Just as I took the I-90 ramp, the music cut out.
"Oh, oh, folks! Sorry to interrupt, but we have a traffic alert from our own Kurt Tercel."
Kurt Tercel, traffic reporter - another cornball. A radio personality who didn't like to talk! Yeah, right.
"Big jam folks. Accident on 520. Several cars involved. Advise I-90 instead. Kurt out."
"Huh! If I'd taken my usual route I'd have been stuck behind that accident."
I felt a tingle as the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Did that ping pong ball really predict a traffic jam?
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The second note startled me even though I was half expecting it. It bounced up from the corner of my workstation shortly after I sat down. I hadn't seen it drop, there was just a soft pock from the table top and there it was, going straight up into the air. This was seriously freaky - balls aren't supposed to jump up by themselves. Of course, they aren't supposed to appear out of nowhere either! I wasn't surprised to find more writing:
See Professor Veybach today
'Install' Windows security patch
8/18/2026 6:59 am
The IT Lab is in a small building that abuts a much larger Physics complex. The campus directory said that's where Dr. Veybach worked. I hadn't heard of him, but Google said he was an internationally known experimental physicist. Our equipment inventory said he had a laptop and a pretty sophisticated mainframe. It was clear that I should use the excuse of installing a software patch to meet this famous Doc. It was also convenient - I only had to walk around the corner, so why not?
There were no windows to allow a peek into Dr. Veybach's work, just a blank door, a five digit cipher lock, and a buzzer. The door opened on an average looking academic in a lab coat. His graying hair and slight paunch made me think late fifties. He also had an impatient look that clearly indicated displeasure at being interrupted.
"What do you want?" he asked brusquely.
"I'm from the IT Lab," I waved my ID badge. "There's a nasty new Windows exploit and I have to make sure everyone has the latest security patch. Did you update your laptop today?"
"I have no idea . . . Oh, all right, how long will this take?"
"Ten minutes, fifteen tops."
"Come this way but don't touch anything! There are live circuits and not all of them are covered."
He wasn't kidding; the first thing I noticed was the thick power cables that snaked around and into some strange looking equipment. We skirted the cabling to reach an area with some work benches and a desk. Dr. Veybach opened the laptop, logged on, and turned it toward me. He stayed close enough to watch as I brought up the 'manual update' window and scanned the list of installed patches.
"Okay, there it is. It looks like the automatic update already ran."
I pointed vaguely toward the list and mentally thanked Microsoft for sending out so many haphazard patches. There actually was one that had just been installed.
"Good to go, Doc. I'll get out of your hair."
"Just a moment, if you don't mind - are you skilled with computers?"
"Sure, I know my way around. I've been repairing laptops for years."
"I mean, do you code? Are you a skilled programmer?"
"Yeah, I've written some pretty complex stuff. I work IT so I can get a break on tuition, but I'm only a year away from a Master's in Computer Science."
"I'll come right to the point. I'm ready to start the final phase of my project and I need someone to work on the control functions of my equipment. Preferably, someone who isn't working in the field and won't be tempted to steal my ideas or insist on shared authorship. I don't want to draw any attention until I'm ready to publish. Are you interested? I'll pay more than your IT salary."
"Sure, I can keep a secret and it might be fun, but what does all this stuff actually do? Is it dangerous? Will I need lead underwear?"
Dr. Veybach actually chuckled at the thought and I almost saw a smile. He waved me towards his machine and I tried again to grasp the exotic apparatus. There was a grid of huge coils that obscured the inner parts. I learned later that these 'static' coils generated the final pulse. The windings were large gauge wire and reached from just above the floor to a height of about 2 meters. I stepped carefully toward a small opening that provided a view of the interior. I had to move my head around and peer in different directions to get a full picture. There were two complex metal rotors mounted on gimbals that looked like a gyroscope. They brought to mind an image I'd seen before - the gigantic machine from that old movie Contact. The Doc's machine was vaguely similar but much smaller, with a metal tube pointing straight up from the floor.
"Perhaps I should give you a demonstration," Dr. Veybach's eyes gleamed with his eagerness to show off. "Please look at your watch and note the exact time."
"Okay, it's 10:07."
"Now watch this side of the machine."
There was nothing to see, no motion, no noise - the machine wasn't even turned on. But then there was a quiet bass note, just at the threshold of being heard at all, and suddenly a ping pong ball arced lazily away from the machine.
"What the . . !" I jumped a little as the ball bounced toward us. "Where did that come from?"
"Ah, the proper question is when did it come from!"
The Doc was clearly enjoying his show. He picked up the ball and put it in the pocket of his lab coat. He took another ball out of a box on the bench and handed it to me.
"Now I'll prepare the machine while you write the same time on this ball."
I dutifully wrote '10:07' on the ball as he flipped a couple of switches. The rotors began to spin, quickly reaching a fairly impressive speed. Another switch initiated the rising whine of a capacitor bank charging up. When the indicator lights turned green he took my ping pong ball and dropped it into the pneumatic tube.
"Let me know when it is exactly 10:24."
I gave the signal and he flipped the final switch. The ball shot up through the whirling rotors on a burst of compressed air. There was a small pop, like cracking a knuckle, and the ball was gone.
The Doc flipped the switches off and smiled at my slack jawed amazement. I wasn't entirely surprised, but it was still extremely freaky to see a solid object vanish into thin air.
"That ball, it went back in time?"
"Very good! You got it in one try!" the Doc beamed his approval.
He pulled the first ping pong ball out of his pocket, and handed it to me. '10:07' was clearly written on it. It wasn't another ball - it was the same one I'd written on, but I did the writing after the Doc put it in his pocket!
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
It was an intense month of learning and programming. I learned that the Doc had found a way to distort space-time so as to temporarily reverse the time vector of an object. The rotating magnetic fields would resonate and then be enhanced by a massive magnetic pulse from the static coils. And it turns out that an object traveling 'backward' in time doesn't interact with objects traveling 'forward' except for gravity (Doc said it might explain dark matter). And a small imbalance in the fields causes a physical translation in addition to the temporal displacement. That's why the ball seemed to jump out of the machine.
The Doc had used trial and error to find settings that sent a ping pong ball seventeen minutes into the past with a small lateral velocity. He chose ping pong balls because they’re spherical and have minimal mass for their size. My job was to code a user interface to allow easy selection of time, direction, and velocity. I understood very little of Dr. Veybach's design and even less of his equations. He didn't really follow my programming either. But over time the code took shape and the user interface finally made sense to us both.
I didn't tell him about the balls that continued to drop into the IT lab. I knew I'd eventually find settings to send them to my work station next door, and some of them were very intriguing. One had a phone number and the name "Lisa"; another simply said Lotto and listed six numbers. I was puzzled when Doc declared the project finished - he simply handed me a check and said good-bye. I didn't feel finished! Things became clearer when I found this waiting in the IT lab:
Send the notes tonight
Access 3 - 8 - 2 - 4 - 9
9/16/2026 2:55 pm
It was the final note, of course, and you can see where this is going. It took most of the night - charging the capacitor banks, tweaking the settings, sending each ball to the correct place and time. I left the physics building shortly before dawn, glad that Dr. Veybach wasn't an early bird. I knew the balls would arrive safely, because I'd already collected them so I could send them back to be collected - ouch. Thinking about it was just inviting a headache.
I'm looking forward to meeting Lisa and cashing in on the lottery. And I know I shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, but I keep wondering where the balls are now? They came out of the machine before they went in and - yeah, that makes my head hurt. Most of all I wonder who actually wrote the notes, and when?