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Rated: 13+ · Fiction · Sci-fi · #2258369
Time or space? Why not both?
Author's Note

Time travel is a difficult concept to wrap your head around. It seems to violate the rules of cause and effect when the time traveler arrives before their departure. And there’s the classic grandfather paradox. What if I were to accidentally kill my own grandfather so I was never even born? Then I couldn’t travel back, so he’d still be alive and I could be born to travel back . . .

Thinking about this stuff can make your head hurt. But maybe cause and effect are inextricably linked. If so, the time traveler would be constrained by history. The events of their trip would have occurred before they left. They wouldn’t be able to do anything in the past that hadn’t already happened. There would be no paradox, because they’d be forced to play out the historical record. It might feel like being a puppet, bereft of free will. And, having already shown up in the past, the future trip would be inevitable.

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The first note was timed almost perfectly. It bounced off my workstation in the University of Washington IT Lab just as I walked in. I froze and watched the ping pong ball roll across the floor, vaguely aware of a low-pitched ‘whump’ and a tiny tingle of air brushing past my face. Where the hell did that come from? I looked around 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:

Leave 15 minutes early tomorrow
Tune to KSEZ and take I-90
8/17 6:56 am

I glanced at my smartwatch and confirmed that the ball was marked with today’s date and the current time. 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 fine-point Sharpie.

I was tempted to show my co-workers the ball when they came in, but something held me back. It was just too weird to share, so 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 work, I’d decided to just follow the instructions on the ball and see what happened.

The Highway 520 Floating Bridge is the most direct route from my Redmond studio apartment to the UW campus, and most days I take the bus to avoid the hassle of parking. But if I left early, I could drive south, take the I-90 Bridge to I-5 north and still get to the lab by seven. I even tuned in to KSEZ as instructed. I felt a little foolish though. If this really was a prank, I’d never hear the end of it.

“Hey, hey, it’s Randy Jay, spinning you tunes from yesterday.”

I rolled my eyes, what a cornball! Still, the mellow music took 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 turned onto the I-90 ramp, the plaintive melody of Somebody That I Used to Know 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. An AM 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?

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The second note startled me again even though I was half expecting it. The ‘whump’ was a bit louder this time and I felt a definite pulse of air pressure on my cheek. The ping pong ball 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 tabletop and there it was, going straight up into the air. It barely missed my head. 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 really surprised to find more writing:

Take 7:42 bus tomorrow
Dark hair, great smile, rear door
8/18 7:05 am

The 7:42 was the wrong bus, I’d be really late for work, but the note was intriguing. No way would I ignore this opportunity!

I arrived just as the 7:30 bus was leaving to make sure that I’d be the first one in line for the 7:42. Ten minutes later, I swiped my ORCA card and walked eagerly toward the rear door where a dark-haired girl was seated by herself. She looked up as I approached and flashed a tentative smile.

“Wow, you really do have a great smile!” I blurted out clumsily. I could see the stalker alert come on as her smile faded.

“Have we met?”

“No, no, it’s just sort of like déjà vu,” I stammered. “I saw an open seat by a cute girl and thought ‘that’s lucky, I bet she has a great smile’ so when you did smile it was almost like I’d seen it before - I’m sorry, I must sound pretty weird.”

Good nature triumphed over suspicion and the smile came back for an encore. Smiling seemed to come easily for her and a hint of laughter lit up a pair of strikingly blue eyes.

“Maybe it’s a good weird,” she said. “Hi, I’m Lisa.”

We traded small talk as we passed through Bellevue and crossed the 520 Bridge. For once, the bus ride seemed too short and our exit over the Montlake Cut to the university came too soon.

I got off the bus, but lingered at the stop, not wanting to leave Lisa behind. She looked just as good standing up as she had sitting down. Ankle boots and a short skirt showed off an attractive pair of legs, and I realized that she was 4 or 5 inches shorter than my gangly 5’ 11’. A trim figure suggested an active lifestyle, but there was no doubt of her femininity. I did my best to focus on her eyes rather than the hint of cream-colored cleavage that showed in the burgundy V-neck sweater.

Lisa didn’t seem to be in a hurry, either. She looked up at me expectantly as the other riders moved on and the bus pulled away.

“I’d really like to see you again,” I ventured hopefully.

“This wasn’t a date!” she laughed.

“I wish it was,” I replied, hoping that I didn’t sound too desperate.

Lisa gave me a long look that made me feel like I was being measured for a new suit.

“Give me your phone.”

I could hardly believe my luck as Lisa entered her number and handed it back to me.

“I’ll call you,” I promised.

“I know you will,” she smiled.

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The third note was still mysterious, but it seemed to offer hope of finding out more:

See Professor Veybach today
‘Install’ Windows security patch
8/19 8:36 am

The IT Lab is in a low office 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 standard laptop and a fairly sophisticated minicomputer. It seemed clear that I should use the excuse of installing a software patch to meet this famous Doctor. 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 lab, 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 mid-fifties. He also had an impatient look that clearly indicated displeasure at being interrupted.

“What do you want?” he asked brusquely.

“I’m from IT,” I said, tapping 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?”

Dr. Veybach leaned in close and actually scrutinized the picture on my badge. “Michael Johnson, IT,” he read suspiciously, comparing my face to the fuzzy image on the badge. “Well, this seems to be authentic, but I certainly don’t need anyone poking around . . .” He trailed off as a new suspicion formed in his mind. “A new computer virus? Is this related to ransomware? Oh, all right, how long will it 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. It reminded me of the motorcycle ‘globe of death’ that was sometimes featured in old-time carnivals. I started to ask, but Dr. Veybach just hurried me past it. We skirted the cables to reach an area with 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. Looks like an auto update already ran.” I pointed vaguely at the on-screen list and mentally thanked Microsoft for sending out so many haphazard software 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 very 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 my 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. Someone who can keep a secret. 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.”

“Well, I can keep a secret and it sounds like fun, but what does all this stuff actually do? Is it dangerous? Will I need lead underwear?”

Dr. Veybach actually chuckled at my lame joke, and I saw a small smile. He waved me towards his machine, and I tried again to grasp the exotic apparatus. There was a spherical pattern of woven coils that obscured the inner components. These windings were formed with large gauge wire and reached from just above the floor to a height of about 3 meters. I stepped carefully over power cables toward an 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 through the small hole. There were two metal rings, each about 2.5 meters in diameter, mounted on gimbals that looked sort of like a gyroscope. I learned later that the stationary outer coils generated a spherical magnetic pulse that compressed and intensified the magnetic field created by the spinning metal rings.

The assembly brought to mind an image I’d seen before; the gigantic wormhole device from the movie Contact. Dr. Veybach’s machine was vaguely similar but much smaller, with a metal tube pointing up from below instead of having an overhead arm.

“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.”

“Ok, 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 familiar bass note ‘whump’, just at the threshold of being heard at all, and suddenly a ping pong ball arced lazily away from the machine. I felt that same slight puff of air that had accompanied the ping pong balls in the IT lab.

“What the . . !” I reflexively jumped a little as the ball bounced toward me. I doubt that a person can ever get used to having things suddenly pop out of nowhere like that. “Where did that come from?”

“Ah, the proper question is when did it come from!”

Dr. Veybach was clearly enjoying his show. I didn’t spoil his fun by letting on that I’d seen it before. He picked up the ball from the floor, held it up in the air for a second to catch my attention, and put it in the pocket of his lab coat. Then 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 time on this ball.”

I dutifully wrote ‘10:07’ on the ball as he flipped a switch that lit up a control panel on the front of the machine. Another switch initiated the rising whine of a capacitor bank charging up. He told me to drop the ping pong ball into the metal tube below the rings before flipping a third switch. The rings began to spin, quickly reaching an impressive speed. When all of the indicator lights turned green, he said “Let me know when it is exactly 10:14.”

I stared at my smartwatch for a couple of minutes and then gave the signal. Dr. Veybach flipped the final switch and the ball shot up through the whirling rotors on a burst of compressed air. I felt a shiver through the floor as the capacitor bank discharged a massive current pulse into the stator coils. There was a small pop, like cracking a knuckle, and the ball was gone.

Dr. Veybach 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?” I was already pretty sure that it had.

“Very good! I'm impressed, you got it in one try!” Dr. Veybach beamed his approval.

“Here, take a look,” he offered, pulling the ping pong ball out of his pocket.

‘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 Dr. Veybach had put it in his pocket!

“What do you think?” he asked with a smile. “Would you like to work for me?”

“You bet I would!” I gushed. “I’d do anything just to watch! You’ve got a Nobel prize here; this is the biggest thing since Einstein!”

My clever negotiating tactic, offering to work for nothing, didn’t prevent Dr. Veybach from honoring his initial promise. We agreed on an hourly rate, and I promised to start on a part-time basis until I could arrange time off from my IT job. Dr. Veybach was impatient, he wanted us to work 12-hour shifts, but I insisted that I had to keep up with my classes and have at least a little bit of downtime, some of which I hoped would be with Lisa.

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I left Dr. Veybach’s lab with my head full of fantastic ideas and images, but I hadn’t forgotten my first priority. An actual phone call felt like too much pressure, so I composed and deleted several clever text messages before settling on:

Coffee Break?

Sure, 3:00? Lisa replied.

Starbucks on The Ave?

C U there

It was only a short walk to the busy street just west of campus, and I made sure to arrive a few minutes early to make a good impression. Lisa showed up a couple of minutes later and we put in our order.

“On me?” I offered.

“Okay, I’ll get it next time,” she replied, with that smile that made my heart beat faster.

She said next time!

Somehow, those two little words relieved all the tension. Lisa and I shared a table by the window and spent an hour in easy conversation. I told her about growing up in rural Eastern Washington and making my way to Seattle because my nerdy interests didn’t fit in with the cowboy culture. I opened up more than I meant to, revealing how my skinny build and lack of interest in sports had made me the perpetual target of my football-playing brothers.

I found out that Lisa was almost three years younger than me, living on campus, and studying art. I heard about her childhood playing in the shadow of the Fremont Troll. She’d grown up in a family of avant-garde artists who dismissed her watercolors as hopelessly old-fashioned. She said my round, steel-framed glasses were cool, and that I was very lucky she’d stayed overnight with a girlfriend in Redmond, or she wouldn’t even have been on the bus. It was more comfortable than a first date had any right to be.

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My first assignment at the lab was to learn a bit more about Dr. Veybach’s theories and the design of his machine. The basic concept was that he’d found a way to reverse the time vector of an object, but he started his explanation all the way back at the big bang.

“Have you ever heard of dark matter?” he asked pedantically.

“Yeah, that’s some kind of mysterious stuff in outer space that doesn’t show up in telescopes, right?”

“That’s essentially correct, but there’s more to dark matter than simply being unseen. You see, the universe is ruled by gravity. All the motions of the planets, stars, and galaxies are explained by gravitational attraction.” Dr. Veybach showed real excitement as he warmed to his subject. “The Earth is massive compared to your body. Its gravitational attraction holds you firmly in place. The Moon is smaller and far away, but it still exerts a force. You can see the effect of that force in the ocean tides. The sun is so massive that it holds the entire solar system in its grip.”

“Sure,” I interrupted, “but what’s that got to do with dark matter?”

“I’m coming to that,” Dr. Veybach said sharply, and I tried to look contrite.

“The entire universe is in motion. Our solar system orbits the galactic center of the Milky Way just as the planets orbit the Sun. And the galaxies also traverse complex paths that are diverging due to the expansion of the universe. Gravity calls the tune of this cosmic dance, but there’s too much of it.”

“Too much of what?” I interrupted again, not completely following Dr. Veybach’s eloquent train of thought.

“There’s too much gravity,” he frowned, like a Physics Professor trying to get through to a Computer Science major. “We can calculate the gravitational forces by working backward from observed motions. But there’s not enough mass in the universe to produce the gravity required. That’s where dark matter comes in,” he explained. “Physicists believe that there must be a different form of matter that doesn’t appear in telescopes or register on a radio telescope dish. It doesn’t even show up as a shadow blocking light from the stars behind it. This dark matter doesn’t seem to interact with the rest of the universe in any way except through gravity. No one has been able to fully explain this phenomenon,” Dr. Veybach paused for effect, “until now!”

I looked at him with a puzzled expression, still not getting it.

“Don’t you see?” he exclaimed impatiently. “Dark matter has a negative time vector! Einstein’s equations don’t require positive time, that’s merely a convention that we choose to observe. It’s my theory that the unseen dark matter consists of an entire universe with a time vector opposite to ours. I believe that there are two big bangs located at opposite ends of space-time, and that there are two universes that travel through time in opposite directions, with their only interaction being gravitational.”

I would have liked some positive time to process all this, but Dr. Veybach was in a hurry to get started.

“When I began this research,” he continued, “my intention was to prove my theories by converting ordinary matter into dark matter. My machine is capable of generating an intense magnetic pulse that warps space-time around an object and reverses its time vector. I expected the ping pong balls to simply disappear from our view, and I was surprised to find that the effect is only temporary. I still don’t know why, but I intend to find out. That’s what I need your help with; I want to be able to better control the machine’s operation so I can experiment with different settings. Once the effect is fully established, I can move on to measure gravitational fluctuations and show that the balls aren’t gone, but merely dark.”

Dr. Veybach had used trial and error to find the fixed settings that sent a ping pong ball seven minutes into the past with a lateral velocity. He chose ping pong balls because of their nonferrous material, spherical shape, and minimal mass. His pneumatic system was cleverly triggered by a sensor on the spinning rings that allowed the ball to pass through them like a machine gun bullet shooting through the prop of a WWII fighter plane.

My job would be to code a user interface to allow for easy selection of time, direction, distance, etc. I understood very little of his machine when we started, and he didn’t completely follow my programming either. But over the next few days we learned from each other, the code took shape, and the user interface began to make sense to us both.

Adjusting the strength of the individual magnetic fields was relatively straightforward. The larger problem was interaction and synchronization. An adjustment of one field affected the other fields which then had to be readjusted. The ring speed, the intensity of the rotating fields and the intensity of the static magnetic field had to be precisely controlled. The timing of the transient magnetic pulse had to be synchronized precisely with the resonant fields and they both had to coincide with the arrival of the ping pong ball.

It was too time consuming to make all these adjustments manually, so Dr. Veybach added control circuits and sensors to be integrated into my control program. The one thing we didn’t automate was what I called the Go button. Dr. Veybach felt strongly that there should be human judgment involved to initiate the final pulse.

It was an intense period of learning and programming, and I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge. I got so wrapped up in the work that I almost forgot what was really important.

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“Sorry I haven’t been around much, the Doc has been running me ragged,” I apologized to Lisa.

“It’s OK Mike, I enjoy having coffee,” she replied. “But I would like to go on a real date sometime. What’s this mysterious project all about, anyway?”

“I promised not to talk about it until after his paper is published. All I can say is that I’m doing some programming for him, and it’s almost done. And, if it weren’t for his machine, you and I would never have met.”

“I thought you started working for him after we met?” she asked with a puzzled expression.

“Uh oh, I’ve said too much,” I replied mysteriously. “Don’t worry, I’ll explain everything after he gets his Nobel Prize.”

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“Okay, Doc, I think that’s it for the code,” I announced the following afternoon. “We might need some small tweaks here or there, but you can choose the time and direction with pretty good precision. All that’s left is to calibrate the machine, so the user settings match the results.”

Thus began one of the strangest series of experiments that anyone could ever imagine. Dr. Veybach would take one side of the machine and I’d watch the other side. He’d announce trial number xxx and then we’d wait for a ping pong ball to appear. We’d note the time and mark the position where the ball landed to get an estimate of direction and velocity. The results would be recorded in our test journal. Then, after the result was already known, Dr. Veybach would fire up the machine and set it to get the results that we’d already noted. I have to think that this was a scientific first, recording the result before doing the experiment!

Usually, we didn’t have to wait long, but sometimes there was no obvious result and I assumed that the ball had left the lab. Dr. Veybach chose to believe that those balls had been successfully converted to dark matter. We found some in the hallway outside, so I wondered if the missing balls might be found inside the wall or above the ceiling panels. One disturbing test resulted in a burst of fragments and left a smooth, round dimple in the cinder-block wall. I shuddered as I tried to imagine what would happen if a ball wound up inside a person.

It was my suggestion to use the laptop webcam to record video of our test runs. The Doc was hesitant at first, but he soon saw the value of having instant replay for close calls. I paid especially close attention to tests that sent a ball toward the back wall of the lab. My workstation was only a short distance away on the other side, and I knew I’d eventually need to send some balls next door. A campus building map and a laser measuring tool helped me to find the exact distance and angle.

There was always some wait time, however, as we set up each test and waited for the capacitors to charge. Dr. Veybach had been very secretive about his work for a long time, and he needed to talk. I heard quite a bit about his research and the process of building the machine. He’d used several different 3-D printing shops to make the parts, and he’d done the final assembly by himself. That way, no one person could see the ‘big picture’ to duplicate his work, or even make a guess as to what it was about.

I even found out quite a bit about his personal life. He confided to me that his machine, and the expected Nobel Prize, would be his only real legacy. He’d never been married, was an only child, and didn’t even have any cousins. His name would live on in the history of Nobel recipients. He seemed slightly amused when I told him he reminded me of the iconic Doc Brown in the Back to the Future movies, and he said it was okay to call him Doc Veybach.

We also discussed the nature of causality and how his work might influence the general perception of reality. Dr. Veybach was intrigued by the way the effect preceded the cause, and he wanted to explore the ramifications. He even tried to trick the machine by announcing a test, but not going through with it. He was trying to elicit an effect without a cause. It didn’t work, of course, and it seemed silly afterward.

Although it didn’t seem possible, he also wanted to test not sending a ball after it had already appeared from the future, and he asked me to give it a try. I collected a ball that was labeled 1:55 pm, and we went through all of the preparations to send it back to that point in time. I stood at the Go button with Dr. Veybach observing. We’d agreed that I would reach out and then pull my hand back without touching the button, but as the clock counted up, I felt an increasing sense of discomfort. It was like the impending panic of being in a too small elevator or standing too near the edge of a scenic overlook. I reached out at exactly 2:02, but instead of drawing back, I desperately mashed the button and felt a huge sense of relief. Somehow, I knew I’d narrowly avoided disaster.

“What happened?”

“I don’t know, I sort of panicked. I couldn’t help myself, I had to push the button.”

“Very odd,” Dr. Veybach mused. “Perhaps we should try it again with some means of physical restraint.”

“Please Doc, don’t make me do that,” I pleaded, feeling a sense of panic begin to rise again.

He gave me a curious look, but we dropped the subject and continued with the calibration.

Our wait times got even longer as the experiments continued. The original seven minutes between seeing and sending a ball became hours, and then a full day. The urgent sensation of needing to complete the process hung over us, and even the Doc noticed a sense of relief when we completed each test.

I used some of the downtime to read more about dark matter. I didn’t find any mention of negative time, and the motion of the ping pong balls made me wonder. The velocity didn’t seem to change when the ball went through the machine. The only difference was the time, place, and direction where it came out. Dr. Veybach had said that his machine warped space-time. Maybe the balls were simply traveling directly through a fold in reality?

“I don’t know Doc, the effect seems to be pretty much linear. More energy just increases the time shift and changes the place where the ball comes out. Maybe it’s not dark matter at all,” I suggested cautiously. “Maybe you made a wormhole?”

“Nonsense,” he insisted, “There must be a quantum threshold involved. I merely have to increase the field strength and the machine will still prove my theory.”

His tone lacked conviction, though, as if he were trying to convince himself rather than me. Dr. Veybach was no fool, but he wasn’t ready to give up on years of research, at least not yet. He desperately wanted to be known for explaining dark matter, not for something so mundane as creating a wormhole!

“I need several days to order parts and reconfigure the power supply,” he said. “Please be prepared to continue in two weeks.”

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I was glad to get a break, and Lisa was happy to go on a real date for a change. We took advantage of a beautiful Saturday by renting a canoe at the UW boathouse and paddling through the Arboretum. I splurged on a real restaurant that evening, with linen tablecloths and candles. Afterward, Lisa invited me back to her place to see her watercolors. I was impressed with her raw talent and passionate expression. I liked the paintings, too.

I’d been away from my job at the IT lab for a while, so I decided to check in on Monday morning. A fourth note greeted me almost as soon as I walked in.

Send the notes tonight
Access 3 – 8 – 2 – 4 – 9
9/03 6:58 am

A thought had been circulating in my brain for a while, about how to make some real money out of this. I went online and looked up recent Lotto results. There was a $3 million jackpot from a few days earlier with no winner. It could be mine if I sent myself the numbers!

I gathered all the ping pong balls and entered the Physics building just before ten pm. The cipher lock access code worked as expected, and Dr. Veybach hadn’t started his modifications yet, so everything started smoothly enough. I decided to wait until midnight to make sure the building was empty.

It took three hours to send four notes; most of the time was spent waiting for the capacitor banks to charge up. It also took time for the rings to spin up to speed and for my program to fine-tune the field settings before sending each ping pong ball to its correct place and time. I felt an increasing sense of relief as each ball disappeared, like I’d crossed an important item off a to-do list.

I ran into a problem with the fifth note. I’d set the machine to send it to the IT lab the morning of my last shift before I’d started working for Dr. Veybach. But when the lights flashed green, I was unable to push the Go button. I raised my hand several times, but some invisible force held me back. I even tried the old computer science trick of cycling the power and waiting for the lights to flash green again. The second attempt was no better.

I stood puzzling for a few moments before the bizarre truth of time travel smacked me between the eyes. I couldn’t send the fifth note because I already hadn’t! The ping pong ball with the Lotto numbers hadn’t shown up in my past, so I obviously didn’t send it. I already knew that there was no winner that week, and I couldn’t change history. The fifth ball hadn't already arrived, so I couldn’t send it now. It made sense in a weird way but thinking about the inverted cause and effect made my head hurt.

I left the physics building an hour before dawn, glad that Dr. Veybach wasn’t an early riser. 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.

Still, I couldn’t help wondering about the ping pong balls I did send. They popped in and out of existence like the mysterious quantum particles that may have triggered the big bang. There’s no proof that they were ever here. I didn’t even think to take a picture. And even though I recognized the handwriting, I don’t remember doing it. It seems ironic that the only note I couldn’t send is the only one I remember writing. All I know for sure is that those ping pong balls came out of the machine before they went in and . . . yeah, that definitely makes my head hurt. Most of all I wonder who actually wrote the notes, and when?

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I didn’t hear from Dr. Veybach, so I gave Lisa a call after working a bit later than usual at the IT lab the next Friday.

“You want to grab a bite and see that Deadpool Deep Six movie?” I asked. “I missed it when it was first released, but it’s playing at the Varsity now.

“You don’t have to work tonight?” Lisa replied.

“Nope, I’m still on break,” I said as my call waiting alert flashed.

Still on break, Doc, I thought as I sent the call to voice mail and put on my rain jacket to walk Lisa to the Varsity Theater.

We didn’t even notice the earthquake over the explosions on the action movie soundtrack. It wasn’t a big shake, but it did rattle things a bit. I read later that the seismologists were puzzled because it was so localized. The epicenter was directly under the UW campus and very shallow. One guy even said the tremor resembled an underground explosion more than an earthquake.

When we finally left the theater, I pulled up the missed call from Dr. Veybach and checked my voicemail.

“Michael? This is Dr. Veybach. I’m ready to begin testing the new power supply and I would like your help. I’ll be working late. Please come whenever you get this call.”

I was tempted to blow it off, but Lisa said she wanted an early night, anyway. I walked her back to campus, said goodnight, and then went to see how Dr. Veybach was getting along.

There was no response to the buzzer, and I wasn’t sure what I should do. I waited for a few minutes, just in case the Doc had gone to the bathroom, then curiosity got the better of me. I used the access code that I shouldn’t have known and opened the door on an eerily empty lab. There was a perfectly round hole where the machine had been. A chunk of the floor was missing, the power cables were all cleanly cut, and I could see down into the basement storage area below. One corner of the control panel was visible where it had fallen to the basement floor.

Pretty much all of the machine was gone, and most of the Doc. Part of his torso and one arm were cleanly sliced and lying next to where the control panel had been. A surprisingly small amount of blood had seeped out of what was left. There isn’t much blood pressure after the heart is gone.

I stared at the scene in shock for a few seconds before I realized that one of Dr. Veybach’s shoes was sitting at the edge of the hole, with a foot still inside. That foot was the final straw and I staggered over to a waste basket and threw up. It took a couple of minutes for my stomach to settle down enough to look around again.

Doc’s laptop was still on the bench and its webcam was still recording. My face was prominently displayed as I clicked on Stop, and saved the file. I replayed the video from the beginning, watching the Doc go through all of the usual test preparations, and making an occasional comment for the camera.

“This will be the first test of the 25-kilowatt power supply. It is my intention to create a significantly stronger magnetic field than in my previous experiments. This should be enough to permanently convert a small mass of normal matter into dark matter. The fact that no ping pong balls have appeared during the past week seems to confirm my quantum threshold conjecture.”

The video began to tremble about two seconds before the lights on the control panel went green. Everything in the lab did a little dance and I could see light fixtures swaying in the background. The Doc quickly pulled his hand back as the earthquake jolted his machine. He looked panicky as he began to realize what was happening. His face contorted as he lost the struggle to resist and slapped the Go button. Then the machine vanished and the Doc went with it. I watched his arm tumble to where I’d found it on the floor, and my stomach heaved again as I realized the shoe was balanced well enough that it didn’t even move.

Still feeling nauseous, I stumbled over to the landline that the university maintained in all the labs for emergency calls. This seemed to qualify.

“This is 911, what is your emergency?”

“Uh, yeah, I’m in a physics lab at the UW and there’s been an accident, and Dr. Veybach - “

My voice broke as a sudden wave of grief overwhelmed me.

“Is Dr. Veybach injured?”

“I think he’s . . . Oh my god, he’s dead . . . ” I trailed off again.

Saying it out loud made it even more real.

“What is your name please?”

I flashed on an image of news cameras and being grilled by the police before being kidnapped by men in black from area 51. “Just hurry,” I mumbled, and hung up the phone.

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I can’t prove it, but I’m certain that Dr. Veybach’s machine was making wormholes. It sent the ping pong balls across time and space. The new power supply must have expanded the size of the wormhole when it increased the intensity of the magnetic field. Who knows, maybe it did cross a quantum threshold. Maybe the next size up for a wormhole is just about the size of Doc’s machine.

My theory is that the earthquake tremors unbalanced the rotating rings and caused that last wormhole to send the machine a few seconds into the past and almost straight down. It seems plausible that the sudden appearance of a large mass in solid bedrock could trigger an earthquake.

Thinking about the inverted cause and effect still makes my head hurt. I believe Dr. Veybach triggered the earthquake that tweaked the machine and caused it to send him back to trigger the earthquake and . . . yeah. Time travel can be a real bitch.

I’d only known the Doc a few weeks, but his loss really hit me hard. I skipped the funeral and turned to Lisa for comfort. She was the only one who knew I’d been involved with his project and the only one I trusted to discuss it with.

“It’s too bad you couldn’t send those Lotto numbers,” Lisa said with a skeptical smile. “That would be the best proof.”

She didn’t completely believe my explanation of the Doc’s project; probably didn’t even understand most of it. I’d shown her the newsfeed headline: Physics Professor killed in freak lab accident. But even though the news story matched my description of the scene, she still found it difficult to accept the idea of a space-time wormhole. I hadn’t shown her the gruesome video file because I didn’t want anyone to know that I’d taken the Doc’s laptop.

“You have to admit that our meeting on the bus was more than just coincidence,” I insisted. “I knew you’d be on that bus before I’d even met you.”

“Well, maybe so,” she mused noncommittally. “But sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence.”

I know better, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I don’t believe that the earthquake was just an accident. There’s a wild theory going around that the universe is somehow sentient. If that’s true, then maybe the universe was sending a message. Maybe we aren’t meant to mess around with space-time. It seems a little bit too convenient that Dr. Veybach and his machine simply vanished. And, it was no coincidence that Lisa and I wound up together. Maybe it’s a warning and an incentive; I got the carrot and Dr. Veybach got the stick.

I’ve been tempted to go through the files on the laptop and look for the Doc’s designs. I could probably build another machine from his plans. It would mean a posthumous Nobel Prize for him and fame & fortune for me. But every time I open it up, I get that panicky feeling of impending doom. Like maybe the universe wants me to clean up the last loose end by destroying the laptop. If Lisa is my reward, and the universe wants us to be together, then who am I to argue?

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