A man on the brink of a big discovery meets with a mysterious stranger.
|Colin had always been fascinated by science. From his earliest days, he had impressed his teachers and now, as a researcher, he enjoyed the reputation as being willing to examine unusual avenues. All the big advances had been made by the people who were smart and brave enough to go down the road less traveled: Copernicus, Einstein, Heisenberg, Hawking, Sullivan; they had all done it, and now he was trying to add the name Stevens to that list. Colin felt he was on the brink of something big. Something Nobel-prize big. So when he found the note in his faculty box inviting him to meet for a ‘little talk’ at one of the local lawyer bars downtown, he figured that word was getting around, that it would turn out to be someone important who wanted to connect themselves to the research—and the researcher—that would soon hit pay dirt.
As he drove to the bar, he entertained himself by imagining that it would be Henry Timborlin, the pompous chair of the physics department, who had once denigrated one of Colin’s papers to a graduate class audience. Or perhaps it would be Beverly Ben Anistete, the cold fish that had vetoed his first four grant packages, come to make her flimsy apologies so she could share in some of Colin’s imminent reflected glory. Or maybe it would be Simon Weatherhammer, a self-important, overbearing mathematician who, having recently been knighted for work he stole in the 1970s, now insisted on being called ‘Sir Simon.’ Colin hoped it would be ‘Sir Simon.’
Colin pushed the door open and stood while his eyes adjusted to the darkness. It was a small place, bar in the back, booths along the side, dark and quiet. He stepped over to the bar and then noticed that a man was motioning to him. Colin went over; it wasn’t Sir Simon and it wasn’t Timborlin either; Colin felt a little disappointment, but he sat down on the stool next to the stranger.
“Hello, thank you for coming,” the stranger said. He nodded to the barman, who was nearby. “Gin and tonic for my friend, please.”
“Yes, that will be fine,” Colin replied. “Do I know you?”
“No,” the man said. “I have some information that you will be interested in. Information about monopoles, and some other things.”
“Are you a researcher?”
“Not exactly.” The man said. The barman sat Colin’s drink on the bar and stepped away. “I’m here to offer you some advice.”
Colin took a sip of his drink. “What advice would that be?”
“Advice about monopoles. Advice about where your work is leading.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Colin said. “Well, my work is pretty complicated.”
“Oh, yes, I know,” the man said. “Let’s see. You’ve worked your way through the T-values on all the baryons and you’ve got some of the pairs figured out. You’ve on the right track with the charge tokening and you’ll soon realize that since parity isn’t conserved on the mesons, you’ll be able to use the Higgs field to make quantum erasing work.”
Colin’s mouth dropped open. “How do you know all that?”
The stranger shrugged. “We know.”
“Are you from the government?”
The stranger shrugged. “Not in the sense that you mean. Where I come from, the good old US of A is just a chapter in a history book.” He took a sip from his own glass. “But in a way, we are a sort of government.”
“Is that so?” Colin replied.
“Yes. We govern the discoveries you’re about to make. Discoveries that lead to time travel.” Colin hadn’t dared to use those words—time travel—in any of his discussions, and certainly not in any papers, but he had imagined, wondered, hoped, and lately even believed that what he was doing would lead in that direction. “You see, time travel seems like a great thing to have,” the stranger continued. “Who wouldn’t like to go back and relive the past, correct our mistakes, visit loved ones long gone. Sure. The problem is that as soon as you have that, you start changing things.”
“Well, that would be the point, I guess.”
“Right,” the stranger continued. “Save Kennedy. Prevent Pearl Harbor. Stop 9/11. If you can, why shouldn’t you?” He finished his drink and turned to face Colin. “The problem is that you don’t really save anybody. You only change the people who get it in the neck. Somebody always gets it in the neck. Somebody has to. The people who do have people who are going to want to change that. And so pretty soon, you get involved in this great battle of going back and changing things, then changing the change, and then changing the change to the change, and so on.”
“What if the secret is kept secret?” Colin asked.
“Yeah. You can’t really do that, though.” The stranger pulled a small object, a little black square, out of his coat. “The only thing you can do that works is prevent the discovery in the first place.” He manipulated the device; it unfolded in his hands. “I’m really sorry about this.”
Colin looked at the object; it didn’t appear dangerous, but he was suddenly wary. Colin stood up. “Listen, I’ve got an early morning tomorrow, so—”
The stranger interrupted him. “As a consolation, I’ll tell you that this is about the earliest that it’s ever been discovered. This is what—2021? Usually, you folks don’t stumble upon the secret until about 2080 or so.” He put his thumb on the device and looked up. “Really. I’m sorry.”
Colin stepped away from the bar and was halfway to the door when the stranger pushed the side of the device. Colin faded and was simply no longer there; other changes occurred too. Colin’s apartment changed. Some changes occurred to the labels on the faculty boxes.
And in a secluded cemetery in western Ohio, a small stone appeared, engraved with the words “Stevens, Infant, 1961.”