Time Shadows

Dan, you won’t remember recording this final project log entry, but this is your own voice, isn’t it?

Dan, here’s the headline news: hyperunification really works. Three days ago the first test performed better than I dared hope. My prototype teleported a digital clock, a white rat, and a concrete block several meters and minutes through space-time.

Elated, I decided I could finally tell Cassandra everything.

Oh, Cassie, how I wish I could see you right now. You were so beautiful and so brilliant. You couldn’t follow a road map, but you analyzed hundreds of dusty tomes for your philosophy dissertation. Your political and spiritual insights always intrigued me—even when I disagreed. Yours was a prophetic voice—a voice I disastrously rejected.

Oh, Cassie, how I loved you. There. I finally said it. Why couldn’t I have told you that before it was too late?

I drove to Cassandra’s apartment the evening of my success, but, in case someone had me under surveillance, I dared tell her about my work only in a secluded spot. We walked to the park a few blocks from her apartment building. When we finally arrived, the sun was setting, and the shadows were crawling across the grass. Cassandra grew apprehensive about the approaching darkness, but, even as her fingers tightened over mine, I felt too agitated to notice.

I glanced suspiciously at a man slumped on a bench and shabbily dressed in a dirty red shirt, torn jeans, and a black coat. His eyes followed us. “I want to be sure no one will hear us,” I whispered to Cassandra as we walked on.

We turned off the concrete path and walked into the thickest part of the woods. I took one last look around but saw no one. Through the leaves, a sodium-vapor lamp served as a yellow moon. The darkening park was silent except for the chirp of crickets and the distant beat of ocean waves against the shore.

Then I told her everything. I felt like Prometheus, stealing space-time from the gods and giving it to Humanity. I expected Cassandra to also be thrilled, but teleporting objects through space as well as time alarmed her.

She believed the primary use of my machine would be its military application: delivering nuclear warheads. With hyperfield transporters capable of precise and instantaneous teleportation of bombs to other continents, missiles and bombers would become dawdling antiques.

If I could build such a device on my own, she insisted, any country could eventually also build hyperfield transporters. With a transporter and a handful of nuclear bombs, a third-world country or even a terrorist group could become a lethal nuclear superpower. Since countries would have neither warning before a nuclear attack nor sure identification of the aggressor, conflagrant chaos could envelop the earth.

I defended my machine by describing all the good it could do. Travel to the stars and observation of the Big Bang’s primal stages were now within humanity’s grasp. I could witness what killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago—and even bring a live specimen back with me for study. I could videotape what really happened on that grassy knoll in 1963 or the empty tomb in 33.

As we argued, our positions became more polarized and our metaphors more extreme. When she asserted my machine would lead to the final apocalyptic destruction of the planet, I finally howled, “Enough! I won’t listen to any more mystical techno-phobic politics! After all my labor do you expect me to stop now?”

“I hope you destroy your machine and all your records before it’s too late!”

“You’re crazy. I’d rather die than destroy my life’s work!” My final words to her were swallowed by the deepening gloom as I turned and marched away, abandoning her there to whatever might lurk in the shadows.

For a moment I lost my way in the darkness and crashed into a large bush. Thorns tore my flesh, but in my anger I hardly noticed. I rushed on until I found my car.

As I drove home, my blind fury cooled. I entered the doorway and noticed my clothes had been ripped in several places. The back of my right hand oozed blood from deep scratches. To tend my wounds I walked into the bathroom. After switching on the light, I momentarily felt startled by my reflection in the mirror. For an instant, I thought I saw someone else, something else, looking back at me. But then, of course, I saw my mirror’s image was just a 37-year-old physicist with bloody gashes on his forehead.

My wounds hurt as I washed them, but inside I felt greater pain. I simultaneously felt angry at Cassandra over what she said, guilty over the way I abandoned her, and depressed over the apparent end of our relationship.

That night when elusive sleep finally came to me, a strange nightmare tagged along. In that shadow from my subconscious I climbed a high mountain. When I reached the top I could see all the countries of the world and all the dynasties of both past and present in one cosmic sweep of space-time. My triumph, however, was chilled by a serpentine voice from the shadows under a boulder. “All this can be yours,” it hissed. “Come, I will inspire you and exalt you and make you master of space and time. You will be like God!”

I backed away from the ominous voice, and then, like some enormous optical illusion, the mountain inverted into a black yawning abyss. Down, down I fell through the empty air, twisting and screaming—

The alarm clock woke me. But even long after I shut off the obnoxious buzz, my heart still pounded. My fear slowly ebbed as I shaved and showered, but then my depression returned in its place.

As I sullenly ate my cold bowl of cereal, the doorbell rang. My heart drummed faster again. It must be Cassandra, I thought, here to demand an apology for the monstrous way I treated her. Yes, I would express regrets, and everything would surely be fine again, I naively thought. I rushed to the door and wrenched it open.

“Cas—” Her name died on my lips. Instead of an attractive blonde, two grim police officers stood on my doorstep.

They spoke my name.

I nodded mutely.

They uttered their ghastly message. Last night in the park, they informed me, Cassandra had been raped and stabbed to death. Her body had then been dumped in the ocean.

They took me in to the station, questioned me, and then held me on suspicion of murder. Hours later, however, they discovered my blood type did not match the blood found under Cassandra’s fingernails, and they also brought in another suspect. That man, who also had fresh scratches on his face, wore a dirty red shirt, torn jeans, and a black coat. I identified him as the man I had seen on the park bench that night, and he confessed to the rape and murder of Cassandra as well as two other women in the past.

After the police released me, I craved racing back down the corridor, grabbing the murderer by his throat, and pounding his scratched head against the bars until his brains splattered across the floor. Instead, I just numbly accepted my personal effects, and entered the waiting police car that took me home.

Late in the afternoon I finally drove to the lab. Work, I hoped, would be good therapy.

Unlocking the lab door, I automatically shuffled in and relocked the door behind me. I sat down in front of the computer’s keyboard, and I stared blankly at the transport chamber in the adjoining room.

The chamber was a six-foot-tall egg-shaped monstrosity perched on twin legs of steel I-beams. The rounded steel gleamed like a huge copy of my boss’s bald head. Ten high-voltage cables connected to horn-like ceramic insulators. Two hinged panels, one swinging up and the other down, served as an access into the hollow interior. The doors were now open, like the jaws of a huge horned beast.

Cassandra’s words whirled through my mind. Yes, like any machine, my transporter could be used for either good or evil. The more powerful the machine, the greater the good or the greater the evil.

I reconsidered my decision. Should I destroy it? Should I destroy such potential, such achievement? Should I choose to remain undistinguished when I deserved greatness?

No. I would not destroy it. I would continue. I deserved the fame I would get.

My defiance helped me endure my anguish. I stayed in the lab until late in the evening, concentrating on theory, on space-time, on anything but my feelings.

That night I had another nightmare. I stood alone in the park at the edge of the beach. A huge mushroom cloud filled the sky, and twisted charcoal skeletons of trees jutted above blackened sand.

Blood covered my hands, and my right hand grasped a large dripping butcher knife. Crying out, I hurled the blade from me. Spinning rapidly like a boomerang, the knife arced across the beach and splashed into the breakers. I walked down to the edge of the beach and bent down to wash my hands, but the thick, dark liquid made my hands even bloodier.

At the point the knife splashed into the surf, the blood began to bubble. The crimson waves grew higher, and out of the turbulence rose some thing that looked like my transporter, but was alive.

The living spheroid, emerging from the ocean of blood, bristled with ten sharp horns. It crouched on two silver legs, ready to spring. Like a cat holding a mouse, the monster held in its jaws the mangled, bloody body of Cassandra. Horrified, I watched as the eyes of Cassandra’s corpse opened to stare back into mine.

I awoke screaming into the silence of my empty bedroom. I could not sleep again because I feared the shadows within. Instead, I rose, listlessly read technical journals until dawn, showered, and then with bloodshot eyes drove to my private lab at Quantum Technologies.

Quantum had rewarded me with the lab and the freedom to initiate my own projects because I was Quantum’s star athlete in the research and development game. To avoid sharing the glory if I succeeded or appearing foolish if I failed, I worked on hyperunification at Quantum in secret—at least I thought it was secret. How could I have been so absurdly naive?

That morning as usual the security guard quickly opened the gate after only a cursory but polite greeting. Glancing in the rear-view mirror as I drove through, I saw him reach for the phone, but I thought nothing of it.

I parked my car in my designated spot, trudged through the company’s maze of hallways, and pulled out my private lab’s key. But the lab’s door was unlocked. I quickly shoved it open.

I froze in the doorway, stunned to see a dozen men, most of them in military uniforms, scrutinizing my equipment. They were like vultures wheeling around a dying animal, watching hungrily, and knowing its flesh would soon be theirs.

Rushing over to me, my boss nervously prevaricated about how providing assistants would free me from mundane research tasks and enable me to concentrate on more important matters. His pink bald head and hollow squawks were only a blur to me, however, because three words overpowered my mind with compulsive repetition: Cassandra was right, Cassandra was right, Cassandra was right....

I rarely touched alcohol because I wanted no damage to any precious brain cells. As I drank my one bottle of muscatel that night, however, I wanted to do a lot of damage.

The passion to wreck my transporter and burn my notes gripped me, but I was too late. Yesterday I could have done so. Yesterday, but no longer. Copies of all my notes, programs, and schematics now lay somewhere in a “safe” vault.

They missed only my cassette tapes with my verbal log. Those tapes were old rock music cassettes that I had recorded over, and no one had suspected their import. I had sneaked those tapes and my small cassette recorder home and had stashed them in a drawer.

I rationalized my anguish. I had meant my invention to be a tool for truth, not a weapon. Evil lay not in my transporter, but in the hearts of those around me. The depraved destructiveness of the human race was not my fault.

Five centuries ago Leonardo da Vinci had conceived of a primitive attack submarine but never divulged his plan because “of the evil nature of men who would practice assassinations at the bottom of the seas.” His was a noble gesture, but today gray monsters pregnant with megatons of death prowl the ocean’s depths. Leonardo’s humanitarian concern hardly delayed the inevitable. Even if I had destroyed my work, someday someone else would invent space-time travel. The result would be the same.

My rationalizations dissolved, however, when I thought of Cassandra. Yes, even if she had not been murdered in the park, she inevitably would have died some other day in some other place. But if I had not angrily abandoned her in the park, she would be alive now.

I killed her. No, I had not ripped the blade through her throat, but I had killed her just the same. My blind pride and selfishness sentenced her to an untimely death.

“God!” I yelled at the ceiling. “Why did you let this happen?”

There was only silence from above, but I knew the answer. I had free will, and I had used my divine right to destroy my life in the way I chose. I couldn’t blame Cassandra’s God for letting me do as I pleased.

From my bookshelf I pulled the dusty Bible Cassandra once gave me. I flipped uncertainly through it, and then like anyone who lacks the patience to read a whole novel, I turned to the end and read most of Revelation. The vivid images of angels, demons, beasts, war, and death made little sense to me except that after terrifying turmoil there’s a happy ending. But happy endings, I believed, only happen in fairy tales.

I placed the Bible back in the bookcase and went to the night table beside my bed. From the drawer I pulled out my nine-millimeter automatic. I stared at it for a moment and then put the barrel next to the bandage on my forehead. I felt the steel circle pressing against my skin. I imagined pulling the trigger, imagined the bullet hurtling through my tormented brain, imagined the great release of death.

But my finger did not twitch. I slowly put the gun away. I would not use it while I might still invent other options. I could end my earthly misery, but that would not bring back Cassandra or help anyone else. If I were to die, I wanted my death to have meaning.

Having nothing else that I felt like doing, I went to bed early. Hours later I dropped off into yet another troubled sleep.

The red digits of the clock in my nightmare’s lab silently declared the time of midnight. A steel cage had been built around my transport chamber. The chamber was gone, however. The thick bars on one side of the cage were snapped and twisted. At first glance I thought the chamber had been stolen, but the bars were all bent from the inside outward—as if what had been inside had escaped.

In the bars, polished to a mirror-like finish, I could see reflected images of myself. My images, however, wore clothing distinctly different from mine. My dopplegängers dressed as prophets of doom, in long white beards, torn robes, and worn sandals.

My ghostly doubles aimed fingers at my heart and shouted in unison, “You did not heed the warning! Into this world you’ve brought the Beast!” They spat out the last word as if it burned their tongues.

“Even if I hadn’t discovered space-time travel, someday somebody else would have.”

“Yes. ‘It was, and is not, and is to come.’ But the time is not yet. You must stop it.”

“Stop it?” I laughed bitterly. “I wish I could. I wish I could erase my mistakes. I wish I could bring Cassandra back to life. I wish I could save the world....”

The next morning I did not attend Cassandra’s funeral. I could not face seeing her family there, and, also, I finally had a plan. Cassandra would have approved of my plan.

Exhausted from lack of sleep, but high on adrenaline, I arrived at the lab. Two armed guards stood inside the doorway. I stared at the black muzzles of their machine guns. Impulsively, I nearly shouted at them to shoot, to shed my blood first, to make me the sacrificial lamb on the Pentagon’s altar. I restrained my urge, but I walked into my lab—what once was my lab—imagining bullets piercing flesh.

The day seemed to limp on forever. The work I did under others’ eyes provided a smoke screen for my real intentions. Finally at dusk, my “research assistants” reluctantly went home after I announced I would stay most of the night to do some calculations. With only two guards left in the lab, I sat at my desk feeling both relief and fear.

I needed several minutes to gather enough courage to program the very special instructions into the computer. Pressing the last button, I slowly and methodically rose, trying desperately to control the tremors invading my body.

Sixty seconds. As nonchalantly as my will power could manage, I walked through the doorway leading into the second room of the lab. Built to contain experimental disasters, the walls were massive concrete with small recessed explosion-resistant windows. Deliberately, I left the door open to postpone drawing attention to my act.

Forty seconds. I decided against switching on the room lights, and in the semi-gloom the transporter indeed looked sinister. Since the transport chamber stood at one side of the room, the guards could no longer see my actions. As silently as I could, I opened the clamshell door of the chamber. While counting off the seconds, I crept inside. The polished steel egg was just big enough to contain a person.

Twenty seconds. I softly closed the “jaws” of the chamber, plunging myself into total darkness. The fit was tight. I felt as if I were in my coffin.

Fifteen seconds. I wrapped my arms around myself to dampen the trembling.

Ten seconds. Through the steel cocoon I heard a guard faintly call my name.

Five seconds. Again he called my name—more loudly—and I heard running feet.

My eyes shut reflexively as a silent explosion of blue light shattered the darkness, a maelstrom of forces knocked the breath from me, and I felt myself falling. . . .

I’m not sure how long I lay on the floor. I’m not sure if I lost consciousness or not. When I opened my eyes again, I could see only darkness.

The floor beneath me was flat, not curved like the chamber. I pulled out my pocket flashlight. In its tiny circle of light, I saw the computer console. The transport chamber was in the other room.

I had done it. I had transported myself from the chamber to the control room. It was only a few yards, but the exact distance didn’t matter. I could just as easily have transported myself a thousand miles.

Being the first human to travel through space-time seemed a dubious honor. I could have been a distinctly different payload. I could have been a hundred-million degree fireball bursting instantaneously over an air base, a missile complex, a city...or anywhere.

There was a second reason the distance was unimportant. What really mattered was the time.

I scrambled over to the digital clock on my workbench. I pressed a button and the glowing red digits flashed the date. I had traveled back to the early morning before Cassandra died. I sat on the floor, and from mingled sorrow, guilt, relief, and new hope, started to sob.

Now that I’ve regained control of myself, I will finish recording this tape. I will then use the transporter to teleport the tape and recorder back to my house. That trip will be through space with no displacement in time. The recorder will materialize at the foot of my bed where my past self is currently sleeping.

Then I will program my machine to transport a payload a millisecond into the past to the payload’s own spatial coordinates. I will place several concrete blocks in the chamber. After setting the timer, I will then shut myself in the chamber with the blocks. When the autosequencer finishes its deadly countdown, the blocks and I will transport a millisecond backward in time, we will unsuccessfully attempt to occupy the same space twice, and then we will vaporize.

Two of me can’t keep living in the same continuum. As the loose thread must be cut off before the whole sweater unravels, I must cut my time thread before it unravels the world.

If I am successful, in the morning you will discover the recorder in your bedroom, you will listen to this message, you will see the transporter blown to bits, you will prevent Cassandra’s murder, and you will not let the vultures get their newest weapon.

Good-bye, Dan. Give my love to Cassie.

* * *

After the message ended I dazedly listened to the weak hiss while I fumbled for the STOP button. Could this tape be an elaborate hoax? Could anyone else know my very thoughts?

I pressed RECORD and spoke into the microphone: “Good-bye, Dan. Give my love to Cassie.” I rewound the tape and played back the end of the message and then the line I had just recorded. The two voices were identical.

I rechecked all the locks of my apartment, but every door and window was securely fastened. No intruder could have entered and escaped unnoticed. This recorder couldn’t have thumped down on my darkened bedroom carpet in any way other than as described on the tape. And if the tape was true, then by now...

I turned on the television. The early morning news was showing coverage of the explosion and fire that had just leveled Quantum Technologies. The part of the building that had contained my lab was now a smoking crater. The only trace left of my research was inside my head—where it was going to stay.

My hands shook as I shaved my unscratched face. I threw on some clothes and ran out the door into the early morning coolness.

The stars still flickered in the indigo sky above me as I drove to a phone booth. Calling the police with an anonymous tip, I described the man responsible for two unsolved murders and told them they could find him armed with a knife in the middle of the park tonight. I hung up the phone before they could trace the call and continued driving to Cassandra’s apartment.

Behind her apartment the luminous eastern sky hinted of the approaching dawn as I topped the darkened steps and pushed the doorbell. I heard a sleepy voice, and as the door opened Cassie’s backlit blond hair formed a golden halo around her head.

I stepped into the warm room with her but couldn’t speak. All I could do was hug her as the tears ran down my face. I wanted to tell her I loved her. I wanted to hold her forever. I wanted to keep her safe from the shadows.

Copyright 1996 Mark D. Stucky.

Go to the Home page, Cinema page, Spirituality page, or Science Fiction page.