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June 24, 2024

Tabula Rasa

By John Paulits

Students lazed on the grass of the quad, most with their eyes wedded to a digital device. Summer sessions were condensed and intense, but students still treated the summer as a weeks-long respite from the grueling months-long semester behind them. One pathway led away from the grassy expanse of stretched-out co-eds to a small building very few people involved with Endicott University ever entered. Anyone not involved with the university had no prayer of entering or of even getting a hint of what went on inside.

Professor Carl Tyson walked briskly across the quad toward the building, dubbed by those in the know as the IF building. Into the Future. He ignored the students but nonetheless had a sharp yearning to be one of them. Twenty-five years earlier, he had been one of them. Science major. He, too, took summer classes but not for his degree. Extra classes. Classes setting him on the long road leading to the IF building. He had to complete his work by Labor Day, a week off, when the funding ran out. He had no hope of getting a renewal, especially for such a pie-in-the-sky project as he led. He'd been shocked immeasurably when the Research and Development Committee granted his original funding request and then backed it up with two six-month renewals. He knew his deadline was firm, though. Professor Packard, chairman of the committee, had taken him aside and put him in the know. Don't bother reapplying. No further renewals. Period. Beginning with the fall semester, you're back in the classroom. The IF building will be put to better use.

Tyson scowled. Better use. As if anyone could think of a better use. Something easier to accomplish, yes. But better? No. He had to complete his work in a week's time.

He tapped his security code into the door assembly and entered. He nodded at Karen, still at her desk even though the paperwork involved steadily diminished with the tapering off of the program. He passed through another locked doorway and paused, in awe as always. A small, round bathysphere-shaped contrivance large enough for a man to comfortably nestle into rested on a round, metal collar attached to the floor. There were no windows in the sphere, and the hull was, theoretically, impervious to anything Mother Nature or science could throw at it. A solid six-inch titanium lip around the small entry hatch ensured its security. Any trip it might venture upon, theoretically, would take up very little time, so oxygen wasn't a problem. Nonetheless, a small emergency canister, some twenty minutes worth of breathable air, was attached to the inner wall.

A string of state-of-the-art computers lined a rectangular table along a wall near the bathysphere. Two people sat at the computers, their backs to Professor Tyson. He walked over and tapped one of them on the shoulder. The man turned.

"Oh, Carl. You're here."

"I'm here, Ron. Hi, Lacey."

The young woman nodded a greeting.

"So, Ron. Where are we?" asked Tyson.

"Enjoy your weekend away?"

"It made Debbie happy, and I enjoyed that very much."

"She'll get you back soon enough, I'm afraid."

"Oh. Now what?"

"Lacey and I have been computing our hearts out."

"And stomachs, too," Lacey added. She pointed at two cardboard pizza boxes under her table.

"What?" Tyson repeated.

"The best we can come up with is two hundred years ... if it works." Ron gave a dubious flicker of his eyebrows. "Going forward two hundred years is the shortest trip programmable. You want to know why?"

"No. You'll start with paradoxes and all that other mumbo-jumbo."

"I will."

"The circuitry, though. Is the circuitry solid?"

Lacey answered. "As far as we can tell. I've found no glitches, no gaps ... but I'm sure you know that already since you did the circuitry."

Ron chuckled. "So no going a week ahead for the stock market report."

Tyson ignored the crack and nodded distractedly toward Lacey. He did know that. He was as certain the machine would function as he'd ever been sure of anything. He dismissed any concerns regarding the circuitry. Lacey and Ron dealt with the machine's range of motion. Two hundred years!

"So what do you think?" asked Ron, pulling Tyson back into the moment.

"What do I think? What can I think? If that's the best we can do ..." He left the sentence unfinished.

"You can't be serious?" Lacy said. "God knows what you'll find. The machine travels time, not geography ... if it goes anywhere at all. It might end up in a garbage dump."

"Or at the bottom of a lake," Ron added.

"Stop. Garbage dump ... lake. Be serious." He pointed. "It will be right where we see it, simply two hundred years from now. The video it brings back will show what's there."

"But what will be there?" asked Ron. "Be ironic if it works, but we can't use it."

"Or it might be damaged in transit, and we won't be able to bring it back at all," Lacey added.

"I've built in redundancies to address those possibilities. All that sort of worrying is behind us."

Ron and Lacey shared a glance. They'd discussed it between themselves and they knew. Ron said it. "You're going to make a trip yourself, aren't you?"

"Of course, but only after we properly test the capsule's capabilities. We always knew if we got this far I'd have to test the machine. Two hundred years -- quite a jump, though. Look, history is full of last minute breakthroughs. We have five days. See whether the jump can be shortened. Friday afternoon, the college will clear out for Labor Day. We'll go on Friday evening. I'll presume you've not made any plans for the weekend."

"We both knew better than to make plans," said Lacey with a touch of weariness.

"Good. I'll go over my circuitry again, assure the redundancies again, check everything again. Friday evening we'll send IF on a very brief jaunt and bring it back. If it checks out, I go on Saturday." He waited for rebuttals. None came.

"Have you brought Debbie up-to-date on this?" Lacey asked. She'd developed a fondness and great sympathy for Debbie Tyson over the past eighteen months. They'd come to talk about nearly everything in their lives, everything except for what went on in the IF building. She knew Carl would have given her the axe immediately if she breached secrecy. The R and D committee knew Carl was investigating 'time.' Was it possible to move in and out of time as theorized by more than one imaginative, but credible, serious thinker? She could not for the life of her understand how such a proposal made its way through the R and D committee. Nothing had yet been written up from their work. No journal ever intimated such research was occurring. There'd been no mention of it anywhere, not at faculty meetings or parties beyond a polite, How's your research going? No one could possibly understand what went on in their building. It was so sci-fi-fictional, no one cared. Debbie cared but wouldn't ask. She hinted to Lacey she'd like more information, but Lacey evaded her probes.

"I haven't told her everything yet," said Tyson, shutting down the topic. "You carry on. Please, take some time and go out for a real meal. No more pizza." He offered a smile but got none in return. He left his assistants and set out for home. He had to tell Debbie something. She deserved to know. Her reaction would be just another hurdle to overcome on his way. His way to the future.

~ * ~

"You're home early, Carl."

"Yeah, well. We're winding down." He'd hoped Debbie might be out so he could give himself time to construct a good story, not that he hadn't had eighteen months already, but there she sat, in the living room reading, a cup of coffee at her elbow.

"Any luck getting away this weekend?"

"Nope, we have to close things out, and we're up against a deadline. I'll drive you and Hannah to your mom's Friday afternoon like we planned. I'll try to get there some time Sunday so we can have at least a day together."

"Want?" Debbie indicated her coffee cup. "There's still some in the pot."

"No." He took a breath. "Look, I'm doing something on Saturday. Going someplace. Part of the study."

"Oh?" The look on Carl's face provoked Debbie's next question. "Part of the study or part of the experiment? I'm a scientist's wife. I know the difference. Where can you go over Labor Day weekend?"

Time to drop the other shoe, Carl thought. "Into the future."

Their eyes locked, and a stretch of silence ensued.

"Come again?"

"We've taken the study as far as we can. It must be tested."

"By you?"

"Who else?"

"Anyone else. Anything else. What do you mean, you're going into the future?"

"Ron and Lacey have determined the machine can take a two-hundred-year leap ahead." He purposely phrased his sentence and gilded his tone to make it seem as if that were a good thing rather than a sheer necessity.

"Two hundred ... You can't be serious."

"Very serious. The data's good."

"Data," mumbled Debbie. "Well, have a nice trip. Just be sure to be at Mom's by Sunday."

Carl stood stunned. "You ... you don't think it will work, do you?"

"Carl, you've had a wonderful eighteen months. I know how you've enjoyed it. Do what you must to close out things, and after Labor Day we'll be back to normal family living. Hannah's a teenager now. You need to be around more." She picked up her coffee cup and sipped. "It's cold. You sure? My treat."

"No, no. I need to check my ..."

"Data. I know. Go." Debbie walked into the kitchen, and Carl, still puzzled, even offended, by his wife's nonchalance, headed for his office thinking, she doesn't believe me. She thinks I've been on some kind of a lark wasting eighteen months of my life.

He couldn't help but wonder whether she was right.

~ * ~

Ron and Lacey worked diligently over their computers. Carl sat as his own computer waiting for their go-ahead. He'd driven Debbie and Hannah to his mother-in-law's; the students were gone; the dorms locked, not to be opened until Tuesday morning at six. Security lights had begun popping on across the campus as a calm, deepening gray began to blot out the landscape.

"How long?" Carl asked, trying to keep impatience from his tone.

Lacey leaned back in her chair. "I'm good."

Ron struck a key decisively and lifted his arms above his head. "Mr. Computer says let's do this thing."

"Two hundred years ahead?" said Carl.

"Yes, yes," said Lacey. "It will be gone for seven minutes and then return. So say we. A minute later, we see what we see. You'll do the honors, Carl?"

Carl glanced at the IF machine, a totem of his eighteen months of monomania; of being out of the house; of Debbie's cold acceptance of his work. For something or for nothing?

"In for a penny ..." He touched enter on his keyboard. Everyone watched the IF machine, which seemed to grow liquid for a moment before it melted away.

"There it goes," said Lacey. "That by itself is amazing."

"This'll be the seven longest minutes of my life," Ron muttered.

No one spoke. What could they say? Either it worked or it didn't. This was not a prototype machine. It was the machine. All three kept vigil with the countdown clock now creeping backward toward the two-minute mark. Ron glanced at Lacey, and both of them glanced at Carl, whose eyes were closed in tension.

"One minute," said Lacey.

"This is excruciating," said Ron.

"Look!" cried Carl. The liquid image of the IF capsule shimmered and hardened. The countdown clocked stopped at all zeroes. The machine sat in front of them.

"Go touch it," said Ron. "Make sure it's really there."

No one moved.

"Download, Lacey," Carl ordered.

Ron and Carl moved over Lacey's shoulders as the data transferred, and an image formed on the screen.

"What is that?" asked Ron.

Lacey's screen showed gray, wispy smoke tendrils weaving a hypnotic pattern. Something dark and solid passed by quickly in the distance. For seven minutes they watched, but nothing positively recognizable crossed before their eyes.

"Not a building, not a person," said Ron. He looked at Carl. "What do you think?"

"I think it went and returned safely," said Carl. "The technology is sound."

"Went where, though?" asked Lacey. "What did we just see?"

"Let's go through the video feed again. Slowly. Then we'll send it off a second time," said Carl.

The second viewing produced no insights, and they sent the machine on another seven minute journey.

Again, the capsule returned intact. They watched the second burst of data.

"A building! Go back," said Carl. Lacey settled what Carl had seen into a still image.

"It does look like a building," said Ron. "It must be a foggy night there."

"It's a building," said Carl. He very much wanted it to be a building. "We'll do another unmanned trip tomorrow in daylight. If it goes well, I'll go next."

~ * ~

By seven A. M. the three scientists were at their computers.

"It's ready to go on my side," said Lacey.

"Same here," said Ron.

Carl hit enter and they waited.

After a moment Lacey put her hand on Carl's arm. "Are you sure you want to do this?"

"My heart is about to burst," Carl replied softly. "Anticipation, not fear or anything like fear. I know this will work. It'll be counted the greatest breakthrough in technology in the history of the world." He began to pace, keeping his eyes on the countdown clock.

Lacey and Ron shared a glance. Neither had ever heard such a grandiose claim from Carl. Ever. They knew the moment was getting to him.

The IF shimmered and reappeared. They watched the download through the tendrils of fog still sweeping by, but a building, now clearly delineated in the hazy daylight, stood on the screen.

"Where are the people?" asked Lacey. "If time matches," said Carl, "they must all be asleep. Why wouldn't they be at this hour? Keep watching."

At the six-minute twenty-seven-second mark, they did see a person. The person walked near the distant building and paused to stare in the direction of the IF capsule. The person waved to someone out of range, but the data feed dissolved before a second person appeared.

Carl walked to the capsule and laid a tender hand on its shell.

"Film me getting in," he said.

"Whoa!" Lacey cried. "Now? Immediately?"

"Let it be another seven-minute trip. I'll simply open the hatch. I won't leave the capsule. At the thirty-second mark, I'll close the hatch no matter what."

Lacey and Ron did what had become a habit with them. The looked at one another bereft of a response.

"Both of you. Your cells."

They videoed Carl opening the hatch, climbing in, and closing the hatch. They allowed Carl a moment to situate himself.

"You do it," said Ron. "I'll film you."

Lacey frowned but lost her frown quickly since she did not want to go down in history with it on her face. She masked herself with determination and pressed enter.

Carl felt nothing but noted the steady green light indicating engagement, and a moment later the interior countdown clock commenced its backward journey. He tried the hatch. The handle gave way, and he pushed the door open.

Cloying warmth along with snaky, sly wisps of fog invaded his cabin. In the distance two people stood before the building he'd glimpsed in the data feed. Carl leaned out of the open hatchway. He saw other buildings. Thick clouds of different shades from deep gray, nearly but not quite black, to puffy, scudding white clouds filled the sky. No patch of blue sky shone through. He gestured with a friendly wave toward the two men, who had begun to slowly come near. Carl glanced at his clock. Five minutes thirty-two seconds until his return.

"Hello," Carl called. "Can you hear me?"

The men stopped. "We can hear you."

"Don't be alarmed. I can explain myself."

Carl watched the two men discuss the situation. He could not hear what they said.

"Please hurry. I have only another four minutes."

The two men stepped nearer, clearly ready to bolt at the slightest provocation. The men dressed in short sleeved tunics and what could only be called skirts. They legs were bare and they wore sandals. Their clothes forced Carl to again note the suffocating warmth of the day. And the humidity.

"This machine you are in. It appears and disappears. Where are you from? You speak English."

"You should not ask from where. You should ask from when."

When this provoked no response, Carl glanced over his shoulder. Two minutes-forty.

"My machine must return in two and a half minutes, but if you wait here, I'll attempt to visit again in fifteen or twenty minutes." He'd quickly calculated two viewings of the data. "Do not leave. I must talk to you."

"Ask when?" one of the men managed. "What do you mean ask when?"

"I come from two hundred years in the past. I don't have time to explain now, but please, I beg you. Stay here and I will return in no more than fifteen minutes. I must close up now. Don't fear me. I'm harmless. My machine is harmless. I'll be back." Carl closed the hatch and seated himself. Thirty-seven seconds later he opened the hatch and stepped out into his lab.

"People!" Carl cried. "I met people. Two people. Download the data. Play it. You'll see. They're waiting for me to come back. Play it."

Lacey and Ron watched and listened to Carl's brief conversation with two men who hadn't yet been born.

"I don't believe it," whispered Ron.

"Believe it," Carl barked. "Reset the IF for two hours. No more seven minute trips."

"Carl ..." Lacey said, but Carl cut her short.

"Two hours. We're short on time, or didn't you realize?"

Lacey did not appreciate the tone Carl adopted, but then it struck her hard. She had seen the future. Carl had to go back.

"You can check out the circuitry, at least, while we reprogram," said Lacey.

"The circuitry's fine. I need to use the rest room, and then you both be ready," said Carl.

"Go," said Ron. "I'm nearly ready now."

A few minutes later, Carl settled into the sphere. The countdown clock read two hours. The green light came on, and when the clock began its time descent, he opened the hatch.

Part One of Two

Article © John Paulits. All rights reserved.
Published on 2016-02-22
Image(s) are public domain.
3 Reader Comments
09:15:25 PM
Interesting. Nice pacing -- just the proper meting out of action and detail to hook the reader in and leave them wanting more. I'm looking forward to the conclusion.
07:29:44 PM
Agreed. Very nice pacing and tension to hook me. More please!
06:52:58 PM
I love this. But as a writer I give warning: endings are hard.
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