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By George Steele
Roberto Marcos arrived in Manchester approximately eight years before the Shift. On arrival, he saw a fierce-looking dragon. Then he saw the clashing cymbals and decorative arch, and realised he was in the city’s Chinatown district, and relaxed. Where he came from, dragons were common.
The beauty of it all instantly took him aback. He could taste diesel fumes, smell warm food cooking, he could see harsh sunshine bounce off concrete and glass. There was a trickle of rain. As it dripped onto his skin, warm and wet, he had to control himself not to shrink away from it. Then he saw people. Hundreds, no, thousands of them. They were walking to shops, to work, to home, to wherever they lived. Had lived. They walked. They did not run or cower or try to mingle with their surroundings. They had no fear of what was to come.
He stepped through the streets, wary, feeling like a somnambulist, half-expecting the dream bubble to burst. The mixture of feelings was quite overwhelming. He wanted to cry, laugh, burst into song, grab hold of the nearest passer-by and shout some sense into them. But he did none of these things. He told himself to focus on the task. He was Lieutenant, first-class. He filled his mind with the mission he had to accomplish. His own insignificant desires meant nothing.
He scoured the streets for a taxi. He spoke with the driver, putting on a mask of shallow conversation to elicit casual details of where he was, and when.
He remembered the last look Shakespeare had given him. ‘All our hopes go with you,’ he had said. ‘If you fail, we are forever drowned in this fog of uncertainties.’ Surprisingly visual, for a man of words.
The taxi pulled up outside the house. It was not at all what he had expected. Perhaps some Frankenstein’s laboratory. Not anonymous, terraced, and grimly suburban. He gave the driver an outrageous tip. “Don’t mention it,” he said and meant it.
His bracelet said two-thirty. He imagined her sitting down at her computer, feverishly hooked into the Internet, ploughing through theorems and treaties, a Pandora’s box of knowledge. He wondered how she would react to him. He had seen pictures of her, and although she was beautiful, to him she was also the most dangerous woman in the world.
He hesitated at the doorway. A sudden doubt seized him. What was he doing? What did he think he could possibly achieve? He looked down the street, at a woman passing over the road. A car zoomed past. I could stay here, he thought, undetected, live as one of them, until it happens again. It was so real. He felt the oppressive weight of the ordinary stealing his will. Then he thought of Shakespeare. How long was there? Eight years? Less? Not nearly long enough. This solidity, this street - it was nothing. Just a lie. A shade of the past about to be stripped away.
He knocked on the door.
“Helen Ekstrom?” he asked, producing his badge. “Robert Marcos. I’m from the Ministry of Defence.”
She looked surprised more than anything. She inspected his ID card. The holographic surface held her attention for a moment. He doubted she had ever seen one before, but from the look of suspicion on her features he could tell she needed further persuasion.
“It’s about your scientific work, Miss Ekstrom,” he acted. “Your theories have raised extreme interest in certain circles. We need to discuss it with you, as a matter of urgency.”
She stared for a moment longer, then recovered herself with supreme grace. The lapse of self-doubt, of modesty, was hardly discernible. “Well,” she said,” you’d better come inside.”
“I’ll be brief, and to the point. We want to dissuade you from publishing your next Internet discussion article,” he said when he was standing in her living room, ”In fact, we’d be prepared to offer you a rather large sum of money to purchase the copyright.”
“We?” she asked.
“My employers at the Ministry,”
She examined his face, looked back to the card, and said, “Can I get you a drink? Tea? Coffee?”
The offer had him spellbound. Real coffee. Made with real coffee beans. He remembered how they had sold it in the supermarkets once, in his youth. His stomach growled with anticipation.
“Yes, please,” he said, trying to mask his excitement. “I would love some coffee.”
“Sugar?” she asked.
He paused to consider this. “Yes, please. Four spoonfuls.”
She gave him a strange look, then went into the kitchen.
His eyes followed her every move. Her hips swung like a velvet clock under her flowing, flower-printed skirt. She wore light perfume, and as she closed the door sunlight caught the fine hairs of her arms and made a golden halo around her head. Not your typical mad professor.
He surveyed the surprisingly bare room. There was a two-dimensional picture of a dolphin leaping from a translucent sea on the wall, a faded old graduation photo on the television, and an unpaid tax demand behind the clock.
A clock with a pendulum that worked.
It was all too fascinating. It made him want to run out of the building screaming. He was about to destroy all of this.
She came back in, looking slightly flushed and placed the coffee at arms’ length on the small glass table in front of him.
“Listen,” she said. “I want you to know that I just called the number on your card. It doesn’t exist. I’ve also called the police and they’ll be here in five minutes. So you can leave now if you want to.”
He smiled, feeling a sudden, bottomless pit open in his stomach. He would have to explain.
“You probably think I’m either a burglar or an escaped lunatic,” he said.
“I have my opinions,” she replied empirically. “Possibly both.”
He admired her. “My name is Roberto Marcos. But I don’t work for the Ministry of Defence. I’m an astronaut.”
She flinched in her seat. Her eyes roamed round the room, probably for a makeshift weapon in case he came at her. Instead he sat down and placed his hands on his knees like King Canut holding back an impossible tide.
“Believe me, I won’t harm you. I just want to tell you a story. You’ve already called the police, so what difference does it make?”
She didn’t reply. Perhaps she was trying to conceal how frightened she was.
”By the way, I was telling the truth, “ he continued, “I do have a rather large sum of money. It’s in a bank account that’s been set up for me. I still don’t want you to go public with that paper. And I’m still willing to buy it. Anything, to stop you publishing it.”
“What paper do you mean?” she asked. “My thesis on black holes? It’s already been published. You’re too late.”
“Not that one, “ he told her. “The other one. Supporting Unified Field Theory.”
“I haven’t even finished that,“ she whispered. Something like concern spread across her face, drawing lines across her lovely forehead. “Have you hacked into my computer somehow? Have you been spying on me?”
“No,” he replied. “I’ve read the newspapers. Your complete diaries were published in serial format soon after they built the first accelerator, eight years from now precisely. In six months your paper is placed on your website, when you decide that your research should be available to all members of the scientific community. A passing Professor of Astrophysics surfing the ‘net picks up on it. He brings it to the attention of NASA. It blows their mind. They write back to you. You’ll get the e-mail next Thursday. Soon your work is published and read by the most respected scientific minds in Britain and America. You’ll be received by the International Physics Institute. In your paper, you theorize that an essential part of grand field theory are tachyon particles. Previously hypothetical, you prove their existence with a simple equation. You theorize these particles are interwoven between physical matter and the fourth dimension. Time. You show them that, by accessing the subdimensional strata of tachyon particles, instantaneous travel to any place in the world is possible at a speed faster than light. In effect, instant teleportation – through the physical plane, through time, or even backwards through time.”
He took a deep breath and continued, trying to ignore her incredulity.
“Next year, you’re hired to work with a team of engineers and physicists to build the world’s first tachyon particle accelerator. In spring of 2022, they finish their work. At 8:15 p.m. on Saturday October 25th, they switch it on. The test goes well. Too well.
“The machine generates a unified field, which accelerates our physical plane to the same frequency of molecular vibration as the theorised tachyons. Both our reality and the tachyon field are in sync. In effect, it links the bioelectric field surrounded the Earth with the time stream. What happens then is history, literally.”
“Why don’t you wait until you get to the hospital?” she said. “You can tell me all about your theories then.”
He smiled, anger turning into resignation. “We were right about the others,” he said. “Nobody believed them, either.”
“What others?” she said.
“The others sent back down the time stream to find you. They never got here. Now I understand why. They must have lost control. As soon as they arrived they were treated as lunatics. Nobody believed them.”
He took out a small device that looked like a remote control to a TV set. “I was sent back to kill you, in case I couldn’t convince you,” he said. He let the device fall onto the coffee table. It looked more sinister now. The tip contained a fine red crystal. They exchanged a long glance.
“But I think I can convince you,” he said. “I think you’re too much of a scientist not to be curious about this.”
He removed the bracelet from his wrist. It looked like a thick silver wristwatch, but the display was blank, and there were only two buttons on its hard black plastic surface.
“It’s a smaller version of the field generator you built. It projects a field approximately seven feet in diameter. It’s for one use only, I’m afraid. But that won’t matter if I fail; I won’t be going back.”
“So you’re from the future,” she said, doing a grand job of entertaining what she undoubtedly thought what insanity. ”Okay, what year do you come from?”
“There are no years any more. Passing time changed after the Shift. That was our name for what happened,” he leaned forwards with an intent expression. “Helen, I want you to come back with me.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because you don’t want to be around when it happens,” he explained, replacing the bracelet on his wrist.
“When the field was generated, it created a chain reaction. A kind of China syndrome in time and space. The world was plunged into a time vortex. People grew old in seconds, some turned into babies, then blobs of slime. The past merged with the present. Dinosaurs appeared in the streets. Things from the future too. Spiders, enormous ones, more intelligent than people. Cavemen, Red Indians, the dead. We lost most of our power. Nuclear power plants exploded or disappeared altogether. You see, the world shifted that day. Atoms that were never meant to be here were shifted from other parts of the time stream. Buildings grew out of nothing or became transparent ghosts. People too. A lot got stuck in the new structures. The lucky ones died soon. Matter became something that was no longer stable. It was anarchy. A whole dimension of anarchy.”
She listened as he spoke. When he stopped, he realised he was sweating. His hands were shaking. He didn’t know whether it was with anticipation or fury.
“You see, what you and the scientists failed to realise, what it took us many years of hard labour to understand, was that time is not a motion, it is a state of existence. Time exists at all levels. Every event that has occurred or will ever occur exists in some potential form in the tachyon stream. And now it’s all happening at once. The future, the present and the past.”
He thought of Shakespeare. The funny little man had never had a chance when the spiders had descended on him. That was just before he had stepped into the tachyon field himself. He saw them tear the unlucky playwright limb form limb as a lilac-coloured aura surrounded him. The Spiders had been massing their numbers, waiting, with that horrible insect intelligence. Now they had broken into the compound, and no doubt destroyed everything and everyone. That had been the last safehouse for humanity in the state of Texas/Argentina (the two places having merged). Luckily, he had been able to Shift away.
He wondered what there was left of his own time to go back to. “Some things are never meant to exist together,” he said. The bitterness of his tone was undeniable.
For a moment, a flicker of belief grew in her eyes. He could see scientific curiosity swelling inside her. Then cynicism crept in.
“How did you survive?” she asked.
“I wasn’t there. I was in space. On my back from Mars, actually. Like I said, I’m an astronaut. When we lost contact the crew I made an executive decision. We returned to Earth, let the rocket guide itself in on automatic pilot. What we saw,” he felt his gorge rise, “wasn’t worth coming back for.”
He looked up. The curiosity was gone. Replaced by the kind of pitying look reserved for the sick or the elderly.
“It was the Mars bit, right?” he said. “Too much science fiction?”
“It’s very hard to believe,” she offered. “Without seeing it, I mean,”
“Fortunately, we weren’t the only ones who survived the Shift. Between us and some of the other guys at NASA, we figured out what had happened and discovered how to manipulate smaller tachyon fields. It wasn’t easy. The building that housed your generator didn’t exist any more. Heck, the whole city didn’t exist any more. But the more localized the field, the easier it is to control. They hadn’t done their calculations with the original field generator. They hadn’t allowed for the sheer scale of the field that they produced. Now we can use devices like these,” he fingered the bracelet, “to Shift ourselves back and forth. It’s risky. You can easily embedd youself half in a brick wall or a tree. But we’ve had time to improve, you might say.”
“So why come to me?” she asked. “What can I do?”
“The trouble is, nobody can reverse the effect. The generator is still there. But nobody can reach through to whatever dimension it’s in now to turn it off. You can’t even get close. We’ve tried digging up a few great minds to help us. We even grabbed a few artists along the way. Shakespeare, Lennon, even Einstein, just in case they had any perspective on matters. But so far they haven’t been much help. Shakespeare wasn’t even much use in a fight.”
She stifled a laugh despite herself. “Sorry,” she said.
“It’s okay. It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe me, because it’ll happen anyway. But there is another reason I came here. To meet you. In the flesh.”
“My God, a time traveller with a crush on me!” She laughed out loud. Then she saw the look in his eyes and grew silent.
The distant wail of police sirens was growing closer by the second.
“I read everything word of your diaries,” he said, spurred on by desperation. “I thought they might give us a clue about the generator. Instead I found you. You put everything in them. Your likes and dislikes. Your whole life. I know you had a cat called Jerry when you were six and you washed him in the cold and he died of hypothermia. I know you like James Stewart and you always cry at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life.”
He glanced around as the sirens approached closer. The strangeness of his words was totally at odds with the dull reality of life.
“Helen, I came because I wanted to meet you. But if you don’t write the paper, the future might be beautiful again, like it was. Like it is here, now. What’s left of my world isn’t worth living in. The sky is black and filled with electromagnetic storms. There’s acid rain, real acid rain. The cities crawl with screaming things that were once people and the night is reserved for monsters. And it’s all because of you. Don’t you owe it to us to undo all this?”
She sat listening. And when he had finished, a funny little smile appeared on her face.
“Nobody knows about my cat,” she said. “Nobody.” There was long pause before she added, “How many died?”
“I wouldn’t call it death,” he answered. “But 65% of the population became - different.”
“Of our population?” she asked. “Here in England?”
“No,” he said. “Of the world. The whole world changed.”
She looked numb. “But I’m a nobody,” she said.
He began to answer, but the sirens suddenly stopped.
Moments later, there was a knock at the door.
She stared at him for a few more seconds, then stood. “You’re very convincing,” she said. “But what you’re suggesting is impossible.”
“Improbable, but not impossible,” he said. But he could see the battle was lost. And it had been fought in her living room for the world.
The officers were wary and stiff. They asked him if he would accompany them to the hospital, and he agreed. What was the point of refusing? The energy he had come here with had dissipated in his soul. He had been a fool to think he could change anything by words alone.
“It’s okay,” he smiled, seeing her frown. “I already knew. You wrote about this in your diary too. I memorized the entry for yesterday. It reads: ‘I’m so bored. Wonder what tomorrow will bring?’” He felt the policeman nudge his arm. “But we had to try,” he said, “I couldn’t kill you after all.”
With that he was bundled out of the door and into the waiting van.
Again, recognition at his words flashed across her face. He watched her shrink into the distance. The van doors closed on him, and he was left with the darkness of his thoughts.
Suddenly, sunlight greeted him, and the doors opened. To his surprise, Helen stood there with the police officers.
“Have you got her husband’s watch?” one officer asked.
He looked at Helen, then nodded. He slipped the bracelet off his wrist and handed it to the officer, who in turn gave it to Helen. Her face was intense with emotion.
“Is this it?” the policeman asked.
She looked back to him with a kind of mingled excitement and fear. “What do I press?” she asked. “Scientific curiosity.”
Something inside him lifted. If he had not been of a scientific mind he would have been tempted to call it his soul. Instead, he reached across and pressed the RETURN button. The van would accompany them but he didn’t mind.
The field flared out with the bright lilac haze of tachyons. The world subsided into indecipherable shapes, then into blackness. Where they would materalize was anyone’s guess.
When the blackness lifted, the air smelled sweet. There were no cries of pain from outside, and the sun shone upon them in a radiant smile. Another Shift? Was it possible, so quickly? He expected to hear the howls of angry primates, the screams of the nearly dying and the horrible chattering of the mandibles of man-hunting spiders. He braced himself for the nightmare of shifting matter and swarms of flying flesh. Instead, what greeted his ears was more like…birdsong.
He stared at his surroundings. They were on a grassy hill. The world was warmer than he remembered.
What if there was no Shift, he thought to himself. What if we changed it all?
Helen was stood beside him. Two equally confused police officers and a third of a police van lay nearby. And what if we’ve gone beyond the world, he thought. What if this is the Paradise we lost and were meant to rediscover? What if Heaven had been there all along, hidden beneath our reality?
He turned towards her, searching for words and finding none. She stared at the horizon. On her face, where he had expected a look of terror, there was only the most beautiful, radiant, angelic smile.
They stared out across the grass together, and it seemed to him that those green meadows went on into the distance forever.