Posted by: lordkyler | April 13, 2016

Salvation Point – Short Story Week 2016

CalTech Campus, September 1987

It was late Friday evening when the world’s most monumental event transpired. Like many of the world’s pivotal moments, it began with alcohol and boredom.

“Listen,” said Craig, leaning back in an office chair that had more duct tape than upholstery. He tossed and caught a half-solved Rubik’s cube with one hand as he talked. “I’m not sure we can top the Hollywood prank, but I think we can pull off something just as clever on a smaller scale, you know?” He gestured vaguely with his beer can, indicating something amorphous but grand.

Douglas grunted, scribbling intently on a notepad. “Smaller scale, right.”

Craig frowned and set down the cube, scooting across the grimy linoleum to see what Douglas was working on. “Hey man, are you there?” He snapped his fingers. “Been tripping again?”

Douglas wrote intently, oblivious to his partner. He wasn’t high, but he was developing an idea that had come to him that way, locking on to the task with his trademark single-mindedness. Craig took one look at the cramped mass of equations and sighed.

Craig and Douglas were partners, as well as roommates and friends. Their joint thesis required access to the university computers for processing data, but this time slot – the last before closing – was the only one they’d been able to book. Douglas had been forced to cancel a date, and had characteristically buried himself in a diversion. Craig knew from four years of experience that the only way to pull him out would be to go in after him, but that could be a risky proposition.

Craig waited for a pause in Douglas’s writing and snatched the pad away, trying to make sense of the diagrams and algorithms written on it. Deciphering Douglas’s handwriting was nearly as difficult as unraveling the page-spanning equations.

“Is this… some sort of wormhole model? Spacial distortion?”

Douglas tried to snatch the pad back but failed. “Temporal,” he admitted, spinning his pen nervously. “It’s just some stupid idea I had last week. Totally impractical, of course. I’m just trying to… well, prove it wrong, really.”

With this key piece of information, Craig scanned the paper with new eyes, flipping back through several pages of similar notes. At the top of the first page, the words TIME TRAVEL? had been written in large block letters. Douglas blushed slightly and gravitated toward the Rubik’s cube by pure instinct, nimble fingers flying as he solved it.

By the time Craig finished reading, the cube had been solved and resolved multiple times, and several more strictly forbidden beers had been consumed. The computer banks whirred in the background, filling the empty quiet of the deserted building. At last Craig set the pad down, stroking his newly-grown goatee. Douglas grabbed for the pad, but did not begin writing again. “Well?” he demanded, trying not to sound too curious.

If Craig had been less intelligent, he would have dismissed the idea as impossible. If Craig had been less drunk, he might have called it impractical. As matters stood, however, Craig made the world’s most monumental decision with enthusiasm and a slight slur.

“Why don’t we try it?” he asked, leaning in close.

“What?” Douglas said with alarm. He jerked back, as though the words had somehow burned his ears.

“If I understand your hypoth… hypotheth… your idea, you can send people back in time, right? But only to the point where somebody’s made a temporal exit point. A receiving time machine. We could do that right now.

Douglas blanched, fingers fidgeting, but he couldn’t hide his intrigue. “Right now?”

Craig stood up, swaying slightly. “Sure! It shouldn’t be that complicated. Just need to create the right fields. Lab’s down the corridor. I could set this up in five minutes. Come on, let’s give it a shot.”

Douglas looked around nervously, as if expecting a dissaproving Dean to appear out of thin air. “We can’t just break in to the lab in the middle of the night.”

Craig pulled out a key and grinned widely. “Who said anything about breaking in? Don’t ask how I got this, by the way.”

“Craig, how did you get that?”

Craig huffed and started walking down the hall, moving with all the assurance in the world. Douglas was dragged along in his wake before he quite realized he was moving. “Craig, what if it doesn’t work?”

“Then it doesn’t work! It’s not going to hurt anything.”

“Well… how would we even know it’s working? We’re the first to create a landing point… My God.”

Craig put an arm around his friend’s shoulder, as much for balance as for emotional support. “If this has any merit, somebody’s gonna want to come back to the first point possible, right? So we turn this on, and if it works, we’ll know. Hey, maybe we’ll meet ourselves! Then I can ask what prank we pulled!”

Laughing at his own joke, Craig reached the door and fumbled to insert the key. Douglas stood in place, ashen-faced as he realized the potential ramifications. Perhaps it was the lateness of the hour, or the eerie stillness of the abandoned lab, or merely Craig’s utter confidence, but suddenly the idea of time travel had gone from an idle fantasy to a possibility as profoundly terrifying as nuclear war.

At last, Craig managed to work the lock, and slipped into the darkened lab without a care in the world. Douglas barely managed to rouse himself in time to catch the door before it closed again, and nervously glanced up and down the corridor, paranoid of cleaning staff or cameras. When no alarms went off, he slipped inside, muttering dire predictions.

Machinery hummed and lights blinked on as Craig set to work, manipulating the controls with an ease that belied his inebriated state.

“I’m not sure this is such a good idea,” Douglas said. His fingers hovered over the machine’s off switch but couldn’t quite seem to cover the last half-inch to push it.

“Hey, don’t sell yourself short,” Craig said, taping a few strands of wire together. “This idea is genius. And if nothing happens, nothing comes through. It’s just a little electromagnetism polarized in a weird way, right?”

Douglas gulped. “More than a little. It’ll take five minutes to charge the capacitors, even with the high-voltage line turned to the maximum.”

“Wait, really?” Craig let the wires splay to the ground and snatched up the pad from Douglas’s hands. Douglas hadn’t even realized he’d brought it.

Craig held the paper under the dim light of digital readout and squinted. “Oh, megajoules.” He paused for a second, as though reconsidering, and then shook his head. Douglas breathed a sigh of relief before Craig continued, “I’d better add some more insulation to that wire.”

Over the next half hour, Douglas continued to raise objections, and Craig continued to work busily, responding or ignoring Douglas as it suited him. In the end, Douglas was still unconvinced, but the machine was built.

Cables, wires and even pipes hooked up numerous gadgets and heavy machinery from around the lab, all of it secured hastily with tape, glue, and twine. At the nexus of this engineer’s nightmare was a simple wire arch, just big enough for a man to walk through. Craig stood back and admired his creation proudly, scanning over all the connections to make sure they were secure, at least for the moment. Douglas finally fell silent, the weight of the moment hitting him like a slab of concrete.

“You should do the honors,” Craig said. “Your idea.”

“Craig, I don’t know about this.”

“Hey, man, if this doesn’t work, no harm done, right? We’ll go home and drink until we forget it ever happened. But if it works, it’s the biggest scientifical breakthrough of all time, yeah? Nobel prizes and junk. Magazines. Money. History, man. Douglas Harvey becomes the new Einstein.”

At the name Einstein, Douglas’s fidgeting fingers flipped the switch almost of their own accord, and he gaped at the mutinous digits. Then he and Craig gaped for an entirely different reason.

Sparks crackled and spat from the wires, and a burst of white vapor filled the archway. More sparks burst, and the vapor began to glow, swirling around the tangled machinery like a living thing. When it filled the entire archway, there was a brilliant strobe of light, and all the machinery went dark and still.

Douglas and Craig held their breaths as the machines started rebooting. The vapor dissipated quickly, revealing… nothing.

Craig groaned like a man who’s just witnessed a game-winning Hail Mary pass from the wrong team, and Douglas sagged, although it was impossible to tell whether this was from relief or disappointment.

His fingers, still for only a moment, began to twitch again. “Well, we’d better get this place put back-”

“Wait!” said Craig. He pointed at a shadow that was beginning to from within the arch. The patch of darkness grew, writhing and stretching with every moment, warping the space around it like a person trying to break through a barrier made of Saran Wrap.

Something tore, and a man stepped through, stumbling and coughing. Douglas’s fidgeting fingers seemed to experience cardiac arrest, and he might have fainted had not Craig latched onto him with a crushing bear hug, whooping like an idiot.

The lights came back on, illuminating the time-traveler as he came closer, looking at Craig and Douglas with unbridled awe. Suddenly he fell to his knees, weeping.

“Mr. Harvey. Mr. Peabody. You’re really here. You really did it! Oh, thank you, thank you! You’ve saved us all!

Craig and Douglas looked at each other, unsure of what to make of this. “What do you mean, we saved you?” Craig asked.

“Oh! Of course, you don’t know!” said the time traveler, standing and wiping away tears. “My humble apologies, Mr. Peabody. Here, I will explain quickly.”

The man reached into the satchel at his side and pulled out a black metal rectangle about the size of a small lunch tray, At the press of a button, images appeared on the screen. The two inventors gaped at this marvel of technology, but the man seemed to take it for granted, quickly pulling up a series of pictures. He scrolled through as he explained.

“My name is John Forsyth. I work with the government agency tasked with stopping the Lantern Virus.” A group photo of scientists standing in front of a large test-tube logo. Scientists hard at work in the lab. Several photos of plague victims, bodies emaciated and apparently glowing from within. An animated map showed the spread of the virus across the world.

“The Lantern Virus is extremely contagious and inevitably fatal, slowly stealing the body’s ability to digest food while simultaneously increasing the host’s appetite. We have no cure. Quarantines have proven ineffectual. We starved to death while feasting. We’re making progress, but it’s not quick enough. So when your notes on time-travel were discovered, we decided to take the chance…”

The man broke down weeping again, clutching his satchel like the world’s most precious object, which indeed it might be. “We can’t prevent the plague,” he sobbed, ” but I have all our research, and now we have three more decades to work on a cure. You two have just saved the world tonight. I cannot thank you enough.”

As Craig and Douglas stared, the traveler shook their limp hands and burst out of the lab, presumably to contact the authorities and begin the work on the cure. The two students stared for a long time. Then Douglas reached over and pressed the button again.

“What are you doing?” asked Craig. “It worked! We gotta go tell somebody. We gotta get to the patent office!” But Douglas just shook his head.

“Craig, if I’m right, we’re in the middle of something much bigger than patents and prizes.”

Sparks danced. Vapor swirled. Light strobed. This time, when the smoke cleared, it revealed a young woman with a backpack. She wasted no time walking toward them.

“Thank goodness,” she said with gratitude. “Dr. Peabody. Dr. Harvey. I must say I’m glad to see you. The Lantern Virus is cured, thanks to you, but it was a close thing. World hunger is at crisis levels. But hopefully no longer.” She tapped her backpack and winked. “I’d love to talk, but there’s a lot of work to do.”

She left just as quickly as the last traveler, slamming the door behind her. The machines started to charge again. “What was that?” Craig demanded. “Did we just change the future?”

“Twice, if my theory is correct, and not for the last time.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? You’re going to activate the machine again? We need to talk about this!”

“I will keep activating the machine until it ceases to work,” Douglas said, showing newfound determination. “We have just created a temporal ark.”

“Douglas, I don’t get it…”

But Douglas just hit the button again. Sparks. Smoke. Sudden flash.

Another woman emerged. Or rather, an older version of the same woman, now in her forties, carrying a smaller but sturdier pack. “Hello again, professors,” she said briefly but respectfully. “Solving this world hunger thing is a bloody nightmare, I tell you. Pardon me.” She pushed past them and vanished.

Craig had to lean on a nearby table. “So… an ark? Like a refuge from the apocalypse? Is that what you’re saying?”

Douglas nodded, wiping his brow with his sleeve. “This is the first point to which time travel is possible, but it’s only big enough to send one person through. So every time humanity faces an existential threat, they send someone back with the data and have that much longer to research a solution.”

“How long will this go on?”

Douglas didn’t answer for a moment. “One of two ways. Either we run out of problems…”

“Or we hit a problem that can’t be solved,” Craig concluded. “I… uh, guess we’re going to be here a while? I’ll make some coffee.”

And so Douglas sat and saved the world, pressing the button as quickly as the capacitors would allow.

The same woman came through once more, wrinkled and gray but still hearty. “Almost got it this time,” she said. “Just need to pass this data on to the younger me and then have a quick chat with the Chinese ambassador. Thanks again!”

Five minutes. Another flash. A man in military uniform. “Oh, Senators, I didn’t think you would actually be here. It’s an honor. If you’ll excuse me, I have to stop a message to a certain ambassador quite quickly, if you’ll excuse me.”

Flash. A woman straight out of Blade Runner. “Hello, gents. Lovely evening to start the nanobot revolution, isn’t it?”

Flash. A woman straight out of Mad Max. “Hey, guys. Gotta go put a leash on this nanobot thing.”

Flash. A man with living tattoos. “I’m just here to set up the computers for whoever comes next. Nice shirt, by the way.”

Flash. Flash Flash. A pregnant woman. A man with numerous cybernetic implants. Then a woman with glowing eyes, dressed in simple white clothing. She hovered just above the ground. “At last I see the saviors with my own eyes. All humanity thanks you. It is nearly finished, but I must go. There is much to be done.” She vanished in an instant, leaving behind a small thunderclap.

While the capacitors recharged once more, Craig sat with his head in his hands. “I’m trying to figure this all out. Are these people living here during all these years in between? How are they working together? Are we creating new futures or just extending this one?” Douglas shrugged and hit the button.

Flash. This time, the glow did not fade. A luminous being stepped through, glorious beyond description. It stepped forward, bowed before them, and then exploded into a thousand tiny lights. Each flew off in a different direction. Neither of them spoke, but when Douglas hit the button once more, nothing came through.

“Did we… did we do it?” Craig said, after three more attempts proved fruitless.

“I think we did. One way or the other.”

“So… we just saved the human race. From now to infinity.”

“So far as I can tell.”

“And that last guy?”

“I think he was the last we needed. We have just completed time travel. Nobody else will come through.”

“Wait… so now we have no proof? No riches? No patents?”

“I’d be willing to bet that last visitor arranged  matters to work themselves out. Likely removed all of the other travelers as well. Given their sufficiently advanced technology, I think mankind’s problems are going to find themselves magically resolved.”

“Well…” said Craig slowly. I guess I can’t complain with the ultimate happy ending.”

For the first time that evening, Douglas grinned. “I’ll start cleaning up. You go grab us some beers.”

And thus, over the course of one night and countless hypothetical years, humanity was saved. Not bad for a night’s work.


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