"Bob!" Dirk positively leaps out of his chair. He storms around his desk and shakes Bob vigorously by the hand before Bob is even two steps into the office. "Good to see you."

"It's only been half a week," says Bob, mildly startled.

"I know, I know. But stuff has been happening. Wheels have been turning. Have a seat."

Bob Pritchard is small, dwarfed somewhat by his own reputation. Some years ago, Bob had a single, inconceivably brilliant idea about the internet, money, and intellectual property rights. From his idea, Bob made a computer program. From his program, Bob made some money. From his money, Bob made a business and from his business, Bob went on to make a much, much larger amount of money and a much, much bigger business.

Since he was a teenager, Bob has always had casual side projects. Now, he gives them staff, and funding, and a manager: Dirk.

Dirk has the firmest handshake you've ever felt. Dirk is expansive, both in size and in character. Dirk fills rooms. Dirk came with a string of recommendations as long as Bob's arm. He Gets, and has Gotten, Things Done. "Which wheels in particular have been turning?" asks Bob. Dirk manages a diverse collection of wheels for him right now.

"Let me lead you into this, as it were, by asking you a question. What would you say is the major problem, or risk, of time travel?"

"Changing history?"

"Good answer. But what would it even mean to 'change' history? 'Change' is when something moves from one state to another over time. How can time itself 'change'? How can the year nineteen sixty-nine or whatever 'change' when there's no 'time' for it to change over because it's still nineteen sixty-nine? Don't try to answer that. I've got guys I pay to think about this stuff harder than you could ever imagine. Anyway, the answer is that you can't 'change' history. That's not the risk. History's fixed. Cigar?"

Bob holds up a hand. "Dirk, I threw a lot of money at this--"

"I know you did, Bob, I know you did." Dirk lights his cigar, causing Bob to shuffle away a bit because he doesn't like the smell of smoke. "You threw a ton of money at us and told us to go away and puzzle out a time machine and that's what we've done. All I'm working my way up to saying is, it's not going to be like you think. It's not a Delorean. You can't punch in a date from the past and go there. Stuff can't be sent back in time, because, like you say - that could be abused to alter history. What we can do instead is pull stuff from the future to the present. We have set up a machine which, when we press the button, looks forward in time and randomly selects an object and wrenches it back to the current day. It's guaranteed not to change history because, at the moment we push the button, history hasn't happened yet. No risk at all."

"And this is what you've done?"

"Dynamite tie, by the way, Bob."

"Uh, thanks." The tie's lemon yellow, silk.

"Yeah. So, I have to admit, we never told you when we finished up the theory a month or so ago. Since then, we've just been keeping our heads down, building the thing as a physical piece of equipment, getting it working perfectly. You said you wanted results, but I got the feeling that you meant you wanted something to rap your knuckles against, if you know what I mean? Not figures. Product. So that's what we've got. Now. Today.

"Walk with me."

Dirk leads Bob to the elevator. They go down three floors, which is enough to put them underground. The doors open on some deserted and fairly echoey underground corridors. They were painted beige last time Bob saw them; now they're dark red. "Did some interior decorating?" remarks Bob.

"Well, you know how it is, Bob. Image. If we're going to bring people to see what we've done, we have to have something worth seeing, you know? You know what I mean. You know what image is. We've got a little bit of a tour worked out. Let me see if I can find my notes." Dirk holds his cigar between his teeth and unfolds a piece of paper pulled from his pocket.

They stop at an archway leading into a wide-ish, tall, rectangular room. It has two curtained alcoves on one wall, two more on the other, and at the far end is a large, armoured door which Bob knows leads to the main laboratory. In the middle of the room is a scale model of the first iteration of the time machine - a six-foot-wide elevated octagonal platform circled with circuitry and readouts. "Tour as in museum tour," Bob observes. "You've got a little bit of a museum worked out."

"Yeah, it's good, huh?" Dirk goes to the first alcove on the left and pulls a nearby cord, causing a large curtain to draw aside and reveal a glass box on a pedestal, lit by a single spotlight from above. Inside the display case, with a small printed note in front of it, is a shiny metal sphere.

Dirk consults his notes. "See, time travel occurs on the subatomic scale all the time. Suppose you have a particle and an antiparticle appear out of nowhere. Then suppose the antiparticle collides with a second regular particle and they both annihilate, leaving just the first particle behind to do its thing. So it looks like there were three particles in this system, right? Two particles and one antiparticle. But if you see the antiparticle as just a regular particle travelling backwards in time, right, then there is only one particle, zig-zagging through time. See?"

Dirk shows Bob the diagram.

"Now, these really-really-really small reversals happen all the time, all over the universe, because of - quote - 'quantum energy fluctuations in the vacuum'. But, you'd never notice. Ordinarily, those vacuum fluctuations are very tiny, which makes your BIG spontaneous causality violations, like actual person-sized stuff, impossible. Or, at least, astronomically unlikely. Now, here's the clever bit. Our machine overcomes this by leveraging an amount of energy to make large vacuum fluctuations occur. This encourages macroscopic time travel to occur spontaneously. Does that make sense?"

"You know your stuff," says Bob.

"Are you kidding? I love this stuff," says Dirk. "So anyway, the first time we pushed the button on the machine, this is what appeared. A steel ball, most probably a ball bearing of some kind, pulled back in time from some time in the future. We don't know where or when, as yet, seeing as the ball is completely lacking in identifying marks. But we do know for a fact that, at some point very shortly after the experiment, a steel ball identical to this one, somewhere in the world, vanished without trace. Between those two times, there were two identical steel balls in the world. Plus, I guess, the 'signal' connecting them together. When something appears in our time machine, it spits out a virtual signal. The signal goes forward in time and seeks its counterpart in the future and annihilates it when they meet each other. Or, to look at it another way, the signal is the ball travelling backwards in time."

"Interesting. On an abstract level, anyway," says Bob. "The first ever hard causality violation, here in front of us. But... like you were saying, Dirk..."

"Image. I got ya. Not sexy enough. Fully understood, Bob."

"I guess what I'm waiting for is for you to show me what's behind the other three curtains."

"It does get better," says Dirk, who moves over to the next alcove and pulls the next cord, revealing another glass case with a human skull in it.

Bob jumps.

"It's a human skull," says Bob.

"Damn, I meant to show you this third, not second. Yes, it's a fossilized human skull," says Dirk, grinning broadly.

"Okay...?"

"Think about it," says Dirk, waving his cigar a little. Bob isn't listening, he's transfixed by the skull's hollow-eyed glare. It seems to be looking right at him. "It's a human skull and it's a million years old. There simply is no such thing. Homo sapiens only evolved a few tens of thousands of years ago. The only place something like this could possibly come from is the future. This is absolute proof that the system works. We can forward this to the Nobel Prize gang for radioisotopic dating and peer review. You win that, that's about two million dollars in grant money. It's not much, but it's a start, am I right? Hah hah hah."

"Hah," says Bob. "Are there many of these in the future? Hah. Human skulls, I mean."

"Oh, let's be honest, probably billions upon billions of them. That's a great suit you've got on today, Bob, is it tailored?"

"Uh, thanks..." The suit's dark blue, pinstripe, Armani.

Dirk crosses the room and violently yanks open the penultimate curtain. The third display case contains a small green piece of circuit board with hexagonal circuits and chips. One central chip is much larger than the rest. "This is a microprocessor. Instead of transistors, it seems to have a hexagonal layout of biological cells. Or something along those lines, at any rate. We haven't succeeded in activating it yet and the serial numbers are meaningless. So we're not sure where or when it comes from. But it's not current-generation processor technology. It's at least ten years ahead of its time."

"Much better," remarks Bob. "Do you think we can reverse-engineer this?"

"No."

"No?"

"Suppose we did it. Suppose we ended up manufacturing this original chip in bulk and then one of those chips disappeared and came here and turned into our original inspiration all over again. Then that means that what we've effectively done here is created an entire new processor technology from thin air. Instinct should tell you that that's impossible. There are numbers to prove it, too."

"So what do we gain from this?"

"Somewhere out there, sometime in the future, the original chip is going to be manufactured by someone else. What we can do is look out for that person. Look for somebody researching something similar and provide them with funding or investment. They may have the chip designed by the time we find them, but we can be certain there will be millions of these chips in the future one day, which means we can be certain of a successful investment."

Bob brightens. "I like that. Going back in time and investing in IBM--"

"--was in your original brief, that's right, Bob, I remember. It's the same thing, except we don't have to engage in any risky time travel."

"That's good."

"I said to them that's what you'd say, Bob. I said you'd say that, and there you have it. Anyway, we can cover this later." Dirk moves to the final alcove. "One last one before we get to the main event. By which I mean the, uh, lab. Now, before I open this last curtain, please remember that what you're about to see is, like all things in this museum, a fixed, immutable, inescapable and necessary part of future history." Dirk pulls the last cord.

Behind the curtain, hung from the wall, lit by a single spotlight like the rest, is an upside-down crucifix with an upside-down man nailed to it. He is wearing a tattered pair of trousers and his shirt has been ripped open so someone can carve a deep pentacle across his chest, with arms of the five-pointed star extending across the man's shoulders, arms and face. Blood has poured out of the cuts and stigmata and completely drenched the man's shoulders and face with a red slick before clotting up, making his facial features difficult to make out, though he obviously died in horrific pain.

The man's skinny.

"This came through our machine about a week ago," murmurs Dirk, exhaling a puff of cigar smoke and laying a hand on Bob's shivering shoulder with just a little weight, just enough to stop him from instinctively bolting in terror. "He was still twitching on arrival."

Skin crawling, Bob squints a little closer at the man's tattered clothes. He notes the pinstripe pattern on the trousers. His eyes widen when he spots a bloodied fragment of yellow cloth around the neck.

"We'd have shown you this earlier, but we had to wait, you understand," explains Dirk. He glances behind him and nods to the two scientists who have been waiting quietly out in the corridor for the last few minutes. They advance. "Causality. We had to wait until the day you turned up for work wearing the right clothes."

The white-coated newcomers seize Bob's arms from behind, forcibly. They lift him off his feet and begin dragging him towards the lab door, which is yawning open.

"There's a signal, Bob," says Dirk, as Bob begins screaming. "And we have to help it find its way to you."

It's too dark to see in the lab, and much too hot. There's a heavy crucifix on the floor. Bob catches glimpses of books and ropes and tools and white coats. Dirk's voice and the smell of his cigar follow him into the gloom. "I have to say, we didn't like the idea to begin with, but after a while we kinda warmed to it. This is the way we know history turns out, see? And history has to turn out the way it turns out."

Dirk throws the cigar stub away and closes and bolts the door behind them, leaving Bob in darkness, eyes unable to adjust.

"I mean, we're scientists, Bob. You understand that, right? We're not bad people."

End


SciFiQuest 9999 is by far the greatest quest of 2009 so far! Why aren't you part of it??!

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