22 min read
“This is our ticket to Stockholm,” Edna was saying while putting on the huge padded mittens. “After tonight, no one will dare to laugh at us. We’ve come this far, operating on scraps and leftovers from the main experiment, underrated and overlooked. But we did it, Mabel, we’re finally there.”
“Would you shut up already?” Mabel cut her off. “You’re making me nervous.”
Edna glanced at her colleague. From the top of the massive black-coated chimney, the monstrosity that dwarfed anything in the lab, Mabel’s figure looked like a miniature hunching doll. She had stripped down to her underwear already and stood on the tips of her toes, shivering. However thick were the layers of concrete and insulation that separated them from the extreme temperatures of superconducting magnets, the cold found its way up. Edna knew the floor temperature was only just bearable, as was the surface of the plastic ladder that led up to this hatch, but the direct contact with the metal surface of the chimney would give anyone deep ice burns. She adjusted the mittens.
“Do you want to switch? There’s still time to switch.”
“No. I know the timeline better.” Mabel’s elbows poked the air around her as she struggled with her bra clasp.
Edna pressed her chest to the side of the hatch wheel, preparing for the first twisting push. The contact left a frosty smear on her coat. “What is it? Is it about safety again?”
“Stop it. You’re only making it worse.”
“Look at Miss Molly.” Edna motioned down at the table behind Mabel’s back. A white bunny in a cage nibbled on a piece of lettuce. “Twenty-one trips, and not a scratch. Not a deviation from her previous cognitive performance. Not the smallest spike in cortisol level.”
“I’m not afraid to die if that’s what you’re implying,” Mabel snarled.
She folded her bra in half and placed it on the chair on top of her other clothes. When she turned to the giant cylinder, Edna looked away before her mind overestimated the flatness of Mabel’s belly.
“Then what is it?” Edna spoke, placing her paws back on the wheel. “Are you having doubts? Miss Molly eating grass in two thousand and eight was never enough to notice the butterfly effect. And that fire is a perfect opportunity.” She threw a glance at the framed newspaper cutout on the wall. “The proximity of the entry point, the insignificance of the painting. It’s observable but safe.”
“We don’t know that.” Mabel crossed her arms over her chest. Was she displaying defiance or covering herself for warmth?
“Either everything we do changes the timeline, or nothing does. There’s no third option,” Edna said, turning the wheel. The heavy hatch yielded. Shielded and insulated, the chimney’s shaft promised room temperature and dimmed red back-light. “You’ll be the first to know which theory is correct. A major breakthrough. We’re nobody now, but it’ll change after today.”
Leaving the hatch open, Edna slipped the mittens off and worked her way down to the floor. The ice-cold plastic of the handrails burned her palms.
“We are making history here,” she said, facing her colleague. “You are a pioneer. You’re Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong.”
“Please, stop.” Mabel hid her eyes behind her fists. “The pressure is killing me enough already.”
With a flash of hesitation, Edna allowed herself to take Mabel’s freezing hands. “Look at me.” Edna’s crude frame towered over her dainty colleague; even standing on the same level, she had to bend her head forward to meet Mabel’s eyes. “Don’t allow your mind to spiral into panic. I’m sorry I said it. I babble when I’m nervous. Forget it. Think small. Focus on the routine. Recite the timeline back to me.”
Mabel gave her a small nod, a lock of her dark hair breaking out to cover her brow. “I appear in the janitor’s closet on the third floor at 16:43.”
Edna nodded with her. “Good.”
“The uniform and the slippers are on the bottom shelf. I get dressed.” Mabel’s voice grew stronger. “I step into the corridor no later than 16:50. I take the back stairs and go down one floor. I cross the hallway to reach the main staircase.” She closed her eyes and continued with confidence, “The fire starts at 16:58 on the floor below me. The first smoke is visible at 17:05. I take the painting off the wall anytime before 17:08. I go up one floor, cross to the back stairs and leave the painting there. I walk away before the alarm goes off at 17:11. I stay out of the way. I should be snapped back at 17:13.”
Edna smiled at her. “Feeling better, Doctor Lind?”
Mabel grinned in response.
Edna fished out a small box from her coat’s pocket. “Can we proceed now?”
Mabel extended her arm. “Let’s do it.”
Edna picked a thin package from the stack and broke the seal, producing a strip of glossy paper. After peeling off the safety layer on one side, she pressed it to Mabel’s forearm, brushed it with her palm and waited a few seconds. When she flayed the paper, it left a bright yellow bar of paint on her skin.
“Dear past, here I come,” Mabel said, pushing her knickers down.
Out of the corner of her eye, Edna watched Mabel climb the ladder, twitching at the contact with its surface. She used the mittens as padding to support herself over the hatch, balancing to find the internal ladder with one foot. When the shaft swallowed half of her slender body, Edna followed her up to seal the hatch.
“Good luck,” Edna said before the thick metal cut off all communication.
She looked at her watch. It would take Mabel up to two minutes to reach the bottom and take a position in the shielded cockpit. Edna slipped her hands into the mittens and grabbed the wheel. Two minutes to run the integrity tests. She turned the wheel until her arms ached. One minute for the final settings check. Still wearing the mittens, she climbed back down. Five minutes for the deflector warm-up sequence. Edna pushed the door to the control room. The active stage was set to last for two minutes, when the magnets guided the accelerated particles to engulf the cockpit. At one moment during those two minutes, the critical energy level would be reached, and everything inside the cockpit would be punched through space-time, a fraction of a second converted into thirty minutes of subjective time.
Edna sat down and tapped on a keyboard button, waking her computer. It would be over in twelve minutes. Mabel’s body would be flung two weeks back and four hundred metres east, fifteen metres up from here and now, and after thirty minutes, she would be sucked back into the cockpit from wherever she wandered to. It worked flawlessly with Miss Molly.
Edna brought up the target coordinates and ran the calculations again to check if the time and position differentials were set correctly. Twelve minutes until they finally answered the greatest question of time travel. The first attempt to produce a contained paradox. The first definitive look at which of the theories predicted it correctly.
Edna looked at the clock. Eight minutes now. No—still twelve. Mabel had to climb out to report her experience. But Edna might see the first results earlier, in the article on the wall they were trying to change. Six minutes. The progress bar crawled along, marking the deflector’s readiness to snap into position. Four. Edna exhaled. There was no going back now. Three. Two. It was happening. It was happening right now.
Somewhere below Edna’s feet, deep in the instrument’s belly, the deflector clicked back, announcing the end of the experiment. The computer spat out the usual swarm of data. No errors. Edna rushed through the door, her heart beating loudly in her throat.
The cutout on the wall still said, “Disaster averted: the only fire casualty is a mediocre painting”.
Something must have gone wrong there. Mabel had failed—she could not save it from the flames. But failure was also data, supporting no-change theory that claimed the past was resisting altering, preferring self-consistency in the timeline. Mabel could have tried her best and still failed because millions of little obstacles nudged the past into the selected channel. Or, by trying to prevent it, Mabel was making sure the past happened the way it did. Being there in that timeline might have been essential for the story to unfold the way it unfolded. Mabel’s personal account was now more important than ever.
Edna’s legs trembled when she climbed up to open the hatch, and she cursed when she saw she forgot the mittens. She stretched her sleeves to wrap her palms in thin fabric and grabbed the burning-cold metal. The frozen door screeched and gave way.
“Mabel?” Edna shouted, looking inside. A figure—red shape against the dark background—was slowly climbing up the ladder. Edna rushed down to grab a blanket to welcome her colleague back and was out of breath when she reached the top.
“It didn’t work,” Mabel barked at her, half-emerging from the shaft.
Edna’s heart sank. “What?”
Mabel wrapped herself in the offered blanket, her hands shaking. “I didn’t go anywhere. It didn’t work.”
Edna caught her wrist and brought it to her eyes. The paint bar on her skin was dark purple. “No, look, it’s consistent. The pigment went through oxidation, forty minutes of it.”
Mabel looked at the paint and jerked her hand out. “This is what’s wrong with this experiment. We thought we had the means to measure subjective time given the limitations. But perhaps all this machine does is accelerate the oxidation of this damn pigment.”
Edna shook her head. “I don’t believe it. What about experiment twelve? We had Miss Molly on tape.”
Mabel pushed her away, and Edna had to climb down to give her space.
“Mislabeled CCTV entry. Wrong timestamp. Careless planning.” Mabel fired words, one for each angry step she took. “With the image quality like that, it could have been any other rabbit crossing that field. We should have concentrated on reproducing observability instead of focusing on safety.”
Edna’s feet reached the floor but were too weak to hold her. She clung to the handrail to stay upright. “It’s impossible. The data was consistent. The energy spike was textbook-clean.”
“I know what I saw. I only spent fifteen pointless minutes in the cockpit.” Mabel grabbed her clothes, balancing the blanket on her back.
“Are you sure you didn’t faint?”
Mabel’s frowning face emerged from her T-shirt. “Are you mocking me? I was perfectly sound the whole time. Nothing happened.”
“I want to do it myself,” Edna said with a surge of determination. “If time tries to prevent us from changing it, I want to know how it does it. We’re still in the usage window. Run the sequence again. I’m going in.”
Mabel fell on the chair and rubbed her freezing toes. “What’s the point?”
Edna started to unbutton her white coat. “This is a paradox, and it has to have a logical explanation. Maybe you did not return to your timeline. You’re not the original Mabel from my timeline, you jumped the parallels from somewhere where the experiment had failed. I want to see for myself. Even if I come back to a different present, and a different me emerges from that hatch for you, at least the current version of me would know what happened.”
“Bullshit!” Mabel leapt to her feet, jerking her chin up to catch Edna’s eyes. “The damn thing doesn’t work. This is no breakthrough. Miss Molly was a misinterpretation. This,”—she pointed at the black cylinder—“is no time machine. We’re just bombarding ourselves with unnecessary radiation. We’re not making history here. We’re burning the funding!”
Edna threw her coat to the floor. “Even if I’d only sit in the cockpit for fifteen minutes, I want to do it.”
“You’re not giving up, are you?” Mabel said with a slow shake of her head.
“We’re scientists, Mabel. We need to reproduce the results. Even if it’s a failure.”
“Fine. What do we do with the entry point overwhelming rule?”
Edna’s fingers froze over the zipper of her jeans. “You’re right. We can’t run the same sequence twice. We can’t risk placing two entities at one point in space-time.”
“Even if I didn’t travel anywhere?”
“Doesn’t matter. This entry point is now off-limits. I need to go in later after you were supposed to get out of the closet. Run the calculations for 16:55. I’ll still catch up with the events.” Edna pulled off her jeans and tugged on her shirt to hide her thighs.
“Fine, indulge yourself.” Mabel turned to the control room, still shaking her head. “But you won’t go anywhere. The set-up simply doesn’t work.”
Edna hurried to strip before Mabel was back. Wrapped in a blanket, she climbed to the top and descended a few steps, hiding inside the shaft.
“I’ve set it for 16:55,” Mabel said, reappearing below. “But hurry, we only have half an hour. I checked the main instrument schedule. If we miss out now, the next slot won’t be for two days.”
“I need to know today. Damn, I forgot the paint.” She motioned towards her coat on the floor.
She waited for Mabel to search the coat pockets for the box and watched her climb up, a sealed package in her teeth, hands transformed by the mittens into massive bear claws. Edna snatched the bundle from Mabel’s mouth and applied the paint herself, sending the paper peel spiralling down to the floor.
Mabel yanked away the blanket. “Your earrings,” she said as Edna instinctively shrank under her scrutiny. “You don’t want your head to repeat the fate of poor Miss Heather.”
Edna palmed her earlobes, feeling the tiny silver studs. “Oh. Good catch.” Her shaking fingers refused to retrieve the earrings in an instant. At last, she placed the jewellery into Mabel’s open palm and hurried to dive into the dim interior of the device.
The hatch above her banged, and the last gush of fresh air rushed against her skin. Edna looked up, squinting at the red lamps shining down the shaft. She climbed down until her feet hit the cockpit screen. With her one hand, she found the crank knob behind the ladder, and the screen below her hissed and gave way. Edna pushed herself inside, squeezing into the opening feet-first, and rolled the thick glass up. Lying on her back in this confined space, she could barely stretch her neck to see the inside of her arm. Even in the refracted red light, she could tell the paint was still candlelight yellow. Her back felt the vibration of the main instrument through the floor of the cockpit, and she knew the paint would darken before the deflector clicked into the active position.
Ten metres of reinforced concrete separated her and the control room. The silence drove her mad, but no sophisticated equipment could survive the surge, making all communication inside the cockpit impossible. Even the light bulbs had to be elevated above the lab floor to work. Edna glanced at her doughy stomach that hysterically jumped with each heartbeat. If only she could distract herself before the jump. Routine—she needed to recite the timeline. She closed her eyes. The entry point would be 16:55. The fire would start three minutes later, and the smoke would reach the staircase at 17:05. If she hurried, she would make it. The first flames would reach the painting at 17:08, that’s thirteen minutes after her arrival. Plenty of time to act. The fire alarm would go off at 17:11. Mabel was supposed to snap back at 17:13, and Edna would be reclaimed at 17:25 before the firefighters reached the building. She could do it. She had to try to save the painting.
Suddenly, the centre of gravity changed, and her legs took over the weight of her body. A sharp, pungent smell hit her nose. She opened her eyes and saw darkness. Her own breathing reflected back at her face. She stretched out her hand, but it didn’t travel far, immediately stopping on a wooden surface. She brushed over it until her hand fell in, extending her arm. Following a new, cold and grainy texture, she stepped to her left. A small, lightweight cone bounced off her nose. With her other hand, she caught it, felt the string it was attached to and tugged on it.
A flash of light blinded her, and she shielded her eyes. When she dared to remove her palm, she saw a yellow cabinet just centimetres before her face. She stepped back, and her calf bumped into something leathery and cool.
She turned around. Down on the floor by the wall, a woman was lying on her back, knees bent and arms in the air.
“Hey,” she said, crouching next to the strange woman.
The woman turned her big brown eyes at her, and a small button-like nose curled up with the lips. “Heeey,” the woman sang.
“What are you doing here?”
“Look how soft it is,” the woman said, her fingers tickling the yielding pieces of cloth on a stick that hung from a nail on the wall.
“Come on, don’t just lie there.”
The woman accepted her hand. Pulling her up to her feet required no effort. The woman stood before her, small and smiling and naked. She looked at her own body and found she was also naked.
“Pretty,” the woman said, touching her forearm.
She glanced at what the woman noticed and gasped. Both their hands had a rectangular mark: hers was bright saffron, and the one on the woman’s forearm was mud-brick orange.
“What does it mean?” she asked.
“Isn’t it exciting?” the woman said, brushing over her painted mark.
She let go of the woman and explored her other limbs. No more paint marks decorated her solid, healthy body. Her hand coasted her curving sides down to her soft thighs where the skin was smooth and tender.
“You are beautiful,” the woman said, watching her with an open mouth.
“I know,” she said with a grin.
“Do I look like you?” the woman asked, stretching her neck.
She chuckled. “I don’t think so.”
The woman reached only to her chin. She was petite, slim-wasted and bony. But as delicate as she was, this stranger was also buoyant. When the woman threw her chin up, her silky black hair danced around her happy face.
“You’re so… sunny,” she told the woman.
Their eyes locked. Bending down to the woman until their foreheads touched, she couldn’t help but mirror the woman’s radiant smile.
“We’re connected,” the woman whispered, bringing up her forearm; the colour of her rectangle acquired a red tint.
“I think we are,” she agreed. Her own mark was turning gold.
“Look!” The woman broke the moment, reaching for something on the shelf. A squishy white roll slipped from her fingers, leaving a white trace of thin white material. The woman laughed. “So breezy.”
The roll undid itself, flying around the woman’s spinning body. It released more of its soft white trail, wrapping the woman’s caramel skin in a layer of white bandage. “Just like me!” The woman giggled, flinging the roll to bounce off the cabinet and catching the passing tail.
Suddenly losing balance, the woman swayed and fell into her arms. Still laughing, the woman swung the roll around them, binding them together. The white swath was almost weightless, touching the grippy skin with light dry kisses. White delicate strips rested on their shoulders, passing through their chests and hugging their waists.
“Now we’re connected even more,” the woman said, pressing a contrasting cold cheek against her burning neck.
She threw her arms around the blissful stranger, feeling how tiny but alive the woman felt in her grip. How mighty and resilient she herself was.
“I’m so happy I have you,” she said, striking the mulberry band on the woman’s forearm.
Whoop, whoop, whoop, a blaring sound burst out above them, and she cringed at the intensity. Whoop, whoop, whoop, it wailed, shaking the cabinet.
The woman covered her ears with her palms, ducking. Whoop, whoop, whoop. “Make it stop!” the woman shouted.
Trying to shield her sunny companion from the overwhelming sound, she recovered her one hand to press against the woman’s temple. Whoop, whoop, whoop. It made no difference.
“Why does it have to be so loud?” The woman pushed herself away, tearing their wrapping. Things got knocked off from the shelf, but the terrible mechanical cry swallowed the rattle. Whoop, whoop, whoop.
“Wait!” she reached for the woman. “Don’t go!”
Angry, the woman shoved her fingers into her ears. “Too late, it ruined everything!” Whoop, whoop, whoop. The mark on the woman’s arm was eggplant violet.
“Come back.” She got hold of a piece of bandage and tried to mend their link. The material refused to fuse, disintegrating in her sweaty fingers. Whoop, whoop, whoop.
She blinked. She closed her eyes for a moment, and when she opened them again, the woman was gone. The white bands that wrapped the slender body slowly sank to the floor.
Whoop, whoop, whoop—and her beaming companion was gone. She fell on her knees and palmed the spot where the woman stood just a moment ago. Life was magical and easy before this terrible sound destroyed their simple idyll. Whoop, whoop, whoop, it blew. They were beautiful and careless together, and the awful howl robbed her of this glowing creature. How could she be happy again without her? Whoop, whoop, whoop.
She looked at her forearm: her mark slowly reddened. This was what connected her to the joyful stranger, and it steadily followed the same transformation. Would she disappear like the woman did when her mark turned violet? Would she follow the woman? Whoop, whoop, whoop. She begged it to happen, she needed her careless ally back. She watched the mark, but her eye couldn’t detect the subtle change in colour. She stared at her arm until she couldn’t keep her eyes open. Whoop, whoop, whoop, the indifferent sound screamed in her ear, making short pauses to get more air in its mechanical lungs. Whoop, whoop, whoop! Beneath her, the floor trembled with impatient dread.
Edna felt one giant quake and opened her eyes. Nothing happened. She stared into the dark ceiling of the cockpit, but it didn’t change. She brought up her forearm. The paint had already oxidized into purple.
Somewhere far up, the voice shouted her name. Mabel had opened the hatch already, meaning the experiment was over. A tear rolled down Edna’s cheek. She clawed at the knob to open the screen and pushed herself out the cockpit. Her fingers shook when she gripped the ladder.
The impatient brown eyes met Edna at the top. “So? Did you change the past?”
“You were right,” Edna said, brushing the tears away, unable to stop them from tumbling. “It doesn’t work. I didn’t go anywhere.”
“Told you.” Mabel threw a blanket at Edna without a glance. “We’re pathetic, Edna. Putting things into a microwave and hoping to solve the greatest mystery of time travel!”
Edna plunged her burning face into the blanket, weeping.
“We’re wasting the collider’s time,” Mabel was saying while climbing down. “The only paradox we’ve created is about our future. Nobody will ever take us seriously if we mention a time machine in a publication. But we’re still accountable for the past seven years. How do we justify the expenses? Should we repurpose the experiment? Go our separate ways?”
Edna couldn’t answer through the tugging sobs. She wasn’t the kind for violent meltdowns over failure, but this time, it felt as if a limb was ripped off her body: a dear and irreplaceable part of her was unrecoverably lost.
Down below, blind to Edna’s pain, Mabel went about her usual grumpy post-experiment routine. Clearing the table, she picked up the box with the paint strips.
“What do you think makes the pigment oxidize so quickly?” she asked, turning a sealed package in her hand. “Could this be a viable topic for a paper?”