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Tuesday, August 7, 2007

EXTRACT from Joe Haldeman's "The Accidental Time Machine"

The Accidental Time Machine

The story would have been a lot different if Matt's supervisor had been watching him when the machine first went away.

The older man was hunched over his oscilloscope screen, staring into the green pool of light like a tweedy and corpulent bird of prey, fiddling with two knobs, intent on a throbbing bright oval that wiggled around, eluding his control. Matt Fuller could have been in another room, another state.

Sleet rattled on dark windows. Matt put down his screwdriver and pushed the RESET button on the new calibrator, a shoe-box-sized machine.

The machine disappeared.

He stared for about one second. When he was able to close his mouth and open it again, he said "Dr. Marsh! Look!"

Dr. Marsh pulled all of himself reluctantly from the round screen. "What is it, Matthew?"

The machine had reappeared. "Uh ... the calibrator. For a moment there, it ... well, it looked like it went away."

Dr. Marsh nodded slowly. "It went away."

"I mean like it disappeared! Gone! Zap!"

"It appears to be here now."

"Well, yeah, obviously. I mean, it came back!"

The big man leaned back against the work table, tired springs on his chair groaning in protest. "We've both been up a long time. How long for you?"

"Well, a lot, but--"

"How long?"

"Maybe thirty hours." He looked at his watch. "Maybe a little more."

"You're seeing things, Matthew. Go home."

He made helpless motions with his hands. "But it--"

"Go home." His supervisor turned off the 'scope and heaved himself up. "Like me." He took his thermal jacket, a bright red tent, off the hook and shrugged it on. He paused at the door. "I mean it. Get some sleep. Something to eat besides Twinkies."

"Yeah, sure." Look who's giving dietary advice. Maybe it was the sugar, though, and the coffee, and the little bit of speed after dinner. Cold French fries and a chocolate-chip cookie and amphetamines; that might make you see things. Or not see them, for a moment.

He waved goodnight to the professor and sat back down at the calibrator. It was prettier than it had to be, but Matt was funny that way. He'd found a nice rectangle of oak in the Miscellaneous storage bin, and cut out the metal parts so they fit flush on top of it. The combination of wood with matte-black metal and glowing digital readouts pleased him.

He always looked kind of scruffy himself, but his machines were another matter. His bicycle was silent as grease and you could play the spokes like a harp. His own oscilloscope, which he had taken apart and rebuilt, had a sharper display than the professor's, and no hiss. Back when he'd had a car, a Mazda Ibuki, it was always spotless and humming. No need for a car at MIT, though, and plenty of need for money, so somebody back in Akron was despoiling his handiwork on the Mazda. He missed the relaxation of fiddling with it.

He ran his hand along the cool metal top of the machine, slightly warm above the battery case. Ought to turn it off. He pushed the RESET button.

The machine disappeared again.

"Holy shit!" He bolted for the door. "Professor Marsh!"

He was at the end of the hall, tying on his hat. "What is it this time?"

Matt looked over his shoulder and saw the calibrator materialize again. It shimmered for a split second and then was solid. "Uh ... well ... I don't guess it's really important."

"Come on, Matt. What is it?"

He looked over his shoulder again. "Well, I wondered if I could take the calibrator home with me."

"What on Earth would you calibrate?" He smiled. "You have a little graviton generator at home?"

"Just some circuit-board tests. I can do them at home as well as here." Thinking fast. "Maybe sleep in tomorrow, not come in through the snow."

"Good idea. I may not come in either." He finished putting on his mittens. "You can e-mail me if anything comes up." He pushed open the door against a strong wind and looked back, sardonic. "Especially if the thing disappears again. We do need it next week."

Matt went back and sat down by the calibrator and sipped cold coffee. He checked his watch and pushed the button. The machine shimmered and disappeared, but only the metal box: the oak base remained, a conical wood-screw hole in each corner. It had done that last time, too.

What would happen if he put his hand in the space where the box had been? When it came back it might chop him off at the wrist. Or there might be a huge nuclear explosion, the old science fiction version of what happens when two objects try to occupy the same space at the same time.

No, there were plenty of air molecules there when it came back before, and no obvious nuclear explosions.

It shimmered back and he checked his watch. A little less than three minutes. The first disappearance had been about one second, and then maybe ten, twelve seconds.

His watch was a twenty-dollar dimestore Seiko, but he was pretty sure it had a stopwatch function. He took it off and pushed buttons at random until it behaved like a stopwatch. He pushed the button on the watch and the RESET button simultaneously.

It seemed to take forever. The rattle of sleet quieted to a soft whisper of snow. The machine reappeared and he clicked the stopwatch button: 34 minutes, 33.22 seconds. Call it 1, 10, 170, 2073 seconds. He crossed over to the professor's desk and rummaged around for some semi-log graph paper. If you took an average, it looked like the thing went missing about twelve times longer each time he pushed the button.

Do the next one, about six hours, at home. He found a couple of plastic trash-can liners to protect the machine, but before he wrapped it up he put a cardboard sleeve around the RESET button and fixed it in place with duct tape. He didn't want the machine disappearing on the subway.

It was one unholy bitch of a night. The sleet indeed had turned to snow, but there were still deep puddles of icy slush that you couldn't avoid, and Matt hadn't worn boots. By the time he got on the Red Line, his running shoes were soaked and his feet were numb. When he got off at East Lexington, they had thawed enough to start hurting, and the normal ten-minute uphill walk took twenty, the sidewalks slippery with ice forming. Wouldn't do to drop the calibrator. He could build a new one in a couple of days, if he could find the parts. Or his successor could, after he was fired.

(All the calibrator was supposed to do was supply one reference photon per unit of time, the unit of time being the tiny supposed "chronon": the length of time it takes light to travel the radius of an electron. Nothing to do with disappearing.)

He managed to take off a glove without dropping the machine, and his thumbprint let him into the apartment building. He trudged up to the second floor and thumbed his way into his flat.

Kara had only been gone for a couple of days, and most of that time he'd been in the lab, but the place was already taking on bachelor-pad aspects. The stack of journals and printouts on the coffee table had spilled onto the floor, and though he had sorted through it twice, looking for things, it hadn't occurred to him to stack it back up. Kara would have done that the first time she walked through the living room. So maybe they weren't exactly made for each other. Still. He put the calibrator on the couch and stacked the magazines. Half of them slid back onto the floor.

He went into the kitchen and didn't look in the sink. He got a beer from the refrigerator and took it into the bathroom along with the new Physical Review Letters. He ripped off his shoes and ran a few inches of hot water into the tub and blissfully put his feet in to thaw.

There was nothing in Letters that particularly interested him, but it let him pretend to be doing something useful while he was mainly concerned with thawing out and drinking beer. Of course that made the phone ring. There was an old-fashioned voice-only in the bathroom; he leaned over and punched it. “Here.”

“Matty?” Only one person called him that. “Why can’t I see you?”

“No picture, Mother. I’m on the bathroom phone.”

“I’m sending you money so you can have a phone in the bathroom? I wouldn't mind a phone in the bathroom.”

“It was already here. It would cost extra to take it out.”

“Well, use your cell. I want to see you.”

“No, you don’t. I look like I’ve been up for 36 hours. Because I have.”

“What? You’re killing yourself, you know that. Why on Earth would you stay up that long?”

“Lab work.” Actually, he was disinclined to come home to the empty apartment, the empty bed. But he’d never told his mother about Kara. "I'm going to sleep in tomorrow, maybe not even go to the lab." He kept talking and pushed the HOLD button down for a moment. "Call coming in, Mother. Buzz you tomorrow on the cell." He hung up and raised the beer to his lips and there was a perfunctory knock on the apartment door. It creaked open.

He wiped his feet inadequately on the bathroom throw rug and stumbled into the living room. Kara, of course; no one else's thumb would open the door.

She was pretty bedraggled, pretty and bedraggled, and had a look that Matt had never seen before. Not a friendly look.

"Kara, it's so good -- "

"I finally stopped trying to call you and came over. Where have you been since yesterday morning?"

"At the lab."

"Oh, sure. You spent the night at the lab. Forgot to route to your cell. With the secret number even I can’t call."

"I did! I mean I didn't." He spread his arms wide. "I mean I spent the night at the lab and they don't allow you to route calls there."

"Look, I don't care where you spent the night. Really, I don't care at all. I just need something from the bathroom. Do you mind?" He stepped aside and she stomped by him, dripping. He followed, also dripping.

She looked in the medicine cabinet and slammed it shut. Then she looked at the tub. "You're taking a bath in two inches of water?"

"Just, uh, just my feet."

"Oh, of course, of course, your feet." She jerked open a drawer. "You're weird, Matt. Clean feet, though. Here." She pulled out a baby-blue box of Safeluv contraceptive discs. "Don't ask." She pointed a finger into his face. "Don't you dare ask." Her face was flushed and her eyes were bright with held-back tears.

"I wouldn't -- " She pushed her way past him. "Won't you just stay for a cup of coffee? It's so bad out."

"Someone's waiting." She stopped at the door. "You can take my thumb off the door now." She paused, as if wanting to say something more, and then spun into the hall. The door closed with a quiet click.



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