Sunday, February 27, 2011

Snug as a Bug

The Jetta beeped in acknowledgment as Jeni pressed the “lock” button on her keychain. She left the car behind in the potholed circular driveway and walked to the back of the century-old mansion as she had been instructed. The house was not so much in disrepair as not kept up: nothing sagged, but paint peeled; no windows were broken, but the panes looked as though they hadn’t been cleaned in a decade; the grass was cut, but the bushes were overgrown.
The house was much like physics Professor Russell Rozsa himself: rumpled and showing his age, but fundamentally sound in health and finances. He had surprised her two days earlier when he invited her to “participate in an experiment.” Given that she was far from his star pupil, she was curious what kind of experiment he had in mind. Though she never had dated anyone over 25, he was almost cute for an older man, inexpertly trimmed graying mustache and all. She did not have a crush on him by any means, but she already had decided to go out with him if he asked, at least a couple times. Since she would graduate in a month, her opportunities to date one of her professors were expiring rapidly; it was one item still remaining on her personal checklist for college experiences.
Judging by the house and grounds, the professor must have inherited a substantial family estate. Surely he couldn’t have afforded this property on his salary. She found the stone steps he had described to her; she descended them toward a structure he had converted from an indoor swimming pool into a home laboratory. She noticed the mortar on the steps needed pointing. She imagined herself carrying a torch to a mad scientist’s dungeon laboratory as in some 1930s horror flick. Birds merrily chirping in the apple trees on either side of her spoiled the illusion.
Professor Rozsa had told Jeni not to bother to knock, so at the bottom of the steps she opened the door to the lab and walked inside. She half expected to see him pounding on a green monster’s chest shouting, “It’s alive!” The actual scene was more sedate but still strange. Mushrooming out of the dry basin that once had been the swimming pool was a huge slapdash machine looking something like an oversized antique hair dryer. Massive coils and electric cables sprouted from it at odd angles and connected to other machinery of industrial appearance. Rozsa stood in a far corner twisting dials, pushing buttons, and typing commands at a power control board.
He looked up briefly and said, “Ah, Miss Arbogast, I’m glad you’re here. I’ll be with you in a minute.”
Jeni spotted something like an old-fashioned wooden telephone booth complete with folding door at the core of the contraption. While she waited for Rozsa to finish whatever he was doing, she stepped carefully over a tangle of wires to get a closer look. Inside the booth was a steel chair with videogame-style controls built into the armrests. A large helmet with oversize goggles rested on the seat.
“Professor, the telephone already has been invented,” Jeni said loudly enough to be heard. She hoped she didn’t sound too sarcastic.
“You’re joking,” he answered, though he didn’t sound sure.
 “What is it? Some kind of virtual reality machine?” she asked.
“Yes,” he answered, “I suppose you could say that. But the reality isn’t virtual, though it isn’t really real either.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“OK,” he said. “Answer this. What’s the biggest obstacle to space travel?”
“Um, space?”
“No, time.”
“Isn’t that just another way of saying the same thing?” she objected. “I mean, distance is rate times time.”
“Precisely what? Wait a minute, Professor. Space travel? Don’t tell me you’re Dr. Who and this booth is the Tardis.”
“Well, no,” he said. “But you’re not as far off as you might think. This machine doesn’t actually go anywhere in space or in time. It does however – what is the right word? – displace whatever is inside it from conventional spacetime in a very tenuous way. It is just enough of a displacement to allow me to extend your perspective back through the past, even though you really won’t go there – or then. You’ll really still be in there – mostly.”
“‘Mostly?’ Simplify this for me, professor. Are you telling me you can go in there and see the past?”
“Yes. In essence, yes.”
“Professor, this is crazy. It can’t possibly work.”
“But it does. Oh, I’ve had to overcome a few problems.”
“A few?”
“Yes, the big one is that the traveler, if I can use that word, isn’t quite material in any time but this one. So, you can’t physically interact with anything in the past. That’s what the goggles are for. Photons in the past won’t register on your retinas.”
“But that just passes the buck,” she said. “If past photons register on the goggles, you still are interacting with the past. The past is changed, even if only slightly.”
“Ah, very good, but no. You see, the machine doesn’t push against specific particles; it pushes through the whole of spacetime. Not a single particle or probability wave in the past changes its relative position or shape with regard to any other, but the goggles register part of the push and create images. I supply the power at this end, so entropy is preserved and the past is unaffected.”
“If you say so, Professor.” she said dubiously.
“I do say so. Of course, you’ll see the past with time apparently running backwards since I have to keep pushing you that way. I can’t get images to form running forward.”
“Why not?”
“I have no idea. It’s an interesting problem scientifically and philosophically, but it doesn’t matter. Backward is as good as forward for space exploration.”
“What space exploration? You said the booth doesn’t go anywhere.”
“It doesn’t, but the earth is not motionless. So when I extend your perspective back into time, you will be viewing from wherever earth was in the past – somewhere out in deep space. That’s why there are joysticks built into the armrests; they let you introduce asymmetry in the displacement field, so you can control your own apparent movements in space. Since the traveler can control the rate at which time appears to flow backwards too, there is effectively no light speed limit. You can send your perspective to another galaxy and be back for lunch.”
“What about air?”
“As I said, you aren’t going anywhere really. The air in the booth will be displaced right along with you, so you can breathe just fine. Temperature shouldn’t change much either.”
“I can’t help noticing your repeated use of the second person. Are you suggesting I go in there?”
“Why me?” she asked suspiciously. “Why don’t you try it yourself?”
“I’d love to, and eventually I will, but somebody needs to watch the machine who understands it.”
“OK, you explained why not you, but you haven’t explained why me.”
The question seemed to discomfit Professor Rozsa.
“Well, maybe I don’t want to share credit with a colleague, petty as that may sound,” he said haltingly.
“Whereas I’m just a lowly student who will just be a footnote in the paper you publish on this.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t put it that way. You struck me in class as a bright and open-minded young lady and I thought you might be interested. It’s your decision, of course. Do you want to go or not?”
Jeni was more sure than ever that her open mind wasn’t what had attracted the attention of the professor.
“Are you sure it won’t kill me?” she asked.
“I don’t see why it would.”
“That is one lousy reassurance.”
“The machine didn’t harm any of the rats.”
Jeni looked again at the booth while she thought long and hard. She had deep misgivings, but, if there was a chance Rozsa was onto something and not simply a complete nut, she wanted to know.
“I’ll do it,” she said at last.
Jeni allowed the professor to strap her into the seat. He fitted the helmet and goggles on her head. Images of electric chairs passed through Jeni’s mind, but she held her tongue. Rosza closed the folding door. After a few minutes, his voice asked through a tinny speaker, “Are you ready?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be. Wait! How long will I be in here?”
“First time out, let’s make it half an hour, subjective.”
“Isn’t that too long? How about ten minutes? Five.”
“I want to give you enough time to explore. Keeping the machine running isn’t very costly, but getting it started is. It means charging capacitors and overhauling circuits. It will be days before I can try again, maybe weeks.”
“15 minutes?” she offered.
Jeni waited for something to happen. She waited some more. She wondered how long she should sit here before demanding to be let out. What felt like a swarm of bees suddenly enveloped her. The sensation morphed into a throbbing viscous pressure all around her body. She saw a purple glow through the goggles. Then, she was in blackness.
By a force of will Jeni suppressed an instinct to hyperventilate. She looked about. A star she presumed was the sun shone brightly to her right, but its size was much smaller than when viewed from earth. Jeni played with the joysticks until she got the hang of them. She accelerated toward the presumed sun far faster than would be possible in real time. She looked around for signs of planets and spotted a pinkish spot of light. She guessed it might be Mars, though, if so, she was viewing it from an angle well above or below the ecliptic. She veered toward the pink dot. It grew into a disc. She had guessed correctly. The north polar cap and other familiar Martian features became visible. At least she was in the right solar system.
Jeni began to enjoy herself. She descended toward the surface of the planet. She found she couldn’t slow her apparent motion relative to the ground below a few thousand kph without losing the images in her goggles. She would have to inform the professor that the controls and goggles needed to be made far more sensitive. On a whim, she flew the full length of the breathtaking Marineris Valley, a sort of ruddy Grand Canyon on steroids.
20 minutes no longer seemed like such a long time. Curious about how far back in time her perspective was “extended,” she wanted to take a peek at earth before the professor cut power. She soared out of the Martian atmosphere. The search for earth was more difficult than she expected. At last she espied a blue/white gumball and closed on it. The colors separated into patches of white, blue and brown as she closed. The moon showed a half disc.
Jeni’s attention was distracted by rank stench. She wondered if something was wrong with the machinery. Was wire insulation burning somewhere? She heard loud, scratching and screeching. Something definitely was wrong. She clawed off her helmet and found herself face to face with some vaguely insectoid creature much larger than she. It emitted a series of clicks accompanied by a squeak like fresh chalk on a blackboard. The creature had four mottled red eyes, crablike claws, and several snaky tendrils. Jeni could see past it into a room filled with crazily shaped machinery. The thing reached toward her with a claw. Jeni screamed. The pressure and bees returned. The creature shrieked in apparent pain and vanished. Jeni, shaky and drenched in sweat, was alone in the booth.
Professor Rozsa opened the door and he took in her appearance. “Are you OK?” he asked.
“Hell no! Pull the plug!”
“The power is off.”
“Keep it off forever!”
“Didn’t it work?”
“It did more than work! You didn’t just give me a view. You opened a door to somewhere. Some kind of enormous bug was in there with me!”
“Not possible.”
“It was in there! It was real. I think it had its own machine just like this one. Maybe the two intersected somehow.”
“But this is marvelous! Contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence! Miss Arbogast, surely you know the poor creature probably was as surprised and alarmed as you were.”
“Not a chance. It was about to pincer off my head – as a sample or something. Professor, listen carefully. I will not allow you to reopen a door to an invasion by giant cockroaches!”
“Miss Arbogast, this is the most important event of the century!”
“Yes, and I have no intention of it being the last. If I have to call the authorities on you I will. I’d rather not, because I don’t trust them either, but at least they have bigger guns. I have an alternative. It’s your choice. You either go along with me or I swear I’m calling the Pentagon. Believe me, they’ll take this away from you.”
“Just what do you propose?” Rozsa asked.
“An apposite verb choice, professor. I’m going to marry you, and keep an eye on you. You are not to touch this machine again.”
“What makes you think I would agree to that?”
“Let’s not play games, professor. If you just wanted a student helper, you could have asked anybody. You asked me. I don’t think it’s because I’m the most tech-savvy student you have, because I’m plainly not. I also suspect you want something very short term with me. I’m offering more than you bargained for, but then again you’re not my dream groom either. We’ll both just have to make the best of it.”
“I’m not sure your motives are a sound basis for a relationship, either short or long term.”
“They are the soundest imaginable. Infatuation and romance are fleeting,” she said. “The need to keep the earth safe is permanent. Besides, you’re rich, you aren’t ugly, and I don’t dislike you. I know lots of married women who can’t say the same about their husbands.”
“Well, I’ve had better compliments.”
“But I doubt you’ve had a better offer.”
“Miss Arbogast!”
“So, what will it be? Do I start making phone calls to Washington, D.C., or do you start calling me Jeni?”
“I see. Look, Miss… Jeni, I have another idea. I can reconfigure the machine. Suppose we reduce the size of the displacement field to something tiny, so that no giant cockroach, as you describe it, can come through any doorway that might open. Instead of a person, we put a little robot in there programmed to explore by itself and record images – something toaster-size.”
“Interesting. OK, I’m willing to consider it, but we’re still engaged and you’ll do absolutely nothing without my involvement at every step.”
“You don’t trust me.”
“I don’t trust you. So, are we agreed?”
“OK, Jeni. We’ll do it your way. And I suppose I could do worse come to think of it.”
“Thank you, Russell.”
“But how do you know I’m the only one?”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“How do you know someone else on earth hasn’t built another machine like this?”
“I suppose I don’t. Didn’t you once mention in class that your house has a bomb shelter?”
“Yes. It’s amazing to me how students always remember personal details like that while they forget everything of academic value. It was installed by my grandparents during the Cold War. What does a bomb shelter have to do with anything?”
“From now on, let’s keep it well stocked, just in case we need to ride out any bug troubles.”

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