“The Unwinding House” by Jared Millet
“What you need to understand is that time doesn’t work right in Camden. It hasn’t since the bomb.” Aaron clenched his hands under the table so the man from Homeland Security wouldn’t see them shaking.
“That’s what this is all about, isn’t it, Dr. Trinh?” asked Special Agent Tresser. He glanced at his notes and the side of his mouth curled. “So I guess I shouldn’t ask you to start at the beginning?”
“It’s not Doctor,” said Aaron. “Not yet. I’m just Paul Danson’s research assistant. Was, I mean.” Get a grip. Acting like a jittery wreck would only make matters worse.
“That’s all right,” said Tresser. “We’ll take it slow. Let’s start with your arrival on the 23rd.”
When Aaron and Dr. Danson first choppered into Camden, it was 10:45 in the morning. Aaron remembered, because he was so very tired. He hadn’t slept for thirty hours and he couldn’t seem to keep the crust out of his eyes. His mouth was dry and there was a buzz in the back of his head that had nothing to do with helicopter blades.
“My God,” said Danson as he peered out the window. “You’ve got to see this.” Aaron wasn’t sure if it was safe to get up, but he unbuckled and craned over his professor’s shoulder.
Camden had been a quaint little hamlet in the Colorado Rockies an hour’s drive from I-70. Now it was a crater in the valley floor. Aaron whistled.
“Base camp is at an old drive-in just outside the blast zone,” said their pilot. “We’ve got the roads blocked off ten miles in each direction to make sure no one gets in.”
“Is there radiation?” asked Danson.
“Not that we can detect. More than that, I don’t know. You’ll have to ask the Colonel.”
Danson squirmed in his seat. Aaron could tell that he was anxious to get to work. He himself wasn’t. He was curious as to why he’d been dragged out of his apartment in the middle of the night, but the only thing he wanted to ask this “Colonel” was where he could get a shower and a place to lie down.
Their chopper landed in a field of grass that had been flattened away from the crater. Once Danson and Aaron stepped out, they were met by a man and a woman in dusty fatigues. The man shook Danson’s hand.
“I’m Colonel Green. We spoke on the phone. How was your flight?”
“Not bad, but I’d like to view the site as soon as possible.”
“I thought you might. Corporal Brandt will be your escort while you’re here. If there’s anything you need, just let her know.”
The corporal nodded. “This way, gentlemen. If you leave your bags, we can head on over.”
The wind picked up while they walked past the cluster of trailers that served as the army’s field station. The air bore the first chill of autumn, and the mountains funneled the wind until it stabbed. As they neared the end of the field, the corporal pointed to a patch of mud cordoned with yellow tape.
“Keep away from any place we’ve marked off. If you feel strange anywhere else, report it immediately.”
“Strange how?” asked Aaron.
“Nausea. Vertigo. Overwhelming déjà vu. Believe me, you’ll feel sick enough once we get to the house. No need to get started early.”
“What house?” asked Danson. “The Colonel didn’t mention –”
Cpl. Brandt shook her head. “You’ll have to see for yourself.”
They could see it from the edge of the crater. For a mile there was nothing but rubble obscured by whirlwinds of dust. Camden looked less like a village than a landfill on the moon, yet in the center of the devastation stood a ramshackle, two-story house. Brandt pulled a pair of binoculars from a pouch on her belt and passed them to Danson. He looked at the structure in silence, then handed the glasses to Aaron.
A sloping overhang covered the porch, where four sentries in army gray lounged on guard. The door was several feet up from the ground, hinting at a basement below. Almost all of the house’s windows were broken, and burn marks blackened the siding above each. Roof tiles curled on the edges and in many places were missing entirely, exposing the bones of the attic to the sky.
“How can it still be standing?” Aaron asked. “The house, I mean. I know the Tunguska blast left trees upright in the center, but that explosion was high in the air. If a meteor or a bomb actually hit the surface…”
“You’re right,” said Brandt. “It shouldn’t be there at all. A crater like this is more in line with the underground nuclear tests of the fifties. Or in this case, an explosion at ground level.”
“You’ve done simulations?” asked Danson.
“No, sir. We found the bomb.”
The corporal led them down a zigzag path to the crater floor. All around were piles of brick and skeletons of twisted steel. Aaron shivered and prayed that none of the ash they were breathing was human.
The cordoned-off danger zones grew more common the further they went, and the drifts of dust grew deeper. Aaron’s jeans were already covered. He tried to brush it off, but a sudden shift in wind filled his face with grit. He sneezed and staggered off the path.
Before his next breath, all memory of where he was and how he’d got there slipped from his mind like a wet bar of soap. He opened his eyes, but he couldn’t see. Or rather, what he saw made no sense. Objects no longer had meaning. The ground tilted under him. If he could just go back… or sideways… or down…
A hand will grab his wrist. He’ll stumble back to the path and someone will catch him. She’ll tell him to get to his feet. She’ll tell him to move it, slacker! Somehow, he won’t remember his name.
The world snapped into focus. Dr. Danson stood several paces ahead, looking more irritated than worried. Aaron sagged into Cpl. Brandt’s arms.
“Come on, stay with me. On your feet! Do you know what your name is? Can you tell me what day it is?”
“It’s Tuesday.” His mouth was strangely numb, and for a moment he couldn’t answer her other question. The corporal looked into his eyes and he wondered if she was going to test his sobriety.
“You’ll be all right,” she said, “but don’t do that again. Now move it, slacker!”
The house loomed ahead of them. The soldiers on the porch stood to attention as the corporal approached, and one of them called for “Dr. Pierce.” In response, a woman came out of the house, steadied herself, and walked down the steps, her white coat blinding against her mocha skin.
“Welcome to the party.” She shook Danson’s hand first. “Angela Pierce. I’m the one who stole your equipment.”
“I believe requisition was the term on the warrant,” said Danson. “I’m glad to know it’s in good hands. Haven’t I peer-reviewed some of your papers?”
She nodded. “We can probably write a dozen on what we’ve discovered here, assuming the Army lets us. Come in, but watch your step. The tachyon field hits as soon as you’re inside. There’s a bucket by the door if you need it.”
Aaron froze. Tachyons were the focus of his and Dr. Danson’s research, but if a tachyon field is what he’d stumbled into before, he didn’t want to repeat the experience. He glanced at Cpl. Brandt as if she could give him permission to stay behind. She only smiled and shrugged.
It wasn’t as bad as he expected. As he crossed the threshold, there was a brief sensation of the floor tilting away. When it passed, he took in his surroundings.
“Jeez, what a dump.”
Wires dangled from a blown light fixture in the ceiling. A charred stove sat against the wall, its knobs melted into odd shapes. The linoleum floor had melted as well. Broken china littered a countertop where it had fallen from the cabinet above, and scorch marks scarred what wallpaper remained. The bright fluorescents that had been mounted on either side of the door hummed like distant insects and cast a corpse-like pallor on everyone inside.
“That was odd,” said Danson. “So we’re being bombarded right now?”
“Continuously,” said Pierce. “Everything in this house radiates tachyons. It’s bathed in them. The flow isn’t quite as strong here as in some of the dead-zones outside, but it’s much more regular.”
“How is that even possible?” asked Aaron. He and Danson had produced tachyons in collider experiments, but only in tiny microbursts.
Dr. Pierce grinned like a schoolgirl at the prom. “Are you guys ready for this? I think this house has negative temporal momentum. It’s moving backward in time, and the tachyons are a by-product of the friction between two time streams.”
Danson threw his hands in the air and his face puffed as if holding back a shout. When it finally burst free, he ran to Aaron and grabbed him by the shoulders.
“Do you know what this means?”
An extra year on my dissertation? Aaron didn’t say it out loud. Danson had already moved on.
“Can you tell how it happened?” he asked Pierce. “Do you know what caused it?”
She shook her head. “That’s why I called. You’re the pioneer in this field. Come on, I’ll give you the tour.”
Most of the house was as damaged as the kitchen. The stairs to the second floor were too dangerous to climb, and all that was left in the first-floor bedroom was a metal frame and a pile of springs. In the study, a wall of old books had been blackened by smoke.
“I love the decor,” said Danson. “Or at least what’s left of it. When was the house built?”
“Never,” said Pierce. “In the satellite photos before the blast, this was an empty park.”
“But the floor plan, the paneling…”
“I know; it’s like something from Leave It to Beaver. That’s just for starters. I haven’t shown you the good stuff yet.”
The family room was the least damaged of all. Two sofas framed a fireplace, and on the coffee table in between rested a metal canister, three feet tall and two feet wide. Unlike everything else in the house, it gleamed. On its side was a ten-digit keypad with an LED display, now dark. Taped next to the pad was a yellow piece of paper. Aaron leaned close to read the words.
“Hi. I’m a bomb. Disarm me. 22# 04* 17#”
“When we found it,” said Pierce, “the timer was counting up, not down.”
“Like a clock spring unwinding.” Danson scratched his bald spot. “But why? Why blow up a town of innocent people in the middle of nowhere?”
“A town plus three,” she said. “And the first three weren’t killed by the bomb. There’s one last thing to show you, and it isn’t pretty.”
“She was talking about the bodies,” said Agent Tresser.
“They were in the basement. Skeletons, really. The woman and child were intact, at least, but the man was just a pile of bones in a tub.”
“It says here that you gave them names.”
“George, Judy, and Elroy.” Aaron’s face grew warm. It had seemed funny at the time, but looking back he wasn’t proud.
“Whose idea was it to recompose them?”
“Danson’s, but I led him to it. That was after the fire.”
No one ever warned Aaron how much manual labor was involved in getting a physics degree. He spent his first two days in Camden lugging forty-pound tachyon detectors from base camp and arranging them strategically around the house. Someone from the army would have been just as capable, perhaps more so, but Danson insisted that only Aaron handle his equipment. At least he didn’t have to carry the generators. Cpl. Brandt (who, after the fifth time Aaron called her “Corporal,” admitted her name was Tara) arranged a work detail to do the heavy lifting.
They spent the third day clearing debris out of the house. Danson remained at camp to work on their data servers while Dr. Pierce strung micro-detectors of every possible stripe throughout the house. Any loose object with its own tachyon field had to be removed, so of course Aaron was drafted. Everything not nailed down was to be taken outside and cataloged, except for the bodies in the basement.
Aaron’s stomach still lurched when he thought of them. He’d only been down there once, but the image was etched in his mind. The basement had suffered the worst of the blaze, so much that the Army had shored up the ceiling with support beams to keep it from caving in. Anything not made of metal or bone had incinerated. Piles of shattered glass lay everywhere amidst scattered brackets, hardware, and scrap of uncertain function.
In the middle of the room, two solid steel worktables had survived. On one lay the skeleton of an adult woman, on the other that of a boy between five and seven years old. The third set of bones lay in a bathtub in the corner, half-submerged in a brown resin.
A box of cutlery rattled in Aaron’s hands as he stepped through the door into sunlight. He was now so accustomed to the stutter-stop flash of vertigo that he didn’t even have to steady himself. He set the box down next to five cartons of blackened books and reached for a bottle of water. Not long after, Cpl. Brandt came out and dropped an armful of machine parts on the ground.
“What’s that?” Aaron asked.
“Chainsaw, I think. Or a band saw. Haven’t found the blade yet, just the motor.”
Aaron picked up an old, slightly singed baseball from the pile, pitched it at the house, and caught it when it came back. The second time, it bounced off the ground. He wiped off the ash and pitched again, feeling like someone in a nuclear holocaust movie, playing catch amidst the shards of civilization: the shell of a car, a busted TV, a variety of garden shears. There was one particular object that he’d mistaken for an antique leaf blower. Tara had to explain it to him.
“This fuel tank goes on your back. This part here is the pressure pump for the hose, and the length of the nozzle gives you a steady stream. This is the gas line for the pilot light, and this piece on the end is the igniter.”
“It’s a flamethrower?”
“Well, yeah. It was in the basement with the rest of this crap. Whoever started the fire must have left it in the house. I guess it could have been Bathtub Man; it wasn’t that far from the tub.”
Aaron caught the ball off another rebound. He didn’t care to speculate on how the bodies in the basement met their end. He didn’t even like watching crime shows. He tossed the ball higher, meaning to roll it down the roof, but it smashed the house’s one unbroken window instead.
Aaron held his breath. Tara did the same. They turned to each other slowly, and Aaron guessed she was thinking the same thing he was. Boy, we’re in trouble now. He chuckled and the corporal grinned. They had just started laughing in earnest when a great “whump” came from the house. A moment later, Dr. Pierce rushed outside.
“Fire! The house is on fire! Sergeant West is still in there.”
Cpl. Brandt barked at two privates standing sentry nearby. “Radio for suppression gear and a medic. Stone, you’re with me. Come on.”
She ran into the house with Pvt. Stone on her heels. The other spoke quickly on his handset. Dr. Pierce bent over to catch her breath. Aaron put his hand on her back, and she jumped.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Are you okay?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know what happened. We were hanging sensors in the basement. I flipped one on and everything twisted, like in the dead zones out here. Then the sergeant knocked over a lamp and the whole place went up. It doesn’t make sense. There wasn’t anything left down there to burn.”
A wall of hot air slammed them off their feet, followed by a giant’s roar. Pierce fell to her knees, but Aaron managed to catch himself.
“Oh God,” said Pierce. “The house.”
The entire building was ablaze. Red light shimmered in every window and a great cloud of smoke was already swirling overhead. But it was wrong. The smoke coalesced from the air and poured down to the house in a funnel. Ignoring his safety, Aaron ran to the door.
“Get out of here!” came the faint reply. “We’re trapped under the stairs!”
A wave of heat pushed him back. He batted hot ash from his face as he stumbled to the ground, almost falling on the pile of junk he and Tara had dragged outside. If only there was an extinguisher. Didn’t houses from the future have safety codes?
Then it struck him. It was crazy, but also blindingly obvious. He picked up the flamethrower and ran to the door.
“What are you doing?” shouted Pierce.
“I don’t know!” From the porch, he aimed at the inferno inside and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened.
Negative temporal momentum, he reminded himself. The tachyon field hits at the threshold. He mounted the empty fuel tank on his back and took a breath, maybe his last, then ran inside.
Heat wrapped him and strangled. His eyes squeezed shut. It didn’t matter where he pointed the flamethrower; he couldn’t possibly miss. If his theory didn’t hold, it wouldn’t matter long. He’d be too dead to care. He held the nozzle high and pulled the trigger a second time.
It kicked and came to life in his hands. The tank sagged as it started filling with fuel. The heat abated and a fresh wind struck him in the face.
He opened his eyes. A steady gout of flame poured into the nozzle. The fire lapped close on either side, so he turned slowly around to put it out. Part of his mind recoiled as the rusted hardware inhaled the fire like a backward dragon. A more twisted part of him giggled.
Tara was still trapped. Cursing himself for a moron, he turned down the hallway and followed the flame to the stairwell. She and Pvt. Stone had taken shelter after dragging Sgt. West from the basement. Aaron cleared a path, then turned his attention to the stairs above. He could actually watch the boards firm up as the remaining fire unburnt them back into shape.
“What in God’s name are you doing?” asked Tara.
“Burning down the house.” Aaron couldn’t stop smiling. “Get out. I’ve got this.”
A rumble from below shook the floor. Trusting the others to take care of themselves, Aaron made his way down the hall and around the bend. He took a moment to squirt the fire out of the study, then turned his attention to the basement stairs.
The walls and floor were licked with red. It was suddenly hard to breathe. Smoke poured from outside. There was no time left. His eyes swam and he almost lost his grip on consciousness. Without waiting any longer, he pointed the flamethrower down the steps and charged.
The basement was an oven. Aaron held his breath as best he could and swept his nozzle left and right, absorbing the blaze. It cleared slowly at first, then quicker as he moved forward. Ash swirled and reshaped itself into shelves, benches, a stool. Glass unshattered into gallon-size bottles scattered across the room. Smoke billowed into a stack of chopped wood.
The fire snuffed from the bodies on the tables with barely a wave of his torch. Joints connected with ligaments. Bones cloaked themselves in dried flesh. Aaron felt like a magician. No, he felt like God. He followed the fire where it led him. It didn’t matter where it hid. There was no escaping him now.
The last of it retreated to the bathtub. Foul green clouds now billowed across the ceiling, as in a film winding in reverse. The basement filled with a gagging stench like nothing Aaron had smelled before. He willed his nose shut and breathed through his mouth, all the while begging the fire to just go out, damn it.
Something boiled in the tub. It bubbled like a cauldron, at least a foot deep, maybe two. The last trail of smoke curled into the room and backed into the fire like a scolded puppy. The flamethrower kicked one last time and shut itself off in Aaron’s hands.
The tub was now full of a horrible, brownish sludge. Chunks of meat floated to the surface. One rolled over and stared upward with empty eye sockets. There was a gash where its nose should have been and a handful of teeth in its mouth.
“So explain it to me,” said Tresser. “How do you put out a fire with a flamethrower?”
“I didn’t. I started the fire. Negative temporal momentum. The house, the flamethrower, the fire, they were all moving backwards in time.”
“Okay, then,” he said. “What did put it out? Sgt. West knocking over a lamp? How does that work?”
“The best I can figure it,” said Aaron, “is that when you have two time streams acting against each other, cause and effect break down. Sgt. West started the fire in one direction. I started it in the other. The two must have met in the middle somewhere and cancelled each other. Some of the fire must have been moving forward in time, since our equipment was still damaged and the sergeant still got burned.”
“So by that reasoning, when the Army first discovered the bomb and entered the code to deactivate it…”
“They actually armed it and destroyed the town. At least that’s what Dr. Danson said.”
Tresser shook his head. “I can’t believe I’m really asking this next question, but was that before or after he died?”
After the fire, the house was immaculate, if dated. Lime green Formica lined the kitchen counters, and the linoleum floor was almost uglier restored than melted. The only thing that hadn’t repaired itself was the broken window upstairs. Aaron didn’t care about that. All he cared about was the thing in the tub.
Despite the stench, he returned to the basement when Dr. Danson arrived. When he showed him the putrid body rotting in its own soup, his professor covered his mouth, but didn’t turn away.
“Tell me everything.”
Aaron did. Danson tapped his fingers. When Aaron finished, Danson worked through the problem out loud.
“In quantum theory, a particle or an event propagates as a wave until it encounters an observer, yes? Then it collapses into a single observed state and we can say that this thing happened. This particle exists.”
Aaron nodded. For the first time in an hour, his pulse started to slow. He’d never considered the calming properties of undergrad physics before. Who knew?
“But what happens,” said Danson, “when the observation precedes the event? Do you follow? Even quantum theory clings to some form of causality. So if you observe an event without a cause, is the universe then obligated to provide one?”
“I don’t see…”
“We observed a house where none should be. You witnessed a fire that started with little provocation. In order for any of this to make sense, the universe had to provide causality. In this case, it provided you and your flamethrower.”
“But the flamethrower was part of the house. It was moving the same direction in time.”
“But you weren’t,” said Danson. “Were you predestined to start the fire? Or were you just a convenient observer who was in the right place to collapse the temporal wavefront? You chose to pick up that flamethrower and put out the fire. When time flows in the wrong direction, are we free to choose the causes that create the effects we witness?”
Aaron considered for a moment. “Honestly, that’s a little hard to swallow.”
“Then let’s test it. Hand me one of those jugs.”
The nearest was the size of a gallon of milk, but heavier because it was glass. Its label carried the strongest hazard warning Aaron had ever seen.
“Oh, no. You don’t think…”
“I do,” said Danson as he took the jug. “I think this body was dissolved by acid. I think some of that acid came from this container. I think I’ll find out if I’m right.” Without further ado, he upended the bottle over the tub.
The sludge sizzled and a stream of liquid poured up. A stench of chlorine, sulfur, and rotten meat stung the back of Aaron’s throat. He wanted to throw up, but was afraid of what might happen if time and gravity were acting at cross purposes. When the bottle was almost full, Danson flipped it over to catch the final drop.
“Find me a lid, will you? There’s got to be one somewhere.”
Aaron capped the bottle while Danson unpoured another one. Cpl. Brandt came down to see if they needed anything. Aaron said, “Get Dr. Pierce. Quick.”
It took almost two hours to undissolve the body. In that time, they drew a crowd. Even Col. Green came to watch. Cpl. Brandt arranged a security detail in case something went wrong, and a medic stood by just in case the miraculous happened and the body came to life. Pierce assisted Danson with the process, once she got over her initial horror. Everyone gave the other two bodies a wide berth. Aaron kept to the far corner of the room and tried to look busy.
Tara tapped him on the shoulder. “How are you holding up?”
He wondered if he looked as sick as he felt. “Do you think there’s something wrong with me that I don’t want to see this?”
“I think there’s probably something right. People in general may be ghoulish, but don’t be ashamed if you’re not.” She started to say more, but there was a commotion by the tub.
“What is that?” asked the colonel.
“Looks like a bullet wound, sir,” answered one of his men.
“Stay here,” said Tara, but Aaron didn’t. He followed her through the crowd to check on Danson’s progress.
The body had almost completely reformed, though its face still had no skin and its guts were open to the air. An inch of acid sludge remained, but the corpse’s scalp had reattached itself, as well as a pair of burned trousers and the sleeves of a white shirt. There was a bullet hole in its chest just above the heart. Blue eyes stared from lidless sockets. In an instant of recognition, Aaron’s revulsion grew into something worse. He turned to stare at his professor.
Danson’s shoulders sagged. “I wasn’t going to say anything.”
Col. Green leaned over the tub. “Holy Christ,” he whispered. “All right, everyone clear the room. Cpl. Brandt, stay. You too, Trinh.” Dr. Pierce remained as well. Once the room was empty, the colonel let Danson have it.
“What do you mean you weren’t going to say anything? Did you think we wouldn’t notice after a few more gallons? I want to know what you’re doing in that tub to begin with.”
“There’s only one way to find out,” said Danson. “We’re committed now.”
“Bullshit,” said Green. “We can stop right here. We can stick this body on ice. We can bury it in the desert and all live happy lives.”
“No,” said Danson. “There has to be a reason. Not just for this, but for everything. The house. The bomb. The people of Camden. If this is my future self, then he might be the one to tell us. Otherwise, we may never know.”
“I don’t like it,” said Pierce, “but he’s right. However, that bullet wound bothers me. So far, we haven’t found a gun.”
“Just get him breathing again,” said Green. “Corporal, fetch the medic back.”
It took three more bottles of acid to restore Danson’s body. Blood pooled in the tub and soaked its shirt and hands.
“What do we do now?” Aaron asked.
Air rattled from the dead man’s lungs. Aaron jumped, slipped, and fell. His head cracked on the concrete, and when he came to his senses there was blood on his scalp.
“Medic!” someone shouted.
“No, I’m fine, thanks. Just hit my head.” But it wasn’t Aaron they were shouting for. Danson and Pierce reached into the tub. Col. Green pulled them both out of the way, and the medic rushed across the room with his kit.
Before Aaron could stand, the room turned inside out. The exit telescoped away. Aaron gasped, and air trickled down his throat.
The body will fly from the tub, but not of its own volition. Blood will pour into the hole in its chest. The wounded Dr. Danson will try to stop it, to no avail. He will stumble forward and trip on Aaron as he tries to get to his feet. He will grab Aaron’s shoulders and plead. He will speak in reverse and Aaron won’t understand him.
Aaron will push him away. The dying Danson will flail toward the pair of skeletons and knock them to the floor. He will then fall into the arms of the other Danson, the living Danson, who will jerk back, his eyes wild.
The wounded Danson goes for his throat. The other Danson’s eyes bulge and he grabs the man’s wrists. Cpl. Brandt shouts for them to stop. The bleeding one screams defiance. As one, the two Dansons fall to the floor.
Thunder will shatter the air.
Aaron’s only warning was his gut sucking in before a river of bile burned its way up his throat. He didn’t have time to breathe before a second spasm blasted the contents of his stomach out through his nose.
The medic was a withered husk in old, tattered clothes. Next to the tub, Dr. Pierce wept. The colonel was sprawled on the floor. Tara stood near the door, her firearm smoking in her hand.
Both of the Dansons were gone.
“They both disappeared?”
“He disappeared,” said Aaron. “It was the same person.”
“That’s not what you said a minute ago. When the two of them struggled–”
“It took a while to work it out. I’m getting to that.”
“Fair enough,” said Tresser. “So what was the deal with the medic?”
“There was a tachyon blast when Danson switched directions in time. The rest of us caught the edge of it, but the medic’s temporal momentum went to zero, like hitting a brick wall in the time stream.”
Tresser tapped his pencil and chewed his lip. “So what made Danson switch directions? And why did he try to strangle himself?”
“Well, the change happened when Tara, I mean Cpl. Brandt, shot him. We didn’t know if that caused it, but the events were synchronous. As for the second question, we didn’t have a clue.”
Soldiers carried the medic’s desiccated body to base camp. Aaron assisted Dr. Pierce, who was nauseated the whole way back. Since a civilian had been killed, the colonel ordered Cpl. Brandt confined pending an inquiry, but Aaron overheard that there might not be any charges pressed. Despite what happened, she had only acted to defend the “real” Dr. Danson. And besides, there wasn’t a body. Danson’s remains were heading into the past in an acid-filled bathtub to be vaporized with the rest of Camden.
The next morning, the camp was quiet. Even those gossiping about the day before did so in hushed tones. Word came that Sgt. West died from his burns during the night. The colonel ordered that no one return to the house until he received further instructions from the Department of Defense. None of the monitoring equipment worked, and Dr. Pierce didn’t seem interested in using it anyway. Aaron found her stirring her coffee in the mess tent and staring into space. He decided to leave her alone. Asking around, he found Cpl. Brandt in a room in one of the trailers. The guard let him pass with barely a nod.
“Hey,” she said.
“Jeez, don’t they even lock the doors?”
“I’m here on my own recognizance.” Tara had a bunk, a window, and a newspaper. The bed didn’t look slept in. Her eyes were clear, but her face was pale. Aaron wondered if she’d eaten.
“Brought you something.” He tossed her the baseball from the day before.
“What am I going to do with this?”
“I thought you’d bounce it off the walls. Like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape.”
“You’re such a geek,” she said. Aaron blushed. She threw it back to him. “Be careful with that. Break a window in here and you’ll have to pay for it.”
Something kinked in Aaron’s mind. “Break a window.” He knelt and rolled the ball so that it bounced off the wall.
“Aaron? You’re being weird now.”
“What did you see? When you shot the professor and right after. What did you see?”
She stiffened. “You’re not my superior. You don’t get to question me.”
He grabbed the ball and presented it like material evidence. “But what did you see? It’s important.”
“I didn’t see anything. I mean, I saw the two of them. I had a bead on the one doing the strangling. I warned him to stop. He didn’t, so I fired. For what it’s worth, I was aiming at his shoulder.”
“But what next?”
“I don’t know. The whole room kind of twisted for a moment and I guess I blacked out. When I came to, I was still on my feet, so I didn’t worry about it.”
“But while you were blacked out, could someone have slipped around you?”
Her eyes narrowed. “What are you talking about?”
He waved the baseball. “Conservation of momentum. An object can’t simply change direction. It has to be acted on by an outside force. Dr. Danson couldn’t just turn around in time. Something had to shove him.”
“I shot him.”
Aaron shook his head. “Irrelevant. We shoot people every day. No, I’m talking equal and opposite.”
He showed her the baseball again. In his other hand, he curled his fingers as if he held a second one, just like the first.
“Two identical particles move toward each other and collide.” He bounced his hands off each other. “If the transfer of energy is perfect, each rebounds with the other’s original velocity.”
“Okay,” said Tara, “but if they’re identical…”
“Then after the collision there’s no way to tell which is which.”
“All right. Danson from the future gets shot and boiled down to bone. The whole house burns, then gets sent backward in time with the bomb. The bomb goes off – Bam! – vaporizes Camden. Causality has ruptured. All we can observe are effects, and now the universe has to find a cause to explain them. Enter our Dr. Danson.”
Tara started to pace. Aaron kept thinking out loud. Wherever he was going, he felt he was on the cusp of it.
“Danson thought that we could choose that cause, just like I chose to put out the fire with the flamethrower. In the basement, he chose to reassemble the body, and he chose to keep at it even after he saw that it was himself. He chose to be the cause of the effect. If he hadn’t, that body would still be there and he’d still be alive.”
“Hold on,” said Tara. “If our Danson got bounced into the past, what happened to the Danson from the future?”
“Are you sure no one slipped around you?”
Tara straightened her uniform. “We need to speak to the colonel.”
Thirty minutes later, Col. Green led ten men, plus Brandt, Aaron, and Pierce, back to the crater. He sent half to scout outside while the others searched the house. It didn’t take long. The bomb had disappeared from the family room and there was a humming from the basement.
Aaron, Pierce, and Brandt went in last. When they arrived below, Dr. Danson was on his knees with his hands cuffed behind him and a pair of army issue pistols aimed at his head. He’d lost some of his hair and his eyes were edged with crow’s feet. When his colleagues entered the room, he smiled.
“Good morning, Angela. And it’s nice to see you again, Dr. Trinh.”
“That’s right, in this time you’re still my assistant. Are you still going by Aaron? The last time we spoke, you were Trịnh Hữu An. You dropped your American name when you married.”
“Dr. Danson,” said the colonel. “I asked you a question. What is all this?”
The skeletons had been placed back on their tables and an array of equipment had been spread around them. To the side was the bomb casing, now open and gutted. Danson smiled without humor.
“A time machine, Colonel. My counterpart from your time brought me through. If you’d please let me finish, I’d like to do the same for my wife and son.”
“What?” asked Pierce. “You did all this, you killed all those people, just so you and your family could travel in time?”
“You don’t know what it’s like,” he said. “People always wondered what would happen if you went back and killed your parents before you were born. That’s nothing. The only way to send something back in time, the only way for time travel to work at all, is to create such a paradox, destroy so many lives, that cause and effect are blown to dust.”
He turned to Aaron. “You’re lucky. You and your family die in the destruction of Hanoi ten years from now. You never see the nightmare the future becomes. There’s no practical use for time travel except as a weapon, and a time bomb is a weapon you cannot defend against. You can’t see it coming. You only find it after the fact, and if you disarm it you become the reason it was armed. All you can do is send another time bomb against whoever attacked you and try to kill them first.
“Do you see it? Imagine a war that propagates backward in time. Billions murdered in retaliation for atrocities they haven’t even committed yet. And you can’t stop it. Time travel is a self-inventing technology. It’s a gift from the future; all you have to do is reverse engineer it.”
“So why are you here?” asked Aaron. “If what you’re saying is true, then you didn’t come far enough back in time to escape your war. What did you hope to accomplish?”
“Such a good student. Always asking the right question. I’ve leapfrogged ahead of the wavefront. I knew that if I reached this time, my younger self would be clever enough to regenerate me, if only I gave him a puzzle to solve. So I hired men to kill me, to burn me, to boil me into soup, just so the young Paul Danson would have enough breadcrumbs to divine the solution. No living person can travel in time. The shift in momentum is lethal. As far as I know, I’m the only one to find a loophole.
“Colonel, I came to give warning. The war is on its way. Imprison me, question me, but for humanity’s sake don’t bury me. I need to be heard. And in return, I only ask that you let me activate this equipment.”
“What’ll it do?”
“These bodies were frozen by a tachyon burst, just like that unfortunate man earlier. I can’t help him, since his death was in the past. Because these two deaths are yet to come, I hope to recreate the tachyon field that restored me and bring them back. No one need die this time. Please, they’re innocents in this.”
“Colonel,” said Dr. Pierce, “we can’t possibly trust this man.”
“You should,” said Danson. “The woman is you. The child is our son.”
“And that’s it?” asked Tresser.
Aaron nodded. “The Colonel ordered us all out of the house. I never found out what happened to Danson or his family. Pretty soon after, I was flown here, wherever this is.”
“You’ll be finding out shortly.” Tresser scribbled one last note in his file and slid it into his briefcase. “I don’t know if anyone else will apologize, so I’ll do it. I’m sorry for the sacrifices that are going to be asked of you, and I’d like to thank you in advance for the service you’re going to give to your country.”
Suddenly Aaron’s stomach felt heavy. “What do you mean?”
“You’re being drafted for a special project. I think you can guess what it is.” Tresser straightened his suit as he stood. “So I’m afraid your degree is on hold. One day, though, I’d say you’ll be able to make quite a name for yourself. When that time comes, I’ll be happy to call you ‘Dr.’ Trinh.”
Agent Tresser shook Aaron’s limp hand and left. Aaron sat there, numb, until a soldier came to escort him outside.
Wherever he was, it was warmer than Colorado. The sky was gray, and beyond the razor wire fence was a forest of oak and pine. The buzz of mosquitoes filled the air. Was he in Mississippi? Alabama? The compound’s unmarked buildings gave no clue.
His escort passed him off to another. Aaron didn’t notice until his new guide pinched his arm. He shouted in surprise.
“Sorry,” said Tara. “You were kind of spacing out.”
“It’s sergeant, now.” She pointed to her new chevrons. “Like you, though, I think I’m stuck here. They wouldn’t even let me call my mom.”
“What do you think is going to happen? Are they going to use us in the war, when it comes?”
Cpl. Brandt’s gaze quickly skirted the area around them, then she leaned and spoke close to Aaron’s ear.
“I heard a little more of what Danson had to say after you left. He came back ten years, but he says that we may only have two or three left in this time stream before the war catches up with us. We won’t be able to stop the first of the time bombs, but he thinks we can draw a line in the sand. If we can contain the time travel technology, develop it ourselves before it falls into someone else’s hands, we can stop the rest of the war from ever happening.”
“Or get caught in the same endless cycle.” He wondered where the first bombs would hit, and what the survivors would do to retaliate. “Look, I don’t care what the government threatens me with. I’m not going to help kill innocent people.”
“Hey, no one’s asking you to. Our mission is to stop this war, not start it. I’d think a smart guy like you would want to help out.”
Aaron thought for a moment. If past and future were mutable, if cause and effect were multiple choice, then there might be more possible futures than the nightmare world Danson had warned them of.
“There’s a lot we’ll have to figure out,” he said. “Two years isn’t much of a head start, but it might be enough.”
Tara tossed him a baseball, the one from the house in Camden. One of its stitches had begun to unwind. “Come on, then. Time to get to work.”
|Jared Millet is a short story author, writing teacher, and full-time librarian. His work has previously appeared in Shelter of Daylight and the Dreams of Steam anthologies. In early 2012 he edited and published an Alabama ghost story collection, Summer Gothic. Jared currently lives in Birmingham. Follow him online at jaredmillet.blogspot.com.|