Short – Schrödinger’s Wasp
It almost starts and ends with a coin. And a cremation. The chapel of rest is cool after the brash sun. Shadows and hushed echoes. A room clad in dark varnished wood, brown textured plastic and fire-resistant glass. A mournful hymn warbling through cheap speakers fixed high on the walls. The coin is a nickel and brass threepenny bit. Twelve sides. The worn face of Elizabeth II on the front and a portcullis on the reverse. I like the way the metals sound in my mouth when I speak the words, the way they roll together. Nickel and brass. Worth more than the coin ever was.
My grandfather was dead. I didn’t really know what this meant. Not then. Not anymore than I understood the aesthetics of non-denominational interior design and architecture. Or the science of metallurgy. Or how to spell portcullis. I’m ushered through a forest of dark suits and dresses. Pale, pained faces. The smell of dust and flowers.
In my mind the scene is pin sharp, although fractured. I keep coming back to the same place, working the details over and over until they’ve undoubtedly become more real than the event itself. But it’s the spaces which interest me. The desire to know what lies in-between the memory.
This desire, unconsciously at first, shaped my schooling. I was at the mercy of inevitably harassed teachers at average comprehensives in a mid-sized town, but I did well. I had a voracious appetite for science and maths, often out-pacing the curriculum. My fascination with perceived memory and time grew. While friends looked forward, revelling in their present selves, I looked increasingly back.
I breezed through my exams, gaining high grades, and secured a place at the university of my choice. A four-year honours degree in physics and then a one-year masters in mathematics led to a PhD and research position within a team located at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. It just about paid the rent and bills.
But all of this is academic. In the spring of my sixth year at Cambridge, I met Jane. She sat herself down at my table, as I ate lunch one Sunday afternoon in The Baron, and struck up a conversation. An English Literature undergrad with eclectic taste, she had a penchant for ‘40s swing bands, Chelseabuns from Fitzbillies in Trumpington Street and dark eye makeup. Her lips were always delicious strawberry gloss.
By the end of the summer, we’d moved in together. A little top-floor flat in a Victorian terrace near Jesus Green. It was compact, to say the least, but had two tiny bedrooms – one of which we used as a study – and a delightful private roof garden, accessed via a door in the corner of the lounge. We’d sit amongst the potted ferns and conifers, drinking cheap wine, and watch the sun go down over the city.
We were happy then. We laughed a lot. Jane made it easy for me to be myself. I admired her world view, her inquisitive intelligence and her passion. I got the impression she thought I needed feeding up. One cool October night, I told her about my fascination with events lost in the past. We sat on the roof, shoulder-to-shoulder, wrapped in a blanket. She assumed I was talking hypothetically, as I often did in reference to my research.
‘So, you think there’s a way around the paradox?’ she said, reaching for her wine glass.
‘There is no paradox. Not that I can see.’ I waved a hand at the city. ‘Say all of those lights are points in time. It doesn’t matter about the type or frequency of activity around each point, they stay lit.’
Jane smiled. ‘Unless you physically turn them off. Or there’s a power cut.’
‘OK, granted. The points aren’t immune to change. They can be affected by greater forces. But the stream of normal time isn’t one of them.’ I drained my own glass, went to pour us both some more but saw we were out.
‘In fact, without the points, there’d be no flow of time at all.’ I continued. ‘They’re like way markers. They’re as good as fixed.’
She laughed. ‘It’s totally OK to go back and kill your granddad, then?’
I was silent for a while. Jane sensed my mood change.
‘Some more wine, I think.’ She pushed back the blanket, stood and walked a little unsteadily to the roof door.
Work absorbed me. The research was funded by Fable West, a communications corporation who had seen promise in the early experiments at DAMTP. In a nutshell, quantum entanglement as a method for simultaneous transmission of information.
The Chinese had beaten us all to the early stages and were able to achieve photonic teleportation over a distance of about ten miles. But we moved it on, achieving greater distances and a primitive but workable message system rather than mere changes in a proton’s polarity. My role was to help crunch the numbers needed to ensure quantum decoding of the transmitted information.
I don’t get the chance to talk to many people outside of the department about what I do. We’re all under a confidentiality agreement, of course, so specific details are definitely off the menu anyway. The subject is too dry for most and it’s not one that comes up often at social gatherings. The inevitable theories on dimensional travel and other imagined technologies are always popular though. One such conversation I had with Richard, a male friend of Jane’s, during a BBQ in the park. Despite the allusion to science-fiction drama and his state of advanced merriment, there was something he said which struck a chord within me.
‘Fascinating, obviously.’ Richard bobbed his head in time with Bob Marley and swigged Tiger beer. ‘I mean, I don’t know about the deep stuff. Y’know, quantum mechanics and, what are those things? Quirks?’
‘Yeah, man. That.’
Richard was a philosophy student. Thinner even than me. Wispy beard and untidy hair. He knew Jane from the Amateur Dramatic Club where they’d played in The Pied Piper of Hamelin the year previously. I’d joked he was too much of a weasel to play a rat.
‘It’s the stuff that’s missing that bothers me,’ he said. ‘The science is all very well but where’s the emotional connection?’
The scent of charred meats wafted over from the portable grill. I drank un-chilled white from a purple plastic beaker.
‘Within the plot?’ I asked, thinking he meant the movie he’d originally brought up.
Richard fixed me with an earnest stare. ‘Within time travel, man. Too many hard edges. Y’know?’ He tipped more beer. ‘Too many assumptions about the physical. Existentialism is fine but only to a point. I mean, where’s the- the humanity?’
‘What’s humanity got to do with time?’
‘Yeah.’ Quick nods of his head. Eyes wide. ‘Exactly.’
Jane appeared, smiling. She wrapped her arms around the both of us. It seemed she hugged him a little tighter.
‘Is he boring you, Rich?’
‘Hey, Jane,’ he replied. ‘No, no. It’s cool. We’re discussing the unyielding surfaces of technology.’
I opened my mouth to add something but she arched a perfect eyebrow in my direction.
‘And now, milady and good sire,’ Richard said. ‘I must away to yonder fire-pit for nourishment.’ He bowed with a flourish, spilling beer. And then exited left, between curtains of blue barbecue smoke.
It didn’t hit me until later that evening. The sun and alcohol had left me with a headache; my mood cloudy, my thoughts indistinct. As scientists, we’re trained to work in a purely empirical fashion. Jane had always said it was the thing which delighted and irked her in equal measure. But what if Richard was right? What if current hypotheses surrounding time floundered because the concepts utilised weren’t flexible enough? Admittedly, my own ideas regarding points or way markers fell into the tried and tested habits of assigning spatial properties. It was a viable way of representing the data but I realised it didn’t reflect time itself. It didn’t describe how time is actually experienced, by living creatures.
Richard’s question regarding humanity was misplaced. He’d been too drunk, not making any real sense. But the gist of what he’d said perhaps uncovered a nugget of brilliance. I’d never tell him that of course.
In my research, I deal with quantum states. I won’t explain because it’s bloody hard. And I’m good, but not good enough to make it easy to understand or entertaining. Maybe you’ve heard of the famous thought experiment, Schrödinger’s cat? I’d always wondered why a cuddly pet was chosen when his students would have been far more objective about, say, an insect. But I digress; it’s not a real experiment. Suffice to say, quantum particles don’t behave as you’d expect and it’s not possible to measure them as you would objects in the macro world. After nearly a year of testing, the methods we used for disentanglement settled on a cloud of quantum probabilities, held in partial stasis, within a Bose-Einstein condensate superfluid.
An early accidental discovery of simultaneous information transmission was the potential for temporal displacement. In essence, time travel. We hadn’t done it, I hasten to add. At least, not in any controlled fashion. And not in any definitively measurable way, obviously. But recorded data had thrown up some anomalies that indicated the relocation of certain particles backwards. By several hours.
You’d think we’d be shouting loud and long about this but, as with all research, there are some things that are just too strange, too un-scientific for publication. At least until further results can be demonstrated. Not knowing what to do with the information, and with our primary focus on the transmission research, it was shelved.
The discovery gnawed at me, however. Indeed, it was the reason for my musings on paradox, or the lack of it. I surmised this sort of thing must happen all the time, with no apparent effect on our present. It dared me to wonder about the possibility of controlling the relocation of particles into the past. Or even sending bigger objects. It was here that Richard’s inebriated statement acted as a key to the lock of my mind.
We are creatures of the known universe as surely as anything that exists, obeying the natural laws of physics, chemistry and biology. As we move through space, so, I reasoned, we could perhaps move through time. As long as we stopped thinking of it in terms of spatial confines.
Extracting the essence of Richard’s monologue, I had the rather mad idea my hypothesis regarding way markers could be realised, if I were to think of those fixed points in time as emotional attractors. That is, a point in time could be re-visited because of a strong connection to memory.
I wasn’t sure if this meant individual, subjective memories or as some collective, mishmash of humanity’s consciousness but I became increasingly convinced time travel would be possible and, more importantly, controllable, by harnessing emotional resonance.
‘But a memory isn’t a real place, in that sense, is it?’ Jane said. ‘You can’t actually go there.’
We were outside on the roof. The sun was high in the endless blue, waves of heat lapping incessantly on grey tile and charcoal slate. She lay naked, on a lounger, head turned away from me. I sat with my back against the wall, watching tiny beads of perspiration glistening between her breasts.
‘Depends on your definition of go.’
‘As in the ordinary definition. You know, you go to the shops. You buy some more wine.’
I didn’t take the hint.
‘Right. Well, I’m not entirely sure.’ I took a deep breath of baking air. ‘I’d need to set up a proper test.’
Jane was silent for a few seconds and then turned to face me, shielding her eyes with a hand. ‘Wait. What do you mean?’
I didn’t say anything.
She sat up and crossed her legs. ‘Please tell me you’re not serious.’
I shrugged, momentarily distracted by the view. ‘No one has to know.’
‘But they’ll find out.’
‘Darrow doesn’t see half of what’s going on. Or Harrington. Too wrapped up.’
‘The Fable guy, then. Bergeson?’
‘Maybe. He doesn’t bother with us lowly minions.’
‘Everything’s monitored. Isn’t that what you said?’ Jane frowned and bent to pick up her towel from the floor. ‘This is a very stupid idea.’ She stood and brushed past me leaving the ghost of sun cream and warm skin.
Jane was right. It was certainly stupid. I could lose my position and be discredited. My career could be ruined. But I didn’t think very long or hard about the consequences, if truth be told. Either in regard to my job or the planned tests. It was obvious my hypothesis would remain mere musing unless I actually conducted a practical experiment. Ultimately, the rationale was due to simple curiosity. I simply needed to know. And what scientist doesn’t operate on that basis?
It was a few months before space in a preparation lab became available but I put that time to good use by thoroughly examining the data on the temporal particles. I wondered how I was going to get away with it until I realised hiding in plain sight appeared to be the best option. I merely signed out the required items and set everything up. If anyone asked what I was doing, I’d planned to say I was double-checking some earlier research. No one showed any interest. Apart from Andrew, a first-year materials physics PhD student. He was technically my junior but acted otherwise.
‘I thought Paul and Tim handled all the cooling?’ he said, blocking the doorway and digging into a large packet of crisps.
‘Usually. They’re busy.’ I continued with my equipment checks.
‘No idea where Tim is.’ Andrew munched open-mouthed, spraying fragments of reconstituted potato onto his considerable paunch. ‘But I saw Paul in the kitchen just now.’
I shrugged. Decided to take the offensive. ‘Perhaps it would be better if you consumed those in the kitchen too?’
Eating in the labs or at desks wasn’t forbidden but a recent investigation into bad smells had revealed forgotten sandwiches and other snacks underneath paperwork or hidden in drawers, in various stages of decomposition. It was suggested the kitchen, which had its own dining area, and bins, would be more suitable.
Andrew didn’t move.
‘Are you cleared for laser operation?’ he asked.
I was and knew what to do, even though I’d never been heavily involved in this part of the process. The laser was used to encourage absorption and emission in the atoms within the liquid helium-4, reducing kinetic energy and thereby cooling it down. The next stage of the process used a shaped magnetic field and cooled the fluid even further. To near absolute zero, in fact.
‘We all are.’ I smiled at Andrew. ‘Oh, yes, I forgot. It’s only team members of two years and above.’
He watched me work for a while longer and then slumped off, still munching.
My plan to get past security was simple. I’d been bringing soup to work for over a week to minimise suspicion. When the superfluid was ready, I placed its container – a small, steel vacuum flask – in my thermos (now containing only water) and when it came time to go home, walked out of the building, waving to the guard as I did at the end of every day. In the lining of my coat, I’d also secreted a portable Weldon initiator; a docking cradle and power supply for the flask that allowed programming and control via a laptop.
We had a potting shed on our roof garden. An ablated and warped thing, not much taller than me and about a metre square. It stood against the wall in the far corner, partially hidden by conifers. We didn’t use it. The first time the door had been opened in years was when I’d been looking for a suitable location to hide the equipment. Old webs and spider husks had greeted me. Some rusting tools, a green plastic watering can and half a bag of compost.
I had approximately 2 hours before the superfluid became too warm. More than enough time for this first test. Jane was out, rehearsing for the ADC Christmas play. We’d argued a couple of days ago. A heated debate over, of all things, a missing corkscrew. It had degenerated into no more than a yelling match, both of us hurling words intended to cause maximum hurt. We’d made up, of course – and we bought a new corkscrew – but the argument indicated a deeper problem. I hadn’t brought up the testing of my hypothesis again but I’m sure she suspected something. Jane seemed distracted and claimed her studies were to blame when I asked.
It was cold. My breath steamed in the dead air. By the light of a torch, I set up the initiator on the floor of the shed, unfolding the vanes to form a hexagonal shape 400 millimetres in diameter, and plugged the interface cable into a USB slot on my laptop. I carefully attached the steel vacuum flask, containing the superfluid, to the base of the initiator and booted up the controlling software. A readout confirmed stability and temperature.
Once I switched on power to the flask, the disentanglement process would begin. A membrane of particles would spread over the vanes to form a fluorescing skin, rather like a soap bubble. As we had discovered at DAMTP, some of those particles would then break away, zipping inwards to a centre point, and disappear backwards through time. Here, in my experiment, there was no receiver station for the particles held in the membrane. I was hoping this would increase the potency of the results.
I was understandably excited. And nervous. I had no concrete method for capturing emotional resonance and didn’t know what would happen if I actually succeeded. Having lived almost my entire life adhering to strict scientific methods and principles, this was the hardest part. In the last few weeks, however, I’d been working on some meditation techniques, courtesy of an old manual I’d discovered in a second-hand book shop. Published in the 1970s, The Science of Creative Intelligence depicted a suitably robed and bearded guru on the front cover, and purported to be the theoretical principles that underlie a transcendental form of meditation. My brain was a buzzing hive at the best of times so I surmised this was the best approach in helping to clear any extraneous internal chatter. I felt too silly chanting the mantra though and decided to leave that bit out.
It was a bit of a squeeze but I managed to sit cross-legged on the cold floor, the initiator in front of me. I typed in the start-up sequence on my laptop, set the timer for 10 minutes and hit return. There was no noise, but within a few seconds, a faint, glowing hexagon had formed, held in place by the vanes. I’d seen it many times before of course, in the lab, but the effect never ceased to amaze me. Phantoms and shadows played across the surface of the membrane, which pulsed gently. Brief glimpses of the base matter that makes up our universe. Or perhaps a lens to other universes altogether.
This was it. I closed my eyes, breathing slowly and deeply, allowing my muscles to relax. Gradually, the chill in my bones faded away. After a minute, my heart slowed and my mind unfurled. I allowed myself to bend forward at the waist and dipped my head between the vanes, into the centre of the initiator.
And rolled over on to my side. I lay still, disorientated, blinking, and then scrambled to get up. Daylight. I was in our main hallway, downstairs by the door. Turning slowly, I took in the scene. The floor tiles, the faded wallpaper. The post table, littered with old copies of the Cambridge Evening News. All completely normal, as it should be. Although why I expected it to be any different, I couldn’t say.
As I attempted to process this mundane reality, the front door opened. One of our neighbours, Steve, bustled in, shrugging off his rucksack. He muttered a greeting and walked by me, to his flat at the end of the hall. I couldn’t help the grin that pulled at my cheeks.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have risked the next move but the temptation was too great. I headed upstairs. At the top floor, I could hear loud, angry voices, punctuated by crashing and banging. Me and Jane. Most of the shouting was muffled and indistinct but I caught the odd word. Our argument about the damned corkscrew.
As I neared our door, there was a long, exasperated yell from Jane. I gasped, remembering she had stormed out of the flat at that point. Sure enough, I heard the lounge door slamming. She was heading my way.
I took the stairs two at a time and catapulted through the front door, out into the street. Having no idea where she had gone on that day – today – I took a gamble and ran in a direction away from the town centre, turning into the next road. Peering around the building on the corner, I could see Jane walking briskly in the opposite direction. Probably towards the park. I shook my head in relief.
And was pulled.
And bumped my forehead on top of the vacuum flask. I exclaimed in pain and clambered to my feet in the shed, panting. My entire body ached for some reason but I was exhilarated beyond belief. I’d actually done it. I’d gone back, two days. Back to the fight we’d had.
It appeared emotional resonance was, indeed, the key. The argument with Jane clearly held sway over my feelings. I had returned to that exact point in time. It was just as well I hadn’t appeared in the flat. But I had been there, physically. Steve had seen me, his greeting proved that.
Later that night, Jane and I sat on the roof, wrapped in a blanket. The city lights were diamond-bright in the frigid air, distant traffic noise crystallising to sonic ice. There was a sense of lightness between us and we chatted more easily than we had done for a while. I yearned to tell her of my discovery, barely able to contain my excitement, but didn’t want to ruin the mood. As we readied for bed, she wondered about the marks on my body. As did I. Three thumb-sized purpling bruises on my chest and stomach I hadn’t seen before tonight. I told her they were probably the result of helping to move some equipment in the lab. She gently kissed each one and pulled me down to the mattress.
Jane was rehearsing again the next evening. I brought another vacuum flask home. All day I’d wondered about the previous trip and how it had furnished me with two sets of memories. One where I was part of the argument and the other where I had listened in. Like an echo that had morphed into something else as it returned to the source. It felt strange to hold them both in my head at the same time.
The emotional resonance of the argument was strong enough to pull me to that point. Two days. But if I wanted to go further, I realised a link was required. Just as the Proustian rush takes us back, I would need a similar connection to deeper memory. A physical embodiment of a particular moment in time. I searched through some of the various boxes we still hadn’t dealt with since moving in and, amongst items I have no idea why I kept, found a brown leather wallet which contained a torn and faded photograph of my grandfather. He was relaxed and smiling, sitting on a rock at the beach.
Back in the shed, I powered up the initiator and dropped down, into the phantom light.
And rolled into a bush. It was raining. I lay on grass as a turbulent grey sky spat heavy drops. In seconds my clothes were soaked. Shivering, I got to my feet to find I’d fallen at the border of a car park. A path curved through wind-thrashed trees to a building of patchy, white block with a pentagonal pyramid-shaped roof. I didn’t recognise anything at first but then I saw the sign for the crematorium.
The chapel of rest was warm and stuffy after the gale. I’d slipped into the back of the room behind the last row of seats as the congregation sang a hymn I wasn’t familiar with. A large, off-white space furnished in beige carpet tile and satin maple. Long curtains of deep blue hanging at windows depicting images of nature in coloured, impressionist fragments. A coffin of light wood with silver handles on the plinth down at the front.
At first I wondered if I had been pulled to the right place. Nothing was quite as I recalled. Even the smell here, of polish and plastics, confounded memory. But as I scanned the gathering, there were faces. Family. Friends. Some who had since passed away in my subjective present. I then saw my mother, turning to look down at the child by her side, and my heart leapt, my chest tightening. I couldn’t help but gasp. She looked pale and sad and so very young. I felt light-headed and staggered from the room, struggling for breath.
And bumped my head on the vacuum flask. I crawled from the shed, tears on my cheeks, my body in spasms of pain. I stumbled into the lounge to discover Jane had arrived home early and fell at her feet, shivering.
‘You can’t do this again,’ she said, her lips a hard line.
We sat in bed. A long, hot shower and some food had revived me somewhat. I sipped at a mug of gently-steaming green tea.
‘It was obviously a composite,’ I replied. ‘The majority of our memories are probably the same. Fragments. Other people’s recollections. Photographs. We paste them together and convince ourselves it’s the truth.’
Jane shook her head. ‘It doesn’t seem real.’
She knew it was. I’d shown her the flask and initiator. She’d seen my body in the shower earlier. I’d gained several more large bruises. And my body still hurt. A cold ache deep in my bones. Something about the process obviously caused physical stress and cell damage. It seemed the further I went, the more pronounced the harm. I didn’t want to think about that.
‘Promise me you’ll stop.’ She placed a hand on my chest.
I took her hand. Kissed it. ‘I will.’
Later that night, as I drifted in and out of sleep, I heard her crying.
I didn’t want to deceive Jane. I really did intend to stop. But there was something I desperately needed to find out. I went in to the lab on Saturday morning, while she was studying at the library, and prepared a third flask. Only a few people were present that day, catching up on work and various test results. Unfortunately Andrew was one of them. Once again he made a nuisance of himself, asking questions. I was able to fend him off, but he was clearly suspicious.
Back at the flat, I searched for another item I could use to amplify my connection to memory. Another prominent physical link to the past. At the bottom of a small Tupperware box, containing the stubs of coloured pencils and a broken wristwatch, I found a tarnished nickel and brass threepenny bit. Twelve sides. A worn relief of Elizabeth II on one side and a portcullis on the other. I hadn’t realised I still had it. I stared, open-mouthed, turning the coin slowly between finger and thumb.
The doorbell rang and made me jump. Assuming it couldn’t be Jane I ignored it and headed for the roof garden. The bell rang again and I paused. What if she’d forgotten her key? I was supposed to be home.
‘Mister Edwards?’ A male voice crackled from the intercom speaker. Bored sounding. Authoritative.
I hesitated for only a fraction of a second.
‘I’m sorry, he’s not here.’
There was a pause at the other end. I heard another male voice but couldn’t discern what was said. And then the first man spoke again.
‘Do you know when he’s likely to be back? It’s very important we speak with him.’
‘Have you tried to get him at work?’ I replied.
‘Mister Edwards, is that you? This is Fable West secur-’
I released the intercom button and stepped back. Damn Andrew. The bell rang again; repeatedly. I could still hear it as I entered the shed.
I set up the flask and initiator. And dropped through time.
And fell onto a mat of thick, dewy grass. I lay there for a few seconds and then slowly got to my feet. I’d landed in a large, open field near some trees. In the distance, floating in a faint ground mist, I saw several caravans in rows and, behind them, a collection of low buildings painted in bright green and white. The air smelled delicious. A cool breeze carried bird song. The sun was just poking up over the tree line, climbing into a sky dressed with wisps of cloud lit from underneath in lemon and peach.
I knew when and where I was.
I stood and waited. Some minutes later, a man emerged from between the caravans with a small boy. They were both talking excitedly and laughing. The man held something in his hand. A toy. An airplane made of polystyrene, with a red plastic propeller. They walked into the field and the man threw the plane high into the air. It turned and swooped back over their heads, twitching in the breeze, banking around and finally coming to rest in the grass. The boy yelled with delight and the man grinned from ear to ear. He picked up the plane and gave it to the boy, showing him how to launch it. They played for about twenty minutes and then the man ruffled the boy’s hair, said something to him and started to walk towards me.
I wiped tears from my eyes as he drew close. Tanned skin, a wiry frame. The kindest face I’d ever known.
‘Are you an angel or a ghost?’ he said.
I couldn’t help but smile.
He laughed. ‘I’ve seen you before.’
‘Just a glimpse. Perhaps I was mistaken.’ He took a small, battered tin from his pocket and thumbed it open. Tobacco and papers. He proceeded to roll a cigarette and light it. In the middle of the field, the boy played with the toy plane.
‘You grew up tall,’ my grandfather said, blowing smoke. ‘Could do with a few more meals though.’ He reached over and ruffled my hair. I almost started to cry again.
‘This doesn’t confuse you?’ I asked.
‘Completely.’ He shrugged. And grinned.
I took the threepenny bit from my pocket.
‘My-. Is that the same one?’
I nodded and handed it over. He stared at it, lying in his palm.
‘I’ve only just given it to you. Last week.’
He shook his head in wonder and handed it back to me. ‘Glad to see you kept it.’
We watched the young me play with the plane. I was really getting the hang of it now.
‘I haven’t got long,’ I said.
‘Know the feeling.’ He leant in and hugged me. I felt the bones under his skin.
‘You can always come back and visit,’ he said, slapping my back. ‘I’d like that.’
He winked and turned, walking back to the boy. To me.
I went to follow.
And bumped my head on the vacuum flask. Diabolical, fiery pain wracked my entire body. I felt hands grabbing, pulling me up and out of the shed. Through blurred vision I could make out the shapes of two men. They carried me off the roof to the lounge and laid me down on the couch. Jane was there, calling my name, hanging on to my hand. One of the men was speaking urgently into a phone. I tasted blood, tried to sit up but everything went dark. Sounds tailed off to distant, wobbling echoes. And then nothing.
In the timeless black I saw flashes. Countless tiny points of light, like stars. Images rapidly expanding to fill my mind’s eye and then disappearing. I don’t know how, but I understood these images to be snapshots of all my memories yet uncovered. I almost became lost; overwhelmed by the visual maelstrom, but then I heard a voice in the distance. A beautiful voice, calling my name. I reached out.
And awoke to bright, white light. Jane was there, smiling down at me.
I spent two weeks in hospital and it was at least two months before I felt completely well. The last trip had caused more bruises to appear and they told me I’d bled internally. All healed now, thankfully. I’d jeopardised my PhD and research position, as expected, but after an investigation and several disciplinary hearings no one was more surprised than me to hear I still had a job. Furthermore, Fable West had created a new position, to research the temporal effects of quantum particles more thoroughly. I even got to pick my own team. Needless to say, Andrew wasn’t on it.
I never explained what really happened, of course. Only Jane knows the full story. And I haven’t worked out how to get back. Not without endangering myself. Besides, I promised her, never again. I’ll try to keep that promise.
I have the memory I was after in any case. One that would now never be forgotten. A real one too, not composited as I’d feared. Of an open field and a toy plane swooping through the morning sky. And a man, my grandfather, with the biggest grin on his face.