Foresight: Timesplash #3 is out, but what even is a timesplash? This short story set in the world could help explain.
You wouldn’t expect the world to change right there, in a house off Beverley Road. Beverley Road is the kind of place commuters pass through on the way to somewhere smarter. The grimy brick buildings that front the main road give way to side streets that should have been demolished long ago, to sagging terraces in which every other two-up-two-down has its windows boarded. Children and dogs roam those quiet streets in packs, bored and dirty.
But that’s where it happens.
“It’s a fucking brick, Grace.” Rylan Dickson giggles as if there is something funny about it, but he’s so stoned everything seems funny. His long, scrawny body is clothed in old jeans and an even older jumper. He looks like a gangly teenager, but he is actually twenty-three.
The brick sits inside a metal cage on the kitchen table. Around it there are coils of wire, heavy banks of capacitors, computer screens, black cables writhing away to a distribution board hacked into the electric main. A bright red dot shines from the side of the brick where it is illuminated by a low-powered laser. Beyond the brick, a photocell waits.
“Yeah, it’s the metaphor, right?” Grayson Faber explains. He is excited and a little wired. Shorter and stouter than his friend, he is dressed in the same kind of jumble-sale clothes. “Time is a stream, right? We lob the brick back into the stream and it makes a splash. Yeah?”
Rylan shakes his head. “You don’t have to convince me, man. I was the one who did the maths.”
Grayson gives a nervous laugh. “Yeah. It’s just… It’s like this is a really big deal Ry. We should have the press here. Television.”
“Bourgeois bullshit, Grace. That world is dead and gone, man. This is what’s real.” He waves a hand at the room. His gesture is exaggerated and sloppy. It takes in the dirty sink and the mouldy wallpaper as well as the piles of makeshift electronics.
There are footsteps in the hallway and the kitchen door opens just as Grayson is saying, “Right. Bourgeois bullshit.”
The newcomer gives a clenched fist salute and says, “Right on, man!”
Rylan giggles again and also gives the salute.
“So what’s up with you two geniuses today?” the newcomer wants to know. He is a well-fed, well-built youth of about seventeen, bare chested under an army greatcoat. He goes by the tag Major Tom and no-one knows his real name. Rylan picks up a bong from beside his chair and hands it over. Major Tom takes it and sets it down without using it. “Hey, you got the time machine going.”
He steps closer and peers into the mechanism. “Is that a brick in there?”
“It’s a metaphor,” Rylan says.
Tom grins at him. “Fucking geniuses. You’re all nuts.”
“We’re going to, you know, test it,” Grayson says, even more tense since Tom joined them. “It’s the first ever trial run.”
“Is it going to, like, blow up or something?” Tom asks, stepping back. “Cos I’m organising a real big party tonight, out at Orchard Park, and I need all my arms and legs.” The old Orchard Park Estate had been bulldozed by the city council, partly because it was a festering slum, partly because the police wanted to clear out all the drug factories and street gangs. Now it was a wasteland of rubble and ghosts, perfect for the loud, stimulant-fuelled, dance parties Major Tom was famous for.
“We’re going to lob that brick back in time, Tom,” Grayson says. “That’s a bit more important than your stupid party.”
Rylan is grinning but Tom doesn’t think it is funny. “It’s 2032, man. Biggest damn recession the world has ever seen. The oil’s run out, half the world’s at war, and the other half’s having a revolution. There’s nothing as important as a party right now!”
At which Grayson starts frowning. “Yeah, and they shut down the fucking university right in the middle of our PhDs.” He looks like he is going to become maudlin again, to start harping on his favourite subject.
“But we did it, right?” Rylan, says, trying to encourage him out of the mood. “We’ve got the proof of concept right here.”
But Grayson isn’t going to be cheered up easily. “Building lighting rigs and sound systems for this jerkoff!” he grumbles. “The two finest minds of our generation, sunk without a trace because the whole world’s turned to shit!”
“Who are you calling a jerkoff, Doctor Fucking Who?”
“OK,” Grayson raises his voice. “I’m going to throw the switch. You ready? Five, four, three…”
“Just throw the damned switch, Grace!”
The brick disappears. A buzzer sounds as the light from the laser is freed to cross the gap to the photocell. A timer starts displaying the passing seconds. They all gape in astonishment at the empty cage.
Then the buzzer drops in pitch. Major Tom shouts, “Whoa!” and Grayson looks round at him. Tom seems to be miles away, as if the room is as big as a football stadium. Then he snaps back. Rylan says something but he is speaking in a high-pitched squeak, his lips a blur. Ripples of distortion pass along the kitchen worktop and the oven door falls open, bounces closed, falls open again. The strangeness continues for a few more seconds, then stops.
The buzzer is still buzzing. The timer is still ticking. The three young men stare at the empty cage and at each other.
When the brick hits the bars of the cage and falls onto the metal plate beneath it, they all jump.
“Holy shit!” says Tom.
“It worked,” says Grayson.
“Wow, that was so far out,” says Rylan.
“I want that,” says Tom, looking from Grayson to Rylan and back. “Can you do that bigger? Like, maybe over an acre or two?”
“That weird, trippy thing that just happened. Can you imagine that at one of my parties? Man! It was like acid, only it’s the world that’s tripping, not you! Just think about it. A hundred people – No. Five hundred people seeing that and feeling that all at the same time! No drugs. No hassle with the pigs. And the music! We could revive the Eighties, or the Nineties, or whenever all that house shit went down. This could be fucking enormous. We could all be living like kings!”
The silence is deep and incredulous. Rylan starts laughing and Grayson bursts into explanation. “We just sent a brick back in time, Tom. It wasn’t just some kind of show. That brick…” He opens the cage and pulls it out. It feels cold and is beaded with condensation. “If our calculations are right – and they must be, right? – that brick went back about five years.”
Major Tom looks at Grayson as if the young scientist just doesn’t get it. “All that shit – your calculations and all that – doesn’t matter. No, listen, it doesn’t matter. I don’t care where your bloody brick went. What matters is that weird thing that went on right here. That’s what’s going to make my parties – our parties – the only ones in the whole country that anyone will want to go to.”
Rylan is still laughing. Grayson turns sharply and shouts, “Shut up Ry. It’s getting on my nerves.”
“No, he’s right, Grace,” Rylan says. “It’s the lambda residual that matters. We chased it around the whiteboards and worried about the causal implications for all those hours, and what do you know? It’s all that really matters.”
“The residual? You mean what we just felt was an acausal backwash from the timesplash? You said it would be negligible. You said it would pass right through the present into the future.”
“Yeah, well, I was wrong. Obviously the future isn’t made yet, the Universe is self-assembling like Cahill and Klinger said. We always knew that was possible. When the residual travels downstream, the ‘backwash’ as you call it hits the present and has nowhere else to go, so it screws with causality.”
“What’s all this claptrap got to do with the price of fish?” Major Tom wants to know.
“It means we can make it bigger,” Rylan says, grinning maliciously. “We just need to lob bigger bricks farther back. The backwash is related to the size of the lob.” He looks at Grayson meaningfully and adds, “And the size of the splash.”
“No, no, no!” Grayson is alarmed now, and angry. He stands in front of Rylan, shaking his head. “We talked about this. We agreed. No paradoxes. Right? No-one gets hurt. We just run the trials. We write up the results and we take them down to Emory at Oxford like we agreed, right?”
“What’s he on about?”
Rylan gets to his feet. He is just an arm’s length away from Grayson. “Don’t worry, Tom. Grace is just being a bit slow to adapt to the changing circumstances.”
“What changing circumstances?”
“Wake up, Grace. Did you ever think there was really a chance Emory would let us in? Don’t you remember what he wrote to us when the uni was closing and we all but begged him to take the project?”
“He… He just asked for more evidence.”
“He talked bollocks, that’s what he did. He spouted Einstein at us, and quantum bloody gravity. It was obvious he didn’t understand the maths and, worse still, he didn’t understand the physics either!”
Grayson struggles to say something. He doesn’t want to let himself admit he has known all along this was a pipe dream.
“Who then?” he says at last, his thoughts surfacing. “If only the American’s weren’t in such a mess. A whole bunch of the physics department guys moved to CERN when Princeton went bust. We could try there.”
“You’re thinking of Sternberg, aren’t you? Just because he was the only one who was half-way polite to us. For God’s sake, Grace! The only heavyweight physicist who ever took this stuff seriously was dear old Prof. Baker, and no-one had taken him seriously for ten years or more. No wonder the poor old sod hanged himself when they shut us down. He knew there was nowhere else to go.”
“But it works!” Grayson holds up the brick, as if it is proof.
“Tell it to the Randi Foundation!”
For a moment, Grayson clenches the brick tight. For a moment, he is red-faced with rage. Major Tom looks from one to the other, wondering if Rylan will get hurt, and, if he does, how he can turn that to his own ends.
But Grayson suddenly sags. His arm drops and the brick falls to the floor with a thud. He turns away and walks back to the equipment on the kitchen table.
“The biggest fucking discovery since Special Relativity,” he says, and a long silence follows.
“So you can make it bigger, then?” Tom asks.
Grayson turns and glowers at Rylan, but he speaks to Tom. “Yes, we can make it bigger. Do you want to know how?”
“No man, I just -”
“Well we could send something massive back a long, long way. But the energy requirements would be enormous. The most cost effective way would be to send a person back, maybe a couple of decades – we’d need someone young – to shoot their own mother before they were born, create a paradox. Right?”
“You could send a person?”
“Oh yeah.” Grayson keeps looking at Rylan and it’s not clear now if he’s still talking to Tom. “Someone who wouldn’t mind walking up to their own mother and killing her in cold blood just to make a dance party go well.”
“But if you killed your own mother before you were born…”
“Yeah. Paradox. Like I said.” He waves a dismissive hand. He and Rylan had worked it all out. However big the splash, the time stream always heals itself, the paradox is smoothed over, fixed up. The present is unchanged by it. The past snaps back like elastic. But the backwash… The bigger the splash, the bigger the backwash. And that meant more ‘trippy’ experiences here in the present, more acausal weirdness for the kids to get off on.
“Would you do it?” he was definitely talking to his friend now, wanting to hear him say no.
“Fucking hell, yes!” Tom says. “I’d carve up the old bitch like a chicken. I’ve often thought about it. I’ll be your brick.”
Rylan grins and raises his hands in a gesture that says, “See? What can you do?”
Grayson looks away, unable to bear that grin. He feels tired. He pulls out a wooden chair and sits down.
The biggest discovery since Special Relativity, he is thinking, over and over. A guaranteed Nobel prize. If the world hadn’t gone to shit. If his partner wasn’t an arsehole. If he wasn’t so very sick of being hungry, and wearing cast-offs, and worrying about if he ever got ill or needed the dentist.
He looks up at Major Tom and his eyes are dull and heavy. “We’re going to need a bigger cage,” he says.