Time, and time again
Dr Steele is about to change the world. It's too late to back out now, the clock is ticking.
A million stars spiralled into a molten core. It was blinding, yet beautiful. Like an intricate spider-web, all light gathered into an atomised embrace; a singularity. He’d seen it more times than he dared to imagine; drifting down the zipwire of light into the centre and watched the same technicolour explosion a thousand times over. Here, he was God. This was his realm. This was his life’s work.
Like a jackal, he stalked for prey. He didn’t know what might emerge at the eleventh hour – there was always room for part of the mathematics to break down, to fail in some incomprehensible way. But he did know that if he caught it, he could stop it dead in its tracks. But time was running out.
His mind felt scrambled in his virtual surroundings. There, in a place where he was nothing but the observer, without form, without self, he felt as if he could drift for eternity. It was beautiful, yet mysterious.
He questioned everything – that perhaps his math was fallible; a hundred lines of equation had twisted like spaghetti as the finite percentage of miscalculation danced around his tortured mind; like something was out of sight, hidden like a ghost yet begging to be found. Through his eyes, a million beads of light spiralled into a single point, just as they were supposed to – just like he had calculated, but that same sensation of doubt tugged at Dr Raymond Steele’s gut like an anchor; heavy on his soul, dragging him through the inky black of his surroundings. And that if he let it, it could pull him away from the very light he had created. In a place where he was God, the idea that something could seed in the darkness and destroy everything he had created felt like a childish fear. In all that he had created, surely nothing could form without his allowance to do so. Logic dictated that he was correct, ill omens dictated that it was all too good to be true. It was mysterious, yet frightening.
Everything froze and he found himself without form, floating in nothingness.
He pulled the VR headset back over his thinning hair and rubbed his eyes with his palms, trying to wipe away the stars that hung in his vision.
His face felt saggy and weathered; age had steadily yielded to gravity making what was once taut and vibrant into something old and tired. Sophie looked down on him from above the mantelpiece with the same disappointment from when he last saw her. Or perhaps it was a smile, he could no longer tell the difference – the picture was crooked and dusty, much like his memories of their life together. He often wondered if it had all been worth it. Was any of it worth it? He’d asked himself the same question every time her hazel eyes found him in the room. A life he threw away for science. A sacrifice for a billion others. She had given him a choice, but she would no longer live alone whilst he spent most of his time in the lab. At first, he thought she was unfair in her ultimatum but in time he realised that she was right. His dream was not her dream, even if the entire planet depended on it. He imagined her sitting in the audience that would watch him tomorrow morning, her excitement when he switched on the Star Maiden; their lives changed forever. Or forever end. The former had been a dream from the day he started. The latter had become a revolver that sat idly on the coffee table. The same unspent bullet rested peacefully in its chamber, silently taunting him like the simulation had done for the past six months.
He reached for his cigarette but it had burned completely to the butt; untouched in a glass ashtray, betraying him like everything else. If you fail to tend to something it will perish, he thought.
He’d been in virtual for several hours; there, he was in no time, no place. But no matter how many successes he witnessed, no matter how many completed tables of code were verified, it simply wasn’t enough to satisfy him. The math was monstrous. The mechanics were troublesome. What he knew and could prove worked might well be reduced to chaos by a one in a billion chance. But finding it was much more complicated, so much so that Steele wondered if he was on a wild goose chase; a seed of doubt born from the same place as his decision to stand back and let his wife leave.
There were only two things he could be sure of – the first was that at eleven o’clock tomorrow morning, the world would change. Man would have tapped an unlimited energy source and Steele would become a god in the field of science; people would read about him in textbooks for generations to come.
The second was failure.
Whatever the outcome, his face would either be plastered on currency or across his living-room floor. The revolver glinted for his attention. Time was running out.
Lights from the passing hover-cars cast shadows along the plastic walls and black marble kitchen space of his 200th floor apartment. The compact residence was crammed with towering books, computers, and empty food packets scattered about the floor; it looked more like a student’s laboratory than a home. He couldn’t imagine how Sophie would have felt seeing what the place had become without her; what he had become.
He gazed out of the panoramic window to clear his mind. The setting sun crested upon the city expanse, silvery fingers casting long shadows over the streets far below. Having spent so long in virtual watching the same glowing particles fly their symmetrical patterns into a stellar mass, Steele doubted his ability to tell reality from imagination, as layers of transport units and sky-taxis looked like a floating web of stars dancing out across the city’s horizon. He thought a lot about stars. His work had been dedicated to producing one – or rather, a negative one. Containing a blackhole had become a game, with each stage of progress getting harder and harder until the finale. But this game had no restart option. There were no extra lives. No power-ups. He knew that soon the credits would roll and the world would be left with a story of heroism or tragedy.
Either way, the evening wasn’t going to simply let him drift into a natural sleep. Too many thoughts, too many doubts and too many lights danced around his mind. He decided a few stiff drinks should help; just one last visit to the pub. If all went well tomorrow, he would be far too recognisable to go to such places anyway.
Tonight he’d bask in a few hours of escapism. He’d order his regular large brandy and watch the troubled world go about its daily business.
Steele left the panoramic view of the night and grabbed his crumpled trench coat that lay across the sofa. It was a bad habit, one of Sophie’s pet hates. There was a time it would have found its way to a hanger. He missed her.
He left the apartment and weaved through the endless hallways. The usual sterile white plastics had been painted a ruby red, contrasting violently against an elegant royal blue carpet. Overhead lights hung freely, and the faint hum of air recyclers filled the void like distant whispers. It was homely, in a way. Something the modern world had long since forgotten; humanity would spend their days trading conversation for a screen, human interaction for VR, and happiness for hopelessness. Perhaps that was just him – measuring humanity on his own experience. Life in a plastic box. So much for the scientific dream, he thought.
The circular elevator scaled the side of the Hawks Plaza tower and offered yet more glimmering views of the city and the layered transit units that cut through the evening sky. Steele could barely notice the world beyond the glass as he dug into his chest pocket to check his phone – another fifteen messages and several emails begged for his attention; if it was important enough, they would call him.
The lift doors hissed open to the enormous ground floor reception area. The dark reds and shimmering golden English Victorian style reception area was what made the Hawkes tower block stand out in the city. Steele stepped out of the white plastics of the lift onto the deep red wooden floor that had been varnished to the point of reflection. Long cream-cushioned sofas surrounded low pine tables under oil paintings of old ships that hung on the embroidered golden wallpaper. It was another homely touch that felt far removed from the outside world, a space that could well have been dropped into the mid eighteenth-century England without turning an eye.
When Steele shouldered through the rotating glass doors into the early evening, a gentle sheet of rain greeted him. It pattered down over the parked cars lining the street and carried the smell of wet tarmac that drowned out the usual tinge of pollution that plagued the city like an illness. It was warm against his skin, and he could feel it wash away the cloud of confinement that he’d wrapped himself in for several days straight. But not even the rain or open space was enough to escape his thoughts. Lights, energy, flames, and formulas rolled over on repeat like an endless chorus to a song he wished he’d never heard.
He walked in a trance, caught between reality and dreams. Long shadows cast from the high risers seemed to dance around him as he went. The street was practically deserted, with only the occasional dog walker and young couple laughing at their private jokes. Steele wished his life was so simple. He wished to have his wife back, watching her paint whilst he cooked their dinner. His thoughts continued to wander. The reflective metals and glass of the towering infrastructure glimmered like the simulation, like it was trying to merge with reality.
He thought he was losing his mind.
He thought he was being followed.
The Hobgoblin pub glowed an ambient red on the corner of 45th as the rain snatched flecks of light from the neon sign above its frosted windows. Two punters stood under the canopy cupping cigarettes, muttering amongst themselves about yesterday’s news.
As far as drinking establishments went in Palm City, the Hobgoblin was from another era. To Steele, it was like passing through a time-machine; the sterile plastics of the city gave way to dark floorboards and ceiling beams like the set of a Western. It reminded him of his tower block. It felt homely. It felt like his grandmother’s house. It was also unpopular; old, dilapidated, and kept alive by a slow pulse of ageing regulars that drowned out the white noise of the city with tales of tyrant wives and shitty bosses. It was another world, a place where science was left firmly at the door. Steele liked it there. He would miss it.
“Large brandy, please,” Steele said as he pulled a seat at the bar. The bar-lady silently obliged and pulled a tumbler from the shelf behind her. He’d been coming here for three years, and the same woman had served him almost every time. She was pushing sixty and wore short-sleeve tops several sizes too small, the same mouse-blonde hair wild and unkept. But she never made small talk. This was a place of escapism in its truest form, especially that of meaningful conversation.
“Make that two please, on me.” A young man dropped a briefcase beside Steele’s chair, looked over his thick black-framed glasses at him and smiled. He was short and well dressed. His face was rounded but with tight eyes and a button nose, with youth and charisma bursting from his sharp features and slick black hair.
“Sorry, do I know you?”
“No, but please, I insist. You’re doctor Raymond Steele, correct?” He spoke fast, with purpose. He stood straight with his arms firmly by his side. There was no gesture or presence about him, just a fixed smile of perfectly formed white teeth. He reminded Steele of a wax model rather than a person.
“Yeah, look kid, I don’t mean to be rude but – ”
“I know, I’m sorry, I’ve disturbed your evening and lord knows you must be very occupied ahead of the big day tomorrow.”
The drinks clanked against the bar and the young man pressed his thumb against the biometric scanner held out by the waitress. Steele took a deep breath and tried to find an ounce of politeness.
“Kid, I’m … ” Speaking hurt his jaw. He realised it had been a week since he had spoken to anyone. “I’m a very busy man, and if you’re here to ask about the project there’s plenty of press release stuff on the website.”
The stranger lost his enthusiastic smile and looked around as if to check no one was listening. “Dr Steele, I’m a huge fan of your work.” He paused and grabbed his briefcase. “And as you said, everything is public domain, aside from the gritty stuff of course. But I’ve found an irregularity in one of your calculations.” He spoke quickly, as if existing on borrowed time. “It’s like a quantum feedback loop.”
Steele felt the gravity shift around him, as a million specs of light began to pour down the walls of his mind.
“There have been countless simulations and tests performed. It’s sound, trust me.”
“Please, I implore you to look at this.” As the young man opened his briefcase on the bar, mounds of paperwork tried to escape, like a saucepan boiling over a hot stove. It was rare to see things in print outside of his apartment. From the chaos of the case, he produced a slim Manilla file which he offered Steele, who didn’t take it.
They sat in silence for a moment. The file sitting between them; an elephant in the room.
“I have the fullest, utmost respect for your work.” The young man was almost whispering. “The world needs your work. But this – ” He pushed a finger down on the file. “This is a smoking gun. Please, I’ve spent many weeks looking over this before finding you. I know that the machine goes live tomorrow, but I think there is a chance that it might not work how it’s supposed to.”
Steele felt the heat of anger flush his cheeks. “Are we done?”
The young man broke eye contact and frowned. Fresh creases broke across his forehead and the bags under his eyes seemed to grow by the second, like he’d aged several years in only a moment. “I’m done, but I’ll leave this with you.” He slid the file practically under Steele’s nose. “I think you’ll find my work of interest.”
“Good, leave me alone.” Steele grunted, throwing back his drink. He knew he was being harsh, like someone had taken over his body and treated others how he wouldn’t have intended.
The young man grabbed his briefcase and marched out, the aged floorboards protesting under each step. His untouched brandy didn’t go to waste. The folder threatened to spill some of the contents across the bar, packed with graphs and charts. The brief encounter was odd, but not unexpected. Most students and even professors seemed unable to spend much time with Steele. They were likely intimidated by his world-renowned status or perhaps they hated him. He indulged the thought of the latter and ordered another stiff drink.
Steele woke to the sound of Toccata and Fugue playing in D minor and the usual wheeze of his timed coffee machine. A beam of sunlight cut through his living-room blinds and carved a hot line over his face. A twinge of pain in his back punished him for sleeping on the sofa again. The usual scattering of books and paperwork greeted him with their new addition: the contents of the Manilla file. A hazy flashback hit him as he recalled being perplexed by the pages of formula whilst his drunken mind sought to recall a lifetime of scientific understanding. Steele didn’t care for it. There had been hundreds if not thousands of alternative theories and concerns amongst the public since the project had entered public domain. The young guy from the pub was just bold enough to give it to Steele personally.
He checked his watch. He had allowed two hours to shake off the hangover and look presentable. He’d slept through one of them.
The hovering transport unit cut through the city with ease. With Steele’s executive status, the early metropolitan traffic gathered far below them, scrambling across the city floor like insects. Usually these high-speed trips were a pleasure and he enjoyed the relative calm of the upper echelons with the long coastal views that surrounded the city. But his stomach twisted. Today was to be the biggest day of his life and the nerves were almost as potent as his hangover. The coffee never seemed to have made it past his mouth.
The transporter banked heavily to Steele’s right, and for a moment his uninterrupted view of the Pacific was dominated by high-risers and masses of cars and people below. A lot; more than he’d ever seen in one place. As the pilot began to descend into the packed City street below, Steele couldn’t begin to estimate how many people were waiting. The sea of heads and flashes from cameras and drones looked like a storm ready to consume him.
The world was waiting for this moment and it appeared the world in its entirety was right under his feet.
The touchdown was smooth, and the driver opened the sliding doors from within the cab. The safety of the unit was now gone, and the world media seemed intent on getting in there with him. Pushed back by several armed security guards, a thousand bodies fought to capture a picture of Steele’s face. The ten guards were a wall which they seemed determined to climb, and as Steele stepped out onto the street, the rush of voices and lights were disorienting. The high-rise Detro-tech building ahead of him glimmered a shimmering blue with walls of reflective glass giving the impression it was made from the searing summer sky above. The security cut a line to the plaza entrance and Steele could only put one foot in front of the other, keeping his eyes down at the concrete below, trying to stay grounded, trying not to vomit.
When he made it into the large reception area, the security team took position at the doors behind him, keeping the world outside. The firing of the machine would be broadcast on every screen across every continent. The lives of billions would change within the hour, at the hands of a hungover scientist who suddenly felt lost in the very building he had spent half his career residing in.
Charles Bekker, the man who financed the project, walked across the reception area to greet him. He was a massive man, coming in at almost seven feet tall. He was dressed in a three-piece suit with shoes polished enough to reflect their surroundings. His hair was a military buzz cut, and he had the complimentary split chin to accompany the look. With him, a team of equally well-dressed students followed closely like disciples gathering under their god’s shadow.
“Raymond, it’s good to see you again.” He extended a bear sized paw. His handshake was shattering. “For Christ’s sake, would a tie have killed you?”
“Well I wouldn’t want to overdress.” Raymond gave him a genuine smile, and the ache in his jaw reminded him how long it had been since the last.
Bekker waved a hand to one of his female counterparts, who took Steele’s jacket and began to straighten his collar and wrap a tie around his neck. A hangman’s noose. He snuck a mint into his mouth to cover the blend of whiskey and coffee that he felt sure was emanating from him.
“This is sure to be a good day for us all,” Bekker spoke to everyone. “I can’t believe it’s finally happening.”
“I have to admit, neither can I.” The quest for unlimited energy had been a pipe dream for decades, it just took the right investment. Bekker believed in Steele’s work and had pushed unlimited resources into the project. For the most part, he kept his distance physically. He said from the beginning that this was ‘science stuff; no place for the bank manager’ and Steele agreed that his presence would have created tension for the staff under him. The project required clear minds, clear slates, and clear timetables. And once today was over, Steele would take his handsome pay and get the first jet out of there; Bekker may have given him room to work, but his weight had always been hanging over him.
Steele made his way to the conference room and peered through the glass panel on the double doors. The amphitheatre was vast and packed with thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds, and at the front stage sat the machine – Astraea, the star maiden; named after the goddess of the stars, she looked massive and out of place. Some described the machine as like a beer can on its side, the only major difference being that it was roughly four feet high and nine long. She was a big girl in her final build and had become an affair that Steele had chosen over his own wife. He wanted to wheel her back to the safety of the lab, away from the crowd and back to where he could nurture her and clean her steel casing, perhaps never to switch her on.
Flashes from the media and the buzz of exciting conversation broke through the doors. A prickly heat ran hot fingers up Steele’s back and he could feel bile rising in his throat. The faces of those that waited for him seemed to change into beads of light, moving rapidly around the amphitheatre.
He was shook from the trance by a heavy hand slapping his shoulder.
“You got this.” Bekker loomed over him like a benevolent god. The time had come, there was no backing out now.
Steele drew a deep breath through his nostrils. He pushed through the doors.
There was no applause, no heckles. The room of a thousand faces had become silent and still. Beside Astraea, a microphone stood waiting for him.
He rocked on his heels for a moment to collect his thoughts, looking out across the vast sea of anticipation before him. He’d rehearsed the speech a thousand times, but at that moment he could only think about the formulas presented to him in the pub.
He saw his wife leaving him.
He saw the revolver on his table.
He saw the stars.
“Ladies and gentlemen. People of the world. My name is Dr Raymond Steele.” Several flashes of cameras stole his attention. His mind went back to the revolver in his apartment. He wondered if you saw the muzzle flash after you pull the trigger.
“You know why we are here today. The quest of unlimited, renewable energy has been an enigma that has pulled at the minds of many men and women before me. To create an energy source that’s clean and unlimited was, to me, a pipedream. But after many years, after many failed attempts, we have finally harnessed the ability to stabilise our own contained singularity. This machine has been tested countless times, and the statistics and measurements have been published to the science community to prove its effectiveness. But these tests have been run at eighty-nine percent load. The full run is not something that can be stopped. Once the machine has harnessed just one percent over the testing point, it will cycle back on itself and create an infinite energy loop. At the request of Palm-tech, this moment of stabilisation should be witnessed by the world together. Upon stabilisation, there is no merely switching it off, as the decommissioning process would take several days, and billions of dollars would be lost. In essence, this machine will only fire once. And that fire will warm us for eternity.”
“What if it blows up?” a young female voice shouted from the audience, triggering a wave of nervous laughter from all around.
Steele squinted in the spotlight. “The machine has a countermeasure system. Should anything not go according to plan, several litres of liquid nitrogen will encase the core. I assure you; everyone is safe. Except maybe my career.”
It was the line Steele needed. Laughter filled the hall. His hangover long forgotten, the break in tension gave him a renewed energy. He smiled at his own internal pun.
“Right, let’s change the world. If any of you were hoping for a toilet break, I’m afraid you’re out of time.”
The audience laughed and muttered. Steele opened the control panel and keyed in his fifteen-digit password and began the start-up sequence. The glass chamber lit from within and he heard many gasps from behind. He went through the start sequence on muscle memory alone, first beginning the decompression, charging the coils and testing the sensor array. All that was left was to hit the somewhat anticlimactic ‘on’ button.
He turned back to face the audience, to face the world. Somewhere his wife would be watching, likely with the same look of disappointment she gave as she left him.
“Ready?” The room fell silent.
He hit the switch. The chamber exploded with light
The audience gasped.
He hit the switch. The chamber exploded with light
The audience gasped.
He hit the switch. The chamber exploded with light
The audience gasped.
He hit the switch. The chamber exploded with light
The audience gasped.