Jason O'Riley was a scientist by training; he'd been on sabbatical from his teaching job for three years now, traveling the world chasing ghost stories, experiences of forces or influences that were unexplainable and believed to be otherworldy. Usually confined to a single house, these ghosts, as they were called in the tabloids, would prove too much for the residents, forcing them to move out. Consequently, the houses would remain empty for years, if not forever. He found this to be more likely in small towns in off-the-road locations. This was one such.
He didn't believe in ghosts; that is to say, spirits of the once living roaming the material world in search of something or to atone for some misdeed or any of a thousand other reasons for their inability to move on. And in the process, getting stuck in some house, supposedly theirs at one time, and making a commotion as though to get attention or to communicate, but ultimately, succeeding only in scaring the bejesus out of the residents who end up fleeing from the madness. But, as a physicist, he suspected something else was going on, something that had to do with his main scientific pursuit, a pet theory he believed in; in fact, one he bet his career on it.
Parallel universes had been accepted as far back as the mid twenty-first century. Before that, the concept of the multiverse had been bantered about as though self-evident, the theoreticians assumed as much and talked about it as though it was; although, beyond mathematics, they had no proof. In its narrower interpretation, as an ensemble of timelines within our own universe, its only meaningful value was to explain the superposition concept of quantum mechanics. Its larger reality, concerning parallel universes, remained in question. It wasn't until the early part of the 23rd century, thanks to the discovery of a layer of spacetime beneath that of the quantum world--the sub-quanta continuum--that the doubt as to the existence of these other universes was resolved.
Two hundred years or so earlier, experimentalists had created a revolutionary type of technology based on holographic projections that incorporated the use of neutrino nanites, enabling them to replicate other dimensional frames-of-reference without interacting with the third dimension of materiality, through a process involving quantum resonance. Vacuum energy is indifferent to the shape of spacetime, having existed prior to the creation of both space and time; therefore, it lies at, or is, the ground floor of all universes. The nanites, by exerting what tiny mass they have, rearrange the zero-point energy of space to configure a different topology co-existing with our own, what physicists are calling the default calabi-yau class, a way of keeping home base well-defined. If any actual parallel spacetime, having that different topological set of relations, can be ascertained, then, through resonance enhancement and vibrational congruence, the geometry which prescribes the nature of its forces and particles of matter will reveal itself, and, hopefully, so will its universe. Since that time, the technology has been refined to the point where the instrumentation can be held in one hand. As Professor Dorfenberg's work had a special influence on its design, it was called the Dorfenberg Projector in his honor.
They had been looking for a master key, the sub-quantum world seemed to be the common denominator, interconnecting all realms of spacetime. Its mathematical reality coalesced to form mutual interfaces separating parallels, gateways of indecribable and, until then, unknown forces that spoke the same language.
The concepts and the technology were in place, in other words, it was just a matter of time before someone actually made contact with another plane of existence; that is to say, could experience another realm on its terms. When Professor Dorfenberg proved, in 2215, the simultaneous mingling of all parallels in the same multi-dimensional space, that they mutually embedded one another while yet remaining distinct, focus turned to the mechanisms for opening conduits to these other realities. The underlying speculation--that they were interdependent, forming one whole complex reality--guided their research.
Danger lurked, however, they all knew. Caution and proper preparation had to be taken. They, the scientists, had no idea, of course, what they were getting themselves into, what repercussions might ensue as a result of opening a door to another universe. Nonetheless, they were eager to resonate with a parallel world--the expression used by those involved--to be immersed in another universe of different forces and matter properties. No one considered that their mere presence in this other reality might have serious and undesirable consequences. They believed--an issue of scientific faith--that somehow a transference or synthesis of property features would automatically, and smoothly, take place, allowing them to continue to exist on both planes simultaneously. Hence, the basic importance--some might say necessity--of their interdependence hypothesis. But, and this was a big but, suppose their intuition was wrong? Nobody wanted to think about it; there was just too much excitement and competition going on. They'd cross that bridge when they came to it was the general consensus.
The math had been done, in detail, worked out by the greatest minds on the planet. With the proper alignment of perspective, like points on a compass, they could be successful. But they had a major hurdle. The third dimension has always been believed to be, without argument or question, the limit of human imagination, a fact of biological life. They had to go beyond that, somehow. They trained. They honed their minds by attempting to visualize, with the aid of Dorfenberg's projection map, multi-dimensional geometric shapes that represented actual other universes. From years of study and mind mingling with colleagues, what had been recognized as nothing more than a psychological barrier in the first place finally came down. With repetition and continual immersion in the concepts, a transition occurred somewhere along the line, different for each. Intermittent and uncontrollable, at first. But eventualy becoming constant and an act of will. Perhaps all that brain matter that wasn't being used came to the fore, but their visual cortex joined with their mind's analytical mode and learned the capacity to synthesize objects of any shape and number of invariant vectors.
Dorfenberg's determination of the precise angles for his sub-quantum, holographic projections as indicators of what particular geometric configuration represented what separate universe proved invalauble. Like seams in a whole cloth, the interfaces could be localized and coordinated. This corroborated the finding of the master key--the two were one, from different points-of-view--and served to further substantiate the ultimate nature of the multiverse as being purely mathematical.
Jason's pet theory considered ghosts as beings from another realm, another plane of existence. Dorfenberg's parallel universes weren't simply adjuncts, other facets or timelines of our own familiar dimensional space, they were separate, independent, and equal in their comprehensive set of conditions and properties, forces and geometry, to allow, in some cases, for the genesis and evolution of life, he believed. Somehow they managed to cross over into our realm, but, for reasons unknown, once here in a localized area, like a house, they are unable to venture outside of it. Why? he asked himself. Does a house act as a gate somehow, a portal, that also gives the being its ability to interact corporeally? Or, are they just lost?
In all his ghost chasing, he never actually came across any tangible evidence, no ghosts ever graced his presence. And, unless he wanted to move in, he could only stay in a given house for so long. There were others to choose from. His traveling and expenses money was almost gone; he'd have to go back to the university soon. Unless he could turn up some results, some proof. A major breakthrough. Those were practical considerations he tried to shove onto the back burner, but they were his reality, nonetheless. So he began to be more discriminating about what haunted houses to investigate. With this house, he got the key from the agent after explaining his reasons, who he was, and so forth. It was late afternoon when he got there. He checked it from attic to basement, every closet, nook and crannie. But all was clear. No humans had broken in needing a place to sleep.
However, he did just hear a door slam. Where was it? he wondered. There was no furniture to redirect sound, just dusty floor-length drapes to keep it in. He was on the second floor of this three-story mansion, in the hallway. Scanning its length, he could see that all the doors were open. Nonetheless, he couldn't pinpoint its source. Thinking that a former resident may have entered to check on something--they would probably still have keys--he went down to the first floor, calling out when he got there. But no one answered and the front door was still locked. It could've been one of the many bedrooms or sitting areas on the third floor, or almost anywhere for that matter. There were many doors. Besides the main rooms, there were closets, bathrooms, storage lockers in the basement, and cabinets in the kitchen.
The living room he stood in was massive. He spread the drapes to let in light and studied the empty space. Excited for the first time in weeks, he decided to stay the night. He knew it was a desperate act, basing his decision on a single slam of a door. However, he had a feeling this time, a feeling that all the parameters were in place, that the timing was right. He had a hotel room reserved for three days; that was all the time, and money, he could give this investigation. As he walked down the gentle slope to his rented room, gazing at the activity in the harbor, he wondered if anyone had a clue what may be actually happening in the haunted house. He retrieved his sleeping bag and stuffed a satchel with a battery lantern, a bottle of wine and glass, some cheese and bread, and his notebook. In a shielded, specially-designed pouch he carried his Dorfenberg Projector, and returned to the mansion on the top of the hill just as dusk was descending.
He set up camp in front of the huge fireplace. Although the mid-summer air was quite warm, he wished he had a fire going for comfort's sake. Sitting on a lawn chair he found in the front yard, his mind wandered to his home. He hadn't been there for three months, he missed its rambling casualness. And, the fireplace. He poured a glass of wine, using a box left by the movers for a table, and sipped quietly in between bites of cheese. Listening intently, he could pick out occasional ambient voices coming up the hill and the hum of anti-grav vehicles running to and fro. As night settled, so did activity in the harbor. All became quiet.
The lantern, sitting on the mantle, illuminated almost the entire room, all except for the corners. He got up to inspect, using his hand-held beamer. Satisfied nothing lurked; although, what he expected to find he didn't know, he set up the projector on a small box in the approximate center of the room. It had its own power cell with a half-life of thousands of years. All he had to do was push the on button and countless geometric patterns would begin to search out resonant frequencies. His imaging training allowed him to see each individual topological configuration as it was imposed on his spacetime one after the other, but none evoked a congruency with an alternate universe. In all the times he's used this, he's had similar results. He imagined it had something to do with activity, energy, not being sufficiently radiated, as though a parallel universe could be off or nonreceptive. But that was just an idea that popped into his head, a conjecture based on nothing, he knew of no literature on the subject supporting it.
He had to wonder now at Dorfenberg's proof that they all occupied a single multi-dimensional space. If that were so, wouldn't he see them all wherever he set up the device? And why has no one else come forward to broach the subject? Was he the only one who couldn't make it work, or had the other scientists on the project deluded themselves into imagining they saw something?
He'd taken much for granted, caught up as he was in the enthusiasm surrounding the search for parallels. It was assumed that they existed and in the way Dorfenberg described. However, here he was with no credible evidence to support that. Why had this not occurred to him before? he asked himself. Why had he never asked any of his colleagues about it? Maybe they were in the same boat and had their own rationalization to explain their failure?
He poured another glass. Something is missing, he thought. Something I'm not doing. Where had the professor proven the device's functionality? He perfected it in his laboratory. Perhaps it was tuned to his laboratory environment, and that each location has to be calibrated? The neutrino nanites have to conform to this particular space. But don't all locations have the same properties? Is time that crucial a factor? Could it be that subtle? he asked out loud.
On the base of the projector was a flat disc on which the machine rested. He'd never bothered with it before, didn't see the need. Supposedly, it regulated the mass of the neutrinos, a variation so small as to be negligible, he thought. Dorfenberg's paper explaining the field application of his projector was widely known by all those in the biz. He'd studied it, trying to grasp the deep concepts underlying its principles and design. But his ego may have gotten in the way when neutrino masses were mentioned. He knew neutrinos, wrote his dissertation on properties previously unknown, properties that affect velocity and interaction gradients. He knew that mass determined inherent organization, and made the assumption that the projector would automatically know to adjust accordingly if need be. At any rate, he'd surmised, the difference would only be with the thickness of spatial construction. He wouldn't let that happen again.
He reached forward and turned it slowly, staring at the spherical projection enveloping him as he went. Halfway around, the room suddenly erupted with bright, white light. Imposed on the interior space all possible projections corresponding to parallel universes rearranged the geometry simultaneously. Adjusting the resolution, the brightness faded until only shapes remained; topologies intertwined and seemed to form a seamless whole, a complete ensemble of lenses. Through them, Jason perceived the room on the sub-quantum level as a jumble of incoherent vibrational energies. There was nothing for his psyche to lock onto. It would've been impossible to attempt to walk around, like floating through a sea of random photons, deprived of sensation. He fumbled for the projector and turned it off. If any parallel universe had emerged in the chaos, he never noticed, couldn't have. He held his breath and stared long and hard at the Dorfenberg Projector. Was it a hoax, a collossal scientific hoax, like cold fusion or the synthesis of sub-quarks? He didn't believe so. He'd been out of the loop with colleagues, except by email, so wasn't up on new developments. However, he was sure someone would've told him if the device didn't work. He'd put his faith in it, professor Dorfenebrg's invention. What he needed was to get more familiar with its workings than just turning it on and waiting.
He flipped the switch and the same maelstrom of topological possibilities bathed the entire room, replacing its familiar architecture. He was at the center of a bubble through which the walls and floor and ceiling took on every dimensional shape the projector was capable of producing. But were any of them evoking a real parallel universe to match its property set? Three filters came with the device, none of which had he ever used. He thought their intention, based on his cursory reading of the manual, was to select various classes of hyper-spatial calabi-yau shapes for study independently, for their own sake. But now, his intuitive nature kicked in. Suppose, he thought, if in the act of artificially selecting those topologies, they're pulled out of active searching mode? They're only nanites, after all. He was a theoretician, unfamiliar with machinery, quantum-based or otherwise. So, naturally enough, he saw the Dorfenberg Projector in terms of an extension of the concepts involved. And as such, he needed to think beyond the basics, to what they could produce.
The filters were cube-shaped, about one centimeter on edge. Each fit snugly into a holder above the device; a separate one for each. He thought of colors, primary colors. Instinctively, he placed them in their respective holders. At once, a single topological contortion replaced the onslaught of images. And it wasn't just a nanite representation. He could see the interface at the surface of his bubble where it met the alternate reality. If he turned the gain down, he suspected, it would enclose him that much more, eating up that space. An approximation of the invariants, to be sure, but nonetheless, almost precise. Dorfendberg needed to do some further refining.
He stood, glass in hand, and let himself feel this new world. A thought surfaced, one he'd not yet had to consider. What would happen if he turned the machine all the way down, perhaps even off? Would he be immersed in this alternate spacetime? Could he be? He sipped wine, let it warm his belly, felt the perspiration on his face and arms, the solid wood floor under his feet. His legs grew wobbly, he sat. He could almost sense the pressure pushing on the clear energy shield encompassing him, even below the floor at the same radius. He was thinking, hard, about the physics involved; racing ideas, concepts, theories through his mind. What were his chances?
A door slammed, not far off, in the kitchen. Beamer in hand, he stood to walk that way then grabbed himself at the edge of his protective bubble. He was trapped. He'd opened this door, this portal to another reality, and now, he didn't know if he could close it. Standing at the interface, its intensity was almost palpable. It wanted in, to dominate, to be the only universe. He backed up to his chair, sat and put the glass on the makeshift table. And waited, staring in the direction of the kitchen, which now had been rearranged to suit the geometry of this alien space. He recalled when he was a kid being in a Fun House with weird mirrors that altered your shape. But this was more than just bent reflection. The physical properties and geometric concerns had been altered as well. It was hardly recognizable. He couldn't possibly walk in there, he thought. Not without going through the same transformation. He could only guess at the way things might be organized on the molecular level, assuming some form of materiality. But it wouldn't be the same as the universe we know and love. For that reason, the matter and force field characteristics couldn't be trusted to produce familiar electromagnetic resistance. He could, as himself, simply step past the interface to fall right through the fabric of that parallel to who knows where. Or, cease to exist. But if he did go through an equivalent transformation, what would he be, who would he be, would he remember and know how to get back? Would he retain consiousness of self? Any self?
He increased the gain, but to no avail; the boundary didn't expand. He removed the filters. The neutrino nanites constructed all the predetermined topological spaces, but the confluence failed to neutralize the emergent parallel and sever its lock on the bubble, serving only to distort Jason's vision. He put the cubes back to regain clarity. Willing himself to remain calm, he poured another glass of wine, taking a long pull before putting it back on the box-table. His hand trembled slightly, almost tipping the glass over. Funny, he mused, how things can go so wrong so quickly. Nothing in the manual covered this situation; he was on his own.
He peered into the former kitchen, searching for the source of the noise, searching for a way out. Ordinarily, it should be too dark to see anything, but the outlines and contours shown brightly. As he studied the weird proportions of what were once cabinets near the back door, he realized that he was looking at this alternate reality in terms of his familiar universe. The material that composed the cabinets was still there, on the surface, at least; only now twisted and deformed into bizarre shapes. As he strained to understand just what that meant, the entire rear of the kitchen began to fade, losing coherence and depth, dissolving like fog in the sun. In its place, star-like objects appeared, and all around them, the blackest space. It was too much. He spun towards the living room, for solidity, but the wall on the opposite side was already gone. More starry pinpoints, some larger than others, had replaced the synthetic wood paneling, the laminate polymers of the interior wall, and the outer rock. The front yard with its grass and hedges and fallow rose bushes had vanished. And if he had the legs to stand, he would've seen that the town and harbor with all its fishing boats was no longer there as well.
His protective cocoon included the fireplace and lantern on the mantle. Its light, however, extended only to where the neutrino nanites fought a pitched battle against the siege of the encompassing alien space. They provoked the emergence of this world, but now refused to surrender to it. How much longer can this go on? he wondered. He looked around. He was now adrift inside a sphere of pure neutrino energy, supported by the vacuum energy of his universe. Its radius extended about twelve feet from his chair. Beyond that, in every direction, was empty, star-populated space. At least, he imagined they were the kind of stars he knew. Hydrogen and helium may not exist here, he thought. But something is causing those things to appear that way.
Air might soon run out; why it hadn't already was a mystery. Determined to avoid panic, he forced himself to analyze the situation, to concentrate. Why this universe and no other? Had it merged on a deeper strata with his own and wouldn't let go? Purposely, accidentally? Is it the universe of the door-slamming, resident ghost? Scanning in every direction, he was indeed adrift in deep space, insulated from its detrimental effects by an army of hard working, infinitesimal nanites, a tiny ship of earth-nature existing in another realm altogether, incredible and unfathomable as that was. Inside his bubble of home spacetime, the air was still warm, gravity held sway, and the photons of light had no problem performing their job.
While working to understand what all that inferred, an apparition appeared not ten feet passed the interface, a humanoid outlined in fuzzy light, standing in nothingness. He stared at Jason briefly, an unreadable look on his face, then turned to walk across the emptiness. He stopped and reached into something that caused his hand and part of his arm to disappear. Retrieving an instrument of some kind, he put it on an invisible counter or table beside him. As Jason stared, the star-studded surround was painted over by a gradual buildup of thin sheaves of solidity. One after the other thickened the sight until he could see the details of a large, well-lit room, a laboratory perhaps, the setting was familiar. It contained long tables, possibly metal, stacked with instrumentation and viewscreens displaying cryptic symbols and strange, inexplicable images. On its walls were hung cabinets, the doors of which were of a clear material like glass or plastic. He glanced in the direction of the former kitchen. It now resembled a library, rows of shelves containing books, interspersed with reading areas--chairs, tables, lamps--went on as far as he could see. However, no other beings were visible. Had his ghost slammed a heavy book on a table? he thought.
It all looked so earth-like, so normal. Despite the relief brought about by such normalcy, he felt queerly disappointed; cheated, in fact. He was expecting a parallel universe to be anything but familiar. Mathematically, almost any set of unknown forces and initial conditions, actuating any number of dimensions, could generate a completley different cosmos than his own. Some with life, but most devoid of all but unimaginably deformed, inert objects roaming through a dead, silent space, twisted by its dynamics beyond all possibility of self-organization and complexity, directionless and without purpose, meaningful purpose, that is. Anything but this.
The humanoid approached his bubble world. His skin was dark green, leathery, and hairless; his eyes had a reddish tint. Jason tried to retain some semblance of composure, but it was near impossible. His stillness couldn't possibly deceive, he was petrified. The alien stood at the interface studying Jason; he rose unsteadily, it was the least he could do. The instrument he pulled from the cabinet was now in his hand. He raised it to his chest and pressed something on the side. Immediately, Jason's bubble and everything within it--fireplace, mantle piece, floor, wine, food, boxes, chair, sleeping bag, lantern, and Dorfenberg's Projector--disappeared. The nanites had been quelled. All he was left with were the clothes on his back and a lot of sweat.
But, he was grateful to be standing on a solid floor, of what material, he had no idea. The alien smiled and spread his arms. Jason's mind refused to work. He was aware, however, that he continued to exist in the form he was used to. Perhaps the result of either a transformation or an imposition of property values that were not entirely incompatible with his own. He could only guess at this point. The alien came closer and reached out. He had a small pill or pellet in his hand and nodded for Jason to take it, which he did. That movement freed his mind from the rigid grip of fear. He showed him a similar one and then gestured for Jason to follow him. They walked to a side table where two glasses of clear liquid sat. Smiling again, the alien put his pill in his mouth and indicated that Jason do the same. He felt no malevolence coming from the alien, and so followed suit, downing the pill with what tasted like a thicker version of water or juice from an unknown fruit.
The alien stared down at the glass as though waiting for an effect. In a few moments, satisfaction flickered across his features. He turned to Jason and said in perfect english, "Greetings, visitor, my name is Barsoom. I am a scientist here. Ordinarily, there are several others, but I am alone today, working on a special project of my own. I see that you are doing the same thing. What is your name?"
Jason was dumbfounded, to say the least. He'd entered a parallel universe and was now talking to one of its residence, a scientist, no less. Regaining composure from somewhere, he said, "My name is Jason." His voice faltered to a whisper at the end, so he repeated, "Jason. Jason O'Riley."
Barsoom smiled and explained, "The pill we took allows us to communicate. As I speak, ideas and notions are translated, approximately, to those which correspond in your language. You are not the first visitor from another plane of existence. That's what I've been studying. You'll find this interesting." Jason was beyond interested, he was engrossed. Besides believing his life was on the line, his scientific curiosity was peaked beyond measure. "Apparently, among the countless universes, there seems to be an affinity for those with similar, if not exactly so, parallel configurations. Analogous forces and matter characterisitcs draw together in a bundle."
He gestured for Jason to accompany him to a sitting area in the far corner, where, Jason surmised, the front wall of the house used to be. He showed him diagrams of wavy representations of other universes, comparing them to one another in graphs of various properties. He pointed to one and said, "This is yours. It's one of the closest, almost identical in several respects. Although, what I mean by close is a question of much debate." He sat back, a cup of something in his hand. "But, our contact with these other alternates has always been restricted to a small geographic area. What I mean by that is, we can see into other realms in a hazy way, but cannot cross over the void separating them physically. This lab, for instance. I can leave here and go home or wherever in my world, but we cannot do the same in any others. We cannot fully integrate as you have. You had some device allowing you to draw our universe into your own, but only because we had already aligned ourselves with it. Our instrumentation," he waved at the diverse collection of things on the tables, "has brought us close to your universe, but we are unable to cross the void materially, as you have done."
"Question," said Jason, finally able to get a word in. His initial astonishment had drained away, he acclimated quickly, by necessity, if for no other reason. "Why were the shapes I saw, illuminated in the kitchen, so twisted and chaotically arranged? And now, this, normalcy."
"Like poking a stick into still waters, transition through the void creates turbulence. Topology and the resulting geometry are malleable, capable of taking any form, as is space and time. The void is a zone of absolute disorder, forever creating a tension between parallels while yet keeping them apart. It is a force that was before time and space."
Jason's street smarts were twitching. Something about the explanation sounded a bit too pat, too simple. Also, the alien, Barsoom, seemed a little too friendly, too relaxed as though this sort of thing happened every day. And the coincidence. He'd chosen that house at random, one among a few he wished to inspect. He learned how to use the projector. He evoked and amplified this universe with it. And now, the ghost turns out be a being, a scientist, from a parallel universe who himself has been trying to cross over physically to his. What are the odds? But, he thought, isn't that the basis of my theory and what I believe ghosts actually are? Wasn't that why I've been ghost-chasing and why I was in that house today?
"How were you able to neutralize my projected space? What was that device you used? And where did everything go?"
"You're enveloping space was virtual, a product of that instrument you had. I merely gave it the right boost of energy and it became real. In the process, everything specifically of that domain remained where it was. That house still exists and all that stuff is still there. Your consciousness, the fundamental commonality, held on to our world, overlapping sufficiently to draw you into it. The adaptations were phase-shifted as one. You are not the person you once were.. Your physical self shares the proeprties of both universes in balance. Two aspects of one same phenomenon."
Jason didn't quite know how to take that. He certainly felt the same; although, he wished his wine had passed through the threshold too, a glass right now would be ideal to steady his nerves. "What kind of place is this? Is that a library in there?"
"It's both a research facility and a school, a university, you would call it. Come, let's go outside; I'll show you around the campus. It's not in the best condition right now. Funds are hard to come by, so don't be too dismayed."
They stood to go but as they did a group of men dressed in uniforms rushed in, weapons in hand. Barsoom had negelcted to tell him that all activites were monitored by the authorities and that there were cameras in the lab. They surrounded Jason, binding his hands behind him. "What are you doing?" cried Barsoom. "This man isn't dangerous; he's a scientist from another world."
"Yes, we know that," said the leader. "He must know the secret to melding universes. He needs to be interrogated. You know how important it is. Why didn't you call us immediately?"
"I would've found out eventually," said Barsoom, his tone shifting to one more serious. "It's not necessary to be heavy-handed about it. Besides, he used a device of some kind to contact ours. I don't know if we can accomplish temporal rejuvenation without something similar."
The leader scoffed; his men led Jason away. Temporal rejuvenation? he wondered. What the hell? He noticed he could understand them perfectly. Was Barsoom's pill merely a placebo, intended to encourage him to take his? Most likely. Outside, the air was stale and the grass of the broad campus withered, struggling to survive. The buildings were in disrepair, a few had their windows boarded up. The police pushed him into a van, one officer on either side, and sped away. The ride was bumpy, potholes were everywhere. In time, they stopped and pulled him out into what appeared to be a military compound, complete with well-armed guards at the gate, enclosed by a high rock wall. He was escorted into a center building, down a hallway to a door in the middle. An officer knocked; a voice called to enter. He was led in and placed in a chair in front of a absurdly large desk. Behind it sat a thin man dressed in a black tunic buttoned to the neck. Another, dressed similarly, sat off to the side, staring at Jason. One guard remained, the door closed.
"What are you doing?" Jason exclaimed. "Who's in charge here. I've done nothing wrong."
The man behind the desk asked mildly, "What is your name, sir?"
"Jason O'Riley. I'm a physicist. What are you doing to me? I've not come here to cause any harm, only to study your world."
"Yes, we gathered that much from the vid feed," was the vacant reply. He spun a screen around. On it was the lab he just left with Barsoom sitting in his chair talking to a man dressed in a different uniform. He seemed angry, Barsoom listened. The man turned the screen back and leaned forward on the desk. "Mister O'Riley," he began. "You have accomplished something we have been trying to do for generations. I'll tell you why."
He leaned back in his chair, the other man did the same. "Long ago we mastered space travel. Our scientists discovered a means to manipulate space, to shrink it so that a voyage to another star system was reduced to mere days and weeks. Over time, we joined with many other civilizations to form an alliance, a loose collection of independent worlds collaborating on various projects. But, as I said, that was long ago during the golden period of exploration."
He poured a clear liquid into a glass and pushed it over to Jason, who drank, his thirst trumping his reticence. Why poison him at this point? "Our world and those of all the others in this galaxy and others are at the end of their habitable period. As with your universe, ours is expanding at an accelerating rate. Stars and systems are no longer being created. The fundamental elements have run out, are depleted. Our universe is dying."
Jason listened intently, but a point in his story didn't ring true. He interrupted, "If your civilization is so ancient, why does everything I've seen thus far look so decrepit, so broken down? I would expect nothing less than streamlined buildings and slick thoroughfares and means of transporation--technology, sophistication. But this place is reminiscent of much of 20th-century Earth."
The man smiled, but not with pleasure. "Disorder has crept into everything," he began, a sullen look shadowing his face. "It undermines all attempts by natural forces to achieve organization, to maintain coherence. The quantiitative relationships between and among particles of matter alters with time and the particles themselves deteriorate as energy wanes. We ceased building new edifices and roadways and bridges long ago; those we have are in decay. We reuse manufactured products, raw material is mostly gone and what there is to be found finds a way to change its chemical properties. Only a limited number of necessities are produced on basic machinery and tools. Food has become a major problem. The soil can no longer generate the essential nutrients and minerals to grow it. The forests are gone as are most wildlife. The mountains crumble. And the very air threatens to disintegrate into its separate components. We hold water in compression tanks until it's time to drink. So we ration, knowing that it can only get worse. We are doomed by time running out of our universe. Time, Mister O'Riley, is the key to life."
Jason had no idea what to say. The end of his universe has been foreseen, it's in the models. But before that comes the end of habitable time. He never truly imagined it, though there it was in his equations. When entropy has the upper hand as an anti-force against order and the laws of nature. Self-organization towards increased complexity is still the rule in his universe. But not here, apparently.
He sympathized, how else can one feel? Nonetheless, he didn't care for the rough way he'd been treated. "What can I do about it?" he asked, sarcasm in his tone. "Turn back your clock?"
"Precisely, Mister O'Riley," the tunic-man replied. "That's exactly what you can do. We know from our research that your universe is one of many similar ones that are a long way from nearing the end of habitable time. Your universe is as close to resembling ours as any we've discovered. The molecules that make up your body and brain are imbued with the temporal dimension relationships of your universe. Somehow they are able to coexist with the shift that allows you to be here materially, physically. The effect, we conjecture by our mathematics, is that eventually those time dimensions will merge, with a balance achieved, a composition, if you will. Our time will be regenerated, causing the universe around you to regain the potency it once had in the middle of the habitable range. If this could be done for the entire galaxy and beyond, premeating outward like a liquid, the very geometry dictating the property relations of particles and forces of our world would revert back to what it was then. Perhaps not overnight, but entropy, the anti-force, would be stopped, overwhelmed, and countered by order and synthesis and coherence. The foundation particle energy of our universe will organize itself once again, as it did long ago, and strive towards complexity as a normal feature."
He was getting worked up, excited, his eyes gleamed like a zealot. He reached for a glass of water, his hand trembled. This guy is serious, thought Jason. And a little crazy. Does he know what he's saying? My body is going to change to a period in time of the far distant future? My future? I don't know if I want that. "With all due respect, I feel sorry for your plight, but my first concern right now is getting back to my universe. I really can't see how my presence here will help you."
The other tunic-man spoke. "We are very close, as my colleague said, to making contact with your universe on the material plane. Our field operatives have had limited success; partial fits without sufficient duration. But, when we are able to interact with your universe in a global way, discounting quantum interference, when that happens, your time differential will infuse ours, and vice-versa. Our universes will merge on the time dimension. As a result, a temporal rejuvenation will occur. Our universe will be thrust back to the middle of its habitable period, and yours, which now, is only at its beginnings, will be pushed forward. Thanks to the energy instilled from the fractalized time elementals, the fundamental elements that create stars will emerge from the virtual background to become real."
He said this with a smile on his face, like the good used-car salesman that he was. Jason couldn't believe what he was hearing. Both these guys are nuts, he decided. The scope of what they were bantering about was beyond comprehension. And what is the mechanism? How do they expect to accomplish this outrageous feat? He had a bad feeling that somehow it involved him.
"As I said," rejoined the desk tunic, "we tried to map our space to yours by fabricating particle relationships held in place by magnetic force, but it wouldn't take. Somehow time elementals can tell the real from the artificial." He leaned forward, a keen look in his eyes. "But now, we have you. You represent a bridge, a conduit. If we can match vibrationally the precise chemical property ratios of your genetic molecular configuration, phase-shifted to suit the variance of our universe, to the temporal scaffolding underpinning your universe, there's the strong possibility of opening a portal between them. That's what we're hoping for. A hole funneling time components will draw the topology of your cosmos onto that of ours, and by so doing, reinvigorate the strength of our elemental interconnections, and with that, the geometry of space as well. The actual nature of the elementals composing both spaces won't be affected, just their temporal relationships. We will turn back the clock, Mister O'Riley, thanks to you." He smiled broadly, hope and a hearty appreciation to Jason in his eyes. It didn't last. His faced dropped, the smile faded, and by the raised eyebrows, seemed genuinely surprised that Jason didn't share his enthusiasm.
He was stunned. What were they asking of him? And how could they even think to do what they're talking about? An entire universe of who knows how many diverse lifeforms spread out over its unimaginably vast continuum losing billions of years of habitable time, and in the same act, somehow being altered physically, to what? How would that alone affect their mind? Their sense of self? Their relationships with others and the world at large? These people didn't care.
A skip over a time gap, a discontinuity, as opposed to a smooth transition. What instabilities would that incur? In everything? Suns, planets, moons, whole galaxies and the massive black holes at their center? It could cause a total breakdown in the cosmic eco-systems, the web, a tear in the fabric of spacetime that would rip the universe apart. If and however it reforms and generates new relationships not meant to be until the distant future, it'd be like someone transiting his teens to mid-thirties without the benefit of learning through experience to guide his way. Evolution proceeds by leaps, an abrupt change in patterns of internal and external relationships, after a gradual buildup towards a radical adaptation, but this is not the same at all. They are natural and most often the effect of interacting with a changing, or changed, environment. The epigenetics of life. To do so unnaturally, artificially, at a random moment in the flow of time to everything at once, what repercussions could result?
What exists right now in his world, from suns to bacteria, won't in a far-flung future time. So, if all is thrust into a future where they would not normally be, what could happen? He believed their science had to be far more advanced than his for a number of reasons. The Dorefenberg Projector may have been a fluke of genius. Therefore, they must have considered these questions and more. Going back in time might reverse the ravages of entropy, but their universe is at the end of its life. What exists now, the things that compose their universe, did not exist then. Giving it a face lift may, actually, change nothing within. They're depserate to the point where such rational likelihoods are ignored. They must do something, he could understand that and empathize with it. Time was running out.
He knew what they were attempting but had not the science to know if it was possible or not. Nonetheless, he decided he'd rather die than allow it to happen.
"But I don't want to be a conduit," he protested, distaste in his mouth at the sound of the word.
The other tunic said mildy, "Well, you don't have much choice in the matter."
The desk tunic explained in intricate detail the workings of a machine they'd built with the last of viable materials. None will ever be built again. Another reason for their haste. They tested it with inanimate objects manipulated to map molecularly to Jason's universe. Quantum fluctuations made the operation impractical, there was no way to predict a match from either side. It was hit or miss, proximity had some influence but not much; hence, the spotty results. Their intention was to use him as this conduit to siphon time and flood their universe with immune cells to counter the disease of entropy. The straight-faced, matter-of-fact manner with which he spelled this out told Jason that their physical universe wasn't all that had been affected by encroaching entropy.
Gesturing to the guard, the tunic, visibly excited, said to Jason, "How you arrived here is immaterial. We could digress on it for days, but we haven't the time. You're here now, that's all that counts" He stood and said, "Time's a wasting." All of them left the room, Jason escorted by two guards, and filed into a van. Seconds later, they arrived at another dilapidated building the size of an airplane hangar. Inside, Jason was taken to a room where he was made to change into a suit of a strange fabric he never felt before, something resembling part plastic and part skin. The skull-cap had multiple protuberances; apparently, he thought, he was to be connected to something. He kept wanting to resist, to fight, but could see no point to it. They wouldn't kill him, but a wounded or beaten up Jason was probably as good as a live, healthy one. It was best, he rationalized, for my mind be as lucid as it can to attempt to block this without the distraction of physical pain.
He was taken to the main room, a huge expanse. At its center, an elipsoid, maybe thirty-feet on its long axis, stood on four legs; its outer hull glistened in the bright overhead lights like gold shimmering under water. The black tunics were gone, perhaps in a room watching the proceedings; a small army of men dressed in white surrounded him. No one spoke to him or even looked his way except to direct his motion. Everyone moved quickly, consumed by the job at hand. A habit, thought Jason, they'd become accustomed to. He was a thing, a focal point through which time elementals from his home would flow into the alien landscape, and by the global reach of entanglement, permeate all in mere moments.
Led inside, he was forced down into a chair that partially enclosed his head and strapped in, wrists and ankles. Attachments were made from the overhang to his skull-cap. A team of white-clad techies moved about the weird shape, manipulating dials and throwing switches. They hurried as though an imminent threat loomed. For an instant, Jason felt sorry for them. He couldn't imagine being in a similar situation, what it must be like trying to have a normal life with the death of your universe confronting you. He had no idea what was about to happen; his only hope was to hold on and try to find a way out. Momentarily, they all left and the door was shut. Silence but for the faint humming of electricity filled the space. Never had he felt so alone and helpless. They were going through with this, he said to himself, amazed and stupified. All of a sudden, his resolve to remain steady and vigilant collapsed; he was scared stiff, terrified. And then it happened.
The football ship, his mind called it, began to vibrate, but did not move. The vibrations were from within the material itself. His sense of weight vanished as did his surroundings. He was in the void, the interstitial space between universes, separating them yet holding them together by the shear force of its randomness. He felt as though he might completely discorporate and willed himself to be, to remain whole. At the interface with his cosmos, a membrane porus and pliable, the universe seemed to recognize him on the cellular level. Acting as a living thing, it refused to allow its time elementals to flow towards this alternate plane of existence. It acted as a being in its own right. A being whose youthful strength far surpassed that of the exhausted and ancient other-verse.
He was drawn into its embrace and instantly assimilated, like a mother to her child. The other phase-shifted properties that occupied his physical space were rejected, expelled, denied entrance. In that instant, a duration of time, of transference, Jason's four-dimensional mind was no longer his own. Thoughts, previously unimagined, surfaced or were created that revealed the true nature of things. He saw that the universe is a self-contained being, a gigantic lifeform with its own integrity and inherent mechanisms designed for continued survival. He saw that it is not an inanimate thing to be dismantled into separate components to be used without protest. He saw from within an infinitely intricate and integrated consciousness, a mind. The universe is not a thing. It would not go gentle into that dark night.
He passed out from the strain and wandered in a dreamland of bizarre shapes and weaving tendrils of energy. The whitecoats saw they were close, or intepreted their data that way. Expecting Jason to die from the ordeal anyway, they increased the power. Who knows when a chance like this might come again? The machine began to fluctuate, its legs wobbled on the verge of buckling. Feedback from the counter energy of a healthy, vibrant, young universe caused a disproportionate backflow, overloading their temporal receptors. But before anyone could do anything about it, the entire machine disintegrated on the molecular level and exploded into countless pieces.
Jason awoke in a field of tall grass and wildflowers populated by flying insects busy about their day's work. He lay there on the ground, feeling its solidity and the suppleness of his body pressed against it. The air was warm, the smells fragrant. The bright sun was halfway down, the blue sky never so vibrant. He sat up for several seconds collecting his wits, then stood. Far below, he could see the town nestled at the base of the hillside; the bay leading to the ocean sparkled blues and greens. Just below where he stood, a road snaked its way into town. He could try to hitch a ride but decided to take his time and walk the fields instead; something that never would've occurred to him before.
As he walked, luxuriating in the caress of the sun on his face, he couldn't remember ever feeling such a profound sense of belonging or knowing such intimacy with his surroundings, such openness. He watched boats far below come and go, the harbor was busy. One of the few lifestyles remaining from long ago. Perhaps, he thought, smiling playfully to himself, he'd put his career on hold, indefinitely, and try his hand at fishing. See what that's all about. Contentment and a new-found sense of certainty filled his heart and soul. He and his body were one, expressions of each other, merged in the here and now, a visceral instance of universal consciousness.
Absently plucking heads of grass as he went, he rambled down the hill, reveling in the sound of bees buzzing, the sight of colorful butterflies flitting to and fro, and the feel of salt air revitalizing his lungs.
He was home in the universe. And no one and nothing could ever entice him to leave it again.