The Second Time Around

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14

Dr. Mathis woke slowly and with great difficulty. He was aware first of his name being called, but it sounded far away and dim. Then it felt like he was in a boat and rocking from side to side. For a brief moment, the Professor felt a spike of fear that ran through him and he tried to scream that the boat was going to wreck, but he found he had no voice.

Then, he was awake, and he bolted upright in the back seat of his Wagoneer. Gregory just looked back at him with wistful eyes, then turned back to the highway. The sun was up, and it looked to be well into morning. They were leaving the mountains behind now, and driving down through the different stages of autumn.

The higher altitudes had already turned weeks ago, but in the lowlands, the trees were still holding onto the deep red and orange hues of fall hardwoods. Most of the time, Dr. Mathis would have loved to see the trees like this, in their full color. Now, though, he barely noticed them.

"How long was I asleep?" He asked groggily.

"Seven hours," Gregory answered, "Maybe a bit more."

"Seven!" Dr. Mathis exclaimed, "I told you to wake me up after two!"

Gregory shrugged slightly. "You were dreaming," He said, as if that answered it all."

"So what," Dr. Mathis grumbled, "It wasn't a very pleasant dream anyway."

Gregory shrugged again, but didn't speak. Something about his shoulders and his manner wasn't right, though. Dr. Mathis watched him for a time, and finally Gregory saw him. "What is it, Mr. Paite?" Dr. Mathis asked.

For a moment, Gregory didn't answer. Instead, he got a far away and haunted look in his eyes. Finally, though, he shook his head roughly, and shrugged his shoulders slightly. "I haven't dreamt in a while." Gregory said softly. "Four years three months and nineteen days, to be precise. Since the first time I set foot in the vessel and powered it up. I sleep, I wake up, but I never dream."

"Nonsense," Dr. Mathis said behind a yawn. "Everyone dreams every night, you just don't remember it."

Gregory shook his head slowly. "I thought so too at first, but that isn't it. Docs hooked my brain up to a scanner more than once. I hit REM sleep, but no dreams. My alpha-wave pattern is one steady sine curve with no perturbations at all."

Gregory was quiet for a while, and unshed tears filled his eyes. "I didn't mind it at first," he whispered, half to himself. "But after a while, it started to bother me. I thought it was just the shock of the experiments, but when it didn't go away I started to wonder. Now, I know. They'll never come back. It's an odd thing to miss, your dreams. But you do--when they're gone, you miss them."

An uncomfortable silence settled between them, and Dr. Mathis watched as the trees and small towns rolled by outside the window. After a while, Dr. Mathis cleared his throat. "When is Rebecca supposed to be home?"

Gregory checked the time on the radio and did some quick mental math. "It's eleven hundred now, and she walks through your door at 1630 eastern. We're about two hours out from Boston, so we'll have about three and a half hours to set things up, and it's going to take every minute of it."

Dr. Mathis nodded and stretched as much as he could. "At the next gas station, pull in and I'll drive. I know the way in better than you do."

Gregory snorted. "I doubt it, to be honest," he said, "But I could use the break any way. I might not dream, but a couple of hours of rest goes a long way."

The silence began to stretch between them again, and Dr. Mathis didn't like it. The quiet left him wondering if there simply wasn't anything left to say, or if Gregory was just waiting for him to complete his next line.

"What did you go back to set right?" Dr. Mathis asked after a while. "You said you came back to set something right, and then you came back to stop me and my wife from being killed. So what was it you tried to come back and change first?"

Gregory's jaw clenched for a moment, and he didn't answer. The silence began to stretch uncomfortably, and Dr. Mathis began to wonder if he had found the one question Gregory wouldn't answer.

"When you're inside the vessel," Gregory said, his voice rough, "And you're approaching critical temperature, you can hear it. There's a sound, almost like the hiss that snow falling through pine trees makes. It's just barely on the edge of hearing, but with literally everything else perfectly still and silent, you can actually hear the matter settling. Then the electromagnets kick in, and you feel like there's a thousand ton weight in the center of your chest balanced on a soda can. And then another, and another, expanding out until your entire body feels crushed under the weight of it. There's no pain, just the weight and the pressure. It builds until you think you can't stand it. Then the lights start to fade. They don't get dimmer, though, they get redder."

Gregory swallowed hard, sweat standing out on his forehead. "At the last instant, as the blackness is closing in around you from every direction, you feel the break, the disconnect. And then you're outside the moment. You can see it, every aspect, but it isn't moving. It isn't changing. You've created a bubble of stable static time, where the now is eternal. And you can see, if you look for it, a thin line of what was that connects the dim distant past with the now. You can feel it, see it.... walk along it, and pick any moment in time to step into, and visit again."

Tears were streaming down Gregory's cheeks as he spoke in a calm, even tone that was empty. It gave Dr. Mathis chills to hear the hollowness of it.

"Unless, of course," Gregory said after a moment, "You want to change something causative. Nature abhors a singularity, right Professor? That's why black holes exist in the first place. Nature tries to create a singularity, and the cosmos politely wraps it in an event horizon. Well, a logical paradox is really just a singularity of time. It collapses down to an infinite improbability well, and it vanishes behind the event horizon of the paradox, and nothing can cross that line."

The tears had stopped now, and Gregory's jaw was clenched hard again. He rode in silence like that for a time, and then they saw an exit sign that had an Exxon. Gregory pulled off the highway and into an old, run down gas station that hadn't been open in years. He pulled into one of the faded parking spots anyway and parked. He sat gripping the wheel, his eyes closed and his jaw clenched.

Dr. Mathis began to feel a little nervous, and then a little frightened.

"The reason I began temporal mechanics research in the first place," Gregory said finally, his voice quiet and soft. "Was my sister. When I was a kid, she went to a party with some friends. She rode home with her boyfriend, both of them sober. She was a four sport athlete all through high school and never smoke or drank alcohol. About halfway to our house they were hit head on by some guy driving without a license who was three sheets to the wind. The guy walked away from it."

Gregory's grip on the wheel was so tight his arms were trembling. "I tried to stop it. I tried a billion times if I tried once. And every time I got right up to the point of deciding to act, I got bounced right back out into that space between moments. If I'd been able to stop that wreck by any method, I never would have had the drive to dig into subatomic temporal and quantum fluctuations. I never would have developed the vessel, and that meant I wouldn't have been there to stop the wreck."

"A logical paradox," Dr. Mathis said softly.

Gregory nodded slowly. "And nature abhors a naked singularity. I had run into a temporal event horizon. I'm not sure how long I stayed caught in that loop before I convinced myself it simply wasn't possible. I didn't age, and time didn't pass in any meaningful sense for anyone or anything but me."

"And then you decided to play get rich quick?" Dr. Mathis asked with perhaps more acid than he'd intended in his voice.

Gregory winced slightly, but nodded. "Yes. I was a broken man," he said honestly. "It's not an excuse, but it's the truth. I'm sorry for what I did to you, but I think I've found a way to undo it this time."

"How?" Dr. Mathis asked. "How are you going to keep me and my wife from being shot if you've already seen it happen? Wouldn't that be another logical paradox?"

Gregory smiled. "For right now," He said, "You're just going to have to trust me. I think I found a loophole, but I can't tell you or it falls apart."

Dr. Mathis frowned, but eventually shrugged. "Very well. My father worked in the signal corps in World War II. He handled some of the most sensitive and classified information there was and he always said you can only keep a secret if two people know about it, and one of them is dead. So for now, I don't want to be the other man holding your secret."

Gregory smiles. "Your father was a wise man," he said. "I wish I had known him. There are some things I can tell you, though, and you need to know them."

Dr. Mathis switched to the driver's seat and pulled back out onto the interstate as Gregory began to relate the basic outline of his plan. The miles rolled beneath the wheels as Gregory spoke with detached calmness. The knot of fear in Dr. Mathis' gut twisted a little tighter and Dr. Mathis began to wish for the uncomfortable silences again.


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