The Second Time Around

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8

Dr. Gregory Paite lurched two steps outside of the test vessel and he hit his knees. He retched, hard, but there wasn't anything in his stomach left to bring up. Still, his body protested to the abuse he was putting it through, as did his mind. Everything in the tiny basement room seemed to spin for a moment before settling.

"Dr. Paite!" One of the lab techs exclaimed, "Are you okay?"

"Some lingering after effects of the shift ahead," Gregory answered. "How long was I suspended this time?"

"The longest yet, Dr. Paite," The young woman answered with excitement. "Nearly fourteen and a half hours from the time we reached Delta Zero. That's right at twice as long as the last time."

"Very good," Gregory told her with a forced smile. "Take down the necessary log notes and begin resetting the apparatus. I want to make another attempt as soon as possible, understand?"

The young woman pushed a pair of thin gold-framed lenses up a slender nose and nodded. She was pretty, but indifferent about it, which somehow made her all the more attractive. Gregory had no romantic feelings for her at all, but he was still a man and realized she was strikingly beautiful. She was also brilliant and diligent, if a bit flighty.

Gregory managed to walk down the hallway and to the dormitory wing. He even made it through the door to his room upright, but collapsed soon after. Pains and aches wracked his entire body from head to toe. His muscles felt like they were rippling with liquid fire and his bones felt as if they were being slowly pulled apart one by one.

Gregory clenched his teeth and rode out the wave of agony in a rigid fetal position on his floor. Some immeasurable time later, the feeling passed like a summer thunderstorm. It faded in fits and spurts, flaring briefly, and then waning again. Finally, it was gone, and Gregory lay on his back panting, soaked in sweat, with the taste of coppery blood in the back of his mouth. He sat up and realized his nose was bleeding. It wasn't much, but a thin steady stream ran from both nostrils. It stopped quickly, though, and with no interference.

Gregory climbed slowly to his feet and sank into bed. He trembled slightly for a little bit as his muscles relaxed and the memory of the agony faded. It seemed the backlash from reintegration was getting worse with every interjection event. He wasn't sure if the increasing consequence was from spending more time in the past, changing more to affect the future, or simply the cumulative effects of mucking about with space-time itself.

The answer seemed like it should be very important to him, but it barely registered. He was totally focused now on his plan. He couldn't afford a single mistake that might result in a paradox breach and collapse the entire thing. He had put too much into it now, too much time and too much pain.

He looked down the three fresh red spots on his t-shirt.

And too much blood.

Sometime later Gregory must have fallen asleep. Darkness enveloped him, total and complete, with not even the slightest hint of a dream. It wasn't so much that Gregory was unaware of time, the way he used to be when he would sleep without dreams. Instead, he was very much aware of everything that was going on around him. The problem was nothing was going on at all. And so he waited, imagining what it would be like to tap the toes that he could feel but couldn't seem to control.

In that kind of dark emptiness, time seems to stretch and to open up. It was almost the same kind of feeling that he had when inside his device and the power was just hitting its peak. Time slowed, stretched, and then sudden was still again, but in a slightly different shape. Except instead of suddenly being free to move about at will through the vast sea of the now he was trapped. Like a fish tapping on the wall of an aquarium, he could feel the barrier but he couldn't see it or pass through it.

And then some noise or smell in the waking world finally caught his attention enough to rouse him. As suddenly as flipping on a light switch in a dark room, he was awake. Gregory blinked and frowned as he sat up. He always felt cold and somewhat hollow now when he woke up. Before, he had always known that at some point in the night he had dreamt, he just couldn't remember anything. Most often, he would have awoken with some vague impression or feeling lingering from a dream that he knew had happened, but couldn't quite describe. Rarely had he ever remembered a dream in real detail.

But now it was very different. Gregory knew, without question, that he hadn't dreamt at all since he'd stepped into the device the first time. And that really bothered him. Gregory rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands and stood slowly. His muscles ached as if he'd climbed a mountain with a refrigerator on his back the day before. A dull throbbing in his temples kept time with his pulse.

For a brief moment, Gregory wanted nothing quite so bad as a scotch on the rocks with a cigarette. With a deep breath, he forced one foot in front of the other and went to take a steaming hot shower. Slowly the heat and the strong aspen scent from the bar of soap seeped into his pores and loosened his muscles a little.

Gregory dried off and dressed as quickly as he could. He checked his watch, and for a brief moment the room seemed to spin around him. He caught himself with a hand on the edge of the bathroom sink. Gregory blinked a few times and his vision cleared to show the time at quarter till noon. The date function had dashes where the day and month should be. He'd been forced to rely on memory and a carefully kept day planner to keep track of the days.

On the inside cover was a list of dates and times with either a D or an A next to them for Departures and Arrivals. His last departure date and time had him at October 4th 2017 at two thirty in the afternoon. He carefully wrote in his arrival on October 5th 2017 at five in the morning. And now, since he'd slept, he had no idea what day it was. Although Gregory had felt and experienced, and could remember every single instant he was asleep, he had nothing to gauge that passage of time against, and so he wasn't sure how long it had been. There weren't any newspapers delivered, and incoming electrical signals were very tightly controlled for security purposes. He didn't feel like he'd slept an entire day away, but that wasn't always reliable.

Gregory stood in front of the mirror for a moment once he was dressed and stared at his reflection. The face that gazed back seemed to be his, though it was thinner than he remembered. There were dark bags beneath his eyes and his skin was pale. He tried to remember the last time he'd sat down to a hot meal of real food, but couldn't. Gregory ran a hand through his short dirty blonde hair to give it some semblance of order, and then turned the light off and closed the door behind him as he stepped out into the hall.

On the way to the control center, Gregory wolfed down a protein bar and a vitamin smoothie. He used whitening and disinfectant strips to clean his false teeth. The porcelain veneers still felt unnaturally smooth beneath his tongue, though they looked amazing in a picture. He paused outside the door and took a deep, steadying breath.

When he opened the door, all conversation in the room immediately fell silent. He walked through that silence to the viewing window in the back of the room. There he was handed a folder with the morning's full report condensed down to five sheets of notes and data points. He skimmed them quickly, and turned to the lead architect on duty.

"We're set, sir," He reported with a snap in his voice. "All we need is the time variant to enter."

Gregory nodded and ran a hand wearily through his hair. He looked through the observation window, past the dim half-reflection of his own haggard face, to the vessel itself. It looked like nothing more exotic than a large metal ball. The thing had hoses coming out of various panels, and a near constant mist of condensing gas rolling off the shell. Around the spherical chamber were panels that resembled solar panels, only more reflective.

"Set the containment field for forty eight hours," Gregory said. "Assuming you can keep things stable, that should give me at least two days to take measurements and readings."

The lab tech nodded, "We'll hold it, Dr. Paite. You have my word on that, sir."

"One other thing," Gregory said as the lab tech turned to go, "What is the date and time?"

The young lab tech looked a little confused but checked his watch and answered, "October sixth, zero seven hundred."

Gregory nodded and pulled out his small day planner calendar. He wrote the date and time in the inside cover and put a D next to it. He handed the little leather bound calendar to the lab tech with his pen.

"I'll have it delivered to your quarters, sir," The young man said somberly.

Gregory just nodded, and handed the file folder back to the young man before he turned on his heel and marched away. The rest of the staff stayed back from Gregory as he looked out at the vessel. He had acquired something of legendary standing among the research scientists and it made them uncomfortable to be so near to him. Gregory felt the itch of their eyes on his back, though, and it made his skin crawl. If they only knew the things he'd done, the mistakes he'd made.

He could have retreated to the solitude of his office, a spacious room sectioned off with privacy glass at the end of the long bank of computer terminals, display screens, and switchboards. Once inside that refuge, he could fog the glass with the push of a button, and have complete privacy. Instead, he stood and endured the stares and whispers behind him as part of his penance.

After some time the lab tech returned and cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Everything is ready, Dr. Paite. All we need is you word."

Gregory nodded, but didn't turn from the window. "Heading in now," Gregory said softly, "See you on the return trip."

He walked down to the prep chamber and stepped into the scanner. An intense metal detector ran a scan from head to toe to clear him of all metal. Even the buttons and the zipper on his pants were made of plastic and nylon. Metal of any kind would interfere with the intense magnetic fields he was about to be exposed to and could have some rather interesting adverse affects on the reaction.

The green light over the door to what had been dubbed the launch chamber clicked on, and Dr. Gregory Paite stepped through the heavy door and it automatically closed and sealed behind him. The hatch for the vessel itself was open and Gregory climbed, carefully closing and locking the hatch behind him. He heard the magnetic locks click into place after he tightened down the manual latch.

The chair mounted to the exact center of the spherical chamber was his own design, and as comfortable as he could make it. He settled into the plush leather upholstery and stared up at the blank black ceiling punctuated by a few LED's providing the dim light for the interior of the vessel. Once he was still, the system began the launch process.

Liquid Helium was pumped into the outer skin of the vessel, dropping the temperature quickly. The interior chamber was insulated, but the chill still began to creep in. Gregory's breath began to fog in front of him. Then the powerful electromagnets lining the launch chamber began to power up. As their combined magnetic field grew in strength, the effects began to manifest. Gregory's vision seemed to blur, but the problem wasn't with his eyes. The magnetic field was actually beginning to twist the fabric of space-time and Gregory's brain was picking up on the distortion waives.

The LED's in the ceiling began to dim, their light taking on a slight reddish tent. The effect was subtle at first, but built rapidly. As the darkness grew, Gregory felt himself growing heavier and heavier. Just as the very last vestiges of light faded, and Gregory felt the pressure would grow to the point that it crushed him, everything stopped.

For a brief moment, Gregory hung on the point between consciousness and death. That moments stretched, twisted, and then stopped.

And time stopped with it.



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