Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Fiction

Time Bomb Time

Time Bomb Time - art by Galen Dara

-pop-

The sharp scent of ozone — sudden like heartbreak, raw as a panic attack — filled Hannah’s dorm room, from the paper-swamped desk across her rumpled bed to the window overlooking the quad. The lights flickered. Her heart skipped a beat.

“God damn it.” She prodded Nolon’s foot with the toe of her shoe. She wanted to kick him. “Tell me what you just did.”

“Nothing.” He was leaning over the weird device from his lab, tapping a code on the keypad.

“What are you doing now?” Anger pushed at the edges of her voice, but she held it in check. She wanted him to leave, but she didn’t want to upset him.

“Don’t worry so much — nobody’s going to get hurt.” He pressed his shoulder against her, didn’t even have to push — she flinched and bumped into the wall. He laughed at her, like it was a joke. “It’s not a time bomb.”

She sighed. “I don’t care if it’s a confetti bomb,” she said, pointing at the keg-sized device. “Whatever it is, get it out of here.”

He glanced at her through blond bangs, beaming his best grin. He only used it when he wanted to make out or get away with something. “C’mon,” he pleaded. “I really want you with me when this goes off, Hanan.”

“It’s Hannah,” she corrected. He used the name her parents gave her, even when that wasn’t what she wanted. She hated how people looked at her and thought Muslim or terrorist, not Arab Christian or second generation American and never just plain American. “My name is Hannah.”

“It’s close enough —” He must have seen fury flash in her eyes, because he put up his hands in surrender. “Sure, Hanan, whatever you want.”

For the first time, she considered that she might hate him. “I don’t want to be a rat trapped in the maze of your brain anymore,” she snapped. He was so close, she could smell the grunge — he must have been up, working on his project for days. What she wanted was a clear route to the door so she could leave the room if he didn’t. “Just put your experiment over by the window.”

He stared at the window, toward the quad where TV crews were covering the big student protest. “You do understand what I’m trying to do, right?” he said. “If I set this off, it proves my theories. But it also functions as the best political statement ever. It’ll show the world that all we do is go through the same meaningless motions over and over.”

“You can’t involve other people in your science experiments without their permission. And I know you haven’t gone through the Institutional Review Board. What you’re planning to do is wrong.”

He ignored her. “The thing is, the larger the radius of the temporal effect, the shorter the duration. Too big, and it will happen so fast no one will notice. A small bubble, the size of this room, will last for several minutes, but then it won’t be recorded by the TV cameras. And I’ve only got one device, one chance.” The light in his eyes flickered like numbers changing on a calculator screen.

She felt a pang of empathy for him. He was desperate to make this work, the same way he had been desperate to make their relationship work. “Let’s talk about this, okay? Whatever you’re trying to prove, this isn’t the way to do it —”

“Dr. Renner doesn’t believe in my temporal bubble theory. I have to change my dissertation or leave the program. He wants me to ‘stop wasting time.’” He said the last phrase in Renner’s nasally voice, and his shoulders slouched in defeat. “So this is it for me — if I don’t prove my theory in a really spectacular, public way, my research is finished.”

“Look, the physics goes way over my head, but I know that you believe in the theory and that’s enough for me.” She could believe in anything if it would get him out of her room.

“You’re the only one who still believes in me.”

“So why are you doing things this way?” She gestured at the strange device, then reined in her hands, afraid that any sudden movement could make it go off. “It’s like you want the whole world to see you self-destruct.”

“I want to change the world.” His stare was too intense, his eyes rimmed by dark circles, his breath tainted with the formaldehyde smell of stale Red Bull. “I want to change the way the world sees me. The way that you see —”

She stopped him right there. “Even if your theory is right, this isn’t the way to do it. You can’t publish this. You won’t get credit for it. What are you thinking?”

“Panama!” he blurted. “You remember the palindrome. Only, technically, this works more like a palingram. A palingram is made of words or phrases, not letters. So the individual units are cognitively whole. Like ‘I do, do I?’ or ‘one for all and all for one.’”

“That still doesn’t make any sense.” Never mind the fact that she was a lit major and had taught him about palindromes and palingrams and all that stuff. “Time doesn’t work like ‘a man, a plan, a canal.’”

“If you’re reading a palindrome, you can’t tell whether it’s going forwards or backwards. Inside a temporal bubble, it’s the same thing. You can’t tell which way time is flowing.”

She crossed her arms over the anxious tightness in her chest. “Look, you’ve explained this to me before. But time only flows in one direction. You can’t make time run backwards, even for a few seconds.”

“How would we know? We’re always stuck inside our own perception. Our brain takes these little packets of perceived time and arranges them in order to create a sense of causality. The continuum of time, the connections and flow between events, that’s cognitively constructed.”

“Sure, but whatever’s going on in your head, however you perceive things, there’s still an objective reality outside.” Like the objective reality that they weren’t dating any more, regardless of what he wanted.

“That’s it exactly, that’s what I’m trying to demonstrate. People only live in the psychological present, in the now. Look at Ernst Pöppel’s research. It proves that our neurocognitive software” — he paused to wave his hand around his head — “processes temporal experience into these one-to-ten second packets of perceived time. That’s what gives us a sense of constant nowness.”

“I don’t care!” She was done with him, so done. It wasn’t her job to validate his feelings or make him feel good about his bad decisions. “Get that thing out of my room. Now.”

To her surprise, he started to carry the device past her. She backed away into the corner between the bed and her desk. “It’s not a bomb.” He sounded defensive, even hurt. “It creates a bubble, not an explosion.”

“That looks like a bomb,” she said. How could he bring anything that even looked like a bomb around her? “I don’t want it in here.”

“I just need five minutes. The TV cameras are outside for the protest. I’m going to do a demonstration of my research and I want to make sure they broadcast it live. I came here to tell you, because I want you to see it too.”

He was sad and hopeful and eager, like a puppy at the pet store. Which is why she had brought him home in the first place. But just like a puppy, he left messes everywhere and required constant, exhausting attention. From the very beginning, dating him had been a bad idea, a ticking bomb just waiting to explode. “I’m sorry, but I’m really busy right now.”

“Please give me a chance,” he begged. He held the device from his lab, cradling it in his arms like a monstrous baby.

“Nolon,” she said. “We broke up.”

She remembered the last time she had seen him, that night in his lab, lights dimmed, everything silent. A smaller version of his device was hooked up to a cage where a white rat ran through a maze. He had tapped a code on the keypad and then she smelled ozone. The lights flickered. There was a loud -pop-. A shimmery bubble formed around the cage, and the rat ran backwards, repeating the same steps in reverse. A rewind. When it reached the beginning, it started forward again, feet following the exact path. She felt bad for the rat, like it was a puppet. The experience was very weird and upsetting.

Nolon stood there, staring at her, waiting for her to say something. On the outside she froze; inside, she freaked.

A familiar knock startled Hannah and she jumped reflexively to yank open the door.

-tattarrattat-

A familiar knock startled Hannah and she jumped reflexively to yank open the door.

Nolon stood there, staring at her, waiting for her to say something. On the outside she froze; inside, she freaked.

She remembered the last time she had seen him, that night in his lab, lights dimmed, everything silent. A smaller version of his device was hooked up to a cage where a white rat ran through a maze. He had tapped a code on the keypad and then she smelled ozone. The lights flickered. There was a loud -pop-. A shimmery bubble formed around the cage, and the rat ran backwards, repeating the same steps in reverse. A rewind. When it reached the beginning, it started forward again, feet following the exact path. She felt bad for the rat, like it was a puppet. The experience was very weird and upsetting.

“Nolon,” she said. “We broke up.”

“Please give me a chance,” he begged. He held the device from his lab, cradling it in his arms like a monstrous baby.

He was sad and hopeful and eager, like a puppy at the pet store. Which is why she had brought him home in the first place. But just like a puppy, he left messes everywhere and required constant, exhausting attention. From the very beginning, dating him had been a bad idea, a ticking bomb just waiting to explode. “I’m sorry, but I’m really busy right now.”

“I just need five minutes. The TV cameras are outside for the protest. I’m going to do a demonstration of my research and I want to make sure they broadcast it live. I came here to tell you, because I want you to see it too.”

“That looks like a bomb,” she said. How could he bring anything that even looked like a bomb around her? “I don’t want it in here.”

To her surprise, he started to carry the device past her. She backed away into the corner between the bed and her desk. “It’s not a bomb.” He sounded defensive, even hurt. “It creates a bubble, not an explosion.”

“I don’t care!” She was done with him, so done. It wasn’t her job to validate his feelings or make him feel good about his bad decisions. “Get that thing out of my room. Now.”

“That’s it exactly, that’s what I’m trying to demonstrate. People only live in the psychological present, in the now. Look at Ernst Pöppel’s research. It proves that our neurocognitive software” — he paused to wave his hand around his head — “processes temporal experience into these one-to-ten second packets of perceived time. That’s what gives us a sense of constant nowness.”

“Sure, but whatever’s going on in your head, however you perceive things, there’s still an objective reality outside.” Like the objective reality that they weren’t dating any more, regardless of what he wanted.

“How would we know? We’re always stuck inside our own perception. Our brain takes these little packets of perceived time and arranges them in order to create a sense of causality. The continuum of time, the connections and flow between events, that’s cognitively constructed.”

She crossed her arms over the anxious tightness in her chest. “Look, you’ve explained this to me before. But time only flows in one direction. You can’t make time run backwards, even for a few seconds.”

“If you’re reading a palindrome, you can’t tell whether it’s going forwards or backwards. Inside a temporal bubble, it’s the same thing. You can’t tell which way time is flowing.”

“That still doesn’t make any sense.” Never mind the fact that she was a lit major and had taught him about palindromes and palingrams and all that stuff. “Time doesn’t work like ‘a man, a plan, a canal.’”

“Panama!” he blurted. “You remember the palindrome. Only, technically, this works more like a palingram. A palingram is made of words or phrases, not letters. So the individual units are cognitively whole. Like ‘I do, do I?’ or ‘one for all and all for one.’”

She stopped him right there. “Even if your theory is right, this isn’t the way to do it. You can’t publish this. You won’t get credit for it. What are you thinking?”

“I want to change the world.” His stare was too intense, his eyes rimmed by dark circles, his breath tainted with the formaldehyde smell of stale Red Bull. “I want to change the way the world sees me. The way that you see —”

“So why are you doing things this way?” She gestured at the strange device, then reined in her hands, afraid that any sudden movement could make it go off. “It’s like you want the whole world to see you self-destruct.”

“You’re the only one who still believes in me.”

“Look, the physics goes way over my head, but I know that you believe in the theory and that’s enough for me.” She could believe in anything if it would get him out of her room.

“Dr. Renner doesn’t believe in my temporal bubble theory. I have to change my dissertation or leave the program. He wants me to ‘stop wasting time.’” He said the last phrase in Renner’s nasally voice, and his shoulders slouched in defeat. “So this is it for me — if I don’t prove my theory in a really spectacular, public way, my research is finished.”

She felt a pang of empathy for him. He was desperate to make this work, the same way he had been desperate to make their relationship work. “Let’s talk about this, okay? Whatever you’re trying to prove, this isn’t the way to do it —”

He ignored her. “The thing is, the larger the radius of the temporal effect, the shorter the duration. Too big, and it will happen so fast no one will notice. A small bubble, the size of this room, will last for several minutes, but then it won’t be recorded by the TV cameras. And I’ve only got one device, one chance.” The light in his eyes flickered like numbers changing on a calculator screen.

“You can’t involve other people in your science experiments without their permission. And I know you haven’t gone through the Institutional Review Board. What you’re planning to do is wrong.”

He stared at the window, toward the quad where TV crews were covering the big student protest. “You do understand what I’m trying to do, right?” he said. “If I set this off, it proves my theories. But it also functions as the best political statement ever. It’ll show the world that all we do is go through the same meaningless motions over and over.”

For the first time, she considered that she might hate him. “I don’t want to be a rat trapped in the maze of your brain anymore,” she snapped. He was so close, she could smell the grunge — he must have been up, working on his project for days. What she wanted was a clear route to the door so she could leave the room if he didn’t. “Just put your experiment over by the window.”

“It’s close enough —” He must have seen fury flash in her eyes, because he put up his hands in surrender. “Sure, Hanan, whatever you want.”

“It’s Hannah,” she corrected. He used the name her parents gave her, even when that wasn’t what she wanted. She hated how people looked at her and thought Muslim or terrorist, not Arab Christian or second generation American and never just plain American. “My name is Hannah.”

He glanced at her through blond bangs, beaming his best grin. He only used it when he wanted to make out or get away with something. “C’mon,” he pleaded. “I really want you with me when this goes off, Hanan.”

She sighed. “I don’t care if it’s a confetti bomb,” she said, pointing at the keg-sized device. “Whatever it is, get it out of here.”

“Don’t worry so much — nobody’s going to get hurt.” He pressed his shoulder against her, didn’t even have to push — she flinched and bumped into the wall. He laughed at her, like it was a joke. “It’s not a time bomb.”

“What are you doing now?” Anger pushed at the edges of her voice, but she held it in check. She wanted him to leave, but she didn’t want to upset him.

“Nothing.” He was leaning over the weird device from his lab, tapping a code on the keypad.

“God damn it.” She prodded Nolon’s foot with the toe of her shoe. She wanted to kick him. “Tell me what you just did.”

The sharp scent of ozone — sudden like heartbreak, raw as a panic attack — filled Hannah’s dorm room, from the paper-swamped desk across her rumpled bed to the window overlooking the quad. The lights flickered. Her heart skipped a beat.

-pop-

C.C. Finlay

C.C. FinlayC.C. Finlay is the author of four novels, a collection, and dozens of stories, with work translated into sixteen languages. In January he became the editor of Fantasy & Science Fiction and he is a resident editor for the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. He lives with novelist Rae Carson in Arizona, where he battles scorpions and searches for a perfect piece of pie. You can find him on Twitter @ccfinlay or on the web at ccfinlay.com.