The Prodigal Hour, Chapter Eleven

Part II

All Our Yesterdays

“It is utterly beyond our power to measure the changes of things by time. Quite the contrary, time is an abstraction at which we arrive by means of the changes of things.”
-Ernst Mach

“Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change those I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
-Traditional Gaelic prayer

“The sole purpose of history is to be rewritten.”
-Oscar Wilde in “The Decay of Lying”

“I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity an obligation; every possession, a duty.”
-John D. Rockefeller

11

Every hair on Chance’s body had tensed as if it planned to jump from its follicle, and goosebumps singed up his back and around his arms and legs. Even his lips tingled.

The lightning blazed the sky around it electrostatic blue-white, which faded first to purple, then indigo, and then finally into darkness. Raindrops like crystal pebbles filled the air, and a giant smoke cloud, highlighted by orange flame, smudged the night where Chance’s house had been.

Hanley, Geisel, and Nazor all stood paused in the street like mannequins, pointing their guns at each like characters in comic-book panels, their faces stunned, angry. A tiny burst of white clung to the muzzle of Hanley’s gun, and a thin curlicue of smoke like a prehensile tail trailed upwards from it without ever moving at all.

Chance took everything in without ever moving his head. His gut had clenched, his hands bunched into frightened fists, and his whole body had locked up tight, not like it couldn’t move but rather like he was too petrified.

“What’d you do?” he whispered. He barely moved his lips when he did so, and he didn’t turn his head to look at her.

When she spoke, her voice shook between awed, desperate, defensive, and apologetic. “I had to. Everything you said would happen was—I needed to think.”

“So what, you paused time?” His attention focused on the millions of frozen raindrops, each like a glass bead. “Can we move? Is it safe?”

“Should be.”

Without coordinating the movement, both raised their hands before them, their fingertips tracing through the rain. Drops burst on tiny impact with their skin, vaporizing into lingering mist in which Chance could discern each smaller droplet. “What is this? What happened?”

“Remember I mentioned the Higgs field?”

Chance nodded, turned to look at her. Each small movement added to his confidence that he could make the next one, too.

Cassie’s blonde-streaked hair and bright blue eyes stood out against the static grey of that motionless world, vibrant against the utter stillness of suspended time, and Chance thought she looked as if she’d been superimposed over the background. “Do you know what the Higgs field is?”

“I remember my dad mentioning it was how subatomic particles get their mass. But isn’t it theoretical?”

“Your father made a breakthrough. He proved it can be manipulated,” she looked down at the device she was still holding. Its LCD blazed blue. “That tingling earlier . . . it basically taps into that field, and then it can alter it. Right now, we’re excited at a subatomic level, and after that it’s just light-speed theory.”

“Einstein?”

She nodded. “As an object’s velocity approaches the speed of light, time slows down. If you accelerate all of the subatomic particles in an object, time around them will slow.”

“Or stop,” he had begun to speak at normal volume. “So can it—.” The question froze on his lips as possibilities flooded his brain. He thought of Back to the Future and Michael Crichton, science fiction and Quantum Leap. He thought of other things, too, things that were less imaginary: John F. Kennedy in his Dallas motorcade and Martin Luther King at that motel. “Can it go backward, too?”

She nodded, slowly. “I think it can.”

His jaw clenched. In his mind he saw the World Trade Center collapse as if it had grown tired of standing all those years, story upon story upon story crumbling into themselves and piledriving down down down into the ground.

In his mind he saw his house. The busted-in front door, the dim hallway. Creeping along the hallway and down the stairs and across his basement. In his mind he saw his father on the floor.

“We could save him,” he felt that sentence so hard he wanted to gasp. They could save him. They could save him.

“You told me you were going to say that,” she said.

“What?”

“Last night. When you told me about the room and the agents and what this was,” she indicated the device. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to figure it out. Not that quickly. But I recognized it the moment I saw it.”

He looked at the jagged scar of lightning. “But what does that even mean?”

“I don’t know,” her voice betrayed her: high and desperate and just on the verge of breaking.

“But if it’s really a time machine, if everything I said really happened, and if I was actually in Jersey City last night—.”

She closed her eyes, nodding. “I know what you’re thinking, and yes. It’s possible.”

Chance looked out at the unmoving raindrops in the middle of the shocking-white lightning. The small flash at the end of Hanley’s bright muzzle, and the giant fireball that should have been billowing into the darkness and the night sky but wasn’t.

You’ve been here before.

Had he? Had he stood there next to her, terrified to move, contemplating reversing time to save his father? How do you think about the future when there’s a possibility it’s already occurred? “But if it’s possible, and all this is possible, isn’t—,” he meant to suggest there was a chance that it might be different this time.

“Yeah,” she cut him off. “It is.”

Staring out at the frozen world in front of him, he believed it. “So shouldn’t we at least try?” he asked. His mind felt hot and dense, but he thought it was with purpose moreso than fear. “Is there really so much harm in trying?”

“I don’t know.”

Chance considered that, then considered the rain and the lightning, the wind that had died in its tracks, extinguished. He looked up, at the angry storm cloud that should have been roiling, its billows and fruts rumbling and stumbling over themselves; it didn’t move at all. “When I was a kid, I went to summer camp, for Scouts. We learned CPR, but before we did, our instructor warned us that if we ever found ourselves in a situation where we should use it, we had to. That all the information he was about to give us could save someone’s life, so we should try to use it as best we could.”

“But that’s CPR. Not a time machine. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. What if—”

“What if what? What if we can do it? What if it works? What if we save him?”

“What if everything you told me last night comes true?”

“What else did I tell you?”

She hesitated.

“You don’t remember.”

“I was half asleep. And you—,” she stopped.

“I what?”

“You weren’t all that coherent, Chance. You seemed halfway between drunk and exhausted. You were talking about time machines and FBI agents and your dead father, and you didn’t make much sense. So I’m sorry I don’t remember everything you told me. I’m sorry I can’t stand here now and tell you why it’s not a good idea to save your father, but I don’t think it is.” The words poured out, and her shoulders heaved.

Chance touched her arm, moved closer, tentatively, slid his palm down her arm until he could feel her close to him.

“I didn’t mean—It’s just—it’s a time machine, Chance,” she told him. “He did it. Not only did your father prove it was possible, he managed to make it possible.” She looked out at the paused world. The frozen lightning reflected in her eyes. “And somebody killed him for it.”

“So you think we shouldn’t use it.”

She looked at him but said nothing.

“You know more about it than I do, and you had the crazy dream. So if you think we shouldn’t do it,” he paused. He was about to say, “We won’t,” but realized he didn’t want to.

“We don’t even know that it will work.”

“But you—,” he gestured. “Look at the rain. Look at the fire—”

“I’m not denying the special effects, but it’s not like we’ve tried going backward yet. Who’s to say it wouldn’t just futz out like a bottle rocket? Or what if it works, but we can’t actually intervene because of some bylaws of physics no one’s discovered?”

“That’s a lot of what ifs,” Chance said.

“Which is the whole point, isn’t it? Who knows? Maybe we’d try to save your dad, but we find out we can’t actually change the past because of some divine intervention.”

“Right, because there’s been so much divine intervention in the past few thousand years. Look, we won’t know until we try. We can argue about it until time starts back up, anyway, whether we want it to or not, or we can try to use it and see if it works.”

“You realize if we save your father, we’d never find the time machine and we’d never have to use it to save him. Which would create a paradox based on causality; if we never had to save him, we’d never find the time machine, which would mean we’d never have to use it to save him, but if we didn’t, we’d—.”

“And then what?”

She paused. “What do you mean?”

“What happens then? Do you and I cease to exist because we didn’t have to save him and continued living our lives and never went back to the past?”

Cassie shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s not like there’s any data to go by.”

“So we won’t know until we try.”

“But what if we can’t go back to our regular lives because we’re already living in them? What if nothing happens, and we don’t cease to exist, but your father doesn’t die? Then there’s us, living in a whole new world we can’t really be part of because two other versions of us already live in it.”

Chance considered that, then: “I’m not sure I care. I know you’ve got something to lose. You’ve got a nice job at Princeton lined up for January. I was just a temp. I was waking up every day and putting on a stupid tie, and I’d already decided I had to give it up even if I didn’t know what else to do. And after last month—,” the thought of the World Trade Center stopped that sentence before he could continue.

Cassie, for her part, said nothing, just waited.

“I figured I’d come home and figure things out. Find myself, or some damned thing. Find something that didn’t feel like I was doing exactly the same thing over and over every day for the next forty years. But now there’s nothing here, either. Somebody killed my dad, and my house just exploded, so now I’ve got no place to go and nothing to do, except this. My dad came up with a way to make a difference. I want to use it. I want to save him. I want to do something right. Because last month made me feel so useless,” he nearly spat that last word. Still it made him feel indignant. Tears had come to his eyes, and he wiped them away like he was irritated with them.

She put her arms around him, gently, careful of his injured shoulder. Still she said nothing, just held him, just held him.

“Last month, I felt like I couldn’t do anything. And I wanted to. So badly. I just want to do something,” he said, quietly, but it was like a mantra. Just the idea had power. “Will you help me?”

The moment in that paused world stretched longer, so long it might have gone on to the end of time before it crossed dimensions and looped back around. Chance didn’t know what he would do if she—

“I’ll help you,” she told him, and it felt for all the world like a sudden new universe had flashed into existence with an entirely different set of rules and laws and physics, in which time and space were not just entangled together but malleable and flexible and words like “yesterday” and “tomorrow” had no real meaning at all.


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