The Prodigal Hour, Chapter Four

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Geneva, Switzerland. October 31, 2001.

Conseil Internationale pour la Recherche Temporel et Nucleaire
(CIRTN, pronounced ‘certain’).
The Safe.

Hundreds of meters below the Operations Center, Leonard strode across the Schrodinger Chamber at the core of the Large Hadron Collider. Behind him, the Safe looked like a gunmetal cigar resting on its unlit tip, rising twenty feet before its tapered top intersected with the bottom of a down-pointing, porcelain white cone. Because the entire room was brilliant white as a laser-treated smile, its exact dimensions were elusive; its only visible feature besides the semi-cylindrical chamber was a small, dark-glassed screen next to a large door.

Leonard placed his palm on the screen, and a bright blue laser scanned his palm. It sped his fingerprints through CIRTN’s electronic databases before the door next to it whirred open. Leonard stepped through, into a long, white corridor where a man wearing the CIRTN uniform, khaki fatigues and dark shoes, waited.

The man half-raised his arm to salute, but paused at Leonard’s outfit. “Lieutenant Kensington,” he said, with an accent Leonard couldn’t identify.

“At ease,” Leonard said as he strode past.

The man fell into step behind him. “Grand Marshall Atropos asked me to brief you,” he said. “I’m Private Madison—.”

Leonard nodded. “There’s a problem.”

“We upgraded our hardware this morning. We updated the quantum supercore to match the new hadron accelerator. It’s a better processor, and the new design allows for more memory to extrapolate and triangulate—.”

“How about we pretend I already know about the fancy gadgets and you just tell me what the problem is?”

“Right,” Madison said. “There’s an anomaly.”

“Yes, Race said. He also said that you weren’t sure what it is.”

“It’s got a different signature pattern than anything we’ve ever seen.”

“But we might be able to prevent it.”

“If we can determine when and where it will occur and stop it before it does.”

“Which is precisely what the word ‘prevent’ means. So what do we know? Time? Place?”

“Neither,” Madison said.

“What are the computers telling us?”

“They can’t trace it.”

“What about these new processors? What are the screens showing?” Leonard asked. One entire wall of CIRTN’s Operations Center was an 18-foot-by-32-foot bank of high-definition monitors, each of which could display its own image or contribute to a larger mosaic. Quantum supercomputers chugged and crunched Greek-character variables to determine which uncertainties would occur. The Conseil, then, used the information to monitor the continuum.

“Nothing. They’re blank.”

Leonard stopped so suddenly Madison bumped into him. “Blank?”

“The computers can’t get a lock on it. They can detect it, but so far, that’s been it. They don’t know what it is. Or where.”

“Or when.”

The corridor ended at an elevator. The two men stepped in, and the elevator began to rise through the concentric circles of the different levels of the particle accelerators. Leonard always imagined he could feel, at a purely physical level, the million-billion revolutions of mesons and bosons and gluons speeding so fast through those tunnels that they arrived at each sensor almost before they had left the source in the first place. Of course he couldn’t see them, just the walls of the elevator, so shiny it showed their reflections.

The elevator stopped, its doors opening to reveal the operations center. In four, stadium-style rows of computer terminals, men and women wearing crisp, white shirts typed frantically on keyboards and stared intently at screens. At the front of the room, all those screens blazed uniform electric purple as characters blurred so fast Leonard couldn’t tell how, exactly, they were moving. He cursed under his breath.

“That’s what we’ve been saying,” Race said, as he approached the two men. Horatio Atropos, the Chief Operations Officer of CIRTN and the Heisenberg Project, was a tall, lean man with a trim beard and short, brown hair. If the Schrodinger Chamber and its Safe were the heart of CIRTN, the Heisenberg Project and its Operations Center were both its brain and its reason for being. In that room, CIRTN had used those screens and computers to monitor the space-time continuum since science had first rendered it useless.

In seven years, Leonard had seen those monitors display presidents and dignitaries, battles and bombs, but never those blurring characters. He looked at Madison. “I thought you said they were blank.”

“They were when it was potential,” Race said.

“It’s not anymore?”

“We were hoping to prevent it, but it’s definitely going to happen.”

“So what do you need me for?” Leonard asked. Leonard was a researcher for CIRTN, skilled in reconnaissance. The Conseil used facilitators for missions that required more action, not men like him. Leonard had traveled back to 1593 to investigate the death of Christopher Marlowe; had the Conseil wanted to intercede, they would have then sent someone else.

“Because it’s not just years and space. Remember how Einstein once said that all his research and work suggested that there might be alternate realities, higher dimensions with infinite probabilities?”

Leonard nodded, knowing what Race was about to say.

“It’s not our timeline. That, up there, is the closest we’ve been able to get to an alternate universe.”

#

So what’s in that alternate universe? And what was in that room from last chapter? You can find out with Chapter 5 next week, or you can just head right on over here to buy it on Amazon, either for Kindle or in paperback. Just three bucks and fifteen bucks, respectively!


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