Read Thrice upon a time Online

Authors: James P. Hogan

Thrice upon a time

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To all at Del Rey Books—the other half of the team who never get mentioned on the cover.ProloguePrologue1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738Epilogue

The digits, glowing bright red in the upper corner of the computer display screen, changed silently to count off the final seconds.

00:05… 00:04… 00:03… 00:02… 00:01… 00:00.

A symbol appeared below the clock-readout to confirm that the program had begun running. A moment later, the main area of the screen came alive to present the display:

30 December 2009, 23:25:00 Hours.TEMPORAL RETROTRANSMISSION TEST NUMBER 15 Group 4, Sample 3.Transmission advance 60 seconds.073681END

The elderly man sitting in front of the console gazed expressionlessly at the display for a second, and then tapped a pad on the touchboard array below the screen. A mild whine came from one of the racks of electronic equipment standing next to him; at the same time a hardcopy of the information on the screen slid smoothly from a slot and into the tray below. The screen went blank. The man took the hardcopy, ran his eye casually over it, then sat back in his chair to wait. In the upper corner of the screen, the clock-readout had reset to sixty seconds and begun counting down again.

The man's body was tall, and his shoulders still broad and straight, but the hair that had once glinted jet-black was now white, and the beard jutting stubbornly from his chin had faded to gray. Remnants of flames that had once blazed bright still smoldered in the eyes looking out over the ruddy crags of his face, but the fire was beginning to give way to a fatigue accumulated over many long years of life.

After a while he shifted his gaze to the fluffy black-and-white kitten lying curled up in the half-open, lower-most drawer of the desk that stood alongside his chair.

"Aye, it's a strange pair we are, Maxwell, and that's for sure," he murmured. "Still at work here at an hour when any folks with a dram o' sense would long have been away to their beds. Enough's enough. We'll make this the last for tonight now."

Alerted by the man's voice, the kitten opened a sleepy eye to look at him, and then glimpsed the reflex twitching of his own tail. He awoke, pounced back into the depths of the drawer, and began whirling in futile circles amid sounds of swishing fur and crumpling paper. A yellow plastic pushpin flew out in the confusion, bounced on the floor with a hollow clatter, and rolled away in a drunken curve around the base of one of the equipment cubicles. Maxwell's head appeared peering from the opening with ears erect and eyes following the rolling button like twin tracking-radars. Then the kitten cleared the side of the drawer in a bound, rounded the corner of the desk in an uncontrolled skid with all four paws flailing ineffectively at the shiny floor, reengaged forward drive suddenly, and scampered away in pursuit.

A faint smile softened the corners of the man's mouth as he watched. Then he looked back at the screen in front of him. The countdown had almost reached zero.

00:01… 00:00.

A display similar to the previous one appeared. The man carefully compared the number contained in it with the one in the hardcopy record that he was still holding. They matched. He nodded slowly to himself. At that very moment, if the phrase retained any meaning at all in the strange realm of topsy-turvy logic that he had uncovered, a man was watching those same lines appear on that same screen for the first time—the gray-haired man who was sitting in that same chair, sixty seconds in the past.

He hardcopied the second display, attached the copy to the first, added the sheets to a pile lying on the desk, and entered the details in a notebook lying open beside him. Then he closed the book and turned back to the console to begin the brief routine for shutting down the system.

"Enough's enough," he repeated as he finished and rose from the chair. As he moved toward the door, the pushpin rattled back into sight from behind a part of the machine. The tip of a black-and-white nose poked round the base of a cubicle. Then, slowly, Maxwell's face slid fully into view closely followed by Maxwell, his body elongated low near the floor like a snake with legs. The kitten gathered himself to spring, then paused and looked up curiously as the man reached for the lightswitch.

"Och, come on now," the man called. "There'll be time enough for that kind o' nonsense tomorrow. It's nearly tomorrow already as it is." Two saucer-eyes turned wistfully toward the pushpin and then up again before the kitten stood up and trotted for the doorway. "Aye, you're no' so bad for all your mischief, ye wee scallywag," the man said gruffly. He turned out the light, waited for Maxwell to leave the lab, and closed the door behind.

The passage outside was bare, with plain, whitewashed walls rising up from a gray stone floor. At the end of the passage they came to a narrow wooden staircase leading up to a heavy oak door. The man waited again at the top of the stairs and held the door ajar while the kitten tackled the steps manfully, half leaping, half scrambling up one and then bunching himself for the next.

They emerged from the doorway into a large, paneled hall, gloomy in the feeble light of the single lamp that had been left burning halfway along a corridor opening off the far side. The floor here was covered by deep, rich carpet. Vague shadows of portraits stared down from the walls, and the furnishings, most of which dated from the early twentieth century or before, were solid, well preserved, and dignified in keeping with their surroundings. A full suit of medieval armor stood impassively at the foot of a broad carved staircase that disappeared into deeper darkness above, where glints of reflected light traced ghostly outlines of Scottish claymores and battle axes mounted on the walls.

The man flipped a switch to illuminate the stairs and began climbing slowly. Two circles of mirror-brightness were already staring back at him from the darkness just above the top step. "You'd no' be so nimble on your feet with seventy-two years on the wrong side o' ye, Maxwell," the man said. At the top of the flight he turned to follow the railed gallery that overlooked one side of the stairwell, and stopped outside one of the doors opening off the short passageway beyond. A shaft of light lanced across the floor as he pushed the door open.

"We've done it, Maxwell," he murmured. "There can be no doubt about it now. It works, all right. We'll have to be telling Ted the good news first thing in the morning." He paused for a second. "And Murdoch, of course… It's time we were involving Murdoch in what's been going on." He nodded to himself. "Aye. Murdoch will be very interested indeed if I'm not very much mistaken."

The door swung shut and plunged the household once more into gloom.

Chapter 1Prologue1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738Epilogue

Kennedy International Airport had shrugged off the snow that fell after Christmas, and was again a bustling oasis of business-as-usual amid the white-blanketed suburbs stretching along the southern Long Island shoreline. Steady processions of groundcars and mono-cabs flowed between the airport complex and Manhattan to the west, while overhead swarms of airmobiles arrived and departed like bees on never-ending foraging missions. From within the perimeter, a succession of Boeings, Lockheeds, and Douglases sailed vertically upward on the first stages of their suborbital trajectories through the ionosphere; higher above, arriving dots from Europe, Japan, Australia, and elsewhere slowly acquired shape as they dropped from the flawless blue that had come with the first day of the new year.

In the Arrivals Concourse of the glass-fronted marble sculpture that constituted Terminal Three, Murdoch Ross stood among a group of waiting people and divided his attention between scanning the faces of the passengers streaming from Flight 235, just in from San Francisco, and taking in a few more lines of an article on graviton wave-mechanics featured in the current issue ofScientific American.He was in his late twenties, on the lean side of average for his medium height, and clean-shaven to reveal a fresh and healthy complexion. His eyes were bright and alert as they glanced up every few seconds from the magazine in his hand, and almost as dark as the wavy black hair above the collar of his overcoat.

He saw the head of copper-colored hair protruding above the rest of the new arrivals at the same time as the head saw him. Its owner changed direction to wade obliquely through the river of humanity toward Murdoch. He was dressed in a dark-blue, open-necked shirt, navy windbreaker, and gray cords, and carrying a leather travel bag slung across one shoulder; he moved unhurriedly, but with a powerful, easy-going stride. Murdoch thrust the magazine into the pocket of his overcoat and grinned as they shook hands. It was like grasping a double-thick cut of spare rib that hadn't died yet.

"Lee, great to see you again! It seems like a lot more than five months. I'm sorry about the short notice, but that's all I had myself."

Lee Walker's mouth barely twitched, but his eyes came as near as they ever did to smiling. "Hi, Doc. You're right—it seems a lot longer. I guess that's the way things go." He heaved his bag onto his other shoulder and produced a pack of cigarettes from his windbreaker. "What time is it here? How long have we got before the flight leaves?"

"It's on schedule—just over fifteen minutes."

"Get my ticket fixed okay?"

"You're all set."

"Thanks."

They began walking briskly toward the nearest escalator leading down to the automatic shuttle system that connected the airport terminals.


Page 2

"So," Murdoch said. "How are things back west? Dynasco going okay?"

"Pretty good," Lee replied. "The checkout's finished, and the documentation's all done. I think they're pretty pleased with the whole deal."

"Good."

"In fact if you hadn't called, I'd have been coming on over to New York in a week or so anyway. How's it been looking?"

"Promising. How about Tracey? Did you get her untangled at last?"

"Yeah. It's all… 'untangled.' "

An empty shuttle-car was waiting with doors open. They crossed the platform skirting the track at the bottom of the escalator and stepped inside.

"Okay, so tell me more about it," Lee said. "You reckon your grandfather has actually done it—he can send informationbackwardthrough time?" His face was creased into a frown and his tone skeptical.

Murdoch nodded. "That's what he says."

"But it's crazy. In principle it's crazy. What happens to causality?" Lee drew on his cigarette and blew a cloud of smoke toward the roof of the car. "What's he done exactly? How far has he sent it back?"

"You know just about as much as I do," Murdoch told him. "He wasn't exactly generous with details when he called me either. He just said it worked and told me to get over there right away. He knows I've talked to you about it a lot, and figured it was about time you two met. So I called you. The rest you know."

"But it's crazy," Lee insisted. "I never thought he'd get anywhere with it. If it's true, the whole of physics goes down the tubes. I mean—"

"Save it," Murdoch said. "There's company on the way. Let's talk about it on the plane." A trio of businessmen approached along the platform and stepped into the car talking loudly about some company's market share or something or other. They were followed a few seconds later by a couple shepherding two young, tousle-haired boys. The car doors bleeped a warning and then closed, and the shuttle slid forward to rejoin the through-track, then accelerated smoothly into the tunnel that led to the next terminal on the circuit.

Twenty minutes later they were sixty miles up over the mid-Atlantic at the apex of a shallow parabola that joined Kennedy to an artificial island constructed a few miles off-shore from Edinburgh in the Firth of Forth. The seats on one side of them were occupied by two pleasant but inquisitive middle-aged English ladies who plied them continually with questions about the States; on their other side sat a Bostonian who maintained a steady monologue on football despite their repeated proclamation of total ignorance of, and disinterest in, the subject. At no time during the thirty-five-minute flight did they get a chance to talk further about Murdoch's grandfather.

Chapter 2Prologue1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738Epilogue

"Did you ever hear of Bannockburn?" Murdoch asked over the muted humming of the car's engine.

"Some kind of Scotch baron?" Lee guessed.

"It's a place, not far off down that road on the left there. They had a battle there in 1314. The Scots had kicked the English out of the whole of Scotland except the castle at Stirling, which is the town we're just coming into. One of the English kings, Edward II, brought an army up to get them out, but he got wiped out by Bruce."

"Scotch?"

"Yes, except that's the stuff you drink. There was another battle here before that too, in 1297. That was when Edward I lost out. I guess the Edwards didn't have much luck around here."

"I didn't know you went in for all this," Lee said.

Murdoch shrugged. "Maybe it's my grandpa coming out in me. You know, I wouldn't mind moving over and living here somewhere one day. Look at the stonework in some of those buildings. I bet they were put up before anybody heard of California."

They had decided not to use the local jet service from Edinburgh to the town of Inverness, just over one hundred miles to the north, since it would have made little difference to their total journey time. Instead they rented a groundcar at the island-airport and drove below the Firth to emerge on land some miles west of Edinburgh, heading toward the Scottish Central Lowlands. Since then, with the groundcar running automatically under remote guidance on the controlled main highway, they had turned northward to pass through Perth, the repeatedly besieged former capital, where they would cross the river Tay.

Lee draped his arm along the lower ledge of the window and surveyed the scenery for a while. "It's a pretty country," he conceded at last, which from Lee was as near a eulogy as one was likely to get.

Murdoch pursed his lips and nodded. "Now you know why I like coming over here whenever I can."

"How come your father never talks all that much about it?" Lee asked. "I'd have thought that with a name like Malcom and being a generation nearer to it, he'd have been full of it. Are you the odd one out or something?"

"More like the other way around," Murdoch replied, shaking his head. "He's the odd one. Grandpa was—still is—a theoretical physicist. His father was a mathematician. I guess I'm mathematical. As far as I know, my pa was the only one in the whole line for way back who couldn't balance a checkbook. Didn't stop him making money though."

"That's probably the reason," Lee said. "Buy at sixty, sell at a hundred and make ten percent. Now I know why I can't read balance sheets. Ah well… I guess I'll never be rich." He fell silent for a moment, then went on, "Your father is definitely all-American. So if your grandfather's different, what's he like? Does he wear kilts and go around with daggers in his socks, and all that stuff?"

"Dirks," Murdoch said, grinning. "No… not often anyway. Only on formal occasions. But you're right—he is pretty traditional. I guess that kind of thing tends to run through the Rosses too. Maybe that's why I like Scottish history."

"And he's still that way after— How many years was your grandfather in the States before he moved back to Scotland?"

"About forty, I think. But people like him don't change very easily. You'll see what I mean when you meet him."

From Perth they followed the Tay valley into the Grampian Highlands, a fifty-mile-deep, storm-tossed giant's sea of granite waves quick-frozen by the winter snow. At the town of Kingussie in the valley of Strath Spey, Murdoch switched to manual drive and turned off the main Perth-Inverness highway and into the mountains of Monadhliath for the last leg of the journey to Glenmoroch. Within minutes the few remaining signs of the space age had disappeared completely. The road became a single track, winding its way carelessly among the feet of regiments of steep, boulder-strewn slopes that had fallen hopelessly out of step, and around frosty streams and rippling lochs, chattering and shivering with the winter cold. Woods of larch and Norwegian pine appeared at intervals, stretching from the roadsides in irregular patches to form ragged skirts along the lower parts of the hills. Higher up, they thinned away or huddled into narrow gorges where they cowered beneath steep slopes of pebble screes and brooding buttresses of naked rock. Only the occasional farmhouse, bridge, or run of dry-stone wall remained as a reminder that the human race existed.

They rounded a bend by one of the farms to find the road blocked by a miniature sea of sheep, which a dour farmer, a helper, and three tireless dogs were herding through a gate into one of the adjacent fields. Murdoch eased the car to a halt a few yards back from the scampering, bleating tide.

Lee shook his head incredulously. "This can't be true," he said. Murdoch grinned and sat back in his seat to wait. For a while he watched the dogs. On his previous visits to Scotland he had come to admire the uncanny ability of sheepdogs to coordinate their movements and anticipate every gesture and whistle of command. Trained dogs enjoyed working and soon grew restless if deprived of it; like many people, animals could become addicted to the habit. During one of Murdoch's previous visits to Glenmoroch, a sheepdog belonging to Bob Ferguson, who owned a farm on the outskirts of the village, hurt a leg and was prescribed a week's rest by the vet, which meant no going up onto the hills. The dog occupied itself by herding chickens around the farmyard instead.

Murdoch shifted his eyes to study the older of the two men, who was clad in a thick tweed jacket with trousers gathered into knee-length gumboots. He wore a flat peaked cap on top of graying, short-cropped hair. His face was the color of boiled lobster, lined and weathered, and below his bushy eyebrows his eyes burned keenly through slits narrowed by a lifetime's exposure to mountain winds and rain. It was a face, Murdoch thought, that, like the granite crags, had been carved by elements that had ruled the Highlands since long before the ancestors of the Picts and Celts drifted northward from England, or migrated across the sea from the lower valley of the Rhine. It was a face that belonged here, he told himself—just as a part of him, somewhere deep down inside, belonged here.

The last few strays were rounded up and dispatched through the gate. The farmer raised his stick to acknowledge the driver's patience, and Murdoch responded with a wave of his hand as he eased the car into motion again.

"I'd like to see that happen on the Frisco-L.A. freeway," Lee said.

"Time waits for people here," Murdoch told him.

The mention of time sent Lee's mind back to the things they had discussed briefly at Kennedy. They had covered another two miles when at last he spoke. "Suppose your grandfather's right. What happens to free will? If you can send information backward through time, you can tell me what I did even before I get around to doing it. So suppose I choose not to?" He half-turned in his seat and looked defiantly across at Murdoch. "What's there to make me? So I don't, and no information ever gets sent back to say I did. But I've already received it." He shrugged. "The whole thing's crazy."

"Serial universes," Murdoch suggested, keeping his eyes on the tortuous road ahead. Evidently he had been doing some thinking too.

"What about them?"

"Suppose that all the pasts that have ever existed, and all the futures that will ever exist, are all just as real as the present. The present only gives the illusion of being more real because we happen to be perceiving it… in the same kind of way that the frame of a movie that happens to be on the screen right now appears real, but that doesn't make all the other frames in the reel less real. Does that make sense?"

"Depends what you mean," Lee answered. "Are you saying that all those pasts exist exactly the way we remember them?"

"No. That's the whole point. They could be different. For instance, the 1939 that exists 'now' back up the timeline might not contain a Hitler at all. When it arrives at its own 1945, World War II won't have happened, and it will have evolved a history that doesn't read like ours at all. From there it will go on into its own future, fully consistent with its own past but different from ours." Murdoch cocked an eye and glanced at Lee.

Lee sat back and frowned into the distance through the windshield. "So that universe will eventually arrive in its own 2010, maybe with a Doc and Lee in it who aren't in Scotland at all… or maybe without any Doc and Lee in it. By that time this universe that we're in will have gone forward to its, what would it be?… 2065… carrying an internal history that would be consistent with what it remembers. It wouldn't know anything about what's happening way back upstream. Is that what you're saying?"

"More or less. What d'you think?"

"Mmm… " Lee turned the suggestion over in his mind. "Could be, I guess. But if it does work that way, I can't see much of a future for it."

"Oh. How come?"

"You could send information back to a past universe, but you could never be affected by anything that anybody in that universe did as a consequence. It might help them, but it can't help you. You could tell them not to do something that you did, but you're stuck with it. So why should you bother? Why should you want to put that effort into helping somebody else solve his problems, even if he does happen to be an earlier version of yourself, when it's not going to do anything to help you solve yours?"

"Curiosity," Murdoch offered with a shrug. "Or philanthropy maybe. There's all kinds of people in the world. Why save souls?"

"Because they count as tax credits on your own return," Lee said. He shook his head. "If it does work that way, I can't see it ever being more than an academic curiosity."

"Pretty sensational for a curiosity though, being able to talk to whole new universes that you didn't know existed. Isn't that exciting enough?"

"That's what bothers me. It's sensational, but you can't use it. Suppose you end up deciding it's pointless talking to past universes because they can't do anything for you, and then you find that future universes aren't taking calls because they've come to the same conclusion. Then what do you do? You're sitting on the biggest breakthrough in physics since electricity, and it's no good to you. It'd be like Robinson Crusoe inventing the telephone."

Murdoch thought about it, grunted, then fell silent. Lee had a habit of suddenly dumping whole new trains of thought by the shovelful for Murdoch's mind to sift through. Sometimes Murdoch wished that he would find a smaller shovel.

At last the road ahead of them unfolded into a two-mile straight leading across bleak, snow-covered grouse-moor textured by scattered rocks and clumps of gorse. Murdoch announced that they had only a few miles left to go. For some time they had been ascending toward a skyline formed by the crest of a vast ridge, and the surroundings had been growing more windswept and barren. The final slopes that led up to the ridgeline itself began on the far side of the moor; the road climbed across them in a series of tight hairpins to vanish at a notch of sky pinched in the snow. To the right the ridge rose steeply and swelled to become a bulging shoulder of the three-thousand-foot peak of Ben Moroch, the towering sentinel that kept watch over the pass leading through to the valley-head of the glen beyond.


Page 3

The sun was soaking into the hills to the west by the time they reached the high point of the pass. To their left the southwest ridge of Ben Moroch marched away in a line of descending spurs before rising again to blend with a more distant peak, while on the right the mountain itself soared upward in glowering ramparts of rock and ice. In front of them and below, the ground fell away into a vast amphitheater formed by the meeting of the west and southwest ridges, which curved away on either side to become the arms that held the ribbon of Glenmoroch in between. For a minute or two they were able to look over the crestline of the west ridge at the Highlands stretching away like a sea of rose-tinted icebergs with glimpses of the sun-burnished waters of Loch Ness in between; then the road began meandering downward once more, gently at first and then more steeply, between the frozen peat bogs and shale slopes that formed the upper reaches of the glen.

Soon the whole of Glenmoroch was spread out in miniature beneath them, and Murdoch felt the elation that always came when he saw the familiar landmarks again for the first time after a long absence. The road traced its way down the flanks of the ridge to leave the crest high on the left, and converged on the valley floor with the wandering line of the brook where the streams flowing off Ben Moroch mustered for their long march to Loch Keld and onward en masse to the sea. He could make out the stone bridge where the road crossed the brook before disappearing into a small wood, and beside it the rectangular lines of walled fields that marked the beginning of Ferguson's farm. The road emerged from the far side of the wood into a scattering of houses, copses, and tracks that consolidated themselves lower down into the huddle of Glenmoroch village, already looking sleepy beneath faint plumes of chimney smoke and showing a few lights in the shadow advancing from the foot of the west ridge.

Below the village the road again plunged into trees, which fanned out on either side to form a rough crescent around the near end of Loch Keld. To the right of these trees, the land shelved gently upward for a distance from the shore of the loch, and then swept upward sharply to form the terminal spur of the west ridge. The shelf between the loch and the spur was thickly wooded, and through the trees a compact cluster of roofs and turrets protruded to catch the last rays of the dying sun.

"That's it," Murdoch said, pointing. "The place sticking up through the trees between the mountain and the water behind the village. That's the Storbannon estate."

"I thought it was supposed to be a castle," Lee said after a few seconds.

"Well, that's what people round here call it, but it isn't really. What did you expect—portcullises, guys in armor, and damsels in distress hanging out the windows?"

"I'd have settled for the damsels," Lee replied. After a moment he added, "The dis-dressed ones."

Murdoch groaned.

The village was quiet as they drove through its main street between terraced stone cottages interspersed with an assortment of tiny shops and a few cosy-looking, warmly lit pubs, and past the ancient, iron-railed churchyard. A couple of figures outside the red-fronted Post Office, which also served as grocery and general store, turned to watch the unfamiliar car pass by, but otherwise there were no signs of life. Nothing had changed.

They left the village and entered the crescent-shaped wood that extended to the shore of the loch. A track took them off the main road and brought them out of the wood again, this time pointing toward Storbannon. Minutes later, Murdoch turned off the track between two large and imposing stone gateposts, and into a wide driveway that curved away upslope through the trees. Lee realized after a while that the brief bird's-eye view of the estate that he had seen from high up on the far side of the valley had been deceptive, for they had covered what must have been almost a mile before the lights of the house itself became visible. And then the trees opened up suddenly before a large, oval-shaped area around which the driveway looped, widened, and then rejoined itself to form the forecourt of "Storbannon Castle." The main entrance was in the center of the building, set back on the far side of a small courtyard enclosed on three sides, which was formed by the main body of the house and its two projecting wings. Murdoch steered into the courtyard and stopped at the foot of the broad flight of shallow steps leading up to the doors.

"We're here," he said needlessly, as Lee craned his neck to take in as much of the frontage as he could see in the light reflected by the snow from the two spotlamps above the entrance.

The building could have been an "E" shape without the middle bar, Lee thought, or maybe he was looking at one side of an "H." The doors at the top of the half-dozen or so steps were heavy and solid, with ornate hinges and hanging hand rings of wrought iron; they seemed in good repair, as did everything else that formed his first impressions. The arch framing the doors was formed from columns of round, recessed, stonework ribs, which flowed upward on either side like staggered banks of organ pipes before bowing into flattened curves that met in a point at the top. The walls, extending away into the shadowy corners formed by the wings, were faced in dressed gray stone etched by the battle scars of many long, harsh Scottish winters. Midway between the entrance arch and the wings, the walls angled outward for a short distance to form two broad piers of double bay windows encased in florid masonry, which extended upward to join the parade of castellations that marked the roof line. At least it's a change from high-rise glass and duroplastic, Lee thought to himself.

"I can see now why they call it a castle," he said. "The tops of the walls up there are built like square-waves."

"Recent additions," Murdoch informed him. "They were part of renovations that were carried out by one of the Rosses in the nineteenth century. That was when the turrets were added too. I guess he put up the castellations to give the place a matching frontage."

"And that's recent?"

"Sure."

"So how far back does this place go?"Lee asked as they climbed out of the car and walked around to begin lifting luggage out of the trunk.

Murdoch paused long enough to take in the South Wing with a gesture of his arm. "That's the oldest part of it. It used to be a nobleman's manor house somewhere around the middle of the fifteenth century, but there was something there before that; some of the stonework in the foundations is thought to go back to the twelfth." He shrugged. "But so much alteration and rebuilding has gone on over the years that it's difficult to say exactly which part of what you can see now appeared when. That wing hasn't been lived in for a long time now, though… mainly storage and stuff. The front part is the garage, and the part that sticks out back is stables; the whole thing's laid out roughly like an aitch."

Lee closed the trunk and straightened up to survey the front of the central bar, facing them. "So what about this part?" he asked. "Did that come later?"

"In the 1650s," Murdoch answered. "Most of the character is in there. Look at the Tudor arch and the mullions across the windows." He nodded his head in the general direction of the North Wing. "The rest of it appeared in bits and pieces over the last three hundred years or so. A lot of it was the late 1800s. The family had connections with the Clydeside steel industry, which was going through fairly good times, so they had plenty of cash to throw around on things like that." He made a face and added, "That part's typical of a lot of Victorian 'inspirations,' for want of a better word, though—revived Gothic windows, Georgian portico around the other side, mock Doric columns, and baroque ornamentation. Goes together like ice cream and gravy."

Lee stared at the incongruous blend for a moment, and then shrugged. "I'll take your word for it, Doc," he said.

At that moment the doors swung open to release a flood of light onto the steps. A man with thinning hair and wearing a dark jacket and tie walked out, closely followed by a woman dressed in a plain gray dress and white apron, her dark hair tied back in a bun.

"You're here at last!" the woman called in a high-pitched, wailing voice. "We were beginning to wonder what had happened to ye."

"Morna, me fine lass!" Murdoch hugged her around the waist and spun her off her feet, ignoring her protesting scream. "We drove up the whole way. I don't trust those French things they fly up to Inverness." He put the woman down and turned to clasp the man's extended hand. "Hello again, Robert. You're looking great. How's it all been going?"

"'Tis grand to see you back so soon," the man replied warmly. "Sir Charles has been looking forward to today. And this must be the Lee that we've heard so much about."

Murdoch stepped back and clapped Lee on the shoulder. "This is Lee. Lee, this is Morna. She's got secret admirers all over Glenmoroch. And this is Robert. He's been here since before I can remember." Lee shook hands with both of them. "And how are Mrs. Paisley and Hamish?" Murdoch inquired.

"Both fine," Robert told him. "Hamish is all right when he isn't in some pub down in the village. Is this your first visit to Scotland, Lee?"

"First time ever," Lee said. "I think the place is starting to grow on me already, though. Having this guy in the car is like sitting next to a talking history book."

"He's always been one for anything to do wi' the Scots," Morna said. "Even when he was here for the summers as a boy. But enough o' this. Let's get the two o' ye inside and out o' the cold."

"Sir Charles is waiting for you in the library now," Robert told them. "Go on in. I'll take care of the bags and the car." He took Murdoch's keys and went on down the steps. Morna turned and walked back into the entrance hall with the new arrivals.

"Shall I ask Mrs. Paisley to find ye somethin' t'eat?" she asked. Murdoch threw a quick sideways glance at Lee.

Lee shook his head. "Later maybe," he said.

"Just coffee," Murdoch told her. "We only left New York less than an hour and a half ago." He caught the surprised look on her face and stopped to gaze at the splendid paneling of the hall and the majestic main staircase, then added, "It seems like a thousand years already."

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"So what's happening with the consultancy in California?" Charles inquired. "Are you wrapping that up now?" They had been talking for almost half an hour. Charles was speaking from a large, red-leather arm-chair to one side of the flickering log fire in the library. Lee was sprawled in the chair opposite, and Murdoch was on the settee between them, facing the hearth. Murdoch had given Charles the latest news regarding the family in Chicago, and the conversation had now drifted to the more immediate topic of Murdoch and Lee.

"We've been running it down for some time really," Murdoch replied. "The last contract we had was for an outfit called Dynasco. They wanted a study on self-organizing energy vortices in plasmas. Lee stayed on for a few months to tie up the loose ends on it while I was setting up things in New York."

Charles took a sip from the brandy glass in his hand and smacked his lips approvingly. "Did it not work out then?" he asked. "I could have told you you're not cut out to be a businessman like your father."

"Oh hell, I know that," Murdoch said. "The idea never was to start a multinational. It was just a way of working on things that were interesting without being owned by anybody, and to make enough to get by on for a year or two. That was all we ever meant to do, and that was what we did. It worked out fine."

"So where to next?" Charles asked him. "What happens in New York?"

"It looks as if we're all set for a commission with a consulting group called Wymess Associates. They're looking for outside help on plasma dynamics. I've been talking to them since November and it's looking pretty certain. Sounds interesting too; they're working with General Atomic on nuplex designs for East Africa."

Murdoch was referring to the integrated nuclear-based, agricultural-industrial packaged complexes, capable of supporting a tightly knit, autonomous community at full twenty-first-century living standards and life-styles that was being developed for export to the rapidly developing Third World. The "nuplexes" were part of an international program aimed at once and for all eliminating from the planet the most basic scourges that had plagued mankind as long as mankind had existed. Later on, the technologies perfected in developing the nuplexes would form the basis for designing self-sustaining colonies in space.

Charles nodded slowly. "Aye, that sounds as if it could suit you more. You've always had a wee bit o' the idealist in you, I suspect, Murdoch… wanting to contribute something to making the world less of a mess and that kind of thing. You've got academic talent, but you're no academic by nature. After CIT and Fusion Electric, you've probably seen as much of university campuses as you want to." He glanced across at Lee. "And you're from the same mold if I'm not very much mistaken. And I'll warrant you don't see yourself fitting in with the big corporations either."

Lee crossed a foot loosely over his knee, pursed his lips for a moment, then shook his head. "You've said it. They get things done, but you've got to fit. If you don't fit the image or the image doesn't fit you"—he spread his hands expressively—"what'sthe point of wasting your time trying to prove something you've already made your mind up you're not all that interested in proving?"


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"Aye," Charles conceded simply. He already knew enough not to press questions, and by nature he was not disposed to dispensing conventional wisdoms in the form of grandfatherly advice unless it was asked for.

By the early 2000s, a great deal of basic scientific research and many of the major research projects had come to be managed and funded by the larger multi-national corporations. This trend reflected the tendency of private industry to look more after itself and its basic needs as confidence in government initiative was eroded away by the effects of continual policy reversals, irresolution in the face of electoral whims, and stifling bureaucracy. To insure the supply of trained talent that these expanding ventures would demand, the corporations had become heavy investors in the educational system by the closing decades of the twentieth century; some had gone further by opening their own colleges and awarding their own degrees, which in certain sectors of research and industry had already come to be considered more valuable than some of the traditional diplomas.

Murdoch had studied mathematical physics at CIT and then moved on to the university founded by the Fusion Electric Corporation, a California-based company engaged in the commercial generation and distribution of fusion-generated power, to gain further experience in plasma techniques. There he had met Lee, who, it turned out, was a son of the corporation's Vice President of Research. Despite the opportunities implied by virtue of his father's position, Lee's main interests there lay with the computers, an addiction he had been nurturing since an early age. He didn't find the executive image challenging or inspiring and, like Murdoch, was preparing to go his own way; again like Murdoch, he didn't know where to. After completing their courses at the university they had stayed for a while at FEC, and then left to set up the consultancy at Palo Alto, on the bay shore a few miles south of San Francisco.

"So where are you from originally, Lee?" Charles asked. "Have you always lived on the West Coast?"

"I was born in Osaka, Japan," Lee replied. Charles's eyebrows rose in mild surprise. Lee explained, "My father was chief engineer on a joint U.S.-Japanese tokamak project out there for a number of years. He moved back to the States when they made him a V.P."

"You were very young while you were there, I take it," Charles said.

Lee shook his head. "He was there for quite a while. I was nearly fifteen when we moved back. All I got to see of the States before then was what I could squeeze into vacations."

"He was brought up on karate," Murdoch interjected. "I've seen him break concrete blocks with his fist."

"Good heavens!" Charles exclaimed. "You'll no doubt have a lot to talk about with Ted Cartland when he gets back, Lee. Did Murdoch tell you about Ted?"

"Is that the English guy that lives here?" Lee asked. "Used to be in the Air Force… been all over."

"Aye, that's him," Charles confirmed. "He was born in Malaya. His father was major in the Army, attached to the Australians. Ted's quite an interesting chappie."

"Where is he?" Murdoch asked.

"He's been away for a few days, working with one of the firms that we use for components," Charles replied. "He should be back tomorrow." The old man sat back in his chair and drained his glass. "Ah well, it sounds as if the two o' ye are still a solution waiting for the right problems to appear. But there's no rush. You know your own minds better than anyone. There's many a man in this world who's rushed headlong into the wrong thing without thinking, and then had to spend the next half of his life getting himself out o' the mess he's made." He leaned forward to refill the glass from a decanter beside him. The other two watched in silence, wondering when he would get around to the topic of their visit and the reason for it.

Charles leaned back and settled himself more comfortably into the chair with his glass. "So, Lee," he said, as if reading their thoughts. "How much do you know about the background to what Ted and I have I been up to here?"

"Doc's talked to me quite a bit about it off and on," Lee replied, uncrossing his legs and straightening up in the chair. "I know you spent a lot of time in the States at places like MIT, Princeton, and Stanford… and after that at NASA and the Defense Department, before you came back here. I've read the papers you published on the isolation of free quarks. That was at Stanford, wasn't it? I guess it must have started somewhere around there."

"That was in the eighties," Charles said, nodding. "But I suppose you're right in a way: That did lay the foundation. But the really interesting things started happening about ten years ago. I was with NASA by then, but Stanford was still carrying out experiments involving quarks. Some of the experiments were giving anomalous results that nobody could explain, so they asked me to go down and have a look at them because of the work I'd been involved with there previously."

"Something analogous to nuclear resonances, wasn't it?" Lee said.

"Aye. They occurred in connection with nucleons decaying into three quarks. The specific cases were when a nucleon broke down first into two quarks plus an intermediate particle, and then the intermediate particle transformed into the third quark. The 'quason,' which was the name given to the intermediate particle that had been tentatively postulated, had never actually been detected or observed as such. As you say, it was like a nuclear resonance, but its lifetime was so many orders of magnitude shorter even than that of a resonance that some people were doubting it existed at all. It was simply an entity with certain mathematical attributes needed to account for the slight delay between the appearances of the first two quarks and the third one. The problem was that, in the light of the more accurate measurements that had been made by that time, it was impossible to assign a set of properties to the quason that were internally consistent. There was always something that contradicted the experimental data."

"Yes, I remember reading about that in something that Doc showed me," Lee said. "Didn't you offer an interpretation that didn't require quasons at all?"

"That's right," Charles replied. "But the alternative interpretation that I proposed called for a rather unusual assumption: that all three quarks were created simultaneously, but the data defining the first two had propagatedbackward in time.The magnitudes involved were of the order of ten-to-the-minus-thirty-second—about the time light would take to cross a quark—but real nevertheless.

"Results of other experiments from other places too involved the same kind of thing," Charles went on. "To cut a long story short, it turned out that they could all be interpreted consistently on the basis of information propagating forward or backward through time, without quasons coming into it at all. So there were two explanations; one was testable but unsatisfactory, the other consistent but apparently nonsensical. As you can imagine, there was a lot of arguing going on around then."

"That's something I was meaning to ask about," Lee said. "This would have been around when, ten years ago?"

"Aye. Around the turn of the century."

"I checked through a lot of the papers and journals from around then, but I couldn't find much mention of it. The only things I saw were the things that Doc showed me, which I guess he got from you. How come? And if you've proved now that the no-quason interpretation is correct, how come the traditional version is still accepted practically everywhere?"

"Ah well… " Charles paused to sip his brandy. "There were two reasons. First there was the obvious thing: A lot of scientists opposed the theory on principle. I can't say I blame them really. It conflicted with all the accepted notions of causality, and the overwhelming tendency among most of them was to stick with the choice that at least retained familiar concepts and made sense, even if it was giving ragged results. It wouldn't have been the first time in the history of science that that had happened. So, I suppose, I was part of a very small minority… but then maybe I always was an awkward cuss.

"Then on top of that I was just in the process of moving from NASA to the Defense Department. There were all kinds of security regulations, classified information restrictions and all that kind o' drivel to contend with, and some silly ass somewhere got it into his head that this particular topic might have defense implications. I can't for the life of me imagine why, but that was enough to keep most of the story out of the limelight.

"Anyhow, I was convinced I was on the right track, never mind what the rest of them were saying, and through the work I was doing at the Department, I kept in touch with a few people at places like Los Alamos who thought the same way. You see, there were a few unofficial experiments going on here and there even though it was supposed to be restricted work. Eventually everything started coming out of the woodwork and the whole thing turned political. I got fed up with the whole damn business and came back here to be left alone. As Murdoch has told you, I've worked here ever since. It must be, oh… three years or thereabouts now."

"And has this guy Ted Cartland been here that long too?" Lee asked.

Charles nodded. "I got to know Ted while I was still at NASA. He was at Cornell, involved with designing orbiting detectors for X-ray astronomy. He'd been mixed up with shuttle and satellite design and testing while he was in the RAF… a lot of liaison with other countries and that kind of thing. He'd worked with the people at Cornell in the past, knew them all, and moved there when he left the RAF. They were doing work for NASA, and that was how we got to know each other.

"When I decided to move back to Scotland, I had the feeling that I wasn't far from the point of producing a device to test the theory I'd been working on. Now I'm not much of a practical man when it comes to putting together gadgets and electronics and such, but Ted is. So I invited him to come back as well to take care of that side of things."

With that, Charles emptied his glass for the second time, set it down on the edge of the hearth, and stood up. "Anyhow, enough of all this witterin' on like three old women," he said. "You must be wondering if I'm ever going to show you the machine itself. Let's get along downstairs to the lab."

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The lab was much as Murdoch remembered it from his last visit, although it seemed to have sprouted a few additional items of equipment. One side of the room was taken up by a large workbench running almost the full length of the wall, littered with tools and unidentifiable electronics assemblies in all stages of confusion. Along the back of the bench stood a line of stacked waveform analyzers, synthesizers, power supplies, and other instruments studded with buttons and covered in screens, and interconnected by unraveled rainbows of tangled wire. A section of ceiling-high storage racks, crammed with books, boxes, and components, occupied the space between the bench and the door; the wall opposite supported a large blackboard, covered with formulas and calculations, above a long metal table sagging beneath a load of charts and papers.

The machine itself stood along the wall facing the door. It consisted of a main display and control console; a DEC PDP-22/30, obtained secondhand through one of Charles's friends who worked for British Admiralty research and complete with its own high-density memory subsystem, plus some options from other sources; an auxiliary terminal connected to the national datagrid; a trio of enclosed, four-foot-high cubicles; and a jumble of electronics strung together in open racks. A cluttered desk beside the operator's chair at the main console and a set of heavy cables running through the wall to the generators in the next room completed the scene.

Saying nothing, Charles walked to the console and brought the system to life with a few rapid taps of his fingers. He glanced at the main screen, issued another command-string, and cut off the display. A few winking lights on the main panel were all that was left to show that the system was active. Then a sheet of glossy, plasticized paper slid from the hardcopy slot and into the tray beneath. Charles picked it up, ran his eye quickly over whatever was printed on it, folded it in two with the printed side inward, and then looked up.

"Now, Murdoch," he said. "Would you be so kind as to sit yourself down there at the console." Murdoch obliged. Lee moved forward to watch over his shoulder. "There's a clock-readout counting down seconds at the top of the screen there," Charles went on. "When it gets to zero, I want you to type in a string of numbers and letters, up to a maximum of six characters."

Murdoch frowned up at him. "What, anything? No particular length?"

"It does not matter. Anything you like."

Murdoch shrugged. "Okay." He waited for the zero to appear, and then rattled in a random sequence. The main screen in front of him displayed:

2H7vi9

"That it?" he inquired.

"That'll do," Charles said. He unfolded the sheet of hardcopy that he had been holding and passed it to Murdoch without saying anything. Murdoch looked at it; Lee gasped audibly behind him. The sheet read:

1 January 2010, 2038.00 Hours.TEMPORAL RETROTRANSMISSION TEST. No File Reference.Manual Input Sequence. Transmission advance 60 seconds.2H7vi9END
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Although they had been more or less prepared for what to expect, Murdoch and Lee were too stunned for the moment to say anything. Talking about this kind of thing in the car from Edinburgh was one thing; seeing it demonstrated was quite another.

"It works with computer-transmitted numbers too," Charles commented matter-of-factly after a few seconds. Murdoch continued to stare with disbelieving eyes at the sheet of paper in his hand.

Lee looked slowly up at Charles, his brows knotted in bemusement. His lips moved soundlessly for a second or two. Then he whispered, "That… that was printed before Doc even knew what you were going to ask him to do. This really isn't some kind of conjuring trick? Are you saying those characters were sent backward through time?"

"Aye. Sixty seconds, to be exact." Charles looked back at him impassively.

"They exist!" Murdoch breathed, finding his voice at last. "The tau waves that you've always predicted—they really do exist!"

"So it would appear," Charles agreed.

As Murdoch slumped back in the chair and began turning over in his mind what it all meant, Lee gazed with new respect at the array of equipment surrounding him. It didn't look particularly spectacular; in fact, as far as external appearances were concerned, it could have been any one of a hundred lab lash-ups that he had seen before in all kinds of places. And yet what he had just observed had shaken him more that anything he could remember in his twenty-eight years. Murdoch had told him enough about Charles's work for him to have a general idea of how the machine worked, but inwardly he had never believed that anything would come of it.

The influence that propagated through time originated with the annihilation of matter, that is, the conversion of mass into energy. The mass-energy equivalence relationship became nonlinear at high energy densities; under extreme conditions, less energy appeared for a given amount of mass than traditional theory said ought to. The hadron decay into quarks that Charles had mentioned had been the first instance to be noticed; at the high energy density prevailing inside the infinitesimally small volume of the interaction, less gluon binding energy had been measured than had been predicted. Where did the rest go? According to the theory developed by Charles and his colleagues, it had propagated away as tau waves and rematerialized as mass-energy at another instant in time. Because of the small scale of the events, the resulting time shifts had been of the minute order that Charles had described. But at higher energy densities they promised to be more.

Charles's machine achieved high energy densities by focusing an intense beam of positrons onto a magnetically confined concentration of electrons. It employed a laserlike pumping technique perfected in the USSR about fifteen years before to generate energetic gamma photons, which in turn bred electron-positron pairs. The positrons were channeled by tuned fields and directed at a confined, negative space-charge to produce the sustained annihilations that the process demanded. Unlike the giant particle accelerators, which were designed to produce a few isolated events but at enormous energies, this machine produced many events at moderate energies within a tiny volume of space; it was the energydensitythat mattered. That was why the machine didn't need to be as large as the whole Storbannon estate; it also explained why the discrepancies attributable to the tau waves had remained undetected through the earlier decades of particle physics.

The result of the annihilation process was a burst of conventional energy, which was absorbed by a cooling arrangement, and a pulse of tau radiation that would reappear in detectable form elsewhere along the time line. The energy of the gamma photons could be varied, enabling the point in the future or in the past at which the tau pulse would materialize to be adjusted with a high degree of precision. The machine therefore functioned more like a telephone than a radio; the sender could "aim" a pulse at a selected instant, in the past for example, but a receiver in the past, or future, had no means of "tuning in." A receiver could do nothing but wait for incoming calls.

Lee was unable to identify which of the cubicles and racks contained which components, but he would have ample time in the days ahead to become familiar with such details. For the time being he just wanted to know more about the basic principles.

"How is the character information modulated onto the positron beam?" he asked Charles. "Do you interrupt it somehow to get a serial code?"

"That would introduce too many complications, as you'll appreciate later on," Charles replied, shaking his head. "It sends one data-frame in parallel code. The beam is split forty-eight ways to give forty-eight simultaneous tau pulses. Thirty-six of them are used to encode six-bit characters, which is why we're restricted to a six-character message at the moment. The other twelve bits are for control and timing signals."

"So the sequence that Doc keyed in was stored first, then transmitted all in one block."

"That is correct," Charles said.

Lee nodded slowly and rubbed his chin while he looked at the equipment again. The shock was wearing off, and he was beginning to think more coherently. "So what's its… its range?" he asked. "How far back can it send?"

"That's determined by three factors," Charles answered. "The magnitude of the pulse sent, the sensitivity of the receiving detector, and the absolute velocity of the Earth through space. You see, the tau pulse reappears as detectable energy at the same point in space as it was generated. Theoretically the profile of the reappearing energy wave forms a spherical surface that expands at light-speed about that point with increasing distances back along the timeline. After one second back in time it would occupy a volume one hundred and eighty-six thousand miles in radius, after two seconds one of twice that radius, and so on."

"It can't be," Lee protested. "The machine's not big enough to pack that much power. How could one pulse from it fill a volume that big?"

"Ah, I only said that was theoretically," Charles reminded him. "That's the mathematical limit. Inside that volume, the intensity falls off exponentially from the center-point. The signal exists everywhere inside that expanding volume. However, to receive it, the receiver can only be up to a certain distance from the center of the wave pattern, depending on how sensitive it is."

"So that's where the velocity of the Earth comes into it," Lee said. "The Earth will have moved between the time of sending and the time of receiving. You can only send as far back as corresponds to moving the receiver to its limit of sensitivity."

"Exactly," Charles confirmed. "According to the data from Doppler shifting of big-bang background radiation, the Earth moves about twenty-one million miles in a day. The detectors in the machine will operate reliably up to approximately one hundred and forty-five thousand miles from the center-point of the wave pattern produced by the level of tau pulse that this machine sends. If you work that out, it gives you a range of just about ten minutes."

Lee shook his head in wonder and stared at the characters still preserved on the screen in front of Murdoch. "So how long have you had it working now?" he asked.

"Only since two days ago," Charles told him. "I got it to work for the first time the day before I called Murdoch. Even Ted Cartland hasn't seen it yet. I called him a few minutes before I called you, Murdoch, but he's stuck in Manchester and won't be able to get away until tomorrow morning." Charles cackled wheezily. "The poor fellow was becoming frantic when I talked to him again, earlier today."

Murdoch was only half listening. He was still staring at the console, mentally replaying each step of the demonstration that Charles had given. The question going through his mind was obvious. Finally he looked up at Charles. "When you set this machine up a few minutes ago, you got the hardcopy first. Then you started up a program that would time-out after sixty seconds and send back whatever I typed in. Is that right?"

"Yes," Charles said simply.

Murdoch thought for a moment longer. "Okay. Let's ask the hundred-thousand-dollar question: What would have happened if I'd simply decided not to key in anything at all after the sixty seconds? What would have happened to the characters that were already on this sheet? How could they have gotten there?"

Charles nodded as If he had been waiting for Murdoch or Lee to ask that, and moved forward to reinitiate the system. Then he stepped back. "Try it and see," he invited.

Murdoch looked at the hardcopy slot expectantly and waited. Behind him, Lee moved closer and watched intently.

Nothing happened.

Murdoch's face knitted into a puzzled frown. After a while he looked up at Charles, but there was no surprise in Charles's expression. They waited.

"I don't believe this," Lee murmured at last. "It's no different than last time. Surely an intention inside somebody's head can't make any difference to what the machine does. That's for ESP freaks."

"Wait," Charles told them.

They waited.

Suddenly the slot ejected a sheet of paper. Lee leaped forward and snatched it up.

"It says MURDOC," he announced.

"When was it sent?" Murdoch demanded.

Lee checked the time printed on the sheet and glanced at the time-of-day readout on the console. "It's still set up for sixty seconds," he said. The countdown display had appeared at the top of the screen to confirm his words.

"Right," Murdoch declared. "We'll just see." He sat back in the chair and folded his arms in determination. Clearly he had no intention of doing anything when the zero arrived. Charles watched, but said nothing. The final seconds ticked by; Murdoch and Lee became visibly tense. Then the zero appeared.

And that was that. The paper with its printed record remained in Lee's hand, and time marched on past the deadline regardless. Two faces jerked round toward Charles, demanding an explanation.

"I don't know," Charles said quietly. "I don't know who sent that, or where from, either." The other two gaped at him incredulously. They were too confused for a moment to say anything. Charles stepped forward again and used the touchboard to bring up a color display on the screen. It showed a horizontal line across the bottom, annotated with numbers like the X-axis of a graph with zero at the center; above the line, the main area of the screen was divided vertically into three broad bands: a central white one separating two of gray.

"This is a graphical representation of the machine's window of range," Charles explained. "The horizontal axis is time, with the present instant corresponding to the zero in the middle. The white zone is twenty minutes wide; that's the window of the machine's current range, extending ten minutes forward and back. The gray areas on either side are the edges of the future and the past lying outside the ten-minute range."

To the left of center inside the white area, they could see a short red bar standing up from the scale at the point denoted by -6 —six minutes into the past, and a similar, but dotted, red bar at -5 minutes. There was a second pair of bars, this time blue; the solid one was at -11/2 minutes, the dotted one at -1/2 minute.

"Those two solid lines represent signals that the machine has received and logged," Charles explained. "The red one at minus six minutes is the random sequence of characters that Murdoch sent back a little while ago. Some of the control bits sent with every signal denote the time of transmission, so the computer can plot on the display when the signal was sent, which it does by adding a dotted line of matching color in the appropriate place. You can see that the dotted red line is a minute ahead of the solid one in time. If you watch closely, you should just be able to make out that the whole pattern is creeping slowly to the left as time advances. Thus the zero in the center always corresponds to the current instant." Charles paused and took a long breath, as if he were being forced to say something that he didn't really believe. He raised his arm and pointed at the second, blue pair of bars. "The solid blue line, now at minus two minutes, represents the reception of the signal that Lee read out two minutes ago. And the corresponding dotted line"—he pointed with his finger—"is the machine's reconstruction of where it was sent from—a point in time that is now one minute behind where we are right now." He stopped speaking and waited for the protests that he knew would come.

"That's crazy!" Murdoch exclaimed. "I didn't send anything one minute ago. You were both watching me. Nobody sent anything one minute ago. There has to be something screwy with the system. How could— What the… ?" He sat forward abruptly and stared wide-eyed at the screen. A solid green bar had appeared right on the zero-point of the scale, indicating that another signal had been received at that very instant. At the same time a dotted green bar had appeared sixty seconds ahead of it—sixty seconds in the future. The hardcopy slot disgorged another sheet.

"It says 'CRAZY,' " Lee told them in a bewildered voice. "What in hell's going on?"

A solid yellow bar appeared at zero to the right of the green one, which had already moved a few seconds leftward into the past. Its dotted yellow companion was well over to the right of the white area, denoting that something had come in from about eight minutes in the future. Charles touched a pad to deactivate the hardcopy unit.

"We can look at what the signals actually say later," he said. "I don't think it matters all that much for now." It was almost as if he knew what was going to happen next. The display suddenly went wild. Bars of every shade and color added themselves at the zero-point as fast as the ones already there could shuffle out of the way, producing a solid, rectangular, rainbow spectrum that steadily extended itself relentlessly toward the left. At the same time the right-hand half of the white area, representing the future ten minutes of the machine's range, filled haphazardly with matching dotted bars to complete each pair.

Murdoch slumped back in the chair, shaking his head as his mind abandoned the struggle of trying to find reason in what his eyes told him was happening. The solid bars merged into a block of color that grew until it covered the full ten minutes of the past. By that time the isolated red and blue bars with which the whole thing had begun had been pushed out of the white area completely, and were now standing alone in the left-hand gray zone, beyond the ten minutes of the machine's range; almost twenty minutes had elapsed since Charles's initial demonstration.


Page 6

And then Murdoch noticed something. He sat forward and peered closely at the block of colors denoting incoming signals. The block was not completely solid; there were a few thin, scattered gaps, indicating points in time during the previous ten minutes at which no transmissions had been received. That much was fact—already recorded and firmly sealed in what was now the past. A thought occurred to him. He pointed toward the screen and looked up at Charles.

"Those small gaps there," he said. "Could we set up the machine to send a signal back into one of them?"

"We could," Charles answered. "Which one?"

"How about that one?" Murdoch pointed. Charles went quickly through the routine of initiating the system to transmit and set the time-shift to select the gap that Murdoch had indicated.

"It's all yours," he announced.

Murdoch studied the display for a moment and paused with his fingers an inch from the touchboard while he thought about exactly what he wanted to do. He licked his lips and mentally composed a message. Anything would do—any nonsense word sufficiently distinct to be identifiable, such as MURDOC or CRAZY or…

And then it slowly dawned on him. He was not going to prove anything or uncover anything sensational. What else did all the bars crowded together across the screen tell him but that somebody—some where, some time—had already asked the same question as he, and was trying to do the same thing. And that somebody wasn't getting any answers. If he were, why did he keep trying the same thing over and over again? Doing so obviously wasn't getting that somebody anywhere; there was no reason to suppose it would get Murdoch anywhere either. He drew his hands back from the touchboard and sank back with a sigh to find Charles nodding slowly, as if Charles had already read his mind.

"You were thinking of trying to fool it, weren't you?" Charles said. "The screen says there were a few times in the past ten minutes at which nothing came in. Fact. You wondered what would happen if you tried sending something back to one of those times anyway. How could that be reconciled with what's staring you in the face? Am I right?"

Murdoch nodded. "You've thought the same thing, haven't you?"

"Naturally."

"And?" Lee asked.

"I never tried it," Charles answered. Then his voice took on a mysterious note. "Or at least if I did, I don't know anything about it." He looked from one to the other and took in their puzzled frowns, then waved a hand in the direction of the display. "Look there. Who sent all those signals that are plastered all over the place? A lot of them were sent in what has become the past already, but none of us here sent them. Somebody must have." The statement voiced what was already written across Murdoch's and Lee's faces.

Charles activated the hardcopy unit to obtain a single-sheet summary of all the messages that had come in. He scanned quickly down it. "There's no real rhyme or reason to any of it," he told them. "Things like TEST1 and TIME1… Here's an interesting one. It says, GAPFIL. It suggests that perhaps whoever sent it was thinking exactly what you were thinking, Murdoch." He handed the sheet to Murdoch and proceeded to shut down the system.

The mystified look on Murdoch's face deepened as he read. "What are you getting at, Grandpa? Are you trying to say that Ididsend all this? That's ridiculous!"

"I don't know," Charles replied. "You tell me. Are those the kinds of words that would have occurred to you?"

"But it worked," Lee murmured. He was massaging his brow with his fingers, still struggling to find some shred of sanity in what had transpired in the previous half-hour. "That first test you showed us when we came in—it worked."

"Aye," Charles agreed. "When Murdoch had no idea of what I was going to ask him to do, it worked. But as soon as he knew what to expect and began forming ideas in his head about trying to fool it, we got nothing but nonsense from that point on."

"I still say the whole thing's impossible," Lee insisted. "It's what you do that affects what comes out of a machine, not what you might do or what you think of doing."

"Yes, but what you think now might be the cause of what you do later," Charles pointed out "And that's the kind of thing we're messing around with." He started for the door; Lee turned to follow, and Murdoch stood up and moved away from the console. Charles went on, "I think what it proves is that idle playing around like this isn't going to help us make sense out of it. We need to sit down and work out a systematic approach. I agree with you, Lee. I don't believe in mystical forces or any of that trash either. As I've said, I've only been working on this myself for a matter of days, so I don't pretend to have many answers as yet. This whole thing takes us into a new realm of physics that's stranger than anything you can imagine. But I believe it is part of physics, nevertheless, and there is some kind of sense at the back of it all. That's what we have to see if we can work out."

As Murdoch turned to follow them toward the door, a slight movement from the lowest of the storage shelves by the workbench caught his eye. A tangle of wire and cabling, balanced precariously on the edge of the shelf, was moving as if alive. As he watched in amazement, it rolled off and tumbled to the floor. A sleepy, bewildered, black-and-white, whiskered face poked itself out and gazed about.

"Hey, who's this?" Murdoch said, stooping to disentangle the kitten from the wreckage. "A new member of the household?"

Charles looked back from the door. "Och, the wee rascal must have followed us in. He's been here a few weeks now. Do you remember John Massey who runs the garage down in the village? His wife gave it to Morna. Their cat had a litter o' five."

"He's cute." Murdoch picked up the squirming ball of fluff and held it up in front of his face. "The black chin and white patches make him look mad, kinda like a pug. What's his name?"

Charles told him.

Murdoch's mouth opened in surprise. "What!" he exclaimed. "James Clerk Maxwell? You can't call a cat that!"

"And why not, might I ask?" Charles demanded gruffly. "It's a grand name of science, and a good Scottish one on top o' that." He closed the lab door and began walking along the passageway toward the stairs that led up to the main hall. "I'll no' have any of your 'Kitty' or your 'Tibbles' or such other damn trash for as long as I'm master o' this house," he told them.

Chapter 5Prologue1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738Epilogue

Despite having been born in Los Angeles, Murdoch Ross did not consider himself to be truly an American at heart. He was by inclination more of a thinker than a proverbial American man of action. The Americans seemed to get things done while the rest of the world found time to think about what it all meant, and therefore to criticize.

One of the things he valued in life was peace and quiet. He appreciated friends who talked when they had something to say and shut up when they hadn't. That was probably one of the reasons why he had always got along well with Lee.

Breakfast next morning in the kitchen, which was where Murdoch preferred to eat when he was late in rising, was marked by a distinct lack of conversation. The meal passed with hardly a word being said, and at the end of it Murdoch found himself gazing at his empty, egg-smeared plate with the riddle of the previous night's events still turning over and over in his mind. On the far side of the table Lee, presumably occupied with similar thoughts, was toying idly with a fork while behind him Mrs. Paisley, Charles's middle-aged, buxom, gray-haired cook, was pouring coffee into two large mugs.

Evidently, Murdoch told himself, future selves did exist who were just as "real" as the selves that existed at a given present moment. That had to be so since somebody had sent the "phantom" signals. Whoever had sent them had clearly not existed in the universe that Murdoch had perceived and formed part of, and for that matter that he still perceived and still did form part of. Therefore whoever had sent the signals had to exist in some other universe. But what universe?

There appeared to be only two possibilities. First, the phantom selves might have existed elsewhere in a system of "serial universes" similar to that which Murdoch had described to Lee during the drive from Edinburgh. On that basis there would be a future universe, one ten minutes ahead of the present one for example, in which certain events were unfolding as shaped by the past circumstances ofthatuniverse; when the present universe had advanced ten minutes, it could find that the events thatitcame to experience were not the same. In the meantime the former future universe would have moved onward to lie still ten minutes ahead.

This model would be like a procession of boats drifting down a river on the current, with the river being the timeline and each boat being one of an infinity of universes following sequentially along it. Each boat would be accompanied by its own present circumstances, which would be continually evolving and providing memories of pasts; a past as remembered, however, would not necessarily be identical to, or even similar to, the events that some other boat back in the line upstream was experiencing. Thus a patch of floating weed might constitute a permanent feature in the universe of one boat, but not exist at all in the universes seen by the rest.

The alternative was that the future selves who had sent the signals had existed on a different timeline, or timelines, entirely. That would be another possible way of explaining how those future selves had apparently done things that nobody in Murdoch's universe had later done. This picture implied some parallel branching structure of universes in which every point along a timeline became a branch-point into a possibly infinite number of other timelines, with the branches forking unidirectionally like those of a tree.

Neither concept was especially new; people had been speculating on possibilities like that for a century or so at least. The big difference now, of course, was that previously there had never been any means available of testing such notions. Having separated the two alternatives in his mind, Murdoch turned his thoughts back to reexamming the first—that of serial universes—more closely.

Suppose, he thought, that fixed instants in time corresponded to landmarks along the river bank. A particular tree, for example, could be noon on a particular day. Thus each of the boat universes would come to experience its own noon in turn as it passed on its way by. At the instant that a given boat was passing by the tree, some random event could take place in the "now" of that boat's universe, such as a fish jumping out of the water alongside it… or somebody onboard typing a particular string of characters into a computer touchboard panel. Given Charles's machine, the crew of that boat could inform another boat following ten minutes behind that a fish had been seen just as they were passing the noon tree. But in general, the crew of the second boat would not expect to observe the same event when they came to pass the tree, for they would be accompanied by a different body of water with different things happening in it. Therefore, in the serial-universe model, different crews would observe different things at similar times. Some changes might evolve slowly, such as a patch of bad weather that many boats might pass through before it cleared, but insignificant random things like the fish jumping out of the water would have no correlation.

But the string of random characters that Murdoch had typed inhadmatched the one that had been received sixty seconds before. Thus the serial model, or at least that interpretation of it, did not appear to fit the facts. An inhabitant of the boat type of serial universe would be able to influence what happened to other boats following his by advising their occupants of things he knew but they had not encountered yet, but nothing he did could ever alterhissituation, which would have resulted from events in the universe moving along with him. In other words he wouldn't be able to change his own past. But Murdoch had received the same data as he had later sent. If that data had been perhaps the sequence of a roulette wheel or the result of a horse race, he might well have changed his past very significantly indeed.

He sat back and exhaled a long breath as he relaxed to give his mind a break.

Lee returned from his own realms of thought and looked up. "I don't see that it can be serial."

"No." Murdoch agreed.

There was nothing more to be said about that.

Mrs. Paisley took the sudden burst of conversation as a sign that normal civilities were in order again and glanced around from where she was stacking dishes in the dishwasher. "You're way past your normal time today, Murdoch," she remarked. "The two of ye were late getting to your beds, I'll be bound."

"Well, we had a lot to talk about last night," Murdoch answered. "I guess we must have been up until… oh, I don't know what time. Anyhow, we're still on U.S. time, don't forget."

"Every bit as bad as Sir Charles," she declared. "I'd give you another six months here, and there'd be no telling the two of you apart."

"With my accent? You've got to be kidding."

"It's what goes on inside o' your head I was meaning, not what comes out of it." She closed the dishwasher and began returning unused food to the refrigerator. "And did you sleep well after all the talking, Mr. Walker?"


Page 7

"Fine, thanks. I prefer just Lee."

"I should have guessed you'd be every bit as easygoing as Murdoch," Mrs. Paisley said, nodding. She closed the refrigerator door and stood for a moment looking at the two Americans as if trying to make up her mind about something. Then she moved a step nearer the table and allowed her voice to drop to a lower, almost conspiratorial, note. "There is something I've never really felt I could ask Sir Charles about," she said. Murdoch raised his eyebrows inquiringly. "If you don't mind my being inquisitive, what is it that he's doing down there with all those machines and things?"

"He's making a Frankenstein monster," Murdoch whispered. "What else do people do with strange machines in the basements of old castles?"

"There's many a true word spoken in jest," she murmured, looking doubtful.

"Well, actually he's not."

"I'm very glad to hear it."

"Seriously, he's just using the computers to try and prove some of his mathematical theories. All very academic. Nothing spectacular."

"I see." Mrs. Paisley nodded and seemed satisfied. "I'd have thought that maybe he'd have seen enough o' that kind o' thing in his lifetime. Ah well, I suppose it can become an obsession just like most other things in life." She shook her head and sighed. "And yet it's a strange thing—Robert cannot trust him with the household accounts."

Murdoch spread his arms along the edge of the table and looked across at Lee. "Feel like stretching your legs before we get back to work?"

"That sounds like a good idea."

"Aye, why don't the two of you be getting along," Mrs. Paisley said. "Hamish will be in from the grounds any minute for his cup o' tea."

"Sure. We'll get out of the way," Murdoch said, standing up. "Come on, Lee. I'll show you the rest of the house."

The large room that Murdoch led the way into looked out through the French windows over a stone-railed terrace. There was a small bar at one end, and all around chairs were upended on small tables. Most of the other furnishings were covered by white dustsheets. Lee's footsteps echoed emptily on the bare wooden floor as he followed Murdoch in and stopped to gaze around.

"This part's normally closed down at this time of year," Murdoch said. "It'll be opened up again when the visitors start coming back."

"Visitors?"

"Grandpa keeps himself and the staff to the central part of the house, where we've just come from. The North Wing is practically self-contained. It's got bedrooms, its own kitchen, the lounge here, plus a few other rooms. Grandpa rents it to shooting parties later in the year… and sometimes for small business conferences and stuff like that. We call it the Guest Wing."

"I'd imagine the company does him good," Lee said.

"It sure does. He often gets a lot of his pals staying out here. They have some good times when the Scotch starts flowing."

"That's the stuff you drink, right?"

"Right." Murdoch smiled and walked across to the French windows, opened one of them, and led the way out onto the terrace. The balustrade overlooked an expanse of gardens, lawns, a tennis court, and a summerhouse, all looking neat and trim despite the covering of snow.

"This area was laid out by Grandpa's father," Murdoch said, gesturing. "Colonel James Ross."

"Soldiers in the family too, huh?" Lee asked.

"That's right. He commanded a British Army regiment in France during World War I—Infantry. In World War II he was a cryptographer for Military Intelligence in London. You see, there's the mathematical streak coming out again." The air outside was cool and fresh with the breeze coming down off Ben Moroch's west ridge. The sky had cleared since the previous day, allowing the sun to take the edge from the season's chill. "We can walk back around the outside," Murdoch said. "The door will close itself." They descended from the terrace by a flight of shallow steps at one end and began crunching their way along a gravel path that followed the wall of the building.

"There've been some alterations to this part," Lee commented, looking up as they walked.

"Mostly in the 1960s and 1980s. The estate was managed by a trust while Grandpa was in the States. They ran it as a private hotel and shooting resort, which is how the Guest Wing came to be the way it is. When he came back to Scotland, he more or less left it the way he found it."

They rounded a corner of the Guest Wing and crossed the rear courtyard to reenter the house through the door by the kitchen. The kitchen was now empty except for Maxwell, who was lapping noisily over a dish on the floor and paid no attention to them. They walked on through to the front of the house and met Morna outside the sitting room, who informed them that Charles was in his study and had given the impression that he wanted to be left alone for an hour or so. That meant that they would not be able to run further tests on the machine for a while, since they were not yet familiar with the detailed operating procedures. Charles had, however, told them to feel free to browse through any of the records and notebooks lying around in the lab, and they decided to go down anyway to see what more they could learn.

Fifteen minutes later Lee was lounging against one corner of the desk and studying a listing of one of the system's computer programs, while Murdoch was seated in the operator's chair at the console, replaying again in his mind the sequence of events that had taken place there the previous night. After a while Murdoch said suddenly, "It's not parallel."

Lee looked up. "Huh?"

"It can't be, when you think about it," Murdoch told him. "Grandpa asked me to key in a random character string, right?"

"Right."

"If the structure was parallel, then that instant in time should have formed the branch-point to as many parallel branches as there were possible sequences that I might have typed, which must have been thousands… tens of thousands. According to the idea of parallel universes, all those branches actually exist as different timelines, and we just happen to exist on one of them."

"I think I know what you're going to say," Lee said, straightening up from the desk. "The instruction to send the sequence back would have been carried along every branch from the point they diverged at."

"Exactly!" Murdoch said. "Soevery oneof all the me's who existed onallthe timelines would each have sent his own particular sequence back down his own branch. And all the sequences would have arrived together at the point where the divergence had taken place, that is, the point where we got the hardcopy print. Everything possible would all have come in at the same time."

"You'd have saturated the receiver," Lee said. "It would have given a binary full-house—all ones with no information content at all."

"Right. All the codes would have been scrambled up together. The decoders could never have made sense out of it. But it didn't happen that way. We got one code out, and it turned out to be the right one. Therefore the explanation of parallel universes doesn't hold up."

Lee tossed the papers he had been reading down on the desk and paced slowly across the lab, rubbing his brow thoughtfully with his knuckle and frowning. Then he about-faced and returned back to where Murdoch was sitting.

"So it isn't serial and it isn't parallel," he said. "There wasn't anything else, so what the hell is it?"

"I don't know." Murdoch propped his elbows on the armrests of the chair and swiveled it absently from side to side, his fingers interlaced across his chest. "Let's go through the whole thing again, step by step," he said after a while. He swung back to face the console and swept his eyes over it, as if the act of seeing it again might aid his memory.

Lee perched himself back on the edge of the desk. "It worked okay until you decided you were going to try to fool it," he said. "You were going to wait for a signal to come in and then not send it when you were supposed to. We waited for a long time, and nothing happened."

"Right. But we did get a signal without any problem the time before that, in the demo we got from Grandpa when we first came in. We didn't think of trying to fool it that time because we didn't know what was going on. So what was the difference?"

"You just said it," Lee replied. "'We didn't know.' Somehow that in itself was enough to change what happened afterward." Murdoch nodded. Lee thought for a moment, then went on, "Maybe that's not so strange. Present intentions affect future actions all the time. You decided you weren't going to send anything, and sure enough nothing got sent. So we never received anything. The future you was simply not doing what the earlier you had decided not to do. So far it makes sense."

"So far," Murdoch agreed. "But then something did come in, so evidently the future me changed his mind. The message said MURDOC, so I assume it was from a 'me' somewhere, and from the look of it a me who was a few minutes ahead of that point in time. What would have changed my mind and made me decide to send something after I'd made my mind up not to?"

A brief silence descended. Lee straightened up, walked slowly across to the storage rack by the door, and stood toying idly with a section of waveguide that was lying in a cardboard box. Then he turned to face back across the room.

"You hadn't made your mind up not to sendanything," he pointed out. "You'd only made your mind up not to send whatever came in. So let's assume that the future you who sent MURDOC had also decided the same thing. And since there's no reason not to, let's also assume that he stuck to it. That means he couldn't have received any signal that said MURDOC in his past, because if he had he wouldn't have sent it. But obviously he did send it. So the question is: What made him send that signal back on the spur of the moment, at a time when he hadn't received anything at all?"

"I shouldn't have to ask that question because I ought to know the answer," Murdoch replied. "A few minutes after I received that signal, I should have become him. But I never was him because I never sent it." He sighed with exasperation and pivoted the chair through a full circle.

Lee waited until they were facing one another again. "Well, let's imagine first for the sake of argument that you did become him," he suggested. "What were you thinking of a few minutes before that signal came in?"

Murdoch sat back and covered his eyes with his hand as he tried to cast his mind back to the previous night. "Let me see now… I'd been waiting for a signal to come in. When it came, I wasn't going to send it. We waited… Nothing happened. We've been through that. What then? … " His face screwed itself into a frown as he thought. Lee watched and waited in silence. Then Murdoch went on, "After a while I was starting to get fed up with waiting. I was looking at the screen here and seeing the time-axis empty with nothing on it. I started wondering… " Murdoch's voice trailed away for a second. Then he looked up sharply. "Hey! I wondered what would happen if I decided to send a signal back to a point that was already recorded as having had no signal coming in. I thought maybe I'd try fooling it that way instead, since the other way didn't seem to be getting us anywhere."

"And the you that sent the MURDOC signal would have existed at just about the time that you were thinking that," Lee said, an undertone of excitement creeping into his voice. "So perhaps he was thinking the same thing. Only maybe he did send something. And maybe that was what we received a few minutes earlier."

"So what happened to him?" Murdoch objected. "Where is he right now?"

"You could ask the same question about all the other you's who sent all the other garbage you never sent."

"Okay, I'll ask it. What happened to all the other me's who sent all the other garbage I never sent, and where are they right now?"

"Well, if you don't know, what am I supposed to say?" Lee said. He spread his arms wide, then folded them across his chest and rocked back on his heels until he was propped against the door.

"Okay then, let's go back to the me that was me," Murdoch said. "I was getting fed up waiting, and I was thinking of sending a signal back anyway, but I hadn't got to the point of actually doing it. Then suddenly the signal that said MURDOC came in, which changed everything. At that point I forgot all about what I'd been thinking, and went back to what I'd made my mind up about in the first place: not to send any signal that came in, when the time came to send it. A signal had come in; I wasn't going to send it."

"And sure enough, you didn't."

"And we couldn't understand it."

"And a little while later, others started coming in. What were you thinking then?"

"I'm not sure," Murdoch confessed. "I think I was too confused to think of anything. Then the garbage started coming out of the sky. The next thing I remember is noticing the gaps, and wondering what would happen if I sent a signal back into one of them." An intrigued look appeared on his face. He pulled himself upright in the chair suddenly. "Say… that's the same situation that we've just been through. In another minute or less I'd have been at the point of trying it."

"Which is precisely where all the garbage was coming from," Lee pointed out.

Murdoch became visibly excited. "And it did look as if whoever sent all that stuff had thought exactly that. Think of some of the signals that came in—GAPFIL, FILGAP—things like that. See, they're just the sort of mnemonics you'd pick if you were trying to do what I'd started thinking of doing. Whoever sent those signals must have seen gaps just like I did, and had the same idea."

"And they succeeded," Lee said, nodding. "But they couldn't have known they were succeeding. If they'd known, they wouldn't have kept on doing it over and over."

"And that means none of them could ever have been me," Murdoch said. "Otherwise they'd have remembered seeing what I saw." He slumped back in the chair again and threw out his empty palms. "Which gets us back to the original question: Who were they and where are they right now?"

Another silence ensued.

"I don't know," Lee said at last. "But it has to have something to do with trying to set up paradox situations, which is what you were doing. When you played it straight, everything worked okay; when you, or somebody somewhere, started trying to fool the system, that was when weird things started happening. That was the only thing that could have made a difference."


Page 8

"We got results though," Murdoch said. "The problem is they don't make sense."

Lee unfolded his arms and walked back to the console. He stared at the empty screen for a while. "Then perhaps it's our ideas of what makes sense that need revising. After all, what we call common sense is based on the obvious fact that causes always come first and effects later. But this machine says that things no longer have to be that way. Therefore they can violate what we call common sense. We've always called anything that did that crazy." He clamped his hand around the top corner of the console panel and wheeled to face Murdoch. "Which seems, Doc, to lead us to the conclusion that, whatever the explanation turns out to be when we get to the bottom of it, it's gonna have to seem pretty crazy."

Chapter 6Prologue1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738Epilogue

Edward Cartland returned shortly after lunch. Murdoch, Lee, and Charles were discussing further thoughts on the previous night's developments when a squeal of brakes sounded from the forecourt outside the window, and was followed by a clattering of running footsteps, first on gravel then on stone stairs, which terminated in the booming of the front doors being thrown open. Blurred snatches of a man's excited voice came from inside the house and were answered by a few high-pitched syllables that could only have been uttered by Morna. The hurried footsteps sounded again, became suddenly hollow as they moved from carpet to wooden floor, and grew louder. A second later the library door burst open, and Cartland hurtled through.

"What's happened?" he demanded at once, apparently speaking to nobody in particular. "What's it done?" He jerked his head around to take in the room and singled out Charles. "You said it works, Charles. What? What works? Is it still working now?"

Charles stood up and made vague slapping motions in the air with his hand until the stream of words stopped. "Och, calm down, Ted, for God's sake," he said. "Aye, it works. We'll show it to you right away. Now say hello to Murdoch and Lee."

Cartland's manner changed abruptly. He turned toward where Murdoch was rising to his feet, seized his hand, and began pumping it vigorously. "Murdoch! How are you, old boy? Delighted to see you again. Sorry about my appalling manners and all that. We don't get to see time machines working every day, you know."

"Hi, Ted," Murdoch said, grinning. "You haven't changed. This is Lee, my partner from California."

Lee stuck out a hand, and Cartland repeated the performance.

"Lee Walker, isn't it? I've heard all about you. Delighted. I've worked with all kinds of Americans in my time. Great bunch! Where are you from originally?"

"Japan."

"Good Lord!" Cartland blinked in surprise, then shifted his gaze back to Charles. "Charles, what's happened then? I've driven all the way from bloody Manchester on manual. Nearly broke my neck a dozen times. What's it done?"

Charles sighed. "Oh dear, it's obvious that we're not going to get any sense out o' you until you've seen for yourself," he said. "Come on then. Let's go down to the lab and get on with the demonstration." With that he led the way out of the library with Cartland tagging immediately behind. Lee caught Murdoch's eye for an instant as they turned to follow and frowned quizzically. Murdoch shrugged and returned a faint grin.

Cartland was in his early forties, athletically built, and had dark, slightly wavy hair that was just beginning to recede at the temples. He wore open-necked shirts around the house, usually with a sweater or a sports jacket, but never went out without a necktie. With his distinctive upper-crust English accent, neatly clipped moustache, and unfailing—at times almost schoolboyish—exuberance the man could never, Murdoch thought, have been anything but a former British military officer. He was the kind of person that Murdoch sometimes imagined Colonel James having been when at a comparable age in the 1920s. That had been almost a century before; however some traditions still changed only slowly.

In the lab, Charles began with a repeat-performance of the previous night's demonstration and obtained a similar result, this time with Cartland as the operator. Cartland was almost as amazed as Murdoch had been, despite his having virtually built the machine, and soon followed the same line of thought as Murdoch had by trying to fool the system with paradoxes. After about half an hour, a pattern essentially the same as that of the previous evening had established itself. At that point Cartland declared himself to be completely baffled. A discussion followed in which Murdoch and Lee expounded again the thoughts they had been developing since breakfast. Charles said little, evidently reserving an opinion until more hard data had been gathered. Eventually they ended up with Cartland shaking his head at the screen and looking nonplussed, Charles sitting at the desk beside him, and the other two standing behind.

"Well, this won't do," Cartland said. "We could talk about it all day, but it won't tell us any more. We're still no nearer getting to the bottom of it."

"What do you suggest?" Murdoch asked.

"I'm not sure really." Cartland frowned and rubbed his moustache pensively. "It's the human element that's causing all the trouble, isn't it? If we could eliminate that… " He lapsed into silence, then sat up. "I know. Let's do the same thing as we started with, but this time let's automate the process. Then there won't be any possibility of anybody getting clever ideas halfway through and upsetting everything. We'll have the computer handle the whole thing, without any intervention from any of us at all."

"What are you trying to prove?" Murdoch asked.

Cartland had already keyed the system into program-development mode and begun tapping in a header reference. "I don't really know," he replied candidly. "But it's different, isn't it?" The others watched in silence while he set up a simple program that would activate the time transceiver system and run after a delay of two minutes to transmit a random number back thirty seconds.

"Now," Cartland said airily as he added in the final commands. "It's simply not possible for us not to receive anything. The program is running. In two-minutes' time, itwillgenerate a random number and itwillsend that number back thirty seconds. Does everybody agree? That much is programmed in, running, and unchangeable." Charles grunted affirmatively from the chair by the desk. Cartland turned in his seat and glanced up at Murdoch and Lee, standing behind him. They nodded. "Good. Therefore wewillreceive it. And now I'll tell you what I intend to do. After we have received the number, I will enter a command to abort the program. The program will then be unable to generate any number, or transmit it, when the time comes for it to do so." He clapped his hands together and sat back in his chair to wait.

"What's the point?" Lee drawled. "I can tell you right here and now what'll happen: You'll wind up with a number coming in anyhow, despite the fact that you don't send it later. We've already seen it."

"I know," Cartland agreed. "And we keep asking who sent it. Well, we know jolly well we never did, so it's no good asking each other, is it? So what I'm going to do is ask the people who did, or at least who look as if they did."

"Who do you mean?" Murdoch asked.

"Ourselves two minutes ahead in time, of course," Cartland answered. "I shall use the machine to ask them whether or not they sent it. Depending on the answer we get, assuming we get one, we may or may not learn something."

Charles sat back heavily in his chair with a sigh and tugged at his beard. Murdoch and Lee looked at each other despairingly. They had been talking about nothing else all morning and neither of them had seen the solution staring them in the face. Why did it always take somebody else to point out the obvious? Before either of them could say anything, something happened on the screen in front of Cartland, who leaned forward to peer at it for a moment, and then announced briskly, "Here's our number, 419725. Jolly good. As things stand right now, this number will be transmitted in just under thirty-seconds' time. Everyone agreed? Right." He rubbed his hands together like a concert pianist about to begin playing and then leaned back over the touchboard. "Now let's tell this fellow to abort its program." He hammered in a rapid sequence of symbols, glanced up at the screen, and sat back with a satisfied nod. "There," he announced. "The program's on its back with all four legs sticking in the air, dead as a dodo. How long have we got to go? About twenty seconds. Okay, we'll see if you were right, Lee."

They waited in silence while the twenty seconds passed. At the end of that period nothing had changed; no signal had been sent.

"There," Cartland said. "Just as we expected. Now when that number came in two minutes ago, it was tagged as having been sent from two minutes ahead of where we were then, which is right now. But clearly we're not sending anything. So what I want to do now is send a signal to two minutesaheadof where we are right now, and ask whoever picks up the phone if they know anything about it." He turned back to the console and rubbed his hands together again. "At least it might give us some idea of how all these bloody universes of yours are connected together, Murdoch," he added as an afterthought.

"Maybe we shouldn't have to ask the question at all," Murdoch mused half to himself.

"What?" Cartland looked up, puzzled. "Why not?"

"If they were us two minutes before, they'd remember it. They'd already know what question they wanted to ask."

"That's a thought," Cartland agreed. "I wonder—" He broke off suddenly as something happened on the screen. "Just a sec, something else is coming in. It'stwoframes, one behind the other. They say… " His voice faltered as he stared hard, seemingly having trouble believing his eyes. He blinked and shook his head. "They say, 419725 and, NOT US." Cartland slumped back in his chair and finished weakly, "My God, how extraordinary!"

Charles was already on his feet and bending forward to peer at the screen. Murdoch and Lee stared incredulously over Cartland's shoulder.

"You were right, Murdoch," Charles breathed. "They remember thinking exactly what we are thinking at this very moment. They must exist on the timeline that extends forward from where we are now."

"Or one of them," Lee commented.

"They received the same number," Murdoch said in an awed voice. "That was why they sent it as the first frame: to identify themselves as existing in this universe and not in some other one where some other number might have got sent. But they didn't send it either. They knew the question we were asking, and they've answered it."

Cartland sat hunched at the console, drumming his fingers on the edge of the panel in vexation and exasperation. "So who did send the f… f… faffing thing?" he demanded. "This is getting ridiculous. It's insane. It… What?… " More frames appeared in rapid succession on the screen below the two that were already being displayed. They read:

WEJUSTBROKEJARCAREFL

"What the blazes?" Cartland said, and then threw up his hands in helplessness. Charles shook his head slowly from side to side and sank back into his chair, while Murdoch's mind took a short vacation from the effort of trying to think.

Lee froze.

The words on the screen had triggered something. They meant something to some deep-down part of his mind, a part of his mind that knew something that hadn't yet filtered through to conscious awareness. Without moving a muscle, he scanned methodically through the information being registered by his senses.

He was half-leaning over Cartland's shoulder with his left hand gripping the backrest of the chair. His right arm was draped loosely across the top of the metal cubicle beside him, resting on a couple of plastic binders and some assorted papers. His hand was open with the fingers loose and relaxed.

Fingers… Fingers…Fingertips! 

He started to tense involuntarily, but at the same instant summoned up an effort of will to force his hand to remain motionless. Then he became aware for the first time that his fingertips were just touching something smooth and cold. He turned his eyes and, very slowly, inched his head round.

His fingers were resting against a glass jar half filled with cleaning fluid. Unknowingly he had been pushing the jar away from him, and already its base was partly off the top of the cubicle and protruding into thin air. It was so delicately balanced that a settling fly would have been enough to send it to the floor. Lee didn't dare even to pull his hand back for fear of the vibration such a movement might cause.

"Doc," he whispered, "turn around, slo-owly." Murdoch frowned and moved his head; Lee moved his eyes to indicate his predicament. Murdoch nodded, reached out carefully with his arm, and lifted the jar out of harm's way. Lee emitted a long sigh of relief and pulled his hand back. Charles, who had seen the whole thing, was staring wide-eyed with astonishment.

"What's going on?" Cartland was looking from side to side and behind with rapid, inquisitive movements of his head. "What are you lot doing back there?"

"Where did those frames come from?" Charles asked him, ignoring the question.

"Four minutes ahead," Cartland replied. "They seem to be saying something about somebody breaking a jar or something. Why? What's going on?"


Page 9

"It almost happened," Charles whispered. "Lee was on the verge of knocking a jar off the cabinet, which I shouldn't have left up there in the first place." He swallowed hard as the meaning of what had happened began to sink in, and then went on in a halting voice, "There was a universe, four minutes ahead of ours, in which itdidget broken. Whoever sent that message back was trying to find out if he could alter his past. And he did!"

Cartland blinked and thought for a few seconds. "Good grief," he conceded. Only an Englishman could have uttered the remark with that preciseness of tone that qualified it as a suitable response to any event from the whole spectrum of the unexpected; said in just that way, it could equally have attended the discovery of a fly in one's soup or have greeted the news that the Moon had just fallen into the Atlantic.

"Not necessarily," Lee said in reply to Charles. "He might have alteredourpresent andourfuture. That doesn't prove anything abouthispast. He might still be standing there looking at a heap of broken glass."

"You're right," Charles admitted. "It could still be serial. I don't think we've done enough to be able to dismiss that possibility entirely."

"There's one easy way to find out," Murdoch suggested. "Call up four minutes ahead of now and ask him."

Cartland looked up sharply, seemed about to say something, then shrugged and turned back to the console. There was nothing more to say. While the others watched, he composed the signal, DIDJAR, followed by a second, BREAK. Then he set the transmission routine to aim the first four minutes ahead and the second to come in an instant later, and pressed a key to execute it. He had barely finished when three new frames came in: NO, followed by, CANTBE, and SERIAL.

"It's from four minutes ahead," Cartland told them. His voice was almost matter-of-fact; he was by now beyond being able to express surprise at anything.

"He knew what we were thinking again," Murdoch said. "Our signal didn't say anything about serial. And the first frame says, NO. The jar in the universe four minutes ahead of us isn't broken. So whose jar did get broken?"

"This is absurd," Cartland declared. "It could only have been in whatever universe is four minutes ahead of us, yet somebody in that universe has just told us that it wasn't."

"Not quite," Lee said, glancing at the clock-readout on the console panel. "A universe that's now one minute behind us asked one that's now three minutes ahead. We're partway between changing from one into the other… if you see what I mean. Maybe that affects it somehow."

"Oh, Christ," Cartland moaned miserably.

"In that case, three minutes from now we'll be at the point where the broken jar is supposed to have existed," Charles said. "I'm going to assume that it will still be intact, because it looks fairly safe to me up there where Murdoch put it. Anyhow, we'll know for sure if I'm right in a few minutes' time. So what will that tell us?" He looked from one to the other to invite a reply. Nobody offered anything. "It will mean that the event has not taken place in our universe at the time it was said to have taken place, and we already know that it never took place in the only other universe it could have occurred in—the one that is four minutes ahead of us. That seems to me to say that it never took placeanywhere!" 

"But it did," Murdoch protested. "Look, it's right there on the screen. It happened… unless that message is false, but why should it be? Why would we want to mislead ourselves? Where are the pieces, right now, of that jar that got broken?"

"I don't know," Charles said slowly. "But the only conclusion I can draw from what I've seen is that they no longer exist anywhere." He paused. A complete silence enveloped the room as three stunned faces stared back at him. "The event," he went on, "appears to have been completely eradicated in some way. Have you considered the possibility that whoever sent that message succeeded in changing his own past, and in doing so, he somehowerasedthe universe in which he existed?" He paused again to allow what he was saying time to sink in, and then nodded soberly at the others. "Aye. There's a thought to keep you all sleepless for a few nights. Perhaps he does not exist anywhere at all, and that's why you're not having much luck in trying to talk to him."

Nobody spoke for a while. Then Murdoch turned his head toward Lee. "You did say it would sound crazy once we started getting into it."

Lee took a long breath. "Yeah, but I never meant as crazy as this. In fact it's so crazy, it just might be true."

At that instant two signal-frames appeared on the screen. They were Cartland's own questions from four minutes ago. "Somebody back there has just received a warning about a jar," Cartland announced shakily. "He wants to know if ours broke."

"Tell him," Charles advised. "Play it straight. Let's have no more fooling around with this until we've a far better idea of what we're doing." Cartland typed in NO as a reply, and followed it with CANTBE, and SERIAL. Then he entered the appropriate timing commands and sent the three signals.

"You're right," Cartland said. "Let's leave the mucking around with paradoxes until later."

"Then switch the machine off now," Charles said. "Before we get too clever and manage to erase ourselves. And let's have no more meddling with it at all until we've given ourselves plenty of time to think about what we've seen today, and where we go from here."

The others agreed that Charles was right. They also decided to force adherence to his ruling by taking the machine out of service for a while. Cartland had been to Manchester to supervise final testing of components he had ordered some months previously, designed to enhance the machine's performance. First, they would enable larger blocks of information to be transmitted than the current limit of six characters at a time; second, they would increase the range from ten minutes to something on the order of a day. Cartland estimated that he would need seven to ten days to install them and test the modifications. The best time to do all this would be at once, which everybody accepted somewhat reluctantly. Then there would be no opportunity for yielding to flashes of inspiration or trying out premature ideas for probably over a week. By that time, they hoped, they would have recovered sufficiently from their initial intoxication to think rationally.

As they were leaving the lab at the end of the afternoon, Murdoch turned to Charles and said jokingly, "What we ought to do is take the range up to a day right now. Then we'd be able to ask ourselves tomorrow what we'd decided to do. It'd save us all the hassle of having to figure it out from scratch."

"That's precisely the kind of monkeying around I want to make damn certain we steer clear of until we know what the hell we're doing," Charles told him darkly.

Chapter 7Prologue1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738Epilogue

"Do you remember Lizzie Muir, Murdoch?" Charles asked. "We said hello to her in Edinburgh last time you were over… at that conference on plasma dynamics or whatever it was. Quite an attractive woman for her age… getting on for around fifty or so."

"The physicist?" Murdoch said. "Something to do with the big fusion plant up on the coast. Burg-something… Burghead, wasn't it?"

"Aye, Burghead. That's her. I think I'd like to bring her in on what we're doing here. She's done a lot of work on the kinds of things we were talking about this afternoon. I've known her for years. She's not the type who'd go blabbing her mouth off about it if we asked her to keep it under her hat for a while. Besides, she could be a big help."

They were sitting with Lee and Cartland in a relaxed semicircle around the fire in the drawing room. It was late evening, a few days after the incident of the almost-broken jar. Since then Cartland had been fitting and testing the new components that he had brought back from Manchester, while Lee had worked with him on modifying the computer programs; Murdoch had been spending most of his time with Charles, reexamining the mathematical side of things.

"What's Burghead?" Lee asked. He was sprawled full-length in the chair next to Murdoch, watching Maxwell turning somersaults over his feet in frenzied attempts to untie his shoelace. "Wasn't there something in the news a few months ago in the States about it?"

"It's on the Moray Firth about forty miles north of here," Murdoch replied. "Big industrial complex, mainly petrochemicals, hydrogen electrolysis, and power generation. The news items were about the fusion plant they've been building there for the last few years—it's the world's biggest heavy-ion inertial system."

"Working yet?" Lee asked, evidently interested.

"Not yet," Charles supplied. "I think they're still testing parts of it. The last I heard was that it should go on-line sometime in the summer."

"Seems a way-out place to build a fusion plant," Lee remarked.

Cartland looked up from knocking the bowl of his pipe into an ashtray resting on the arm of his chair. "Don't judge the whole of Scotland by this part of it," he said. "The northeast was a boom area in the eighties with the off-shore oil. That was when all the refineries and petrochemicals sprang up, along with a few new generating plants to power it all—oil-fired, naturally. Then they found out that oil wasn't going to last as long as they'd thought it would."

"Hence the fusion plant," Murdoch said.

"Makes sense, I guess," Lee agreed.

"The fusion plant itself is the result of a collaborative European effort," Charles told him. "It was funded and built by the European Fusion Consortium. You probably know about it. It includes the British, French, Germans, Italians… aw, and a few more. Lizzie Muir was in on all that when it was being planned and set up. She worked on fusion in Europe before the Consortium was formed."

"So how did you get to know her?" Murdoch asked. "Bump into her at a conference somewhere?"

"Och, no. I've known her from way back when I was in America. I was her tutor for a while at Stanford."

"You're kidding."

"I am not. It was in the eighties, just after your father moved from New York to California… around the time you were born, in fact. She'd got her doctorate at Edinburgh and come over to Stanford on a research fellowship." Charles stared into the fire and stroked his beard absently as he thought back. "Aye… That was where she met her husband, Herman… German chappie. They're still together… Live in a nice place just outside Elgin, up on the river Lossie." His eyes twinkled faintly about something, but he said nothing more.

"I must get Herman out on a golf course when this wretched weather clears up," Cartland murmured. "We've been saying we'll have a round some day ever since I came here, and we still haven't done anything about it."

Charles nodded abruptly to himself as if he had just made up his mind about something. "That's what we'll do," he declared. "We'll ask Lizzie to come down here for a day or two; there'll be lots to talk about." He looked across at Cartland. "She'll not believe any of it until she sees it for herself. When do you think we'll have the machine running again?"

"It's going slowly, but we're getting there," Cartland said. "Lee's a big help. He must have learned to talk in binary before English."

"What do you say then?" Charles asked. "Next Thursday perhaps?"

"Make it Friday," Cartland suggested. "Then she can stay on for the weekend if she wants to. It'll give us an extra day too."

"I'll call her right away then," Charles said. He leaned across the arm of his chair and lifted an ancient sound-only telephone from the lowermost of the bookshelves by the fireplace.

Lee raised his eyebrows in surprise. "No pictures? I didn't think anybody still used those."

Charles glanced up at him as he tapped the word MUIR into the array of miniature touchpads on the instrument and held the handset to his ear. "Have you ever had to answer one of those damn vi-sets when you were in your bathtub?" he asked.

"No problem," Lee said, shrugging. "You just cut the video. It's—"

Charles held up a hand for quiet as somebody came on the line. "Hello," Charles called into the phone. "Is that you, Lizzie?… Charlie Ross… Fine, of course. And how are Herman and the family?… Good… Really?… That's wonderful. Look, I—... Yes… Yes… Good ..." He clapped his hand over the mouthpiece and muttered something while he raised his eyes momentarily toward the ceiling. The sound of indistinct chattering continued to come from the earpiece. Suddenly he said in a stronger voice, "Och, will ye stop witterin', woman. I've something important to tell ye." Murdoch grinned. Lee shifted his feet and winced audibly as Maxwell clung on through his sock. "Liz, how would you like to come down to Storbannon and spend a day or two with us? Ted and I have made some progress on the work we've been doing here. I'd like you to see it. I think you'd find it rather interesting… Oh, not now. It'd take far too long. That's why I'd like you to come down… I thought maybe next Friday… No,nextFriday. You could stay over until the Saturday perhaps… Yes… I told you. I think you'll find it interesting… Very… Aye, I do… Well, go and see what he says then." Charles looked up at the faces listening around him. "Gone to ask Herman," he explained.


Page 10

"What does Herman do?" Lee asked Murdoch.

"I don't know," Murdoch said. "I've never met him."

"He used to develop computer algorithms," Cartland said. "Now he writes books about it. You'd get along fine with him, Lee."

"Will he be coming here too?" Lee asked.

Cartland shook his head. "Shouldn't think so. He was in the middle of another book last time I spoke to him. He gets a bit antisocial at times like that. Elizabeth told me once she thinks he's going to write a book one day calledHow to Lose Friends and Not Be Influenced by People."Then Charles began talking into the phone again.

"It's all right, is it? Good… glad to get rid of you, is he? I see… " He chuckled at something. "You tell him from me that I'm way past being interested in any o' that nonsense… Disappointed be damned! Oh, and there's something else. We've got a couple of visitors here with us. Do you remember my grandson who I introduced you to in Edinburgh once?… Aye, Murdoch. He's over again. He's got a friend with him this time, the one I told you about… Yes." Charles looked up at Lee unconsciously as he listened to something. "Oh, a big chappie with red hair… " He frowned suddenly and raised his voice. "He's just another American. God damn it woman, what else do you want me to say? He's sitting right here… I know you're only teasing… I amnotgetting huffy… Nonsense… Very good. So we'll see you next Friday. Around noon it is then, for lunch."

"Regards," Cartland sang out.

"Ted sends his regards," Charles repeated. "Aye, to Herman too. Tell him he's welcome if he changes his mind and feels like a break… Well, you never know… You too, Lizzie. Bye now." He replaced the telephone on the bookshelf with a sigh.

"Some woman," Lee commented.

"Oh, that's just her way," Charles said. "She likes to tease a little now and then, but she's not so bad at all really. She has a good head on her shoulders, and that's what matters."

Suddenly the stand, coal tongs, shovel, brush, and poker that formed the hearth set collapsed with a loud metallic crash. Maxwell streaked out from underneath the heap of wreckage, dashed under the nearest armchair, and about-faced to survey his latest accomplishment. Charles looked on dourly as Murdoch leaned forward to pick up the pieces. After a few seconds he stroked his beard thoughtfully and said, "Do you think, Ted, that when you've got the machine up and running, we could find a way of erasing that animal into some other poor, unsuspecting universe?"

Chapter 8Prologue1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738Epilogue

By the time they sat down to dinner, early in the evening of the Friday just over a week later, Elizabeth Muir appeared to have recovered from the shock of having a lifetime's unquestioned beliefs demolished before her eyes. The notion of being able to send information or any type of causal influence backward through time was something that she, as a physicist, had always dismissed out of hand. The whole of physics was based on the observation that causes never worked backward. If causality reversal was allowed, physics couldn't work. That physics did work said causality reversal was a myth. Therefore it could never be demonstrated. In the course of the afternoon, she had been obliged to rethink a lot of her convictions. She was still a long way from having answers to the things she had seen, but at least it no longer showed so much.

The meal was served in what had once been part of the banquet hall of the original manor house, which had since been partitioned off to form the less spacious but more serviceable formal dining room. It was a high-ceilinged, stately room with walls paneled in dark oak that extended to its hammer-beam roof, affording a suitably dignified setting for the cut glass and gleaming silver that had been laid out for the occasion. Forty-odd years of living in America had made not one scrap of difference to the habits that Charles had formed in his youth, and he appeared in a dinner jacket with black tie; the others conceded as far as dark, conventional ties with white shirts. Elizabeth, knowing Charles's whims, wore a long, satiny, purple dress that she had brought for evening wear.

Murdoch had met her only briefly during his last visit to Scotland, and his recollection of her had been vague, but in the course of the afternoon he had come to appreciate what Charles had meant when he described her as attractive for her age. Her hair was neatly styled in waves that held just a hint of orange, and her figure, though thickening slightly at the hips and bust, would not have dismayed a girl twenty years her junior. But what made her attractive had nothing to do with things physical; it was more her composure, and the elegant way in which she managed to speak and carry herself. Many women try vainly to cling to youth and glamor until long past the years when the effort becomes self-defeating; others, like Elizabeth, draw more from life than life can draw from them and learn how to work with nature, allowing girlish good looks to give way to something more subtle and far more enduring. Such women mature gracefully, but they never grow old. If he ever did get married, Murdoch couldn't help thinking as he watched Elizabeth across the dinner table, he hoped it would be to a wife about whom he would be able to think the same things when she was about to enter her second half-century.

For propriety's sake the conversation made token reference to such things as where Lee was from and what he had done, the progress of the trials at Burghead, and Charles's experiences in America; but the events of the afternoon were bubbling too near the surface to be contained for long. Soon Elizabeth was describing the aspect of her own work that had led Charles to suppose that she might have something of value to contribute to the task ahead.

"When I was working in France, I was part of a group looking into theories of entropy states and the general thermodynamics of plasmas. The natural rate of entropy increase in a closed system defines the flow of what is perceived as time. We were trying to develop a better insight to the synchronization between apparently uncoupled systems, in other words to explain how time manages to flow at the same rate in different parts of the universe; for example, how does a nuclear reaction inside a star 'know' how fast the same reaction is taking place inside another star or perhaps in a laboratory? Why do they all keep in step? It seemed to us that there was something that had simply been accepted as fact and taken for granted for too long." She paused to pick up her knife and fork to resume eating.

Cartland nodded from the other side of the table. "I met a couple of chaps when I was in Hamburg a few years ago who said they were mixed up in something very similar," he said. "They were from the big physics research institute there. Otto… Gauerlick, or something like that, one of them was. Can't remember the other. Ever hear of him?"

"Otto Gauerlicht!" Elizabeth exclaimed delightedly. "Yes, from the Wien Institute. He worked with us for a while before the Consortium was formed. How on earth did you come to meet him?"

"It was just before I left the RAF," Cartland replied. "I did quite a bit of touring around Europe… liaison on spacecraft designs and so on. I got to know Otto through somebody at Farben who worked on propellants. Amazing, isn't it."

"The world gets tinier," Elizabeth agreed. "Anyway, where was I? To cut a long story short, we ended up by deriving a set of mathematical expressions that interrelated entropy functions, quantum energy-states, and spacetime coordinates of quantum events. In particular, certain variables that could be interpreted as time and energy turned out to be covariant."

"You mean there was some kind of equivalence relationship?" Lee asked, sounding surprised.

"Not quite," Elizabeth answered. "But you could almost think of it that way. It meant that the universe could be represented by an ensemble of 'events,' each characterized by a set of energy states and spacetime numbers; nothing more. And in such a representation of the universe, conservation of mass-energy did not hold; it was replaced by a conservation of the product of that quantity with spacetime. By means of mathematical transforms, it was possible to transform one universe into another in which either quantity varied inversely with the other. If you made all the spatial variables constant, the spacetime functions reduced to pure time; so you could transform energy to time or vice versa. We had no idea what that meant, but it was fun playing games with the equations."

"You're kidding," Lee said. "I've never heard of anything like that. They don't seem similar in any respect at all. There just isn't anything in common."

"That was why I said it wasn't really correct to call it an equivalence relationship," Elizabeth said. "What it seemed to say was that energy could be extracted from the universe, which is where conventional conservation breaks down, and injected into another version of that universe in which the time coordinates of all the 'events' were shifted by some amount. The more energy you transformed, the greater the time-shift would be." She looked around the table and shook her head in wonder. "If that was interpreted as taking place within the same universe, it seemed to say that energy could be transferred through time. We couldn't see any physical significance in it at all, and dismissed the whole thing as a theoretical curiosity like tachyons and negative mass. And that's what I've always believed—until I saw the machine downstairs."

"Elizabeth showed me some of the mathematics a while ago," Charles commented. "I realized then that some of the expressions could be identified with parts of my own work. That was why I thought she'd be rather interested in what we're doing."

"Rather interested?"Elizabeth echoed. "Charles, that must be the biggest understatement to date in this century. I'm overwhelmed, fascinated… completely hooked, to use our guests' parlance. In fact I'm even presumptuous enough to assume that I'm part of the team now. I am, aren't I, Charles? You wouldn't keep me in the dark about what happens next now that you've shown me this much. You wouldn't dare."

"Och, you don't have to tell me that at all," Charles replied, raising his eyebrows. "It would be more than my life's worth and I know it." He stopped eating and placed his knife and fork down. His expression at once became more serious. "Of course you're part of the team now, Liz. I'm certain you could be a big help in making sense out of this whole thing. I'm assuming we'll be seeing a lot more of you down here now, whenever you can find some free time."

"Well, I'm glad we see eye to eye on that, Charlie Ross. You'd have been in trouble if you'd said anything else." Elizabeth paused to give her mood a second or two to adjust to Charles's tone, then went on, "Very well, where do we go from here? What are your thoughts, Charles? Don't tell me you haven't been turning a few speculations over in your head in the last week."

Charles took a sip from his wine glass and nodded at once as if he had been waiting for the question. The others watched him and waited expectantly.

"We must conclude that past and present versions of the universe in which we live exist and are equally real," Charles told them. "We thus have a continuum of some kind. I think we're all agreed that it can't be of the popular infinitely branching, parallel variety; that would introduce too many impossible complications. In any case, it isn't supported by the data we've seen." He looked around to invite comment, but the others just nodded silently. "Neither can it be of the simple serial variety that we considered initially; in such a model it would be impossible to affect the present by manipulating a past, and again our results seem to indicate that this is not the case. The only model I can think of that could be consistent with what we've seen is a more complex serial one in which altering the events in a past universe does affect not only the future of that particular universe as it evolves in time, but also the presents of all the other universes that lie ahead of it. In other words there is some mechanism of causal connection through the continuum that the simple serial model doesn't take account of."

"You mean like with the jar," Lee said. "That one message changed what happened in all the universes involved, not just in the one universe where the message was received."

"Precisely that," Charles confirmed. "To be anywhere near the reality at all, the model will have to possess a mechanism that explains such evident facts." Those at the table became quiet.

After a while Cartland asked, "Any ideas?"

"I think maybe I have," Charles replied. The others looked at him with suddenly renewed interest. "Everything we have discovered so far," he continued, "seems to add up to two things: First, the universe that we see around us and form part of is simply one of many, equally real universes that appear to be strung sequentially along a single timeline; second, events that happen in this universe affect not only its future, but the situations in all the other universes that lie ahead of it. That, of course, suggests a continuity throughout the system; the future universes ahead of us form a progression of states that are evolving from the present state. We need to ask ourselves what the mechanism is that provides that continuity. That same mechanism will turn out to be, unless I'm very much mistaken, the same mechanism that enables events in one universe to alter what happens in another. Obviously we're talking about a causal influence that must be propagated by some means."


Page 11

"Agreed, but I don't think you'll find you have to look very far," Cartland said with a shrug. "The continuity follows from the fact that objects don't suddenly just appear and vanish; they endure in time. So a universe an hour, say, ahead of this one will contain the same objects. They provide the continuity."

"Objects?" Charles repeated in a mildly challenging tone. "A candle, such as the one on the table there? A mayfly? A cigarette? They'll endure in time?"

"Oh, all right," Cartland conceded. "I used the wrong word. Molecules then. Atoms, if you like."

"The candle, the mayfly, and the cigarette are breaking down molecules all the time," Charles pointed out. "And they all contain carbon fourteen; atoms come apart too."

"Oh, you know what I mean, Charles," Cartland said, sounding a little surprised. "Protons, neutrons, and electrons if you like. Or quarks and photons—whatever you'll accept as the basic mass-energy quanta. They don't change."

"They don't," Charles agreed at last. "But they dorearrange.Bundles of them may come together and remain attached for a while to form a tree, and then fall apart again and disperse when the tree dies and decays. But as you say, Ted, the basic entities endure. They rearrange into different patterns to produce the changes that we call time, and they provide the continuity that enables one universe to evolve from another."

"But you said all the universes were equally real," Elizabeth said, looking slightly puzzled. "How can the same quarks and things be in all of them at once?" She thought for a moment, and her expression changed suddenly. "Oh, wait a minute. I think I can see what you're getting at. You're saying that the continuitybetweenuniverses in the time dimension is just as physically real as the spatial continuity inside a universe. Every particle has a real extension in time, just as tangible as its extension in space. Right?"

"Exactly!" Charles declared. "So if you alter the arrangement of particles in one universe, you alter the arrangement of them in all subsequent universes as well by virtue of that continuity." He sat back, sipping his wine, to allow time for the others to reflect on what had been said. Eventually Cartland shook his head and frowned.

"Sorry, old boy, not quite with you," he confessed. "Are you saying that the whole universe is just a part of some bigger continuum, and that things like particles somehow extend right through the whole thing? The objects we see are only really parts of what they are completely?"

"Yes," Charles replied. He pointed toward the center of the table. "That candle there has burned about a quarter of the way down, but in the universe that's an hour or so behind us, it's still intact; in a universe that's a few hours ahead, it probably doesn't exist as such at all. The whole candle is the sum of all those, and all the points between. But all we see is the part of it that exists in the particular universe that we happen to be part of. The 'real' candle is all of them put together."

"I hear what you're saying," Cartland murmured slowly. "It's a bit difficult to visualize though."

"Try thinking of a two-dimensional analogy," Murdoch suggested. "Imagine that the universe is flat, and that everything it contains is flat. It's a plane, okay? Now form a solid continuum by stacking an infinite number of zero-thickness planes like that together, like the pages of an infinitely thick book. Every page is a universe. The basic particles are ink particles, and they form character shapes, that is, objects. But unlike in an ordinary book, where all the pages are different, the ink particles continue through like 'threads,' so the patterns they form can only change gradually, not abruptly. Also all the pages move together in one direction along the threads as they slide down the entropy slope that Elizabeth talked about earlier. So anybody inside one of those universes, us for example, will see the patterns changing sequentially. That's what he calls time."

"Ah… " Cartland nodded and pulled his moustache. "Yes… I think I can see what you're driving at."

Murdoch thought for a moment, then fished inside the pocket of his jacket and retrieved a piece of paper, which he unfolded. "Here's a sketch I drew when Grandpa and I were talking about it yesterday," he said, smoothing the paper out and placing it in the center of the table. The others leaned forward to look at it more closely except Charles, who continued to drink from his glass.

"That's supposed to be a solid continuum of stacked, two-dimensional universes," Murdoch informed them. "Each universe consists of a space containing objects and inhabitants that are all made up of particles, at least that's what it looks like to you if you happen to live inside one of them. But we, in our privileged position as superobservers looking in from the outside, can see that every particle is really an infinitesimally thin slice of a thread that passes through all the universes. As the universe moves along the threads in some kind of supertime, the particles, or slices, appear to move through space. That gives a visible rate of change that is observed as normal time within the universe."

"You can see there how, to Murdoch's superobserver, all of the universes are equally real," Charles commented. "Only the one that you happen to be part of and moving with gives the illusion of appearing more real to you than the rest."

"So in theory it ought to be possible to send signals from one to another," Lee observed.

"Aye," Charles agreed. "And I maintain that that is exactly what we've managed to do."

Morna and Robert entered at that point to clear the dishes and prepare the table for the next course. The conversation reverted to small-talk for a while, mainly among Murdoch, Charles, and Lee. Cartland picked up Murdoch's sketch and examined it silently while Elizabeth stared thoughtfully at the center of the table.

Cartland looked up just as Morna was about to leave the room behind Robert. "Compliments to Mrs. Paisley," he called out. "Tell her the duck was splendid. Absolutely first-class." A murmur of endorsement rose around him. Morna nodded, smiled, and closed the door. A few seconds elapsed while the former mood around the table reestablished itself.

"Okay," Lee said. "We've explained how they're all real and how they're connected. So what about events in one universe affecting other universes ahead of it? I can see how causal influences can move forward in time and affect the future. That much is everyday experience. But the universe that a cause happens in is moving forward too, so the effects would be observed inside the same universe, which makes sense intuitively. But you sound as if you're saying the causes can run on ahead and get into other universes that lie in front. Am I right?"

Murdoch glanced at Charles, who motioned for him to continue. "That's the way it looks," Murdoch said. "If they only propagated at the same rate as the universes themselves move, then it would be the way you said: The effects of a cause would be permanently trapped inside the same universe that the cause occurred in. But that would give you a simple serial model, and we've already rejected that possibility."

Lee stared at him dubiously for a few seconds, then said, "You mean that the patterns that exist in all the future universes could be rearranged into something different?"

"Yes," Murdoch replied simply.

"Wait a minute, wait a minute," Cartland broke in, raising a hand. "What are we saying now? Is this how the universe in which the jar was broken managed to get itself 'erased,' as Charles put it? Is that what we're into?"

"Yes," Murdoch said again. "A universe existed in which the objects and inhabitants formed by the thread pattern included a broken jar. It broke because of causes that lay behind it, in the past. Then a signal was sent back that eliminated those causes. The pattern from that point onward was re-formed into a new one that represented a different sequence of events."

"What,allof it?" Cartland sounded distinctly skeptical. "Thewholeuniverse? Surely not."

"Not necessarily all of it," Murdoch agreed. "Probably only a small part of the total pattern was altered—the part that corresponded to the fraction of the universe that the lab downstairs represents. I wouldn't think the signal caused any alteration of the threads that made up a fisherman off the coast of Thailand or somewhere and changed anything in his life, or an event that took place in the Andromeda galaxy. But it certainly did alter what happened to us."

"But what about the people in the lab whodidbreak the jar?" Cartland demanded, still looking unhappy. "What happened to them? Where are they now? Do you mean that these threads simply… 'jumped' somehow into a completely new arrangement when the signal was received? The people who broke the jar were simply… 'reset' into us, who didn't?"

"That is just what I mean," Murdoch said, nodding emphatically.

"And we know nothing about it?" Cartland asked disbelievingly. "Surely that's preposterous. Why don't we remember anything connected with the incident?"

"Because our memories consist of circulating electrical currents and certain DNA structures," Murdoch answered. "Electrons and quarks—basic quanta. They are all threads too! So are data bits in computer memories and characters on printout paper.Everythingthat formed any record of the original pattern was reset. Hence our memories are consistent with the new pattern that now exists. On the timeline as it now is no jar was ever broken. Yes, it's preposterous, but it accounts for the facts."

Cartland slumped back in his chair and transferred his gaze to the tablecloth. He had evidently followed what Murdoch had said, but was still having difficulty accepting it. Elizabeth remained very thoughtful and said nothing.

"It accounts for a lot of the other things we've seen too," Charles added after a while, speaking slowly and seriously. "It would explain, for example, how we could receive a signal and then fail to send it later on. A universe existed that contained in a tiny part of itself a couple of inhabitants who had no record of any signal having been received at some point in the past. They sent a signal to that point. In doing so, they rearranged the threads that constituted themselves, their memories, and their instruments into new patterns that did include memories and records of the event. The fact that they failed to send the signal later wouldn't matter at all, since the people who did send the signal would already have ceased to exist as such anyhow."

"And here's a sobering thought," Murdoch added. "Exactly the same mechanism explains why we always see records of other 'selves' in the future who tried aiming signals back at points where they'd never received any, but we never get around to trying the same thing ourselves: If we did, we'd simply join the list of the ones who had been reset."

"Good God!" Cartland exclaimed. "That means we've already been through it—every one of us here at this table."

"Seems that way," Murdoch agreed. He made an effort to keep his voice nonchalant as he spoke, just to enjoy the expression on Cartland's face.

Cartland's eyes widened, and his moustache seemed suddenly to bristle of its own accord. His throat convulsed soundlessly for a moment while he struggled to regain his voice. "Good grief," he managed eventually.

"Obviously this is all very hypothetical at this stage," Charles told them. "The first thing on the priority list is to see if we can devise some way of trying to test the theory more thoroughly."

Lee had been finishing his dessert and listening without interrupting. When a short silence descended, he placed his spoon in his empty dish, looked up, and said, "You're saying it's like an old newspaper picture that's made up out of dots. Let's say they form a picture of Ted. The dots are really the ends of a bundle of wires that has been cut across. The plane of the cut is a universe; Ted exists as part of that universe. Okay?"

"That's a good enough analogy," Murdoch agreed.

Lee nodded. "Fine. Now the threads are suddenly rearranged. We're in the same universe because we're still looking at the same cut, but the ends of the wires now make a picture of Charles, say. Everything in that universe that formed part of Ted is still there, but Ted isn't. And nobody else in it will ever know anything about any Ted ever being there. That it?"

"That's it," Murdoch said. "The mythical superobserver would remember it because he's on the outside and perceives supertime, but nobody inside the continuum would know about it."

"It's the 'suddenly' that bothers me," Lee told them, taking his eyes from Murdoch to look around the whole table. "The cross sections of the wires are material particles. To rearrange their pattern, they have to move perpendicular to the time axis. That means they have to move through space in all of the plane universes they pass through. How could they do that instantaneously? They should still be subject to relativity constraints."

"A good point," Charles agreed, nodding. "We asked the same question. But don't forget that we've never said anything about the process being instantaneous; there could be a finite propagation delay along the continuum that we haven't any data on yet that would enable us to measure it. And there is a theoretical consideration that could turn out to be a way round the problem. You see, the basic entities that constitute the threads may be more fundamental than quarks or photons. If a quark comes apart into something simpler, the attributes that define mass may disappear in the process. Hence you could find that it's possible to decompose mass at one point into components that themselves do not possess mass individually but only when they're combined together, transport those components to some other point without a relativistic restriction, and reconstitute the property of mass there. But that takes us right out on the fringe of the whole business, and there's a lot of work to be done there yet. In fact this is something I'd like to talk to Elizabeth about while she's here." He turned toward her as he spoke. "You haven't been saying very much for a while, Lizzie. What's your opinion?"


Page 12

Elizabeth had been listening intently throughout with her fingers pointed together in front of her mouth and her dessert standing untouched before her. "Opinion on what, Charles?" she asked. "Your last point or the whole business?"

"The whole 'reset model' that we've been discussing," Charles replied.

Elizabeth brought her arms down to her sides and paused for a moment to collect her words. "I think you're on the right track," she said at last. "As you say, that explanation does account for the observed facts, as extraordinary as it sounds, and for the time being at least I'd be completely at a loss to suggest even the beginnings of any alternative. However, there are two things that bother me about it as it stands.

"The first is that the model isstatic,at least if we forget for the moment about being able to send signals up and down the continuum. By that I mean that future events are predefined by the patterns that exist in the threads. The future is already determined but unknown, and is just waiting to be consciously experienced. There's no scope for human decision, free will, and chance. I don't like that. I believe that those things are real and important."

"I agree," Lee tossed in. "I can't buy that they're just illusions either."

"But I never said that," Charles protested. "Take the incident with the jar. That was something that had every appearance of chance about it, and the event was changed. That says to me very clearly that such things are not permanently and unalterably predetermined."

"I know," Elizabeth said. "But the model doesn't explain it. According to the model you described, that event was always written into the timeline until the signal was sent back to change it, which means that only a machine like yours can alter the thread pattern. So was the whole of human history and evolution before that simply a playing out of a fixed script? I can't believe that, Charles. The model has to show how such things as chance could operate before you built your machine, and at present it doesn't."

"I agree with you," Charles said at once. "And I've no answer to give. What's your second problem?"

"Maybe another way of saying the same thing," Elizabeth said. "The experiment with the jar, for example, seemed to indicate that the people in a particular universe did manage to alter their own past. But the model still doesn't explain that fully; it only half explains it."

"How's that?" Murdoch asked, looking surprised. "I thought we covered it okay."

Elizabeth shook her head. "Let's imagine somebody decides to change something in his past, in other words something he remembers," she said. "So he sends a signal back that resets the timeline and remains imprinted upon the fabric of the new timeline that it creates instead. Because of information contained in the signal, the something that was to be changed is changed, and the new somebody who is formed on that timeline perceives nothing that requires changing. Hence our original premise—that he began by deciding to change something—becomes untenable. So how andwhendid the signal ever come to be sent to begin with? Or to be a little more specific, how did the people who sent the signal about the jar manage not to receive the signal when they were at the time you were at when you received it? Either a signal was or was not received at that time. If it was, why didn't they receive it; if it wasn't, how did you?"

Murdoch swung his head round to look at Charles. Charles thought for a while and nodded slowly. "She's right," he murmured.

"In the model, causes and effects remain as we would normally define them," Elizabeth went on. "But instead of being simply related in sequence along a unidirectional timeline, they exist on a complicated loop that takes place in time. The loop makes the whole thing an impossible situation, at least it does if the loop is postulated as a permanent feature of the model like the threads. It can't be always there, but the model doesn't explain how it can come and go."

"You mean the model needs to be dynamic," Cartland said.

Elizabeth nodded decisively. "Yes, dynamic. That was what I meant when I said I was bothered about it being static as it is." She picked up her spoon at last and looked at Charles before returning her attention to her meal. "As I said, I think you're on the right track. But we need to add something that will give free will and random influences a chance to operate—something that injects anelement of uncertaintyinto the whole process. The loops must be allowed to appear and disappear dynamically."

"Something like a quantum dynamics of spacetime," Murdoch remarked.

"Yes, something very much like that," Elizabeth agreed. "We need to extend quantum uncertainty, or something very like it, throughout the whole continuum of universes. When the model includes that, I think it will be getting extremely close indeed."

Chapter 9Prologue1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738Epilogue

On Saturday morning they ran tests to try out a few ideas that had occurred to Charles. In the course of the experiments they communicated several more times with future versions of themselves who they did not subsequently evolve into. Although these tests were simple in nature and far removed from the rigorous experiments that Charles was planning, they seemed to support the general form of the model discussed over dinner the night before. The experience of witnessing evidence of a small part of the universe being wiped out and re-formed into something else was still strange to say the least, but by lunchtime, such being the adaptability of human nature, it was no longer disconcerting.

The range of the machine had by then been extended to twenty-four hours as Charles and Cartland had predicted, and some of the signals coming in were from well beyond the ten-minute limit that had previously been the maximum. To avoid the possibility of missing anything that might be important, they decided to leave the machine switched on and running permanently, thus establishing an always-open "line" to receive and record automatically anything that the inhabitants of the universes ahead of them in time might have to say. Since the message capacity had also been extended well beyond the previous six-character limit as part of the modifications, there was now room to accommodate significant amounts of information from the mysterious future universes.

Elizabeth decided, without much coercion, to extend her stay until Sunday night. This gave Murdoch and Lee an opportunity to make a trip into Kingussie, the town about fifteen miles away where they had turned off the Perth-Inverness road on their way from Edinburgh, something they had been wanting to do for over a week but had put off. Murdoch had made up a list of things he needed that were not available in the village, and Lee wanted to buy some warmer clothing; he had not taken full account of the Scottish winter before leaving California. After lunch, therefore, they bade farewell for the afternoon and left Charles, Cartland, and Elizabeth to continue yet another seemingly interminable discussion in the library. They stopped in the vestibule just inside the main doors to put on their coats. Fascinating though the work was, the thought of taking a break was nice, and they were in high spirits.

"I can't say I'll be sorry to get out into some fresh air," Murdoch said. "It looks like a nice day for a drive."

"Suits me," Lee agreed.

Murdoch moved ahead and swung open one of the heavy wooden doors. He paused and drew in a deep lungful of air. "Mmm, smells nice and fresh. Blue sky again at last."

"Watch it doesn't give you oxygen poisoning," Lee said, pausing just behind him to light a cigarette. Murdoch grinned and went on down the steps while Lee stood there for a second to draw the cigarette into life in his cupped hand, at the same time holding the door partly open with his elbow. Down near the floor behind him, an inquisitive black-and-white face poked itself from between Charles's overshoes and the umbrella stand. Lee pocketed his lighter and let the door go to close as he began following a few paces behind Murdoch. Maxwell squeezed through the gap just before the door closed and tumbled unsteadily down the steps a few feet behind Lee's heels. The cat reached the car just as the door slammed above its face, and stood in the snow peering up with wide, bewildered eyes.

"All set?" Murdoch asked as Lee settled down in the seat beside him.

"Sure. How will we be for time? I figure maybe I could use a pint of that Scottish beer."

"No problem," Murdoch said as he started the engine. "I've only got a few—" He frowned suddenly. "Hell!"

"What's up?"

"We should have told Mrs. Paisley we might be a bit late. I'd better go back inside and fix it."

"I'll do it." Lee swung himself out of the car and headed back toward the steps, leaving the car door half open. Murdoch sat back to wait, and after a few seconds switched on the radio. The music was enough to mask the scratching noises of Maxwell scrambling in at the bottom of the passenger's door and worming his way under the seat toward the back of the car. A minute later Lee reappeared, climbed in, and closed the door.

"Okay," he said. "She'll leave us some sandwiches."

"Great. Let's go," Murdoch answered.

The car turned out of the forecourt and disappeared into the curve of the driveway, between the snow-crusted trees.

 

Kingussie was a quaint little town straddling what had been the main Perth-to-Inverness road before the opening of the bypass fifteen years before had rescued it from the automobile invasion of the twentieth century. Since then Kingussie had reverted to a picturesque jumble of narrow streets, haphazard buildings, and a few church spires that made a convenient stopping-off place for travelers on the nearby throughway to have a meal, shop for souvenirs, or simply browse along the main street's parade of shopfronts displaying everything from tartan plaids and Scottish woolens to skiing and mountain-climbing equipment.

The main street was busy with Saturday-afternoon shoppers making the best of the fine weather when Murdoch and Lee slowed to a halt just ahead of an empty space in the line of vehicles parked by the sidewalk. Murdoch backed the car into the space and cut the engine.

"They don't exactly have a surplus of parking lots in this town," Lee observed, looking around.

"What would you pull down to make some more?" Murdoch asked him.

"Mmm, okay, point taken. Where to first?"

"Well, if you still want a beer, why don't we do that now. Then we won't have to carry lots of junk all over town. There's a place you'd like just around the corner, all oak beams and stuff. Must be three hundred years old."

"Sounds fine."

Murdoch climbed out into the road and closed the car door. Lee opened the door on the other side, then paused for a moment to check his pockets for the list of things he needed to buy. In a flash, Maxwell slipped out and vanished between the underside of the car and the curb. A few seconds later his nose poked out from behind the rear wheel as he surveyed the strange world of people and movement flowing by in front of him.

There was a lamppost near the edge of the sidewalk just a few feet from where the car was parked. Its base was hexagonal, and a crumpled ball of paper had lodged against one of the corners, carried there by the breeze. The ball of paper fluttered nervously in delicate equilibrium while a trillion molecules of air played thermodynamic roulette to decide the issue. Maxwell watched, his eyes widening slowly. The ball teetered precariously for an instant longer, then broke free from the lamppost and tumbled across the sidewalk.

Maxwell's first pounce missed by an inch. A split-second later he had gathered himself again and was streaking in pursuit after the erratically rolling ball as it veered into the doorway of one of the shops.

Murdoch was halfway around the car when a startled shriek, coinciding with an ear-rending S-Q-U-A-W-K, stopped him dead in his tracks. At the same time Lee, who was just straightening up from closing the door on the other side of the car, spun around. They were just in time to see a girl who was coming out of one of the shops with an armful of packages stumble over something and drop most of the bags. The bundle of fur that disentangled itself from her feet and fled into the crowd was unmistakable.

"Oh, shit!" Murdoch said miserably.

"Jesus, it's Maxwell!" Lee yelled. "He's taken off! Check the damage, Doc. I'll go get him." With that he plunged away into the throng, plowing a swath through the ranks of startled onlookers.

"What is it, Maggie?" a woman wailed in a high-pitched voice to her companion.

"They're Americans, I think" was the reply.

"Och, aye." A man nodded dourly to his wife, as if that adequately explained all.

It had all happened so quickly that the girl was still staring at the wreckage around her feet, and had made no move to recover the bags. Murdoch walked over and squatted down to begin collecting the spilled contents. He groaned inwardly at the sounds of tinkling glass that came from several of the boxes and paper bags, and braced himself for a tirade of abuse from above. But none came. Instead the girl squatted down opposite him and began gathering the rest of the items with calm, unhurried composure.

"Gee, I—I don't know what to say," Murdoch stammered. "We didn't even know he was there. Here, I'll take that. Oh hell, this one sounds like bad news."


Page 13

"It can't be helped," the girl said simply. "Obviously it was nobody's fault. Was that your kitten?"

"Yes, I'm afraid so. He must have hitched a ride. We didn't know he was in the car."

"I do hope I didn't hurt him."

Her voice was as calm and controlled as her manner. It was a rich, melodious voice, carefully cultivated, and her accent was more English than Scottish, Murdoch thought. They straightened up, she holding the rest of the bags and he with his hands full of boxes and burst wrappings. He found himself looking at a face that was a classically oval composition of finely molded features built from lines that were clean and sharp but without any hint of harshness; it was framed by hair that fell in loose, dark waves to her shoulders. Her nose was straight, her mouth full, and her chin just pointed enough to be dainty without losing its softness. And the eyes—looking out from beneath long, dark lashes, which had to be real to suit the rest of the image—were dark, clear, and unwavering. They were infinitely deep, intelligent eyes—the kind that could take on expressions of their own to mirror the thoughts within or, with equal ease, remain aloof and inscrutable. She was dressed in a brown sheepskin coat whose hood was thrown back to reveal fleece inner lining, with matching knee-length boots of suede.

Murdoch realized that he had been staring for what was about to become an impertinently long time. "Oh, he'll be okay," he said. "He's young… Hasn't gotten around to using any of his nine lives yet." He motioned with his head at the items he was holding. "Look, ah… about this mess. Naturally I'll take care of the damage for you. Why don't we get off the street and find someplace where we can take stock."

"You don't have to," she replied. "If I had been looking where I was putting my feet, it would probably never have happened. I think the damage sounds worse than it is. There wasn't really a lot in there that could break."

"It sounded like you had a collection of chandeliers in there to me," Murdoch said dubiously. "Let's check it out anyhow. It'd sure make me feel a lot better."

Her mouth softened into a smile that seemed to come easily and naturally. "Very well. Thank you, that's very considerate." She turned her eyes away to gaze along the street. "What's happened to your friend? I hope he hasn't lost the kitten." As she said this, Lee came back into sight through the crowd, holding a squirming, protesting Maxwell clamped firmly inside the front of his jacket. At the same moment the door of the store opened, and a man came out bearing a worried expression. He was bald except for two patches of thin, gray hair smoothed down above his ears, and was carrying a pair of thick-rimmed spectacles in his hand. His dark suit worn without a topcoat said that he was not a customer; from his age, Murdoch guessed he was probably the store manager.

"That was a terrible piece of bad luck," the man said to them. "I saw the whole thing. Bring everything back inside now, and we'll have a look at what's broken. You weren't even off the premises, so there will be no problem in replacing it. We can always send the stuff back as damaged in transit."

"There's no reason why you should have to do that," Murdoch said. "Just replace whatever needs replacing and let me take care of it." The manager took some of the girl's packages and held the door open with his back as she turned to reenter the store. Lee bundled Maxwell onto the back seat of the car, slammed the door, and joined Murdoch a few steps behind her.

"I guess we're in trouble," Lee said.

"I don't think so," Murdoch told him as they walked over to the counter inside the door. "We seem to have picked a very understanding victim." He dumped the packages he had been holding down on the counter and turned toward the girl. "This is Lee, by the way. I'm Murdoch."

"Anne," she informed them. "I'm pleased to meet you both, even if the circumstances are a little unusual. I gather you're Americans."

"Both from California," Murdoch said.

"It's a strange time of year to visit your family," Anne remarked casually. "Most people would have done it the other way round—winter there and spend the summer in Scotland."

Murdoch's mouth fell open in surprise. "I didn't say anything about any family. How the hell… ?"

Anne gave a quick laugh, uncovering a row of perfect teeth. "Oh, just a lucky guess. With a name like Murdoch, you had to have some Scottish blood in you. And Lee is still wearing summery clothes, which says you haven't been here very long."

"Good grief!" Murdoch exclaimed, realizing as he said it that he had been adopting some of Cartland's expressions in the last few days. "What are you? Do you work for Scotland Yard or something?"

"Oh, nothing as exciting as that. I just notice things, I suppose."

Behind them the manager was examining the contents of the parcels, and every now and again pushing one of them aside with a sad shake of his head while he called out the design numbers to an assistant who began wrapping up the replacements.

"Are you from around here?" Murdoch inquired.

Anne shook her head. "I live at Nairn, north of here near Inverness. I'm just driving home from Edinburgh. Kingussie seemed a good place to stop for a snack and do some shopping."

"Have you had your snack yet?"

"Not yet."

"We were just about to go for a drink. How about joining us? I think we owe you one."

Anne's brow furrowed slightly. "I couldn't face a drink at this time of day," she said. Murdoch decided it just wasn't his day. Then she added, "But a cup of tea and a sandwich would be very welcome. Could you stand that?"

"We'll take the risk," Murdoch said and grinned.

The manager finished adding up prices on a scrap of paper and cleared his throat to attract their attention. "Ah, are you sure you still want to pay for this, sir? Really, I'd be quite happy to write it all off as I said."

"We'll pick up the tab," Murdoch insisted. "What's the damage?"

"As you wish. It comes to thirty-four pounds and seventy pence. Will it be cash, credit, or on account?"

"AmEx okay?"

"Certainly."

"Here." Murdoch produced his card. The manager inspected it briefly then inserted it into a slot in the front of a small, desktop terminal on one end of the counter. A few seconds went by while a communications satellite high over the Atlantic redirected downward and westward a stream of binary code prefixed with the number of Murdoch's New York bank account.

"Are you enjoying your visit to Scotland, Mr. Ross?" the manager asked as the terminal's miniature screen came to life to validate the transaction.

"A lot, thanks."

"A grand Scottish name, I see. Would you be related to any of the Rosses in these parts?"

"My family's from near here—a place called Glenmoroch, over toward Loch Ness," Murdoch said.

The manager snatched his spectacles from his ear and looked up abruptly. "Not Sir Charles Ross of Storbannon?"

"Yes. He's my grandfather. You know him?"

"I most certainly do." The manager's voice warmed suddenly in surprise and evident delight. "There aren't many around here who don't know Sir Charles. Then you must be his grandson from America. It's not your first visit here either; I've heard about you from time to time." He extended a hand and shook Murdoch's firmly. "It's a pleasure to meet you at last. How long will you be staying?"

"We don't really know for sure. We're helping Grandpa with some of his work for a while. Oh, this is Lee, who's over with me from the States. And this is Anne, who we've just bumped into… or rather our cat did."

"My pleasure," the manager said as they nodded in turn. "I've only known Sir Charles since he came back to Scotland, you understand. A grand man he is… a grand man. Remember me to him when you get back—Andrew McKenzie from Kingussie, tell him. He'll know who you mean."

"We sure will," Murdoch promised. He inclined his head in the direction of his AmEx card, still protruding from the slot in the terminal. "Are you finished with that?" McKenzie extracted the card, thrust it back into Murdoch's hand, and stabbed his finger at a button on the panel beside the screen. The word VOID appeared superposed in red across the details being displayed.

Murdoch started to protest, but McKenzie brushed the words aside with a brisk wave of his hand. "I'll not listen, and that's the end of it," he declared. His voice left no room for argument. "I'm Pamela McKenzie's uncle, you see. It's the least I can do for the Rosses of Glenmoroch."

Murdoch and Lee exchanged puzzled looks. "Sorry, I'm not with you," Murdoch said. "Who's Pamela McKenzie, apart from being your niece?"

"Oh, I see. They didn't tell you about that, eh." McKenzie nodded to himself. "Ask somebody to tell you about it when you get back to Storbannon. Ask them to tell you about Pamela McKenzie."

 

They all left the store together and stopped to deposit Anne's packages in her car, a fairly new-looking Audi lowline, silver-blue metallic with black trim, which turned out to be parked just a few spaces ahead of Murdoch's. Then they found a quaint olde-worlde tea house tucked away in one of the side-streets off the main thoroughfare, and were soon settled at a secluded corner table with a heaped plate of sandwiches and currant buns, while a subdued background of Strauss polkas played cheerfully from somewhere among plant pots and timber beams up near the ceiling.

Her name was Anne Patterson. She was originally from Dundee but had spent many of her earlier years at school in England, which accounted for her almost complete lack of a Scottish accent. As Murdoch listened to her speaking at greater length, however, he began to detect a slight lilt that added an undertone of texture to her voice that made her even more fascinating. She was single and lived alone. Nairn was a pleasant little town, she found, with plenty of variety to offer without being so large as to become overpowering. Furthermore it was conveniently close to where she worked—the fusion plant at a place called Burghead, about forty miles farther north, as a junior doctor and assistant to the Head of the Medical Department.

"Burghead!" Murdoch exclaimed when she told them this. "Can you beat that? The world gets smaller every day."

"Do you know it, then?" Anne asked, sounding slightly surprised.

"We know of it," Lee said.

Murdoch passed on. "Do you know somebody there called Muir—Dr. Elizabeth Muir?"

"Of course. She's very well known there. She's the Principal Physicist. I take it she's an acquaintance of yours."

"She's an old friend of my grandfather's. In fact she's staying with us for the weekend right now. Incredible, isn't it."

Lee shook his head disbelieving. "It seems like nobody can move in this country without bumping into somebody they know. That oughta keep a guy on the straight and narrow."

"They all seem to know Murdoch's grandfather anyway," Anne remarked. "Sir Charles, wasn't it?" She said it matter-of-factly, without any trace of deference or awe. This at once made Murdoch feel more at ease, and he was certain she had done it intentionally; he wanted to he just Murdoch Ross, not the grandson of somebody famous.

"Yes," Murdoch replied, in a way that he hoped was off-hand but not enough so to sound careless. Anne continued looking at him over the rim of her cup, her eyebrows half raised. In one expression she was able to convey that she was naturally interested but didn't want to appear inquisitive. "He's a scientist," Murdoch went on. "A theoretical physicist. He spent most of his life in the U.S.A. which is how I come to be an American. He retired about three years ago and moved back to Scotland."

"He sounds very interesting. What kind of work does he do now?"

"Oh… private research. Particle phenomena… connected with communications mainly."

"You must be physicists too then," Anne said, shifting her eyes from Murdoch to Lee then back again. "You told Mr. McKenzie that you were over here helping him with his work."

"I guess we are… sort of," Lee said with a shrug.

"Sort of?"

"By inclination anyhow," Murdoch said. "But the world only seems to have room for graybeards, bomb-freaks, and aspiring executives. So what can you do?"

"I see," Anne said simply. Murdoch had the feeling that she did see—exactly; there was no need to explain further. "So what do you do?" she asked. "Apart from kidnap kittens."

"For the last couple of years we've been on our own," Murdoch told her. "I suppose a theoretical consultancy would be the best way to describe it. We think about other people's problems for a price, and maybe solve them for a bigger price."

"That's one way of getting paid without being owned by anybody, I suppose," Anne remarked. Her radar was uncanny. Again there was no need to elaborate; she already understood all there was to be said. "Who's looking after the business while you two are over here?" she asked.

"Actually we pretty well wrapped it up about six months ago," Murdoch said. "We were looking at some other possibilities in New York when my grandpa asked us to come over." He shrugged and showed his empty palms. "So here we are."

"No plans for what happens next?"

"Guess not. It all depends on the winds and the tide." Murdoch refilled his cup from the pot of tea that had come with the sandwiches.

"How about you?" Lee asked her. "Where do you plan on going after Burghead? Anything in particular in mind?"

Anne emitted an almost inaudible sigh and shrugged, more with her eyebrows than her body. "I'm hoping to qualify as a specialist in nuclear medicine while I'm there. After that? I don't know. I might go abroad somewhere… America possibly."

"No ties here at all, huh?" Lee said.

"Not really."

"What about your folks in Dundee?" Murdoch asked.

"Oh, I left there a long time ago. We get along well enough, but"—she paused just long enough to avoid sounding indelicate—"we really don't have all that much in common. They're content enough in their own kind of world, if you know what I mean." She made it a plain statement of fact with no attempt at any implied apology; at the same time, her eyes asked why there should be any.

She was another odd-one-out of the family, Murdoch realized. They were all three of them the same: Three young people adrift on life with supplies for a voyage of eighty-odd years, but with no port singling itself out on the charts as an obvious destination. The major trade routes were well marked, but exactly what the trade was that took place at their ends was obscure. Eighty years of battling storms could be a long time to spend discovering that a cargo was valueless.


Page 14

They talked for a while longer about nothing in particular. Anne's manner throughout was pleasant and not unfriendly, but there was a mild, vaguely defined reserve beneath her conversational exterior—a studied aloofness that seemed to define an invisible boundary of familiarity beyond which strangers were not invited. Murdoch was too intrigued by her to allow her to walk out of his life as suddenly as she had walked in, but at the same time he sensed a need for caution. So, when at last the time came for them to leave, he forced his voice to remain casual and said simply, "We'll all have to get together again sometime. Would you like us to give you a call if we wind up near Nairn?"

"You could," Anne replied. It was simply a statement of the fact. "My number's in the directory. It's the only Patterson with Anne spelled in full." As she spoke, Murdoch watched for any hint of eagerness in her response, but her expression and her eyes gave away nothing. It made her all the more fascinating, and he wondered for a moment if it was deliberate. And then he remembered that he had already decided she was the kind of person who never uttered a word or made a gesture that wasn't deliberate.

 

The sun had dipped behind banks of sullen, wet-looking clouds that were moving in from the west by the time they topped the pass on the shoulder of Ben Moroch and began the descent into the glen. Lee was idly watching the road ahead while Maxwell perched unsteadily on his shoulder, hypnotized by the views sliding past the window. Every now and again Lee turned his head to study Murdoch, who had been unusually quiet all the way from Kingussie.

"Quite a gal," Lee remarked at last after an exceptionally long silence.

"Uh huh."

"Classy. Don't see a lot of that around these days."

"Uh uh."

Lee studied his fingernails for a second, then said, "Just imagine, the world's biggest heavy-ion fusion plant. You don't get a chance to see that every day."

"Lee, what are you talking about?"

"Oh, just a thought… It occurred to me that if you happen to know the Principal Physicist of a place like that, it shouldn't be too much of a problem to get yourself a tour." He paused as Murdoch's head swung round sharply, then went on in a matter-of-fact voice, "Especially for people who are physicists themselves, and even more especially if they happen to have worked on fusion."

"You're right," Murdoch said. "We've got a lot of work to do, but, aw hell… everybody has to have a break once in a while. We ought to talk to Elizabeth."

"Yeah. Just what I was thinking," Lee agreed, nodding his head slowly.

Chapter 10Prologue1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738Epilogue

Virtually any scientifically conducted experiment can, at least ideally, be reduced to two broad steps: first, determining the variables that affect the outcome of the experiment; second, setting up conditions such that one of the variables at a time may be altered while the rest are kept constant. From the data obtained in this way the experimenter can, with luck, begin constructing a picture of which variables matter, in what way and to what degree they matter, and which don't.

In the case of the proposed time-communication experiments there were essentially three variables to be considered: the data content of the signal sent, the instant in time that the signal was sent from, and the instant it was sent to. An additional complication was that all three of these factors were themselves consequences of decisions made at some point or other in somebody's mind; exactly when, and in what manner, the results of such decisions became accessible to observation was something that was still far from clear.

To simplify as far as possible the task of differentiating the effects of all these influences, the team agreed upon a schedule of tests that fell into two broad phases. Each phase would consist of transmitting a series of signals containing data of a particular type: phase one, determinate data; phase two, randomly generated data. For the first series of tests, the signals sent would comprise the results of complex algorithms run on the computer. These results would thus be effectively determined from the moment the schedule was fixed and long before the tests actually came to be performed; because of the complexity of the algorithms selected, however, nobody would have any way of knowing in advance what the results would be. The second series of tests would use signals that advised the outcomes of events decided randomly, such as random-number generating programs run on the computer, tossings of coins, or arbitrary choices and decisions made on the spur of the moment by the people involved. By combining the results of these tests, the team hoped to make at least a start in finding out more about the role played by the elusive elements of chance and free will.

That covered the data content of the signals, but still left the two other variables that had been singled out for investigation: the times of transmission and reception. To isolate the effects of these, the team decided to divide each of the phases into two groups of tests, with one of the quantities being varied and the other held constant in each group. The first group in each of the phases would comprise tests to study the effect of varying the transmission time of a signal. The computer would wait for an incoming signal from the future, determine the moment in time from which it had been sent, add one second to that time, and then transmit a different signal after the one-second-extended period had elapsed. This process should, the team reasoned, generate a whole series of loops back, all ''aimed at'' the same instant in the past but transmitted from a series of points advancing progressively at one-second increments into the future. Then they would repeat the whole procedure, but this time with the loops shortening by one second with each repetition instead of lengthening. After that, for the second group of each phase, they would go through the whole thing again, this time keeping the time of transmission constant and varying the time of reception.

To eliminate, or at least minimize, the human element, the team agreed to adhere rigidly to the schedule once it had been worked out in detail, regardless of what took place thereafter. Also, to avoid the risk of unnecessary complications, they made a rule forbidding any further dialogues with past or future selves, or the transmitting of anything at all that was not specified in the schedule. The matter was already complicated enough.

The computer would be programmed to record every measurable quantity relating to every test. Then analysis would begin of the data left imprinted on the final timeline preserved at the end of it all. From this analysis the team hoped to gather more clues to assist them untangle which events were erased by what and under what conditions, and thus gain more of an insight to the workings of the strange mechanics that governed the feedback loops through time.

 

Murdoch was on his way through the dining room to rejoin the others in the library when he stopped for a moment to gaze out through the window overlooking the rear courtyard. It was around midafternoon on Sunday. The steady drizzle that had arrived during the night had continued unabated through the day to turn the snow covering the ground into a sea of dreary, watery slush. Behind him, Robert and Morna were preparing the table for dinner later that evening.

"Looks lousy out," Murdoch threw back over his shoulder. "I think I've figured out why the Scots are crazy."

"And why would that be?" Robert's voice asked from somewhere behind him.

"They're descended from crazy ancestors. Who in their right minds would have settled in a mess like this?"

"Well, if it's crazy we are, then you're no better yourself," Morna declared. "You're as much a Scot at heart as Sir Charles, American mother or not."

A few seconds passed. "Are the others still talking in the library?" Robert asked. "Ye've all been at it since first thing this morning, and through most of yesterday too. There must be something very important happening. Mr. Cartland seemed very excited about something at breakfast, I noticed."

"Nothing that'll change the world," Murdoch replied. He turned his back to the window and moved nearer the center of the room. "It's starting to look as if some things might work the way Grandpa's theories have been predicting for a while. Ted's just excitable by nature. I don't expect any revolutions." As he said it, Murdoch had the fleeting thought that, if things worked out the way he was beginning to suspect they might, one day that last sentence could well qualify as the biggest lie told in history.

"There was something I meant to ask you," Murdoch went on, more to change the subject than anything else. "Who is Pamela McKenzie?"

"Have you not heard about her?" Morna asked, sounding surprised. "I'd have thought Sir Charles would have told you. There, isn't that just like him to go not mentioning a word of it." Murdoch looked inquiringly at Robert.

"She's a young lass from just outside of Kingussie who was working here at Storbannon for a while last winter," Robert said. He shook his head grimly. "Oh, last winter was a bad one, and that's for sure. A lot of snow we had. Some of the passes up in the hills were closed for weeks."

"Yes?" Murdoch said.

"Pamela was taken sick all of a sudden… something quite serious inside, it was. They got her to the hospital just outside of Kingussie, but then a storm broke out so they decided to operate there instead of taking her up to Inverness. She started hemorrhaging, I'm told, and they needed to get some kind of special blood sent down in a hurry. The ambulances were grounded so they sent it down in a police car, but the road from Inverness was so bad that it was touch-and-go whether or not it would get through. But anyhow it did, and everything turned out well." Robert paused from laying out the silver and looked up. "It was only afterward we found out that Mr. Cartland had talked to his RAF friends in the base up at Lossiemouth and arranged for them to have an all-weather rescue team standing by ready to pick up an extra supply from Inverness and bring it down to Kingussie if the police didn't make it. He tried to make out as if it was nothing at all, but there are a lot of folk around here who'll not forget in a hurry what he did."

"I see ... " Murdoch said slowly. "That explains a lot."

"Where did you hear about Pamela?" Morna asked. "She's been gone from Storbannon a while now."

"We were talking to a guy in Kingussie who said he was her uncle."

"Oh, that'll be Andy McKenzie, I'll be bound," Robert said. "Runs the glassware shop on the high street."

"That's him. Bald head. Wears glasses."

"Was that where you had the accident with that wee devil of a kitten then?" Morna asked.

"That's right. When McKenzie found out where we were from, he wouldn't—" Murdoch's voice broke off as he heard the library door open and a sudden flood of voices pour into the hallway outside. "Excuse me," he said. "I'd better go see what's happening."

The others were just coming out to stretch their legs and break for coffee.

Elizabeth caught sight of Murdoch and detached herself from the group to walk over to him. "Change of plan," she announced. "Your wicked grandfather has persuaded me to stay for dinner. I'll be leaving afterwards instead."

"Unless he's managed to talk you into making it a week by then," Murdoch said with a grin.

"I'd love to, believe me. But neglected husbands can be so objectionable. And I simply must be back at Burghead tomorrow. We'll be testing the reactors at full power for the first time very soon now. You wouldn't believe how much there is to be done."

"Say, that reminds me, I was meaning to ask you something about Burghead." Murdoch screwed up his face and scratched his ear for a moment. "You know, with the world's biggest heavy-ion plant just forty miles away, and with Lee and me having worked on that kind of thing, I was wondering—"

"If I might be able to arrange a visit for you. Yes, Lee has already mentioned it. Of course I'd be happy to. In fact that was what I came over to tell you. I'll call you later in the week when I've had a chance to organize something. It will be a busy week, but I'm sure we'll be able to sort something out for you both."

Chapter 11Prologue1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738Epilogue

Murdoch and Lee drove north to visit Burghead on the following Thursday, which turned out to be a convenient time to take a day off. Charles and Cartland wanted to go to Edinburgh to spend the day with some former colleagues of theirs who were visiting Britain from the States; the team therefore declared Thursday a holiday, left the machine to run automatically, and went their separate ways.


Page 15

The lure of taming fusion, with its promise of practically unlimited amounts of energy from easily processed and abundant fuel in the form of seawater, had captured men's imaginations since around the middle of the twentieth century. The principle was straightforward: Two nuclei of the heavy isotopes of hydrogen, one of deuterium and one of tritium, could be fused together to produce a nucleus of helium and a surplus neutron. A small amount of mass would be lost in the process, appearing in an Einsteinian way as a lot of energy to be carried away mainly by the neutron and partly by the helium nucleus.

In practice the main problem to be overcome was that of finding a way to induce the nuclei to come close enough to each other for fusion to take place since they both carried positive electrical charges. In other words, how could they be confined in close enough proximity for the strong nuclear force to solemnize the marriage when the long-range electromagnetic force drove them apart before they were even on speaking terms? The answer was to cause the nuclei to rush at each other so fast that their momenta would carry them through the repulsive barrier regardless of how the laws of electrodynamics felt about it. That meant that the plasma formed by the nuclei would have to be hot. Very hot. It worked out at around fifty million degrees Celsius. This was fine for anybody who happened to live at the center of a star, where gravitational pressure sustained the necessary temperatures and densities, or in the core of a detonating hydrogen bomb, where an A-bomb trigger heated hydrogen to such temperatures before it could disperse. But human beings had long ago adapted to a more genial type of habitat and had developed a distinct preference for keeping things that way.

Through the latter half of the twentieth century, despite alarmist accusations that research was being sabotaged by political and commercial vested interests in oil, two broad approaches emerged to solving the confinement problem. The first to be investigated was magnetic confinement, in which the hydrogen plasma was trapped inside magnetic "bottles" of various shapes and then heated by the injection of electromagnetic radiation or of high-velocity particle beams. The second approach was inertial confinement, which came later. It consisted of crushing to superhigh densities small pellets of hydrogen fuel at very high speed using the inertia of the nuclei to drive them together and fuse before repulsion could stop them. This was achieved by dumping an enormous amount of energy on the surface of a pellet in a very short space of time—typically measured in thousandths of a microsecond; under such conditions the outer skin of the pellet exploded away and created an opposite, inward reaction-force that imploded the core, rather like a spherical rocket. To convey the required energy to the pellet, three technologies were developed: laser beams, electron beams, and ion beams.

The first generation of working fusion reactors went into operation in the United States and the U.S.S.R. in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Both nations had developed magnetic methods as their primary form of approach, but eventually supplemented them with one of the inertial alternatives, the Americans opting for lasers, the Russians for e-beams. Although they both pursued research on ion beams, neither nation gave priority to perfecting techniques involving them.

The European Fusion Consortium finally got its act together in 1990 after a spate of delays and bickerings resulting from jealousies and petty-politics that should have been forgotten generations before. The choice open to the Europeans by this time was either to buy into the technologies that had been pioneered elsewhere, which would have cost them considerably in money, prestige, and national pride, or to go for ion beams. They chose the latter. Besides the obvious reasons, the approach promised several distinct technical advantages. For one thing, ions were more massive than electrons and could carry far more energy at a given velocity; also, because of their high inertia, they could be focused onto their targets from relatively long distances, thus reducing substantially the problems of designing final-focusing equipment that would withstand the bombardment from a sustained barrage of fusion microexplosions. And on top of this the techniques for generating and controlling particle beams were well understood after decades of high-energy accelerator physics, which meant that a lot of lost time could be made up by exploiting an already mature technology. In fact the attractions of ion beams were so evident that the Europeans wondered why neither of the superpowers had concentrated on them in the first place. But that wasn't the Europeans' problem.

In a rare revival of the enterprising spirit that had inundated the world with bibles and gunboats in years gone by, the nations of the European Fusion Consortium elected to go whole hog with a project that would surpass in concept and scale any of the first-generation reactors that had been conceived by the end of the twentieth century. It would be a gigantic, heavy-ion facility designed to perform a triple role: It would produce power and deliver thousands of megawatts into the European supply grid; it would use a portion of the fast neutrons produced in the fusion process to convert abundant deuterium into tritium, thus manufacturing its own fuel; and it would breed heavy isotopes to help satisfy Europe's fission-reactor needs.

The haggling, of course, began when they tried to agree on where to build it. In the end, ironically, the issue was decided by oil. Although the long-term picture was at last beginning to look quite cheerful, oil would still be needed for many years to come to keep the wheels of Europe turning. The British had acquired the lion's share of the oilfields developed in the North Sea; they could therefore sell oil to the other Consortium nations far more cheaply than the traditional overseas suppliers could, or at least were disposed to. And in the 1990s the prospect of cheap oil for a while was not something to treat lightly. Furthermore, if British oil was going to be channeled into Europe, it was only fair exchange, surely, that European fusion power should be sited where it could sustain the industries that the availability of that same oil had engendered. And besides, the British pointed out, they would be much nicer people to do business with than those insufferable Arab chaps with their never-ending squabbles and price hikes. Breeding would tell, and all that…

It all added up to an as-near-as-made-no-difference unassailable position at the bargaining table. And so, finally, Burghead it turned out to be.

 

Sunday's rain had turned to snow by Monday, and then the weather had cleared once more. Murdoch and Lee's first view of Burghead was from the top of a range of low hills that lay between Elgin and the sea, from where they found themselves looking down over a narrow strip of coastal plain, standing crisp and white against the blue waters of the Moray Firth in the distant background.

The complex stretched away out of sight along the shoreline and extended for perhaps two miles inland. It was a dense sprawl of refineries, storage tanks, chemical plants, and generating stations interconnected by tangles of roadways, pipelines, and power cables. The whole resembled a sculpture of frosted concrete and steel. The reactor facility itself was located at the end of the complex nearest them, occupying a site that had obviously been developed more recently than the rest. They were able to pick it out easily.

Very easily.

It was square, and must have measured three miles along a side.

At least the area enclosed by the line of the perimeter fence looked square; the far side of the site was distorted by the perspective and its details obscured by distance, but it seemed to extend all the way to the shore. The road was high enough, however, to present a good idea of the general layout.

There were four identical clusters of buildings, one inside each corner of the perimeter square, and a compact group of larger buildings at the geometric center. In fact, as far as surface constructions went, the whole site had a distinctly barren look about it; the reason for its size was the symmetrical pattern of straight-line segments and circles that it framed, which revealed the arrangement of underground accelerator tracks and storage rings that generated, merged, and concentrated the beams before hurling them inward at the target chambers located beneath the largest of the central group of buildings. The largest and most conspicuous of the rings was centrally situated in the perimeter square. It was two miles in diameter, and marked the outer edge of a wide, circular belt made up of many identical structures of some kind; they didn't project far above the snow and could have been just the upper parts of something that went deeper. Four smaller rings, each about a fifth of a mile across, occupied the corners and encircled the four outer clusters of buildings. A web of straight-line segments, intersecting the rings at tangents and connecting the large one to the four smaller ones, completed the design.

Lee pursed his lips in a silent whistle as he took in the sight. "Ma-an!" he breathed after a few seconds. "Take a look at that."

"That's what I call engineering," Murdoch murmured in an awed voice. "Real engineering… " Burghead had received coverage from time to time by the U.S. news media, but the pictures had never been able to convey anything that approached the impact of the real thing. Murdoch sat forward in his seat to study the facility in detail while the car hummed along contentedly under the control of its own guidance system, aided by routing data transmitted from computers in Inverness or wherever. "That must be the main storage ring in the middle," he said after a while. "It's gotta be two miles across at least. The ones at the corners must be secondaries. The primary probably pumps them up in sequence."

"I guess so," Lee agreed. "With a wraparound factor of about ten, I'd guess. They look about a tenth the size. They must fire inward underneath the primary."

"They do, but not directly," Murdoch said. "I talked to Elizabeth about it. The secondaries pump up a battery of tertiary rings, and they unload onto the target. That wide belt of stuff just inside the big ring must be where the tertiaries are buried." He paused for a moment, then added, "That means the final pulses are aimed from something like a mile out."

"Jeez!"was Lee's only reply.

The road descended from the crestline of the hills in a series of shallow, sweeping curves that eventually straightened out on the flat below to run alongside the perimeter fence for its full length. The fence was a monotony of wire, twenty or so feet high, strung between concrete posts and standing a few hundred feet back from the edge of the highway. The fence marched by endlessly on their left for a while, and then at last gave way to a huddle of low, flat buildings flanking two wide, steel-framed gates. At this point a road formed a junction with the main highway and ran along one side of a fenced-in parking area before passing through the gates and disappearing into the site. A sign by the highway at the turnoff read:

EUROPEAN FUSION CONSORTIUMBURGHEAD HEAVY-ION FACILITYSOUTH GATE

Murdoch flipped the car into manual drive to leave the controlled highway, turned into the parking lot, and found an empty space not far from the gatehouse door. They entered through double glass doors and announced themselves to a security officer, wearing a navy-blue police-style uniform complete to the black-and-white checkered cap-band also worn by the Scottish constabulary, who was sitting behind a long counter that partitioned off the rear part of the reception area. The officer checked a computer screen to confirm that they were expected, examined their ID's, and issued them lapel name-tags; then he called to somewhere to announce their arrival and asked them to wait in the gatehouse lobby, which was through another door to one side.

They passed the next ten minutes or so examining a five-foot-square model of the facility that, together with some pictures and other exhibits, formed a display in the lobby, and chatting with a couple of service engineers from Honeywell who were also awaiting a plant escort. The engineers had come to make some final adjustments to equipment before the first full-power tests of the reactors, scheduled to commence on the following Monday. Elizabeth had mentioned that the tests were imminent, but she hadn't been specific about when.

At last the door opened and a tall, lean, youngish-looking man ambled in. He looked the kind of person who had never quite got past being a student, with untidy, sandy-colored hair, a mottled brown, rolled-collar sweater, and tan corduroy trousers. He stopped and looked inquiringly from one pair of faces to the other.

"Mr. Ross and Mr. Walker?"

"Us," Murdoch informed him.

"Ah." The newcomer came across and shook hands with both of them. "Michael Stavely. I work with Elizabeth Muir. She's got herself tied up with something that won't wait, I'm afraid. I've been volunteered to look after you between now and lunch. She'll be joining us then."

"Fine," Murdoch said. "I know you've got a busy week coming up. It's nice of you to find time for tourists."

"No trouble at all. Anyhow, I gather you two belong to a rather special category of tourist." Mike led them back through into the reception area and opened another door that led to the outside, but on the inner side of the perimeter. "This way. I've got one of the firm's buggies outside. You can leave your car out front. You haven't left anything in it that you might need, have you?" They descended a few steps to a smaller parking area at the rear of the gatehouse, and Mike led them over to a heavy-duty pickup truck, painted sky blue and bearing the golden lightning-bolt insignia of the European Fusion Consortium on its doors, which was parked at the end of a short line of assorted vehicles. "Is there anything in particular you'd like to see first?" he inquired as they climbed in.

"We'll leave the tour to you," Lee said.

"Right-ho. We'll start at the beginning and end at the end then. I'll take you to have a look at one of the injectors. They're where the beams are formed and start out from. Then we can follow the whole gubbins through from there."

They followed the main road from the gate for a short distance, and then turned off into a perimeter track that brought them to one of the corner-groups of buildings. Outwardly there was nothing especially distinguishing about them. They made up a lonely huddle of fairly standard three-storey office blocks and a few bungalow huts, interspersed with open parking spaces. A somewhat larger construction stood in the middle; it was windowless, and looked squat and impregnable, vaguely blockhouselike, as if it belonged more in a space-launch facility. They parked beside the large building and entered through the single door that formed the only break in its otherwise blank and featureless walls. A few minutes later they emerged from an elevator several levels below ground and walked into a different world.


Page 16

It was a world fashioned and shaped by the uncompromising dictates of high-voltage engineering. Banks of transformers larger than any that Murdoch had ever seen reared upward amid an intricate, three-dimensional tapestry of superconducting busbars and coolant pipes. Between them were batteries of insulator stacks ten feet high and more, carrying lines to immense torroidal windings built around sections of partly visible cylindrical constructions that stretched away through labyrinths of steel structural frameworks.

Mike led them down a series of metal staircases through several levels of railed catwalks and maintenance platforms, and onto a walkway surrounding the base of what looked like a huge, round, steel tank, bristling with insulators and wrapped in cables; a long cylindrical structure emerged from one side of the tank and disappeared through concrete casemates in the approximate direction of the primary, two-mile-diameter storage ring.

"This is one of the injectors," Mike told them, gesturing upward at the tank. "Inside that are high-voltage arcs for peeling off electrons to give us our ion supply. That tube is the first of a series of initial accelerating stages. Initial acceleration is up to a million volts. The accelerators are charged from a capacitor bank located on the next level down."

"What ions do you use?" Lee inquired.

"Mercury."

"How many injectors are there altogether?" Murdoch asked.

"Sixteen," Mike replied. "There are four like this at each corner. This whole arrangement is duplicated by a second system running parallel to it on the other side of that wall." He pointed behind them, and then started to lead the way along a catwalk that followed the wall of the tube, which was at least ten feet high, through the concrete supporting structure and out onto a fairly wide observation platform. They found themselves looking along a vast, brightly lit tunnel in which relays of steel supports carried the tube away into rapidly shrinking perspective. A few hundred feet farther on, they could see the point where the other tube, running almost parallel, emerged from one side to join the first at a fine angle.

"This stretch is the first booster stage," Mike informed them. "From here to the junction along there, the beam is pushed up to ten million volts. Exactly the same thing happens to the beam from next door. The two are then merged to give one double-current beam."

Murdoch leaned his elbows on the parapet surrounding the platform and gazed for a while at the intricate webs of piping and windings that encased the gleaming surface of the tube wall for as far as he could see. "What kind of current are we talking about?" he asked.

"Oh, not much at this stage," Mike said cheerfully. "Even after the two beams merge, it's still only on the order of tens of milliamps—but that's at ten megavolts already, don't forget."

"I thought you said there were four beams at each corner," Lee remarked.

"There are. Come on, let's take a walk. I'll show you where the other two come into the act."

They descended to the floor of the tunnel and followed it to the junction, where they were able to stand and look up at the two massive tubes coming together over their heads. Beyond that point the tunnel became higher, and soon opened out into a huge vault, encircled by more catwalks and platforms, where the tube merged with one angling downward from somewhere above. The combined tube was even thicker than before, and marched away relentlessly into a wider tunnel that continued on in the same direction.

"The whole double-beam setup you've seen is only half of it," Mike explained. "There are two more injectors on a higher level, and their beams are merged in the same way to produce another double-density beam. The two double-density beams come together here."

"So you've got a quad at this point—combining the outputs from all four injectors," Lee observed.

"Quite."

"Still at ten million volts?" Murdoch queried.

"At this point, yes." Mike pointed across to the other side of the wide bay in front of them, which went down several levels deeper and separated them from the mouth of the larger tunnel that continued from there. "That's the beginning of the second booster chain. The first stage of it is another garden-variety linear accelerator that shoves things up to twenty-five megavolts. The other end of the chain is a fair distance away. In fact it's at that primary storage ring, which you must have noticed as you came over the hill."

"We did," Murdoch said. "So what's the beam up to when it reaches the ring?"

"One hundred billion volts," Mike replied.

Murdoch whistled.

They skirted the bay by way of a railed walkway running around its edge, and came to a concrete apron from which rose the massive steel supports that carried the accelerator tube into the next section of tunnel. From this vantage-point the tube looked like a gigantic gun-barrel converging away into the far distance. The tunnel was wide enough to accommodate an underground roadway that ran along below and to one side of the tube itself. One side of the roadway was flanked by the steel structural work supporting the tube and its coil assemblies, the other by white, tiled wall lined with layers of cable; looking along it, Murdoch felt like a mouse that found its way into a wiring conduit.

A local control center looked out over the bay from a point above the apron and next to the tube. Mike took them up there to meet some of the engineers who were responsible for that section of the plant and able to answer Murdoch's and Lee's more detailed questions. After that the three of them returned to the apron and boarded a small, electrically powered car to continue their tour toward the central zone of the site.

On the way, Mike explained that the same thing happened at all four corners of the plant, yielding four identical beams that entered the primary storage ring at four equispaced points around its circumference. Each corner-battery of four injectors was designed to produce two hundred and forty quad-current-density ion pulses every second, which were then boosted up to virtually the speed of light. Each pulse lasted for just under a half a thousandth of a second, which meant that a pulse would be some sixty-three miles long; obviously, therefore, its leading edge would arrive at the primary ring long before its tail end had emerged from the injectors. The ring drew the pulse in and wrapped it around on itself ten times, rather like a length of string being coiled onto a reel, and in the process multiplied the ion current by a factor of ten. At the same time it merged the compressed pulse with the ten-times-wrapped-around pulses from the three other injector batteries, achieving a final combined current of the order of amperes circulating in the primary ring.

The tunnel opened into a long, wedge-shaped space, again going down to deeper levels, one side of which was formed by the curving wall of the primary ring itself. Above it, the final, one-hundred-billion-volt booster section of the tube continued, suspended amid girders and latticework, to merge into the structure of the ring, thus forming the pointed end of the wedge. From the ends of the chamber, a brightly lit gallery curved away out of sight in both directions to carry the roadway along the ring's periphery, no doubt connecting with other, similar tunnels coming in from the other corners of the site.

"There are four places like this around the whole ring," Mike said as he halted the car to allow them a few minutes to take in the scene. "Every one is an entry port where a combined beam from four injectors is sucked in. There are four exit ports as well, situated between the entry ports. Every time the ring is pumped up, it unloads a full charge through each of the exit ports in turn."

"Like dealing out four hands of cards," Murdoch said. "Yes, we've come across it before."

"You've got it," Mike said, nodding. "Would you like to see one of the exit ports?"

"Sure. Why not?"

"Let's drive round the ring a little way and have a look at one."

They made a U-turn around the blunt end of the wedge to enter one end of the curving gallery, and followed it around until it opened out into another wedge-shaped chamber similar to the one they had just left. The difference here was that the tube disappearing into the tunnel that terminated in this chamber carried the ion pulses away from the ring instead of into it.

They turned off the ring-road and followed this tunnel for a long distance back out toward one of the corners of the plant; exactly which corner, Murdoch was by now no longer sure. It brought them to yet another similar, but smaller, chamber where the same story was repeated on a smaller scale. The tube from the primary ring fed a secondary storage ring, which was one tenth as large; obviously the secondary was one of the four one-fifth-mile-diameter structures located at the corners of the site that Murdoch and Lee had spotted earlier from the road. Each secondary ring achieved a further wraparound current-multiplication of ten, ending up with a trapped, circulating load of sixty amperes. The primary discharged two hundred and forty times every second, feeding each of the secondaries in turn; thus every secondary was pumped up to full load sixty times per second.

They drove around the secondary ring until they came to its single exit port, which pointed back to the central part of the plant. A diverter enabled the concentrated pulse coming from the ring to be channeled away through any one of four tubes, which diverged from each other across a long, fan-shaped vault before disappearing into the mouths of four separate tunnels. Mike drove them to the far end and into one of the tunnels to reveal yet another seemingly endless procession of lamps and struts marching away to a distant vanishing point. Murdoch was beginning to wonder just how much there was of this incredible subterranean network.

This tunnel led back to the center, all the time following a gentle incline that took it beneath the structure of the primary ring, passing en route through a lower level of one of the wedge-shaped chambers that housed the entry and exit ports; for all Murdoch knew, it could have been one of the two that they had already passed through higher up when they were going in the opposite direction.

The tunnel ended in a low, circular space a hundred feet or so across, which contained one of the tertiary storage rings. The tube they had been following entered the ring at a tangent in a way that was by now familiar, and the exit tube led away at another tangent from the same side. There were sixteen such tertiary rings in all, Mike informed them, lying edge to edge in a belt around the heart of the plant like a circle of coins. Each of the secondary rings at the corners fed four tertiaries in sequence via a diverter arrangement like the one they had seen in the fan-shaped vault. Since a secondary ring discharged sixty times every second, every tertiary was pumped up fifteen times per second. Further wraparound in the tertiaries gave another current-multiplication factor of ten, producing six hundred amperes in each.

Thus, fifteen times every second, a point was reached where there were six hundred amperes of multiply ionized mercury atoms moving at relativistic speed inside every one of the sixteen tertiary rings. When the plant eventually went to full power, all sixteen rings would be discharged simultaneously, and a total of ten thousand amperes would converge in the final rush along the three-quarter-mile-long guides that climbed gently upward to the target chamber. The compression achieved at that stage would be such that the pulse delivered from sixteen directions at once would last only for nanoseconds.

The power that smashed into the target pellet in those nanoseconds would be in excess of a thousand trillion watts.

 

Murdoch and Lee gazed out through a long, glass wall at the place where the beams ended their brief lives in a flash of fusion plasma. They had arrived at last in the Main Control Room below the Reactor Building, which was the large building dominating the cluster at the center of the site. Beyond the glass lay a vast, circular cavern in which the thirty-foot-diameter, steel-clad bulk of the reactor vessel reared up through tiers of access levels and maintenance platforms. Around its base and below the level of the control room, a circle of massive steel yokes carried the beam tubes from the tertiary rings into the reactor wall.

Mike waited a while for them to digest the view, then moved forward to stand beside them and gestured with his arm.

"That's where it all happens. The target chambers are in there, of course. Actually they're not as big as you might think. Most of what you can see from the outside is due to shielding for neutrons and radiation."

"How come 'chambers'?" Murdoch asked. "How many are there?"

"Three. The first phase of full-power testing will be to run one of them flat-out. If it all goes okay, we'll go the whole hog and double the firing rate of the injectors. Then the accelerator system will deliver thirty full packets a second. That will drive two reactors in parallel. The third is a standby, so the plant will always be capable of chucking out two reactors' worth."

Murdoch looked out at the forest of girders and pipes encasing the reactor vessel, scattered among which a dozen or so technicians were making final adjustments and measurements in preparation for the coming Monday's tests. "How long before you try running two chambers in parallel?" he asked.

"Practically straight away," Mike replied. "Every section of the system has already been tested through individually, and the whole thing has been run up to moderate power lots of times without any major snags. On Monday we'll run two chambers at full-blast individually. Then, if all goes well, we'll double up on Tuesday morning. After that it will be solid testing for at least a few months."

"On-line by summer then, huh?" Murdoch said.

"With luck. Tentatively we're saying by the middle of July."

Lee looked down at the sample target that he was holding in his hand, one of two that Mike had presented as souvenirs. It was a thin-walled, hollow glass lens over half an inch across, filled with a mixture of deuterium and tritium. Inside one of the reactor chambers, a stream of pellets at a precise spacing of fifteen per second would be directed through the beam focal point like machine-gun bullets to be hit on the fly by the titanic bolts of energy from the accelerators. The inner surfaces of the target chambers comprised "waterfall" screens of liquid lithium metal, thus affording no solid area to be eroded by the particles and debris generated in the fusion process. The fast neutrons produced were slowed down in the lithium blanket, where their kinetic energy was transformed into heat to be carried away by the liquid and used to generate power in another part of the plant. As an alternative, the fusion plasma could be directed out of the chamber and its energy tapped directly via magnetohydrodynamics, but that capability would be added later.


Page 17

"I think Elizabeth said the blanket was a breeder as well," Lee said. "Don't you seed it with deuterium and breed your own H3?"

Mike nodded. "Yes. It's got fertile fissiles in it too… U238and thorium 233. After neutron activation and beta decay, they end up as plutonium 239 and U233. We run a sideline flogging it to fission plants up and down the country—and abroad, come to that. It brings in a bit of extra beer money and helps pay the rent."

The two Americans gazed for a while longer at the scene beyond the glass wall, and then turned back to face Mike. "Any more questions?" he asked them, glancing from one to the other.

"I don't think so for the moment," Murdoch said, shaking his head. "I guess you've covered just about everything."

"Quite a show," Lee conceded.

"We try and give value for money," Mike said cheerfully. "Anyhow, if you've seen all you want to for now, we ought to be thinking about making a move. It's almost twelve-fifteen, and we're supposed to be meeting Elizabeth in the cafeteria over in the Domestic Block at half past. We'll need just about all the time we've got."

"In that case let's go," Murdoch said.

As they began moving between the panels and consoles toward the main door of the control room, Murdoch turned for a last look out at the reactor. He had seen fusion plants before and had come not really expecting any big surprises. But he had to admit that he was impressed.

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"That was good," Lee said approvingly, pushing his empty plate away. He nodded his head to indicate the whole of the self-service cafeteria, which the senior executives at Burghead shared with everybody else. "They sure look after you people here."

"We do our best," Elizabeth acknowledged from across the table. She looked feminine as usual, but at the same time businesslike, in a pale-blue, two-piece suit with a white blouse. "You seemed to find the salmon to your liking, I noticed."

"Beats burgers and French fries."

Elizabeth moved her gaze toward Murdoch, who was deep in thought while he finished his coffee. "You're unusually quiet today, Murdoch," she said.

"Oh… I guess I've seen too many new things this morning. It takes a while to filter in."

"Savoring the pride of being a member of the human race, eh?" She made her voice sound flippant, but Murdoch knew by now of her habitual British tendency to use flippancy as a softener when she was being her most serious. "Thirty years ago they thought they had an energy crisis; today we make our own suns to order."

"Not really anything like that. I'm just… " Murdoch checked himself and thought for a moment. "I don't know though… Maybe you're right."

"I think maybe he's a bit mad because this place isn't in Arizona," Lee said.

"I wouldn't worry about it, old chap," Mike commented. "It wouldn't be here either if the Germans and the Froggies hadn't paid for everything except the doorknobs. How much do you think jolly old England was worth after forty years of being run by plumbers' mates? Do you know that in 19—" He stopped speaking and looked up as a figure approached and stopped by the table. It was a middle-aged man with a ruddy complexion, wearing a heavy tweed jacket. Elizabeth greeted him with a look of obvious recognition.

"Jack, hello. I was keeping an eye open for you. We'll need those figures this afternoon, early if possible. How are they coming along?"

"That's what I came over to mention," Jack said. He looked at Mike. "Jan's finished the flux-count matrix. She's stuck until she gets the G2. Morris says you were doing it." He glanced briefly at Murdoch and Lee. "Sorry to butt in, but it's a bit urgent."

"Don't mind us," Murdoch said, shrugging. "The work has to come first."

"Jack, this is Murdoch, and that's Lee," Elizabeth said. "They're over from the States. Murdoch's grandfather is Charles Ross down at Glenmoroch. This is Jack Belford. His group looks after target-chamber instrumentation."

"Hi."

"Hello."

"Charlie Ross, eh." Jack raised his eyebrows. "I've seen some good crowds down there in that castle of his. Give him my regards when you get back. Maybe we'll see you later on this afternoon in Maths and Physics."

"Yes, they'll be paying us a visit," Elizabeth said. "They had the tour this morning. That was what tied Mike up. My fault, I'm afraid."

Jack looked appealingly at Mike. Mike rose to his feet and spread his hands in a gesture of apology. "Well… it looks as if duty calls. You'll have to excuse me. I enjoyed talking to you both. We'll probably see each other again later in the afternoon." He turned and began talking to Jack as they walked away.

Elizabeth moved closer to the table to talk in a lowered voice. "How are things at Storbannon? I've been meaning to call Charles but never seem to get a chance. Is there anything new to report?"

"Not really," Murdoch answered. "We've just been running strictly according to the schedule. The machine's running and piling up results, and none of us even knows what any of them are yet. It's all exactly the way we agreed."

"Oh, I see." Elizabeth sounded slightly disappointed. She sat back in her seat and turned her hands upward briefly to signal an end to that topic. After a short pause she went on, "So… you've seen our main attraction here. Is there anything else you'd particularly like to add to the list? If not we can go on over to Math and Phys, and you can meet some more of the people."

"Sounds good," Lee said.

Elizabeth glanced inquiringly at Murdoch. Murdoch thought for a moment. "As a matter of fact there is something else we could do," he said. "There's a friend of ours who works here. I was thinking maybe we could look in and say hi while we're around."

"I see no reason why not," Elizabeth replied. "Who is he?"

"It's a she. Do you remember that girl we told you about… the one we bumped into in Kingussie last Saturday? She asked us to drop in if we ever found ourselves up this way. She works in the Medical Center here, or whatever it's called."

"The Medical Department," Elizabeth said. "Yes, we could go by that way; it's practically next door. What did you say her name was?"

"Anne… something." Murdoch shot a questioning glance at Lee.

"Patterson," Lee supplied, in a tone that said Murdoch already knew damn well what it was. Elizabeth studied Murdoch's face for a second, and her eyes began twinkling in a knowing kind of way.

"Ah yes," she said. "I think I know the girl you mean—longish dark hair; dresses well; carries herself nicely?… "

"Yeah. That sounds about right," Murdoch agreed, nodding his head casually. Too casually.

"She's very pretty," Elizabeth said. After a short pause she added, "And it would be terribly impolite to come all this way and not even take the trouble to say hello, wouldn't it."

"Terribly," Murdoch agreed solemnly. Lee raised his eyes toward the ceiling and looked away with a sigh.

"Nothing personal, of course," Elizabeth said. She kept her face straight, but there was just enough mockery in her voice to be detectable.

"Of course not," Murdoch told her.

He was beginning, he realized, to get into the English habit of voicing the opposite of what he meant. It could be subtly more emphatic than making direct statements, which would have sounded coarse by comparison, and it had the advantage that a person could never be taken to task on the record of what he had actually said. Perhaps, he thought, that was why the British had never needed a Fifth Amendment.

 

Murdoch and Lee entered a large room full of X-ray machines, a gamma camera, a body scanner, and an assortment of electronics consoles, and saw Anne working at a computer terminal through the half-open door of a small office off the far side. They had left Elizabeth in another office next door, talking with a Dr. Waring, who was the head of the facility's Medical Department. Waring had told them where they would find Anne, and to go on through for a few minutes. He had given Murdoch the impression of being the kind of person who didn't really approve of social calls during business hours, and Murdoch had taken "a… few minutes… " to mean just that. They walked across to the office door and stopped, but Anne was facing away and too intent on what she was doing to notice them.

"Excuse me," Murdoch said. "We're looking for a black-and-white kitten. You haven't seen one around here by any chance, have you?" Anne turned in her chair and looked up. The surprise on her face lasted for no more than a fraction of a second. Then she smiled, swiveled the chair around to face them, and stood up.

"Well! If it isn't the two cowboys from California. I wondered how long it would be before you showed up here."

"You… what?" Murdoch looked at her uncertainly. She was doing it again already.

"You said you worked on fusion in America, and that Dr. Muir was a friend of your grandfather. It didn't need an Einstein to work out the rest." Anne thought for a moment. "In fact it must have been Dr. Muir who got you in here. Where is she—in Dr. Waring's office?"

That took care of most of the obvious continuations that the conversation might have followed.

"So… what do you do here?" Murdoch moved forward to look at the screen she had been working at. It was packed with lines of computer instruction code. Although Murdoch was primarily a mathematician, machine-language programming was not one of his strengths; he was experienced in using high-level, almost English, languages to formulate problems to be run on computers, but the figures on the screen were used for manipulating processes down at the fundamental level of the machine's registers.

Lee studied the screen with casual interest for a moment. "Real-time I/O coding," he commented. "I didn't know doctors worried about what goes on inside computers. I thought you only needed to know how to talk to them from the outside."

"Oh, that was something I got hooked on when I was at university in London," Anne told them. "We were doing a lot of image processing at one point. I became fascinated at the way in which the computers created pictures you could interact with, so I got myself into a special course to learn how to program them myself." She shrugged. "After that it grew to a kind of hobby. It's come in useful many times though."

"So what's that?" Murdoch asked, gesturing toward the screen.

"It's an image-encoding communications handler I'm working on for linking our system here to the Health Authority's big computers in Edinburgh," she replied. "Part of an idea that Dr. Waring had and wanted to try out." She turned away from the terminal. "Anyhow, what about you two? Have you seen much of the facility yet?"

"Most of it, I reckon," Murdoch said. "We got a bit lost in the subway a few times."

"And what did you think of our modest attempt?"

"Jeez… " Murdoch threw out his hands. "I'd thought I'd seen fusion plants before. What do you want me to say? It's tomorrow today, already."

Lee leaned against the doorpost and inclined his head to indicate the large room behind him, through which he and Murdoch had entered. "Where are all the patients?" he asked. "I know this is a pretty big plant, but why a place this big, equipped with everything? You look all set up for World War III."

"It is a quiet day today," Anne said. "Actually, the fusion facility is only the first phase of what it will be like eventually. Once that's up and running, all kinds of other things will be built over it on the surface… a steel plant, for example. I'm not much of an expert on those things though. But the Medical Department was designed with that kind of growth in mind."

They talked for a while about Murdoch's and Lee's first impressions of Burghead and about its future growth. Murdoch was unable to prevent himself searching her face continually for some sign that she was being more than just polite to a couple of casual acquaintances who had dropped in to say hello, but the eyes that were supposed to mirror the soul worked one way. Eventually it was time to go.

"Maybe we could all get together later since we're up here for the day anyway," Murdoch suggested. "Maybe a bite to eat somewhere. Did you have any special plans?"

"Nothing definite," Anne replied. "I had a large lunch though, so I don't think I could manage a meal. But I could take you up on that offer of a drink that you made last time."

"Sure. Where?"

"There's a pub in a village about half a mile off the main road not far from the plant," she told them. "A lot of Burghead people stop off there for a drink after work. I could meet you there. Maybe you could get to know some more of the people from here too."

Murdoch wasn't particularly interested in meeting any more of the Burghead people, but he tried to sound enthusiastic. "What's it called?" he asked.

"The Aberdeen Angus. Take the main road west for about three miles, and turn off at a sign that saysAchnabackie.It's right in the middle of the first village you come to. You can't miss it."

"About when, six?"

"That would be fine. We usually go in the Lounge Bar. It's straight on through the bar that's inside the front door. Until about six, then?"

"Sure. See you there."

"Take care," Lee said.

 


Page 18

Ten minutes later they were walking with Elizabeth toward the Engineering Block, which contained the Mathematics and Physics Department, along a path below the looming bulk of the Reactor Building.

"So, how was your lady-friend?" Elizabeth inquired. "Pleased to see you, I trust."

"Of course," Murdoch replied. "Two handsome, husky, unattached American males—what more could a girl want? We're meeting her later for a drink."

"My word! You don't waste much time. Now I know how you people got to the Moon so quickly. Anyway, I'm glad I was able to help."

"You always did strike me as a romantic at heart," Murdoch said.

"Perhaps I felt I owed you a favor." Elizabeth was smiling mischievously.

"What are you talking about?" Murdoch asked her, puzzled.

"Maybe I should say I owed the Rosses one. Charles was a professor at Stanford when Herman and I met, you know. He fiddled the timetables around just so that we could work on the same projects together. So, you see, there are romantics at heart in your family too."

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"Anne, come on back over and join the party. We don't have splinter groups in this pub. It isn't sociable." The voice was Trevor's, calling above the background of voices from a circle of Burghead people seated around a table filled with bottles and glasses in one corner of the spacious, oak-beamed lounge. Trevor was a square-built six-footer, with a pink-hued face and wearing a dark blazer with striped tie, who was sitting with three of his pals, Nick, Sam, and Steve, at one end of the group. Anne had been talking to them when Murdoch and Lee arrived at The Bull some two hours earlier. Since then she gravitated toward the two Americans to introduce them to the rest of the crowd, and for the last twenty minutes or so had been talking to Murdoch by the bar, off to one side. Trevor appeared to have grown visibly more irritated by this as the empty glasses in front of him accumulated. At the other end of the table, the rest of the group were talking with Lee about Stateside plans to supplement the U.S. fusion program with orbiting solar-to-microwave converters and other proposed developments.

"Who is he?" Murdoch asked in a lowered voice. "I thought you didn't have any regular guy. I mean, I don't want to make some kind of ass out of myself here."

"Oh, don't take any notice," Anne said, keeping her eyes on Murdoch. "He can get a bit bombastic when he's had a drink or two. He belongs to a rugby club, and I've been there with him a couple of times because they're a good crowd to have a laugh with. That's all there is to it."

"He sounds like I'm trespassing or something." Murdoch looked past Anne's shoulder, but Trevor had turned his head away and was talking to somebody next to him.

"Nonsense," Anne said. "That's for me to decide. I told you, don't take any notice. He's forgotten already that he said it. Now, what were we talking about?"

"You were telling me about Jenny and her disappearing tricks."

"That's right. How about you? Do you have any brothers or sisters?"

"One of each. They're both a bit younger than me. They live with my folks."

"In Chicago?"

"Yes. Iain's twenty-five. He's a born businessman like my pa. My sister wants to be a dancer in the movies. She's mother all over."

"What's her name?"

"Tanya. She's eighteen."

"That's nice. I like that name."

"Hey, Doc," Lee called suddenly from one end of the table. "These guys won't believe we're gonna dig a tunnel under the Atlantic. Come over here and tell 'em I'm serious." It was a chance to rejoin the party without looking submissive.

"Let's go talk to the people," Murdoch murmured. He picked up their glasses from the bar and moved over to where Lee was sitting. Anne followed, pretending not to notice Trevor's glare from the other end.

"He's serious," Murdoch said. "We're gonna dig 'em all over—New York City to the West Coast… Toronto to Texas. Airplanes will be strictly for backwoods routes and museums."

"It makes sense," Lee declared, turning back to the faces listening around him. "Why have to shove all that air out of the way when you can go through tubes where there isn't any air? Why lift motors up and then bring them down again when all you really want to move is the passengers?"

"Just like that," Jerry said flatly. Jerry was a cryogenics specialist who worked at one of the injector nodes. "Like a well in the garden."

"Why not?" Lee asked simply.

Sheila, an artist of some sort from the plant, looked up incredulously at Murdoch and then back at Lee. "But what are you going to dig them with? You simply can't get coolies these days, and even if you could, there aren't enough shovels."

"You melt your way through," Lee said. "Heavy currents are pretty good at melting rock under high pressure. They're doing it in Utah for deep mining. The shield even makes its own glass to line the tunnel behind it as it goes. It works great."

Tom, who worked with Jerry, gave Murdoch an appealing look. "Okay, but… fourteen thousand miles an hour?… Lee's saying the bloody trains will be able to do fourteen thousand miles an hour. Surely not."

"That's what the studies predict," Murdoch said with a shrug. "Coast to coast in just over twenty minutes, city center to city center. Why not? There's no air drag, and if you levitate the cars magnetically, there's no friction worth talking about either."

Anne moved through between two of the chairs and sat down in one of two vacant seats between Sheila and Tom. Murdoch took the other.

"That's fantastic," Tom said. "I'd read a few things about something like that, but I didn't know it'd got a definite go-ahead."

"I've had a thought," Jerry said suddenly. "If they got it up a little bit more, to eighteen thousand, they wouldn't have to bother levitating it at all. It'd be in orbit!"

"Hey, an underground satellite!" Lee exclaimed. "How about that?" They all laughed.

"So when will all this happen?" Sheila asked, leaning forward to look at Lee. "What dates are we talking about?"

Lee finished a long swig from his pint glass and wiped his mouth with the side of his hand. "They should start the transcontinental ones inside a couple of years. You'll have to wait a while longer for the Atlantic one though. They've still got to figure out exactly what they're gonna do about crossing tectonic plate margins."

"These people make me bloody sick." The voice came suddenly from the far end of the table. The conversation died abruptly. It was Trevor, sounding slightly slurred. "I'm sick of these b-bloody Yanks, coming over here and telling us how bloody clever they are all the time," he pronounced. As he spoke, he looked from one to another of his own henchmen at the far end, but his voice was loud enough to carry to everybody, obviously deliberately. His eyes had taken on a detectable glaze, and his face was a shade redder than it had been earlier. From the corner of his eye, Murdoch saw Lee stiffen.

"Aw, shut up, Trev," Jerry threw back, trying to make his tone sound bored. "Now you're spoiling the party. We don't want to talk about that."

"That's a point," Tom said, turning to Murdoch and getting back to the previous topic. "How are they going to get around that?" Murdoch started to describe a recent proposal that involved telescopic sections of tunnel that would pivot inside twenty-mile-long excavated caverns to compensate for the drift of the plates. As he spoke, he stole a glance over Anne's shoulder at Trevor, who was glowering at them while draining the last of yet another Scotch.

"It's true though," Trevor came in again from the far end. "We all know they've done some clever things. Why can't they leave it at that? Why do they always have to come over here and act so bloody superior about it?Webeat them hollow with heavy-ion fusion, but we don't keep on about it all the time, do we?"

"Nobody's acting superior," Anne said curtly. "Butsomepeople seem to be doing their best to appear inferior."

"Well said, Anne," Jerry approved. "Shut up, Trev."

"You can't tell Trev to shut up," Sam said from the far end, feigning a note of surprise in his voice. "That won't do. Whose side are you supposed to be on?"

Sheila sighed and looked imploringly from one end to the other. "There aren't any sides over anything. For Christ's sake don't start getting silly, Trevor, why don't you go onto Cokes or something?"

"I prefer to stay with the Scotch, thank you. Why? What are you trying to say?"

"She's trying to tell you you're over the mark," Tom said. "It's time you laid off."

"I'm all right. All I said was some of these foreigners make me sick… " Trevor leaned back heavily in his chair and seemed to lose the thread of what he had been about to say. He scowled and raised his eyes to look in Murdoch's direction. "Coming over here and carrying on as if it wasthemwho educated the world… all talk." He brought his eyes to focus on Murdoch directly, squinting as if he were trying to peer through a haze. "You see… there is this thing calledcul-ture,old boy." He pronounced the word slowly, as if expecting them not to have heard it before. "There is more to life, you may be surprised to learn, than just making more and shoddier machines. But the colonies probably haven't got round to finding out about that yet."

"I was over there last year," Sam said casually. "Do you know, they put ice in sherry?"

Nick, who was sitting on Trevor's other side, gave an exaggerated gasp of disbelief. "You're joking! That's as bad as serving unchilled white."

"Oh, they do that too," Sam told him. "In fact they—"

"Stop it!" Anne cut in sharply. "If you can't hold a few drinks, then don't make a spectacle of the fact. Aren't manners supposed to count somewhere as well?"

"It's a sham society," Steve joined in, ignoring her. "Know what I mean—all plastic and tinsel on the outside, but nothing inside. Anything that glitters fascinates them."

"Did you ever come across that sissie thing they call football?" Nick asked.

"They wear spacesuits for it," Sam said. "Air-conditioned and spray-sanitized, I think." He shook his head wonderingly. "They make a big fuss about it though."

Trevor leaned forward and held his jacket out to display the badge on the breast pocket. "See that? English League rugby badge, that is. What you call aman'sgame… I wonder why it never caught on in the States. I mean, they're alwaystalkingabout their he-man footballers and their bloody Marines, aren't they?"

"Maybe we grew out of needing to prove things," Murdoch suggested, deciding that things had gone far enough. He held Trevor's eye steadily and forced himself to remain calm.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Trevor demanded.

"Burghead's quite a place. I'm impressed. I didn't expect to find it being run by schoolkids. I thought you'd have left such nonsense behind a long time ago."

"Are you saying we're incompetent?"

"No. I'm just saying that right now you're acting pretty dumb."

"Dumb?" Trevor shot a puzzled glance at Nick and Sam. "What does he mean, dumb? I'm speaking, aren't I? Is the poor chap deaf or something?"

"They get their words mixed up," Sam said. "I think he means stupid."

"Oh, I see… " Trevor set his glass down on the table and nodded slowly. "We're getting personal, are we? I wasn't being personal. I was just talking about things in general. Wouldn't you say he was being personal?"

"Very personal," Nick agreed. "Quite uncalled for, I'd say."

"Listen, Yank," Trevor said, looking back round abruptly and speaking in a harsher, and now openly derisive, voice. "Ihappen to be at Burghead because I qualified to work at Burghead.I'mhere because I'm a bloody good engineer, and I've got a degree from European Energy Community's university to say so. Why areyouhere?"

"You know why he's here," Sam said, making little effort to disguise the sneer. "He's traveling tourist-class. His grandad knows Lizzie Muir."

"You mean they're not qualified?" Nick asked in mock surprise.

"I think they dropped out," Sam replied.

"God knows what business it is of yours," Sheila said, sounding exasperated. "But if you must know, Murdoch's grandfather happens to be a Nobel Prize winner… for physics."

"So?" Trevor demanded, gesturing toward Murdoch. "What's that supposed to make him? My father was a surgeon. That doesn't make me a member of the BMA."

"It means I don't need pieces of paper and boy-scout badges on my coat to remind me who I am," Murdoch said, allowing his tone to become sarcastic. "What's left in there when you peel it all off?"

"Wrong. They stand for something that matters," Trevor shot back.

"That's what people who wrap boxes in plastic and tinsel say."

Trevor's face darkened. "Are you trying to make a fool of me, Yank?"

"There's no need. You manage okay on your own."

Trevor stood up from his chair, lurching against the table in the process and slopping some of the drinks. His jowls had inflated, and his expression was ugly. Lee was on his feet in the same instant, facing him from a few feet away. His movement had been smooth and catlike; his face was expressionless, but his muscular frame stood poised on a hairspring. Murdoch gripped the arms of his chair and forced himself to stay put. Lee could probably have taken all four of them even without Murdoch's help, but that wasn't the way.


Page 19

"Lee, cool it," he said. "It's not worth breaking up a nice pub over."

Lee kept his eyes fixed unwaveringly on Trevor. "I've had enough of all this double-talk," he grated. "If you're trying to say something, let me hear it to my face straight-out. We don't have to mess up the pub. The parking lot outside'll do fine."

"Sit down, you silly sod," Nick hissed at Trevor from the corner of his mouth. "He'll take you apart after the amount you've had." Trevor obviously wasn't going to be able to count on any backup from that quarter. Suddenly he looked less certain of himself.

Murdoch relaxed, moving back in his chair, in an attempt to defuse the situation. "Okay, Trevor, we agree with you," he said. "Rugby's a tough sport. So why don't we leave it out on the field where it belongs, huh? This is getting crazy. The way we're going on, a guy's gonna need a spacesuit soon to have a drink."

"Oh, thank God," Jerry said, sounding relieved. "Come on, Trev. Knock it off. The man's talking sense."

"Now let's see a bit more," Sheila suggested.

Trevor hesitated for a moment longer. Lee remained motionless, watching him. Then Trevor lowered himself slowly and heavily back into his seat, and made an awkward pushing motion with his hand. "If that's what you want… What's the point anyhow?" He sounded surly, but underneath grateful to let the matter go at that. Lee said nothing as he uncoiled back into his chair, shedding tension like a spring being unwound. An uncomfortable silence followed.

At last Tom turned to look across at Murdoch. "I didn't know about your grandfather. When did he get a Nobel?"

"Back in the eighties," Murdoch said, keeping his eyes on Trevor for a moment longer before shifting them toward Tom. "It was for some work he was involved in at Stanford."

"What kind of work?" Sheila asked.

"The first isolation of free quarks. He moved there from Princeton to work on the big Stanford accelerator."

The conversation gradually picked up again. Trevor and his three pals talked among themselves about other things until a respectable time had passed, then got up and left together with a few perfunctory good-nights to the rest of the company. At once a more relaxed atmosphere descended.

"Whew, that feels better," Jerry said. "For a moment I thought we were going to have a real barney. What on earth's got into Trev tonight?"

"I think he thought he had territorial rights," Tom murmured, nodding toward Anne.

"Gee, I didn't mean to start anything like that," Murdoch said. "As far as I was concerned, we were just talking."

"Shut up!" Anne exclaimed indignantly. "You're sounding as if you're apologizing for something. If Trevor had any thoughts like that, he should have asked me first. If anybody needs to apologize, it ought to be me… for calling you cowboys earlier on today. You handled the whole thing very well."

"Cowboys are from Texas," Murdoch told her, grinning. "Californians are different."

"You mean Californians don't wear their hats and smoke cigars in the bathtub?"

"Certainly not," Murdoch replied. "We take showers."

"With hats and cigars," Jerry threw in.

"Of course."

Sheila laughed and sipped her drink, then looked at Lee. "Were you bluffing?" she asked. "For a moment you really looked as if you'd have had a go at all four of them, never mind Trevor."

"He would have," Murdoch said. "Don't worry about it. Lee can handle himself if he needs to."

"Ah, what the hell," Lee grunted. "It's over. Forget it."

"He's right," Jerry declared. "Look, we've got a nice-sized crowd for a party now. How about going on somewhere? We could go into town and try one of the clubs. I could use a bite to eat too. What's the vote?"

"Sounds good," Tom said. The others nodded.

"Right then," Jerry declared. "Unanimous it is. One more round before we go. This one's mine. Same again for everybody?"

 

Midnight had come and gone and been forgotten. Murdoch and Anne were sitting with their heads close together, talking across a corner of the table in a dimly lit alcove of the nightclub. Tom and Sheila were together on the dance floor, while Lee and Jerry were at the bar talking with a couple of girls who had come in about an hour before. The band had burned off its surplus energy and was slowing down in preparation for calling it a night.

"Know something?" Murdoch said. "You smell nice. What is it?"

Anne smiled and shrugged without looking up. "Nothing special. I've been at work all day. Maybe it's just something that exists in the nose of the… oh, I don't know. What's a word like 'beholder' that means smell?"

"Hell, how should I know? I don't write dictionaries." He thought for a second. "How about 'philodorer'? That ought to mean 'liker of nice scents.' "

Anne giggled and placed her hand on his arm. "You really are crazy. What would a Texan have said?"

"I can't imagine."

"Where did you get black hair like that? I like men with thick, black hair."

"Grandpa's used to be the same. You'll have to meet him sometime."

"I'd like to. He sounds fascinating."

"You know," Murdoch said, leaning closer, "a guy could get really fond of somebody like you, given enough time." He traced his fingertip lightly along her arm. "Why don't we do something like this again soon… just the two of us?"

Anne appeared to think about it for a second or two, then answered, "Yes, I think I'd like that. Is it a promise? I'll hold you to it, you know."

"You'd better believe it."

Anne slid her fingers over the back of his hand and entwined them loosely with his. They felt cool, smooth, and exhilarating. "Are you going to be over here for very long?" she asked.

"Who knows?" Murdoch replied. "I guess it depends on how things go. We're not really sure yet how much work there is to do at Storbannon."

"Then I hope you run into all kinds of problems that you didn't bargain for," Anne told him. She smiled, and Murdoch could see that the one-way mirrors had been switched off.

Chapter 14Prologue1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738Epilogue

The time-communication model that had been tentatively proposed held that a signal transmitted back from the future would remain imprinted on the new timeline established in the process. The whole of the timeline that lay after the event of the signal being received, however, which included the event of its being sent, would be altered according to the new circumstances. One of the purposes of the tests that had been run throughout that week was to test this hypothesis more thoroughly.

In one set of tests, the machine had been programmed to send a signal back to a point in time advanced one second from the point at which the machine had last received a signal in the past. On the new timeline thus established, the receipt of the time-advanced signal would itself become the most recently received one; therefore the process would repeat to give a series of loops back into the past. Every loop would be one second shorter than the previous one. Hence the previously received signal would remain imprinted upon the part of the timeline that lay ahead of, and therefore outside, a loop executed later. This would happen with every loop, and every signal transmitted in the series would remain on the final timeline left at the end of it all.

According to the model this would not be observed when the converse procedure was applied, that is, when the loop was lengthened by one second with each iteration instead of shortened. In this case a later loop would fully enclose an earlier one. The whole of the earlier loop, including the events of both its being sent and received, would lie on the section of timeline that the later signal would reconfigure. Therefore no trace of any loop except the final one should remain at the conclusion of tests of this type.

By Friday morning the first phase of tests, which involved signals derived from determinate computer algorithms, was complete. The team eagerly inspected the results and found to their elation that they were as the model predicted. Accordingly, in a great flurry of excitement they began to prepare the system for the first part of the second phase of test, which would use random data, intending to allow the system to run automatically once more while they got down to the task of analyzing the phase-one results in more detail.

But when they went down to the lab to set up the second phase, they ran into an unexpected difficulty: The receiver was registering continuous activity, but the computer was unable to extract anything intelligible from whatever it was receiving. In the early afternoon the problem suddenly disappeared for about two hours, then reappeared, continuing until late evening. At ten o'clock that night all was well again, but shortly after midnight the trouble began once more. By Saturday morning the situation was still the same. Cartland concluded that there had to be a fault somewhere in the system. He announced to the impatient team that there was no choice but to strip the machine down and put off the intended tests until the trouble could be located and cured.

 

Cartland rested his elbows on the edge of the bench and peered intently at the waveforms being displayed on the screen of the signal analyzer connected to the exposed electronics inside one of the system cabinets. He consulted a chart draped over the bench beside him, frowned, clicked his tongue several times, and shook his head.

"There isn't a bloody thing wrong with the phase decoder or the array generator," he pronounced. "This is preposterous. Run the output diagnostic for the Bragg coupler and see what that says."

"I just did," Lee told him from the main console. "It checks out okay. No faults."

"Preposterous," Cartland muttered again. "That's twice through the whole ruddy system from end to end, and not a thing. There has to be something in here that's doing it. What about that vector address dump, Murdoch? Found anything?"

Murdoch shook his head without looking up from the desk behind Lee, where he was poring over a sheet of densely printed hardcopy. "I haven't got through all of it yet, but it looks clean so far."

"Well, get a move on then, there's a good chap," Cartland said. "We can't make a start on the discriminators until you've finished that."

"Sorry. I guess I'm not thinking too fast today."

"He's in love," Lee remarked casually as he keyed another block of code onto the screen in front of him.

"Oh, God help us," Cartland muttered.

At the desk, Murdoch smiled to himself but said nothing. Yesterday he had called her twice, once in her office at Burghead to ask if she had a hangover too, and once at home in the evening for no reason in particular. That morning she had called him, ostensibly to ask if he had found out who Pamela McKenzie was. They had arranged a dinner date in Inverness for Sunday evening. Sunday was only tomorrow, but Sunday evening seemed a long way away.

 

Early on Saturday evening the problem suddenly disappeared again. By ten o'clock that night it hadn't returned, and Cartland began to suspect that it wouldn't.

"That's a strange thing you seem to be telling us, Ted," Charles said from his chair in the library late that night as they sat talking about it. "You mean the machine has been working perfectly all evening? What did you do to it?"

"Nothing." Cartland shrugged and showed his palms for emphasis. "All I've done is take bits out, test them, and put them back. But I tell you there's nothing wrong with it."

"How about some kind of intermittent fault?" Charles suggested.

"Possible, I suppose. But if so, there isn't a trace of it now. I've tried all kinds of things to reproduce it, but the whole machine is as clean as a whistle."

"So we can carry on from where we left off?"

"I don't see why not."

Lee turned around to face the room from where he had been standing deep in thought for the last few minutes. "How do we know it was any kind of fault?" he asked. "The problem didn't show any signs of being intermittent while it was there. And if it wasn't intermittent, why isn't it there now?"

"What else could it have been?" Murdoch asked.

"I'm not sure," Lee replied slowly. "But I've been thinking about those raw detector waveforms we looked at while it was going on. I'd have said it looked more like some kind of interference."

"Interference?" Charles looked puzzled. "From where? How could it be? It would have to be something propagating through tau space to affect pair production. What else is there that produces tau waves?"

"I don't know," Lee replied. "But we could go back over everything and have a look. We've got portions of the waveforms stored. Maybe if we played them back through the analyzers, they'd show up something."

"We could," Cartland agreed. His tone was dubious, as if he saw little point to such an exercise.

Charles said the rest for him. "Och, why should we be bothering with stuff like that? We've lost enough time as it is. If the machine's working now, let's just be thankful for that and stop messing around with it. If we get any more trouble, we can worry some more about what's causing it then."

"I agree," Cartland said.

"Me too," Murdoch declared. "Sorry, Lee, but you just lost the vote. We're a strictly democratic institution."

Lee shrugged and left the matter at that.


Page 20

A few minutes later Charles bade the others good night and went to bed. Cartland suggested to the other two that it wouldn't take the three of them long to tidy the machine up in readiness to commence the phase-two tests first thing in the morning. Murdoch and Lee agreed, and they all proceeded on down to the lab.

 

Cartland reassembled the subunits strewn across the top of the bench, rapidly ran through a series of checks, nodded his head in satisfaction, and slid the assembly back into the equipment rack from which he had taken it. Then he began reattaching wires and connectors, his hands moving swiftly and deftly with practiced ease. Lee leaned with his elbows resting on one of the low cubicles and watched with the unspoken respect of one professional for another.

"Doc says that you spent a lot of time in the British Air Force," Lee said after a while. "Was that where you studied electronics?"

"RoyalAir Force, old boy," Cartland said without looking up. "Yes, I suppose I did pick most of it up there. I was mixed up with military types and gadgets long before I joined the jolly old RAF though… ever since I was a boy, in fact."

"Charles once said that you were born in Malaya. Is that right?"

"Yes… born into an Army family. My father was an instructor in a school of jungle warfare that the Australians ran in Malaya in the 1960s… mainly for U.S. Rangers and Special Forces, actually. He was with the British Army, of course, but attached to the Aussies. When the war in Vietnam fell apart in 1970 whenever-it-was, he moved to Australia, so that was where I grew up." Cartland shrugged as he tightened the restraining clips of a bus microconnector. "You know how it is—the town wasn't much more than a glorified Army camp and air base. I got interested in electronics and flying and that kind of thing, and when we moved back to England I went to Cambridge for a while, then joined up."

"The RAF?" Lee said.

"That's right. After a while they sent me to the U.S.A. for shuttle training in Nevada. Spent a year there. Then went to Germany to work with the people who were designing the E.S.A. shuttle, then to the Sahara to fly it."

"You sure got around."

"That's not all of it either," Murdoch threw in from where he was tidying up the cables at the rear of one of the racks. "Tell him the rest, Ted."

"Well," Cartland said, "to cut a long story short, I suppose I became a sort of Air Force consultant on designing orbital vehicles. I did that in the U.K. for a while, then went back to Australia to do testing at the missile range at Woomera. Then when the Americans and the Europeans merged their space programs, I went to Washington to do technical liaison."

"So how did you wind up at Cornell?" Lee asked. "That was where you met Charles, wasn't it?"

"That's right. I got to know him fairly well while working in Washington. They were doing some interesting things for NASA on orbiting observatories. Charles was with NASA at the time, and that was how we bumped into each other."

"I can see why you never got married, Ted," Lee remarked.

"Good heavens! No time for anything like that." Cartland looked positively shaken by the idea, as if the possibility had occurred to him for the first time in his life. "Mind you, there's no shortage of popsy on that kind of circuit, so there's no reason to miss out on anything. I mean… just because a chap likes a drink now and then, it doesn't mean he has to go mad and buy himself a whole bloody pub, does it?" He straightened up and placed the tools that he had been using back on the bench, where Maxwell was pawing frantically at a CRT screen in a futile attempt to trap the flickering trace. Then he moved over to the console and ran quickly through a sequence of system checks. "There," he announced. "That seems to be it. I'll leave it running in monitor mode in case anything comes in. Talking about drinks, I wouldn't say no to a quick noggin before turning in. How about you chaps?"

"Sounds like a good idea," Lee said.

"I might as well put these covers back while I'm at it," Murdoch called from behind the rack. "You go on upstairs and set 'em up. I'll be there in a couple of minutes." Cartland and Lee left the lab, and Murdoch heard their voices fading away along the corridor outside.

He finished replacing the covers, came around from behind the rack, and stood for a while staring at the console of the machine. It was strange, he thought, that everybody could appear outwardly so nonchalant and matter-of-fact about it—a discovery that seemed on the verge of rocking the whole of established science back on its heels. And yet, inside, surely the others were all as excited as he was. He tried to picture the possibilities that would be opened up when they could relax the rules and communicate freely with pasts that had been and with futures that still lay ahead. Staggering possibilities, which in all probability none of them had even glimpsed yet.

His eyes strayed to a sheet of hardcopy printout that was lying on the desk by the console. It was a memory map that he had used earlier in the day, showing which parts of the system's memory were reserved for programs and other purposes and which were left free. For no particular reason he mentally selected a portion of the unallocated space and decided that, when the time came, there would be his own personal mailbox from the future. Crazy!

And then an intriguing realization dawned on him: By virtue of his having made that simple decision, every version of himself who existed along the timeline ahead as it then stood would possess that same knowledge, by remembering having been him now. For the same reason, they would remember having thought exactly what he was thinking at that very moment. Therefore, if any of them had anything to say that was sufficiently important to warrant breaking the rules for any reason, this would be the obvious moment in the past to send it to.

With a shrug and not really expecting to find anything, he moved a step forward and tapped a code into the touchboard to interrogate the mailbox. As he had expected, nothing was there. He laughed inwardly at himself for being silly, scooped Maxwell out of the trash bin below the desk, and closed down the lab for the night.

But the thought still intrigued him as he walked back along the white-walled passage that led to the foot of the stairs. He would continue to check his mailbox regularly from then on… just in case. Something might come in one day. And there was no harm in simply interrogating an area of memory. That wouldn't involve the breaking of any rules.

Chapter 15Prologue1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738Epilogue

As Murdoch came down the main staircase after getting up and showering the next morning, the first thing he heard was Morna's high-pitched voice coming from somewhere immediately below him.

"I cannot see him, Robert. He's gone right down inside. I can hear him scrabblin' around somewhere down here near the leg."

Murdoch came down the lower flight to find Robert dismantling the suit of early sixteenth-century English armor that stood by the foot of the stairs, while Morna watched anxiously from behind his shoulder. The helmet, gorget, and pauldrons were on the floor surrounded by a heap of ironmongery that had once been an arm. Robert was muttering profanities to himself while he fiddled with the straps securing the breastplate.

"What's the idea?" Murdoch asked cheerfully. "Thinking of selling it on the side as scrap?"

"Och, it's Maxwell," Morna told him. "He stepped off o' the stairs and into the helmet. The visor fell shut behind him, and now he's gone down inside."

"He's fallen into the leg and cannot get back up," Robert grumbled blackly. "I'll have to be takin' the whole damn thing to pieces now to get him out."

"Grilled cat for dinner today, huh?" Murdoch said with a laugh, and walked away in the direction of the kitchen.

After breakfast he went down to the lab just for the hell of it and checked his mailbox. There were no deliveries. Then he went back upstairs and joined Charles in his study. Charles had some calculations that he was particularly anxious to complete in time for a clean start on Monday morning, and Murdoch had agreed to spend the whole day helping out until the time came for him to leave for Inverness to meet Anne. The work divided itself conveniently into two parts that could be tackled separately and merged together later on, and they worked largely in silence throughout the morning. They broke off to have lunch with Cartland and Lee, who had been in the lab setting the system up for phase two, and resumed immediately afterward. It was a necessary but not especially exciting part of the research, and Murdoch found the hours dragging. But he consoled himself with pleasant anticipations for the evening that lay ahead.

It was approaching five in the afternoon when Murdoch suddenly screwed his face into a puzzled frown. A check-function that he had just finished evaluating had failed to give the expected result. He sighed and began the procedure again, using a terminal connected into the datagrid. Ten minutes later the same, wrong, answer was staring him in the face. He gritted his teeth against rising impatience and recalled to the screen a summary file of the results he had stored before lunch. It was five-thirty when he groaned aloud and slumped back in his chair.

"What is it?" Charles asked, looking up from his littered desk on the far side of the study.

Murdoch gestured wearily toward the screen. "I got the third integral of the theta field wrong. It's carried on right through all the envelope profiles. Everything I've done since lunchtime has been garbage." Charles got up, came across the room, and stood looking from the papers lying at Murdoch's elbow to the screen and back again while Murdoch explained briefly what had happened.

"Ah well," Charles said with a heavy sigh. "I suppose it's better you found out about it now than in a week's time. Why don't you pack it in now and give your brain a rest. You can straighten it out tomorrow. Anyhow, it's almost time you were thinking of getting away to your fooling around in Inverness, is it not?"

"Ah hell, that'd mess up all your plans for tomorrow," Murdoch said. He heaved a long sigh and cursed himself inwardly. "Look, I'll give her a call and put tonight off. Now I know where the problem is here, I'll still be able to get it done tonight. It'll be a straight substitution when I've figured the right integral."

"You can't do that," Charles protested. "That's no way to be treating your lassie."

"No, really, I'd feel better about it if I fixed it and got it out of the way."

"There's no need. Dammit, a day sooner or later won't make any difference to me," Charles said dubiously.

"It will to me," Murdoch insisted.

 

He called Anne fifteen minutes later from the viset in the sitting room. The way her face lit up when she saw him made him feel worse. She was obviously disappointed when he explained the situation, but understanding, and insisted that he couldn't think of letting Charles down under the circumstances. She was due to work late-shift on Monday and Tuesday, but could make it for Wednesday. It seemed a hundred years away.

All through dinner Murdoch was far from happy. By then, his imagination was starting to play tricks and blow the whole thing out of proportion in his mind. He could see how it must have looked to her, even though she hadn't actually said anything to suggest it—a precedent that said computers and theories would always take first place. That wasn't true, of course, but how could Anne possibly be expected to know it wasn't when she had no inkling of what was happening at Storbannon and what it all meant? Andhisknowing that it wasn't true made matters all the worse. The rational part of him conceded that he was probably exaggerating everything in his mind, but still there was an emotional part that wouldn't stop worrying about it. He knew it was adolescent, but that didn't help much.

After dinner, still moody, he left the others and started walking through the main hallway on his way back to the study to begin work again. As he passed the door that led down to the lab, an insane thought hit him from nowhere. He stopped dead in his tracks.

The mailbox! It could remove the whole problem—literally. At this very moment he, or at least a "him," could be halfway to Inverness.

A sinking feeling came with the realization that something inside him was yielding to the idea. The rational part of his mind clutched wildly for straws, reciting over and over in his head all the reasons why such an action would be utterly and completely out of the question. But even as he contemplated it, the emotions that were in control were guiding his feet to the top of the stairs.

His reason came spluttering back to the surface when the message was composed and staring back at him from the screen, awaiting only the press of a single key to send it back to the destination that he had specified. He shook his head and blinked at the words in front of him, as if he had just awakened from a dream and was seeing them for the first time. What the hell did he think he was doing? Nobody fully understood the complexities of meddling with things like this yet. And besides, doing so was against all the rules that he had agreed to. No, it was unthinkable.

He had never sent back a signal that would alter a past event. None of the team had. They couldn't, because of the way the process worked. Anybody who sent back such a signal would alter the past that had molded his recollections, and in doing so would establish a new timeline that included a new self whose recollections would be consistent with the signal being received and whatever else followed as a consequence of it. The "self" who sent the signal would no longer exist on the new timeline; he would have been erased, and therefore could never exist to remember that the event had ever taken place.


Page 21

Erased? Murdoch had been about to erase himself? Something cold and slithery was turning somersaults along his spine at the thought of it. He sat back slowly in the chair and shook his head.

And then suddenly, he heard the door leading down to the lab being opened. Footsteps began descending the stairs, and the voices of Charles and Cartland came floating in from the passage outside. Murdoch was seized by an irrational panic; his finger shot out instinctively to delete the words that were glowing on the screen. But for a long time while he had been sitting there thinking, his mind had been subconsciously fixating on theSendkey with a morbid fascination.

He hit the wrong button.

His eyes widened with disbelief as they stared stupefied at his hand. But nothing had happened. He didn't know what should have, but something was surely wrong… like the feeling he always had in the dentist's chair when he wanted to tell them that the anesthetic they had just given him wasn't going to work.…

 

"He's fallen into the leg and cannot get back up," Robert grumbled blackly. "I'll have to be takin' the whole damn thing to pieces now to get him back out."

"Grilled cat for dinner today, huh?" Murdoch said with a laugh, and walked away in the direction of the kitchen.

After breakfast he went down to the lab just for the hell of it and checked his mailbox. A second later he had sunk into the operator's chair in front of the console and was staring in astonishment at the screen.

It was saying something about the theta-field integral connected with the work he had promised to do that day with Charles. He swallowed hard and shook his head in disbelief as he leaned forward to study the message more closely. It seemed to be nothing more than a detail of a trivial error. The whole thing was ridiculous. What could possibly have been so important about something like that that it justified breaking all the team's rules? He had no way of telling; the message didn't go into any detail. He shrugged to himself, noted the information on a scrap of paper, deleted the record from the system and, still mystified, sauntered back upstairs to join Charles.

 

The dinner had been superb and the wine pleasantly mellowing. The music was soft and slow, and Anne's body swayed like warm, liquid velvet as she danced close to him.

And she smelled nice.

"I don't want to go home," she murmured into his shoulder.

"You shouldn't even be thinking about that," he told her. "There's lots of time left yet."

"Not enough. It's been a nice evening."

"Mmm… "

"You wouldn't believe how much I've been looking forward to tonight. I had an awful premonition you were going to call at the last minute and put it off." She giggled softly. "There, doesn't that sound terribly schoolgirlish?"

"Nope. It sounds crazy. Why would I go and do something like that?"

"Oh, I don't know… You might have got too wrapped up in that work you're doing to tear yourself away. Something like that."

"Now that's really crazy. You don't think I'd have called it off just over a few lousy sums."

"You never know with scientists."

"No way in the world."

 

A week later Murdoch was still puzzling from time to time over what could have been so important about a trivial third integral that it was worth breaking the rules and jeopardizing the whole experiment.

Chapter 16Prologue1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738Epilogue

Dr. Ahmul Shajawnpur stood frowning thoughtfully out of the window of his office in the Casualty Department of the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Calcutta, absently fingering the tie cord of the surgical mask dangling below his chin. In over twenty years of medicine he had never come across anything like this. He turned away from the window after a while and looked again at the computer-generated body-scan still being displayed on the large wall-screen opposite his desk.

The body from which the scan had been generated belonged to an insurance broker who had been admitted a few hours earlier that day, and who was still recovering under sedation. The man had collapsed suddenly on the deck of a boat on the river, in the course of a day's sailing with some friends. Heart attack, everybody had said.

The thin line, enhanced by computer to stand out clearly on the image, entered the lumbar region above the waist and to the right of the spine; from there it traced a smooth, shallow curve through muscle, arteries, lung, and bones to exit through the left shoulder an inch behind the clavicle. Analysis had shown it to comprise a microscopically thin hairline of devastated cells, seemingly torn apart by some agency and, from the lab tests performed on tiny samples of the cell debris, subjected to considerable heat. The line reminded Shajawnpur of a track from a bubble-chamber picture, as if something had passed right through the broker's body from lower-right back to upper-left front. Something such as what? What was small enough to pass through a man's body without killing him, dense enough to drill through bone, and hot enough to ionize sodium, potassium, and carbon?

He leaned forward and touched a pad on the panel by his desk to switch to another view. The new image showed the broker's body positioned on the scanning table bent at the waist with the left arm extended forward and the right arm flexed and drawn back. According to the friends who had seen the incident, the broker had been hauling in a rope just before he collapsed, and to the best of their recollection had been stooped in that kind of posture. It was interesting. Allowing for the approximations involved, with the body in that position, the mysterious track became a straight line. What moved more or less horizontally over water and passed through a man's body as if it wasn't there? Shajawnpur shook his head. He would have to bring a specialist in on this, he decided.

A specialist in what?

He sighed, sat down at the desk, and entered a note into the terminal to bring the case to the attention of the staff surgeon when be made his rounds the next morning. His patient seemed to be in no immediate danger. He closed the file.

 

Professor Ferdinand Chaurrez, from the Geophysics Department of the University of Bogota, Colombia, stared suspiciously at the data-plot pinned to the wall before him in the cramped laboratory trailer. The trailer was one of two parked amid a small jumble of portable cabins, tents, oil drums, crates, and a few miscellaneous vehicles at the upper end of an arid valley in the rocky foothills of the Cordillera Orvental, a northern extension of the Andes. The plot showed the computer's interpretation of the latest data relayed from equipment that was measuring cosmic-ray intensities at the bottom of an unused mine about twenty miles to the west. Behind the professor, José Calliano, one of his graduate students, perched on the edge of an analysis bench and watched curiously.

"That one doesn't make sense," Chaurrez said at last. "According to the readings, a single particle occurred there"—he pointed with a pen—"that sent everything off-scale. That would mean an energy at least four orders of magnitude greater than anything that has ever been recorded. And it could even have been much greater than that; from this there's no way of telling."

"I thought the same thing," José told him. "I've never heard of anything like it either, but I thought you ought to see it. Another strange thing is the associated trajectory coordinates. Look at them. According to those figures, the particle would have been moving practically horizontally. I've never heard of a cosmic-ray particle that traveled through a mineshaft sideways, have you?"

"Was this the only one?" Chaurrez asked.

"Just that one."

"That's not a cosmic-ray particle at all," the professor declared. "You've got a fault in the equipment somewhere. I'd forget this batch of data if I were you; it's probably all corrupt. Make sure the computer's okay. If anything like it happens again, take a jeep up to the mine and check the equipment there. Otherwise forget about it."

"You don't think it could be something else?"

"Yes, it could. If you can think of something that flies through solid rock horizontally with at least a hundred thousand times more energy than the most energetic cosmic-ray particle ever detected and probably a lot more, then yes, I suppose it could be that. Alternatively it could be the result of an intermittent equipment fault. Now, which of those two hypotheses do you think best accounts for the facts and requires the minimum of assumptions?"

"Okay," José said, grinning. "Point taken. I'll go and check over the computer."

 

In a structural analysis laboratory of the Instrumentation Commissioning section of the Skycom Corporation's space-launch facility on the edge of the Western Australian desert, John Skelly, Director of Quality Control, gazed grimly at the 3-D color hologram being presented at medium-to-high magnification.

"Somebody's head will roll for this," he growled in a bass-baritone rumble that was barely above a whisper. A few of the other men standing around the display table shuffled their feet uncomfortably.

The hologram, generated from the output of a scanning electron microscope, reproduced a small part of the surface of the mirror for an astronomical telescope being assembled in orbit; the mirror had been scheduled to be lifted into orbit for mounting in the telescope in two months' time. For over a year the mirror surface had been ground, polished, measured with laser interferometers, and then polished some more until it was accurate to within a small fraction of a wavelength of light. And now, after all that painstaking care, this.

Whatever it was had gouged a microscopic furrow for a short distance along what had yesterday been a flawless surface. The furrow was shallow at one end, but deepened rapidly toward the other, where it terminated in a hole that continued on into the glass. X-ray images had shown that the hole continued on in a straight line right through the body of the mirror, making a slight descending angle with the surface. The far end of the hole had been located a small distance down the mirror's edge on the opposite side. The furrow was undetectable by the naked eye, but it was enough to make the mirror useless for the delicate measurements for which it had been designed.

"Do we know yet what did it?" Skelly demanded, looking up at the circle of faces. The heads shook wordlessly from side to side. Somebody shrugged and showed his hands. "But bloody hell, don't we even have a clue?" Skelly raged. "There was nothing wrong with it yesterday. We must know what's been going on around it since then, for Christ's sake!"

"We've checked all the records and logs," one of the technicians told him, not for the first time. "Everything has been kept well inside spec. There hasn't been anything unusual in any way. No accidents reported, no faults on anything, no—"

"Something bloody unusual has happened all right!" Skelly exploded. "Look at that, man. Are you telling me something just came out of nowhere and drilled its way through five feet of solid glass?" He straightened up from the image, and his face darkened even further. "By the end of today I want an answer," he told them. "I want to know what did it, and who was responsible. The salary of whoever it was can go toward paying the penalty clause in the contract." With that he turned on his heel and stamped out of the lab.

An uneasy silence descended.

"So, what next?" somebody asked at last. "Where do we go from here? I'm not even sure what we're supposed to be looking for."

"Whatever did that," somebody else replied, waving toward the hologram.

The first speaker pulled a face and stared glumly at the image.

"The only thing that could have done that would be an armor-plated bacterium with a rocket motor up its ass," he said. "Now you tell me, where do you start looking for something like that?"

Chapter 17Prologue1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738Epilogue

January turned to February, and the Scottish Highlands remained frozen in the grip of winter. At Storbannon the results of the second phase of tests, which used randomly generated data as the content of the signals sent back through time, were analyzed and revealed a strange phenomenon: On a few occasions the number received was different from the number that was later sent.

Many of the tests involved programming the system to record an incoming number from the future, waiting until the time came to send it, then, at that point, generating a random number and sending it back to the point at which it had been received. In tests of this type where the whole process ran automatically, the pair of numbers always matched; there were no anomalies in the thousands of numbers recorded.


Page 22

In some later tests, however, the team tried experimenting with the effects of arbitrary human decision. They set the program exactly as before, allowed it to run through to the point where the signal was about to be sent, and at that point made an arbitrary decision, sometimes based on flips of a coin and sometimes by other means, whether or not to switch off the transmitter. In the cases where they did switch it off, the computer produced a number anyway but couldn't send it. The number that had been received, therefore, the team reasoned, must have been sent from a time-line that had been altered only to the degree of containing a transmitter that had been switched on, but which was switched off on the new timeline. This should not have affected the value of the random number produced; the number received should still have matched the number later observed, whether it was sent or not. And indeed, in most of the cases the two did match. But in a tiny fraction of the large number of results, they didn't. Murdoch and Lee discussed the anomaly one day in mid-February while they were tramping from Storbannon down to Glenmoroch village for some fresh air and a spot of exercise, which was as good an excuse as any for a drink.

"Let's go through it, very simply, one more time," Murdoch said. They were following a footpath that led from a side gate in the grounds down toward the crescent-shaped wood. "Here is the machine waiting, and at some time a number comes in—let's say, 123."

"Okay," Lee agreed.

"So 123 gets stored. Now nothing happens until the time comes for it to be sent back. The random-number routine runs and generates a number."

"Check."

"Now we know, from the data we've collected from lots of tests, that if the number that's just been generated is sent, it always matches what has already been received. If it isn't sent, then most of the times it still matches, which is what we'd expect. But sometimes, just sometimes… we end up with 123 recorded as having been received, but the program outputs something else, let's say 456. Now try and make sense out of that for me." By now they had entered the wood. The silence was broken only by the steady crunching of their boots in the snow and the occasional swishing sound of snow sliding off the branches in the trees all around.

"There had to be a timeline with a computer on it that generated 123," Lee said after a while. "There had to be because there's no other way that 123 could get received in the first place. Agreed?"

"Okay, I'll buy that."

"But by the time our computer has become that computer, it doesn't produce 123; it produces 456. Therefore the computer that did produce 123 doesn't exist any more."

"Which says it got reset onto a new timeline."

"Which says it got reset onto a new timeline. So what reset it?"

"That's where it gets crazy," Murdoch said. "The whole sequence was preprogrammed so the events of both sending the signal and receiving it had to be on the original timeline that involved 123. Nothing changed from that situation until we took the decision to switch off the transmitter. But that couldn't have had any effect on what was happening inside the computer. So what made the number come out wrong?"

"And why doesn't it ever come out wrong when you leave the transmitter on?" Lee completed.

"Exactly," Murdoch said.

The path brought them to a flight of iron-railed stone steps that led up to the road running from the wood to the village. As they came out onto the road, Bob Ferguson from the farm on the far side of the village drove by in a rickety van with one of his sheep-dogs hanging out from the passenger-side window. He tooted the horn and waved cheerfully as he passed, then disappeared around a bend in the road heading in the direction of Loch Keld.

"There's only one answer," Lee said after they had covered a few hundred more yards. "Something else must have reset the timeline… something that's got nothing to do with signals being sent back or not being sent back."

"What are you getting at?"

"Well, look at it this way. Here I am with 123 stored as having come in. Now suppose thatsomethingaffects the timeline I'm on, after that moment but before the time comes to send the signal… something that leaves my record of 123 intact, but causes the computer to generate 456. Now if I switch off the transmitter, 456 never gets sent. So I'm left with a mismatch, which is what we got."

Murdoch thought about it for a few seconds, then said, "But if you leave the transmitter on, 456 does get sent. That would reset the whole timeline from the moment the signal was received on, so that it would show 456 coming in. In that situation it would overwrite 123 and you'd end up never knowing that 123 ever got sent at all. Yes… and that was what we got too: Whenever the number was sent, we never had a mismatch."

"It's sneaky," Lee declared. "The something else alters the timeline and sets up a mismatch situation. But when you send the signal, it changes things in such a way as to cancel out the effect of it. It's only when you don't transmit that you can hope to catch it."

"So what's the something else that affects timelines?" Murdoch summarized.

"Yes. And why doesn't it do it consistently? Why does it only happen every now and then instead of every time?" Lee added.

They reached the outskirts of the village without speaking further. The few people who were out and about acknowledged them with nods or a few words of greeting as they passed.

"Something unpredictable," Murdoch mused, half to himself. "It has to be something that operates randomly and can affect random numbers generated by a computer. What kinds of things work like that?"

"Noise fluctuations," Lee said. "Thermal effects. Relaxation sequences of excited atoms. All kinds of quantum… " His voice trailed away, and his pace slowed abruptly as he realized what he had said. He halted and turned to stare back at Murdoch, who had already come to a halt a pace farther back. In the same instant they had both realized the same thing.

"It's exactly what Elizabeth said," Murdoch breathed. "She said that an adequate model would have to include some kind of quantum uncertainty. Now we've found exactly the same thing, but from actual experimental data." They stood silently for what seemed a long time as the full implications sank in. A woman who was clearing snow from a path leading to the side door of a house across the road stopped to look at them curiously, but they took no notice. Then they started walking again, this time more slowly.

"The particle threads can't be precisely defined," Lee said after a while. "They're only defined within uncertainty limits. At the quantum level, the pattern is dynamic. It can change spontaneously, independent of whether any signals are sent or not. That says it must happen all the time, machine or no machine."

"So at the quantum level events are not frozen into the thread pattern and predetermined," Murdoch said excitedly. "And all kinds of macroscopic phenomena can be decided by random quantum-level fluctuations. That could be where chance and free will come into it. That's exactly what Elizabeth wanted to see!"

They reached the main street of the village and came at least within sight of the Argyll, Glenmoroch's hotel and principal pub. "We'll have to get Elizabeth involved again as soon as we can," Lee said. "Any idea when she's due back?"

"Next week, according to Grandpa. They're still having problems up at the plant."

Elizabeth had visited Storbannon a few times since mid-January. She had hoped to have even more time to spare after the full-power tests of the reactors were completed, but an unexpected snag had developed. The tests had begun on the Monday as planned and continued through to Tuesday morning. Then the control computers at Burghead had announced an emergency condition and shut down the reactors. Subsequent investigation had revealed severe erosion on the undersides of the reactor chambers, resulting in a vacuum loss that the sensors had detected. None of the engineers at Burghead had been able to explain what had caused the erosion. The proposed schedule for taking the plant on-line by summer was threatened, and Elizabeth had been tied up day and night with her staff, trying to track down the cause of the problem.

They reached the door of the Argyll, and Lee ducked to follow Murdoch through the low threshold. The bar inside was cheerily lit by a roaring, open fire, and pleasantly warm after the ear-nipping cold outside. A few heads turned among the knot of farmers and other locals gathered at the bar. In the middle of them was Hamish, the gardener from Storbannon, a wild-looking man with eyes that always seemed wide and staring like a maniac's, a bald head fringed by two dense tufts of unruly, red hair, and a full, rust-colored beard.

"Well, if it isn't our two Americans come to join us," one of the farmers said. He had a weathered face, laced with a network of fine purple veins, and was wearing a flat cloth cap. "Hello, Murdoch Ross, and hello, Lee. Will you be joining us for a drink?"

"Hi, Willie," Murdoch replied. "Pint, thanks."

"Same," Lee said. "Hi… and thanks."

" 'Tis good to see you're cultivating a taste forrealbeer at last," Hamish told them, wiping a trace of froth from his beard with his sleeve. "All that American synthetic rubbish does nothing for a man at all."

"What's wrong with our beer, Hamish?" Murdoch asked, feigning surprise. "It's not synthetic, it's natural. It's made from natural ingredients, under natural conditions, grown with natural organic fertilizers. The ads on the TV say so."

"Aye," Hamish growled, screwing his face into a scowl of distaste. "And it tastes like a certain natural organic fertilizer that I could mention too."

Chapter 18Prologue1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738Epilogue

Murdoch collected the few remaining dishes together into a stack and dropped the two crumpled napkins on top, leaving the glasses and the still quarter-full bottle of burgundy on the table. Then he picked up the stack, balancing it carefully, and turned to the door that led through to the kitchen.

He enjoyed the evenings and all-too-infrequent weekends that he found time to spend in Anne's Nairn apartment. Storbannon was all very grand and imposing, and quite cheerful in its own lofty way, but this was what he called homey. He was never quite sure what it was that Anne did that made the apartment seem that way, but every time he walked in, he was instantly aware of something subtly different about it from the places belonging to girls he had known in California, New York, and elsewhere.

There was no one thing that stood out on its own, but rather lots of little things that contributed somehow to an overall effect merely by being there—such as the collection of small, hollow glass sculptures on the bookshelves, always containing a few flowers that were fresh, or the frilly covers on the armchair backs and side tables that always matched. And then there were the things that were slightly more elaborate and slightly more ornate than they needed to be, but in a particular kind of way such that each of them served the dual role of fulfilling the purpose it was ostensibly designed for while at the same time contributing something to the mood of the whole setting. The writing paper on the bureau in one corner, for example, could have been just writing paper; it was, but in addition it was pale brown and richly textured, with a simple floral design in green and yellow at the lower left-hand corner of every sheet. The envelopes could have been just envelopes, but they matched the paper. The cabinet opposite the window could have contained just bottles and glasses; it contained anarrangementof bottles and glasses, along with a cut-crystal decanter and set of goblets. The vi-set screen, standing on its flexible supporting arm on top of the cabinet, could have been the standard black-and-gray model that came at the standard rental, but it was coffee-brown two-tone, which cost slightly more; the room needed coffee-brown two-tone. It was the same with the funny fluffy animal figures in the corners and over the door, the china figurines on the ledge above the heater vent, and the embroidered, tasseled mats underneath the table lamps. They achieved nothing individually, but had any of them not been there, something would have been missing.

Or maybe Murdoch was imagining it all; maybe the only thing different was that Anne lived there.

He carried the stack through to the kitchen and set it down beside where Anne was loading the dishwasher with the rest of the dishes from dinner. She was wearing a figure-hugging, navy-blue dress that seemed to continue the curves of her legs in a flowing wave all the way through to her shoulders. Murdoch slipped his arms under hers and around her waist, nibbled her ear, and squeezed her breasts lightly. She giggled and wriggled, but not too much.

"You know you shouldn't do that in front of the children," she said, meaning the picture that was taped to the refrigerator door, showing a pair of scampish-looking puppies staring out of a garbage can.

"They have to learn sometime," Murdoch replied as he let go of her and drifted back to the door. "There's still about two glasses of wine left. Want me to fill yours up?"

"Mmm, please. I'll be through in a second."

"Ice?"

"Heathen!"

"Just kidding."

He strolled back into the lounge, refilled the glasses, and settled down with his in the armchair by the window to look out over the lights of the town center. Anne had known exactly what she was looking for when she chose this place, he thought to himself… just like everything else. A minute or so later, Anne came into the room, picked up the other glass from the table, and curled herself up on one end of the sofa, facing him.

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