Caught Somewhere In Time – Chapter 01
Location: LunaBase, Luna, Earth Orbit
Local Date: Friday, November 19, 2220
Cole moved over to the exit hatch in the floor, dropped out of the ship, and jogged over to join the throng of people exiting the passenger line. He stopped and glanced back at where the ship sat, still parked. Barely visible, the time machine appeared only to be a small knife blade without a handle floating in the enormous hangar, not noticeable unless you tried to see it. As it rose up to fly away, Cole looked around, no one else seemed to notice it, or that Cole mysteriously appeared from beneath it into the room moments before. Everyone seemed too busy to see much beyond their own situations, which seemed to be the perfect cover. “Excuse me!” somebody said as she bumped into the stationary man looking around the bay at something nobody else could see. Cole apologized to the stranger for milling around in a walking group, and then started walking with the flow of people into the LunaBase public entrance. He too had apparently fallen prey to his own personal distractions, something that thankfully happened here a lot. Entering the base again turned out to be very easy, the easiest part of his plan, if you could even call it a plan. Cole followed the crowd to the baggage claim and then wandered off toward the public port’s exit, not having any luggage himself. Currently on the opposite side of LunaBase from the lab, he’d have to hurry if he planned on making it in any semblance of time. There wouldn’t be any trouble with his security clearance yet, because at this hour, he was still fully employed by the project. In a few hours he would be fired, or his past self would anyway. This Cole had already been fired, and then came back in time a few hours to find out why. His biggest concern now would be to get into the lab without being caught by anyone who had seen the other Cole recently, or worse, spotted by himself. He started to jog, trying to remember some of the shortcuts to the lab from here. Cole remembered coming through this part of the base all the time in his younger years. Since he began working on the project in earnest, he rarely ever left the moon, and even then only used the lab’s private hangar. Running his fingers through his brown hair, he could almost feel the gray beginning, rougher and wirier than it had been in his youth. At least his beard was recently shaved, rather than the scratchy scouring pad he usually wore. Spending so much time in the project had made him lazy, he thought, or maybe that was just an excuse. Now he needed to get into Admiral Chan’s office, to see the contents of that message he ignored so thoughtlessly earlier. Doctor Corning would have it, of course, and with any luck, the good Doctor would help him sort it out before Chan returns. All his hopes were pinned on that message being the key, as the only thing that changed in the lab during the Admiral’s absence. Nothing else made any sense. How could Chan just fire him like that? No explanation. No discussion. And after all the years Cole worked on building this project? This was Cole’s brainchild after all! This is the reason for his beating in the press for all these years, and they did beat him for it! Time travel, one of the oldest fictional concepts, appeared in literature periodically since the Mahabharata, an ancient Sanskrit text from India. Everyone knew about time travel, and about the fact that it can’t be done. The universe remained perpetually caught in this moment, in this time, moving ever forward on an unchanging route. The past is unchangeable, and the future is unknowable. Humanity accepted this as a given fact, until Cole accidentally discovered how to do it. ‘The Holy Grail of Science’, he’d called it, the miracle hidden within physics, and nobody believed him. Of course, why would they? Cole couldn’t change anything in the past, and even if he could, no one in the present would ever know the difference. As he cut through building lobbies on LunaBase, through connective tunnels and back alleys, he pondered this. There would be nothing he could change to stop his past self from getting fired, but at least there would be an answer. He stopped to catch his breath. Now just across from the lab’s reception area, he hunched over with a stitch in his side. Too much time in the lab, no time at all in the gym. His coworkers and neighbors, Dan and Arthur, exited the reception area of the lab together, probably on their way to lunch somewhere. Dan spotted Cole and waved, so Cole waved back, and started walking toward them, his heart pounding from the exercise. The couple stopped for a moment for quick hello. “You finally got out of the lab for a little while, did you?” Arthur said as they converged. “I can’t remember the last time I saw you out here with the rest of the world.” “Yeah, I decided I needed a little space,” he took a big breath. “Needed to move around.” Cole tried to be polite without saying too much. He didn’t want these two members of the team to think there was anything amiss. “You’re not exercising?” Dan joked. “Not you?” All three of them laughed. “Only kidding of course. Would you care to join us for a bite to eat?” “No, thanks. I better get back in there.” Cole, answered, trying not to seem as out of breath as he really felt. Then an idea dawned on him. “You know Chan is out picking up the new pilot today, right?” Arthur looked at Dan and raised an eyebrow. Daniel looked back at his partner and said, “I told you he was going to bring her in today!” Dan turned back to Cole, “Arthur isn’t quite ready to give up the ship to a pilot. It’s done, but he doesn’t want to share it yet.” Arthur remained silent. “Did the Admiral say anything to you before he left? Anything unusual?” Cole inquired. Surely these two would let on if they knew of any plans to kick Cole out of the project. Neither lied well, so Cole felt confident he’d notice if one of them got uncomfortable. Arthur shook his head. Dan said, “Nothing unusual for Chan. You know how he is. Why, is there something going on?” They didn’t know anything. “I’m not sure. He just seemed to act differently around me before leaving,” Cole lied. “I can’t put my finger on it though. I thought maybe one of you had noticed.” “Nope,” said Arthur. Dan added, “Sorry,” and shook his head. “Well, I’ll see you guys around then.” Cole turned and the couple started walking away. Cole watched them leave, trying to gauge whether they really could lie to him or not. In the end, he decided they didn’t know anything about Chan’s plan to fire him. He tried to remember where he had been earlier. Only out of bed for a short time at that point in his day, Cole remembered being still sleepy when he received the Martian message for the Admiral. Did he check the time then? Cole couldn’t remember exactly. Regardless of the risk he faced however, he needed to go into the lab and find out what that message contained. That message contained his only chance at working out this puzzle. “Hello Cole, welcome back,” said the monotone female voice as he entered the lobby. The mechanical receptionist sat at a desk in the center of the room. A very simple machine, without a human-like face or limbs, Reception consisted of only a kiosk that provided information and given security controls over the doorways. No outside computer linked to Reception, Cole knew, in order to keep the lab’s secrets all within the lab. A thought occurred to him suddenly. “Reception, I need some information.” He approached the kiosk and looked at the display, a curved screen that circled uninterrupted around the entire unit. Things could appear flat or three-dimensional in this form of display, using human visual limitations to create optical illusions of depth on the screen. “Show me a map of the entire lab complex.” A map appeared, seemingly flat on the screen. “Provide real-time locations and labels for all individuals on the map.” A user needed to be explicit with machines, since they do not make assumptions as a person would. Cole grew accustomed to this long ago however, having worked in the lab for so long and being surrounded by semi-intelligent machines, and took it to be a plus that they did not interject feelings into a request. It only took a couple of seconds for the scan of the lab to be complete, and Cole saw that he was the only person in the lab, but two locations were designated for him: both in the lobby and also in his apartment. Another advantage of working with machines is that unless specifically instructed to notice inconsistencies, like the duplication of an individual, they did not. Individual points on a map constituted only data to Reception, and many data included duplications. Cole tried to retrace his steps from earlier today in his mind, but struggled with it. He knew he definitely left his apartment upon waking, and shortly after that, he received the communication. He forwarded the message to Chan’s office after that, but never went to the office in person. Since only Cole worked in the lab right then, Chan’s office seemed to be the best place to go, to wait for the message. Just as he opening his mouth to tell Reception to turn off the map, he saw the other Cole’s label moving out of the apartment on the map, and down the hall toward reception. He began to feel a tremor in his hand, an instantly became scared. Cole knew his feelings were lying to him instantly though, and recognized this fear for what it really was: Novikov’s Effect. A sinking feeling enveloped his chest, as if something about to happen would put him in mortal peril, and it occurred to him that he needed to leave, now. “Reception, close and permanently delete this file,” Cole said as he dashed through a door into the opposite hallway lab hallway as the one the other Cole used. He knew this hall provided safety, because he couldn’t remember the last time he’d needed to come this way. Of course, he second-guessed that immediately because he did not remember coming through reception earlier in his day, but obviously his doppelganger appeared about to. He pulled the door mostly closed behind him and peeked into the lobby through a small opening. As he watched, he saw himself enter the room and walk past Reception without being offered any assistance. The machine, on some level, must recognize him as the same person, and therefore recognized that Cole received a greeting only moments ago. Suddenly, crouching in the hall, he remembered that he went to pick up a coffee before getting started on his work. It probably hadn’t registered in his memory that he’d been in reception because there was no greeting from Reception. Still groggy from bed, he failed to realize that Reception entirely ignored his presence, but watching it happen again from this angle through the gap in the door, it appeared perfectly obvious. He smiled at his own obliviousness as the past Cole exited the lab into the lane beyond, and then he closed the hall door. Alone in the lab complex for only a few minutes, he rushed to Chan’s office and shut the door behind himself to make sure remained unnoticed.