Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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Cameron Philips and the Great Cosmic Do-Over

by Jon Wesick


The conference room buzzed with conversations. Newly arrived from Earth, Cameron Philips looked for a seat among the scientists dressed in khaki overalls. Three of the lions of theoretical physics were there. Like most of the men on Novikov Station, they'd grown beards to dispense with the bother of shaving in space. Pasty-faced Stephen Goldberg from the Institute for Advanced Studies gestured like a conductor with his index finger while Lin Zhi looked on and Anatoly Kolgomorov tossed up his hands in disgust. Many lesser celebrities of science were in the room too. Cameron recognized the Don Freeman, former director of TTNL, and Lev Gurovitch, a professor who'd starred in a six-episode cosmology show on PBN. They'd all come to the edge of the solar system to attempt to create a closed timelike curve, in layman's terms a time machine.

An empty chair was available at the table in the midst of the Nobel-prize winners if Cameron was brave enough to take it. As a lowly postdoc he was out of his depth and chose a seat in back instead. If he were lucky, they'd forget about his presentation, a presentation his mentor Professor Richard Hendrie would have given if his appendix hadn't burst eight hours before liftoff.

"All right! Let's get started." Donald Freeman, the program manager, raised his hands for silence. "Yesterday, I got a status update from our sponsor via the encrypted link. Dr. Vasquez reported our latest budget at the Bangalore G10 meeting and it went a long way toward placating President Fournier and Prime Minister Chatterjee. So for now at least our worries appear to be over. Dave, fill us in on the wormhole generator's status."

"Thanks, Don." Holland, heavyset man with a Brooklyn, struggled to his feet. "Can I have the first slide, please?"

A schematic of beam line and target appeared on the screen.

"Most of you have seen this before," Dave Holland continued. "The surfatron accelerates lead nuclei to 200 EeV and collides them with a stationary target. Next slide." Dave pointed to a slight bulge on a graph with the x-axis labeled with the Greek letter nu. "Here you see the wormhole production peak. And here's the same graph when there's a coincidence with the gravity-wave interferometer." The background disappeared leaving a clean spike on the next slide. "Right now we can only make roughly one per day. Once we get the new source online and finish the doubler, we should get that rate up by a few orders of magnitude."

"Wormhole stabilization," Don Freeman called.

"Some of you will be surprised to learn I didn't bring any slides," the thin Lev Gurovitch said after standing at the table.

The attendees broke into laughter.

"How long have you been able to keep the wormhole open?" Goldberg asked.

"About a second so far." Gurovitch stoked the chest-length beard he'd obviously started long before his trip into space. "We've had a lot of trouble balancing the Casimir forces in three dimensions. Nobody's tried anything on this scale before."

The discussion veered into negative energy density, curved spacetime, and M-theory – topics Cameron barely understood. Oh sure, he could follow the general thrust of the equations in a survey article, but that was a far cry from being able to calculate anything let alone build a device that worked. No, he felt more comfortable with nuts-and-bolts physics, like the probability waves of non-relativistic quantum mechanics.

Kelly McLaughlin, a blonde with a fat face and upturned nose, presented the orbital mechanics group's status. The plan was to capture one end of the wormhole in Neptune's near Novikov station, while the other flew off at half light speed. The latter would swing past Jupiter, where the gravitational slingshot effect would slow it and return it to its source orbiting Neptune. Of course, to do this the wormhole would need to tunnel through both planets' atmospheres, a fact that no one but Cameron seemed concerned with. This effort required precise aim and an accurate calculation of a wormhole moving through gravity.

"Cameron Philips, care to tell us what's going on with the detector group?"

Cameron looked at Kelly's and the few other female faces in the crowd for sympathy, but they appeared as hard and skeptical as the men's.

"Well." He stood and knocked over his chair. "I'm a little at a loss because of Rick Hendrie's illness. For me the closed timelike curve is a black box. I understand we'll be able to transport light or particle beams back in time about an hour."

Don Freeman nodded.

"It shouldn't be hard to test," Cameron continued. "We can send back a laser pulse encoded with a time stamp and detect it before we sent it. BPSK modulation's pretty robust. It should be able to survive the transit through the wormhole." Cameron swallowed. "Of course, once we show we can send a pulse back in time, we can test one of the fundamental properties of nature – causality."

"You are aware of Novikov's self-consistency principle?" Kolmogorov asked.

"Sure." Cameron swallowed. "I don't think we can take it as given. What if reality's more bizarre?" He looked away from Kolmogorov's icy, gray eyes. "I've been trying to think of physical methods of reproducing the grandfather paradox. You know, the time traveler goes back and kills his grandfather, but then he wouldn't exist to kill his grandfather, and so on. We have to make a causal loop. One way is to have the laser pulse we send back in time trigger a gate that blocks the entrance to the time machine. Er, closed timelike curve. Anyway." Cameron spoke more quickly. "If Novikov was right, the laser pulse can go back in time and interact but it can't change the future. So the gate will break or something."

"Your scheme won't work because the Morris-Thorne device has to defocus light," said Lin Zhi who'd fidgeted during Cameron's entire presentation.

Cameron gave him a blank look.

"If it didn't," the Chinese, Nobel-prize winner continued, " a random photon would enter and go back in time, so you'd have two photons entering. Those would go back and you'd have four. Pretty soon there'd be a cascade of infinite energy that would cause the wormhole to collapse."

"Or explode," Goldberg muttered. "That's why this project will never work. The universe will never allow time travel into the past. If it did, where are all the tourists from the future?"

"Many worlds, Stephen," Lin Zhi said. "Changing the past merely sets you onto a different parallel universe, just like collapsing the wave function in quantum mechanics."

An idea screamed for attention in Cameron's mind. What if the time traveler who killed his grandfather continued to exits even though everyone else's future was changed? He stuffed his urge to speak. If the brilliant men in the room hadn't already mentioned it, there must be something wrong with his idea.

"As far as defocusing goes," Cameron said, "we could bounce an extreme ray off a mirror or use an atomic beam?"

The next day Cameron put together a design. The stores had ample supplies of lasers and mirrors but how would he keep an optical bench aligned when floating in space near the wormhole exit? Cam had little choice but to explore the space station in search of an answer.

He stepped out of his cramped work area, little more than a closet with a chair and computer, into the hallway. The station's interior was Spartan by design in order to remind its occupants that beyond its thin metal skin lay the hard vacuum of space. Personnel stored equipment everywhere. Storage lockers lined the white hallway. Cameron nodded to the security guard in a blue jumpsuit and stepped aside to make room for him to pass.

Novikov Station resembled two stacked bicycle wheels that spun to provide artificial gravity. One wheel contained the living quarters and low-risk work areas while the other contained the area for hazardous work. Shuttles and interplanetary spacecraft, which made the yearlong journey from Earth, docked on the station's axis. Reasoning that was where he'd find the astronautic engineers who could help with his problem, Cameron headed for the elevator.

When the sliding doors opened he stepped into the tiny cubicle, lined with handholds, and pressed the button for level zero. As the elevator traversed the spoke, the lessening gravity swelled Cameron's sinuses and made him a little nauseous. Soon he was floating. The doors opened, and he pulled himself via the handholds into a large room where a man in an orange jumpsuit hovered in front of controls that manipulated a mechanical arm in the docking bay. Cameron looked through the array of Lexan, viewing portals at the shuttle he was unloading. The blue planet Neptune swung into view in the background. Its surface lacked Jupiter's spectacular swirling clouds. Novikov Station's location hadn't been chosen for its scenery but for its distance from Earth, it being both far from prying eyes and potential victims should a wormhole explosion take place. Cameron cleared his throat to get the technician's attention.

"You're not supposed to be on this level. What are you doing here?"

"I'm wondering if you know someone who could help me," Cameron said. "I need…"

"I don't give a damn what you need! Get the hell out of here before I call security!"

Cameron retreated and spent an uncomfortable few minutes under the technician's glare while waiting for the elevator to return. Thus chastened he had little choice but to return to his workspace and ponder what time travel would mean to mankind's understanding of cause and effect. He hoped the skeptics were wrong and that the universe allowed a great, cosmic do-over. With a time machine you could alter the big decisions in your life and see the consequences. How cool would that be?

From what Cameron had read, Einstein thought time was like space. You might be able to travel in it, but past and future could not be changed. If the future were already determined, why reward heroes or punish criminals for actions they had no control over? In fact, why bother with anything at all? Of course, the good Albert had been wrong about quantum mechanics, so maybe his concept of block time was in error, too. Maybe changing the past sets up a weird superposition of states like Schrodinger's cat.

Cameron rubbed his hands together. He was lucky to be here. The answers were like gift-wrapped presents under the tree on Christmas Eve. Soon he'd open them, if only those bastards in astronautics cooperated. Maybe he could do something with entangled photons.

The days dragged on. Cameron made little progress. He grew antsy as the date of the next status meeting approached. How could he stand in front of the group with only the crude sketches he'd made? If only Rick Hendrie were here, but the next spacecraft from Earth that wouldn't arrive for months and radio communications were limited for security reasons.

On Tuesday night, careful not to wake his roommate, Wim, Cameron lay still in his narrow bunk while his mind whirled with doom. The following day Don Freeman would be incredulous at Cam's lack of progress and the world's brightest physicists would laugh. When it was done, he'd be lucky to get a job selling shoes, if they didn't pitch him out the airlock without a spacesuit first.

Early the following morning, groggy and prepared for his public humiliation, Cam arrived at the conference room and took a seat. Don Freeman looked at his watch and scowled. The three Nobel-Prize winners entered minutes later. Due to their status they were immune to the program manager's wrath. That fell on the wormhole generator group's lead.

"Dave, when I say the meeting starts at 0830, I don't mean 0845." Don huffed and snorted in anger.

"Sorry."

Don Freeman did not present the management status. Cameron guessed that may have been the reason for his foul mood. Dave Holland managed to deflect further nasty comments with a report of the doubler's successful test.

Lev Gurovitch was not so lucky. Freeman probed his presentation with questions that stung like a boxer's jabs. The program manager was more restrained with Kelly McLaughlin. As she wrapped up her discussion of perturbation effects, Cameron wiped his sweaty palms on his knees and looked at the exit. How he wished he could be back in his quarters.

"Cam Philips, I don't suppose you've had time to get oriented, but you'll probably need to know how light travels through the wormhole." Freeman turned to Gurovitch. "Lev, can you show him how to use the ray trace software?"

Hurricanes veered away from tropical islands, the tornado missed the elementary school, and rumors of a tidal wave proved to be unfounded. Cameron couldn't believe his luck. He pressed the advantage while he could.

"I'll need an orbital platform to hold the optics stable," he said.

"You'll need two. Won't you?" Freeman asked.

"I was hoping to get by with one between both the entrance and exit."

"Okay, Randy Kelso can help you." Freeman pointed to a gnomish man sipping a cup of coffee. "Why don't you get together after the meeting?"

Although he was a head shorter than Cameron, Kelso carried an extra fifty kilos that made his orange jumpsuit swell like a weather balloon. He had Santa Claus blue eyes and a bald crown, but the long brown hair on the sides of his head compensated for its lack on the top.

"Come on up to the office." Kelso led Cameron to an elevator and pushed the button for level zero.

After a minute the doors slid open on a familiar scene.

"Jack," Kelso said to the technician who'd scolded Cameron. "This is Cam Philips. He'll be working with us on an orbital platform."

"Hi." Cameron extended his hand as gracefully as he could while grasping a handhold in zero-g. "I don't think we've met."

"No, I guess not." The technician shook Cameron's hand. "Pleased to meet you."

"We built the platform for the wormhole generator. The position tolerances are probably tighter than anything you'll need. Let me show you what I have." Kelso led Cameron into a small office with an Interplanetary Transport Zero-g Monokini Team calendar on the bulkhead. He pulled up a 3-D model on the computer and explained the details. "How big does yours have to be?"

"A square meter, maybe. Just large enough to hold a laser, optics, and some electronics."

"Shouldn't be hard," Kelso said. "I'll put together a design and show you in a few days."

Lev Gurovitch must have put a lot of work into his calculations, because he certainly didn't put much into the graphics and user interface of the ray trace program. It took an iron will not to laugh, when Cameron saw the track of asterisks emerging from the stick-figure sphere on the computer monitor.

"So, you enter the position and direction coordinates into the input file like this." Lev brushed some crumbs off his beard and typed some numbers. "When you run the calculation, it overwrites these with the output. Any questions?"

Cameron had seen enough, so Lev left him alone at the computer. Cam quickly realized that light took wild paths through the wormhole and that the current interface would take forever. He used the meta-editor to streamline data entry and Rembrandt to make a more pleasing 3-D display. He then set up a batch file to bombard the entrance with a hundred thousand rays and trace where they came out.

After dinner he stopped at the N Club and ordered a Gas Giant Lager at the bar. Brewed by one of Don Freeman's assistants, the beer was a touch bitter for Cam's taste but better than anything else this far from Earth. Jack the astronautics tech motioned from a table near the stage. His face that had resembled a gargoyle's earlier, now seemed comical with its broad nose and sly grin.

"Sorry about the other day," he said after Cameron sat across from him. "It's a safety thing. Too many ways for the uninitiated to get hurt up there. By the way, your platform turned out to be more challenging than we though."

"How so?"

"Wormholes don't move through gravity like ordinary matter." Jack sipped his beer and licked the foam off his mustache. "If we orbited your platform next to the wormhole, it's soon end up someplace else."

"Sorry."

"Naw, it's the most fun I've had in months." Jack drew on the napkin. "See, if we put a heavier mass in a lower orbit and towed your platform from a monofilament, it'll keep up with the wormhole's orbital speed. Of course, we'll need some thrusters to keep everything apart."

A screech came from the speakers on stage where Dave Holland and three others stood behind sets of vertical and hoop antennas.

"Please welcome Dave Holland and the Theremin Messengers."

The crowd applauded and the band broke into a spooky rendition of "Take the A Train." Planetary exploration had been a boon to jazz. The expense of lifting acoustic instruments off Earth's surface forced space-faring musicians to use electronic means, which opened previously unimagined avenues for improvisation. With their dark glasses the Messengers affected an air of cool as they swayed to the beat while moving their hands through the electric fields around the antennae to produce their notes. Holland played a passable solo, but a young woman with stringy hair and a beaming smile put the others to shame. After listening to two sets Cameron excused himself and went to bed.

The next day he reviewed the ray trace calculations and found a half dozen spots where light had converged on exiting the wormhole. After verifying the calculations were time reversible, he traced the rays back to their origins. At the end of the day he had three possible locations for his lasers and detectors.

A month later Cameron floated in zero-g inside the brightly lit tube at the station's axis, while he finished his detector. Handholds and nylon foot straps lined the white, padded walls. On one end was the doorway that led to Jack and Randy's work areas. On the other was a pressure lock, marked with diagonal black-and-yellow stripes. Beyond it lay the docking bay and vacuum of space. He screwed the final mirror into the optical breadboard and reached for his notes to get the angle settings. The paper wasn't where he'd set it down. Instead it floated outside the reach of his right arm. He freed one foot from its nylon, restraining strap, stepped forward into another, and snatched the sheet from the air. Although he'd been working in zero-g for over a week, old habits from Earth would not die.

Cameron set the mirror's pitch and yaw angles and double-checked the others'. Even though he'd found good paths through the wormhole, small errors in the source laser's position could lead to big displacements at the back end. The mirrors would reflect some of the errant photons, but based on the orbital platform's position tolerance Cameron estimated eighty percent would be lost.

"You about ready for us to put that puppy in orbit?" Jack called from the doorway.

"Give me a few minutes."

Cameron took a last look at the system he'd assembled. Rick Hendrie would be proud. The components fit neatly on the black block of metal with its array of positioning holes. To Cameron's left was the laser that would fire pulses into the wormhole's entrance, at his right was the detector that would capture them at its exit, and an embedded processor in the center would log the pulses departure and arrival times into flash memory. There would be no aperture to stop the laser before it fired in the first test. Detecting photons that arrived before they left would be enough. Jack and Randy had attached all this to a titanium block that would serve as the orbital platform. Clusters of black, maneuvering rocket nozzles extended from each corner just above the tie points for the monofilaments.

Everything looked good but a worm of doubt still gnawed at Cameron's brain. What if he'd forgotten something? It was always hard to let go at this stage in an experiment, but he'd checked everything two or three times. Anyway, he could always alter the processing via the radio link. Cameron yanked his feet free from the restraining straps and pulled himself by the handholds to the anteroom, where Jack floating in wait.

"It's all yours."

Nature is a bitch! She only reveals her secrets to those who pay the price of tedium. After Cameron completed the detector, there was little for him to do in the run up to the first end-to-end test except stay out of everyone's way. The N Club was more roomy that his tiny quarters. Unfortunately, the Theremin Messingers were busy tinkering with the wormhole generator. When the waitress grew tired of him, Cameron retreated to his work area to read the latest Chet Cunningham e-novel on the computer. If he'd had a paper copy, he could have read in his quarters but due to the cost penalty of lifting mass off Earth, most books on the station were digital.

The test began the following morning. Cameron was at his monitor early even though the time machine wouldn't be complete for almost a day. If they succeeded, that is. From his seat in the control room Cameron could see the bald spots of the men sitting in front of him and the monitors scrolling numbers at their desks. The holographic display that would show the wormhole's position in relation to Jupiter, Neptune, and the station had not been activated. Cam checked his monitor. All status lights were green. The laser and detector were working and the radio link was strong. There was no reason to stay in the control room except to project a good image. Still, dozens crowded around, as if leaving would betray a lack of enthusiasm for science. Cam looked at the closed-circuit TV monitor switching among shots of the source, beam lines, and targets. The projected beam-on time, 0900, came and went. Delays were common in big science. Cameron risked his colleagues' disapproval and went to the N Club. No one noticed. When he returned an hour later, the blue globe of Neptune hovered in the holographic display.

"Beam on in twenty minutes," the man sitting to his right whispered.

Cameron checked the detector. Everything was go.

"Let's do it," Don Freeman said. Instead of the usual khaki, science-staff overalls he wore slacks, a dress shirt, and a blue tie decorated with kangaroos.

The indicator on the big screen went green and the current reading climbed to 150 nA.

"Got one!" Dave Holland pumped the air with his fist.

Cameron craned his neck to see around the man in front of him. Two sparks appeared on the holographic display. The slower one cut through Neptune and swung into orbit too wide to enter the Casimir cage. Both sparks winked out of existence. Cameron sat back. He watched a few more candidate wormholes, but all were misses. There would be seven more before the Casimir cage caught an entrance.

"This could be it!" Dave Holland leaned closer.

Everyone stood to see the holographic display zoom out to and show the wormhole exit bound for Jupiter.

"Wormhole exit 150 km downrange. Gravity wave triangulation shows it's forty-five arc seconds off course," Kelly McLaughlin said in a deadpan voice.

"Shut the wormhole down," Don Freeman said.

Lev Gurovitch cycled power to the Casimir cage and both sparks disappeared from the hologram. The scientists returned to their seats. Several more misses came and went before another reasonable candidate appeared. This time the scientists were more cautious with their enthusiasm.

"170 km downrange. The exit's on course." Kelly broke into a grin.

Scientists jumped to their feet. Cameron's neighbor crushed him in a bear hug, and Don Freeman high-fived Dave Holland. Once the cheering ended Dave's team shut down the wormhole generator and left the control room. The wormhole exit's round trip to Jupiter would take twenty hours. Cameron wouldn't be needed until it returned. Every few hours, when he checked back, the spark was closer to Jupiter.

Cameron went to the N Club for dinner and sat next to a clean-shaven engineer he'd seen in the control room.

"I can't believe we're really doing this," the engineer said.

"Yeah, what do you think's going to happen?"

"Guys in astronautics are taking bets. I wonder how we'll know if we change the past. I mean, won't our memories change too? Names Bill by the way."

"I'm Cam."

The orbit of Jupiter was crucial. Ten hours after production scientists once again crowded the control room to see. From his seat Cameron watched the spark disappear into the planet's striped surface and reemerge from the other side.

"Wormhole exit on course," Kelly said.

The scientists cheered. Cameron returned to his quarters to catch a few hours sleep. He dreamed of his childhood in Naperville, Illinois. It was Christmas morning and he'd gone downstairs to the living room before his parents and sister woke up. His father always bought a live tree despite the fire hazard. The decorative lights strung around its branches were dark. Cameron singled out the large present wrapped in metallic green paper from all the others. It had to be the model rocket he wanted. When would his parents wake up, so he could open it?

Cameron woke in his quarters at 0730, fifteen minutes before the wormhole exit was due to park in Neptune's orbit! He'd overslept. Cameron ran to the control room, composed himself outside the hatch, and tried to look calm as he took his seat. The processor status light on his monitor was red. While tracking down the problem he looked back and forth to see if anyone had noticed. Stack overflow! The computer puked hex numbers on the monitor. His armpits itched with nervous sweat as he initiated the remote reboot.

"Come on. Come on," Cameron muttered under his breath as the remote link spilled more gibberish on his screen.

The spark on the display disappeared into Neptune's atmosphere. Cameron's display indicated the processor was back on line. He sighed and sat back.

"What the hell?"

A message flashed in the data column indicating the detection of a laser pulse from 0837, but it was only 0720. Before Cameron could check for further malfunctions, a shockwave slammed into the space station. He felt the impact of his nose on the monitor and heard the crunch of bones breaking inside. A siren sounded and the room went dark.

Cameron came to in a pile of wreckage and moved a broken table leg that was stabbing him in the back.

"Decompression alert. Level Five. Sector D," a mechanical voice reported.

Emergency lights illuminated the scene in chemical green. Desks, chairs, and equipment had been thrown against the wall. Moaning scientists sprawled on the deck. Torn, sparking wires hung from the ceiling.

"Shut that fucker down!"

Cameron touched his face and his fingers came away wet with blood. The smell of burning insulation hung in the air. He heard the gush of a fire extinguisher. The siren stopped.

"Everybody stay calm, one of the security officers who'd entered said. "We had a hull breach but the airtight hatches sealed off the affected area. Who needs medical care?"

The next day with his nose bandaged, Cameron took a seat behind Li Zhi in the packed conference room.

"I owe you a bottle of Tullamore Dew," the Chinese physicist said to Stephen Goldberg.

The time-travel skeptic nodded his head. "Unfortunately, I underestimated the size of the blast by a factor of ten."

"Can I have your attention, please?" Don Freeman motioned for quiet. "I received a reply from Dr. Vasquez. In light of the cost of replacing the Casimir cage the G10 has ordered us to cease testing. We haven't analyzed all the data yet, but it's clear the wormhole exploded. I think Stephen is right. The universe does not permit time travel.

"They've diverted the Juno from Titan to take nonessential personnel home. Most of you will be leaving soon. Let me remind you that you are not to discuss these results with anyone outside the project. It's strictly need to know, people. Violators will be subject to criminal prosecution."

Cameron surveyed the scientific talent assembled in the room. In all the excitement he'd neglected to report the time-travel pulse he'd received, and this was his last chance to discuss it with some of humanity's greatest minds. Had it been real? Had nature shared one of her most prized secrets with him, even though he hadn't deserved it? Cameron didn't know. Perhaps it was best that governments didn't go poking around in the past. He folded his hands and clamped his lips shut.

THE END


© 2008 Jon Wesick

Bio: Jon Wesick holds a Ph.D. in physics (so the technospeak in this piece is pretty much authentic) and is a long time student of Buddhism and the martial arts. This eclectic background gives him a unique viewpoint that he tries to express in his writing. Mr. Wesick's short stories have appeared in Zahir, American Drivel Review, Lullaby Hearse, Oracular Tree, MiniMAG, SamizDADA, Tidepools, Words of Wisdom, and The Writers Post Journal. He has published over a hundred poems in small press journals such as Pearl, Pudding, and Slipstream; one poem won second place in the 2007 African American Writers and Artists contest, and his poetry chapbooks have been runners up twice in the San Diego Book Awards. Two of his longer works have appeared in the Serials and Novellas section of Aphelion, most recently The Human Cost, February 2005.

E-mail: Jon Wesick

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