Aphelion Issue 283, Volume 27
May 2023
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by Roderick D. Turner

I'm minding my own business, but it isn't working. Comes of not wanting to blend in, conscious and unconscious distinctiveness that I cultivate in everything I do. Never just one of the crowd.

"You like the colors?" Smiling. The man's stare quickly drifts elsewhere, the back of a receding bus, an ad for hemorrhoid cream. I'm the one in the fluorescent green shirt, Day-Glo pink pants. He's the one that's embarrassed. I resume my oft-remarked on pace down Alders, weaving the flow, ticking people off as I squeeze past. Works for me.

"Jess, wait up."

I turn and recognize Roger Maltby, from my research lab at university. Roger Dodger, we used to call him. Always wriggling out of responsibility. I stand and wait. He's not as good at crowd threading as I am.

"Haven't seen you in years Roger." I tap the brim of my lemon yellow baseball cap, touch it back a little. Nudge my Lara Croft's so the quarter-sized little lenses center over my eyes. Keeps down the glare from the clothes.

"You're hard to track down Jessica." He smiles, and it brings back a memory of the one time I dated him, lured by that smile. Grateful I kept fit, I more or less carried him home. "At least, until I'm in the right city," he says.

It's kind of a compliment, and I return the smile. People are staring again, maybe surprised anyone is talking to me. Or it could be that Roger is wearing his certifiable clown outfit, baggy blue jeans with the waist at crotch level, a dreadful crap brown slouch hat, and tight white Metallica t-shirt with rolled up sleeves. All pretty much faded, Roger not least. "I seem to remember you were glad our years in the same lab at SSU were over."

He nods. "Was," he says. "Past tense." A quick grin. "Love the clothes, Jess. You're getting better at this."

"Years of practice." Still waiting for a hint of why he's suddenly here, chasing me down, after all this time. I motion along the street. "Heading for lunch. Care to join me?"

"I'm paying," he says, and this, more than anything else, rings alarm bells.

We walk, his pace, how could he possibly keep stride with me wearing those pants? He's shorter than I remember, or maybe it's the shoes, or maybe I've grown or he's shrunk. A good five centimeters, so my one eighty-five seems that much more. He checks his watch, seems like every thirty seconds. Talk about, well, nothing really. The weather. His trip here, looking for me. We arrive, the deli crowded as usual at this hour, nearly one, faces turning to look as we pass. I order the usual, he doubles that, pays. Steer him to a table near the window. I like to be prominent.

"So what's it about Roger?" I've got a mouthful of sandwich, mayo drooling down my hand, dripping to the plate. "Why the search? And why now?"

He checks his watch. Again. "What time do you have?"

I wave my empty wrists at him. "Not carrying," I say.

"Your cell?"

I just look at him, chewing. Swallow. "You're kidding, right?" Point to the clock over the cashier's counter. "One eleven."

Glances at his watch again. "That's not what I have." Shows me the dial on his cheap Casio analog. "It's thirty minutes slow."

I'm thinking Roger has one or two more screws loose than last I saw him. "Assuming your watch is actually right, of course." I pull out my smart phone, the sky blue case pastelling with my shirt. Tap the screen active, thumb my ident. Wave the live screen at him.

"I say one twelve." Just to push the point, I hook up Google and check the browser clock. Screen in his face again. "Google says the same."

"And since I met you, my watch has gained a full--" he glances again at his watch, "--five minutes."

I knock back a good slug of coffee, take another bite of tuna melt. "Ever think of getting a new watch?" The words a bit garbled through tuna and cheese, and I'm about ready to write Roger off, again.

Roger crouches down across the table, takes my hands, ignoring the mayo and cheese now spread across my right. "Jessica, it's nothing to do with the watch." His words soft, conspiratorial, kind of unnerving. Suddenly I know where this is going.

"It's the Synchronizer. Your Thesis."

He nods, gaze fixed on mine. "Ever since I graduated I've been working on it. Upstate."


"That's the place. Federal contract. I suspect it's military backed. The very idea of being able to adjust time, manipulate anything from an alternate space, invisibly, just blows their minds."

I remember his work, speculative stuff for Masters level research. Out there. More like Doctorate, and even then a little extreme.

"What happened?" I think I know the answer. Just not the details.

"We built a system. Finished three weeks ago, cost us four hundred million."

A mouthful of tuna threatens to explode onto the table, but I manage to choke it down. "You suspect military backing?" Order another coffee, I think I need the caffeine. Or maybe it's not such a good idea.

"They pay me huge salary, and I'm the resident guru. Only it's all a front Jess, and you know it. My Thesis, the guide we're using to build and test. The original idea was yours. Remember when we had that date, and I spilled my guts?"

"You eventually passed out is what I remember." But there is more, and now it starts to come back. "Before you got too drunk, you gave me the rundown on what you were trying to do, and I said your ideas were full of crap."

"That's not all you did," he says. "Your work on quantum molecular mechanics, the manipulation of wave functions and probabilities at a molecular level. It sunk in, that night. Subconsciously, even through the drunken haze. The next day when I woke up my thesis strategy just flowed from my head, and it took me months to realize where the idea came from, the inspiration for that unprecedented moment of brilliance."

"So you took my half-formed idea and repurposed it. So what?"

"So we built what should be a working system. Should allow us to shift the quantum probabilities of a localized region of space, every molecule, and two days ago we tested it." He holds up his watch. "Since the test, my watch has gained nearly eleven hours relative to most of the world."

"What, you tested the system on a watch? How did you generate a constrained field? How did you limit its range of effect?"

"We thought we had it confined, limited to a field test chamber, but--my watch is not the only one that's showing the change. Everyone in the lab. Our watches are all synchronized. All out by exactly the same. People in the research center too, I've checked almost the entire complex. In the town, about half of those I checked with are having problems with their watches."

"How many people in total?"

"I don't have a hard number. My guess is at least twenty thousand. Probably a lot more, but the thing I'm really worried about is--what does it mean? There don't appear to be any other signs. Jessica, I don't understand what's happened. You're the only one I could think of who might have an idea of what we've done."

I have to smile at that. Most of my current job at Ergo Pharmaceutical consists of deciphering other people's screwups and figuring out just exactly what sort of disaster they've created. Kind of a firefighter, or maybe lead on the bomb squad called in to defuse dangerous situations. "Too bad I don't get paid for the number of asses I save," I say. "On commission like that, I'd be pulling in a million easy."

"Jessica this is no joke. We've manipulated something in the quantum fields of tens of thousands of people. We need to fix it, and I need your help."

"Don't freak any more than you already have Roger," I say. "I'll help you. Or at least I'll try, but first you need to get a clearer idea of what you're up against. It's not just the people of Stellar and area you've changed, and that's where your problem really begins."

* * *

We're on a chartered chopper within an hour. The pilot and two escort military goons in thin disguise, and the chopper a civilian-painted attack helicopter with weaponry removed. Nobody asks who I am, but the armed forces train that out of you. The stakes are high, and I'm in it up to my neck now with no place to hide. Then, of course, that's the way I like it. Center of attention, high profile, and the buck stops here. Now and then a little recognition might make me less inclined to throw myself into the ring when everyone else is cowering behind the ropes, but then I don't play well with others, and most of the big spenders don't like independent operators, and the military not least of those.

Roger checks his watch as we drop onto the rooftop landing pad at Stellar, he's gained another two hours in the last forty minutes. The probability deviation is accelerating, and Roger is looking more and more like he's about to lay an egg.

"Roger. Do you notice it?"

Roger isn't noticing anything, but he's not about to admit it. As the chopper powers down behind us, he points across the roof at what looks like the entrance to an airline hangar. "They'll be waiting for us, Jess."

We walk, this time at my pace, Roger having pulled up his pants at least to the point of being able to move his legs. Ergo lets me dress in warning sign vibrance, why would Stellar not allow Roger his street punk look, other than the threat of tripping and frying something expensive? Through big double doors into the warmth of the high arched ceiling, rafters ten meters up and spanning most of the roof's forty meters. The big wigs are, as Roger anticipated, waiting.

"Anders Jersberg, Stellar PR." Shaking my hand, vigorous but limp. Neat black hair, tight business suit, studious-looking black-rimmed glasses and the trademark pen in the lapel pocket. He gestures to the redheaded woman, illuminating in a white lab coat and Miss Marples. "Estelle LeBlanc. Our scientific director." Estelle avoiding my gaze and scrunching up her eyes as if the Marples are pulling in too much light, or maybe it's my bright clothing. Fortyish, shrew like, her grip firm but quick. "Pleased," she says.

Roger steps forward, puts a hand on Jersberg's shoulder. "Still contained?" he says.

"People have been going home, some out of range. There are questions. So far no incidents we can't handle."

Roger nods, eyes Estelle then looks at me. He raises his brows. I ignore them all, turn to the nearest sunlit hangar wall and run my fingers across the surface. Watch the movement of my skin over the metal, test the texture. My guess is right, and it's started. Just as well people are affected more slowly than inanimate objects, or all hell would have broken loose by now, but if Jersberg doesn't know about it yet, nobody else likely does either.


I stroll back to the group, take Roger's arm. "Let's get to the lab," I say. "Show me what you've built."

Estelle leads the way then, Roger and I following with Jersberg bringing up the rear. We skirt the busier parts of the complex, wander mostly narrow dim corridors into the bowels of the building. The sign over the sealed lab reads "Synchronicity."

"Has a nice ring to it Roger," I say.

Estelle palms the reader, says her name. The door swings inward, ponderous, and silent. There is only the hum of instruments and equipment beyond, a twenty-meter square lab filled with apparatus. Wisps of LN2 vapor rise from a ventilated cooling vat in the far corner. The central space is dominated by a giant metallic cylinder, at least ten meters in diameter and rising a full seven meters from the floor. Now it is clear why the lab was constructed in the basement.

"That must weigh a few tons."

"Approximately twenty three." Estelle's voice is clipped and official, as emotionless as I've heard. Trying to contain her fear.

"Tell me about the oscillator design, Roger, and the containment."

"Magnetic containment," he says, his voice lacking conviction. "Resonant oscillator from mid-microwave up to gamma wave frequencies. We sweep it, pulsing at each pre-specified value."

"The power?"

Roger hesitates for a moment. "Peaks at ten Giga Watts."

I move to the chamber and Roger follows, activates the door system. Inside is a space about two meters in diameter, four meters high. On the floor I can barely make out an object, a meter-long copper rod six centimeters across. I keep my body between Roger and the chamber, brush my hand across the surface of the rod, and my fingers go right through it.

Turn back to Roger. "I've seen enough," I say. "Close it up." Block his view with my arm as he works the mechanism. The door shuts and seals with a booming clang, a sharp hiss. "Show me the algorithm." I know the drill now, what I have to do, to contain this. With Jersberg lurking by the lab entrance and Estelle prowling the instrument racks, it has to be quick and final.

At the bank of computer screens Roger is more in his element. I remember this of him, a good programmer. Whatever he believes was the correct process, it will be programmed, as it should. The fact that the process is flawed is not his fault. Or at least, it is partly mine.

"Here's the program flow," he says. He shows me a block diagram chart about half a meter square. Points to a section near the bottom. "This is the frequency and power sequence I used. Ramps through the quantum probabilities around the particular outcome we want. Energizes them, and disrupts natural entropic flow." His figures are accurate, as far as they go, but he is energizing the wrong outcome, and of course, his containment field is completely useless. The walls of the chamber reduce the effect slightly but might as well be a set of living room drapes. It's just chance that the building itself is designed to withstand nuclear attack. Otherwise, I'm sure the test would have been global.

"OK Roger. Adjust the settings like this," I say. My brain on autopilot during the chopper flight, running numbers, knowing the algorithm he'd borrowed and where I'd been wrong. Even before seeing it. I jot down the new values, the ones that will modify the target effect. Then I rewrite the frequency sequence as well.

"But the frequencies, Jess," he says. "We can't change those without having an entirely different intent. Even my work confirms the frequencies we need to shift the target into an invisible, parallel state."

"You're right. We do need a different effect. Because you're all already on a different quantum path. This is the only way to correct it, to pull you back where you need to be."

Estelle hovers at my elbow, looking down at my figures. "What do these numbers indicate Roger?" She does not even attempt to keep the suspicion from her voice.

Roger, as I expect, can't tell her, but true to himself, he also can't let her know that. "It should restore us," he says. "Set us back to before the test."

Estelle gives him the benefit of her glare, and to his credit, he does not flinch. He knows he's way out of his depth, and that he has to support my call.

"Very well." She turns and walks to where Jersberg stands, expectant, by the entrance.

"You'll have to leave," Roger says.

I nod. Waiting for that. "Was your chopper here during the test?"

"No, not till later the same day."

"The crew?"

"All off site. They don't even know there's been an incident."

"I'll get Jersberg to show me out. Good luck Roger."

To my shock, he reaches up and hugs me, tight. The first time ever. "You saved my ass today Jess. I won't ever forget it."

"Tell me that once this is all over," I say. Then I'm out the door, Jersberg leading the way back up, spouting off about what this device will mean for Stellar when it's working, the marketing and publicity. Never happen, I think to myself, the military will stifle any word and he knows it. Idiot.

Jersberg talks to the pilots, tells them I'm to get first class treatment, anything I want. "Take a trip on us, Ms. Ormond." The smile would wilt lettuce, unless you're a fan of used car salesmen.

Nodding, strapping in. We're about twenty minutes out when I feel it, the lurch. I yank on the pilot's arm. "Can you take me back, please? I need to pass on some more information." The chopper swings about, and we head for Stellar again.

I can tell as soon as we get close. The goons march me up to the hangar but I make sure by putting my hand on the door first, feeling the texture. They ring down for Jersberg, and for Roger, on my request. Roger is there first.


"Nice to see you again, Roger."

He looks utterly confused. "What--how are you here? In a Stellar chopper?" His baggy pants sag around his buttocks. T-shirt is Iron Maiden, this time. He thinks for a moment. "It's like you were reading my mind."

"I know. A little uncanny isn't it?"

He takes my arm, pulls me in conspiratorially. "You know my project here was mostly your idea," he whispers. "I was going to call you in as a consultant."

"Yeah, about that. You're right. A few tweaks before you test the system are probably in order. I can help you."

"Thanks Jess. I was dreading coming out to find you, after all these years."

Jersberg is walking over, stiff as ever. Roger leads me over to him. "Anders. I'd like you to meet a colleague of mine, Jessica Ormond. She's going to help me make some adjustments to my little project."

And now, having reset reality once, sent one version of the Stellar staff back to the line of existence they came from, I am front and center again. Hoping not to let myself become a victim of my own success, not run a test that causes me to fade into non-existence like Roger's last, before I perfect the invisibility cloak. Learn to use Synchronicity the way it should be used, and keep it from military hands. Now that's a challenge even for me. I think I'll need some brighter clothes.


2015 Roderick D. Turner

Bio: In his own words, "I like writing stories, and am particularly pleased when I find I enjoy what I have written. That is the best part of writing - you are after all most often your only audience. Second best is when you start writing about a character and they take over, almost literally writing the story themselves. Then you read it through and the characters surprise even you. Several of my stories have appeared in Aphelion, most recently Insider's Report in February, 2015. For more of my material, both prose and other media, visit www.rodentraft.com."

E-mail: Roderick D. Turner

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