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Author: Dexter Palmer
Publisher: Pantheon Books, 2016

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Near-Future
Time Travel
Alternate/Parallel Universe
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(22 reads / 14 ratings)


Rebecca Wright has reclaimed her life, finding her way out of her grief and depression following a personal tragedy years ago. She spends her days working in customer support for the internet dating site where she first met her husband. But she has a strange, persistent sense that everything around her is somewhat off-kilter: she constantly feels as if she has walked into a room and forgotten what she intended to do there; on TV, the President seems to be the wrong person in the wrong place; her dreams are full of disquiet.

Meanwhile, her husband's decade-long dedication to his invention, the causality violation device (which he would greatly prefer you not call a "time machine") has effectively stalled his career and made him a laughingstock in the physics community. But he may be closer to success than either of them knows or can possibly imagine.


As the second segment began, Rebecca reflected that Philip wasn't coming off quite as coldly as she'd feared he might. It helped that in addition to getting him to sit for an interview, the crew had shot a good deal of additional B-roll footage of him working in the lab, and though it was clearly staged, it served to humanize him. ("They asked me," he said in high dudgeon after coming home from the lab one evening, "to sit at a desk, a clean desk with nothing on it, and write. On paper. With a pencil. They said: Don't look at the camera. Just make up some equations or something. Throw some Greek letters in them, and maybe we can get a shot of the paper, too. It was laughable, Rebecca. It was fatuous." But fatuous or not, here was Philip sitting at his desk, dutifully scribbling away, looking like a dinner-theater actor playing the part of a scientist.)

"Here at Stratton University in New Jersey," the announcer cooed, "Philip Steiner and his small but devoted team are hard at work on an idea that has captivated the imagination of humanity since the novelist H. G. Wells first conceived of it in 1895."

"Oh, no," said Alicia. "Oh no."

"Philip calls it a causality violation device," the announcer said.

Sitting next to Rebecca, Philip bristled. "I call it that because that's what it is!" Rebecca reached over and patted his hand.

The screen showed Philip in the lab, speaking past the camera to someone out of the field of view as Carson fiddled with machinery in the background. "There's Carson," said Dennis. He had finished the entire bowl of tortilla chips and wiped the bowl of salsa clean.

"I must have removed and reattached that robotic arm a dozen times in front of those guys," Carson said. "That's not even from our lab. We got it from another building."

Onscreen, Philip was wearing a lab coat. He never wore a lab coat. It looked fresh from its packaging. He was cradling a robot in both arms, an eight-legged contraption of steel and plastic with a digital clock strapped to its back. "This is Arachne," he said. "Our little causality violation detector. For all the work that's going into this experiment, the central concept is actually pretty simple."

"You're doing good here," said Rebecca. Despite Philip's protestations before the party that he was generally unconcerned, he was clearly worried -- he'd gone pale and tight-lipped.

"So," the onscreen Philip continued, "Arachne's clock is synced by radio to the atomic clock in Boulder, Colorado, one of the most accurate timekeeping devices in the world. Here's the idea: We send Arachne into the causality violation chamber, retrieve her a few moments later, and see if the clock she's carrying is still synced to the clock in Boulder. If Arachne's clock is running faster -- and if all works perfectly, we'd expect her clock to be about an hour faster -- then that'll mean that she's existed for a longer period of time relative to the scientists who are observing her. Which would mean, in turn, that we had successfully created a causality violation."

"In short --" the announcer said.

"Oh no," said Alicia. "-- if Philip Steiner is successful, he will have built --"

"She's actually going to say it --"

The announcer gasped. "The world's first time machine," she said.

"Goddamn it," Alicia said. "I knew they'd take that corny angle."

They saw a rapid series of clips from twentieth-century movies: an open-shirted Rod Taylor rescuing Yvette Mimieux from a rubberfaced Morlock; the USS Nimitz appearing in Pearl Harbor a day before the fateful attack; Michael J. Fox stepping out of the gull wing door of a modified DeLorean.

"This is so embarrassing," Alicia said, while Philip quietly clenched his fist and the rest of the physicists stared at the television in despair. "And oh hey look, without even telling us, they went out and got an interview with Anne Lippincott for this dog-and-pony show. Ridiculous."

Anne Lippincott, according to the banner displayed at the bottom of the screen, was a representative of the Committee for Ethical Restraint in Science. "Well, of course it's unethical," she said, gesturing wildly with one long-fingered hand while she brushed a flaxen lock of hair back behind her ear with the other. "If these positively amoral people are going to go and honest-to-goodness rip a hole in the spacetime continuum, then that's something that affects everyone -- we all have to live on this planet together, and it's something they shouldn't even think about doing without first consulting the American people, so we can put it to a vote. You got all sorts of stuff going on now that's unethical, that's amoral -- you got that business with the stem cells, you got people eating steaks that didn't even come off a cow -- and now we've got these absolutely reckless people who just can't imagine that there is even one piece of knowledge that God just might have chosen to place off-limits for a reason, that maybe God made space and time the way they are for a reason --"

"Turn this off," Philip growled. "I don't want to see any more."

Rebecca quietly pressed a button on her phone. The television burped a little ditty and went black, shutting off Lippincott's rant in mid-sentence.

"That's it," Alicia said to the rest of the silent group. "We're screwed."

Copyright © 2016 by Dexter Palmer


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