FOR WANT OF A NAIL by Carlton Herzog
Like that of all visionary scientists, Professor Mathew Arnold’s reach exceeded his grasp, particularly when it came to matters of time. Indeed, he knew just enough to be a danger to himself and others.
His misadventure began when he discovered that in peculiar pockets of the universe time ran backwards. For that discovery alone, he received the Nobel Prize in Astrophysics.
Arnold took his discovery one step further. He built the Counterclockwise Engine to isolate the mysterious Majorana particle which is prevalent in time reversed space. The Majorana is the only particle that is its own anti-particle. Arnold’s genius lay in using superconducting magnets and topological insulators to control the Majorana field and thus regulate the flow of time.
Once he had perfected his mechanism Arnold applied it to the field of medicine. He created a bubble chamber in which the time reversal effect could be used to shrink cancers. Along the way, he found that an aged person could recapture their youth.
As he stood on the cusp of financial success, he gave little thought to the chaos he might produce. His equations merely addressed the surface flow of time and not the deeper quantum ecologies in which it was entangled.
Nevertheless, Arnold’s success spread far and wide. So, it was inevitable that copy-cat time reversers would crop up to cash in on the boom. Chrono-Joe’s Fountain of Youth was one such business. Joe Brinks, had been a low-level mob enforcer. He borrowed a large sum of cash and commissioned a disgraced inventor, Slippery Pete Pulaski to build a time reversal machine.
Joe’s business tanked because his machine lacked the power to do the job. What should have taken a day or two took weeks and even months. Slippery Pete came forth with a solution: “I know a guy who knows a guy who works for the city’s power grid. Why not let him take a crack at the problem?”
The power worker in question was Fritz Rammstein. He assured Joe that he was the man for the job: “Ja, I can tune up zis machine and make za time go faster. Und I can tap into za city grid and get you all za juice you vill need.”
Chrono Joe gave Fritz the go ahead. In no time at all, Fritz had upgraded the machine to unheard of time reversal speeds and powered it straight from the city’s power grid.
“Jawohl, mein herr! In the za blink of za eye, za machine vill unbreak an egg, shrink za tumour and retube za toothpaste in seconds.”
The retrofit and added power were transformative. When Chrono Joe’s Fountain of Youth reopened, it was an instant hit. In just three weeks, Joe had recouped all his losses, paid off his mob debt, and turned a profit.
Granny Struple heard about Joe’s amazing machine. She had always wanted to turn back the clock. But her husband, Lemuel Struple was against it. He wanted the two of them to walk into the sunset together. They would have had not a distracted driver run Lemuel down killing him instantly.
Granny Struple hit the jackpot with her husband’s untimely death. She collected his life insurance and a huge lawsuit for loss of consortium. She made an appointment to be her old young self again.
On the fateful day, Granny Struple showed up at Joe’s with a bag full of cash and high expectations. Joe took the money and counted it. Then he led Granny into the bubble chamber and had her lie down on the carnation red velvet sofa.
Joe said, “Now, Mrs. Struple, I need you to lie perfectly still. This will only take a minute. When I’m done you will be a rosy cheeked twenty-year old again. You’ll have to beat the army of suitors off you with a stick. Here’s a blanket should you get cold.”
Joe switched on the machine and watched the great clock above it run in reverse. When it reached the desired stop point, Joe flipped the off switch, but the machine kept running, and did so with greater and greater speed. Before his eyes, Granny morphed into an infant. A moment later she was two free-floating gametes separating from one another, then two people, then gametes again. This process went on at blinding speed, so blinding the hands of the clock didn’t appear to move at all.
Joe was flabbergasted. He tried the off switch again and got an electric shock.
He couldn’t see into the bubble chamber because a swirling purple mist had risen, obscuring everything inside it. The bubble chamber was glowing and pulsing.
He tried to yank out the plug but was shocked again. He ran to the electrical room and pulled down on the breaker but got yet another shock. This one threw him back into the wall.
Suddenly, the breaker panel exploded in a shower of sparks. Joe could hear the machine in the other room winding down.
He got up on shaky legs. He staggered back into the machine room. Through the glowing purple mist, he could see something stirring in the bubble chamber. The chamber was rocking on its chassis. Something was striking its clear poly-fibre surface.
The chamber wall cracked. Then the chamber exploded sending shards and bits everywhere in a hurricane of clear plastic debris.
Two pallid sucker-filled tentacles came into view. They sank into the floor and proceeded to drag a corpulent white bulk forward out of the swirling mist. Eight tentacles thick as cedar trees followed, some helping with its locomotion, others snapping and cracking like whips.
The cephalopod head was adorned with a ring of blinking yellow eyes. Its mouth was a series of nested mouths, one within another, within another. Its enormous tongue shared that nested feature, having tongues within tongues within tongues.
Joe stared at it, dumbfounded, frozen to the spot in disbelief at the nightmare staring him up and down. He started to back away. When he did, the nested tongue shot forward to grab him. He slid out the way and ran into the offices and out the front door.
He watched from the street as the thing explored its new habitat with its orchestra of eyes and trick tongues. He didn’t know what to do. People gathered next to him, staring in awe at the monster he had inadvertently created. He wanted to call the police but figured that would be bad for business.
He called Professor Arnold. He gave a rapid explanation of who he was, what had happened, and his need for guidance.
“Sounds like you’re in a pickle, Joe. Mutations will crop up no matter which way you run time’s arrow. The greater the acceleration, the more bizarre and unexpected the mutations. Then again you may have gone back so far as to have pulled something that evolved naturally from a previous universe. In any event, that malignancy is the least of your worries. Time is going haywire and it all comes back to my invention. I’ve shut down my machine and I suggest you do the same.”
Joe thanked the professor for his time. Meanwhile, the police arrived with questions about what had caused the destruction of his business. Joe professed ignorance but suggested terrorists of one sort or another were responsible. He was not about to tell anyone that his new technique had produced the chrono-monster tearing up the city.
Satisfied that Joe could tell them nothing about where the beast had come from, the police left. No sooner had they walked out the door than two men in black suits made their way through the rubble.
One of them greeted Joe and then introduced himself and his partner: “Hello Joe. I’m Mr. Smith and this is my associate Mr. Jones. We would like a word with you.”
Joe asked him, “About what?”
“That thing you made with your time reversal machine.”
Joe played dumb and asked, “What thing?”
Smith chided him, “Come, come, Joe, don’t be coy. We have a business proposition for you, one that if accepted will help you rebuild your business to its former greatness.”
Curious about the proposal, Joe said, “I’m listening.”
Smith said, “When you deal with living organisms and large swaths of time, you’re bound to get an accumulation of genetic copying errors and deviations from the norm. Such mutations will arise irrespective of whether time is running forward or backwards. When your machine overshot the mark by some 1 billion years, you got a billion years of mutation compressed into a very short span of time. That’s more than the time it took for the dinosaurs and mammals to evolve.
“In your mind, your pulpy white tentacled friend constitutes the epitome of horror. I assure you it is not. The size of organic life is not writ in stone. Back in the day, insects and mammals were much larger but got smaller and smaller as they evolved. Same with reptiles. You could have produced a monster as big as a mountain or a horde of Lilliputians antagonistic to all human life.
“Forget about curing disease and lengthening life. Biology can be very unpredictable when you fool with accelerated evolution. That’s not true of physics. The radioactive decay that turns one element into another is straightforward and produces one and only one result. Take uranium 238 for example. It has 146 neutrons. If you take away three neutrons, you get uranium 235. Take away 10 protons and 18 neutrons and you get lead.
“What we propose is simple nuclear arithmetic. We want to make uranium 235 from lead 209. Uranium 235 is used in nuclear reactors, bombs and propulsion systems. Lead is simply uranium depleted by radioactive decay. We want to un-decay our enormous supply of lead and sell the product to the highest bidder.”
Joe asked, “Doesn’t it still have to be enriched?”
Smith said, “Not uranium 235.The key here is that we don’t have to mine the lead. We can pull it from scrap yards.”
Joe said, “What if the process conjures some exotic particle from the Big Bang or before?”
Smith said, “That would be even better. But let’s not get the cart before the horse. We’ll start with a few micro-grams of lead.”
Joe asked, “And if I refuse?”
Smith said, “We will let the authorities know who made that abomination currently rampaging through the streets of Trenton. Besides, do you really want to spend your days pandering to wrinkled dowagers and shady characters? If you were to create a new power source, you would be on the cover of Time. You would change the world.”
Joe said, “Okay. You’ve convinced me. I’m in. When do we start?”
Smith said, “My engineers are assembling outside even as we speak. It will take a few weeks to restore the building and repair your machine. Then we will be the Columbuses sailing toward the New World, not in ship, but in a bubble chamber.”
Time passed quickly. The fateful day arrived for the first retrograde atomic test. As his patrons looked on, Joe fed the micrograms of lead into the chamber, said a prayer to himself, and spun up the machine.
He had gone over the half-life equations over a dozen times to ensure their accuracy. Even so, he was afraid, particularly since his last effort had run so completely off the rails. And there was that conversation with Professor Arnold that he desperately wanted to forget.
The machine hummed and throbbed as time within the warp bubble ran backwards. At first in years, then centuries, and then aeons. When it reached the set point of 4.2 billion years, the machine stopped. The warp chamber lay shrouded in mist of an unknown origin. When it settled, tiny bits of uranium 235 lay in the open container, their radioactivity confirmed by the chamber’s Geiger counter.
Mr. Jones yelled, “Success! We shall all be very rich. I think we can dispense with any further testing and proceed directly with a twenty-kilo batch. You and your men fetch the load, Mohammed.”
Joe objected: “Dude, that was one test. We need to do a few more before we can start mass production.”
Smith said, “Nonsense. Atomic physics is a very precise science.”
Joe said, “I don’t think you fully appreciate the forces we are tampering with here. If this thing goes south, then we will all be in a world of hurt.”
Smith said, “Just do what you’re told. My boys have loaded the machine for you. Now get busy and make me some nuclear fuel.”
Joe found himself surrounded by six men all pointing Glocks at his head. Since he had no choice, Joe spun up the machine again. As he did, it struck him that a fundamental rule of physics is the conservation of energy—matter cannot be created or destroyed. So those particles that were being drawn back into the lead had to be coming from some other object of which they were now a part. That object would necessarily be somewhere in the past. If that were the case, he was altering the past, and that would necessarily alter the present.
He turned to Jones and asked, “Have you ever heard of the proverb for want of a nail?”
Jones turned to him and said, “For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of the shoe the horse was lost, for want of the horse the rider was lost, for want of the rider the battle was lost. So what?”
“So, then you know that pulling matter from the past to replenish matter in the future will create a chain reaction that will change both? That such a pull would necessarily have to come from our time stream and not an alternate one?”
Jones’ eyes bugged out of his head: “Shut it down! Now!”
By then it was too late. The machine did not stop at the pre-set time coordinates because it ran on an atomic clock sensitive to the radioactive decay of the caesium atom. But that atom no longer existed in this plane. Nor three of the men pointing their guns at Joe.
The machine kept running backwards, pulling more and more particles from the past, some from the standard model, but many from other universes and dimensions that predated ours. What had started out as lead was now something not even God himself could have envisioned, let alone made.
The fabric of reality twisted and warped and finally ripped open to reveal an ocean of stars. Not serenely shining amid the gloomy void but whirling and crashing into one another like breakers on a beach.
Joe didn’t understand why they weren’t all sucked into the vacuum of that astral chaos. It struck him that he was watching an alien universe, one very far away in both time and space, and therefore there would be a time lag before the vacuum effects reached them across the dimensional chasm.
He shoved past the men frozen in astonishment. He shut down the machine. Then he restarted it. Only this time, he set it to run forward. On manual. He hoped that if he could restore the status quo in the warp chamber everything would return to normal.
He watched the counter race forward in time. The thing in the chamber diminished in brightness and size until it was nothing more than a pile of inert lead.
The survivors stood there speechless. After a moment, they collected themselves and left without saying a word.
Joe breathed a sigh of relief. He and the rest of the world had dodged a very big bullet. He swore to himself that he would never dabble in science again.
He sat down, lit a cigarette, and took a deep drag. He thought about creator’s regret and that he was had joined the notorious company of Dr Frankenstein and Robert Oppenheimer. Nonetheless, he felt grateful that he had narrowly averted a global catastrophe.
Then he heard a deep rumbling sound outside the building. The ground shook.
When he turned to look out the large plate glass window. He saw a circlet of yellow eyes looking back at him. Then the Leviathan thundered forward.
Why it had come back here was anybody’s guess. Was it some vestige of Granny Struple that wanted revenge for being turned into a freakish abomination? Or was it like a salmon returning to the place that spawned it? Whatever the case, he needed to hide.
The only place out of its immediate line of sight was the bubble chamber. So, he stayed low, crawled inside, and pulled the blanket over him. The thing sniffed around, looking for him. In the process it tripped the breaker and the machine kicked on.
Joe wanted to jump out, but the thing was flush up against the chamber door. It just stood there, swinging its bulbous head one way then the other as the counter clicked away. Joe felt himself slip away until he was nothing more than gametes. And then the machine kicked into hyperdrive the way it did with Granny.
But the machine had been retrofitted with an improved electrical system, so this time there would be no overload to shut it down. It just kept running time backwards in the bubble far beyond the point at which it had stopped for Granny.
If it were not for the army showing up and finally putting an end to the tentacled white blob, there’s no telling how long the machine would have run. But after the white people eater was dead, one of the soldiers shut down the machine.
Curious, the soldier opened the port to the bubble chamber. Inside, he found a city populated by tiny, tiny humanoids that bore a striking resemblance to the former proprietor of the business.
One hundred years later, scholars still debate how the little people and the White Monster came to be. They agree that the two share a connection with the time shop, which has since been turned into a museum of the weird. The little people have been relocated to a protective government facility. They have learned English and communicate with their Brobdingnagian protectors. They are smart and able. The scientific community expects big things from those little people.
At last report, the Lilliputians had built and were operating a mysterious machine. They are decidedly secretive as to its purpose. However, no one is especially concerned, because they are, after all, very tiny. The world moreover is concerned with various anomalies and enigmas that are appearing with great frequency. It seems that the Lusitania docked in London on May 15, 2030, even though it had been sunk by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915. Reports of personalities from the past appearing in the present, including Winston Churchill and Rene Descartes, have become routine.
Thus, it is that time was twisted for want of a nail. Or, if you prefer, the redoubtable caesium atom.