When the door opened and the early evening light of May spilled in, the young man at the end of the bar squinted and sipped from his bottle of beer. He couldn’t see who had entered for the multicolored fireworks crowding his eyes. The dots and blobs flickered in darkness once the door eased shut, square dancing to the honkytonk peel from the replica jukebox: do-si-do, allemande left, home position.
It was a well-dressed older gentleman who had found his way inside, the creases of his dark suit so sharp they could cut a finger. He loosened his tie, unbuttoned his collar. His close cropped hair was granite grey atop his head and lightened as it traveled down his scalp. The gentleman chose a stool three up from the man at the end who wore a grease stained uniform with an equally dirtied Atlanta Braves baseball cap.
“What can I get ya?” the bartender asked.
The suited man scratched the faint stubble on his chin. He slid his driver’s license across the bar top. “You got Wheeler’s?”
The bartender rapped a knuckle twice on the counter. “Right up.” He pulled an amber bottle from the cooler and popped the top.
The suited man put his license back in his wallet and laid a bill down. “Keep the change.”
The man at the end of the bar could see the pure joy on the other’s face as he drank.
“A Wheeler’s drinker,” the young man at the end held up an identical bottle.
The suited man sat his drink down on a napkin. “Oh, yeah. It’s been a while since I’ve had one. I’d forgotten how good it tasted.”
“This is my after work gift.”
“Mechanic?” the suited man guessed.
The younger man smiled and flexed his hands. “The grime give it away?”
“Some,” the older man said.
“Let me see,” the young man eyed the new patron. “Lawyer.”
“Sharp duds for a teacher,” the other said.
“Professor. University pays a little better.” He leaned over and extended his hand. “Josh.”
The mechanic shook it. “Jim,” he tapped the name stitched above his shirt pocket.
“Nice to meet you, Jim,” Josh said.
“Likewise,” Jim tipped his cap, tapped the brim with the bottleneck.
The two men talked for two hours and another two rounds, nursing their drinks with care. Josh was in town for an academic conference and spotted the bar on his drive from the airport. Jim was a regular, he stopped in most every day after work for at least one beer.
Their conversation fell into a rhythm of old friends as people came and went from the place. Josh was twice divorced, no kids. Jim was somewhat newly married at a year and a half with a baby boy due in two months. They talked about their jobs, sports, women, and life and time. Josh had a trick knee prone to give out thanks to an old high school football injury and Jim had a developing back problem from bending over into cars.
As the last of the light was fading from the streets outside, Jim glanced at his watch. “I better be heading home, my wife’ll kill me.” He drank the remaining drops of his beer. He shook hands with Josh. “Enjoy your time in town, professor.”
“Certainly,” Josh said. “Take care of that family.”
“I will, you can bet on that.”
Before Jim left, Josh told him, “Better get that back seen about, too. You don’t want to be some old man with a bad knee. If your baby boy is any size, you’ll need a strong back to tote him.”
Jim laughed, “You’re probably right.”
Josh watched the young man go out the door.
Secretaries pushed carts of coffee and pastries around the table of the eighth floor conference room of Davis-Njord Research Group. Department heads, project directors, research scientists and assistants jotted ideas, took memos and flipped through report pages as they answered mobile phones, tapped keyboards, and guzzled coffee.
Willard Norvell came into the room. He was the director of Special Projects Implementation, which was Davis-Njord code for military application. He was followed by Dr. Elene Lee and the harried members of her staff. The secretaries parked their carts and scurried to the exits. When the doors closed, a hush came over the room. Norvell poured his own coffee and sat at the head of the table. Dr. Lee organized her notes and whispered to her personnel.
“When you’re ready, Elene,” Norvell said. “I think we’re all interested to hear the new information you’ve got for us.”
Dr. Lee cleared her throat, clearing the jitters her boss had just agitated. Her assistants found their seats and she found every eye in the room on her.
“Thank you.” She dove straight in: “With the Genesis Project we work from the theory that time is simultaneous. The past, the present, and the future exist at the same time. Time and space, as we’ve come to comprehend them, are separate entities that work together: space as a kind of pipe and time flowing through that pipe like water. Three different streams of water. As we travel the streams, our Stationary Orbiting Hub would be anchored in space, the pipe, as a transit station. We’re still developing how to cloak it. We’ve had more success with how we would communicate with it.
“My team has been developing Direct Wave Messaging. If we achieve our goal to travel throughout time, we need a way to communicate. Direct Wave would allow us to transmit through space/time. We would punch through space/time itself, much like the physical travel of it, and send a direct message to our travelers at the Hub. The Hub would relay to the team on the ground. Yesterday at twelve noon, Central Time, Direct Wave went online to begin preliminary testing. We intended to test the technology and send a simple test signal into space to measure machine function. Basically, to see if we were on the right track even though we had no phone, so to speak, on the other end. Before we were able to test transmission, we received a message.”
“Interference? Radio signals?” someone asked.
“No,” Dr. Lee answered.
Another at the table asked, “Who else has this technology?”
“No one,” Lee said.
“Please, let’s hold our questions until the end,” requested Norvell.
Lee continued. “The message we received was sent using Direct Wave my team developed. Twenty-two years from now, Project Prodigal successfully travels backwards in time. Prodigal was developed and directed by Doctors Christopher Lattimore and Truman Bellows. Lattimore developed the ability to traverse time, opting to go backwards because history is known and can be mapped more precisely. Traveling forward, one could be traveling into oblivion. The future is undefined.
“Bellows developed the Focal Time Station. The FTS is hid in the time/space continuum. It’s Project Prodigal’s way station and launchpad, their Stationary Orbiting Hub. From the station, Lattimore launched into the past. The time he went to is forty-five years ago from our present. Dr. Lattimore chose a particular time period specifically to meet his father. His father died from cancer not long after he was born, he never knew him. He briefly befriended his dad and suggested that he see a doctor for a recurrent backache he had initially ignored. His father did visit a doctor, his cancer was discovered early and he survived. As a result, Lattimore not only knew his dad, albeit briefly, but he also changed time. In this new timeline, Lattimore and his father, Jim, were killed in a vehicle accident when Lattimore was twelve years old. When Lattimore died, all of his future work disappeared from existence. Bellows, in the past, is stranded and that is the distress message we received.”
All eyes turned to Willard Norvell. Norvell’s face was stone. “Who are these people? Lattimore and Bellows?” he asked.
Elene Lee unbuttoned her blazer. “They are, or were, employees of Davis-Njord. All of that was changed along the timeline.”
“Where is Bellows now?” Norvell asked.
“Any of them.”
“The present day Truman Bellows is a philosophy professor in Akron, Ohio,” Dr. Lee said. “He initially met Lattimore in his first year of university. Through their friendship, he switched his career path. Since Lattimore died in childhood, now, they never met. The Truman Bellows that created the Focal Time Station is stranded, as I said, in the past. That Bellows is also dead in the FTS.”
One of Lee’s assistants spoke up: “Bellows’ station still exists because of the way it functions. His work remained.”
“He’s cloaked, hidden in the continuum. Out of time, but in space,” Lee said. “But he’s human and he’s been out there for forty-five years. Supplies only last so long. Due to universal expansion, the FTS has slipped further away from the origin point. His message is from the day Lattimore disrupted the time stream and vanished from existence.”
“This Focal Time Station, the Direct Wave it utilizes, it was all made here, by us?” Norvell asked.
“Yes,” Lee said.
“Their Project Prodigal, it was our Genesis Project.”
“Exactly,” she told him. “Lattimore was project lead. Appointed by you, sir. You were colleagues. You worked together for a number of years. In fact, you and he were close friends. You, sir, began Project Prodigal then the same as you initiated Genesis here. Or now, maybe. You hired me in both times, all of us here in this room. The people that Lattimore and Bellows brought onto Prodigal, they are, as a matter of course, not a part of Genesis.”
Dr. Lee could see the cogs of Norvell’s brain turning on his face. He pursed his lips, his right eye had a barely perceptible twitch at the outer corner. “Was this all in a recorded message or a live conversation?”
“Recorded messages, akin to voicemail, that’s the way Direct Wave works. We had a back and forth until our system here failed. We’re working to bring it back up. The entire exchange is saved for you and the board to review,” said Lee.
Norvell said, “At least we know at some point you will have it fully operational. I think.”
There was a lone chuckle that was quickly swallowed.
After a moment, Norvell asked, “Was Bellows a co-conspirator in Lattimore’s plan?”
“I don’t know,” said Dr. Lee. “I didn’t think to ask. I don’t think so, though. From his reaction at what he observed from the Focal Time Station, he was shocked and quite afraid.”
Willard Norvell ran his tongue along his top teeth. “Okay. This is a lot this early in the morning, Elene. To recap, so I understand, or understand to the best of my abilities, technology we built in the future doesn’t exist anymore because a scientist none of us know, who not only worked for us, but was probably my best friend, died when he was a kid. Another scientist, whom we also never knew existed, is teaching philosophy in Akron while floating dead, yet also alive, somewhere in space after sending us a message via technology we are still developing and isn’t fully operational yet.” He parted his hands for approval.
“I think that’s the gist of it, sir. From the facts we have,” Lee said.
“I’ve not smoked in fifteen years, that I know of,” said Norvell, “but I think I’m going to buy a pack of cigarettes before I present all this to the board. I think your point of this meeting is to present to the board of directors the decision to either continue with Genesis and maybe rescue Truman Bellows or stop Christopher Lattimore altogether. The alternative choice is to scrap the Genesis Project completely.”
“Yes, sir,” said Dr. Lee. “We have always known the possible consequences of intertime travel, but given this information I think a serious reevaluation is needed. I have all the information ready for you to take to the board, all of my team’s research, and the recordings.”
“Good. I’ll take it the bosses,” Norvell said. “They will, as always, investigate the legitimacy of the evidence and weigh the benefits against the risks. When they give me the verdict, I’ll notify all division leads. Whatever the outcome, I hope I can still depend on everyone’s expertise.”
There were a few weak confirmations, some nodded with dire faces.
“This is a peculiar situation,” Norvell said. “As Elene said, we knew there would be dangers when we began this project. There’s great danger, but there’s also great potential. We don’t know the ramifications. As scientists, as explorers, we never do. Our job is to go into the great unknown, that’s the job of science, that’s what we do in research. Can we help humankind? Is our work for the betterment of civilization? Yes, that’s our ultimate aim. Anything in the wrong hands, be those hands misguided, ignorant, or nefarious, can be used as a weapon of destruction. I want you all to weigh your own benefits and risks while we wait for the board’s decision.
“Meeting dismissed.” Norvell refreshed his coffee and left the conference room, dispirited, with more questions than he wanted for the day.