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The planet, Tix and its sister Tox seemed the perfect place for the scientist Pref Terin to hold his experiments. They were situated close enough the centre of the galaxy to pick up some residual of the great black hole but far enough not to be sucked in. Little did he know, that wherever he held his experiments, he would always have the same result.
Pref Terin, normal looking to an extent, as least your basic human standard, had always been an ambitious man. You could see it in his keen eyes, blue like lighting and a brow that questioned you before he’d even opened his mouth. As a boy, in the housing reefs of Nep1, he had tinkered in the corner of the lean-to that housed their family. During the day he would scavenge in the undergrowths of the reeds, picking apart the debris that had fallen from the ring and the passing ships. He found tiny things, a screw, a sliver of foil, a crusted bit of ancient ore. But they were all treasures to him. He used to take them back and hide them about his person. This soon earned him the nickname Clink as he would jingle with metal as he walked. He would place his findings in front of him and try and fit them together. And he did, eventually. It was just a jigsaw puzzle to him, one that hadn’t been made yet. Eventually all the pieces fit together.
At university, a scholarship at Pure Light on Ma1, he found his inclinations to piece-fitting enabled him other gifts. He saw the lines of politics and history form in ebbs and flows. Each decision rippling like a pebble in a pond, making perfect sense as it happened. The dissolving of the Six United, the forming of the empire, the election of Tabitha Might, he could see each step like a map. But he always wanted more. This was only recent history; he wanted to see every step. See how the machine of the Galaxy fit together. To find its inner workings.
In his lab, the Trans-Molecular Engineering Department, in the last year of his undergraduate degree odd things started to happen. On his desk toy mice would appear. At first, he had come back to it after lunch and there it was by his keyboard. A small rubbery toy mouse. As anybody would, he dismissed it as a prank. Ot even if it wasn’t a prank, Professor Zanflip was quite eccentric, it could well be his an off cut of his latest work. But then the toy mice started quite literally appearing. It was always at night too, as the machines snored around, Pref would be there tinkering with ghost atoms and with a pop! a mouse would appear. Peculiar, he thought. He would run down to the Advanced Teleport department but no one was ever there. Even the AI’s were in sleep mode. He checked the shield runnings and they were fine, he knew the university’s policy. No shield up – no experiments. Otherwise the readings would be off. But there it was like clockwork – a toy rubber mouse.
As the days went on Pref would become more and more anxious for its arrival. His fellow students didn’t believe him – they put it down to late night hallucinations – a result of the overworked piecer-togetherer. But Pref knew. He started to wait for it to capture the moment. He recorded it too. There was a brief buzz and a slight flash of blue light. Every time the same, he would play the recordings obsessively through the day. It didn’t drop from the sky it formed fully on the table. But never anything else, just a mouse each time. He began to avoid all other work, even eating and sleeping came secondary to the appearance of the mouse. But it was always the same. Until one very special day. A day that would change Pref’s life forever.
Pref was waiting at his desk for his nightly arrival. He sat back, with a big mug of coffee intently watching the spot. His desk looked like a huge, heavily armed missile deck all aimed at the same spot. There were cameras at all angles, heat sensors draped over liked delicate arms smoking cigarettes, lenses whizzed and whirred like a pack of paparazzi waiting for the latest star. The time was running on the computer, any minute Pref knew it would arrive. As the clock carried towards midnight, there it was, right on time, the instruments everywhere sprang into life. There was a brief pop and a flash and there it was – the offering of the day. But this time it was different. Attached to the mouse, by a little slip of tape was a note. Pref scrambled forward. It said: Note the Decay. He shuddered. The note was written in his own handwriting.
Pref wasted no time. He ran to the Department of Quantum Geology and brandished the mouse in the Secretary’s face.
‘I need… I need to use the machine… the one… oh I know which one…’
He panted and brandished his student card. Before the poor man behind the desk could protest, Pref ran into the department and into the nearest study room. Inside was a group of bewildered looking Walrans with clipboards.
‘Erm…sorry…,’ Pref said. ‘Orders from… Proffesor Zanflip… I need this room.’
The nearest Walran raised a fleshy eyebrow. ‘I don’t think so, we’ve just been in class with him.’
Pref noted that there was no loyalty amongst Walran. ‘… You didn’t let me finish… Professor Zanflip…and the Vice-Chancellors… right away.’
‘Fine. We were finished anyway.’ The Walrans with eight pairs of suspicious folded flippers slid out the room tutting as they went.
Pref ran over to the machine that filled the room and placed the mouse in the hatch. He stood behind the screen and watched as the readings spread across it. He traced his finger along it. The machine was there to register the atomic decay of objects. A dating machine that had been around for thousands of years. As he followed the line the pattern formed in his mind. He gasped. Strands of atoms started appearing that were dated next week and the week after and months and years down the line. The mouse was from the future.
And so the work began. Years later he still remained at the university completing his PhD, ‘Towards a Practical Time Travel’ – nearly rejected until the intervention of Prof. Zanflip, a lover of the stranger investigations. The mice became infrequent but when they did arrive it would always come with a note. It would be a suggestion of a metal, a hastily scrawled equation. Each one proving a breakthrough for Pref. As the years went by, his hair grew unkempt and remained on end however hard he tried to comb it. His eyes formed deep bags underneath them. His hands became worn and coarse. He kept what he called the breakthrough mouse with him at all times. He toyed with it in his pocket as he walked, he kept it by his bed in the rare hours he slept. After he while, he noticed the mouse begin the change. Not just in general wear and tear but in its whole appearance. One day it would look ancient. Holes would appear in it and the plastic would crust and decay. The next day it would form over smooth and new. He knew what was happening. Whatever he was creating in the future – it was unstable. He thought about the jigsaw. Everything in his life so far he had fitted the pieces together. But this time – there were so many holes and nothing to fill them with.
In the last year of his PhD, strings were finally coming together. In his lab a vast machine had been constructed. It was like a tank out of an ancient sci-fi film, all arms and legs and big blocky chunks of steel. It all revolved around a central platform that glowed blue with a pulsating heartbeat. All around the room, on every shelf and flat surface, on the windowsills and scattered across the floor were hundreds and hundreds of rubber mice. The thing about sending things in time is that you’re never quite sure if you’ve done it. The thing just disappears and then you’re left with no idea if it reached, or reaches its destination. So Pref started setting dates. In three weeks time, he would run the machine and send a toy mouse back to today. As soon as he finished putting the note in his diary – there it was. A toy mouse appeared on his desk. It was working. It was finally working! So he set the date every day and there the mouse appeared. A full cycle of mice. Pref, now wild with joy as the pieces formed more and more, dug through his old diaries. There were the dates, each mouse was logged and recorded. He took a mouse and attached a note, something recent from a few months back, Try X’kair hair for the plaster lines. He fired up the machine and sent it. Suddenly he remembered it arriving more clearly, as if the circuit had been completed. He cheered and ran his hands through his hair. Little did he know, in his excitement that standing by the door was Professor Zanflip accompanied by a human, a man of about forty, with a neat haircut and a dark grey suit. The human gave a slight cough.
‘Ah, who are you?’ Pref exclaimed. ‘Oh sorry didn’t see you there Professor…’
‘Hello Pref – you’ve been working hard I know! I used to be like that myself when I got caught up in something. Getting on a bit now though ha! Don’t have the energy anymore!’
Pref looked towards the other man with an unproceeding glare.
‘Ah yes. Sorry Pref to intrude but talk of your amazing work has got round. And this is…’
‘Consto Grant. Nice to meet you Mr. Terin.’ The man held out his grey hand from the grey suit. Pref didn’t move from the control point of his machine. ‘I am a representative of her grace Empress Tabitha Might. I run the department for Empire-led Galactic Advancement.’
‘Never heard of it.’ Pref said.
‘Now now Pref, he’s from the government,’ Professor Zanflip said and fired a warning glance his way.
‘I am indeed. We have heard that you are working on a practical application of time travel am I correct?’
‘No. Well sort of. You’re simplifying it, it’s more time displacement. I can send things – like sending a GMessage. Zip. Zip zap.’
Consto raised his eyebrows, ‘Zip zap?’
‘Yes I zip things through time. Mr Grant what is you want?’
‘I have a question for you.’
‘Oh yes? And what’s that?’
‘I understand you have been running your experiments with rubber mice. Is this correct?’
‘Tell me. Would it… I don’t know…transport say a human?’
The same evening, Pref left the university of Pure Sight under the cover of darkness. He knew exactly why the man had come. He knew exactly what he had wanted. Throughout all his experiments, Pref had always known that sooner or later people would take notice. Legends of time travel had been around for thousands of years. It was the holy grail of the modern technological age. But he also knew that nothing good could come of it. If he refined it, say into a handheld device, then designated species could zip back and forth causing all sorts of trouble and if the Empire has sole control of it… well, he shuddered at the thought. But he knew he had to carry on. He knew he did carry on. All the messages he had received at the beginning – he hadn’t sent them yet. Somewhere he knew he keeps on going.
When he was young, his mother gave him a number and a name. She had given it to her all her children and said it was ‘A lifeline for when things get rough.’ They all asked her questions but were scolded. After a hitching a few lifts Pref arrived at docking bay shanty village a few systems over. It was all rusted browns and greasy cloths clutching on the edge of an asteroid. He opened his communicator and typed in a message. There’s a room at the University of Pure Sight. TME Ph4. I need the contents bringing to me when the time is right. He felt stupid. Who was at the other end? After a moment there was a buzz on his comm. It was a message. I’ll do my best. Send the word FLARE when you’re ready. We’ll find you. All best. San Ya (Proprietor.) He looked up from the dirty platform and wondered where in the sky San Ya was.
* * *
Eventually, Pref Terin, genius and spotter of patterns made it to and abandoned city on Tix. Enough digestible vegetation to keep him stable and no one in light years to bother him. San Ya had come up trumps. A couple of days after sending the word, a young Bonso had arrived bearing a crate filled with a hulking great machine and thousands of rubber mice. He had asked himself in the days that followed why he didn’t just destroy the thing, run off to the outskirt planets and have done with it. But it was the adventure that stopped him. He knew that if he could get it right then there’s the galaxy in his hand. Not in a way of control but just to see it. To witness a time when planets still wondered if there was anyone else there. When the only conceivable way of travelling through space was to send people out for thousands of years. See the discovery of new people and places. To see the strand of history link together. He could predict the future, not by even going there but by tracing each line towards its destination – there could be no other outcomes. He had to know.
His office was now a warehouse in the middle of the dead city. He had built solar panels all along the streets and the wires that connected them made the city look like the inside of a computer. The time machine was now twice the size at least. It had four huge legs and a roof of spiky circuitry that loomed over the central panel for sending things back. Everywhere there were scattered boxes of mice. In the first weeks, he was terrified that the Empire would track him down. But as the weeks and years passed he grew into his own world. It was as if he was constructing a gateway or more so a tunnel. That if he dug a little each day eventually he would make it through, into the light on the side. Whilst the mice were still very much present, he had graduated to larger things. The odd fruit would appear in his hand weeks off being sent back. Then a box of odd ends crashed out the sky in front him. Once a dead goat fell on him whilst sleeping. Something told him, the heat perhaps, that it was alive when it was sent. But soon, live goats came through, bewildered but bleating and relatively happy when they picked themselves up. After a while things would appear with strange collars on them and then shoot back into the air. He had discovered a way back. It was a peculiar sensation watching his discoveries appear a few weeks before he made them. But the sight of them always pursued him on to make them. As is the paradox with time travel. He knew that soon it would be him on the platform – taking the plunge into the unknown.
One day, there was a glow from the corner of the room. Pref ran over expecting to see another gift from the future. It was a goat but it was still glowing. He checked the tag, he had recorded them all to keep track, this one arrived last week, it hadn’t been sent back. It suddenly wretched and then clambered around finding its feet. It was like a newborn, just out the womb. Then it fell to the ground and lazily reared its head and smelled like it couldn’t see. Pref fetched his stunner and put it out of its misery.
Eventually the day came that he had longed for. He had set up a chair in on the platform and extended the range. It was a short trip back, relatively speaking, just to a little before he arrived and then straight back. He swung all the parts in place and clipped the lifeline round his waist. Around him were mirrors on every side. The man before him, he barely recognized, he was covered in shaggy hair, dirty and thin. All over him were cuts and bruises like an ancient map. He ignored it. He picked up the big stick he had fashioned and jammed it into the on switch. The machine roared and then all he saw was light. After a few minutes his surroundings bled into existence. He lay panting on the floor with a tingle all over his body. It was the warehouse. But there was no machine, no mice. It had worked. He patted himself down. He was intact – no new damage at least. He felt a tug in his lower belly. The lifeline was already bringing him back. With the same sensations he was suddenly back in the chair with his creation all around him.
* * *
At first he thought he was through the tunnel – that his years of experiments were over and it was a success. But then as the readings came, after a few weeks, he realized that he was wrong. He remembered the mouse, the first mouse with the note on it. How its atoms fluctuated in age. The way its plastic had decayed and reformed. How he had ignored it. The goat too. As he stared at the readings from his own body he knew it was happening to him too. Then he saw it. In the mirrors his face lost its beard. His long hair grew back into his head. It revealed his blue eyes and his quizzical brow. He was young again. The thoughts came with it too. The puzzling over the galaxy. The obsession with mechanics and history. He felt like a little boy. An urge came over him for his mother, a deep longing for her. To run into her many dressed and cling on for dear life. But suddenly he would wretch over and in the mirror before him was an old man but not just old – rotten. Gnarled. It was as if his skin was peeling off like a cooked onion. It was grey-black and charred too. He wasn’t dead though he was alive. He felt wise. As if he didn’t need to discover anything more, not because he didn’t need to but because he was beyond that now. As if his mind was now on a different plane. He reverted between the ages and everything between. Every time he returned to his proper age, the cuts would be worse, he’d be in more pain, the skin was beginning to disintegrate. It was as if he was rotting. The time travel had displaced him, his own atoms didn’t know where they were. He was becoming both a newborn child a living corpse. He would have waves of visions too. From places he didn’t know. Two warriors on a hilltop. Civilizations falling and rising. A man trundling from an ancient ship hopping in the low gravity. The rubber mice again and again.
There was only one thing left to do, he knew. He had one message left to send back. One message that he knew he had to write because he had already written it. He morphed into a young man and for a moment saw clarity. He scrawled the note and then attached it to a rubber mouse. As he did, his hands screamed in pain as they decomposed in front of him. With a huge heave he pressed the on switch sending the small rubber mouse back in time. In the last light of the time travel he saw the words Note the Decay.
* * *
In the University of Pure Sight, the young Pref Terin gasped as the daily rubber mouse, this time, for the first time, had a note attached. Note the Decay it said. He ran full speed to investigate.