Mourning “After”

Here’s another old story, based on a writing prompt (as you can guess by the title). While I think this story is well written, and I like the way I sketched out the characters, the fact is that it is boring and more than a little cliched.
——–
Ben thought of Ali and the sad comfort of longing took hold of him.

“Earth to Clark. Come in Mister Clark,” said Professor Hart from behind him.

Startled by the man’s deep baritone and embarrassed by the sudden, inexplicable and apparently obvious spell of love sickness that had overcome him, Ben pulled himself upright in his chair and focused blindly on the monitors in front of him. A white Styrofoam cup filled with steaming coffee entered his peripheral vision and he took it gratefully.

Professor Hart leaned against the desk, carefully sipping from his own cup. “First time up here?” asked the Professor.

Ben nodded. “First year,” he said a little sheepishly.

Professor Hart’s smile was broad and genuine. “You’ll get used to it. God knows you’ll have all the time in the universe to do so,” he added with a chuckle. “You’ll get used to missing people, too,” he added more soberly.

“Was it that obvious?” Ben blushed a little.

“Don’t worry about it!” Professor Hart waved his hand, swatting away Ben’s chagrin. “When I was a grad student I had a girl friend, too.”

“Boyfriend.”

“Whatever. The point is, I missed her and I worried about what she was doing and I didn’t know if I could be away so much. You know what happened?”

Ben guessed but politely shook his head.

“She pulled a train with the rugby team and maxed out my credit cards. By the time I got home my car was wrecked and she was living in Pasadena with a biker gang.”

Ben stared, stupefied.

“I’m kidding. I married her. We’re still married. She’s in Chile right now, prepping for the new array.”

“She’s a very lucky woman,” Ben said flatly.

Professor Hart guffawed and slapped Ben hard on the shoulder. “You’re alright, Clark. Thank God! The last one was a preacher’s kid out of BYU and I swear I can’t imagine longer nights than the ones I spent with her.”

Ben nodded, took a sip from his coffee and turned back to the monitors while Professor Hart looked on. There were nine monitors in all, arranged in a grid. Each of the four corner monitors showed a video feed with very little happening: a dark tunnel, a complicated mass of wires and metallic plates, and a very precise clock measuring to the millisecond. Each of the monitors adjacent to these was a constant scroll of numbers and letters in, to a layman at least, what was a incomprehensible wall of data. The center monitor was a brightly colored three dimensional graphic, currently all jagged lines of different colors that formed something like a very hairy star.

“How’s it going?” asked Professor Hart, leaning in close to examine the middle monitor.

Ben’s gaze darted between the data streams, soaking it in one inexplicable line of information at a time. This was why he, even as a first year grad, had gotten the opportunity to come to EQuAL, the Experimental Quantum Activities Laboratory. He was a talented physicist and a dedicated student and worker, but it was his uncanny ability to read, comprehend and mentally collate large amounts of data that pushed him to the head of the line for lab time at the new, unprecedented facility.

“Weird,” said Ben after a minute.

“Weird?” asked Professor Hart, himself now looking between the data streams but unable to make any immediate sense of it.

“The energy pulses going to the receivers seem to be operating correctly,” Ben explained, “but there’s something wrong with the clocks. The timing is all off.”

Professor Hart grumbled. His jovial demeanor darkened suddenly as memories of faulty equipment and hasty, overzealous press releases rose to the surface of his mind. “God dammit. How long? Is the whole night shot? Are we going to have to repeat it?”

“ I don’t think so.” Ben tapped the keyboard in front of him and scrolled back through the data. “There,” he sad, mostly to himself. “A few minutes ago. I must have missed it when I was–”

“–pining,” grumbled Professor Hart. “Fine. Prepare for shut down. Let’s see if there is anything we can salvage from this clusteruck.”

Professor Hart paced while Ben started the shutdown process on the reactor. It was one of the most energetic devices ever built by human hands and it was buried a mile beneath the small bungalow where Ben and the professor lived and worked. The hairy star in the central monitor was the reactor core and the constantly shifting streams of high energy, until-very-recently quite theoretical particles it emitted.

Professor Hart suddenly stopped pacing and moved over to the table. He took the keyboard from Ben and pushed keys and palmed the ball-mouse rapidly. “What about the receivers themselves? Are you sure they are okay?”

“I think so,” said Ben. He watched the big man paw at the keyboard and swear under his breath for a few moments before gently retrieving it from him and bringing up the data Professor Hart was looking for in the central monitor, displacing the hairy star image.

“See there?” said Ben. “That shows that the receivers are getting the particle streams just fine, but the timing is all off from the emission chronometer.”

He stared and he squinted but Professor Hart could not make sense of the numbers. With a grunt of frustration, he asked, “Can you show me the graphic?”

Ben sighed. He knew Professor Hart was brilliant, one of the most highly regarded physicists in the world, but that the man could not read the data or comprehend it without a picture struck a nerve with Ben. That was the way it always was with Ben: he was ever playing paint-by-numbers to get others to see what he could see in the numbers themselves.

Ben reopened the graphic of the core and accessed its settings. He spent a few minutes manipulating the way the data was presented in real time, doing his best to get it to match reality in a way Professor Hart could easily grasp. As he did so, it began to take shape for him as well. Ben was so used to “seeing” the numbers, he sometimes overlooked the value of a simple sketch and when he brought up the revised core graphic, he gasped and Professor Hart swore under his breath.

Gone was the hairy star with its random threads winding wildly through space to meet the receivers stationed at the virtual compass points. Instead, there was a solid sphere representing the rector core and an infinite number of loops stretching out from it, not merely to the receiver icons, but back again. It was an image like a bulbous four leaf clove, a misshapen bubble in four dimensions.

They both realized what it meant, though neither was certain exactly how it was possible.

Both passion and humor were drained from Professor Hart and in a very workmanlike fashion he told Ben to check the video feed. Ben understood what he wanted and took them one at a time. He expanded the video to fill all nine monitors and panned around slowly, zooming in as far as he could and still maintain a useful resolution. In each, the results were the same – subtle and extremely hard to detect, but consistent.

Each of the receivers was located in deep tunnels beneath the surface of the earth, protected and undisturbed. The tunnels had originally been used to detect natural sources of high energy particles and to measure the slightest variations in the Earth’s gravitational and magnetic fields. This experiment had made use of the tunnels because it, in part, attempted to tie all those forces together. Ironically, the evidence to support the hypothesis that both Ben and Professor Hart had formed was much simpler and could be collected with a simple high resolution video camera.

Ben zoomed in and the two men watched the tiny motes of dust in the air. The dust floating in front of the receivers was moving naturally, gently falling in predictable motion as affected by gravity. Beyond the receiver, outside the odd shaped bubble they had seen in the central monitor just moments ago, the motes hung motionless, unaffected not by gravity, but by time.

“Holy shit,” said Professor Hart after he had let it sink in.

“Yeah,” said Ben.

***

It took them individually about ten minutes to work it out, at least well enough to reach the right conclusion. They spent another ten minutes comparing what they thought, all the while drinking their lukewarm coffee and shifting their gazes from the floor to the clover-bubble Ben had brought back up on screen. In the end, they agreed on the most fundamental truths of their situation, even if they differed on some of the details.

The experiment, which had been intended to use high energy particles, including tachyons, to collect evidence to unify the fundamental forces of the universe into a single force, had created a closed time bubble. For all intents and purposes, a 30 mile diameter region centered on the reactor core and bounded by the receivers had become a separate universe, a distinct region of space-time set off from the rest of “regular” space time. The fact implied a great number of things about the universe as a whole and its creation and fundamental structure in particular, but neither of them would have the opportunity to explore those theories.

The data indicated that the bubble was not only closed, but recursive. Once the flow of particles stopped – that is, the reactor core was shut down – the little universe inside would “reboot” and start over from its point of creation – that is, when the reactor was turned on. That event was coming sooner than either of them hoped; the reactor core was only designed to work for an hour or so at a time, given the extreme amounts of energy it produced. Even if they did not shut it down themselves, it would soon shut down automatically as a safety protocol. Overriding the automatic shutdown was not even possible, as far as either of them knew.

“Look at the bright side,” said Ben as he stared at the grounds floating in the last half-swallow of black water at the bottom of his cup. “We’ll never die.”

Technically, it was a true statement. They were alive when the experiment started and they would, presumably, be alive when it ended. “Thank God for small favors,” said Professor Hart.

Ben started to cry. It was just tears at first, born of frustration rather than fear or sadness. But then he sobbed. It was a n unbidden bark of a sob from deep in his gut and once it came out he couldn’t stop sobbing for a long time. Professor Hart sat there silently, holding back his own tears and regrets, neither comforting the young man nor judging him.

When he was spent, Ben wiped his eyes and looked at the older man sadly. “I’m sorry. I just wanted to do so much more. After, I mean.”

“I know,” said Professor Hart. “I did too. This was just the beginning for you, but for me this was the end, the cap, the last hurrah. I would have retired happy. I would have joined Maria in Chile and laid out in the hammock drinking mimosas until I was old and gray.” he dabbed his eyes with his sleeve. “She would never retire. She’ll drop dead at that telescope.”

Ben felt suddenly ashamed of his outburst and turned in the chair to face the screens in order to hide his face from the professor. He could see that the automatic shutdown warning had come up on thew central monitor. It was close now.

“After this, I was going to get my doctorate. After that, I was going to get a job with once of the Big E firms, make free energy for everyone. After that, I was going to marry Ali and we were going to adopt a couple of kids. After they were grown up, we were going to move to Maui and lay in hammocks all day and drink mimosas until we were old and gray.”

They smiled at each other while the reactor shut down countdown dwindled. Professor Hart stood up, clapped Ben warmly on the shoulder and walked out of the room. He was going to his office to look one last time at the pictures of his wife he had displayed.

Ben thought of Ali and the sad comfort of longing took hold of him.

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