Science Fiction mad scientist Political Rivalry

On the Mundane Applications of Extraordinary Inventions

By Phil Margolies
Jan 8, 2021 · 2,874 words · 11 minutes


From the author: A scientist and a senator. A years-long rivalry. A plan.


Looping through streets designed by Escher, I realize the reason Roberta moved here. Because Cee lives in McLean ritz. Of course, Roberta had to retire to a community scatter shot with over-designed and under-built refugees from Levittown. The thought distracts me as I slide the car to a halt at another stop sign. I quit the drone of NPR's Science Friday and let the strum of rain provide background noise. I wish I could kill the hypnotic swish of the wipers, but then I would have to drive even slower. Roberta is all about time. Punctuality is the only virtue in her world.

Just in time, I locate the right driveway. My headlights sweep across the crew cut lawn before focusing on the explosion of shop tools, discarded wires, and metal plating that clutter her garage. In the center of it all stands her masterwork, which looks just like an early space capsule.

"Odd choice," I mutter as I dash for the garage. Roberta works behind a makeshift console topped by a plexiglass shield screwing in a big red button with a power driver. The console looks like a homemade version of mission control. Which it is. Kind of. If Roberta is telling the truth.

"Ray, watch out for that cable," Roberta says without glancing up, "I don't want you to damage it."

I tip-toe across the minefield of debris, stopping beside the capsule. Built by a Niven fan, it looks so Bradburyian. Constructed of corrugated sheets and copper wiring, with store-bought nuts and bolts, with hopes and dreams and a lot of sweat. Ironically, like the early science experiments of the American rocket program. I decide it matches most closely a Gemini capsule. Of course, its (supposed) function is along a different vector. Why is there no sense of irony here? A woman who is obsessed with timeliness built a time machine in her garage. Only Roberta.

I ease over to stand across the plexiglass shield from her. I wave my hand at all of it. "Deeper meaning here?"

"I'm no minion of the people with eyes only for dollars and cents." She sticks her hands into the pockets of her mottled lab coat and stares at me. I feel like the victim of a full sensor sweep. "That's why I've done the impossible."

Roberta makes a show of checking her watch. "Typical. She's twenty-six minutes late. Drama and showmanship over promptness and courtesy."

I let the insult lie. "Well, after Zac picks up Cee, he's got to drive through the rain from McLean--"

"For someone who writes about time travel, too often our dear Isaac fails to grasp the concept of travel time."

Abandoning me, she walks around the capsule.

"It still seems like a science fiction story."

"And I thought Isaac was the author."

"He writes fiction. I'm a journalist."

"There's a difference?" she says as she reappears.

Turning away from the insult, I look out the the garage door. The rain drizzles to an end. The setting sun peaks out from the sliver of sky chopped up by ticky tacky boxes with a glandular problem. I used that line once in an article on developments like this.

Roberta closes the garage door.

"Almost time."

As if coincidence were eavesdropping, the glare of headlights swings into the high garage windows as an oversized SUV pulls into the driveway beside my bar. Roberta and I thread our way to the door into the house, where the design aesthetic left behind in the 1960s assaults us. Odd considering the house is no more than a decade old, but I have come to learn that odd to us is status quo to Roberta. The aroma of chocolate chip-peanut butter cookies rises as I follow her to the kitchen. She pulls the tray from the oven and sets it on the counter to cool, then puts on a tea kettle. Amused in by the domesticity, I loiter in the doorway trying to think of something witty with a bite but not outright insulting to say. Roberta breezes past me.

There's a polite knock at the door before we even enter the living room.

Roberta opens the door just as Zac reaches to knock again. The drizzle has started again. Cee, a hands breadth taller than Zac, holds the umbrella cover both of them.

"Dr. Hines," Zac says.

"Hello, Isaac."

"Senator," I say from behind Roberta.

"Oh Ray, not that from you. Cee."

"Senator," says Roberta.

"Roberta."

Cee collapses the umbrella and saunters in, her senatorial blouse and ankle-length skirt forming the perfect counterpoint to Roberta's lab coat hiding a discount rack outfit. Zac skips in around the closing door.

"Your severance from Princeton couldn't have bought you a real house," Cee says.

"You've evolve a sense of humor since school. With that granite shell around it, it's too bad your ex-husband wasn't a geologist."

The initial insults issued, the women establish their positions across the coffee table, while the men retreat to the kitchen to fetch the tea. What first salvo launched their never-ending war, neither of them ever told to me or Zac. We tried not to imagine, or rather we pretended not to anymore.

Their four years together as college roommates had blasted them onto different journeys that carried them to the heights of their chosen professions. Roberta blended the four major fields of physics--classical and relativistic mechanics with quantum field theory and mechanics to establish own realm of study just because Cee had once proclaimed that such a feat was improbable. Unfortunately, once Princeton grew the same conviction, even tenure did not save Roberta's career. Cecelia Clarke climbed the political tree into the rarified branches of the Senate where she sought out committee assignments that had the most direct affect on Roberta's funding. Her own career arced over, though, once the taxpayers decided she was too much a one-note song. In her two dozen years in Congress, Cee never missed an opportunity to deny Roberta at every turn. Even at her last hearing on her final day in office, Cee cast the killing vote on a funding bill that included a minuscule line for some obscure project Roberta championed.

 The whistle from the kettle shields us from the continued sarcastic rhetoric assaulting our ears. I hesitate before popping the valve.

Zac shuffles cookies from the tray onto a plate. "Time machine, huh?"

"That's what Roberta claims."

"Hell of a story for both of us if she's telling the truth."

"The first draft of history is often stranger than fiction," I say. "How did you convince Cee to come?"

"She's writing her memoir. All I had to say was, why invent details when the truth can be much sweeter."

"You're evil," I say with a laugh, then snatch a cookie off his plate.

The women don't let our tea service interrupt their argument, which at the moment is over the dispensation or lack thereof of Internet services in third world countries. Cee, as her voting record proves, is all for helping other countries build infrastructure and supporting other basic needs. Roberta is, too, as I recall, but to hear her argue against the idea is to believe she's an Ayn Rand heir.

As I listen, though, I realize how their enmity has evolved. Then, it was more of a passion that defined their lives. Now, it's like watching some twisted versions of Harry Potter and Voldemort who would commit suicide just to see the other perish as well. Weariness is etched on their faces, as if exhausted from battle, they fight only because they are too dogmatic to stop.

Zac and I settle ourselves and chitchat about lesser issues: travails of the local sports teams, faltering Congressional ratings, and being the DC Metro area, our day jobs.

To ignore a sarcastic quip from Roberta, Cee slips her Droid out and studies the time. "Getting late. Have you forgotten your reason for dragging us out here?"

"I forget nothing."

Roberta is halfway to the door before the rest of us could blink. More exhausted than reluctant, Zac and I trail Cee into the garage.

"This is it?" Cee says, muffling her irritation. A calculated glare scans every inch of the capsule.

"This is it," Roberta declares. She dives into a practiced speech, pointing out all the little mechanisms and theories that are supposed to make her contraption work. Then she opens the hatch to point out every nuance, including a matching operator console and leather seats with room enough for three people.

"A seat and a seat belt," Cee notes. "How safety conscious of you."

"Wouldn't want anyone to get hurt."

Zac pulls an instruction manual out of the capsule. Fliping through it, he peppers Roberta with questions, but her responses are more like a child playing with a puppy than the riposte with Cee.

"Think it'll work?" Zac asks me as we gather at the console.

"Roberta does."

"Think it will blow us up?" Cee asks.

"Wouldn't be here if I did." My mind is not as sure as my voice.

Cee turns to Roberta who ignores us as she fiddles with the controls. "So we're your guinea pigs?"

"Oh no," Zac says, "I don't actually do the things I write about. It's science fiction."

"I thought you didn't believe it'll work?" Cee says. "Ray?"

A nervous laugh escapes my lips. "I requested an assignment in Des Moines for the duration of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."

"Men!" Cee says. Roberta strangles back a smile. We men, our loafers cemented firmly to the concrete floor, turn to her.

"Volunteering?" Roberta lets the smile out as she faces Cee.

"Oh, of course, what a perfect way to kill someone," Cee says in mock belief. "Send me back in time and let a T-Rex do your dirty work. How convenient."

Roberta snorts. "I can think of a lot more inventive ways to kill you. Besides, time travel, according to my theory--and of course, I'm right--ironically only let's us send things into the future, not the past."

Cee looks to Zac and then to me, studying us. Her face is transparent to her thoughts. She's thinking: Roberta wouldn't let Zac and Ray be here if she was planning something. She's thinking: Zac and Ray wouldn't let anything happen to me.

I hope she's right.

"Okay, I'll play your game," she says, staring Roberta dead in the eyes. In my mind, she's Matt Smith's Doctor, surrounded by stone angels declaring, "There's one thing you never, ever put in a trap, if you're smart, me."

I hope she's right.

She plucks the manual from Zac. "Back behind the safety glass with the coward and the mad scientist. Not too far into the future, Roberta dear." Cee walks to the capsule. "I don't want to miss next year's Game of Thrones premiere."

"I wouldn't worry. You'll be traveling at the nominal rate of one second per second. I think one hour should suffice."

Cee smiles at Zac. "I think that chapter will pretty much write itself." She slides into the capsule and closes the door behind her with an echoing clang.

Roberta starts explaining every pushed button and twisted knob to a Zac in a techno-gibberish that sounds like pseudo-science to me. Zac's eyes glaze over as Roberta details each step.

Three minutes later, Roberta taps in the final sequence and pushes the big red button.

Nothing happens.

At first.

Cee tries to open the door, but it won't budge. I start for the capsule, but Roberta holds me back with a hand on my chest. She's grinning like the Cheshire cat.

There are no great sparks, no whirlwind whipping up our hair Don King-style. The air around the capsule becomes hazy, like heat off hot pavement, blurring around the edges, breaking down into static. Then I realize the capsule is vibrating, as if the very atoms are jittering, a trillion times a second. Faster, faster it quivers until the entire capsule is a blur of blues and golds. Sweat seeps onto my face. It's like standing too close to a barbecue. The whine of an electric beater creeps to my ears, rising in volume and pitch. The room goes white.

When I open my eyes, the capsule is gone--only a blackened splotch on the floor remains where it stood. Roberta is yanking my arm and tapping her chest. Her mouth moves, but no sound comes out. Faintly, the whine still echoes like mattresses cover my ears.

"I did it," Roberta mouths.

"Wait a minute, Roberta," Zac whispers--or at least it seems he's whispering. He's probably shouting. "You said you kept the spatial coordinates the same, and only varied the temporal coordinate, right?"

"Correct. Same place, new time."

Zac's jaw lowers, but it's a moment before he speaks. "You sent her to this location in the past. Or was it the future?"

"How do you do research if you don't pay attention, Zac? The future."

"But...but in the future, this location--that spot in your garage--isn't in the same position with respect to the Earth--which won't be in the same position with respect to the sun, or the rest of the Universe. Did you take that into account?"

Roberta tips her head and looks at like a tenured professor lecturing a kindergartner. "Yes, of course, I did, Zac."

She looks to me for commentary.

I offer the words that struck me the moment she told me about her time capsule and invitation to Cee. "You're more interested in irony than morality."

"Is that such a bad thing?"

"Murder is murder." My voice is a whisper, or at least I think it is.

"War is not the only field littered with casualties."

Zac is still catching up. "But...but then...but the capsule would materialize in...in space, with the Earth an hour ahead in its orbit."

"Yes, Zac."

No, I choose to believe, Roberta could not have become that twisted by her rivalry with Cee. There has to be something I missed.

"Well, all she would have to do is reset the temporal coordinates," I ask, semi-sure of the answer to my leading question, "and come back here, right?"

Roberta frowns at me and I feel like a slacker freshman again.

"So much for you being the observant one, Ray. Time travel only works one way, remember. Into the future."

"Then how does she get back, Roberta?" Zac asks. He still doesn't get it. "That capsule was not designed for space." Zac's eyes widen like the disk of the moon. "That's murder."

"The capsule's integrity will keep her safe for a month or so and she was always a whiz at math. She can send herself further into the future, trying to guess when the Earth will be under her feet. Otherwise, there are enough telescopes looking up. I'm sure someone will notice her floating out there. Sooner or later." She grins bare teethed at me. "More inventive ways. I did warn her."

I blink and stare, my head automatically nodding. Something more bothers me though, but I can't quite catch the thought.

Zac's jaw works, but his larynx doesn't. His eyes turn to me, begging for answers. We're all in this together now, I tell myself. Zac and I are now accessories to the murder--correction, the disappearance--of an ex-Senator. We probably ought to make up a story, I decide, since no one would believe a truth that is literally out there. A novelist and a journalist, I'm sure, can concoct an appropriately well-written fiction.

My eyes shift to the charred spot where the capsule sat. Strange to think that Cee is there, but not there.

Then the thought coalesces and grabs my full attention.

"Um, Roberta?"

Roberta, staring at the black spot lost in self-adulation, notices me again. "Yes, Ray?" She sounds bored. Or tired.

"You said the capsule remains in the same place in space and only moves in time, right?"

"Yes, Ray." Her tone trends toward irritation.

"What was your coordinate system?"

"What are you babbling on about?" Her face reddens and her voice hardens.

"What was origin of your coordinate system, was it relative or absolute?"

She looks at me like I'm stupid, then gestures to spot on the floor. "Simple enough." 

"Did you consider that the origin is not fixed in space, that it moves with the Earth?"

Her mouth creeps open and her eyes go wide as she turns to the exact spot on the planet where the time capsule is, or rather will be again in about fifty-five minutes. Her face goes from a healthy beige to the color of glue.

"Thank God for you, Ray," Zac says, tugging loose his collar and slouching against the console. "We just have to wait a little while and then all is good."

"Why wait?" Roberta says, picking up a wrench and tossing it onto the burnt spot in her garage. In a moment, she's all over the room, grabbing boxes and more tools, any little thing she can lay a hand on, and tosses them on the spot where the capsule will be.

"Let's change the parameters of the test." A rosy tint refills her face. "I've always been curious about the uncertainty principle on a macro-scale."

This story originally appeared in Perihelion SF.


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Phil Margolies

Phil Margolies writes science fiction and fantasy, and dabbles in horror.