Sunday, September 16, 2007

Time Chute

It was supposed to be a matter transmitter and in fact, the transmitter worked quite well. Everything I put into it disappeared in a burst of shimmering light that surrounded and then engulfed.

But nothing reappeared. In the receiver I could almost see the screen of flickering electro-magnetism that was supposed to trap and reassemble the objects but which did neither. And nothing I did helped.

The glass of milk vanished completely and I wondered if that was because it was an organic compound that might confuse the receiver. But the folded newspaper that I hadn’t taken time to read disappeared as completely and I wasn’t sure if there had been any organic compounds in either the paper or the ink. The metal ashtray, a relic from another era, and the small polished stone never reappeared even though I left the machine operating for an hour burning up enough electricity to illuminate a star.

I knew that eventually I would solve the problem and teleportation would move from science fiction into science fact just as trips to the moon and planets had done so long ago. The problem was that I didn’t have all that much time left because the government research grant was running out. If there wasn’t something to give them, if there weren’t some positive results, I would spent the next several years filling out papers explaining why my project had cost so much, why it had failed so miserably and why I shouldn’t be charged with fraud. The sandals of the last years from Watergate to Halliburton made Congress suspicious of all research projects funded by the government, especially those that failed.

When the white porcelain nude failed to appear, even after I had gone to the expense of shielding the lab to block all extraneous signals that might compromise the experiments, I was ready to quit. The shielding had broken the budget.

I ran a hand through my hair, realized, once again that it seemed to be thinning at an accelerating rate, and moved slowly to the table piled high with research notes. This failure was particularly unpleasant because it meant that I had run out of ideas.

Flipping through the stack, I climbed on a stool. Resting my elbows on the smooth obsidian surface, I reviewed the math and could still see nothing wrong with it.

The math was right. Or, at least, half of it was right. The transmitter transmitted. If only the receiver would receive. There was always the possibility that the objects would reappear after several days or weeks, having blasted into space to be somehow reflected, but that meant it would no longer be real teleportation. Besides, that really didn’t make any sense.

Elizabeth Anderson, the graduate student who was helping pay for her education as a research assistant, brought in the hot coffee. I was tempted to put it into the transmitter, make some adjustments and try again, but I needed the coffee more than I needed another failure.

Liz shifted the stack of papers, CDs an DVDs from the other stool and sat down. Although she had just come from glass, she was already wearing the white lab coat. She set her coffee on the table, putting it on a paper so that she wouldn’t mark the obsidian, as if she could. I cringed wondering why she couldn’t be that careful with the notes.

As she crossed her legs and put one hand in her coat pocket, she noticed my expression and said, "Missed again, huh?"

From someone else that would have been insulting, but she had the ability to make her voice reflect her concern. Instead of anger, I sort of felt like laughing.

"Yup. Failed again."

"And now what?"

I glanced at the piles of papers that looked more like a snow drift sprinkled with shiny silver disks than a carefully thought out filing system and said, "I guess we take the receiver apart."

She scratched a knee that was just visible below the hem of her long skirt. "We’ve done that. Did you ever think that maybe the transmitter is operating on a frequency that the receiver can’t receive?"

I bit at the corner of my mustache. "Yeah, I thought of that. I just don’t like fooling around with the one piece of equipment that seems to be working."

"But it’s not working, really," she said as she sipped her coffee. "I mean, if you don’t transmit right, you certainly won’t receive."

"That’s good as far as it goes, Liz. But it makes more sense to try to adjust the receiver since it hasn’t ever worked."

"But that’s the point, Steve. We don’t know if it has worked."

I had to admit that there was a certain amount of logic there. I couldn’t see where a disassembly of the transmitter and a careful reassembly would hurt. It certainly couldn’t make the situation any worse and it might, in fact, provide the clue that I needed.

I looked at the clock above the lab door. "When’s your next class?"

She put down her coffee and slid off the stool. "Not until tomorrow afternoon. And then it’s just an English class that I took on a lark. I can miss it."

I took a deep breath and said, "Then let’s get started."

Since we were being careful, recording each move on DVD and with written back up on a Blackberry, it took an extra few hours. We were interrupted once when a teaching assistant stuck his head in the door and asked, "Are you teaching your seminar today, Doctor Connor?"

I waved a no at him and said, "You take it."

He disappeared without another word.

Liz was replacing the front panel as he closed the door. She said, "It looks fine to me."

"Good," I said. "Let’s give the receiver the once over."

Unfortunately there was nothing wrong that we could spot. We put it back together very carefully hoping that a crossed wire, a misplaced chip or printed circuit was the villain.

When it was ready, I said, "I guess we make another test."

I scanned the lab, looking for something to put in the transmitter, something that had no value and wondered, momentarily, if I shouldn’t just stick the receiver in there. It seemed to be the only really worthless thing in the lab. Liz picked up the paper sack, stuffed with the remains of the sandwiches and the Starbuck’s coffee cups, and handed it to me.

"If this doesn’t reappear," she said, "at least we won’t have to find a garbage can."

As I set the sack into the transmitter and closed the door, something flittered across the back of my mind, something about Liz’s words, but I didn’t know why. I let it go, knowing that if it was important, I’d figure it out.

Liz crossed the lab and flipped the switches on the receiver, waiting until the ruby-colored light recessed into the top began to pulsate, and then hit the button on the recording equipment. She picked up her Blackberry, and cleared the screen. She said, clearly, as she used her thumbs to type, "Experiment ten four one, at..." There was a pause as she looked at the lab clock, "Zero two fifteen."

At the control panel, I flipped a switch and then stabbed a button. Behind the reinforced plexiglass, I watch the glow build around the limp brown sack. There was a flash as the bag vanished and I leaped across the room. The receiver was as empty as the Sahara Desert.

We waited for two hours but the bag didn’t return, at least then. I looked at Liz who, extraordinarily, seemed on the verge of tears. None of the other failures had affected her like that.

I put an arm around her shoulder and asked, "What’s wrong?"

I felt her shrug and she said, "Nothing, really. I’m just tired. Really tired."

"Well, I’ll give you a ride home. At least we don’t have to clean the lab."

Liz didn’t return after that. She dropped by the lab once or twice but the department had reassigned her so that she wouldn’t be hurt by any of the fallout for my failed line of research. Not long after that, I was told to clean out the lab so that it could be given to someone whose line of research was a little more promising, or, at the very least, had a more lucrative potential.

So, I worked on cleaning the lab. I went to my desk, which belonged to the university and looked as if it had seen service in the Vietnam War, and opened the bottom drawer. I found nothing I needed and decided to throw it all away. When the waste basket was filled, I realized that I didn’t know where to dump it because the waste basket was always empty when I came in each day. Since the teleportation transmitter had a habit of getting rid of everything nicely, I filled it and turned it on. Moments later, the trash was gone.

I picked up the now empty waste basket, walked back to the desk and started filling it again. As I pulled a handful of old research papers out of the back of the drawer, I suddenly froze, realizing that the transmitter wasn’t a failure. I knew how to make it a success.

Idly, I wondered how many inventions were mistakes that worked out well. I knew that Alexander Bell wasn’t trying to invent the telephone but some kind of hearing aid. At least I wouldn’t be alone and no one had to know what I was trying to do. And this would give me time to work on the real project.

I called Liz and told her to come back to work. If she would be at the lab at three on Thursday, I would show her, as well as the head of the physics department, Doctor Carpenter, the liberal arts president, Sarah Buller, and a couple of Congressional assistants that things really worked.

When Liz heard that, she said, "You figured it out. You finally figured it out."

"After a fashion," I told her. "You’ll have to wait and see."

The new suit that I bought for the demonstration fit all right, but I had to force the store to make the alterations on Wednesday night. I’m not all much over the average height, but I’m thin so that it’s difficult to get a good fit off the rack. I thought the extra money that cost wouldn’t manner soon.

The demonstration was to be held in my lab which I had not vacated yet. Work-study students had cleaned it much more thoroughly than I ever had and then set up chairs for the visitors. I had moved and covered the receiver so that it wouldn’t be a distraction. It was also a reminder that I was only partially successful.

The guests arrived and I ushered them to their seats with the department chairman and the liberal arts president right in front of the transmitter. When Liz arrived I put her next to the department chairman and then seated the Congressional aides, one man and one woman looking like a matched set the way salt and pepper shakers were a matched set, on the ends. The curious and a couple of my friends were in the back two rows.

I stood in front of them, next to the transmitter and said, by way of preamble, "Many of our scientific breakthroughs have come suddenly and unexpectedly. Bell discovered the telephone trying to help the deaf. And sometimes a scientist becomes so engrossed in his or her research that the side benefits of the experiments are sometimes lost as he or she searches for the total solution."

The audience muttered, wondering what kind of hocus-pocus I was planning. But I was winding down anyway, saying, more tongue in-cheek than seriously, "Garbage is one of the biggest problems facing the modern world. We have polluted our streams, rivers, lakes and now our oceans with our garbage. A major objection to nuclear powerplants is that we can’t safely and economically dispose of the waste. It piles up and we try to hide it in mountain caves, leaving it for future generations to find. That is, it was a problem until now."

I reached over and pulled the cover from the matter transmitter. I heard Liz gasp in surprise and I winked at her.

Carpenter stood up and said, "If this is some kind of joke Connor, you’re going to be sorry."

One of the Congressional assistants, and for the life of me I didn’t know if it was the male or female, said, "This is obviously not a joke. Let him finish."

I thought about saying more but figured they understood. I picked up a small box of trash and a couple of bottles. As I shoved them into the transmitter, I said, "Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues, I realize this invention doesn’t rank up there with space travel, heavier-than-air flight or the micro-processor, but it does solve a minor problem that threatens to become a major irritation."

With that, I pushed the button and the trash vanished. I waved a hand in front of the door as if doing magic and said, "The power required to operate this is minimal, the components are fairly inexpensive, costing about the same as a smaller flat panel TV and it does serve a useful purpose."

Carpenter asked, "Who’s going to pay three hundred bucks for a garbage disposal."

I smiled. I had been waiting for that question. "The same people who pay two hundred dollars for a trash compactor so that they can put all their garbage into a single sack and pay the city five dollars a week to haul it away."

The assistant who had spoken earlier and I realized that it was the woman, asked, "Where does it go? The trash I mean."

I made an educated guess. "The atoms of the objects inside are broken down into their basic components and beamed out of the machine. It makes little difference if they are sent into space, into the atmosphere or into the ground since they are the single, pure atoms. It does nothing to harm the environment."

Now I felt like lecturing, especially when I saw the look on Carpenter’s face. I don’t know if he wanted to cry because of the notoriety this would bring to the department, or cheer because of the funding boon it meant.

So, I said, "As I’m sure you all know, garbage is made of useful things but it’s in the wrong form. We have recycling plants to fix that, but now, if we can break the garbage into it’s basic units, we make it useful again without the expensive plants to convert it. There is no threat to anyone or anything, no matter what happens to the garbage."

The discussion continued for another hour or so, but the moment the trash disappeared, the product was sold. It was useful, practical, cheap and with certain modifications that the Congressional assistants insisted that the product safety people would require, and of course, inspection by the environmental and atomic energy people to make sure I was right, they could see great things for the invention. My funding was secure, my position assured, my fame guaranteed and my fortune made.

The unions didn’t like it. Garbage collectors, truck drivers, land fill operators, junk dealers all over the country were demanding the machines be regulated so they wouldn’t lose their jobs or source of income. Other city employees and the oil companies joined the protest. The machine, they claimed, would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs. Manufacturing the machine wouldn’t begin to replace those lost, not to mention the cost of retraining people.

The environmental people didn’t like it either. They said it would lead to more nuclear powerplants and they believed the world had enough of them. The danger was no longer in the waste materials, but the possibility of meltdown.

The machines were denounced as some kind of communist plot or a devil’s invention. We still continued, making several working models, including one large enough to handle the university’s garbage. That angered the city because it was now losing a large amount of money that had been received for garbage removal.

Several huge models were field tested by the feds. The Army used twenty on twenty different posts, cutting the operating costs to almost nothing for garbage removal. Food and Drug, who had somehow gotten into the act, certified the machine as safe for use by the population. The Consumers Union did the same. The Environmental Protection Agency didn’t, saying they wanted to know where the garbage was going first.

And, so did I.

In all my experiments, I had not been able to answer that simple question. All I knew was that it just went, somewhere and the idea that the atoms dispersed into the environment seemed as good as any.

Recording the experiments didn’t help. I had used every trick available to modern science including ultra-violet, infra-red, slow motion, color, black and white, and about seventy-five different filters. I tried all methods of electromagnetic recording without finding a clue. The garbage, or anything else put into the transmitter just vanished.

It was late June when I finally found out where the garbage had gone. I was alone in my office. Because of the success of the garbage disposal, and the scientific breakthrough of atom dispersal, the university had given me a wood paneled, thickly carpeted office with a view of the river and the students circulating as they walked to class. I was alone, trying, half-heartedly, to find out why the receiver refused to receive.

I looked up when someone knocked at the door, irritated because the whole building was supposed to be locked and there was a secretary who was supposed to intercept visitors before they reached the door.

He was a smallish man, dressed in blue jeans and wearing a dark blue windbreaker with NYPD in yellow letters embroidered over the heart. He stood there, looking at me, waiting.

"Yes?"

"Doctor Connor?"

When I nodded he said, "We’ve been looking for you."

I didn’t like the sound of that and wondered if campus security was still around. As I set my pencil down, I asked, "Why is that?"

"Doctor Connor, I’m assisting the Greater New York Sanitation Committee on special detail. I’m afraid that it’s my unpleasant duty to arrest you for..."

"Arrest me? Are you out of your mind? Do you even have jurisdiction here?"

The man rubbed his eyes as if extremely tired and then sighed. "Doctor, please. You have been causing all sorts of problems with your machine."

Now I laughed. "Oh, I get it. Well, you’ll have to see the manufacturer about that. I have nothing to do with the operational aspects of the business..."

He interrupted and asked, "Have you ever wondered where the garbage goes?"

To myself, I thought, "Well, of course," but I said nothing.

He said, "You’ll have to come with me."

"I don’t think so. Even if you are a policeman from New York, you’re way outside your jurisdiction. I don’t have to go with you or anyone else."

"Then you won’t know where the garbage goes," said the man simply.

I sat still and said, "Where does it go?"

"Let’s take a stroll down to your lab. You have a working model of your transmitter there, don’t you?"

So I followed him out of the office building, across the grass field in front of the student union, across a foot bridge and into an older section of the university. We entered the building, climbed a set of stairs that had to be old a hundred years ago and finally made it to the door of my old lab. I hadn’t been there very much in the last couple of months.

When I had unlocked the door, the man moved to where a large model of my transmitter stood. He flipped a switch to activate it, made a couple of adjustments to it and then opened the main door, something that I had never done with the machine running.

"Come over here," he said.

I didn’t like the tone of his voice, but I was curious. As I approached, I asked, "Just what do you think you are doing?"

I didn’t notice that he had moved behind me until I felt the push on my back. I stumbled forward, reached out to break my fall and slipped into the interior of the transmitter. Just before that happened, I realized that I was being murdered.

There was a flash of light and I felt a tingling all over which I thought were the atoms in my body disintegrating, which, it turns out, it could have been. But then, the next thing I realized, I was in a room that was bare. Just a hardwood floor and windows in the walls but no furniture, no books, nothing. I had no idea where I was.

I moved toward one of the windows and an instant later there was another flash, behind me, and I turned around. The man was now standing there, looking a little green.

"Where are we?"

"Why, New York, of course."

I was too stunned to speak, not to mention happy to be alive. "What happened?"

"Your machine is not really a transmitter. It works more like a projector. It requires no receiver. You have been sent to New York City."

I really didn’t understand this. I thought he had just explained why the receiver never worked. There was nothing for it to receive. Instead, the machine just projected the material to another location... which, I suddenly realized, is exactly what I had been trying to do. My matter transmitter did, in fact, transmit matter. I just had to figure out how to calibrate it.

Just as all this was beginning to sink in, the man said, "You are to appear before the magistrate at four this afternoon. You will be charged with creating a health menace, unlawful dumping of waste, creating a general nuisance and resisting arrest."

"Wait," I said, feeling the panic rising. "Just wait a minute. How can I be guilty of all those charges."

He walked to the window and pointed down at the street. "That is your fault."

I looked down, but all I could see was a scene that had played out several times. A strike in New York was causing trouble for one segment of the population. Huge stacks of brown plastic bags lining the street. I didn’t see the obvious then because I was lost in the charges and the realization that my matter transmitter worked.

By the time we got to the courthouse using an underground tunnel so that we never set foot on the streets, through the metal detectors at the doorways and passed the guards standing next to them, down a corridor that had glass for an outside wall that looked out over Central Park, it was time to appear before the judge. She glowered down from the bench, wrapped in white robes and was pronouncing sentence on a young woman. The judge mumbled something about the penal colonies and I sudden wondered if this was all a bad dream brought on by too much pepperoni pizza and dark beer.

The judge nodded and a bailiff escorted the woman, visibly crying, from the court. My first instinct was to think she had brought it all on herself, but then remembered why I was there and I developed a total understanding of her plight and a sympathy for her situation.

A different bailiff stepped in front of the bench and said, "Before her magistrate, this twenty-seventh day of October, two thousand, one hundred, eighty-nine, Doctor Stephen Connor on the charges of..."

I didn’t hear the rest. The date screamed at me. Twenty-one, eighty-nine, which was impossible, of course. I kept playing that over in my mind, knowing that it really was just a bad dream but unable to break out of it. Someone poked me in the ribs as the judge was repeating, "How do you plead."

I hesitated and then said, "Not guilty."

"Will the Prosecution present their case."

I was pushed toward the defense table and sat down. The man who had dragged me to this point was sitting in a chair just behind me. I turned and asked him, "How did we get here?"

He leaned forward and said, "Your time projector did it. Once we learned to use it, we could project ourselves whenever we wanted."

The judge looked down at me and I fell silent.

For twenty minutes I watched as a variety of exhibits, many drawn from the Internet, were paraded before the court. They even had the original patent applications in full holographic splendor. They showed the garbage as it sprang into existence in their city and traced it back to my invention and my time. Letters, newspapers, test papers, and anything else I had thrown into the machine was displayed, pointing directly at me as the original source of the garbage.

Finally the Prosecutor said, "I rest my case."

The judge turned to me but I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t know what to say.

The judge finally asked, "Did you invent the machine?"

Without thinking, I said, "Yes."

She said, "Guilty. Bailiff, take Doctor Connor into custody. He will spend the night in the county jail and tomorrow, he will begin to clean up the mess he has made.

As deputy sheriff took my elbow to lead me from the courtroom and off to jail, I sighed with relief. First, I had learned where the garbage was going. I learned that I had a projector and not a transmitter. I learned that we could move through time and that it was possible to calibrate the machine so that we could pick a time and a destination. With all this, I could readjust my machinery so that it worked the way it was supposed to work.

And second, how much garbage could there be? There were only a few test models out there and they probably were all set to a different time and place so there wouldn’t be much garbage for me to clean up. Maybe a week or two, living in the future. I laughed out loud now that the tension was broken.

The deputy said, "What’s so funny."

"The sentence, of course."

"Mister, I wouldn’t be laughing if I were you. You have no idea what’s happened out there."

We reached the door and I looked out on the street that had bags of garbage lined along the curb. I thought nothing of them because New York had a habit of letting the garbage pile up.
I said, "It can’t be too bad."

"Monday, it began to rain. It rained all day. The sky was thick with it and it piled higher and higher. It blackened the Sun. Some people were injured before they could get inside."

"What do you mean rain?"

"Garbage. Tons of it. Hundreds of tons."

"But there can’t be that much. The machine has been..."

"Operating for nearly two hundred years, Mister. Two hundred. And most of them sent the garbage here. To this place. Right here. You have to clean all that up."

The deputy pushed open the door and the odor, the stench, nearly overwhelmed me. It was so thick you could almost cut it.

"But that would mean... mean," I stammered, "a life sentence."

"At the very least," he said.

1 comment:

Dixie Girl said...

That was very good.