Langthorpe paused. "Let me make this clear to both of you from the start. You are fully at liberty to refuse this assignment. Do you understand?"
"Well, no Sir," replied the younger man. "Is the house dangerous? I thought you said the housekeeper and the children were still living there, and besides, I don't believe in curses and magic and all that sort of thing. It has to be a coincidence."
His superior leaned back in his chair and puffed on his pipe. "Yes, as long as you see it that way it's just fine, but if you were superstitious, you might find this case ... disquieting to say the least. All I am saying is that if you do want out, nobody will hold it against you.
"How about you, Reynolds?"
"Count me in," the older man replied.
Langthorpe knew he could count on Reynolds. The man had been a science major in college and had a very orderly mind. He would get to the bottom of this "mess" if anyone could.
So far five people had died -- two from his department. That was too many to ignore. It made no sense, no sense at all. It had all started with that oddball Professor, Jay Michaels. He had been killed just walking across Main Street on his way to mail a letter. There had been one of those high speed police chases. Sgt. O'Reilly was a good driver but the Professor had just stepped out into the road without looking. That just seemed like bad luck -- it could have happened to anyone. And then there was the Professor's wife, flying back from California the following day. The reports attributed the plane crash to wind shear, but nobody was quite sure at this point. That made two. Detective Peabody had been dispatched to the house to deliver the bad news and offer his assistance. As he was leaving, he had radioed in to say that he had discovered something extremely interesting in the house. However, before he could tell anyone about it or file his report he suddenly and inexplicably dropped dead of a heart attack.
Then, the following day, the Professor's brother had arrived to help sort out the Professor's affairs. He had just gone out on a short errand to buy groceries when he was attacked by four youths with crowbars. They made off with only a few dollars but the Professor's brother never regained consciousness.
And finally there was young Peters. In retrospect it had been a mistake to send such an inexperienced and sensitive officer. Nobody quite knew what had happened to Peters. It seemed as if he had suddenly become unhinged. They had found a hastily scribbled note in his apartment saying he was not coming back -- and he and not been seen since. Four or probably five people dead, or as good as dead, in as many days, but apart from Peters it was hard to see how the deaths could be related. But so many unrelated deaths like that -- the odds against it were staggeringly high -- it really made no sense at all.
"It's almost like the Twilight Zone or one of those science fiction stories you like to read so much," suggested Reynolds as they swung out of the station on their "highly dangerous" mission. "See, there's even a thunderstorm brewing, so when we arrive, the house will no doubt be standing there, bleak and foreboding, with lightning flashing everywhere like in some Vincent Price movie."
The younger man breathed a deep breath and eased the police vehicle to a stop at the approaching traffic light before replying. "Now, it is true that I like reading all that science fiction stuff, but this is real life" -- he banged his fist on the seat beside him -- "See, this is solid, you can feel it, in real life, everything happens according to cause and effect, the laws of chemistry and physics; they control precisely how everything behaves. There is no way for a divine hand or sinister forces to intervene."
Reynolds was lost in thought. He agreed with the younger man. It was particularly comforting, with all these deaths everywhere, to be reminded so lucidly of the basic tenets of twentieth century science. "The Professor was a science fiction buff too you know. He always wanted to build a time-machine but he once told me that he had proved that they were impossible. I don't know whether he was more elated at his proof, or more disappointed because his hopes for a time-machine were permanently dashed."
"809. There it is. The white one on the left with the laburnum in front. Looks like any other reasonably affluent suburban house."
As Reynolds got out of the car, he rubbed his shoe on the sidewalk. It felt solid and made a reassuring scraping noise. He walked up to the front door and gave two solid and comforting taps with the heavy brass door knocker. Yes, this was reality, everything very ordinary, very normal. Everything very properly obeying the laws of physics and chemistry. No lightning, no thunder, just a warm hazy afternoon, no sinister forces present at all.
The lady who let them in was Hispanic and in her late forties he estimated. She had come to help out while the Professor's wife was in California and now she was still here because the children had to be looked after. She sat forlornly on the sofa as they inched around the house. Voices could be heard coming from the yard where the children were presumably out playing. She had hardly seen the Professor. He had been working extremely hard in his office on some paper he was writing -- in fact he had been on his way to mail it when he was so tragically knocked down and killed. She pointed to a large manila envelope lying on the hall table.
Reynolds picked it up. It was addressed to Physical Science Reviews at some address in Washington DC. Maybe this was the proof he had been so elated about. Reynolds was hesitating, trying to decide if he should open the envelope, when his partner called excitedly from one of the upstairs rooms. "Come up here, Look at what I've found."
Reynolds put down the envelope and moved quickly up the stairs.
"Here it is," his partner exclaimed. "The famous proof -- it looks like he had it all ready to publish."
Yes, there it was. The Professor had kept a copy for himself and the title left no doubt. The Impossibility of Actually Changing History with Hyper-Accelerated Focused Particle Beams. The student physicist in Reynolds suddenly awakened. He scanned the abstract. The paper would show that anti-protons accelerated to a sufficiently high energy would travel backwards in time to emerge as a sudden burst of energy, tens, hundreds, or even thousands of years before the present. His calculations would show that it was possible "in principle" for human beings using today's technology to focus such a beam onto one particular place and time in the past. This could cause a massive dislocation of history. For example, if one could find out exactly where Napoleon had been at some particular instant when he was a young man, a short zap and the entire history of the French Revolution would suddenly all be changed. In fact all of modern history would suddenly have to rearrange itself.
"I think this may explain those deaths," said Reynolds abruptly. "They were not a coincidence after all. Someone in the future may have sent some sort of energy beam backwards in time and zapped all those people."
The younger man pushed closer and carefully re-read the title of the paper. The Impossibility of Actually Changing History with Hyper-Accelerated Focused Particle Beams. "Then why does the title say that's impossible?" He asked, trying not to appear to contradict the older man.
Reynolds paused for a moment while he pondered this rather straightforward proposition. "Hmmm."
The abstract continued. They were both looking at it. "One effect of such a dislocation would be to alter the events leading up to the construction of such a machine with the result that a different dislocation would occur."
"You see," said Reynolds, "If someone went and zapped Napoleon, all those wars in Europe might have been quite different. One of your ancestors or one of my ancestors might have been killed or married someone else. Then we would not exist! If the person who invented this hyper-accelerator thing, or whatever it is, changed his own ancestry, he would never even be born and so he could never invent the machine. Even if he only made a small change in the past it would probably have some effect on how and when he invented the machine and just how he used it and what settings he used."
"Yes," said the younger man, "and that would cause a different change in the past. The future and the past could go on interacting in this way for some time, almost indefinitely in fact, until something happened to break the cycle. The interactions might go through million if not trillions of repetitions. They could never stop until some chance series of events resulted in the machine never being invented. Only then could history settle down again into a stable forward course. The Professor seems to have considered that the human race might wipe itself out altogether. That would break the cycle! He even suggests that at one time intelligent dinosaurs evolved and that explains why the whole lot of them suddenly disappeared. It sounds like a pretty dangerous device to mess with to me."
The paper went on. "It follows that since I am alive and writing this paper such a machine will never be built! Chance events will occur that will prevent its construction. Such a conclusion is logically inevitable. It is like natural selection in reverse. No Universe in which this machine is built can exist for very long. So therefore, some chance event or events must occur, however unlikely they might appear superficially, to prevent this machine from ever being constructed. It would almost appear to follow that this machine could not even be discovered (given the propensity of the human race to push every technological innovation to the limit). But since I am alive and have discovered it, that cannot 100% follow."
"But he's not alive," said the younger man. "He says the fact that he's alive and has written this paper is the exception to his proof. But he's not alive anymore. He had to die by some freak accident because his theory is correct. The poor man seems to have been the victim of his own logic. That is really weird. But the weirdest thing is that it seems to be true! The Professor seems to have clinched his proof by dying in such a bizarre manner just as he was about to tell the world about his discovery."
Reynolds glanced at the rest of the paper. The design of the machine was simple, so simple it was amazing that none of the world's physicist had discovered it before. The anti-protons had to be generated into a coherent beam, like a laser, and focused by a simple magnetic lens. If the focusing were just right, several billion electron-volts of energy would be delivered to a spot less than a millimeter across at some precise instant in the past. "This thing is so simple that any engineering company with a competent physicist could put it together in a matter of months. It's just incredible that nobody's discovered it before."
"But maybe they have," said the younger man. "Don't you see the point. It's logically impossible to discover how to build this machine. Anyone who stumbles on it like the Professor here has to die accidentally before he can tell anyone. Just like Inspector Peabody did for that matter -- or the Professor's wife and brother. Suppose one of them had mailed that envelope! If the Professors design had ever been published ..." He went on, "and now I think I'm beginning to understand what must have happened to poor old Peters. He must have read the paper and have realized that just reading it was almost enough to guarantee one's sudden and untimely death -- so he fled. Whether he's still alive or not I don't know but I can tell you for sure he'll never show up in these parts again."
They both stopped and looked at each other in horror as the full implications of the Professor's logic finally sank in. Now they too had read the paper.
At that very moment a noise outside the window burst in on their attention.
"A tornado," yelled the younger man. "It's heading this way.
They both watched, paralysed with fear as the dark funnel moved steadily and relentlessly towards the house. The younger man recovered first. "Quick, lie down -- but no wait, that has to be futile, it has to be, don't you see, we're already doomed. You read part of that paper -- enough to understand it anyway -- so we both have to die before we can tell anyone else about it. No other Universe is possible. We logically have to die. Watch out here comes the stupid thing. It doesn't look like we've got any longer to live ...
The house at 809 Main Street was completely destroyed by the tornado. Both Reynolds and the younger man were killed instantly but by some miracle the housekeeper and the children, who were out in the yard, escaped with only minor scratches. No traces of the Professor's paper were ever found. Langthorpe fretted about the matter for some weeks. "Seven deaths -- and no logic to them at all," he repeated. "Very very peculiar."
Luckily for him, Langthorpe never did manage to figure the matter out.
------------ But now You, dear reader, know the unknowable truth -- at least for the moment.
You are free to copy this story widely provided you do not alter it
or omit this copyright notice.
Michael Crick, Copyright © 1986.