Once Upon a Time

 

Once Upon a Time
by Melanie Brown
Copyright  © 1992 Melanie Brown


Larry ran out of time.

While I'm not writing... This was the first story I wrote for a Creative Writing class I took in college back around '92 or so. I don't remember. The second story I wrote for the class is also on BCTS called here the original Wish Lash, so this is a pretty early effort. I only made a few minor changes to the story.

Someone said not long ago that the only stories on BCTS had sex changes. Well, this one doesn't. I no longer have the original file so I just OCR'd the document printed on my old trusty Epson MX-80 so I could have it in electronic form again. I thought I'd share it here for what it's worth. I was working at a semi-conductor manufacturer at the time, so I was trying to sound all techie. -- Ed

 


 

“Goddammit, Jack! Decelerate!” I yelled above the sound of the claxon. Alarm bells were sounding all through the control center and most of the status lights on the panel in front of me glowed red. There was a neck-snapping lurch and I yelled again, “Go easy! Back it down slowly.”

“Just shut-up, huh, Larry?!” Jack snapped back, his knuckles white from squeezing the control grip. Sweat ran into his eyes, but he didn’t dare take his hands from the controls.

We had been cruising along at an easy five-hundred years a minute, when for some reason, the computer began to act up. Since the computer directly controlled the time-drive, our time lock 1 started to de-stabilize, causing tremendous stress inside the drive.

Looking through the view-port, I could see we were slowly cresting the top of a rocky hill, ground effect, as usual, kept us a meter or so above the surface. We were rotating rapidly to starboard with a very bad wobble. As I watched the console in front of me, random garbage scudded across the display. The computer was losing its mind and I was really sweating over the possibility of it shutting down the drive before Jack could slow us down. If so, our re-emergence into normal time would be rather sloppy.

I brushed my sweat-matted hair back, turned to Jack and hollered above the noise, “Keep this pace. Let’s get to the bottom of the hill before we stop.” Jack nodded agreement and held the control steady. However, the computer had other plans.

As if shot from a catapult and spinning like a top, we burst into normal time at the top of the hill. The spherical shape of our vehicle helped absorb the shock of rolling the few meters down the hillside, but it also helped to increase our speed. Inside, we were alternately pushed back into our seats and slammed against our safety harnesses. Panel doors, pencils, clipboards and about a billion other odds and ends bounced with wild abandon all over the control center and off our heads. Suddenly, with a loud thunk! we fell into the bottom of a dry ravine and came to rest on our port side against a dirt wall.

The alarms had died along with the power. The only light trickled in through the dirt-smeared view port. Suspended by the harness, I looked down at the port side bulkhead. Slowly I began to notice that I felt cold and that I could hear the sound of escaping gas. I forced myself to look behind me. Shit!

A white mist was billowing from vents in the computer cabinets along the aft wall and a stream of liquid, boiling at room temperature, flowed over what used to be the port wall. Plastic parts snapped or exploded from sudden freezing as the liquid nitrogen splashed across them. I fumbled with the releases on the safety harness and it seemed forever before I finally dropped from the chair. I had to reach the shut-off quickly. Without the LN2 for cooling, there was no hope of getting the computer restarted and running for any length of time, not to mention that Jack and I would soon suffocate with nitrogen replacing the air inside the vehicle.

In my haste to get on my feet, I stuck my hand onto the frozen metal “floor”, and my skin stuck to it immediately. Leaving some flesh behind, I jerked my hand free and lunged for the aft wall. It took a few moments to fight the warped access panel and when it finally opened, I was enveloped in a cold, white cloud. Reaching in for the cut-off valve, my face and hands were pelted from spattered droplets from the spray of liquid nitrogen. Blood from the torn skin caused my hand to slip several times on the cold valve before I could grip it well enough to turn it.

As the white mist started to evaporate, out of the corner of my eye I saw yet another white cloud coming from behind me. Turning, I could see Jack with a CO2 fire extinguisher putting out a small fire inside the control console. I hoped that was the only fire. Jack’s coughing reminded me that without power, the air-handlers were no longer supplying fresh air and with all that nitrogen in the cabin, and God knows how much oxygen the fire wasted, we needed to get out of there.

“Goddammit all to Hell!” yelled Jack as he tossed the empty fire extinguisher against a bulkhead. His face was smeared with grime and bleeding from several cuts.

“Gripe later! Give me a hand with this,” I said as I started releasing the hatch. The entrance hatch was supposed to be on the floor, but the attitude of the vehicle put it on a “wall”.

The hatch swung open and I felt warm air, heavy with the smell of ozone, from the lower compartment roll in. I crawled up and sat on the hatchway lip. Getting out wasn’t going to be easy. Without lights, it was very dark in the next compartment and the ladder well led away from me instead of down. There was only room to crawl along the ladder on my stomach and as the vehicle wasn’t laying square on its side, it was hard to keep a grip on the ladder. There was no place to fall if I slipped off the ladder, it was just awkward and clumsy to crawl on. Jack started following me after I got halfway across the ladder.

At the other end of the ladder, it became difficult. There was a two meter drop to an uneven “floor” of equipment. Then there was a climb over a couple of turned over cabinets up to the exit crawlspace. To save space, I had designed the entrance to the vehicle as a crawl-way instead of something you could stand up in. At the time, it had seemed like a good idea.

Finally I made it to the exterior hatch after what seemed like hours, but was only a minute or two. I released the latches and pushed the hatch open. Well, almost. The hatch jammed against something after opening about a third of the way. I closed it, then slammed it open a couple of times, but no luck.

“Hey, what’s the hold up?” Jack, who was sitting at the lip of the crawl-way, slapped my foot.

“Door’s stuck,” I called back to him. “I might be able to squeeze through, but with your lard, I’m not so sure.”

“Just move your ass.” Jack never had much patience.

I pulled myself up through the gap in the hatchway and stuck my head into the sunlight. The ravine wall was jamming the hatch. The wind blew a patch of sand from the ravine wall into my eyes and mouth. Sputtering and spitting mud, I wriggled my way out of the hatchway and slid off the vehicle’s body to the ground. The sun was very bright and the air was quite hot. I didn’t know where we were, but it was obviously somewhere with lots of desert. I stepped back from our vehicle to survey the damage. I could hear Jack swearing as he tried to force himself through the tight opening.

Looking at our once proud time vehicle, it made me mad that the only problems I’d had with the entire time travel project had been with the vehicle itself, rather than the time-drive. Even in my first prototype, a ball two meters in diameter, the time-drive had worked flawlessly. However, even though I had only sent it an hour into the future, the vehicle returned scorched and its sole occupant, a small mouse, was a crispy critter. I added insulation and ran the experiment again with the same parameters. The mouse returned intact, but still very much dead - suffocation. I put the next mouse in a pressurized box and finally was successful in getting a live mouse to travel an hour into the future. The next experiment I found out why it was important to decelerate before stopping and was thankful that the government had loaned me a lab isolated in the Arizona desert.

Jack, the computer expert that the government provided me, programmed the small computer on board the prototype to take it a week into the future and this time I used a dog as the passenger. A week later (actually a full minute off schedule), the prototype suddenly re-materialized with a bright burst of light and a sonic boom that blew two walls out of the laboratory. The prototype blasted through one of the remaining walls of the lab, sliced through my house-trailer and buried itself a little over a kilometer from the lab site. The skin of the prototype had been so hot, the sand it had skidded on had fused into glass. The prototype and its occupant were reduced to a melted lump lying in a glass-lined pit.

After building a second prototype, the tests were a little more successful. At first it bothered me that the vehicle returned hovering several centimeters above the floor and a few centimeters to the west of its original position and always a minute or two late. My theory, which proved to be correct, was that air rushed around the vehicle as it traveled through time and ground effect lifted the vehicle off the ground. Also, apparently the vehicle was displaced physically in space as well as in time, westwardly when going into the future and eastwardly going into the past. Missing the target return-time proved to a limitation of the speed and accuracy of the on-board computer that controlled the time-drive. That was why Jack suggested I install a Cray supercomputer in the full-scale vehicle, which was why the computer failure was especially annoying.

My reverie was broken by Jack’s approach. “Well Doc, got any more bright ideas?” He spat on the ground and rubbed some dirt out of his eyes. Apparently the wind didn’t like Jack either.

“You just always have to see the down side of things, don’t you?” I looked disapprovingly at Jack. I hoped I didn’t look as bad as he did. “In only five hours we’ve traveled back in time 150,000 years!”

“Big fucking deal! It don’t mean shit if we’re stuck here and don’t get to tell anybody about it. Don’t get me wrong, Larry. I’m not just thinking of myself here. I’d feel real bad if I was responsible for giving some archaeologist a heart attack when he stumbled across our remains.”

“That’s what I like about you, Jack. You’re always thinking of others. Come on. Let’s see how much damage there is.”

A quick visual inspection revealed that the vehicle had suffered mostly superficial damage. A large number of the heat tiles were missing, but I hoped it wasn’t enough to cause any problems. There were dents and dings, but no deep gashes or breaks in the vehicle’s hull. The four support legs however were reduced to a useless, twisted jumble of metal tubing and just dangled from their anchors on the hull. Well, we didn’t need the legs anyway.

While I was checking for structural damage, Jack had been busy with a stick he’d found, digging around the hatch so the door could be opened wider. He then disappeared for few minutes inside the vehicle and returned carrying two cans of beer. As he tossed one to me, he said, “Break time, boss.”

“No argument from me. I’m beat.” We sat down in the dirt in the shade of the vehicle. For several minutes, neither of us said anything, the only sound being that of the wind swirling dirt around.

Jack peered inside his can and swirled its contents for a few seconds, downed the remainder of his beer, and then said, “I wonder just where the hell we are.” Then he belched.

I finished off my beer before answering. “As near as I can figure, the amount of displacement would put us somewhere in the Middle East. We’re a long ways from a Big Mac.”

“Not far enough.” Jack got up and tossed his empty can down the ravine. He looked down at me, shrugged, and said, “Best way I know to prove that civilization has been here. I think I’d better go check out the computer.”

At that, we both climbed back up to the hatch and worked our way back inside the vehicle. The first order of business was to restore the power. That was easy as the computer, in its final act, had told the power monitor that the time-drive was going into overload and to shut down all power, causing our premature re-entry into normal time. Jack crawled back into the control room to check out the computer and see if he could bring it back up. I stayed in the lower deck to inspect the time-drive.

It took about an hour to complete the static check-out of the time-drive system. I opened every access panel and crawled into every nook and cranny and found no visible damage. I disconnected the computer’s interface cable - just in case - and then powered up the time-drive into idle. Again I looked at each check point, this time reading voltage levels and checking the status lights. Finding no anomalies, I was satisfied that the drive was fit for use. I climbed into the control room to see how Jack was coming.

I found Jack sitting at the command console, shaking his head, moaning slightly, and typing something into the computer. He had climbed up into the chair, hanging from a “wall”, and strapped himself in so he could easily use the console. All the computer’s access panels were hanging open and several cards had been removed and lay scattered about and cables were hanging loose. In fact, the whole control room was a complete mess.

“Well, how goes it, Jack?”, I asked. He groaned and rubbed his head. “Damifino. Hell, the system came up fine. I reloaded the system from the winchesters (we’re lucky the landing didn’t cause a head crash) - no problems. I’ve run all the diagnostics, power cycled the system several times, and tried to force error conditions. The goddamn system just works. I don’t understand!” He slapped the side of the display.

“Sounds good to me.”

“Come down outta the clouds, doc. If we don’t know why the computer went off into hyper-space, it kinds increases the odds of it happening again.” He stared blankly at the display for a minute then suddenly asked, “You were monitoring the internal conditions, like for radiation levels and so forth, for the duration of the temporal displacement, right?”

“Of course. If the computer didn’t accidentally erase it, all that info should be on disk. You’re at the console, call up a trip history report.”

The printer started chattering, but since it was hanging sideways from a “wall”, the paper wouldn’t feed correctly and it jammed. “Resubmit the job”, I told Jack. “Send the output to the console. We’ll just pause it if we see anything out of the ordinary.”

Reams of data scrolled past on the display. Several minutes passed, then suddenly Jack pounded the pause button on the keyboard and let out a “Bingo!”

“What did you find?” I twisted my body sideways to try to read what was on the display.

Instead of answering, he asked, “On the prototype tests, did the trip histories show anything unusual?”

“No, not really,” I said with a shrug. “There were some increases in various radiation levels, but nothing you would have to worry about. The only thing I remember thinking was strange was the unusually high concentration of Alpha particles. But even that didn’t seem cause for concern.”

“You knew about the Alpha particles and you didn’t mention it?”

“It didn’t seem important. Spill it. What are you getting at?”

“Didn’t seem important!” Jack said sarcastically. “Doc, Alpha particles play havoc with DRAMs. When the particle strikes a cell in a DRAM, it changes the contents of the cell. Alpha particles won’t physically damage a device, just scramble that particular memory location. That’s what happened to the computer. Traveling through time for some reason increases the level of Alpha particles which just bombarded the computer’s memory. No wonder the computer freaked out. It never had a chance! If you had just mentioned this bit of trivia to me, we could have just added extra shielding to the computer.”

“Jesus!” I said under my breath. “I can’t think of everything! But still, we have an easy solution. On our way back to our time, we’ll go slower. Slower travel, fewer Alpha particles. We’ll have the system monitor the Alpha particle level so it’ll trip an alarm when it gets too high, and we’ll stop more often.”

“We might get by doing that. Still a gamble though because we don’t know which part of memory might get zapped. If it just happened once, but to the most important memory location, we’d still be up shit creek.”

“We don’t have a whole lot of choice. Is everything ready to roll?” Jack nodded. “Okay then, get out of my chair and man your station so we can head back to the future.”

We didn’t bother trying to tidy up the control room. Hanging cables, open access panels, and spare parts lying around loose was a nuisance, but we decided it might be necessary to get to them quickly. Jack started the computer on the countdown, while I crawled back into the drive-room to reconnect the computer’s interface cable. By the time I got back to the control room and was climbing into my chair, I could already hear the whine from the time-drive as it came to life.

It wasn’t easy trying to stay seated in a chair hanging horizontally from a “wall”, trying to use my hands to hold myself in and strap on the safety harness. The vehicle should right itself as soon as we started traveling in time, since most of the weight is in the bottom and the vehicle usually rides about two meters above the ground. The whine began to fade as the time-drive reached operation speed. However, the vehicle shuddered slightly and various new hums and vibrations announced themselves. Our rough landing had put something out of balance. Well, it would just have to stay out of balance.

All readings racing across my display looked good. I watched Jack flip the interlock switches that started the final launch sequence, giving the computer total control. I felt a little uneasy thinking about that.

The time-lock engaged and we began to slowly accelerate in forward time flow. Looking through the still dirt-smeared view port, I could see the day night cycle speed up. Then the dirt began to burn away from friction. Ground effect began to lift us and the vehicle made a sudden shift and righted itself. We were finally on our way back to our time, cruising at a mere 100 years a minute. At that rate, it would take us around 25 hours to get back (time relative to us). We would have to make a stop about halfway as the vehicle only carried enough air for two for 10 hours.

It was always a little unsettling to look out the view port as we sped through time. The flickering of the day/night cycle at the slower speeds hurts the eyes, but then as the speed increases, there is only a uniform grey with gold and silver arcs, oscillating with the seasons, tracing the paths of the sun and moon. The surface of the earth became a kaleidoscope of rapidly changing patterns. Trees sprang into existence and would just as suddenly disappear. Rivers looked like slow moving snakes as they cut new channels and altered their course. When we finally floated over open sea, the ocean below us looked like a solid sheet of glass.

* * *

The console started beeping, warning us that the Alpha particle concentration was reaching dangerous levels. We were over the ocean with no place to set down and reset the computer. Jack started a diagnostic program running in background to monitor system integrity but it couldn’t get enough CPU time to do much good since controlling the time-drive took up almost every last machine cycle of the Cray.

We sat in silence, watching the Alpha concentration near critical level, the level that the computer went completely ape. I turned to Jack and said, “Look, I’ve got an idea. At the first sign of trouble, disengage the computer. Inertia should keep the time-drive running at the last setting from the computer for a few minutes anyway. That should give us enough time to power cycle the computer and reload the system. If need be, we can just keep doing it until we can find a place to stop.”

“Sounds okay. I just hope the first sign of trouble isn’t something catastrophic.”

Another fifteen minutes passed without problem, then the vehicle jerked, then shuddered and the synchronizers started whining. Jack instantly re-opened all the interlock switches to isolate the computer. We jerked and rolled again. The computer was still in control of the time-drive.

Swearing, I released my safety harness, stood up, and said to Jack, “I’m going below to pull the interface cable from the time-drive. When I give the signal, shut ‘er down. Call out when you’re ready to restart the system, and I’ll reconnect the cable.”

The vehicle was starting to rock violently and it was hard to walk. Quickly, I released the hatch and slid down the ladder. Being in this compartment while the time-drive was in operation wasn’t exactly healthy but neither was the alternative. I pulled the cable and called out to Jack. I stood waiting for him to yell back that he was ready. One minute went by. Then two. After the third minute, I starting to get worried. When four minutes passed and the uncontrolled time-drive slowly started to increase in speed, I left the cable hanging and climbed back up the ladder.

As I climbed through the hatchway, I yelled, “Just what the hell are you waiting for?” I saw Jack sitting on the floor, looking very pale and idly twirling a screw driver in his hands. Some of the computer’s guts were hanging loose from the chassis. I felt a cold chill rush through my body and I knelt beside him and asked in a quiet voice, “Jack, what’s wrong?”

He sat there for a moment, staring at the twirling screw driver. Finally, he looked up and said, “It’s over, Larry. The computer’s shot to Hell.” He went back to staring at the screw driver.

I pulled the screw driver from his hands and tossed it across the room. “Jack... just what the fuck are you talking about?”

He stared at the starboard bulkhead and said, “When I powered the system back up, the computer wouldn’t boot up. The computer had re-formatted the winchesters, including the backup drive. I thought, no problem, right? I’ll just reload the system from the backup tape. Wrong! When the LN2 hose came loose, it sprayed directly into the tape storage cabinet and ruined the tapes. The computer’s useless.”

“Oh, shit.” I slid down to sit on the floor and leaned against the computer chassis. “Without the computer to control it, the time-drive will run at max... at least until it detonates when it reaches overload.”

“No way to control that thing manually?”

“You’re losing it. How many thousands of calculations a second can you handle?”

“Depends on whether I get to use a calculator or not” Jack said without humor.

I got up and walked shakily to the view port. Now that the computer was off and wasn’t trying to randomly alter our speed, the ride had smoothed out. I looked out the port and gasped. The surface of the world was a blur. The rate of our physical displacement was so great it looked as if we were floating a few meters above the surface of a spinning top. The hull temperature was also increasing with the speed.

I was dimly aware that Jack had come up to look out the port. As we watched eons roar past, I became aware the silver arc was no longer there. I wondered what happened to the moon. It surprised me that I should even care, but since my “doom was sealed”, I might as well just sit back and enjoy what I could.

The gold arc of the sun suddenly grew wide and redder. Another instant we were engulfed in the red-hot vacuum of the sun’s red giant phase of its life-cycle. The Earth was vaporized and we started to drift, the side-effects of time travel sparing us the same fate as Earth. We were constantly accelerating and a few seconds later, the sun shrank to a yellow dwarf and then winked out. Even if we could have regained control of the time-drive, we had no way to maneuver the vehicle to get back to Earth.

We were drifting through space and our speed was getting so great we see the stars move as the galaxy rotated. In an hour, we had drifted out of the galactic plane. We watched our galaxy start to resemble a pin wheel as it began to spin more rapidly. There were other galaxies we could view, some with our eyes others with binoculars, and while we couldn’t make out any details, of course, we could actually see them recede as the universe continued to expand.

It was Jack who noticed it. The galaxies all stopped moving. We were ‘still accelerating into the future - the whine from the time-drive was reaching a fever pitch. Then they started moving again - in the opposite direction! The universe was starting to collapse. Billions of years a second were going by as we watched galaxies rush back to the center of the universe. We were carried along with the tide and were suddenly in a very crowded universe.

Galaxies were colliding. Gas clouds condensed and burst into short-lived stars. The closer we got to the universe’s center, the faster the collapse. Jack and I watched with fascinated horror as the universe rushed towards its end.

Suddenly, all the matter of the universe was compressed into one giant mass and almost at the same instant there was a blinding explosion and glowing hot globs of matter were being scattered in all directions. The globs coalesced into galaxies as they rushed away from the center of the explosion. The universe had started a new cycle.

Our speed continued to increase and within half an hour, the oscillations of the universe had become no more than a solid grey fog. We only had about another hour’s worth of air. The time-drive should blow before that. We might even hit the end of eternity. I glanced over at Jack, who was staring unblinkingly out the view port. I wished I had brought a female technician instead to give these last fleeting moments of eternity some meaning. Well, I couldn’t think of everything.

* * *

The End



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