An essay by Max Steiner, as presented by Nathaniel K. Miller
Scientist profile: Dr. Marvin Steiner was a controversial and pioneering nodal physicist, known for developing the Jaunte Drive, an early prototype teleportation engine. He and his son Max disappeared under mysterious circumstances after an apparently disastrous test of the device. The bodies of Steiner’s wife and lab assistant were later found in a nearby area. Steiner has been suspected in several other disappearances, but remains at large. His current whereabouts and status are unknown. Despite his apparent age, authorities now believe Steiner may still be alive due to the Bester effect (type two).
When I crawled into the machine, my dad was still bashing Meier in the face with the stool. My mom kept screaming at him to stop, but he was gone to that place he goes sometimes. He was screaming about the calibration, calling Meier lazy and stupid. He kept saying “Toby,” which is our dog’s name. He kept saying, “Distance! Distance, not duration!” He was almost dancing, whipping the stool around, dancing and screaming. The last thing I heard before I hit the switch was his voice, angry as all get-out, saying “Just distance!”
When the machine stopped whirring, I was back where I was born. I wanted to see the place where they’d made me. I started walking, real casual, down the sidewalk, heading for the hotel. I’d seen it in pictures: “The Winchester.” People passed by, looking scared. I scowled right back at them, and they all turned away. What a dead-end place this town was. What a hole.
By the time I got to the hotel, my guts started feeling sloshy. I made my way around to the back of the building–-I didn’t want to get caught–-and that’s when I saw myself. At first I thought it was the glass, which was old and lumpy, but it wasn’t–-it was me.
I was huge. My head was as big as a pumpkin, and my hands looked like baseball gloves. I was too big, and sort of melted looking, like I’d been stretched out and then let go. I shrieked, but the sound was awful and low. That was the last thing I saw before my panic pulled me back.
Inside the machine, I waited to hear what was going on outside. Nothing. Not even a peep. I was scared for anyone to see me, and embarrassed too. But I opened the hatch, just a little bit
. There, standing by the door, was my dad. I crawled out, tried to say “daddy,” but all that came was a growl. I couldn’t stand up, my head was so heavy, so I just let myself flop onto the floor. I knew my dad would fix whatever it was.
Slowly, weirdly, he turned around. I would have yelped or cried or something, but I was stuck. He looked calm, and about a hundred years old. He walked over to me slowly, like it hurt to move.
“Distance,” he said, and he sounded like a ghost, “distance… and duration.”
He reached out to touch my head, and then pulled his hand back. Maybe it hurt his back to reach.
“Are you any older in there? Or are you still a child? Did you only go once? I hope, at least, that you had adventures. I hope you lived.”
I wanted to cry; I didn’t understand. I tried to talk, and even though it hurt, I managed to say “Woodville.” I sounded like a goat.
My father’s face changed then. He stared at me for a minute with that weird new face, and then he laughed.
“Woodville!” he said. He seemed happy, and it made me happy too. I laughed, but it sounded like puking. “Woodville,” he said again, not laughing anymore. He walked away, and for a minute, I panicked. But he was just going to get the stool. He was too old to stand for very long. He dragged it over toward him, and I could see dark red stains, old stains, like on the couch in the basement. He sat down, putting his hand out. I took it, and I felt better.
“I don’t know if you’re older or not,” he said, “but I owe you an explanation anyhow. The machine was supposed to be for travel–-like a teleporter. Just distance, just space.” He laughed, but he looked angry. “Meier failed to calibrate correctly, and when we sent Toby through, he went sideways through the ether, not just through space, but also through time. Time has more than one axis, just like space. Toby came back in a pile, much like …” He didn’t want to say it, but I knew what he meant: like me.
When you’re a pile, you know it.
“When I realized you were gone, I panicked. I followed you–-or I tried to. The system can be controlled by a strong conscious image, or by input laid in manually. I assumed you’d been sent where we’d sent Toby–-a spot across the base, a chamber that’s sealed from the inside. But you’d gone off somewhere else. So I chased you down. I went to all the places a boy might want to go. But you just went to Woodville. You just went home.”
My dad could be so boring sometimes.
I croaked, like a frog, “Why?”
He knew what I meant, even though when I tried to point at myself, I just flapped like a dying bird.
He stared at me. He looked sad. “You were too young. The axis that involves growth and the axis that involves development converge after a being has reached a certain level of chronological maturity, a point when the emission of tachyons back down the line toward birth overtakes the emissions of chronal radiation forward. I got old. Toby got big. You got big.”
“I’m a pile,” I said.
My dad just grimaced and squeezed my hand. I looked around the lab; everything was dusty and gross, covered in junk. It looked abandoned. I wondered how much time had passed, how long my dad had been here.
“When … is it?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know exactly. I looked for you for a month or so, and I would have kept going, but the machine turned me into this–this rotten old skeleton–and moving around was just too difficult. When I came back here, decades had passed. But that was decades ago, maybe more. Maybe a century. I don’t know.”
“Mommy,” I said. I hated my voice. I wanted to puke every time I heard it.
“Your mother is gone. I’m sorry.”
I thought I would cry, but I didn’t even want to. It was probably better anyhow. After all, what’s worse than being a pile? Being a wet, sobbing pile, that’s what.
Then I wondered about something. It was a strange thought, and at first it didn’t even make sense to me. But it nagged me and nagged me, and then I understood. I asked, in my best croak, “Why are you … still alive?”
He smiled, a dark, slow smile, a smile that scared me. “I don’t know,” he said, and then he was laughing and crying at the same time.
I started to get mad. I didn’t care about machines and science; I was a pile, and it was getting old. “Fix me!” I blurted out, straining my throat.
He started shaking, and I thought he was going to explode, but I didn’t care. “Fix me!” I yelped, and it sounded like a monster, a huge, awful monster.
“There’s no way to fix it. Any of it. What time has taken belongs to her.”
I was terrified, and I was angrier than I’d ever been. And then I said something I didn’t understand. I screamed, “Kill me!”
But he just laughed and cried and shook, and eventually, it was later. Somehow, it all just turned into silence.
We never go anywhere or do anything now. We don’t even eat, because we never get hungry. I’m getting smarter though, little by little, and stronger too. When my father sleeps, sometimes I try to move, and sometimes it works. I can get a few inches, hobbling around on my giant elbows. One day, when I’m strong enough, I’ll climb back into that stupid machine, and I’ll think about the sun–-a clear thought, a good mental image. And when my father wakes up, he can laugh or cry or whatever he wants.
Max Steiner is trying to look on the bright side.
Nathaniel K. Miller is a writer and psychologist-in-training living in the Philadelphia area. His fiction can be found in at Mad Scientist Journal and is forthcoming at Apocrypha and Abstractions and Theurgy Magazine.
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