GREGORY MARKHAM STOOD WITH HIS HANDS BEHIND his back, the gray of his temples giving him a remote, solemn air. The muted humming of the laboratory seemed to him a warming sound, a preoccupied buzzing of instruments which, if only in their unpredictable failures and idiosyncrasies, often resembled busy mortal workers. The laboratory was an island of sound in the hushed husk of the Cavendish, commanding all remaining resources. The Cav had ushered in the modern age, using the work of Faraday and Maxwell to create the tamed miracle of electricity. Now, Markham mused, at its center, a few men remained, trying to reach backward, swimmers against the stream.
Renfrew moved among the banks and lanes of instruments, darting from one trouble spot to another. Markham smiled at the man’s energy. In part it arose from the quiet presence of Ian Peterson, who lounged back in a chair and studied the oscilloscope face where the main signal was displayed. Renfrew fretted, aware that beneath Peterson’s veiled calm the man never lost his assessing eye.
Renfrew came stamping back to the central oscilloscope and glanced at the dancing jumble of noise. “Damn!” he said vehemently. “Bloody stuff won’t go away.”
Peterson volunteered, “Well, it’s not absolutely necessary for you to send the new signals while I watch. I simply stopped by to check up on matters.”
“No, no,” Renfrew shifted his shoulders awkwardly under his brown jacket. Markham noted the jacket pockets were crammed with electronics parts, apparently stuck there and forgotten. “I got a good run yesterday. No reason why I shouldn’t today. I transmitted that astronomical part steadily for three hours.”
“I must say I don’t see the necessity for that,” Peterson said, “considering the difficulty in sending the truly important—”
“It’s to help anyone receiving on the other end,” Markham said, stepping forward. He made his face resolutely neutral, though in fact he was rather distantly amused by the way the two other men seemed to immediately hit upon an area of disagreement, as though drawn to it. “John here thinks it might help them to know when our beam will be easiest to detect. The astronomical coordinates—”
“I fully understand,” Peterson cut him off. “What I
“Such as?” Markham asked quickly.
“Tell them what we’re doing, and repeat the ocean material, and—”
“Look, look,” Markham said mildly, “there’s time enough to do it all, right? Agreed? When the noise goes down, the first priority should be sending that bank message of yours, and then John here can—”
“You didn’t send it right away?” Peterson cried with surprise.
Renfrew said, “Ah, no, I hadn’t finished the other material and—”
“Well!” Peterson seemed excited by this; he stood up quickly and paced energetically in the small space before the towering gray cabinets. “I told you about finding the note—quite surprising, I must admit.”
“Yes,” Markham admitted. There had been considerable agitation when Peterson appeared this morning, bearing the yellow paper. Suddenly the entire thing had seemed real to them all.
“Well,” Peterson went on, “I was thinking about your trying to, ah, extend the experiment.”
“Extend?” Renfrew asked.
“Yes. Don’t send my message.”
“Good grief,” was all Markham could say.
“But, but don’t you see that…” Renfrew’s voice trailed off.
“I thought it would be an interesting experiment.”
Markham said, “Sure. Very interesting. But it will set up a paradox.”
“That was my idea,” Peterson said swiftly.
“But a paradox is what we
“I explained that to you,” Markham said to Peterson. “The switch being hung up between on and off, remember?”
“Yes, I understand that perfectly well, but—”
“Then don’t suggest rubbish!” Renfrew cried. “If you want to reach the past and
Peterson said with glacial calm, “The only reason you do know is that
There was an awkward silence. “Ah… yes,” Markham put in to fill the pause. He had to admit Peterson was right. It was precisely the kind of simple check he or Renfrew should have tried. But they were schooled in thinking of mechanical experiments, full of devices which operated without human intervention. The notion of asking for a confirming sign simply had not occurred to them. And now Peterson, the know-nothing administrator, had proved the whole scheme was right, and he had done it without any sophisticated thinking at all.
Markham took a deep breath. It was heady, realizing that you were doing something never accomplished before, something beyond your own understanding, but undeniably real. It had often been said that science at times put you into a kind of contact with the world that nothing else could. This morning, and Peterson’s single sheet, had done that, but in a strangely different way. The triumph of an experiment was when you reached a fresh plateau of knowledge. With tachyons, though, they had no true understanding. There was only the simple note on a scrap of yellow.
“Ian, I know how you feel It would be damned interesting to omit your message. But no one knows what that would mean. It might prevent us from doing what you want—namely convey the ocean information.”
Renfrew underlined these sentiments with a “Damned right!” and turned back to the apparatus.
Peterson’s eyelids lowered, as though he was deep in thought. “A good point. You know, for a moment there I thought there could be some way of finding out more that way.”
“We could,” Markham agreed. “But unless we do only what we understand…”
“Right,” Peterson said. “We rule out paradoxes, agreed. But later…” He had a wistful look.
“Later, sure,” Markham murmured. It was odd, he thought, how the players had reversed roles here. Peterson was supposedly the can-do administrator, pressing for results above all else. Yet now Peterson wanted to push the parameters of the experiment and find out some new physics.
And opposing this were Renfrew and himself, suddenly uncertain of what a paradox might produce. Ironies abounded.
• • •
An hour later the fine points of logic had faded, as they so often did, before the gritty details of the experiment itself. Noise smeared the flat face of the oscilloscope. Despite earnest work from the technicians the jitter in the experiment would not diminish. Unless it did, the tachyon beam would be uselessly diffuse and weak.
“Y’know,” Markham murmured, leaning back in his wooden lab chair, “I think your Caltech stuff may bear on this, Ian.”
Peterson looked up from reading the file with a red CONFIDENTIAL stamped across it. During the lulls he had been steadily working his way through a briefcase of paperwork. “Oh? How?”
“Those cosmological calculations—good work. Brilliant, in fact. Clustered universes. Now, suppose someone inside them is sending out tachyon signals. The tachyons can burrow right out of those smaller universes. All the tachyons have to do is pass through the event horizon of the closed-off microgeometry. Then they’re free. They escape from the gravitational singularities and we can pick them up.”
Peterson frowned. “These… microuniverses… are other other places to live? They might be inhabited?”
Markham grinned. “Sure.” He had the serene confidence of a man who has worked through the mathematics and seen the solutions. There was a blithe certainty that came from first comprehending the full Einstein field equations, arabesques of Greek letters clinging tenuously to the page, a gossamer web. They seemed insubstantial when you first saw them, a string of squiggles. Yet to follow the delicate tensors as they contracted, as the superscripts paired with subscripts, collapsing mathematically into concrete classical entities—potential; mass; forces vectoring in a curved geometry—that was a sublime experience. The iron fist of the real, inside the velvet glove of airy mathematics. Markham saw in Peterson’s face the hesitant puzzlement that swam over people when they struggled to visualize ideas beyond the comforting three dimensions and Euclidean certainties which framed their world. Behind the equations were immensities of space and dust, dead but furious matter bending to the geometric will of gravity, stars like match heads exploding in a vast night, orange sparks that lit only a thin ring of child planets. The mathematics was what made it all; the pictures men carried inside their heads were useful but clumsy, cartoons of a world that was as subtle as silk, infinitely smooth and varied. After you had seen that, really seen it, the fact that worlds could exist within worlds, that universes could thrive within our own, was not so huge a riddle. The mathematics buoyed you.
Markham said, “I think that may be an explanation for the anomalous noise level. It’s not thermally generated at all, if I’m right. Instead, the noise comes from tachyons. The indium antimonide sample isn’t just
“A background?” Renfrew asked. “From what?”
“Let’s see. Try the correlator.”
Renfrew made a few adjustments and stepped back from the oscilloscope. “That should do it.”
“Do what?” Peterson demanded.
“This is a lock-in coherence analyzer,” Markham explained. “It culls out the genuine noise in the indium sample—sound wave noise, that is—and brings up any signals out of the random background.”
Renfrew stared intently at the oscilloscope face. A complex wave form wavered across the scale. “It seems to be a series of pulses strung out at regular intervals,” he said. “But the signal decays in time.” He pointed at a fluid line which faded into the noise level as it neared the right side of the screen.
“Quite regular, yes,” Markham said. “Here’s one peak, then a pause, then two peaks together, then nothing again, then four nearly on top of each other, then nothing. Strange.”
“What do you trunk it is?” Peterson asked.
“Not ordinary background, that’s clear,” Renfrew answered.
Markham said, “It’s coherent, can’t be natural.”
Renfrew: “No. More like…”
“A code,” Markham finished. “Let’s take some of this down.” He began writing on a clip-board. “Is this a real-time display?”
“No, I just rigged it to take a sample of the noise for a hundred-microsecond interval.” Renfrew reached for the oscilloscope dials. “Would you like another interval?”
“Wait till I copy this.”
Peterson asked, “Why don’t you just photograph it?”
Renfrew looked at him significantly. “We have no film. There’s a shortage and priority doesn’t go to laboratories these days, you know.”
“Ian, take this down,” Markham interrupted.
• • •
Within an hour the results were obvious. The noise was in fact a sum of many signals, each overlaid on the rest. Occasionally a short stuttering group of pulses would appear, only to be swallowed in a storm of rapid jiggling.
“Why are there so many competing signals?” Peterson asked.
Markham shrugged. He wrinkled his nose in an unconscious effort to work his glasses back up. It gave him an unintentional expression of sudden, vast distaste. “I suppose it’s possible they’re from the far future. But the vest pocket universe sounds good to me, too.”
Renfrew said, “I wouldn’t put much weight on a new astrophysical theory. Those fellows speculate in ideas like stock brokers.”
Markham nodded. “Granted, they often take a grain of truth and blow it up into a kind of intellectual puffed rice. But this time they have a point. There are unexplained sources of infrared emission, far out among the galaxies. The microuniverses would look like that.” He made a tent of his fingers and smiled into it, his favorite academic gesture. At times like these it was comforting to have a touch of ritual to get you through. “That scope of yours shows a hundred times the ordinary noise you expected, John. I like the notion that we’re not unique, and there is a background of tachyon signals. Signals from different times, yes. And from those microscopic universes, too.”
“It comes and goes, though,” Renfrew observed. “I can still transmit a fraction of the time.”
“Good,” Peterson said. He had not spoken for some while. “Keep on with it, then.”
Renfrew said, “I hope the fellows back in 1963 haven’t got the detector sensitivity to study this noise. If they stick to our signals—which should stand out above this background, when we’re transmitting properly—they’ll be all right.”
“Greg,” Peterson mused, his eyes remote, “there’s another point.”
“You keep talking about the small universes inside ours and how we’re overhearing their tachyon messages.”
“Isn’t that a bit self-centered? How do we know we, in turn, are not a vest pocket universe inside somebody else’s?”
• • •
Gregory Markham slipped away from the Cav in early afternoon. Peterson and Renfrew were still unable to resist sniping at each other. Peterson was obviously drawn to the experiment, despite his automatic habit of distancing himself. Renfrew appreciated Peterson’s support, but kept pushing for more. Markham found the ornate dance between the two men comic, all the more so because it was virtually unconscious. With their class-calibrated speech patterns, the two men had squared off at the first differing vowel. If Renfrew had stayed a laborer’s son he would have got along smoothly with Peterson, each knowing his time-ordained role. As a man swimming in exotic academic waters, however, Renfrew had no referents. Science had a way of bringing about such conflicts. You could come out of nowhere and make your mark, without having learned any new social mannerisms. Fred Hoyle’s stay at Cambridge had been a case in point. Hoyle had been an astronomer in the old mold of eccentric-seeker-after-truth, advancing controversial theories and sweeping aside the cool, rational mannerisms when they didn’t suit his mood. Renfrew might well prove as remarkable as Hoyle, a working-class salmon swimming upstream all the way, if this experiment went through. Most rising scientists from obscure backgrounds nowadays kept a neutral, bland exterior; it was safer. Renfrew didn’t. The big modern research teams depended for progress on well-organized, smooth-running, large-scale operations, whose stability demanded a minimum of upsetting—what was the jargon—“interpersonal relationships.” Renfrew was a loner with a sandpaper psyche. The odd point was that Renfrew was quite civil towards most people; only the deliberate flaunting of class symbols by such as Peterson set him off. Markham had watched class friction worsen in England for decades, catching glimpses on his occasional visits, lime seemed to strengthen the ties of class, much to the confusion of the condescending Marxists who tended the lumbering government programs. The explanation seemed clear to Markham: in the steepening economic slide, following on the rich years of North Sea oil, people stressed differences, in order to keep alive their sense of self-worth.
Markham shrugged, mulling this over, and walked along the Coton footpath back toward the solemn spires of town. He was an American and thus exempt from the subtle class rituals, a visitor given a temporary passport. A year here had accustomed him to the language differences; now phrases like “the committee are” and “the government have” didn’t cause a stumble as the eye slid through the sentence. He now recognized Peterson’s skeptical arch of the eyebrow and rising, dry, “Hmmmm?” as a well-honed social weapon. The graceful, adroit sound of Peterson’s “lehzure” and “shedule” were certainly far better than the mechanical quack-quack of American administrators, who would call any information an “input,” were always “addressing a problem,” submitted proposals as a “package” but didn’t always “buy it,” and who engaged in “dialogue” with audiences; if you objected to such deliberately clanky talk, they answered that this was “only semantics.”
Markham thrust his hands into his jacket pockets and tramped on. He had been irked by a balky calculation in mathematical physics for days now, and wanted a long, solitary walk to help sweep his irritation away. He passed a construction site, where over-ailed chimps carried stonework and did the odd heavy job. Remarkable, what the tinkering with the DNA had done in the last few years.
As he approached a bus queue something caught his attention. A black man in tennis shoes was standing at the end of the line, eyes dancing, his head jerking as if on wires. Markham came up close to him and muttered, “Bobby round the corner,” and moved on. The man froze. “Huh? Wha?” He looked wildly around. He eyed Markham. A hesitation, then he decided—he raced off in the opposite direction. Markham smiled. The standard tactic was to wait until the bus hauled up and the queue’s attention was focused on getting aboard. Then you grabbed purses away from a few women and left in high gear. Before the crowd could redirect its attention you were streets away. Markham had seen the same maneuver in Los Angeles. He realized, a bit ruefully, that he might not have recognized the setup if the man hadn’t been black.
He strolled down the High Street. Beggars’ hands appeared magically when they saw his American jacket, and then disappeared quickly as he scowled. On the corner of St. Andrews and Market streets was Barrett’s barber shop, a faded sign proclaiming, “Barrett is willing to shave all, and only, men unwilling to shave themselves.” Markham laughed. This was a Cambridge insiders’ joke, a reference to the local logical trickery of Bertrand Russell and the mathematicians of a century ago. It yanked him back towards the problem that was bothering him, the tangle of reason surrounding Renfrew’s experiments.
The obvious question was, “But what about Barrett? Who can shave poor old Barrett?” If Barrett were willing to shave himself, and if the sign were true, then he was
The equations were mute. If Renfrew succeeded, how would the things around them change? Markham had a sudden, sinking vision of a world in which the ocean bloom simply had not happened. He and Renfrew and Peterson would emerge from the Cav to find that no one knew what they were babbling about.
Markham shook himself out of the mood, feeling an odd chill run through him. There was something deeper here, some crucial missing physics.
He walked rapidly away, disturbed. A cricket game lazily wound through the afternoon on the large pie-shaped ground known as Parker’s Piece. The mathematician G. H. Hardy had watched games there a century before, Markham mused, and often lazed away the afternoon just as he was doing now. Markham could understand the motivation of the game, but not the details. He had never got straight the cricket jargon—square leg, silly mid-on, silly mid-off, cover point, short extra cover—and still never quite knew when a good play was made. He walked behind the ranks of spectators, who were slumped in their canvas chairs, and wondered what the cricket watchers of a century ago would’ve thought of the England of now. He suspected, though, that like most people even today, they assumed that tomorrow would be pretty much the same as the present.
Markham angled down Regent Street and past the University Botanic Garden. Beyond lay a boys’ school.
No “please.” No unnecessary softenings; simply a direct statement. Markham could imagine the brief conversation: “I’m sorry, you see—” “Standard punishment. Fifty lines, best handwriting. I’ll have them tomorrow at break.” And the student would grind out,
The fact that the student might well use one of the recent voice-writers for nearly all his school work didn’t matter; the principle reigned.
Odd, how forms held on when everything else—buildings, politics, fame—fell away Maybe that was the strength of this place. There was a timelessness here, too fragile for California’s dry air to hold. Now that full summer had arrived with a flourish, the mannered ways of the schools and colleges seemed even older, a slice of worn time. He found his own spirits lifting at the release from the endless raw winter and the rainy spring.
He felt his mind veering away from the tachyon question, seeking refuge in this comfortable aura of the past. It was different for him here, he knew. Englishmen were fish swimming in this sea of the past. For them it was a palpable presence, a living extension, commenting on events like a half-heard stage whisper. Americans regarded the past as a parenthesis within the running sentences of the present, an aside, something out of the flow.
He walked back towards the colleges, letting this feel of the press of time seep into him. He and Jan had been to High Table at several of the colleges, the ultimate Anglophile experience. Memorial plate that gleamed like quicksilver, and crested goblets. In the after-dinner room of polished wood, gilt frames held glowering portraits of the college founders. In the great dining hall Jan had been surprised to find de facto segregation: Etonians at one table, Harrovians at another, the lesser public schools’ alumni at a third, and, finally, state school graduates and everyone else at a motley last table. To an American in such a citadel of education, after the decades of ferocious equality-at-all-costs politics, it seemed strange. There persisted a reliance on inherited advantages, and even the idea that such a system was an inherited virtue as well. The past hung on. You could be quite up to the minute, quite knowing about the zack-o latin riffs of Lady Delicious, and yet sit quietly and comfortably in choir stalls of King’s College chapel listening to cherubic lads in Elizabethan ruffs try to shatter the stained glass with treble attacks. It seemed that in a muzzy sense the past was still here, that they were all connected, and that the perception of the future as a tangible thing lived in the present, as well.
Markham relaxed a moment, letting the idea inside drift up from his subconscious. Walking was the gentle jog his mind needed; he had used the effect before. Something… something about the reality needing to be independent of the observer…
He glanced up. A swarming yellow cloud, moving fast and low over the gray towers, pressed shadows against the flanks of Great St. Mary’s church. Bells pealed a cascade of sound through momentarily chilled air; the cloud seemed to suck heat from the breeze.
He watched the curling fingers of fog that dissolved overhead in the trail of the cloud. Then, abruptly, he had it. The nub of the problem was that observer, the guy who had to see things objectively. Who was
Markham grinned broadly as he turned up King’s Parade. There was a trapdoor in that argument. The classical observer didn’t exist. Everything in the world was quantum-mechanical. Everything moved according to waves of probability. So the massive, untouched experimenter himself got pushed back on. He received an uncertainly known push from the outraged particle, and that meant the observer, too, was quantum-mechanical. He was part of the system. The experiment was bigger, and more complex, than the simple ideas of the past.
The essence of the problem was, what made the particle appear in only one spot? Why did it pick out one of the possible states and not another? It was as though the universe had many possible ways it could go, and something made it choose a particular one.
Markham stopped, studying the dizzy height of Great St. Mary’s. A student peered over the edge, a knobby head against the steel blue.
What was the right analogy?
The tachyon beam brought up the same problem. If his ideas were right there was a kind of probability wave traveling back and forth in time. Setting up a paradox kept the wave going in a loop, setting the system into a kind of dumbfounded frenzy, unable to decide on what state it should be in.
If there was, then the paradox had an answer. Somehow the laws of physics had to provide an answer. But the equations stood mute, inscrutable. As was always the case, the basic question answered by the mathematics was
Markham shook his head in frustration. The ideas swarmed like bees, but he could not pin them. Abruptly he growled and swerved across a lane of bicycling students, into Bowes & Bowes.
• • •
The selection was getting thin; the pub?shing business was in trouble, retreating before the TV tide. A woman tending the register caught his eye; quite sexy. Beyond his age range, though, he thought ruefully. He was getting to the stage where ambitions nearly always exceeded his region of probable success.
The tachyon thing troubled him as he walked home, across the Cav and through the bathing grounds. A greensward, named Lammas Land for some ancient reason, lay beneath a moist, warm afternoon. There was a stillness, as though the year were poised motionless at the top of a long slope up which it had climbed out of winter’s grip, and from which it must soon descend. He turned south, towards Grantchester, where the nuclear reactor was still a-building. It seemed that with all the delays they would never finish the squashed ping-pong ball that would cup the simmering core. The meadows around it were a pocket of rural peace. Cows standing in the inky shade of trees swished their tails to banish flies. There were drowsy sounds, murmurs of wood pigeons, a drone of a plane, buzzings and clickings. The air was layered with scents of thistles, yarrow, ragwort, tansy. Colors leaped in ambush from the lush grass: yellow camomile, blue harebells, the scarlet pimpernel of literary fame.
Jan was reading when he arrived home. They made a lazy sort of love in the close upper bedroom, dampening the sheets. Afterward, the image of the woman in Bowes & Bowes flickered through his dozing mind. A musky fullness hung in the air. The long day stretched on to ten in the evening, holding off the night. Markham was reminded, as he checked a calculation in the pale late light, that elsewhere on the planet someone else was paying for these longest of summer days in the hard coinage of frozen winter nights.