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Countdown: Three Days

by Peter Cawdron

part 1 of 5

Cohen sat there watching his own funeral. Everyone dies, he knew that, but somehow he never thought about it happening to him. It would of course, but denial is a wonderful thing. Somehow, deep down inside he’d rather have never known the morbid details surrounding his own death. The machine had burst his bubble. At first, the very suggestion of watching his own funeral had seemed like a joke, but Cohen wasn’t laughing now.

“So, what do you think?” asked Davies.

“And this is for real?” Cohen leaned back in his chair, adding, “This isn’t staged?”

“Oh, it’s real, or at least, it will be.”

O’Malley sat quietly in the background, watching Cohen’s reaction; the wrinkle in his brow, the sweat on his forehead, the quiver in his voice. He’s buying it, he thought.

Davies rolled the control ball around the polished wooden desktop. The three-dimensional image floating in mid-air before them shifted focus as a seemingly invisible camera rolled around the solemn crowd gathered by the open grave.

The low morning sun cast long shadows down into the stark, muddy pit. Birds flew high above. A gravel driveway meandered through the old cemetery. Cherry blossoms were in the first throes of budding on the trees. The dew on the grass glistened in the sunlight. Bunches of cut flowers, wrapped neatly in cellophane, sat up against the polished marble tombstone.

“There’s certainly a lot of flowers,” Cohen noted, clearing his throat as he tried to shift his mind away from the bitter reality confronting him. “It’s a beautiful day.”

“Yes. It is.”

Davies pushed gently on the control ball as he jockeyed the image position. The holographic view zoomed in, passing through the lid of the coffin as it sat at the bottom of the grave. Light enhancers automatically amplified the image. Cohen shifted uneasily in his seat. O’Malley watched him closely.

Although the image was taken from an angle, with the viewpoint located inside the coffin seemingly just above the shoulder, Cohen recognised his own face, cold and inert. His skin was grainy. It looked like an image from an old night-vision camera. His eyes were shut, his hair neatly combed.

“Now, how does it do that? The coffin is sealed. And it’s pitch black in there. There wouldn’t be any ambient light so how can you get that image?”

“There’s no visible light,” said Davies. “But there is plenty of natural background radiation, cosmic rays, decaying isotopes within the earth, microwaves from mobile phone towers, radio waves, you name it. They’re all forms of electromagnetic radiation similar to light. It’s just that they’re modulating at different wavelengths. We simply scale the results so they appear like natural light but, of course, there’s no colour.”

“Oh,” replied Cohen. As a senior NSA threat analyst, Cohen was only vaguely aware of the experiment. As usual, rumours of a time machine had floated around in hushed whispers but he’d ignored them, writing them off as the usual Roswell-alien-crash hyperbole.

There was always something on the wind in the NSA, especially when it came to the covert activities of DARPA, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency. Senior management actually encouraged conspiracy theories. It distracted and deflected real security concerns while bringing some much needed humour into the department. It created an environment where no one was sure what was fact and what was fiction.

But this... if this was real and not some sicko candid camera stunt by the boys from Covert Surveillance, then it was frightening, terrifying. Cohen looked at his own body lying there as a corpse and a chill swept over him. If O’Malley was trying to freak him out, he thought, it’s working.

“But the coffin is sealed. So how do you get a camera inside it?”

Cohen could feel his blood pumping, pulsating in his neck as adrenalin surged through his veins. The palms of his hands felt cold and clammy. He didn’t like this, not one bit. He wanted to say, OK, you’ve convinced me, now lets move on to something else, something less personally confronting, but he didn’t want to show just how deeply this disturbed him. On the surface, at least, he wanted to appear as though he was in control.

“Technically,” Davies replied, scrolling back and giving him a wide-angle view of the funeral, “there is no camera. There is nothing physically present inside the coffin or out here above the cemetery.”

Davies shifted the view point, placing it above the grave facing the funeral director. The aging grey-haired man spoke slowly, his head bowed in solemn respect.

“What about sound?” asked Cohen. It wasn’t that he was actually interested in hearing what was being said by the graveside, it was just another diversion for his mind. He was desperately seeking something to deflect the fear welling up inside.

“Not possible. All we have to work with is light. We can’t pick up any audio.”

Davies sat back in his seat, letting the control ball roll idly under his hand. The image shot up into the air before twisting and pointing back down at the shadows in the pit. Cohen found himself looking at the polished wooden lid of the casket. So cold, so lifeless, so abrupt and final, he thought as he looked at his name on the engraved, polished brass plate.

Cohen leaned forward, wringing his hands together as he sat in front of the ghostly, floating image.

“So how does it work?” he asked. “How do you travel forward in time? Can you explain it to me in layman’s terms?”

“Well, this is where it gets interesting,” replied Davies. The excitement in his voice was clear. “We’re not actually travelling through time at all. Einstein was right. Time travel is impossible because it is impossible to travel faster than the speed of light.”

“If this isn’t time travel, then what is it?”

“It’s called time cycling. It’s like looking through a window in time. It’s a glimpse of the future.”

O’Malley jotted down some notes. Cohen caught the movement out of the corner of his eye. O’Malley was the one that had dragged him down here in the first place. He couldn’t stop talking about the breakthrough in the car but, once they were in the basement of the DARPA research centre, he’d turned everything over to Davies.

It was curious, Cohen thought, and somewhat out of character for O’Malley. As special agent in charge of advanced research application, O’Malley was normally looking to take the limelight. On most issues, you couldn’t get him to shut up. And the whole watch-your-own-death thing, what was with that? Cohen had been around long enough to know when he was being set up for a knock-out punch.

Davies took a sip of cold, stale coffee as he thought about the best way to describe time cycling without diving into physics equations and quantum mechanics.

“When you look up at the sky at night, what do you see?” he asked.

“Stars,” replied Cohen.

“Stars, yes, but not as they are now. You and I see them as they were hundreds, thousands, millions and even billions of years ago. Look up at the stars at night and you’re looking back in history. You’re looking through a window in time, a window into the past. If you like, the sky is a naturally occurring historical record, a time-cycle into the past.”

“The constellation of Andromeda, for example, is visible just after sunset this time of the year. There’s a small faint smudge near Pegasus that’s barely visible to the naked eye and yet it is an entire galaxy just like our own, some two and a half million light years from Earth. We have no idea what the Andromeda galaxy looks like today, but we know what it looked like when Homo habilis roamed the Earth millions of years before humans evolved.”

Cohen was silent, listening intently to the scientist’s description. Davies panned the time-cycle image back so the view took in most of the city. The image looked like any normal view from a plane or helicopter. Cars, trucks and buses moved along the streets. People wandered around slowly like ants carrying a heavy load. The cemetery disappeared among the parks and playgrounds in the rolling suburbs. In the midst of his own death, Cohen realised life rolls on. Life, he thought, stops for no one.

Davies was excited. The tone of his voice carried his enthusiasm.

“Seeing Andromeda with the naked eye is a simple example of just how truly remarkable light is. Once propagated, it radiates outward seemingly forever, slowly growing fainter but never truly disappearing. Light can travel trillions of miles through space and give us glimpses of eternity. And it is malleable. It bends. Stick a straw in a glass of water and it seems to twist at an angle.

“In the same way, gravity bends light, twisting and distorting it, magnifying and compressing it. If you have a powerful enough gravitational or electromagnetic source, you can bend light in a complete loop so it doesn’t travel anywhere, it simply spirals around and around.”

Cohen was beginning to regret asking for an explanation. Like most scientists, Davies didn’t know when to stop or how to compress his years of research into a nice, clean, crisp summary. Cohen’s eyes wandered, looking down at his white, sterile lab coat. With shoulder length hair and thin-rim glasses, Davies looked young but the subtle grey highlights around his temples betrayed his real age, somewhere in the forties. He spoke in such eloquent terms, and with an accent that made Cohen think he must be from New England, perhaps Boston.

Davies changed his tone abruptly. Something in Cohen’s look must have betrayed his apathy. He was glazing over and Davies knew it.

“It’s complex,” Davies stated rather sharply. “Without going too far into it, we’ve developed a quantum black hole, something on the scale of just a few quarks.”

“A black hole,” said Cohen, somewhat surprised.

“It’s completely stable and not in any way dangerous,” added Davies, as though he’d read his mind. “Quantum mechanics tells us that both the position and the momentum of a subatomic particle cannot be not fixed and yet our black hole is stationary, or at least it appears stationary. It’s stationary in three dimensions but not four. The hole exists in multiple frames of reference. Light from each point in time circles around and around before slipping below the event horizon like water swirling down a drain, and that’s the light you’re seeing.”

Davies sipped his cold coffee again, more out of habit than desire. Cohen thought for a second before saying, “So it’s not black?”

“That’s right,” replied Davies, excited to see Cohen had understood that intuitively. “It’s not black in the traditional sense. To the naked eye, it is a blinding white light the size of a pinprick. It’s suspended in a vacuum, held firmly in place by an intense magnetic field.”

“And that lets you see into the future?” asked Cohen, hoping this was the end of the discussion. The pressure of the moment was getting to him.

“Well, actually, that lets us look roughly eighty years into the past. But only in glimpses, fragments, snippets. We can’t see anything more than a few seconds in length. The really interesting views only started to show themselves when we reversed the quantum spin and subsequent polarity. That was when we started to see into the future.”

“The future,” replied Cohen, his head swimming with the concept. Seeing his own death decades into the future was unnerving, but, ultimately, he knew it was unavoidable. He understood that no one wants to think about their own death, but it’s a realisation everyone must ultimately face. He told himself that this had simply brought it to his attention a little earlier than usual.

Seeing the generations that followed, however, would be exciting, seeing the future of mankind, the exploration of space, the medical advances, the revolutions in society, that would be fascinating. He felt strange. On one hand, his mind was shocked by the reality of his own personal demise, but on the other he felt excited by the possibilities.

“So,” said Cohen, quietly steeling himself for the answer, “when’s my funeral?”

Davies was quiet.

From the back of the room, O’Malley stood up and, looking at his watch, said, “In three days, seventeen hours and fourteen minutes.”

The reaction was instant. It was even more pronounced than they’d expected.

“Oh, God,” cried Cohen. “Oh, dear God. No!”

He stood up abruptly. The chair behind him fell backwards and crashed to the floor. He began pacing. He strode forward, his hands running through his hair, his lips mumbling, “No, no, no.”

Spasms flashed through his muscles. His arms flexed, his legs twitched. It was as though his body was physically rejecting the realisation. The hair on his arms stood on end, bristling with the revelation.

“But I’m too young,” he cried. “I’m not even forty. This can’t happen to me. I should live into my eighties, my nineties. I should die an old man.”

The face he’d seen didn’t seem that young. The image was grainy. It was cold and grey. It looked older, much older. Could they have made a mistake? he wondered.

Cohen had assumed he was seeing something decades into the future. The day he’d seen was well into spring, but there was still snow on the ground in Washington D.C. It couldn’t melt that quickly, could it? Perhaps it could. All it would take was a few warm days and some rain, he realised. It had been raining in Arlington over the weekend; he knew that. As he thought about it, he remembered tiny buds on the trees outside. Spring was bursting forth. As much as his mind wanted to deny it, he knew it was true. His mind raced, desperately trying to escape reality.

“But you can see the future. Surely this is decades into the future?” he cried.

“We can see almost a eighty years into the past,” Davies replied. “But the future is different, we can only see a couple of weeks ahead of time, at best.”

O’Malley walked over to Cohen. They’d had their differences over the years, but this was too personal. He placed his hand on his shoulder.

“I can’t die,” Cohen cried looking at him, his eyes wide with terror, “Not so soon. Not so suddenly.”

“I know,” the older man replied gently.

Cohen breathed deeply, desperately trying to calm himself, to think clearly.

“How does it happen?” he asked.

“You don’t want to know,” replied Davies still seated at the console.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by Peter Cawdron

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