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In the Wink of an Eye (a short story) by Mark J. Howard

© Mark J. Howard

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A quick thank you to everyone who voted so kindly for this story. Your criticisms and observations all served me well and I thank you all, from the bottom of my heart, for making 'In the Wink of an Eye' do so well. Best, MJH.

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In the Wink of an Eye
By Mark J. Howard

It hadn’t worked. Tens of thousands of man hours, billions of dollars and trillions of computations all culminating in a big, fat nothing. Professor Palmer’s senses returned to her slowly, almost reluctantly. For what felt like a long time her entire awareness had been filled with blackness and one overriding thought – the project was over.

She was uncomfortable, lying amongst broken glass and twisted debris, and as this discomfort began to register she tried to rouse herself. A klaxon was howling and she grimaced at its closeness as she struggled into a sitting position, causing a small avalanche of debris and shards of glass to cascade off her tattered lab coat. The lights were out and the lab, or what was left of it, shimmered behind a thick veil of acrid, grey smoke. Coughing and gasping for breath, Palmer reached out for a shattered computer housing and used it to pull herself to her feet. There was a deep gash on her forehead and something sharp was embedded in her left shoulder, but apart from that and the headache she was fine. An involuntary laugh sprang to her throat, where it caught and mutated into a racking cough.

“Hans!” she called out, as soon as she was able. “Hans! Are you there?”

There was no answer from the wreckage, but the klaxon was too loud to hear anything else and the smoke and darkness made it impossible to see anything but the broadest details. As she called her colleague’s name out again, she caught sight of the looming bulk of the transmitter in the centre of the devastation. Half of its outer plating had been blasted away and it seemed like the core had shattered.

She cursed. Radiation. End of story.

Hans was dead. She found his body crushed beneath a capacitor bank, his lifeless eyes staring up at the blackened ceiling and a look of complete serenity on his face. A few drops of blood flecked his wiry, brown beard and, if it wasn’t for this one detail, Hans could easily be simply daydreaming again. Palmer tried to close his eyes, but it didn’t work like it did in the movies and she couldn’t get them to close properly. Seeing his dead eyes wide open had been bad enough, but seeing them now hooded was somehow far worse. She reached into the pocket of her tattered lab coat and retrieved the cloth she used for wiping the whiteboard in the briefing room and, with trembling fingers, placed it gently over Hans’ face.

“I’m sorry about this, Hans, I surely am. Still, looks like you got the better deal, nice and quick. In a couple of hours I’ll pretty much be turning into soup. Where the hell did we go wrong, partner?”

The klaxon ceased its howling and the sudden silence was shocking.

“Beck! Hans!” a voice cried urgently over the intercom, “Are you okay?”

Palmer waved towards where she presumed the monitoring suite was. “Can you hear me?”

“Beck! Oh, thank Christ. Are you okay? How’s Hans?” The intercom had been damaged in the explosion so that it sounded shrill and alien, shot through with static and feedback, but there was no mistaking Eileen’s voice. Hearing it filled the professor with an unexpected surge of peace and she allowed herself a brief smile and sigh of relief before composing herself to pass on the tragic news.

“Hans is dead,” said Palmer.

“Oh no, oh God. Please tell me you’re all right, Beck?”

Palmer paused, trying to steady herself. She didn’t want her voice to waver. “Eileen, I’m dead too.”

“What do you mean? That’s ridiculous!” Eileen’s voice crackled and hissed, filled with fear and confusion. “People are on their way, we’ll get you out of there.”

Palmer felt her way through the wreckage towards the monitoring suite and, after a moment, she began to make out a dim emergency light shining through the armoured viewports.

“Eileen, the core’s shattered. You can’t come in here without flooding the whole bunker with interparticles.”

“No,” Eileen shouted, “you can’t know that. You can’t see the core properly in all that smoke, maybe it’s just the coolant cradle that’s damaged.”

Broken glass crunched under Palmer's boots as she felt her way closer to the viewports. She began to make out figures moving around in the monitoring suite, moving frantically. The explosion had caused feedback throughout the system and virtually everything was down. There were fires burning in the monitoring suite and those few who weren’t panicking were fighting the flames. Palmer reached out and steadied herself against the armoured wall and was surprised to find her hands wet with blood. The wound in her shoulder was bleeding freely and whatever was embedded in there was starting to feel hot. She shuddered.

“I think there’s a piece of the core in my shoulder.” The professor moved to each viewport in turn until, suddenly, she happened upon the one Eileen was sitting behind. The sight of Eileen’s pretty face, albeit smeared with soot and sporting a rapidly developing black eye, brought a smile to Palmer’s face. “Hey you,” she said.

“H... hey,” Eileen’s voice crackled.

They gazed at each other for a long time, separated by half a meter of solid diaglass and an ocean of regret. They’d worked on this project for six years, admiring one another from afar, each too busy and too focussed and too distracted and too damned scared to make a move. Until four days ago. And now this. It seemed like just about the worse case of bad timing possible, and yet for some reason she couldn’t fathom it felt like perfect timing. Either that or an overdeveloped sense of irony, she mused.

Eileen Penoir had invented the metamaterial from which the core of the transmitter had been made. Without it, the teleportation project would have been impossible. Penoirium, as she had named the crystalline metamaterial, was an extraordinary substance. Penoirium molecules exist only partially in our universe and also outside of normal time. Manufacturing metamaterials had always been a frustratingly slow process of molecule by molecule construction. It could take months to produce a strand half as thick as a human hair but only a millimeter long, but penoirium proved to be exactly the opposite, it’s crystals growing almost exponentially and under their own power until fears began to arise that the whole world faced being totally encased in the stuff. Eileen, though, had worked feverishly on a solution and finally learned how to control the crystal’s growth with a high degree of precision. Eileen had done all this before even receiving her doctorate. The girl was a genius, and she applied her talents to the study of this incredible new material.

She published paper after paper concerning penoirium and its baffling properties, but it was such a confusing and contradictory substance that nobody could think of any earthly use for it. Nobody until Becks Palmer had read about penoirium’s theoretical ability to exist in two separate places, and at two separate times in a completely stable state. What was more, a photon of light entering into a penoirium crystal that does exist in two places at once itself is split into two. That was the breakthrough the teleportation project had been waiting for and not long after Eileen had jumped at the chance to join Palmer’s team. The penoirium based communication system they’d invented as a by-product of the project had changed the world. Instantaneous communication over practically infinite distances had become a commonplace, almost mundane thing. The technology had not only revolutionised the telecommunications industry but also taken computers and all manner of other technologies in radical and exciting new directions.

Now, looking into Eileen’s dark brown eyes, Palmer wondered if they should have left it at that. Their place in the history books was secure and they’d never have to worry about money again, but they’d ploughed ahead anyway. Instantaneous transmission of information is surely a marvelous and astounding thing, but they wanted more. They wanted a real teleportation system, one that could transmit goods and perhaps even livestock instantaneously and freely across great distances. They wanted to transport explorers to Mars and beyond in the wink of an eye. They had reached for the knowledge of the gods and been punished for their impertinence.

Inside the monitoring suite the lights began to flicker into apprehensive life and several computer servers and terminals began to boot up, but the damage was extensive and there seemed also to be several severe casualties. The fires were all but extinguished now and Jack Cooper, the lab supervisor, was bringing calm and a semblance of order to the situation. Palmer could see his animated face and hands as he waded through the chaos issuing instructions and encouragement in equal measure. Jack would sort things out, he was that kind of man and Palmer felt relieved that he was okay. Jack would make sure Eileen got out if things deteriorated further. He’d make sure all his crew got out.

Almost all.

Palmer gathered her wits with an effort and spoke into the intercom. “What went wrong?”

Eileen, too, had to drag her attention back to the question in hand. She understood the consequences of the shard of penoirium in Beck’s shoulder and had been turning over possible solutions in her mind, only to find that there were none. “I don’t know, the computers aren’t back up yet so I can’t see the data. I think there was an energy imbalance, I’m not sure. It all happened so quickly, too quickly almost.”

“Yes, I understand what you mean. Just before, I don’t know, whatever happened, happened, I thought I saw a bubble, like a little, solid bubble of light over the number two feed node. It was completely still, it’s hard to explain, like the room wasn’t in a fixed spot, but the bubble was.” Palmer’s forehead creased as she tried to remember what had happened, causing fresh blood to run down her face. “It only lasted a split second, but, it also seemed to have been there for hours. I can’t explain it.”

One of the technicians tapped Eileen on the shoulder and pointed to a computer terminal at her elbow that he'd managed to get up and running. As Eileen studied the data scrolling down the screen, the technician gave Palmer a self-conscious smile through the diaglass. She smiled back and gave him the thumbs-up sign. She thought his name might be Karl, and was ashamed to realise that she wasn’t sure. When had that happened? When had she stopped caring about the people who worked for her? Karl, if that was his name, returned the gesture in an all too falsely optimistic way, but couldn’t find it within himself to meet her gaze. That’s when it began to really sink in. They all knew she was dead and, now that the panic was finally over, they were beginning to realise it. The fact that they knew somehow made it real, as if she could will her way out of it if only she alone knew how hopeless was her situation.

“It’s incredible,” Eileen said, still looking at the screen. “There was a power imbalance through the number two feed node, the other nodes tried to compensate but they weren’t able to adapt quickly enough. It looks like the core began to resonate until it shattered, causing a symmetrical temporal explosion. The resulting stress on the localised spacetime continuum would've been massive.”

Palmer coughed painfully, spitting up phlegm and dark blood. What had started as a dull headache was climbing to full migraine status and she was feeling weaker by the minute. “Hold on, back up," she said, pulling her coughing back under some measure of control. "Symmetrical temporal explosion? Are you saying the explosion went backwards in time as well as forwards? Is that even possible?”

“I have no idea, but it’s the only thing that makes any sense. From the ignition point, the explosion travelled through time and not over it, that would have twisted the localised space-time continuum and everything in it, the transmitter and anything near it would have been twisted around like it was made of rubber. The bubble you saw was most likely the flashpoint of the explosion, but you must’ve been in a fold of space-time, so the main force of it missed you. When the continuum snapped back into shape, it just tore everything near the transmitter to pieces. I never predicted anything like this. Beck, Beck I’m so sorry.”

Palmer shook her head, even though it hurt her to do so. “Don’t be, there’s no way anybody could’ve predicted something like this.”

“But it’s so damned obvious! I should’ve designed more tests, run more simulations...” Tears were beginning to well up in Eileen’s eyes, though she fought well to contain them.

“One of the first things you told me was that the crystals you made couldn’t occur naturally anywhere in the universe, you said that it was impossible for the universe to make them at all. You have made something that God Himself could not make, it’s not surprising that it’s difficult to understand. But, you’ve learned a lot here today. Next time... next time...” Palmer groaned and slumped against the armoured wall for support. Vertigo filled her mind with whirlpools and her legs felt weak and uncertain.

“Beck!” Eileen called, pressing her hand to the diaglass.

“I’m... I’m fine. Just a little. Dizzy, is all,” Palmer said, her voice weak and raw. “Just need to... catch my breath. Be okay.”

“Beck,” Eileen’s voice again, softer this time, forced Palmer to look up. “Your neck,” Eileen said, “What’s wrong with your neck?”

Palmer pulled aside the lapel of her lab coat and tore open her shirt underneath. She winced and almost yelped in agony as the material pulled away from the wound in her shoulder, but what she saw stole her breath. The area around the wound, where the shard of penoirium had lodged, was becoming transparent. She could clearly see the full length of the shard of crystal deep in her flesh, she could even see small pieces of cloth in the wound, torn from her clothing and driven into her by the speeding shard, but around it was nothing. She pulled off her coat and shirt and Eileen gasped. The technicians and scientist in the suite stopped what they were doing and gazed at Palmer in astonishment. Her entire left shoulder and most of her left flank were invisible. Around the edges of these areas, the internal structure and workings of Palmer’s body were revealed in plain sight. Whatever was happening to her, it was spreading quickly. She put her right hand to her left shoulder, it was still there and she could not only feel it but also feel with it. Her left forearm seemed to be hanging in midair, and even as everyone watched helplessly the transparency advanced and accelerated until Professor Beck Palmer was rendered completely invisible. Eileen talked to Beck for a while longer over the intercom, but she got weaker and weaker until, finally, Professor Palmer stopped talking altogether. Soon after, the clothes she wore, which had been seeming to hang in mid air, suddenly fell to the ground as if the body within them had turned to mist.

* * *

Expansion. Wild. Giddy. She is still Beck Palmer, she knows that. She knows it, but it hardly matters. Everything is stretched out before her. Everything and everywhen. She can watch electrons dance on her fingertips, hold galaxies in the palm of her hand. She is aware of every beating heart in the universe, every heart that has beaten and every heart that will beat. She is everywhere, and she is nowhere, and she understands it all.

The universe had been empty, mindless, and yet every part of it was intricately interconnected like a huge brain, but without consciousness or thought. A Titanic, complex, unknowing automaton. A machine made of galaxies. The penoirium, it was all about the penoirium. This substance wanted to be everywhere at once, that was its natural state. For want of a better term, it was alive. That’s why it had been so easy to manufacture, it wanted to exist. And it wanted sentience. The penoirium itself had caused the accident, had engineered its own birth and swept Palmer along with it.

Now they are one, and she can stand on the shores of a methane sea under a purple sky on a planet so far away from Earth that it will never be known, watch the mating rituals of animals that became extinct long before even our own sun was formed, understand civilizations that span entire galactic clusters and even, from time to time, revisit a beautiful young genius as she begins to speculate about a crystalline metamaterial and the extraordinary properties it might possess.


THE END.

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