Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Book 5, 25: Flux Capacitor!

It seemed like a pretty trippy book when I read it as a kid, but the extract in the Wikipedia article is blech. Speaking of old science fiction and wiki, here's the article about Bussard ramjets. 

Monkey Tree.

Book 5, 25: Flux Capacitor!

Someone, a long time ago, had a very nice plan for this neighbourhood. He, because he was probably a “he,” had worked for the university, Charlotte was sure. Back when it was mainly about teaching rich girls to be nice. And he’d thought that here, just between the campus and the highway, there should be a community centre, with a high school and a park with a field, and across the street, a historic church. You had to wonder how the church came to be next to a Denny’s, though. Maybe the bishop sold some land? 

Also, crammed in between the centre and the edge of the university campus, the elementary school. That part was not so nice. Kids shouldn’t be right next to the Institute for Advanced Studies that the university had grown, back some time in the early 1950s when there were mad scientists everywhere, and the university had probably figured, “Hey, we already have the mad scientist, maybe he can be a centre of excellence and attract more!”

‘Cuz that’s what they said. “Centre of excellence.” Charlotte was just fifteen, and she knew that.

On the bright side, as long as they didn’t get run over walking across the tracks, they could just schlep over to the Institute and talk to Professor Brown, no car pooling needed. 

It was kind of fun, just out walking in the snow with her buds. Dora and Twelve were walking all into each other, arms over shoulders, leaning together. Brian was bustling, letting his hair down and embracing the gay stereotype, doing a hilarious routine about the Kardashians. Which was fine, as long as he didn’t make any more cracks about the Two Taylors. Rose was laughing sweetly, making Charlotte a little jealous that her own laugh was more whoop than bell. 

And Bruce, well, Bruce was Bruce. That is, until he started singing. “School days, school days, good old Golden Rule Days.”

Charlotte punched him.

“What was that for?” He asked, all wounded innocence, rubbing his shoulder in exaggerated discomfot.

“Monkey tree?”

“I don’t think so,” he answered. “You’re just jealous of my good old school spirit. How long has it been since you’ve been back to ol’ Israel Pemberton, Junior Elementary? Best years of our lives, Char Char.”

“First, I was there for the Christmas concert a month ago. And so were you. Second, I spent all of six months at Pemberton. I still get it confused with a town in British Columbia, you know. Third, you’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Yeah,” Bruce said. “I’m kidding you. For some reason, you’re upset that my Dad invited me away yachting this weekend. I don’t know what business it is of yours, anyway. Say,” he continued, in his changing-the-subject tone. “Can you believe that place started out as my Great-Grand-Dad’s clinic?”

The Institute for Advanced Studies was across a wide parking lot from Israel Pemberton, and most of its bulk was opposite the field behind the school, and not the building itself. But it still loomed over the campus. It was the only building Charlotte knew that reminded her of a real world Library of Babylon, a sprawling mass of annexes and extensions, each in a different architectural style, all spreading out from the original, Victorian brownstone mansion in which Dr. McNeely had first treated the sick, and later tried to create super-soldiers for the U.S. Army.

Probably should have started out treating himself, Charlotte thought. She still couldn’t believe that Doctor McNeely had stolen her Aunt Yilling’s body, and kept it stashed there for eighty years. Well, kept it stashed there until he died in 1955, anyway. The rest was kind of on the Institute.

“Billy says we have an appointment with Doctor Brown in fiteen minutes.” Rose said, abruptly.

Charlotte still couldn’t see anything close to ground level of the Institute. Not surprising with all the trees and hedges that lined the streets around here. But Rose would have scouted the grounds already, and she’d know.

Sure enough, Charlotte’s phone pinged.

Billy: W R U

Charlotte: Xing Tracks. B there in 5. 

Which they were. Billy was waiting at the front entrance, wearing a jean jacket and Levis over his beaten-up old cowboy boots.

“You’re wearing that to an interview?” Dora asked. Charlotte elbowed her, lightly. It was okay to think it. . . She’d worn a super-serious charcoal grey cardigan over a white top, and the red, knee-length skirt she’d chosen for Chinese New Years, which looked a lot less festive with the “I r science nerd” sweater. Or so Charlotte hoped.

She pulled down her hoodie. “Is the hair too much?” She’d pulled it back, because nothing said serious like a pony tail.

Bruce put a foot on the bottom stair of the concrete risers leading up to the front entrance of the old mansion, before looking back. “I, unh, I. Were you asking me? Because I, uhm. . .”

Brian looked back. “What 007 here is trying to say is that you look awesome, Char Char.”

“Totally awesome,” Billy agreed. 

Dora twitched a cheek at her, so that only Charlotte could see it. Dora thought that Billy had a crush on her, which Charlotte thought was Dora being wacky, but which would be super-awkward if true. 

Then they were inside the office, which was the entrance hall of the mansion, with staircases on either side, and a big, plush space with an oriental rug thrown down, with a pattern that sort of led to a big, polish, fancy wood reception desk with a computer and two monitors on it, and a nice-looking middle-aged lady sitting in it like it was still the 1970s.

“Billy!” She said. “So good to see you! Are they treating you well at school? How is your apartment working out?” She got up, came around the desk, headed straight for Billy like she was getting ready to do something all Mom-ish and embarrassing. Billy held up his hands.

“Ah, good to see you, Mrs. Zlotny. I’m sorry I haven’t been around much, but college has been so busy, and then there’s my friends’ research.”

“Ah, your friends.” Mrs. Zlotny was wearing compounds, so she couldn’t actually look down over her bifocals at the gang, but Charlotte was getting the vibe. “Come for another roughhouse in the labs?”

Charlotte wanted to protest that that had been her brother and his team, but it wasn’t like this was the first time she’d been blamed for her brother’s messes. Besides, chances were, that was exactly what they were going to do. They’d go see Dr. Brown, and he’d be working on a giant death robot or be possessed by an Old Red Aeon demon or whatnot. So, instead, she said, “We’re just here to interview Dr. Brown for the school paper.”

“Really, all six of you? That should be quite something!” Mrs. Zlotny went around her desk, and Charlotte wondered if they’d fooled her at all. Between superheroes, federal agents, ambassadors, alien emissaries, time travellers and more, Mrs. Zlotny had to be used to odd people walking through the Institute doors and demanding to see one or the other staff member. 

She seemed nice, but she was the receptionist for the Institute, and the Institute had had to pave the front lawn out front after one of its grad students had created a man-eating plant monster on it as part of her PhD defence, only to have it sucked through a breach in the fabric of reality by a malfunction in another project. Good thing it had just been a coverup for her work on the Apocalypse Plague, or she might have had to stuck around for a year and revise her thesis! Having Kumi around was bad enough. Charlotte couldn’t even imagine what it would be like if her mother were poking her nose into her brother’s life.

“Ah. I see that Doctor Brown is expecting you. You will all have to sign these waivers and read this FAQ about hazard signs, and I hope you have permission slips from your parents and/or legal guardians?”

Charlotte put her slip down on the desk, with Uncle Henry and Auntie Ma’s signed confirmation that they understood that just being in the Institute constituted acceptance of risk of being marooned in the Microverse, or having your improbability enhanced out of existence. 

Amongst other negligent injury cases currently pending, Rose said.

“Very good, very good,” Mrs. Zlotny said after gathering them up. “Please do not keep Dr. Brown past his allotted time. He is very busy, and under a great deal of stress, and he really should not be wasting his energies on a high school project.” She managed to sniff in everyone’s direction except Billy’s.”

She paused. “Billy? Have you ever been in Dr. Brown’s lab?”

Billy Tatum shook his head.

“It’s in the Physics Wing. That’s down the corridor to B Tower, through the blast doors, to your left, down the next corridor, second lab on the right. Billy will show you. Please don’t forget to reset the airlocks, and mind the hazard signs. They’re not for show. Except Dr. Mignola’s “Cognitive Hazard” sign. That’s a joke. All the Cognitive Hazard areas are in the Neuroscience wing. Well, most of them.”

Mrs. Zlotny wasn’t kidding about the air locks. They even had the little windows so that you could see the other side, although unfortunately there was no vacuum so you couldn’t space anyone, no matter how annoying they were.

“I’m not annoying,” Bruce protested.

“Everyone’s annoying, now and then,” Charlotte said.

“Look, if this is about my Dad’s trip-“

Charlotte didn’t reply. This was the third time he’d brought it up since he mentioned it that morning. She wasn’t sure why Bruce thought she was upset about it. She was also not sure why she was so upset about it, honestly. 

“I told him I wasn’t going.”

“What? Why? You love boating, and Babs is going to be there, so it won’t be just you and your Dad. Now it'll just be Babs and your Dad. She's going to be so pissed.”

“But I hate the way he springs these things on you at the last minute and just expects you to come. Plus, now he says we’ll have to leave after school tomorrow, and I’ve got some business to do on Friday night.”

“Such as?” Charlotte asked.

Bruce cleared his throat in his that’s-a-very-good-question tone.

“The investigation. Right, Bruce?” Dora said. “The investigation. He’s looking into some Shining Darkness stuff for me. Very secret. Hush hush. Need to know.”

“Which,” Charlotte pointed out, “Is everyone, now.”

Dora hit her forehead with her palm. Okay, Charlotte thought. Cover up for Bruce, Dora. I’ll figure out your little secret. She almost wished that she could sneak out and follow Bruce around on Friday, just to find out, but she was going to be kind of busy. Making out with Scout busy, if she had any say in it.

Billy stopped in front of a door, half open, with Far Side cartoons taped to the frosted glass window, like every other office that wasn’t into XKCD, Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County, or even a few Dilberts. 

“Dr. Brown?” Billy said. 

There was no sound from within. “Dr. Brown?” He repeated. Still nothing.

“Uh-oh,” Billy said. Just what Charlotte was thinking. She just hoped that Dr. Brown didn’t have a refrigerator to get stuffed into.

Billy stepped around the corner of the door. “He’s not here.”

Charlotte went up to the door and peeked around. Computers, shiny instruments, binders of paper and those fake books with their pages in rings, giant instruments with dials and stuff. Yep, typical mad scientist hangout.

Well, except for the stone altar against one window, with a beautiful, creamy, twice-life-size stone statue of an old dude with a flowing beard in a robe, holding a hammer in his left hand, and an acorn, which he was offering to the audience in the out in the outstretched palm of the right. It was arranged so that the light from the grimy skylight shone on the god.

On the altar, was a metal beaker, fuming like something out of the kind of movie they had back in 1975. 

In the corner, there was a flat platform, covered with chicken wire, with a maze of wires and stuff sticking out of holes underneath.

Behind her, Charlotte could feel her team filing into the lab. 

“What’s this?” Dora asked. She was pointing at a poster showing some kind of space ship against a starry background. Tau Zero, it read. “Poul Anderson.”

“It’s a book,” Rose said. “About a ramjet spaceship that has to keep accelerating because of an accident, so that time passes slower and slower on board, until the crew outlives the universe and sees the Big Crunch. It was nominated for the 1971 Hugo Award. But not the Nobel for Physics.”

“I’m sure that would be a sick burn if I understood word one of what you were saying, Rose,” Dora said.

“Spaceship go real fast, but not as fast as light. Time dilation happen. Einstein say. Ship is express time machine to end of universe. That actually not happen. You know, trying to explain special relativity in caveman talk is a lot harder than I thought it would be when I started that sentence,” Rose finished. 

She paused. “Try again. If you go fast, but not as fast as light, according to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, the crew of the ship will experience time passing much more slowly than people on Earth. Or anything like Earth, which isn’t going that fast. Because the dilation increases asymptotically as the ship’s speed approaches the speed of light, you can accelerate fast enough that the entire lifespan of the universe. Dr. Brown is working on a way of using exotic matter to create time dilation effects here in a lab.”

“His coffee is still warm,” Bruce said. “He was just here.”

“And his sacrificial beaker is still cold. What kind of scientist joins a stupid cult?” Twelve asked.

“Actually,” Billy said, “Take it from someone who lived his really, really long childhood in the Institute. There’s all kinds of scientists, including religious ones.”

“Yeah, but Kilburn? Seriously?” Rose answered. “I mean, that’s like when the Beatles joined that Indian guy’s cult. It’s all so, so fake. Or, I don’t know, worshipping Crom. I mean, sure, Kilburn is an actual god who actually existed, however gods existed back in the old magic days, but that was seventy thousand years ago!”

“Bruce?” Charlotte asked. 

“Yeah, about that. Look, if you want to know which businessman is secretly a supervillain and is buying the toxic waste dump that’s actually a cover for the burial place of a Nazi superweapon –which, by the way, true story—you call a detective. If you want to know how worshipping some old god got popular in Philadelphia, maybe I’m not the guy to ask. But, as far as I know, Dr. Brown started it. He put up the altar, told his graduate students about it. One of his graduate students was a teaching assistant, and put up a tiny little Kilburn altar in his office. Some of his students asked about it, and one or two out of town students became Kilburnists, and converted some friends, and now there’s two dozen twentysomething Kilburnists in Philadelphia.”

“That actually sounds like the story,” Charlotte said.

“Yeah, except for the part where I don't get it. One of them runs a meth lab, so the Philadelphia PD has been doing surveillance on them for a couple years, and I've seen the reports. They’re really not right in the head. And not in a fun way, either. The ones that went back to Maryland after they graduated are kinda okay, but the ones who are still in town and active in the cult? They need help. The police detective I talked to about it said that if were going to set up a totally not-legit cult, these are the kind of people he'd target. Which has me incredibly suspicious, and very eager to talk to Dr. Brown.”

“Who isn’t here,” Billy pointed out.

“Did he fall into his time machine?” Dora asked.

“It’s not a .. Come to think of it, it might actually be a time machine,” Rose said. “The guys at the lab that sent me back used exotic matter to make time run backwards. Dilation already makes it run  fast forward.”

“Yeah, but didn’t the lab that sent you back just end up projecting you to an alternate dimension?” Charlotte asked. 

“Well, sort of. It had latency, is how it was explained to me. It could have been an alternate dimension, then definitely became one, because of stuff I did.” 

“So,” Bruce said, “Dr. Brown’s contraption could have sent Auralia to the Old World.”

Billy ran his hand over the chicken wire of the bench/platform thing in the corner, and held up his fingers. There was a slight glisten of blood. “Or Dr. Brown.”

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