#219

“And now,” the celebrity auctioneer announced, “storage space two nineteen.”

He studied the list in front of him on the lectern.

“It says here that storage space two nineteen contains… the cure for pancreatic cancer!” He looked up at us. “I’m sorry. That’s all the information I have, except an added note to bring something to the locker to write with. Pen and paper or your laptop or smartphone.”

A ripple of laughter ran through the audience. It was a televised charity auction. I wasn’t there to make a lucky bid and win some amazing lost treasure. I just wanted to contribute to the charity. Donate. I was happy to settle for something goofy. These lockers were large enough to hold a VW bug. I didn’t really want to bid on a storage locker full of abandoned junk.

I bid high. There was no competition. I went to the back of the hall and paid and took my receipt. I now owned the contents of locker 219. My cost, above the worth of the contents of the locker, was tax-deductible. I had done a mitzvah for the charity. I went home satisfied.

In the morning, I drove down to the storage facility to claim my prize. An attendant at the front gate handed me a card key with “219” stamped on it. He showed me where the locker was located on a map in his hand. I drove into the facility. Other charity bidders were scattered here and there, opening their lockers.

I parked in front of 219. I got out and walked over to the roll-up steel door. Swiped my card key and heard a click. Rolled up the door. As it opened, I saw a pair of feet, then legs… A man standing at a device attached to the back wall. Someone right behind me cleared his throat. A red light blinked on the device. Tape on the floor marked out a semicircle around the device. The man was standing within the semicircle. Pinned to the wall next to the device was a piece of paper with the words TIME MOVES BACKWARDS INSIDE THE TAPE written on it. The man inside turned. He looked like a scholar, wearing a tweed coat. He waved, with a big smile. Turned back to the device.

“Hello?” said the fellow standing behind me. I looked over my shoulder. He was identical to the man in the locker.

I gawked.

A news crew from the TV station was gathered behind us, shooting the action. Everyone was grinning. Several applauded. The man behind me gave a little bow. The man in the locker had turned back to the device.

“Do you have something to write with?” said the man behind me.

I handed him my iPhone.

He stood, typing in text with his thumbs.

“Is that the cure for cancer you’re typing?” I said.

“As a matter of fact, it is.” He turned to the camera. It was the moment when the world changed forever.

His name was Alex Former. He taught physics and did research at M.I.T. He had a brilliant student named Kalyan Das Jain. Jain was last seen on a Monday night. Tuesday morning, when Professor Former arrived at his office at the university, he found an email waiting for him from Jain.

“Professor,” read the email, “when you receive this, come immediately to storage locker 219 at the You-Store-It site on Broden Street.”

Professor Former asked his teaching assistant to take his class. He drove over to the You-Store-It. The gatekeeper had instructions from Jain to give Former a card key and let him in. The professor found unit 219. Got out of his car. He swiped the card and rolled up the door. Inside, he saw a device attached to the rear wall. A red light winked on it. There was a semicircle of tape on the floor in front of it. The locker was otherwise empty. Pinned to the wall next to the device was a piece of paper with TIME MOVES BACKWARDS INSIDE THE TAPE written on it.

Professor Former stood staring. Suddenly, he felt a sort of wrench, as if half his substance had been plucked from him. He had an abrupt moment of second sight, as if he were walking backwards from the other side of the tape, backwards toward the device on the wall, where he now stood looking back at himself outside the tape. He waited several minutes, standing outside the tape and looking in at himself, and then stepped over the tape, into the semicircle, as, at the same time, the Professor Former inside the tape walked backwards to the tape and stepped back over it, thus merging with him. He crossed to the device. Looked back and saw himself standing there, outside the tape. He had a faint sense of himself, out there, looking in at him. He turned and waited several minutes and then stepped back outside the tape, into himself again.

Professor Former stood staring. Suddenly, he felt a sort of wrench. He had split vision, as if he were one-quarter over by the device. He waited several minutes and then stepped over the tape. He had a strong sense of himself, outside the tape, looking in at him. He understood then that he was in a time loop, going forward several minutes, then stepping over the tape and going back those same minutes, all the while divided in two. He crossed the locker and stepped back outside the tape.

Professor Former stood staring. Suddenly, he felt a sort of wrench. He felt perfectly split, as if he were half over by the device looking back at himself. In a time loop. If he stepped in over the tape, he would come back to the moment he stepped out. He did not step in. The sense of division evaporated. The space inside the tape was empty. He had broken the loop.

Kalyan Das Jain must have found himself in a similar loop, Former thought. Either he was still stuck in it, the night before, or he had broken his loop and moved forward normally again, on a different space/time track than Former himself was now on.

The professor considered stepping in over the tape a second time, but he hadn’t felt the wrench again. A wrench would signal the moment when he stepped back out over the tape. As long as he didn’t feel divided, he wasn’t traveling back on the other side while traveling forward on this side.

He returned to school in time to teach his second class. Later, he went to Jain’s apartment. The manager let him in but he found nothing of interest. He called the police and reported Jain missing. They told him to call back after the student had been gone for seventy-two hours.

He thought about turning off the device, or leaving it on but announcing its existence to the world. However, Jain had left no notes. There was no sign of Jain. What if the young student were stuck in a loop in the past and turning off the machine would doom him to remain there? Professor Former did not want to take that chance.

Two days had passed since Jain’s disappearance. Professor Former worried about what to do next, but was unable to come up with any concrete plan of action. Then, he felt the wrench and knew that he had just stepped out over the tape after coming back from the future, merging into himself somehow, returning from whenever he would step over into the semicircle in the future. He faintly sensed himself in the semicircle, which meant that he was in the first cycle or so of a loop. He sensed that he was returning from a mission. Couldn’t tell more than that. He drove down to the locker, which he had renewed in his name for another year. Rolled up the door. Saw himself in there, with his hand on the dial on the front of the device. There was a second notice on the wall: TURN DIAL TO SPEED UP.

Should he step over the tape? Why? He’d just go back to the moment the feeling started and step out again, to no purpose. He closed the door and locked it. He went home and put up with that faint feeling of otherwhereness. Ignored it as best he could. For two years.

At the end of those two years, he was diagnosed with Stage Four pancreatic cancer. Prognosis: one month to live.

Immediately, he scheduled a sit-down with Dr. Aaron Feldman, the leading expert in the Boston area for pancreatic cancer. Dr. Feldman taught and conducted research at Tufts Medical School. He met Professor Former as a courtesy to a fellow academic.

“Please tell me,” said Former, “in summary form, what you’ve worked on and what you’ve learned in the past two years. Let me take notes. Imagine that you’re telling me now what you most would have liked to know two years ago.”

Dr. Feldman obliged, with a quizzical grin. Former took notes. He memorized the notes over a period of days.

With the notes firmly in his head, Former drove to the storage locker. He opened it and entered the semicircle. He examined the device more closely than he had before. There were a dial and a counter which appeared to display seconds, minutes, hours, days, and years. He pinned a note to the wall: TURN DIAL TO SPEED UP. He turned the dial. The change rate of the display accelerated. He turned the dial some more. Soon, two years had passed on the display. He stepped out of the semicircle.

Two days had passed since Jain’s disappearance. Professor Former felt the wrench and knew that he had just stepped out over the tape after returning from the future. He clearly felt himself in the semicircle, which meant that he had gone beyond the first cycle of a loop.

When he stepped in, and made the trip again, he’d strengthen the loop and the memories of his returning half. He’d remember why he was coming back.

Two years later, he was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. Prognosis: one month to live. Immediately, he scheduled a sit-down with Dr. Aaron Feldman. He took notes and returned to the locker.

Two days had passed since Jain’s disappearance. Professor Former felt the wrench and knew that he had just stepped out over the tape. He paid attention to his thoughts in the locker. Concentrating, he was able to write down Doctor Feldman’s progress in cancer research for the coming two years. He met with Feldman and shared the key results of this progress, without telling him the source of the data. Feldman was amazed and, once he had thought through what he had learned, delighted.

Two years later, Professor Former was diagnosed with Stage Four pancreatic cancer. Prognosis: two months to live. He went to Feldman, who remembered him from his surprising visit two years earlier. Thanked Former for the help he had so mysteriously provided, and updated him. Former then memorized the data, returned to the locker, and stepped over the tape.

When he felt the wrench, two days after Jain’s disappearance, his divided self knew what he was up to. He met with Feldman and shared the key results of his next two year’s progress, without telling him its source. Two years later, his cancer prognosis: six months to live.

He repeated the process.

His prognosis: a cure was available.

When he felt the wrench, two days after Jain’s disappearance, he called the storage company and donated the contents of #219 to the up-coming charity drive. He attended the auction and saw me bid on #219 and pay for its contents. The next morning, he drove over to the facility and stood behind me as I opened the locker. Time for him to share, not just the cancer cure, but Jain’s incredible discovery as well.

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