If not for the earthquakes, we’d never feel the ground shake at all.
Still, every time, I imagine that I can feel vibrations in the earth, rumbling up through my bones and exciting every particle in my body. It seems logical. This machine dwarfs its Swedish predecessor in both size and power. And, with a combination of keystrokes, I can send two protons hurtling in opposite directions around a hundred-kilometer track buried deep beneath the Mojave soil. I steady my trembling hands and enter the code to make it happen. The rest is up to them, the scientists. My job is done.
I touch the grounding rod mounted beside the door as I exit the control room. Make contact coming and going—it’s not superstition, but sometimes it feels like it. How do you know when you’re carrying a charge? You don’t. It’s just one more invisible thing we have to believe, like Higgs-Boson and gravity. Doubt it if you want, but the consequences could dwell with you forever.
“Enjoy your week off,” a coworker says as we gather our things to head out. “Send me a postcard from Rio.”
I give her a smirk but don’t answer. Hard to tell when Garcia is talking shit. It’s safe to assume that’s always the case with her. I have no trip to Rio planned. Hell, for that matter, no vacation scheduled, either.
Or maybe I do. It’s always little things, barely noticeable details that don’t have much effect on the overall scheme of things. Once it was the color of my car. Same mess inside, just a slightly bluer blue on the outside. But a change in work schedule—now, that’s disconcerting. Worse yet, travel plans to Brazil. As always, because I am in the control room, insulated from time wave distortion when the particles scatter, I’ll be the only human alive who’s aware of any changes.
When I reach it, I eye my car with suspicion. Same slightly bluer blue, same fast food bags and candy wrappers accumulating on the passenger floorboard. If one thing will always be constant, it’s my propensity to be a slob.
I blame it on solitude. With no one around to complain about my clutter, I’m less motivated to clean it up. Last year, unmarried and unfettered by personal entanglements, I made an attractive prospect for the American answer to CERN. Bigger, better, faster, stronger—an ultra-large collider in need of staff who didn’t care about holidays, family, or even the possibility that they could be absorbed by their work, quite literally, if conspiracy theories could be believed.
My route home takes me through miles of barren desert, down a highway so straight I could lash my steering wheel in place and call it autopilot. The road undulates, ground rising and falling under my tires like swells on a calm ocean. On moonless nights, darkness in the Mojave is complete. No streetlights, no lamps burning in cozy homes. Just headlights and the stars, which seem much closer here than anywhere else on earth.
The apartment complex where I live seems quiet tonight when I pull in. I park in my usual spot and glance up at light shining through the curtains in my second-floor bedroom. Shit. I left the overhead on? So, then—not only messy, but careless. Some scientist I’d make. Good thing I stuck with IT.
Halfway up the walkway to my door I stop. This is wrong. A wave of queasy hits me, rocks me back a step. Physical sensation—blood flowing backward in my veins—it’s almost painful. It hurts all the way to the marrow of my bones.
I don’t live here.
With fumbling fingers, I drag my keys from my pocket and take a hard look. Smart key for my car—check. Locker keys for work—check. Apartment key—nope. In its place hangs a shiny brass door key to the house I own in Kern County. With my wife.
I reel backward and bump into a light post beside the walkway. My wife. Hannah, mother of our two beautiful children. She was my high school sweetheart. I can’t imagine taking a breath without her.
Memories swirl into my mind, as thick as fog rolling down from Tehachapi. It threatens my equilibrium, to the point that I grab the light post to stay upright. How could I have forgotten the most important people in my life, even for a minute? But I didn’t forget them. Not at all. I don’t even know that person who drove here from the desert without a family. I remember his life, too, all the details—but he is not me, and I can’t connect with his thoughts now, any more than I can connect with the apartment that has a door my key doesn’t fit.
I shake my head to clear it and hurry back to my car. Same car, comfortable and familiar, same trash on the floorboard. I still remember stopping at McDonalds that morning for a vanilla latte. There’s the cup, right there in the console where I left it. But the route I’d taken to get there—how could I have memories of two completely different versions of the same event? With my smart key, I crank the car before I climb inside and peel out of the parking lot as soon as my ass hits the seat.
Hannah is feeding the cichlids when I burst through the door, standing with her back to me in front of the fish tank. Light from the hood’s fluorescent bulb shines upward through her blonde hair, making the wavy strands of it glow. She turns when she hears me. I don’t give her a chance to speak. I scoop her into a hug that chokes off any questions she might ask about my enthusiastic arrival.
“If you don’t let me go, I’m going to pour this bottle of water conditioner over your head.” She taps my shoulder with it in warning, forcing her breathless words past the strength of my grip.
I loosen my arms but still hold her in front of me, smiling down at the face I could map with my eyes closed. “The kids already at your mom’s?”
Damn. I could really use a hug from them, too, right now. But they’re safe, staying with Hannah’s parents until we get back from Brazil. It’s a trip we’ve planned for more than a year, a second honeymoon. Alone time. Days blocked off our calendars to remember why we are a family.
Send me a postcard from Rio.
Damn. I hadn’t even known what Garcia meant when she said that. There has been no earthquake this time. No airbus flying through a fold in the continuum to land five thousand miles from its destination. But my entire universe has reversed polarity. True North is standing in front of me, and she didn’t even exist just three hours ago.
If the collider did this, it could undo it as well.
The thought hits like a punch, a fist to the gut. I let Hannah go and take a step back.
This happened with a keystroke. My fingers tapping it out, coding my own future. Who knows what else has changed. This is no minor aberration. This is—
Oh, God. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t go back to that place and pretend everything is as it should be. What have we all been thinking? Why hasn’t anyone theorized that one more blow to time and space could shatter everything? I can’t be the only person who’s considered the possibility. Hell, I’m not even a scientist. Just an IT guy. Surely the notion has occurred to someone besides me?
The console. Shielded. Impervious to time waves and electromagnetic disruptions, designed to protect the equipment at all costs. They don’t put a scientist in there to enter commands that operate the largest and most powerful particle smasher in the world. They put an IT guy with no family and no life. Why? Because I’m not the only person who has realized what happens every time we fire two protons around that hundred-kilometer tunnel. But more importantly, because I’m disposable.
I stare at Hannah, the other half of my soul. I don’t take my eyes off her even when I hear tires on our concrete driveway. Car doors slam and I don’t move, other than try to swallow past the knot in my throat.
What have I done to you, Hannah?
They know. Those bastards—they’ve known all along. Something fucked up, and now they have to fix it. They’ll never give me a chance to tell anyone what I have finally understood. It’ll be a week before anyone checks to see if our airline tickets were used, or if we ever made it to Brazil.
“Hannah.” I try to stop her as she heads toward the door. “Don’t.”
But the doorbell has already started ringing.