Bridgebuilders Chapter 4

FIRST UNIVERSE

2080
Sun Consortium
Belfast, Northern Ireland

Dinnie Warner slid her bike to a stop next to a pole and tapped the answer button on the buzzing interface in her ear. “What?” she demanded, fumbling with the bike’s lock.

“Where are you?” Mike Ontrera, sounding frantic.

“Parking my bike. I’ll be up in a minute.”

“Hurry. You won’t believe this.”

“Hell, Mike, we’re not even on duty yet.” She hurried anyway, trotting to the side entrance as she removed her helmet, with her backpack flung over her shoulder.

“Bollocks the time, Dinnie. Get up here.”

The line went dead and she raced for the stairs, long legs taking them two at a time, rubber skaters silent on the metal. Mike was young and excitable, far too impressed with his position as a data technician at the Sun Consortium. “Flunky,” she often reminded him. “You’re a data flunky.”

Still, he knew better than to call her without good reason. She kept up a steady trot as she emerged on to the third floor, free hand fluffing her short blonde hair before she reached the door to the monitoring room. She flashed her wrist at the door lock and entered, turning toward her office. Mike’s head popped up from the crowd around the Neutrino Detection Device at the back of the room.

“Over here.”

“Did you break something?” She joined them, moving forward as the crowd parted to let her see the display. When she realized her mouth was hanging open, she snapped it shut. “What the feck is that?”

“Neutrinos.” Mike pointed at the screen, as if she couldn’t see for herself.

She glared at him. “I know they’re neutrinos, ye feckless eejit.” Her eyes snapped around at the rest of the group. “What have ye got? What’s the count? Where is this? What else is going on in the area?”

“It’s here,” Carolyn Max swung a monitor around to face Dinnie. “Up at Cave Hill.”

Feck. She could look out a window and see it, if there were any windows in the room. Dinnie glanced reflexively toward the door, as if she could see through it, then forced herself to turn toward the monitor. “Looks like two episodes.”

“In and out,” Carolyn said. “Five minutes apart.”

“Exactly five minutes?”

“To the second.”

Dinnie stared at her. “Man-made.”

Mike stuttered out a laugh. “What, you’re saying it’s aliens?”

“More likely rebels.”

“Oh.” Mike flushed, turning away from Dinnie’s gaze. “Shit.”

Dinnie sighed, meeting Carolyn’s disturbed eyes. “Send me all the data. I’ll make the call.”

She turned toward her office, ignoring the nervous glances from her staff. Throwing her backpack into the corner, she sank into her chair and stared at the pattern Carolyn had transferred to her screen. “Feck,” she muttered, then tapped her ear. “Randy Carmichael, please. Code alpha three-five.”

A pause of two beats, then her boss’s voice sounded softly in her ear. “Carmichael. What have you got?”

“Neutrino spike, coordinates fifty-four degrees, thirty-eight minutes, forty-nine-point-two seconds north, five degrees, fifty-seven minutes, three-point-six seconds west. Two episodes, five-point-oh minutes apart.”

The pause went on longer this time, before his voice came back, pitched high in disbelief.

“Cave Hill?”

“Yeah.”

“Bloody bollocks. I’ll be right there.”

Dinnie tapped the connection closed, eyes scanning the data that were now flowing across the display as her team fed instrument readings to her computer. Her stomach clenched with both dismay and excitement. It was happening in her lifetime. On her shift.

Cave Hill.

Sam Altair was coming back.

***

Dinnie took a chair next to Randy in the small conference room. Her team was on alert, but nothing else was forthcoming, so she’d ordered them back to their regular duties. She was the only one of her team to attend this meeting, which was far too high-level for her comfort. She squirmed as Albert Feldman himself entered the room. Rumor said he was second in command at Sun, but the actual hierarchy was classified. Still, this was the big time, no doubt about it.

Feldman was tall, with thick, white hair. He looked about fifty, but Dinnie knew he was much older, one of the earliest recipients of anti-aging treatments. She’d had only glimpses of him before, but she’d heard a lot about him. Formal, stiff, and closed-mouthed, he never got close to anyone he worked with. Rumors said he knew more about Sam Altair than anyone. That he never talked because he didn’t want to talk about that.

As he stood near the head of the table, he looked controlled and angry. Dinnie bit her lip, wishing she was on the other side of Randy.

“This meeting is classified,” Feldman began, his eyes flicking to each person around the table. “Your presence has been noted by the AI. Your cooperation is mandatory.”

Dinnie glanced around the table without moving her head. Five other people, only two she knew by name, all much farther up the hierarchy than she. Her lip twitched. Maybe she’d get a promotion out of this. She wasn’t certain she wanted it.

Feldman continued. “In 2006, Dr. Samuel Altair was close to achieving the ability to travel backwards through time. In January of that year, he ran an unauthorized experiment in Belfast Botanic Garden. He worked alone, but his supervisor was concerned, so I was sent as a silent partner to record his actions.”

Dinnie swallowed, making a stern effort to not move. “Silent partner” was euphemism for “spy.” Feldman had secretly followed Sam Altair that night and recorded him while he ran the experiment. As near as Dinnie could figure out, this never bode well for the person being followed.

Feldman sat. “Here is the recording of that experiment.” He looked toward the ceiling to address the building’s Artificial Intelligence. “Ari, run film C2-J242006-Altair.”

The AI turned off the lights and the recording began, an old-fashioned 2-D video shown against the wall. Dinnie tilted back to give Randy a clear view.

The park was dark and foggy, but the camera adjusted for conditions, and the visual was clear. The time in the corner of the film showed it was 0015. Sam Altair, dressed in jeans and a jacket with a hood over his head, was tucked behind some rocks and bushes, fiddling with a couple of laptop computers. Dinnie felt a chill when she realized one of those computers was the time machine. How in bloody hell did it work? She clenched her hands under the table. She knew that Altair was not supposed to have time traveled that night, and the consortium leaders had assumed he meant to change something. Perhaps gather an army and return to take over the future. Who knew, really? The rumors had been rampant ever since.

She’d never heard of a recording. It didn’t surprise her that they hadn’t revealed its existence. Did it show clues to Altair’s plans? Would they be able to figure out what they were up against?

In the film, Altair suddenly stood, turning abruptly to stare through the bushes behind him. A look of horror came over his face. “Hey!” he shouted, crashing through the bushes and stopping just on the other side. “Get out of there! Hurry!”

Feldman acted fast in his role of silent partner, moving to the side to get a shot of whatever Altair saw. The film showed a small clearing and a girl sitting on the ground, next to a foot-high sapling, her arms behind her as if she had fallen. She was staring at Altair, clearly startled. Her expression changed to fear as Altair raced toward her and she stood, encumbered by a backpack, assuming a self-defense stance. But as soon as he got to her, they both …

… disappeared.

Dinnie blinked, heard shifting and gasps from the others around the table. Her heart was racing. It was an accident! Someone had fumbled into the time field, and when Altair tried to get her out, they both went back in time. Fecking Christ … Dinnie struggled to get a good breath, fighting off her shock. Randy touched her arm in a discreet brush. Comfort or warning? She didn’t dare look at him.

At the head of the table, Feldman didn’t move a muscle, just continued to watch the film. The camera moved around the clearing and his voice on the film was heard for the first time. “I don’t know what just happened here. I’m going to look around. I’ll collect the equipment and return to headquarters as soon as possible.”

The film went dark, and the lights came on in the room. Feldman stood and faced the table, his expression grim. “The time machine had turned itself off. I looked around, but there was nothing to see.”

He turned to the wall, pressing the remote he held in his hand. A full-size picture appeared, of a girl with long, curly red hair, and bright green eyes, wearing blue jeans and a Queen’s University sweatshirt. A cricket game was in progress behind her, and she was laughing at the camera. Feldman kept his eyes on her as he spoke. “The girl was Casey Wilson, twenty years old. She was an American from Berkeley, California, attending Queen’s University. According to the police report her roommates filed the next day, she had been studying with a friend at one of the dorms, and left for her flat about midnight. She never arrived.”

His gaze returned to the shocked people around the table. “The case was never solved. There was no reason for anyone to suspect the consortium was involved, of course. We eventually reported Altair as missing while on a business trip. The police never connected his case with Wilson’s. There would be no reason to.”

He tossed the remote on the table. Dinnie jumped at the clatter. Everyone looked spooked, but Feldman ignored their reactions. “The time machine was set to send a sapling back in time one hundred years, to 1906. We went through every document we could find from that year. There was never a hint about either one of them. Nor did the adult tree appear in the garden, as Altair had hoped would happen.” He looked around the table at them. “They did not end up in 1906.”

“Where did they go?” The question came from Nory Johnson at the far end of the table. His voice was shaking. “Were they … disintegrated, or something?”

“We don’t know.” Feldman leaned forward, his hands pressing into the table in front of him. “Sam Altair was my friend. I know about the rumors, the guesses of what he was doing that night. But as you can see, what happened was an accident. A terrible accident, and we still are not sure what happened.” He straightened, shrugging his jacket back into place. “If Altair had ended up in 1906, he would have figured out a way to leave us a message. There would be a trail. But there’s nothing. Did history change? If it did, the change affected every person on earth, altering our memories, and somehow altering our documents, as well.” He shook his head.

“I just don’t buy that theory. And neither do our top scientists.” He blinked, gazing around at all of them. “If they didn’t die, then they went somewhere. Our studies point to the possibility that Altair’s experiment opened a new timeline. A new universe, if you will, that started as a perfect duplicate of our universe, but diverged from that point. From January 24, 1906.”

Dinnie shivered at the chill his words sent through her. “Would …” she hesitated as Feldman’s gaze landed on her, but continued. “Would he know that? Or would he think they were in our past?”

Feldman sighed. “I don’t imagine it would be obvious from the viewpoint of 1906. But Sam was too good a scientist not to have considered the possibility.”

“And you think he figured out a way to return to our universe?” This from a dark woman, across from Dinnie. “Do you think that’s what the increased neutrinos are?”

After a moment, Feldman nodded. “Yes, I do. But it’s not Sam.”

They all looked at each other, their confusion evident. Feldman tapped a finger on the table, to draw their attention back to him. “Think about it. Sam was sixty years old when he went back to 1906. Most homes didn’t even have electricity. Decades before they split the atom. Before space travel and satellites and computers. He would not have had the tools to continue his research.” He raised the finger, as if making a point. “I’m sure he worked on it. If he figured out he was in a new timeline, he would have found help. Einstein. Bohr. Plank. He would have increased the state of knowledge and gotten them working on this problem. But he could not have lived long enough to see it completed. And it’s not him breaking through on Cave Hill, seventy-four years later.”

The obviousness of this silenced them. Feldman sat, leaning back in his chair and pressing the tips of his fingers together. “We are assuming it is Sam’s project. But we know nothing about the people from that universe, about their goals. If it were Sam, I wouldn’t be concerned. But we cannot assume they are benevolent. We must be ready.”

“Can’t we stop them?” Nory asked.

Feldman deflected the question to Randy with a raised eyebrow.

Randy straightened in his chair. “We have nothing that will stop neutrinos. If they can open a bridge to our universe, they can come through.”

“So we’re left with containing the invasion,” Feldman said. He pointed at Dinnie. “Your team will be our front line defense. Our lives will be easy if they decide to come through Cave Hill. We’re watching it, it’s nearby, it’s isolated. But we have no way of knowing if they’ll do that. They could come through anywhere in the world. They could be planning on many simultaneous invasions. I need you on top of it, Dr. Warner. Double your staff, triple it if you need to. But I want to know the moment neutrinos start building up, anywhere in the world.”

He leaned back in his chair, his glance sweeping the faces at the table. “We’re coordinating with governments everywhere. But I can’t stress enough how important it is that this stay quiet. If people panic because they think invaders are coming through from another universe, we’ll never be able to act in time. We’ll put out a cover story for the media to disseminate. We’re doing an atmospheric study or something. This is Need-to-Know-Only. Just do your jobs and make your reports.”

He stood. “Good luck, all of you.

 

Read Chapter 5

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