When the probe vanished from the floor of Cave Hill’s biggest cave, Sam decided his shaky legs would not hold him upright much longer. He sank to his knees, flicking an anxious glance toward CERBO. The digital timer counted down the mission time.
Four minutes, 55 seconds … 54 … 53 …
CERBO was by far the most promising of Sarah’s bridge machines. The tablet-sized prototype did not look as impressive as its name, but Sam considered that a positive feature. They needed something light and unobtrusive.
A ray of sun shone through the cave entrance, as if to spotlight the probe’s empty space. A few lanterns lit the rest of the cave, scattered on rocks around the room. They cast enough light to reveal the volcanic walls, and the dusty ground littered with rocks and equipment.
Sam heard a nervous swallow behind him, and his lips twitched in empathy. Sarah was just as anxious as he was. Jamie stood on the other side of Sam, keeping as still as the rocks around them. Jamie was a Nobel laureate, and one of the topmost physicists in the world, but even he was apprehensive about this experiment. That was understandable. All of Jamie’s career, all his life, had led to this point: returning to the original timeline from which their world had sprung.
The first Sam Altair had worked for years in this new world, and had trained Jamie to continue his work. He wanted to understand what had happened when he and Casey traveled back through time.
Sam—he refused to think of himself as “the second Sam”—squinted his eyes against the headache he always got when he thought about it. Casey Andrews had brought him into their work eight years ago, just after he’d earned his PhD in physics in 1972. The time travel work had been kept secret, restricted to a handful of researchers and technicians, all of them employed by the Freedom Technological Consortium, which the first Sam Altair, along with Albert Einstein, had started in 1912.
Now in 1980, only five people in the world, Sam, Sarah, Jamie, and their two assistants back at the lab, knew that their world was a divergence from the original history of the universe. In the original universe, the shipbuilder, Thomas Andrews, had died in 1912, drowning when his famous ship, RMS Titanic, sank after hitting an iceberg. In this world, Casey and Sam had met Tom, and set out to prevent the accident. Casey had married Tom, one of many changes they made to history. They were successful in saving his life, and the lives of many others, although they had not been able to keep the ship from sinking.
Tom Andrews was one of two people in the early 20th century who knew about the time travel. The other was Albert Einstein, who spent many years working with the original Sam. He helped teach Jamie, who learned of the secret when he was twenty years old. It was Casey’s request that they find a way back to the original universe, a debt she felt Sam Altair—it didn’t matter which Sam Altair—owed her. The debt was not to go back and prevent their travel through time, but to go back and let her parents know what happened to her.
One minute and 14 seconds …
Sam chewed on his lip as he watched CERBO’s timer. He thought it was a mistake to try this. But Casey had worried all her life, knowing how her parents must have suffered when she disappeared. It was the only way to give her peace, Jamie said. They had to try.
Sam remembered how fascinated he had been at the beginning, as he read through the secret journals kept by all of them. The journals had explained much about the astonishing scientific advances of the 20th century. Sam’s Consortium was a mix of business and science, where the brightest and best competed to develop the infrastructure Sam needed to continue his own work. He was not careless about this. He built his consortium into a world-wide powerhouse, introducing the technology of the 21st century into this early time, and turning the world toward what he called “sustainable” methods of power and agriculture.
This was all good, as far as the young Sam was concerned. It was the history of his world, and he was content with it. But he was not comfortable with Casey’s request. There were so many ways it could go wrong. At the very least, the political climate of the first universe could be volatile. But that wasn’t what bothered him the most.
He didn’t want to create another alternate universe. Returning to the first timeline would not do that. But once there, Casey wanted Sam to travel back to 2006 and pay a visit to her parents in Berkeley. It was this backward travel through time that created new universes. The neutrinos had to alter their shape to compensate for the stress. It was all very simple and elegant, once you understood what was happening.
Sam had no desire to play God.
But he couldn’t deny Casey, either. He’d read her journals. Her writing was permeated with memories of her parents, her father’s dry humor and wisdom, her mother’s stubborn liberalism and community work as a physician for women. Casey brought them into her life in as many ways as possible, from the names of her children, to her own work in the suffragette and peace movements. Her journals were filled with frequent references to “Dad would say …” She once told Sam that she still had the habit of stopping to think about how her father or mother would handle a situation, using that as her cue.
It occurred to him that it would be an honor to meet them.
It all hinged on this experiment. Sam blinked, noticing the timer was down to forty-five seconds. Had the probe crossed into the alternate universe? Would it reappear, as Sarah’s programming directed? Or had they made an error somewhere, and the probe had disintegrated?
What if there had been people in the area as the probe appeared? It looked just like the other rocks scattered around the cave, but if someone saw it appear out of nowhere …
What if the probe appeared in the same spot someone was standing? What if the GPS algorithms were buggered, and the probe ended up in the cave wall?
Sam held his breath, unable to look away. He felt Sarah’s hand tremble on his shoulder. Jamie stood still, a dignified statue.
If Sam had blinked, he would have missed the moment of return, so quiet was the probe’s sudden appearance. It took Sarah’s gasp to make him realize the probe was not a figment of his anxiety. He stood, then jumped in surprise when Jamie thrust a fist into the air and yelled, “Whoo! It worked!”
Sarah laughed, holding onto Sam’s arm and swinging past him to hug her uncle. Sam’s cautious malaise vanished, leaving him giddy as he joined the others, slapping Jamie’s back, kissing Sarah, all of them laughing with a timorous trace of hysteria that proved their anxiety.
They turned to the probe as their celebration slowed. It rested on the ground, a rock of the same basaltic material as the rest of the cave. Only the closest examination would reveal its electronic center. They gathered around, staring at it with some apprehension. Sam glanced over at the computer, to see that it was merrily flipping through the data streaming from the probe. He let it work, accessing just the basic probe parameters. Temperature and radiation were normal. The collected neutrinos had all vanished, converted into the energy used to bridge universes.
“Can we take it back to the lab?” Sarah asked.
Sam shrugged. “Sure. Everything looks normal.”
“Did it go … there?” she asked. “Did it really work?”
Jamie shook his head, his brows lowered as he stared at the probe. “We’ll have to run tests, Sarah. Look at the video, at least.”
“I know.” She was staring at the probe, her face a pale light in the cave’s gloom. When she glanced up, Sam thought she looked afraid. “Let’s get it back to the lab.”
“That’s all you have to say, Uncle Jamie?”
The old man shook his head. He started to speak again, but stopped. Then he said, “Blimey.”
Sarah gave in to a tight smile. She stood between Sam and her uncle, staring at the monitor. She couldn’t blame Uncle Jamie for his shock. The video proved beyond doubt that the probe had been somewhere different. The hills and valleys showed that it was Belfast. Yet the geography also revealed the biggest difference. The shoreline was much further inland, with water reaching as far as Ormeau Park. Most shocking to the three of them was the absence of Queen’s Island. Harland & Wolff Shipyard was completely gone. Nearby, there was a huge crater near the first cave, as if a meteor had fallen.
“Or a bomb,” Jamie said.
It was impossible to see details of the city from their hideaway on Cave Hill, but the familiar layout was intersected by tall walls that divided the city into separate sections. There was no spaceport.
There seemed a general air of desolation about the place. Houses and other buildings spread out as far as they could see, but they looked deserted and broken. In some places, roads appeared overgrown, as grass and bushes reclaimed them. Sam whistled.
“Why would they desert the suburbs? Where did everyone go?”
“Why is the city divided like that?” Sarah stared at the walls, disturbed.
Jamie touched her shoulder. “Mum and Sam told us about the Troubles, remember? Sam said there were times when Belfast was a war zone.”
“But,” Sarah waved a hand at the screen, “the Troubles happened a hundred years ago for them. I mean, the Belfast we’re looking at is a hundred years ahead of us, right? It’s 2080 over there.”
“We’re assuming that,” Sam said.
She shook her head. “I expect cities of the future to look clean and fancy, with flying cars and big, shining buildings. This place looks … old. Grungy.”
They were silent for a troubled minute as the video finished and started over. The camera had been filming throughout the experiment, but it showed nothing of its actual trip through time. There was only the countdown to show them anything had happened, plus the fact they knew the probe had vanished before their eyes. But the cave on the video remained the same as the camera scanned 360 degrees, before the probe rose from its spot and floated toward the cavern entrance. Cave Hill itself seemed the same, except for that crater. But as the camera panned across the valley, bringing into view the closer shoreline and the walls, Jamie sighed and sat down.
“Sam left sketches of the Belfast he remembered. He did mention the city was divided, but not to this extent. You know that reconciliation was the project that he and Mum and Dad spent most of their lives on. Perhaps in the other timeline, without their intervention, things just got worse and worse. Maybe the two sides never stopped fighting.”
Sarah glanced at her uncle. “He said they’d made progress in the original timeline. But it doesn’t look like it lasted.”
“There could be other reasons for it,” Sam said. “We can’t speculate from one five-minute video.”
Jamie nodded. “We have other data. Let’s see what they tell us.”
The news wasn’t good. Sarah grew more disturbed as atmospheric data revealed high levels of pollutants, and soil data showed prodigious amounts of lead, mercury, and even too-high traces of radioactive particles.
“Did they have a nuclear war?” she asked, her dismay evident.
Sam squeezed her hand. “No, lass. The city would probably not be there, in that case. It could be industrial pollution. There’s only a trace amount, and your grandmother said they were careless with their waste.”
The probe recorded a temperature of minus six degrees Celsius, cold even for Northern Ireland in March. “Doesn’t look like global warming,” Sarah muttered, but Jamie shook his head.
“There are any number of scenarios possible with global warming. A better term is climate change. Sam and I talked about it a lot before he died. One very possible problem is that with the melting of the glaciers, salinity levels in the ocean plummet. This could cause the Gulf Stream to slow or even stop. Without its influence, Great Britain and Europe could freeze over, at least in the early years of warming. I’m disturbed to see it’s as cold as it is.”
“Sam …” Sarah started to say, then tightened her lips.
“What, love?” Sam reached for her hand, rubbing her fingers.
She didn’t look at him, not really wanting to make this suggestion. “Grandma wouldn’t want us to go if it’s too dangerous in that timeline. Maybe we should not do it.” She said it in a rush, hoping Sam would veto her. Hoping that he had reassurances about the possible dangers.
He didn’t say anything for a minute, and she still didn’t look at him, although she felt the glance he shared with her uncle over her head. Then he nodded, and she held her breath.
“I’ll keep it in mind, Sarah. I’d need evidence of more danger than just some pollution and cold weather, though.”
“There’s the coastline.”
“Aye, the water’s risen, as we feared it might. But you need to remember that the plan is not to stay long in 2080. We’ll be going right on to 2006, to find Casey’s parents.”
Sarah raised her eyebrows. “Right. To 2006, which we know was filled with terrorist attacks and wars everywhere.”
He pulled her into a hug. “Let’s send another probe, sweetheart. We need more data.”