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Lateral Displacement and Practical Jokes

Work continued, but we started hitting technical snags, the worst of which was the lateral displacement problem.

At first, we'd been running most of our tests for short time periods, a few seconds or so, for the sake of convenience, so the problem wasn't immediately noticeable, but when something was transported, it didn't reemerge in exactly the same place as it left. It never moved up or down much, but it shifted sideways in a random direction that averaged six inches per hour, assuming "drunkard's walk" statistics.

We sometimes had a hard time finding a test object when it emerged in the air, and because of this, we got to sending small, Citizen Band radios as test objects. A receiver was wired up to a commercial time clock, so if the walkie-talkie emerged when we weren't there to observe it, we at least knew when it happened.

From there it was a simple matter, if nothing was broken, of using a radio direction finder to locate our vagrant test object. Later, we got to putting them in steel canisters, to protect the radios from the shock of hitting the ground.

What made this lateral displacement problem so serious was that on reemergence our test object suddenly co-existed in the same space as whatever else was there. Emerging in air killed anything alive and degraded electronic circuits something fierce. Emerging within a solid or liquid usually caused an explosion.

If we could tell exactly where something would emerge, it would be easy, or at least possible, to arrange to have a hard vacuum waiting there. But when a thing could drift a mile in a year . . . 

Well, things started getting grim. We spent more than a year trying to get a handle on the problem, making hundreds of tests and wrecking a circuit and a radio on most of them. We had test objects reemerging in the damndest places, blasting twenty trees, destroying a drill press in the shop, and blowing out Hasenpfeffer's bedroom wall, just when he was getting into his latest chick.

But eventually something useful emerged. After tediously charting the exact times and places of every departure and arrival, Ian discovered that, while the actual displacement seemed to be random, nonetheless it tracked according to the sidereal day. If you sent something at noon for (say) exactly fifteen hours into the future, leaving point A and reemerging at point B, then you could do the same thing tomorrow at 11:56 and it would go from the same point A to the same point B.

This gave us a handle on the lateral displacement problem.

The three of us celebrated by going out to a good restaurant, a seafood place since it was my turn to pick, and I had developed a taste for critters with hard skins during my years in Massachusetts. Hasenpfeffer ordered us a dozen raw oysters for an appetizer, and he and I dug into them.

Ian held back. He had been raised in a conservative, WASP household which apparently subsisted on boiled chicken, boiled potatoes, and boiled beef on Sundays. No seafoods, no foreign foods, and no spices at all.

"Come on, Ian. At least try one! They're delicious!" Hasenpfeffer said.

Ian picked one up and looked at it dubiously.

"It looks like a glob of grey snot," he said.

"Yeah, it looks funny, but it tastes strange, too," I said. "Sort of salty and slippery, since you swallow them whole. But they really are delicious, even though I can't say exactly why."

Hasenpfeffer as always was more persuasive than I was. Eventually Ian closed his eyes and slurped the little bivalve down. He had a strange expression on his face, as though he knew that somehow, another joke was being played on him.

That expression must have been where Hasenpfeffer got his clue for the stunt he pulled.

"But, but, you DIDN'T KILL IT!" he yelled. "You were supposed to kill it with your fork first, just before you ate it! It's still alive, man! My God, it'll eat your guts out! You've got to kill the damned thing before it perforates your intestines and kills you! Here, quick, drink this!"

And with that, Hasenpfeffer handed our terrified friend a large bottle of Cajun Hot Sauce, something that Ian had never seen before, let alone tasted. And before I could stop him, the little fellow upended the bottle and drank it all down at one gulp.

Ian had never even eaten a taco, so I'll let you imagine the results of Hasenpfeffer's sadistic stunt. It wrecked the evening, and Ian couldn't talk properly for days. I gave Hasenpfeffer a military style chewing out, once we got home, and he was pretty contrite about the whole thing. Ian just shook his head and walked out.

I saw Ian the next day, heading out to the woods behind our place. He had a four foot long one-by-six board under his arm, and was further equipped with a roll of toilet paper, one of those cardboard tubes you get when the toilet paper is used up, a plastic garbage bag, and a pair of heavy rubber gloves.

"Not meaning to invade your privacy, you understand, but just what in the hell are you up to?" I asked.

He looked at me and smiled. He gestured to his throat, as if to say he couldn't speak, and continued on his way, leaving me standing there.

A week later, he was sitting at the kitchen table with the same rubber gloves on. Ian had always been an incredibly neat person, and the table was now covered with neatly aligned newspapers. He was carefully unrolling an oversized roll of toilet paper, taking out hundreds of now-dried poison ivy leaves, and dropping them carefully into a lined trash container. He then rerolled the paper on another cardboard tube, and was doing so neat a job of it that it looked like a brand new roll, even though it had soaked up a deadly oil from the green and red leaves.

I shuddered to think about what this meant, but again I had brains enough not to get involved.

The next day, Hasenpfeffer developed a terrible rash on his ass, and his current lady friend went home carrying her underpants in her hand, never to be seen again. She was angry, and muttering something about V.D.

Venereal diseases were nearly nonexistent in the early seventies, having been almost wiped out accidentally by doctors who were handing out antibiotics for everything from head colds to sprained ankles. Of course, at the time, nobody knew that, and government ads still harped about how deadly V.D. was.

I found Jim lying naked on his stomach in bed, with his legs spread. I told him that it didn't look like any sort of V.D. that I'd ever seen, and suggested that a trip to a dermatologist might be appropriate.

The doctor insisted that it was poison ivy, even though Hasenpfeffer insisted that such a thing was impossible. One shot cleared the problem up, though, and you can't argue with success.

Except, of course, that the next day, having perforce used his toilet and toilet paper again, he had a relapse. I drove him back to the same doctor, who gave him another shot, and warned him to launder everything he owned, and especially anything his butt might have touched.

For eight days, each morning I drove Hasenpfeffer to the doctor, who was becoming increasingly agitated. I can't begin to describe Hasenpfeffer's mood, except to say that it involved a lot of raw hate, with a suicidal backdrop.

It was time to talk to Ian.

"And you are positive that he has now suffered more than I did?" Ian said.

"Absolutely. That poor boy now knows suffering like the way he knows how to talk a chick into bed."

"Well, perhaps I could remove the toilet paper from his john in a day or two."

"Do it now. Please."

"But . . ."

"Now, or I'll tell Hasenpfeffer the cause of his troubles."

"So now it's threats, is it?"

"Not really, but look. I've let you have fair vengeance for what he did to you. But enough is enough! End this thing, before he figures out that all of his pain, and his last girl friend's pain, has been deliberately caused by you!"

"I did not deliberately hurt her. That was an accident."

"It was rank carelessness on your part, and as an engineer, you should have planned more carefully. Anyway, when Hasenpfeffer finds out that you pulled this on him, he will retaliate, and whatever his response is, it is sure to be much worse that an ass full of poison ivy. And you know full well that after he does that, you'll do something even worse to him. In time, this thing is likely to escalate until one of you is dead."

"You think it would actually go that far?"

"Yeah. I do."

"Well, okay. You talked me into it. I'll do it now while he's still gone. The roll's nearly empty, anyway."

So, thanks to me, they didn't kill each other, the three-way partnership didn't self-destruct, and time travel would still have a chance to be invented.

* * *

I'd spent a lot of time mulling over the problem of going backward in time. Since I couldn't handle more than three dimensions in my head, I started by imagining two of the ordinary ones out of existence. This left me with a one dimensional string, or sometimes it was a line on a piece of paper. Then, I could imagine the fourth dimension, time, as being like an infinite number of strings, lying one beside another. Well, I can't really think in infinities, either, but call it a large number of strings.

Each second that goes by, a zillion or so new strings are laid down. Now, the strings that will go onward into the future don't exist yet, so it isn't hard to take the NOW string and push part of it in that direction. It lands ahead of everything else, and waits there (can I really say that?) until the rest of the world catches up with it.

At that time, the now and the transported thing may or may not interact, depending on whether or not there was any matter at that time and place in the now.

On the other hand, all of the strings that lie behind the now string still exist. You can't go straight backward because the space behind you is all filled up. Maybe that could explain all the extra energy we kicked up when I threw the circuit into reverse. It was like we had an infinite line of railroad cars rolling free behind us, and I was jamming on the brake. Of course things heated up!

It took me two hours to explain my admittedly fuzzy thoughts to Ian, who was less than violently enthusiastic about the concept.

"It's an interesting analogy, Tom, but that's all it is. An analogy. Analogies are slippery things, and not to be confused with reality. And even if it is a good analogy, which we have no way of knowing, where does it get us? If you are right, then we never will be able to go to the past, and I, for one, will be profoundly disappointed. I don't know if I've ever mentioned this, but the big reason why I want access to the past isn't in order to know which stock to buy, or what horse to bet on. I want to know exactly what happened, all through human history. And you're telling me that I can't do it!"

"Not quite, my friend! You can't go back there only if A) my analogy is correct, and B) we live in a four dimensional universe. That is to say, the two that I threw away, the one represented by the length of the line, and the one we like to call time."

"So? Isn't that obviously the case?"

"I don't know. Is it? All I'm thinking is that if all we've got are four dimensions, then we can't have backward time travel. But imagine if there was one more dimension. Put it at right angles to the time dimension, and hope it doesn't have any matter in it. If both those things turned out to be true, we should be able to pick something in the now lineup off the paper, move it backward however far we want, and then come back onto the paper in the past."

"Interesting. So we have to start by imagining the world was made the way it would have to be for our project to succeed, and then seeing if we do succeed to know whether it's built that way or not."

"Close, although if we don't succeed, it proves nothing. After all, our failure just could be because we're stupid. But yes, we either have to assume that success is possible in this universe, or give up."

"Put that way, it's not so farfetched, Tom. So what precisely do you think we should do next? Just how do we handle this possibly imaginary but absolutely necessary fifth dimension?"

"I think maybe that the place to start is with varying the phase angles in that part of the circuit that seemed to be trying to take us back. I mean, if a 180 degree shift took us backward, what would all the other possibilities do?"

A month later, we had an instrument canister leave and never come back anywhere or anywhen that we were aware of. Since it was only powered to be gone for a few minutes at most, we guessed that this meant that it went off sideways, and got lost there. It seemed only fair to call that a victory.

Next, we would have to arrange for a canister to swing out sideways in the fifth dimension, stop swinging, go back in time, and then swing in sideways exactly as far as we had swung out. It seemed simple enough at the time, but remember that this was happening in the early seventies, before large scale integration was more than a gleam in an engineer's eye. Before we were done, we needed two hundred pounds of computer to do the navigating, and each test had a twenty percent chance of destroying everything electronic on reemergence.

Things started getting very expensive.


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