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Demonstration Day

Written by Ian Creasey
Illustrated by Andy Hopp


"Roll up, roll up! Get your antimatter here! Gravitons, superstrings, Higgs bosons—all going cheap. Every proton has a lifetime guarantee! Buy caloric, aether, and nebulium while theories last. Special offer on orgone and vril! Dried ghosts, astrographs, universal meters. Superconductors and Bose-Einstein condensates. Athanors and alembics. Test tubes and Bunsen burners, if anyone still uses them."

I switched on Markor's Domestic Star to spotlight the stock. It had taken all afternoon to set up the booth, and I didn't want to have to take everything home again. As the scientists began walking in, I mentally assigned a sales target to each experimenter.

Pale from lack of sun, or tanned scary colors from exposure to strange rays, the early arrivals stared at each other as if they'd forgotten what other people looked like. Their expressions told of the despair of failure, or the voyeuristic exhilaration of uncovering the universe's secrets. Only a few remained unmarked, as if they'd discovered an anti-aging drug or been silently replaced by a robot they'd foolishly made in their own image. I recognized most of the arriving scientists, but one face was missing.

"Any sign of Rankin?" said Audran, who'd been browsing my stock of entangled photons.

"No," I said. "You think your device can find him?"

He looked hurt. "You saw it at Demonstration Day last year. Given the right input, it can find anything. Grab one of those tables and I'll set it up."

Let the sleuthing begin, I thought. Audran had been nagging me to stock his latest device ever since he invented it, and this would be a good test of whether it worked in the real world, as well as in carefully contrived demonstrations.

"I need something close to him," he said, returning with his laptop computer.

"That's the problem: all his personal stuff disappeared with him—notebook, everything. But we do have this." I reached into one of my cases and brought out a dead dog in formaldehyde.

He burst out laughing. "Is that the best you could do?"

"Don't laugh. Occam here was his constant companion in the lab and acted as point man in his experiments—or point dog, you could say."

"What experiments?" asked Audran, curious.

"No one knows, not even his daughter; only the dog, and he's not talking. Margaret reckons he died of a broken heart after Rankin disappeared, but I think lack of food and water might have had more to do with it. Anyway, she preserved old Occam in case her father wanted to do any tests when he returned. But he didn't come back. And so—"

"And so you called me. I still think a ten percent royalty is pitifully low."

"You'll be getting a hundred percent of nothing if this doesn't work. Do we have to take the body out and drain off the formaldehyde? I'd rather not."

"We'll try it the easy way first." Audran booted up the computer and plugged a homemade device into the back. "Got any Z-leads?" he asked.

I passed him two from my stock, making a mental note to get them back after the test. Audran clipped one end of each lead to his device and attached the other ends to the big specimen jar with sticky tape.

"Woof!" said a passing scientist. "It's alive! Run! Run, I tell you!"


I glared at him and he slunk away.

"The classical world is an illusion," said Audran, looking at the screen and typing away. "The universe is a single quantum system in which everything is connected. Nonlocal entanglements—"

"Spare me the spiel," I said. "I heard it last year."

He sniffed, annoyed at being cut off. But he shut up and typed for five minutes, without seeming to get much joy. Eventually he said, "Can you open it up? No need to take anything out; we'll stick the leads in at the top."

I didn't enjoy the task—I'm a salesman, not a vivisectionist—but after some ineffectual poking, we snagged two leads on the remaining patches of fur, and Audran said that would have to do. Then he looked at the screen and shook his head. "Nothing. Are you sure it's his dog, and not a stray?"

That wasn't worth answering, so I didn't. Audran shrugged. "I'm not getting a damn thing off it. If this dog ever had an owner, right now he's seriously unavailable. I've had livelier readings for corpses."

"Looks like you need to improve performance before worrying about a brand name," I said. I recovered my leads and wiped them clean.

"I've decided to call it the Quent," he said.

"Snappy name. Shame it doesn't work."

He looked devastated. "I don't understand what's wrong. Can we test something else?"

"I haven't got anything else that belonged to Rankin," I lied. "And I can't stock equipment that only works when it feels like it. Come back to me when it's fixed."

Audran gave me a sour look. He picked up his kit and went upstairs to stow it away, safe from the prying hands of rival scientists. Paranoid? Yes, but I remembered the chap who invented antigravity—someone got sick of him showing off, sabotaged his flying belt to stick at full power, and the inventor spent the rest of the convention glued to the ceiling.

I put the lid back on the collie, who looked sadder than ever. The sharp tang of formaldehyde hung in the air, so I zapped it with an Odor-Exploder—item #16024 in my catalog. I left the specimen jar on the table. The chances of anyone wanting to buy an ill-preserved dead dog were low, but not zero. It might be just the thing for someone's latest research. And if Rankin became angry at me for selling his late pet—well, he'd have to come back to be annoyed, and that would be worth it. I was worried about him. I'd known him for years, and he'd never been so eccentric as to disappear without telling anyone. He was a friend.

And he was one of my best customers.

Calverley had been standing by my booth, watching the attempt to locate Rankin. He had a smirk on his face, presumably satisfaction at the failure of Audran's Quent. There's a lot of competition among the inventors, and Calverley fancies himself as the top experimentalist. He likes to remind people that he's discovered five new principles, eight strange particles, and eleven mysterious forces. He even wears a white coat to the convention, when most of the others make their annual attempt at dressing up and come along in suits that smell of mothballs and year-old sandwiches in the pockets.

"Have you heard from Rankin?" he asked Vanzetti.

Vanzetti, the president of the Advanced Studies Association, was lurking by my bookshelf. "No one's seen or heard from him in months," he said. "It's very odd. Maybe he was abducted." He pulled down Kay's Field Guide to Aliens of the Nearer Galaxies and began flicking through it. I knew he wouldn't buy it, so I gave the penniless theorist my best shopkeeper's glare.

"More likely the government press-ganged him into weapons research in a secret lab somewhere." Calverley mimed a Super Blaster Ray with the enthusiasm of an eight-year-old boy, pointing the imaginary weapon at Audran, who'd just come back.

"Or maybe the Reds nabbed him," said Audran. They don't have much grasp of current affairs, these scientists.

"Perhaps he's taking the chance to break into our labs and see what we're all up to," said Calverley.

"I'd like to see him try," said Audran. "I've got my lab so protected it takes me ten minutes to get in. If anyone else tries, my ParaZap throws them into the Holding Pit." He smiled and held Calverley's gaze. "I check the pit every week or so, or whenever it starts to smell."

All this speculation seemed uninformed; I wondered if any of the speakers knew more than they were letting on. Rankin's daughter had hinted darkly at rivalries, saying he'd been worried someone else was working on the same project.

As more people arrived, conversation turned to scientific matters: the known, the unknown, and the dubious maps of the border in the Advanced Studies Journal. When acronyms and mathematics started outnumbering real words, I bought a round of drinks, hoping that this would bring the talk back down to my intellectual level. The scientists congregated in the bar, playfully spiking each other's drinks with lab alcohol, and Rankin's mysterious disappearance sparked recollections of the great experimental mishaps of old colleagues.

"Remember Hogg?" said Vanzetti. "Clever fellow—invented the Practical Angel Trap. I remember the demo as if it were only last year: never been so moved in my life. We all warned him of the consequences if he fiddled with the apparatus, but he just had to see what happened if he reversed the polarity. Next thing he knew, a swarm of demons carried him off to Hell. That's no way for a scientist to go."

Everyone shuddered. Calverley said, "Then there was Caprivi. He built a dimensional traveler, and ended up proving that the higher spatial dimensions are tiny. He came back as a red smear about a nanometer thick."

"So Rankin might have suffered a laboratory accident?" I said.

"It's possible," said Vanzetti. "Though he never struck me as being rash. He wasn't a tinkerer."

This disparaging term drew frowns from Calverley, Audran, and the other practical scientists. While the experimenters may bicker among themselves, they all gang up on the theorists.

"But there was no sign of an explosion in his lab," I said. "It looked more as if he'd been kidnaped than blown up."

Calverley turned to me. "You seem rather keen on that interpretation. Is that the sign of a guilty conscience?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that if he had an accident in his lab, it could have been the result of rash experiments—or faulty equipment."

"There's nothing wrong with my equipment," I said.

"There's the prices, for one thing," said Audran.

I ignored the price issue—it's an argument I can't win—and said, "I only sell stuff that's been properly tested and vetted. That's why I refused to stock your Quent when you couldn't get it to work."

"You can't possibly test all your stock," said Audran. "You don't know what half of it is for."

Before I could answer that, Calverley said, "I think you should tell us what equipment you sold to Rankin. Then we can test it and see if it's safe."

"Rankin asked me to keep his purchases confidential, just as you all do," I said.

"His project can't be that secret if he was planning to present it at Demonstration Day tomorrow," said Calverley.

"He might only want to demonstrate one aspect of his work. He could have several projects on the go." I looked round at all the gadgeteers and said, "How many of you want me to abandon confidentiality and let everyone know what you're buying?"

There was a swell of protest, but Calverley shouted over it. "Rankin's gone! What's wrong with a safety check?"

I laughed. "That's the most pathetic attempt at spying I've ever seen. Are you really that desperate to find out what Rankin's been doing?"

"I'd like to find out if he's been killed by your products," said Calverley.

"You want to believe that, don't you? Because if Rankin was killed by his own bad judgment, that makes you realize the same could happen to any of you. Whereas if he was killed by dangerous equipment, that doesn't reflect on him or on you, only on me—"

"—And you can be replaced," said Calverley. "We can get our apparatus elsewhere."

"But this is all supposition. There's no evidence that my supplies killed him."

"Except that you won't let us test—"

"Because his purchases are confidential—"

At this impasse, we all looked at Vanzetti. This is why the president of the Association is usually a theorist, someone neutral in these arguments.

Vanzetti said, "You're all assuming that Rankin's dead, just because no one's seen him lately. But the demonstration isn't till tomorrow—there's still plenty of time for him to arrive. Let's not worry just yet. If he turns up in the morning, we'll feel silly for having this argument."

The optimism sounded hollow. And I realized from everyone's expressions that if Rankin didn't show up, they would blame me. As the outsider, the only nonscientist at the convention, I was the easy scapegoat. They'd worry about the safety of my products, start buying elsewhere. . . .

Unless I could prove that Rankin's disappearance wasn't my fault, my business was in deep trouble.

* * *

Saturday morning looked like an advert for washing powder: the fresh white snow outside was clean and bright as a New Improved Ultra-Detergent. Inside, however, an Inferior Rival Brand had been used. There were drifts of papers everywhere, all covered with smudged equations, circuit diagrams, obscure notes, preprints of ASJ articles, and sketches of elaborate experiments. The tables were stacked with journals, books, notepads, and my equipment catalogs, all overlaid with scattered hats, scarves, umbrellas, and galoshes, not to mention miscellaneous toolkits, specimens, and devices.

In the middle of the hall, three robots were constructing houses of cards—I recalled a drunken argument last night over whose robot had the most nimble, delicate manipulators. The robots had spent all night competing to build the highest structure, using punch cards from someone's old mainframe. Three slender, elegant towers rose high above the convention detritus, the oblong holes in the punch cards looking like windows in miniature skyscrapers. Metal Boy was winning: he was busy cutting a hole in the ceiling to make room for further ascent.

I was the first real person out of bed. I don't drink, and I always get up early so that I can dispense Crabtree's Hangovercome to the scientists staggering downstairs. The morning passed in a gentle drone of conversation and brunch. I sold some equipment, and took orders and inquiries. But I wasn't as busy as I had been in previous years. After last night's safety smear, was my custom dropping off already?

Rankin still hadn't shown up, and the long gaps between customers were making me edgy. I decided that I had to break my confidentiality rule. When Vanzetti appeared, red-eyed and bedraggled—he might be a theorist, but he'd been experimenting with cocktails last night—I gave him a double dose of Crabtree for instant sobriety.

"What is it, Drake?" he said. "You know I don't buy apparatus—none of that dangerous mucking about with unknown forces for me."

"I know. That's why I want to show you something."

I turned on the Impenetro force field around my booth, giving us a private space. Then I uncapped a plastic tube containing a set of blueprints. I unrolled the largest print, and weighted each corner with my latest novelty item: a plastic bubble containing a tiny castle on a crag. As Vanzetti picked one up for a closer look, his touch sparked a lightning bolt onto the castle and a roll of thunder followed by maniacal laughter.

"For the scientist whose budget doesn't stretch to a real gothic mansion," I explained. I tactfully didn't mention that some budgets don't even stretch to lab equipment, which is one way theorists are born.

Vanzetti laughed. "You never give up, do you?"

"One day you'll buy something, even if it's only a piece of chalk. But never mind that. As I said last night, I keep all my orders in strict confidence—you know how paranoid people get about their work—but I think the circumstances call for an exception. Rankin still hasn't turned up, so he can hardly complain. As a theorist, you're not one of his direct rivals, so you're the best person I can think of to show this to."

"But I thought Rankin didn't leave any notes."

"Not in his lab, no. But he gave me these specs for the device he was building and disappeared two months after I delivered the equipment. This has got to be the key to the puzzle. What is it? What does it do?"

Vanzetti looked at the print with a keen interest. I'd already looked at it a dozen times, so I watched him instead, hoping to spot a spark of comprehension. But his brow remained furrowed.

"The only way to see what it does would be to build it. And I don't think even that would suffice. Most of this is just framework—he's left out the activating principle. I'm afraid I can't tell you any more than the obvious."

"Which would be?"

"Look," he said, pointing. "That's a seat. Why would he build a seat inside the apparatus? He'd only need to do that if it was intended to move in some way: it's a form of transport. But the engine details are missing from the diagram. So how it's powered and where it would go are anyone's guess."

I felt stupid for not having realized this myself, but I'm used to feeling stupid around the scientists, so I didn't let it bother me. "What's your guess?"

He shrugged. "There's lots of possibilities—" Then he smiled. "Maybe that's where he went. Possibilities, lots of possibilities."

I was puzzled for a second until I realized what he was driving at. "You mean parallel universes, where history took different paths?"

"Could be. There's no evidence for it, other than the fact that he hasn't come back."

"Why is that evidence?"

"Think how many parallel universes there must be by now, billions of years after the Big Bang. Sideways navigation would be a nightmare. After leaving your home universe, how could you ever get back? Forget looking for a needle in a haystack: you'd have a better chance of finding a black cat in a black hole."

Vanzetti must have seen my face drop. He said, "I was just speculating. It might not be that at all. It's a shame we won't find out what he was working on—I was looking forward to his demonstration."

I remembered that, as president of the Association, Vanzetti was in charge of Demonstration Day. "Didn't he tell you what he wanted to show?"

He laughed at the thought. "No, they never do that. Surprise is everything: it's the only way to make everyone's jaws drop off in admiration. If I announced beforehand that I was going to turn lead into gold, for instance, one guy would say that he'd already made a mountain of gold and had suppressed the process because it would disrupt the economy, and another guy would say that it was an interesting advance but not half so significant as his Patent Bootlace Fastener."

"Then how do you decide who gets the billing?"

"If there's more than one applicant, I give it to whoever's waited longest since his last demonstration or since joining the Association. Rankin had years of seniority."

I frowned. "But if Rankin doesn't turn up, does that mean you have to cancel the show?"

"Oh, no," said Vanzetti. "Demonstration Day is the highlight of the convention. Calverley was next in line, so I've said he can do it. He's already setting up, though he's got so much equipment that it's bound to be a frightful bore. I always say the best demonstrations need the least apparatus. Less is more, you know. In my younger days, experimenters poked the universe with a stick to see if it jumped, but now they can't even do that without buying your Cosmo-Prod 4000."

He wagged a finger at me. "It's all your fault. You keep selling fancy equipment, so now everyone's building complicated machines with flashing lights and beeping gizmos. Big boys' toys, that's all they are. And there's no theory behind any of it. None of the new people in the Association could integrate a spanning function to save their lives. They're a stranger to footnotes, the lot of them. . . ."

While he rambled on, a big neon sign flashed in my skull. Calverley was Rankin's rival, possibly working on similar research. I had seen Calverley smirking when the Quent failed to find him. And Calverley had benefited from Rankin's disappearance by acquiring the coveted Demonstration Day lecture.

Calverley was the number one suspect. No wonder he'd tried to deflect suspicion onto my equipment.

I put Rankin's blueprints away, then de-energized the force field surrounding the booth. Vanzetti wandered off, still muttering about the mathematical inadequacies of the younger generation. I wondered how to approach Calverley, and a notion began to take shape.

I was about to go look for him when he came through the door.

"Calverley!" I shouted.

"Ah, Drake," he said, hurrying across the hall. "Have you got any more of those monopoles?"

I thought I might as well make a sale, and it was a good opening. "Sure," I said. "Today's special: with every ten monopoles, a gremlin trap. See how smoothly your experiments run when the little bastards are squeaking under a bell jar."

"I already have a gremlin trap."

"Only one? How often is it out of action? You need another trap to stop them jinxing the first trap."

"And a third to protect the second, no doubt," said Calverley, with a twitch of a smile. But he looked interested.

I brought out my best trap and placed it in the middle of the table. I needed bait, so I began activating curious devices. A ball lightning generator sparked and hissed as it emitted glowing spheres of electricity, which floated around the hall until they grounded themselves or fell into the Domestic Star like doomed comets. I set a universal Turing machine to grind out the decimal expansion of pi, and fed a stack of notes into my counterfeit detector. Other scientists gathered round, attracted by the noise, and one or two added their own gadgets to the rapidly developing Shrine of the Machine.

Soon there was a crunch as the Turing machine's tape jammed, followed by a faint cackle of glee, then a shriek as the trap sprung.

"Look what we have here," I said. The gremlin was blue and about five inches high; one arm was a spanner set and the other was a multi-screwdriver. Its wheels span furiously but gained no purchase on the frictionless floor of the trap. "A Class Five, tooled up for action."

"Kill it! Kill it!" shouted the scientists, their eyes full of hate at the sight of their ancient enemy.

"It's back to entropy for you, pal," I said, opening the trap. But instead of squishing the gremlin, I flung it right into Calverley's face.

He gibbered and sputtered as the gremlin reached up his nostril and started poking around in his brain. "Need more monopoles, need more monopoles. The fossilization takes too much power—" Then he peeled the gremlin off his nose and flung it to the floor, where it broke open, spilling tiny ratchets and lubricating oil onto the ground. A flock of inch-high Class One gremlins appeared and gathered up the remains of their comrade, then vanished, squeaking in grief.

"What the hell was that for?" shouted Calverley.

I avoided his gaze and concentrated on shutting down the other devices. "Sorry. I knew the gremlin would make you say the thing you most wanted to keep quiet. I thought if you had anything to do with Rankin's disappearance, it would come out then. Obviously, you're innocent and I apologize."

Calverley's face was flushed with outrage. "You nearly made me give away my demonstration." And indeed the other scientists were already whispering to each other, wondering what "fossilization" meant and saying it didn't sound very exciting.

"Sorry," I said again, while under the table my hand closed on a titanium strut in case he went for me. "I was concerned about Rankin—"

"You should be more concerned about yourself," said Calverley, still seething. "Selling overpriced, dodgy equipment is bad enough, but assaulting the customers is going too far. I want you out of this convention. At tomorrow's AGM I'm going to propose that you be barred from all Association events—forever."

"So you don't want to buy my overpriced, dodgy monopoles?" I wasn't going to let him show how much his threat worried me.

He frowned, clearly needing the monopoles but hating to back down. Concern for his demonstration won out. "Yes, I'll buy them—if they're up to scratch. But it'll be the last sale you ever make."

I bagged the 'poles and took his cash. I dearly wanted to jack up the price, but other scientists were watching the scene, and I knew I couldn't afford to alienate anyone by blatant profiteering. Tomorrow I'd need all the votes I could get.

And now was the time to start campaigning, by advertizing my unique wares. "Gremlin traps! Special offer on gremlin traps, all sizes up to Class Nine. Come on chaps, buy gremlin traps!"

Business was brisk. I was pleased, until I realized people were buying because they thought I wouldn't be around for much longer.

* * *

Late afternoon, custom dried up as people began gathering for the Demonstration Day show. The traditional start is 5:00 p.m., but the scientists always arrive early to fight for a good heckling position, and nowadays the demonstration often begins as soon as everyone's assembled.

I let the rush subside and followed at my own pace, taking up a seat near the back and listening to the excited buzz of the scientists as they contemplated Calverley's apparatus. I recognised the high-spec generator I'd sold him, but I knew nothing about the case or the silver cube with a door in the front and a control panel on the side. This looked very like a large microwave oven and provoked a shout of, "I'll have a jacket potato please," from the audience.

Vanzetti called for order. "Gentlemen. Thank you all for attending this year's convention. The Association has a proud tradition of demonstrating the practical applications of the latest scientific advances. . . ." The speech is so familiar I swear I can hear tape hiss, and so few people bother to listen that he could announce discovery of the Final Theory without raising a flicker. It just gives the waiting scientist time to worry about everything that could possibly go wrong with his demonstration.

Relieved applause marked the end of the speech, and Calverley walked onto the stage.

"Thank you. I will begin by showing you all what this apparatus can do; you may like to guess how it's doing it." He reached into his case. "I have here an ordinary hen's egg—I'll pass it round so you can see it's normal in every respect."

This took some time, as many of the scientists wanted to scrutinize it with magnifying glasses and detectors of every sort, from Geiger counters to spectrometers. As the egg moved from hand to eager hand, tension and anticipation rose within the hall. Then someone dropped the egg, which caused a few giggles. While two people argued over who hadn't had hold of it, others gathered round to inspect the debris. But the shell fragments, the albumen, and the yoke with its black dot were all, indeed, perfectly normal.

Calverley reached into his case again. "I have here another ordinary hen's egg," he said, offering it to the front row.

"Get on with it!" cried several voices, and Calverley dispensed with the inspection.

He opened the door of the silver cube. "Look: completely empty." The cube was mirrored silver on the inside as well, but was definitely empty. Calverley put the egg inside the cube. He closed the door and pressed a button on the control panel. The generator hummed briefly, then the On light glowed for about five seconds.

Calverley knocked on the top of the cube three times and said, "Abracadabra!" He opened the door. Tottering around inside the cube was a tiny, downy chicken.

There was scattered applause and a cry of, "I wanted an omelette."

He acknowledged the applause, then removed the chick and wrung its neck. "Is it red wine or white with chicken? I can never remember. But here are two bottles of white, fresh from my cousin's vineyard." He presented them to Vanzetti. "Pick a bottle, any bottle."

Vanzetti tapped them both—what he hoped to learn I have no idea—then selected the one on the right.

"Open it," invited Calverley, distributing glasses among the front row.

Vanzetti opened the bottle and there was a dash for the free drink, which soon stopped when Vanzetti tasted his and promptly spat it out. "It's disgusting!"

"Then let's see if we can improve it," said Calverley. He put the other bottle in the silver cube and made a few mystic passes with one hand while programming the panel with the other. "A little sprinkle of magic dust, and—Prestidigitarium!"

He removed the bottle and handed it to Vanzetti, who smiled sourly and made rather a meal of opening it.

"Surely we could invent something more efficient," mused Calverley as Vanzetti struggled ostentatiously with the corkscrew. "Maybe we ought to have a convention at which we all turn our hands to something useful. . . . What do you think?" he asked.

Vanzetti couldn't quite keep the surprise out of his voice as he said, "It's drinkable, very drinkable. Is it really the same wine?" The dash for the drink resumed on this vote of confidence, and all the scientists marveled at the instant improvement.

Calverley moved to the blackboard. "It's the same wine. The only added ingredient is time. You've just seen the world's first Chronoplus! Inside the cube, the t component of spacetime is accelerated by a factor of rho squared, where rho is defined by. . . ."

He began scribbling equations, and I popped out for a smoke.

I'd intended to loiter on the porch and return before Calverley filled up the board with his theorems, because I do a lot of business just after demonstrations, when the audience is fired up with enthusiasm and the desire to finally iron out the niggling flaws in their perpetual motion machines. But it was so cold that I had to move around, so I walked down to the lake, crunching snow crystals underfoot. In the late afternoon twilight, all color had drained out of the world: the sky and everything under it were test-card shades of gray. A thin film of ice smoothed the surface of the water, and I tossed a few stones just for the tiny thrill of breaking it up.

The convention was nearly over now. After tomorrow's AGM the scientists would all return to their labs for another year of persuading the mute cosmos not to be so shy. There was still no sign of Rankin, nor any clue to his fate. What could I tell his daughter, after my promise to investigate and my grand hints that the case was as good as solved?

No one had seen him, no one had heard from him. If the blueprints did show a vessel of some sort, as Vanzetti thought, then he'd built it, climbed inside, and vanished. What kind of vessel could it be? If it was going anywhere dangerous, like outer space, he would have left a note or said good-bye. He wasn't a loner with no ties: he had a daughter. To leave unannounced, as if popping out for a pint of milk, he must have had a safe destination in mind. But where?

He'd disappeared, but he'd applied for Demonstration Day, which was probably the most prestigious event of his life. So he'd want to turn up for it, surely, not go gallivanting across spacetime. Spacetime. Space? Time!

I dashed back inside and rushed into the hall, where Calverley had abandoned the blackboard for a final, end-of-show extravaganza.

"—To see how they will look as fossils, let me first set the timer for one million years." The generator began to groan.

Everyone turned to look at me as I charged in, uttering incoherent warnings which were drowned out by the increasing hum of the generator. No one else, therefore, saw Rankin appear center stage, behind Calverley and his equipment, in the vessel I recognized from the blueprints. He looked enormously pleased with himself and said, "Gentlemen—"

Still running forward, I heard the generator stop and saw the On light appear.

"—it gives me great pleasure—"

Rankin's voice began descending in pitch like a tape played with exhausted batteries.

"—to demonstrate—"

The scientists looked back to the stage, where Rankin began to fade out in a cinematic slow dissolve.

"—time travel!"

He was transparent now, and his voice growled down into a subsonic rumble like the rattling chains of a ghost.

By now I was at the front of the hall. I leapt onto the stage and pressed the big red button on Calverley's device, trusting it meant what I thought it meant.

"What is it now?" he cried. "Stop persecuting me!"

"Rankin! You must have noticed," I accused, forgetting he'd been facing the wrong way.

A mob of scientists clambered on the stage to investigate the apparition. Vanzetti poked the faint shimmer that marked Rankin's presence or absence, then sucked his finger and shrugged. "Clear the area!"

That took far longer to do than say, and even when we all congregated in the bar, the air still buzzed with questions and speculations. But the assembled brainpower didn't take long to thrash out what had happened.

Vanzetti waved his glass as he expounded, spilling beer onto discarded convention programs. "Rankin's traveler arrived just as Calverley's accelerator started up. The two time machines so close together created an interference effect and Calverley's dragged Rankin off into the future. How long elapsed in yours?" he asked Calverley.

"At the cutoff, just over a hundred thousand years had passed."

There was a moment's silence as we all imagined Rankin's voyage and wondered what he'd see.

"I don't think Rankin will go that far," said Vanzetti. "He's like a cat that's walked into the road, been hit by a car, and dragged along on the bumper. Just because the car's going a long way, that doesn't mean the cat will. I could probably work it out, given the distance between the time-drives and the ratio of their powers." Give a theorist a problem to solve, and he's happy.

"He's going to slide through every Demonstration Day from now on," Audran said.

"He'll be a permanent demonstration in himself," said Vanzetti. "I think he'd have liked that."

"He'd have liked that?" I asked, incredulous. "Why are you talking about him in the past tense?"

"You think the future tense would be more appropriate?"

"No, I think rescuing him would be more appropriate."

I looked into a circle of blank stares.

"Rescue him? Does he want rescuing? He built the thing, so he must have wanted to travel in it. And we all know we experiment at our own risk," said Vanzetti.

I didn't bother pointing out that Vanzetti never experimented at all. "He expected to turn up here, not thousands of years in the future in an unknown environment. He won't be prepared—he won't have food or drink. And the machine might not have enough power to come back."

"Just how do you propose we rescue him?" said Vanzetti.

"You're the scientists. Figure it out!"

"We'll think about it," Vanzetti said. "There's no rush. If he's traveling forward in time, it hardly matters whether we start now or tomorrow or next year. Hastiness is the enemy of good science."

I saw the sense in that, but I knew that if the task was put off now, it could be put off again tomorrow, and again next year. "Fair enough—postpone it as long as you like. But his daughter's been mad with worry. Which of you wants to tell her what happened to him? Which of you wants to tell her that you'll eventually get round to thinking about rescuing him when you've all wrapped up your own far more important projects?"

"Look, we're not heartless—we're not opposed to rescuing him. But what can we do? He has the only time machine," said Vanzetti.

"What about the Chronoplus?" I asked.

"That's not the same thing at all," said Calverley indignantly.

"It's the same principle, isn't it?"

"It may be the same principle, but just because a radio and a computer both use electricity that doesn't mean you can convert one into the other with a few bits of string and an adjustable spanner."

I pointed to my catalog with its vast range of stock. "I think I can provide a bit more than that."

This brought a few surprised looks and a sarcastic comment from the crowd. "Mr. Markup is offering to underwrite the rescue costs? Now I have seen everything!"

"I'll charge it to Rankin," I said. "If he's got a time machine and a bank account, he won't have any trouble paying."

Audran spoke up. "The two time machines probably have a quantum entanglement. I might be able to detect him with the Quent, if I can rework the equations to include the temporal displacement."

The prospect of a blank check galvanized the scientists. Others said their own research might be able to help. Vanzetti pored over Calverley's papers, saying that a full understanding of the underlying theory would be necessary before any dangerous rescue attempts, and Calverley himself basked in the attention that his device had brought him.

Having bullied everyone into thinking, I felt I ought to shut up and let them get on with it. I bought a round of coffee and carried the blackboard into the bar so that people could contemplate Calverley's scrawled lecture notes. Despite the unusual events of the day, the convention soon took on its normal evening atmosphere of learned disputation. The only difference from last night was that, faced with a substantive issue to engage with, the scientists didn't indulge themselves with their usual long-winded anecdotes.

Anecdotes. . . . Somewhere in my brain a neuron yelled for attention, and my own mental time machine transported me back to last night. "Remember Hogg?—invented the Practical Angel Trap."

I marched over to the table where Calverley was deep in discussion. "What happens if you reverse the polarity?"

He stared at me as if I were a rat querying the design of his maze: not being a scientist myself, I usually confine my technical suggestions to buying more expensive equipment. A babble of responses rose from the others.

"Time would slow down instead of speeding up."

"No, time would go backward instead of forward."

"No, the thing would blow up."

"Whatever, it wouldn't affect Rankin."

Audran shook his head and said, "It would if they were still entangled."

Vanzetti waited for everyone else's instant opinion before saying, "Let's ask the equations." He added a minus sign near the top of the blackboard and started following it through, until Calverley seized the chalk from him.

"That doesn't follow—it's squared, so the minus disappears."

"No, look, it goes through here—"

"No way!"

I recognised the situation from conventions past: they would never agree. It wasn't that it was my suggestion; it would have been the same had any of the scientists suggested it, perhaps worse as professional rivalry took hold. They were all too individualistic, too keen on the primacy of their own opinion, too convinced of their own genius to agree with lesser mortals. I realized that the scientists would never agree on any rescue plan. It was up to me to take action, and if one polarity had sent Rankin away, the reverse might bring him back.

I waited until the mêlée round the blackboard became absorbed in argument, and tiptoed out of the bar back into the hall. Calverley's device was still on the stage.

"Don't touch it!" Audran had followed me. "Before you start fiddling, don't you want to be sure of success? You've already annoyed Calverley; you don't want to mess about with his apparatus if it's not going to do any good."

"Calverley can't become angrier than he is already. And I won't know if this'll do any good until I try it, will I?"

"There's no point in trying unless the two time-engines are still interfering. Let me test for quantum entanglement: if they're still connected, you can go ahead."

"You had your chance before, and your test didn't work."

"Of course not, because you asked me where Rankin was, not when he was. I couldn't pick him up in any spatial direction because he wasn't anywhere in the universe at that moment: he'd time-jumped past it. But now I know to allow for that."

I hesitated.

"Look, you said come back when it's fixed. I've fixed it."

I wasn't convinced, but the test would probably be quicker than an argument. "All right," I said. "But hurry up. The others won't stay in the bar forever."

"Get the dog again," said Audran. "We'll do a triangulation."

Soon we had the Quent set up, with one lead in the specimen jar and the other taped to Calverley's device.

"I'm scanning for someone linked to both objects. . . . That's a strong signal," he said with surprise. "Oh, it's you. I said not to touch the Chronoplus."

"I didn't! But who do you think sold Calverley the components?"

Audran gave me another lead to hold. "I'll filter you out. Scanning again. . . . Got him! Ten thousand years, or thereabouts."

"Are you sure it's Rankin?" I asked.

"Who else in the future would have such an entanglement? Even if the Chronoplus ends up in a museum, I think the dog will have had a decent burial by then. I'd hate to think what it would look like otherwise."

It was true that Margaret's preservation job wasn't exactly Egyptian quality. Audran cleared away his stuff and said, "So you'll stock the Quent? And I get ten percent royalties?"

"Hold on. All you've said is that Rankin's in the future, which we knew already. I won't know that it's measured a genuine entanglement unless we can use it to get him back."

Audran started to protest, but I cut him off. I walked over to Calverley's apparatus and examined the connections between the generator and the cube. Now I'm no scientist, but after years of selling gadgets of one sort or another, you can't help picking up a few basics. It was the work of a moment to switch the polarity. Then I set the controls for the level reached on the earlier aborted run, to ensure delivery of an equal and opposite amount of power.

I took a deep breath and pressed the big green button.


The roar of the generator must have been audible from the bar, for a gaggle of scientists rushed into the hall to see what was happening. It was most gratifying to have an audience see me conjure up Rankin from thin air. His machine was a fantastical agglomeration of gleaming pipes, struts, and copper cylinders. It appeared a few inches above the stage and dropped with a crunching thud, narrowly missing the leads to Calverley's generator.

Rankin stepped out and smiled at me. "Did you figure it out for yourself, or will I have to go back in time and plant a clue?"

I was hurt. "Ideas aren't the sole preserve of scientists, you know. Even a salesman—"

Calverley interrupted, shouting, "How dare you fiddle with my machine!" He was hopping up and down, quivering like a defective robot about to explode in an eruption of springs and gaskets.

I said to Rankin, "Calverley here accused me of causing your disappearance by selling you defective equipment. He's going to propose a motion to expel me from the convention. I trust I can count on your vote against?"

"Disappearance?" Rankin frowned. "I was going to go back, but I'd better not if that'll cause a time paradox. But that's not your fault. Of course you have my vote."

Exploiting my position as savior of the hour, I turned to the watching crowd and said, "How about the rest of you?"

A rumbling of support showed I was safe. Calverley shot me a black look, then began dismantling his equipment. The other scientists pressed forward to question Rankin and examine his apparatus.

"A marvelous breakthrough," said Vanzetti. "Shame about the interference problem, though."

"Yes, I was thinking about that while I was stranded in the future," said Rankin. "I'll have to build a baffle around the time-engine. Drake?"

I pushed through the mob of scientists. Rankin gave me one of my equipment catalogs, folded open at the order form. Tachyon waveguide, spintronic inverter, copper coils x4, mahogany trimmings. . . .

I mentally reckoned up the total, and smiled.

* * *

Ian Creasey is the author of many stories.

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