I’m a journalist at heart, let’s make that clear. I’ve interviewed everybody who’s anybody, from rebel leaders in active warzones to civil leaders on their deathbeds, so when I was told to write a two page spread on some scientist and his discovery I could afford to let my mind wander. Scientists were all the same sort of person; ask them a simple question and they’ll talk like they’re the ones getting paid for the interview. Easy work, and I could afford to let my mind wander for a while. I was still deciding what to get for dinner when the guard at the gate handed me a torch and a handgun. ‘Just in case,’ he said. Now, I’m no rookie, it’ll take more than a gun to spook me, but making me carry a piece to an interview with a scientist could mean anything. Seeing all the facility staff, even the receptionists and janitors, carrying pistols as well wasn’t doing much for my confidence. In my business, a gun meant one of two things; either there would be something trying to kick me off this mortal coil, or at some point I might have to do the same to someone else. I’d managed to make a great living for myself with neither of those things happening, and I really didn’t want to start today.
After walking down a mile of reinforced concrete tunnels and finding myself on the wrong side of a lot of doors that only opened from the outside I was glad to finally find myself in the laboratory, although to call the room a laboratory wouldn’t give the place enough credit. The chamber was tall and vaguely cylindrical, like the inside of a cooling tower, but with a flat ceiling studded with bright lights. It was so expansive that when a man tinkering with some machine in the centre called it out to me it was a struggle to make out what he was saying.
‘Oh! You must be the, ah, journalist, right?’ The figure clicked his thin fingers, waving his arm in thought. ‘Yes, are you here to see the converter?’
‘Call me Michael, and yes, I’m here to get the lowdown on this, ah, generator of yours?’ I walked towards the centre of the room and he swept behind me, pushing me gently forward with one hand. He shovelled a fistful of sandy hair out of his face with the other as he spoke.
‘That’s fantastic. Great. You’re just in time for one of the daily test runs, so if you’ll just follow me it’ll all become obvious. My name’s Tobias, by the way.’ He thrust out a hand that was all knuckles and callouses, and I shook it. It was definitely a scientist’s handshake, firm but directionless, like a drowning fish. He rushed off behind the machine again, leaving me to try to get a handle on what it was. I don’t pretend have any real scientific background, but even I knew that this was definitely something out of the ordinary. As far as I could see it was a waist high steel tube, and other than a touchpad and microphone attached to the front it had no mechanical parts. On top of this was a glass jar surrounded by metal rails, held to the lower plate by three thick clamps.
‘Do you like coffee?’ The scientist appeared from behind the machine, holding two mugs brimming with grainy black liquid. I took one, accidentally slopped coffee over my fingers and winced in anticipation of a scalding before I realised that the coffee was miserably tepid. On top of that, somebody had written on both of the mugs with permanent marker, “#521” on mine, and “#522” on his. ‘I never touch the stuff myself, but it’s got one use.’ With his free hand, Tobias undid the clamps holding down the jar and it drifted up on its rails with a weightless hiss. He then placed his mug onto the metal plate and lowered the jar onto it, sealing mug #522 inside.
After a moment of consideration, he pulled out a pen and held it in the air, dangling from his thumb and forefinger. ‘What do you know about potential energy?’
I tried hard to recall my secondary school-level physics education. ‘It’s something to do with gravity, right?’
The scientist ignored me, barrelling forwards with his demonstration and clearly starting to enjoy himself. ‘When an object is held in a stationary position and has external force acting upon it, this force is stored as potential energy. When the object is released…’ The pen clattered to the floor. ‘The potential energy is converted into kinetic energy. With me so far?’
I nodded. ‘Were you ever a secondary school teacher?’
‘No,’ he said, scrambling for his pen on the floor. ‘Why?’
‘Just asking. So that’s how this generator works? Converts one kind of energy to another?’
Tobias chuckled, tucking his recovered pen back into his breast pocket. ‘Well, no, but it’s a fun analogy for the time being.’
Holding down a button on the touchpad, the scientist spoke slowly into the microphone. ‘Test begins, temporal degeneration at point three three four percent potential, test number #522. ’ With another press of the pad, the jar sealed against the metal base with a vacuum hiss and the lights dimmed, throwing the room into darkness. I fumbled with the flashlight the guard gave me, eventually managing to cast a wavering circle of light against Tobias and his machine.
‘This is normal,’ he yelled, as if he was trying to shout over the darkness, ‘We turn off the power and link the converter up to the main grid. To test how much energy it puts out, you see.’
‘Is that normal? Hooking up an experimental power source to the mains like this?’
‘Oh, it’s completely safe now. Get the light one that mug, you’ll want to see this.’
From this side of the jar mug #522 looked fairly ordinary, but a little distorted by the thick glass. I sipped mug #521 and spat it out immediately, cringing at its rancid bitterness. The cup must have been poured hours ago. Typical scientist.
If I hadn’t looked up to spit out the coffee I would have missed it. There was a brief smell of burnt sugar and a sound of far off thunder storms. The mug blurred inside the jar in a way that hurt my head to watch, then suddenly stopped. The laboratory lights blazed to life, and Tobias’ pleased expression apparently confirmed that whatever the hell had just taken place had been a success. He pulled a ratty notepad from his pocket and peered at the screen.
‘Temporal degeneration complete, ratio of five point two zero eight three recurring to the third power to one, power output of four hundred seventy nine megawatts.’ He smiled proudly as he jotted figures onto the pad. ‘That’s almost a full percent greater output since last month.’
I managed to catch his eye as he unbuckled the jar. ‘I suppose you’re wondering what happened just now.’ The glass case slid upwards, filling the air with the taste of ozone and another, thicker smell I couldn’t quite place. ‘What we’ve done, with this cup of coffee, is convert its potential time into energy.’ Tobias tilted mug #522 towards me, revealing the coffee inside to have decayed to a shallow pool of grey mould, like it had been sitting there for days. He wore a scientist’s smile, as proud as a father.
My mind raced. It found the barest suggestion of an idea and went for it with full force.
‘Are you saying, this is time travel? You sent the coffee through time?’ He laughed again, almost dropping the mug.
‘Well, no, but it’s a good enough analogy for the time being.’