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The Accidental Time Machine

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The Accidental Time Machine

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Author: Joe Haldeman
Publisher: Ace Books, 2007

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Time Travel
Artificial Intelligence
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(146 reads / 82 ratings)


Joe Haldeman "has quietly become one of the most important science fiction writers of our time" (Rocky Mountain News). Now he delivers a provocative novel of a man who stumbles upon the discovery of a lifetime-or many lifetimes.

Grad-school dropout Matt Fuller is toiling as a lowly research assistant at MIT when, while measuring subtle quantum forces that relate to time changes in gravity and electromagnetic force, his calibrator turns into a time machine. With a dead-end job and a girlfriend who has left him for another man, Matt has nothing to lose taking a time machine trip himself-or so he thinks.


The story would have been a lot different if Matt's supervisor had been watching him when the machine first went away.

The older man was hunched over his oscilloscope screen, starting into the green pool of light like a tweedy and corpulent bird of prey, fiddling with two knobs, intent on the throbbing bright oval that wiggled around, eluding his control. Matt Fuller could have been in another room, another state.

Sleet rattled on dark windows. Matt put down his screwdriver and pushed the RESET button on the new calibrator, a shoe-box-sized machine.

The machine disappeared.

He stared for about one second. When he was able to close his mouth and open it again, he said, "Dr. Marsh! Look!"

Dr Marsh pulled all of himself reluctantly from the round scree.

"What is it Matthew?"

The machine had reappeared. "Uh... the calibrator. For a moment there it... well it looked like it went away.

Dr. Marsh nodded slowly. "It went away."

"I mean it disappeared! Gone! Zap!"

"It appears to be here now."

"Well, yeah, obviously. I mean, it came back!"

The big man leaned back against the worktable, tired springs on his chair groaning in protest. "We've both been up a long time. How long for you?"

"Well, a lot, but -"

"How long?"

"Maybe thirty hours." He looked at his watch. "Maybe a little more."

"You're seeing things, Matthew. Go home."

He made helpless motions with his hands. "But it--"

"Go home." His supervisor turned off the 'scope and heaved himself up. "Like me." He took his thermal jacket, a bright red tent, off the hook and shrugged it on. He paused at the door. "I mean it. Get some sleep. Something to eat besides Twinkies."

"Yeah, sure." Look who's giving dietary advice. Maybe it was the sugar, though, and the coffee, and the little bit of speed after dinner. Cold french fries and a chocolate-chip cookie and amphetamines; that might make you see things. Or not see them, for a moment.

He waved good night to the professor and sat back down at the calibrator. It was prettier than it had to be, but Matt was funny that way. He'd found a nice rectangle of oak in the "Miscellaneous" storage bin, and cut out the metal parts so they fit flush on top of it. The combination of wood and mate black metal and glowing digital readouts pleased him.

He always looked kind of scruffy himself, but his machines were another matter. His bicycle was silent as grease and you could play the spokes like a harp. His own oscilloscope, which he had taken apart and rebuilt, had a sharper display than the professor's, and no hiss. Back when he'd had a car, a Mazda Ibuki, it was always spotless and humming. No need for a car at MIT, thought, and plenty of need for money, so somebody back in Akron was despoiling his handiwork on the Mazda. He missed the relaxation of fiddling with it.

He ran his hand along the cool metal top of the machine, slightly warm above the battery case. Ought to turn it off. He pushed the RESET button.

The machine disappeared again.

"Holy shit!" He bolted for the door. "Professor Marsh!"

He was at the end of the hall, tying on his hat. "What is it this time?"

Matt looked over his shoulder and saw the calibrator materialize again. It shimmered for a split second and then was solid. "Uh... well, I don't guess it's really important."

"Come on, Matt. What is it?"

He looked over his shoulder again. "Well, I wondered if I could take the calibrator home with me."

"What on Earth would you calibrate?" He smiled. "You have a little graviton generator at home?"

"Just some circuit-board tests. I can do them at home as well as here." Thinking fast. "Maybe sleep in tomorrow, not come in through the snow."

"Good idea. I may not come in either." He finished putting on his mittens. "You can e-mail me if anything comes up." He pushed open the door against a strong wind and looked back, sardonic. "Especially if the thing disappears again. We do need it next week."

Matt went back and sat down by the calibrator and sipped cold coffee. He checked his watch and pushed the button. The machine shimmered and disappeared, but only the metal box: the oak base remained, a conical woodscrew hole in each corner. It had done that last time too.

What would happen if he put his hand in the space where the box had been? when it came back it might chop him off at the wrist. Or there might be a huge nuclear explosion, the old science fiction version of what happens when two objects try to occupy the same space at the same time.

No, there were plenty of air molecules there when it came back before, and no obvious nuclear explosions.

It shimmered back, and he checked his watch. A little less than three minutes. The first disappearance had been about one second, then maybe ten, twelve seconds.

His watch was a twenty-dollar dime-store Seiko, but he was pretty sure it had a stopwatch function. He took it off and pushed buttons at random until it behaved like a stopwatch. He pushed the button on the watch and the RESET button simultaneously.

It seemed to take forever. The rattle of sleet quieted to a soft whisper of snow. The machine reappeared and he clicked the stopwatch button: 34 minutes, 33.22 seconds. Call it 1,10,170, 2073 seconds. He crossed over to the professor's desk and rummaged around for some semi-log graph paper. If you took an average, it looked like the thing went missing about twelve times longer each time he pushed the button.

Do the next one, and about six hours, at home. He found a couple of plastic trash-can liners to protect the machine, but before he wrapped it up he put a cardboard sleeve around the RESET button and fixed it in place with duct tape. He didn't want the machine disappearing on the subway.

It was one unholy bitch of a night. The sleet indeed had turned to snow, but there were still deep puddles of icy slush that you couldn't avoid, and Matt hadn't worn boots. By the time he got on the Red Line, his running shoes were soaked and his feet were numb. When he got off in East Lexington, the had thawed enough to start hurting, and the normal ten-minute uphill walk took twenty, the sidewalks slippery with ice forming. Wouldn't do to drop the calibrator. He could build a new one in a couple of days, if he could find the parts. Or his successor could, after he was fired.

(All the calibrator was supposed to do was supply one reference photon per unit of time, the unit of time being the tiny supposed "chronon": the length of time it takes light to travel the radius of an electron. Nothing to do with disappearing.)

He managed to take off a glove without dropping the machine, and his thumbprint let him into the apartment. He trudged up to the second floor and thumbed his way into his flat.

Kara had only been gone for a couple of days, and most of that time he'd been in the lab, but the place was already taking on bachelor pad aspects. The stack of journals and printouts on the coffee table had spilled onto the floor, and though he had sorted through it twice, looking for things, it hadn't occurred to him to stack it back up. Kara would have done that the first time she walked through the living room. So maybe they weren't actually made for each other. Still. He put the calibrator on the couch and stacked the magazines. Half of them slid back onto the floor.

Copyright © 2007 by Joe Haldeman


Accidental Time Machine

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