Two Roads Diverged (S)

Anne was kneeling beside her garden and concentrating on planting the garlic cloves exactly six inches apart.   It was a mid-October weekend and sunny, a rare event in Vancouver.  Someone coughed and she looked over her shoulder. Two men, too old to be spreading the glory and too strangely dressed to be neighbours, stared back.

“Are you Dr. Anne Simmons?”  The smaller one asked, frowning as he consulted his cell phone.

Anne shifted onto her heels as she stared up at them. They looked like they’d slept in their dark suits and crumpled white shirts.  She bet that whatever image the short one was looking at on his phone didn’t show a woman with mud on her face and her hair in disarray.

“I have an offer for you that I’d like to discuss in private.”  He stepped forward with his hand extended, no doubt expecting to shake hers.  Anne used it raise herself up, a little mean of her, considering the mud on her glove.

“And you would be?”

“David Rhodes, and this is my colleague Allan Kardos.”  The big guy nodded.  “I’m an analyst with a European firm,” David said, wiping his hand on his pant leg, “but I’m acting as a head hunter in your particular case.”

Anne didn’t like the fact that the pair of them had invaded her back yard without invitation and Rhodes had called her a ‘case’.  Exactly which European firm and what kind of analyst, she wondered. “If you were an email, I would delete you,” she said.  This was no threat.  She had done just that when others that had promised her fame, wealth and new opportunities.

“That’s exactly why I’m here in person.” David smiled.

“I can still delete you by requesting that you leave now.  Goodbye.” Anne headed towards the house.  The two men stood gawking.

“Hey, wait a minute.”  David moved forward to stop her.  But Anne beat him to the back door slamming it in his face. He had underestimated her level of fitness.  She routinely thrashed her graduate students at racket ball too.  Again, it was mean, but she wasn’t interested in pumping up their confidence on the court, just in the lab.  Through the kitchen window, she watched him leave.  No missives were shoved under the door to explain their unannounced visit.

Over a dinner of fresh halibut, steamed red cabbage and wild rice, Anne thought about the encounter.  She hadn’t seen an ID or a business card.  Mind you, she hadn’t given Mutt and Jeff much opportunity. She got up to get a cheese plate with a slice of creamy Morbier. Maybe they were literal head hunters, she thought and chuckled to herself as she finished her glass of unoaked chardonnay.

When the phone rang, caller-ID indicated her research lab.  But when Anne picked up, David Rhodes introduced himself and apologised for their uninvited appearance that afternoon. “Why are you in my lab?” Anne interjected.

“I knew you would answer if I called from here,” David replied smoothly.

“And my students simply let you in?”

“Actually, there’s no one here.”  David confessed.

Anne slammed down the phone and immediately called security at her institute. She explained that an intruder had called from her lab.  A call back a few minutes later confirmed that the lab door was open but the lab was deserted. Now that’s really strange, she thought.  They’d probably continue to harass her until she heard their proposition.  She hated to give in to those tactics.  Besides, what could they possibly want from her?  It’s not as though she was hiding an important scientific discovery.  All her work was published and someone who could break into her lab could easily hack into her computers, firewall or not.

She continued to mull over the possibilities.  She realized that her research project on nanoparticle radiation detectors was novel.  But anyone could use the idea.  Her progress hadn’t been impeded by lack of grant funds or access to top students. “What could anyone offer me?” she wondered aloud.  Then she looked out at the rain beating down the window.  Perhaps better weather, she thought and smiled.

Anne’s answer came via email a few minutes later.   She wondered if her reaction had been anticipated by the head-hunter because when Anne saw an email from David Blake, she didn’t delete it as she had threatened but opened it with considerable curiosity.  Although the email was brief, it came with a large attachment.
Dear Dr. Simmons:
            I apologise for appearing unannounced at your house earlier today and our crude efforts to get your attention by calling from your lab.  We would like to meet with you to discuss the possibility of heading up a new laboratory in Geneva. You would work with another group with expertise that could bring your own research to fruition in a unique way and one I suspect you have not considered.  Please see the attached file for further information.  This information is of course to be kept strictly confidential.  Funding of your research would be approximately ten times greater than your current support and you are welcome to bring your laboratory personnel with you, also with generous support. All Visa issues will be dealt with.  Time is of the essence for reasons that I can only explain in person.
David Rhodes, TAG Recruitment, Geneva

Anne read the letter twice and printed out both the e-mail and the 32 page attachment.   She began reading the attachment.   It took a while since many of the sentences and paragraphs had been deleted.  The main idea was fairly clear though, and quite astounding.  The attachment was a description of a research project being conducted by an unnamed scientist in an unnamed laboratory.  It was a physics-based proposal that involved manipulation of time and space.  Basically, it described the possibility of time travel over nanoseconds.   However, there had been no practical test of the theory.

She shook her head, not seeing a link between her projects and a nanosecond time machine, even if it could work.  Then she thought about how one would prove that they could move an object back in time only a nanosecond.  Damage by radiation occurs extremely rapidly, much shorter than a nanosecond.  In theory, a person could be exposed to a lethal dose of radiation but the biological effect could be immediately reversed if you could go back in time even one nanosecond and do something equally rapid to prevent the chemical damage in the first place.  It was all supposition of course since there was no obvious method to prevent the damage that would occur when time moved forward again.  Anne flipped through the project, looking for more insights.  Then she realized what they were probably after. Her method could be used as proof of principle for their time-shifter.  If radiation and the time device were triggered at the same moment, there should be a delay in appearance of the radiation damage. It would take only a picosecond to activate the nanoparticle radiation detector to emit light. But instead of continuous emission of light from the nanoparticles, there would be an initial pulse of light before time shifted back before the exposure.

But after that?  It was difficult to see how this particular application would be of any practical use.  Intriguing idea to use it for validation though, she had to admit.  But what did his letter mean that ‘time is of the essence’? Surely they didn’t expect her to develop a practical application overnight?  If they were in such a rush, why all this talk about setting up a lab and moving students to Geneva?  She decided to reply to the email and agree to listen to what he had to say.  However, if things didn’t make more sense, she would have nothing to do with it.

Apparently Rhodes had been waiting at his computer for her reply.  His response was almost instantaneous.  “Your house in 15 minutes?”

He appeared at her front door with his large, somewhat scary companion.  “You remember Allen Kardos?”  Anne nodded and showed them into the living room.  This was the one room not littered with books and papers but it made up for it in dust.  She laid down a tray and 3 cups of coffee.  After a couple of sips, Rhodes got right to the point.

“We need your help to prevent radiation damage in our Mars Mission astronauts.  They’re scheduled to leave in several weeks.”

Anne’s eyebrows shot up. Use in astronauts, especially when subjected to potentially lethal irradiation from solar flares, would be an excellent application.  “Now I see why time is of the essence, but haven’t you left this a bit late?”  About ten years too late, she thought.

Rhodes shook his head.  “You’ve only been shown the idea as it was originally presented years ago.  A lot of progress has been made since then.”

“Including a test of the theory using cells or animals?”  Anne asked.

“Not yet.  We were missing a response indicator, like your fluorescent nanoparticles.”  Rhodes admitted.

Anne shook her head.  “You don’t need me for that.  The idea’s not patented.  Your company can develop it themselves.”

“They’ve tried, and it hasn’t worked.  Besides, our application is quite different from the one you envisaged.”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t see how I can do anything within your time frame.”  Anne said rising from the sofa.  “I admit that your time shifter is intriguing but it would require years for practical development.  I’m not interested.”

“I don’t think you understand,” Rhodes said standing as well.  “You don’t have a choice.”

The silent sidekick had drawn a gun and directed it at her.  “This way Doctor.”

“What aren’t you telling me?” Anne demanded.  She got no answer and was pushed towards her front door.

“Plenty of time to talk on the way,” the big one said gruffly.

She was taken to a small airfield in the valley where they boarded an executive jet and flew southward.  “Not Geneva then?” Anne questioned.

“No. Geneva was just a way to get you interested enough to let us into your house,” David Rhodes admitted.  “As you have already appreciated, we have no time to set up a lab.”

“So the application in astronauts was a ploy as well?”

“No.  That was true.” David admitted, and that was all he would say.  Anne managed to catch a few hours of sleep before they landed at Johnson Air Force base and Allan hustled her into a waiting car.  They drove to a near-by building as the sun rose.

“What do you need me to do here?”  Anne asked as they entered a laboratory.

“Your nanoparticles radiation detector works,” David said.

“I thought you said you were having problems,” Anne said.

“That was only partially correct,” David admitted.  We reproduced your experiments with the nanoparticles.  We got a pulse of light as we expected when we applied the radiation and time shifter at the same moment.”   Anne smiled.  “I see that you anticipated that result.” David looked impressed.  Have you’ve figured out the next problem.”

“You mean that you can’t do anything practical with only a nanosecond time shifter?” Anne asked.

“True, but once we had your nanoparticles providing a readout, we were able to develop the physics further.  We can now travel back five minutes.

It was Anne’s turn to be impressed, but she could start to see the problem.  “Exactly what is it that travels back five minutes?”

“You’re getting warmer. When the radiation triggers your nanoparticle alarm system, the astronauts have five minutes to get to a radiation shelter.  It is only practical to have a small radiation shelter on board the space vehicle – too much weight otherwise.  But the time shifter has to transport the entire space vehicle to give them that time.  We have that working now too.”

“Sounds great to me. So what’s the problem?” Anne asked.

David turned to stare at her.  “With the first evidence of radiation, your device triggers the time shifter and the astronauts have five minutes to get to the shelter.   But five minutes later, the whole process starts again and sends them back to the beginning of the storm.  They’re stuck in this repeating loop.  We need a way to turn it off after it’s triggered the first time.

“That shouldn’t be difficult. High intensity UV radiation will bleach the system.  It could be triggered automatically.  But there could be several solar storms during a mars mission.  You’d have to restart it when the coast is clear.”

That’s a physics problem and not why you are here.”  David said.

“Why am I here?”  Anne looked around at the well-equipped lab.

“Your job is to figure out how to inactivate the nanoparticle detector remotely.  What we didn’t tell you is that there is a mission on its way home and there was a solar event 30 hours ago.  Proton radiation reached the capsule last night and the capsule keeps shifting back in time and space every five minutes. We’ve lost contact with the crew and they’re running out of time.

Anne was astounded. “Don’t tell me you didn’t install an automatic inactivation system?  Radiation storms from solar flares can last a while.  When the astronauts shift back in time, they’ll have no idea that it’s happened before, so they won’t inactivate the system. I don’t suppose there’s a way to communicate with them and tell them to shut it down?”

David looked glum.  “Because we’re not shifting back, we’re now in their future, about 15 hours and ten minutes in their future to be precise.”

“Groundhog day.” Anne muttered, referring to the movie where the main character relived the same day over and over. “But the astronauts should notice the oxygen and fuel levels declining.  Is there anyone on board who is likely to think this through?”  Anne asked.

“We thought they would have figured it out by now and pulled the plug on the device.”

“Where is the Professor who developed the time shifter?  You need him to develop a longer jump so he can go back and fix this mess.  I don’t see any other way,”

“Professor Larkin disappeared a few hours ago,” David admitted. “We can’t communicate with him either.” David was staring at the floor and looking miserable.  Anne wondered when he had last slept.  He was obviously not thinking clearly.

“He had another device?”

“Yes, I presume he used it because it’s missing too.”

“And I suppose that’s the only spare.” Anne said, shaking her head in amazement.

David nodded.  “And before you ask, yes, we can fabricate another, but we don’t have time.”

“Too bad.  The astronauts think they have all the time in the world.  But you have another problem,” Anne said, scribbling on a note pad.  David waited while she finished her calculations. “If they are 15 hours behind us and they keep jumping back every 5 minutes when the wave of proton radiation reaches them, they’ve experienced a small fraction of that radiation dose 900 times.  The radiation shelter reduces but doesn’t eliminate the exposure.  If my calculations are accurate, your guys have already received a lethal dose of radiation.

David’s phone rang, and Anne watched the emotions play across his face: relief followed by confusion and disbelief. Finally he shut off his cell phone and smiled.  “The astronauts figured it out.  They turned off the machine.”

“When?” asked Anne.

“After only five jumps.”

“So why didn’t you know before now?”  Anne’s mind was racing.  If they were running only 25 minutes behind, would that still affect communication?

“They don’t acknowledge our transmissions.”  David looked at Anne hoping she would see the problem. “They’re missing 25 minutes.”

“So, time flies.  What’s the big deal about 25 minutes?” she asked.

“We can’t see them.  They’re not in our time.”

“But you can see where they were 25 minutes ago,” Anne said.

“Actually, we can’t.” David said. “They were never present in our time after the time shifter was triggered.”

Anne held her head. “OK, I sort of see what you mean.  We can’t see them.  If they land their craft by some miracle, we still won’t see them.  So they don’t exist for us. But will they see us as we were 25 minutes ago?”

“Moot point.  I don’t see them getting back here.” David asked.

“David, how do you know they’re only 25 minutes behind us if you can’t communicate with them?”

“We know what dose of radiation they’ve received from the onboard dosimeters attached to their suits.  It sends us the data. It peaked at 52 milliSieverts and has stayed constant.  One of our technical people was listening in to what you said earlier about the 900 jumps, and she worked back from the radiation dose to calculate how many jumps they must have made.”

“Didn’t you just tell me the astronauts don’t exist in our time?   Oh wait, I get it.  It’s like starlight.  A star can be so far away that the light takes centuries to reach us.  If the star goes nova today, we won’t know about it for centuries because we still see the light.”

“That’s right.  We’re using optical telescope communication in space and satellite relays to earth.” David said.  If the craft sends us information, we get it even if there’s a delay.”

“Can we communicate with them using this technology?” Anne asked.

“I think they can leave messages for us, but we can’t send messages to them.” David said.

Anne nodded.  “Now I see why they’ve been sitting up there quietly.  It’s up to them to come up with a plan.  There’s nothing we can do to help them.  They sat in silence for several minutes, taking the opportunity to relax and enjoy some hot caffeine.  The liquid didn’t deserve the name coffee.

David’s phone rang again.  “What do you mean they’re back in our time?”  This time his face reflected only confusion. He left the room and returned almost an hour later. “You won’t believe this.”

“What happened?” asked Anne, annoyed that he was gone so long.

“I’m not exactly sure.  Professor Larkin disappeared just before the radiation detector was even triggered.  He found out about the solar flare before the wave of protons hit the ship.  Somehow, he’s gone back in time and managed to set everything right.”

“So he anticipated the loop.  And I’ll bet he’s still gone.” Anne said.

“Yes. Why do you say that?” David asked sharply.

“He needed to transport to an earlier time to communicate with the crew,” Anne said.  “So if he went back before the solar flare, he would be able to leave messages for them. That would explain why they knew to turn the device off after only five cycles.  No,” Anne stopped, “That can’t be right.  There’s only one way he could get them back to our time, and that’s if they never switched to a different timeline in the first place.

“What do you mean?” David asked.  Anne saw his white face grow even whiter.

“I’m pretty sure that the Professor got them to unplug the device before the solar event even occurred, so there was never a shift back in time for the astronauts. They did get exposed to a small dose of radiation because they were probably late getting to the radiation shelter.  That’s the dose you measured.  Unfortunately, that leaves Professor Larkin living back in a different timeline.  Did he leave a message for you?” Anne asked.

“I’m embarrassed to say that in all the panic, I just found his note on my desk,” David said.  The Professor wrote that he was shifting back ten hours to let the astronauts know a solar flare was imminent and to turn off the device which was faulty.  The astronauts have undoubtedly been in the shelter and didn’t bother to communicate with anyone until now because they assumed the Professor would let us know what was happening. I was hoping Professor Larkin would leave more messages,” David said.  “Yet he was able to send a message to the astronauts.”

“He would have sent that message to them as soon as he shifted back in time.  Perhaps as time moves forward, his path diverges more and more from our own timeline.  And if that’s true, we may not hear from him again.”  Then she saw David smile.  That’s the first time he’s done that, she thought.

“The Professor will figure it out, if anyone can,” David said.

“Why does he need to?  The timeline he’s on now started when he shifted back.  His past life will be identical to the life he had here.  He’s lost nothing.  On the other hand, how will you explain his disappearance from this timeline?” Anne asked.

“Missing person, I’d say,” David mumbled, lost in thought.

Anne waited patiently but then asked, “I’d like to go home now and forget this ever happened.”

“I’m afraid you can’t,” David said coming out of his trance.   He motioned to Allan Kardos who had been sitting quietly in a corner the whole time.  “Allan, could you escort the doctor to our holding facility?”   Turning to Anne he said, “I must apologize, but until we can fabricate another time shifter and send you off on your own path, you’ll be staying right here with us for a few days.”

“Please. I promise I won’t say a word. Who would believe me anyway?”

“That’s a risk my bosses won’t take,” David said.  “Besides, as you said, your past will be the same.  Just imagine that you’ve taken the road that diverged.”


 The paradoxes of time travel are intriguing and frustrating.  If we travel back to the past, can we ever return?  The title of this story came from a favorite poem by Robert Frost that shares the theme of diverging paths.

The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.