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Catastrophes, Chaos & Convolutions
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Eli Zaltzer had to be there to see it, naturally. So was Howard Jaffey, the dean, along with Susan Peters and Mario Venasky, two others members of the faculty. Abercrombie briefed them, cautioning them to stand back, and announced that he was initiating a control program in the machine that would activate automatically ten minutes from now and send the machine back that far in time. Everyone watched the open area of floor expectantly. Moments later, an eerie whine filled the room, and a copy of the machine appeared beside the first. Even Abercrombie, though he had seen tangible evidence before that it would work, was astonished.

"My God!" Venasky breathed, staring pop eyed. "It's real. I mean, really real."

Susan Peters was staring at Abercrombie with a mixture of awe and mortification. "Aylmer . . . you were right all along. The things some of us said behind your back for all that time. . . . I'll never know how to make it right now."

"Quite understandable," Abercrombie condescended in a paternal tone.

"There, you see!" Zaltzer pronounced triumphantly. "I am not the nutball that you think I don't know you think. Next we talk about changing the name to Zaltzer University. Okay?"

Howard Jaffey just stood gaping, without, just for the moment, being able to say anything.

In the stupefied words and semi coherent comments that followed, nothing really meaningful was said through the next few minutes, at which point Abercrombie, enjoying his role as master of the show, called one of the security guards in from outside and said they needed help to move the machines. Looking puzzled but asking no questions (up till then there had been only one machine), the guard draped his jacket over a nearby chair. Then, following Abercrombie's directions, Jaffey and Venasky shifted the duplicate machine a few feet farther from the original, while Abercrombie and the guard moved the original into the space where the duplicate had stood. The guard turned to leave at that point, but Abercrombie's intoxication made him crave a greater audience. "No, stay," he commanded. "It doesn't matter anymore. Twenty four hours from now, the whole world will be talking about this."

The guard waited obediently. Moments later, the original machine suddenly emitted a series of warning beeps followed by its characteristic whine, and then popped out of existence. At the same instant, a new voice from somewhere shouted "Get down!" in such an imperative tone that everyone automatically obeyed--just as the gun holstered in the guard's jacket still hanging over the chair exploded, sending bullets ricocheting around the room.

"Calm down, all of you. It was just an oversight," the voice continued, while they were picking themselves up and looking about dazedly. Another machine had materialized, this time with a copy of Abercrombie inside. He made no effort to contain a look of smug amusement at the expressions on the others' faces. Even Abercrombie One was stunned. "The varichron radiation induced by the process evidently triggers unstable materials like cartridge caps," Abercrombie Two went on. "Now that we are aware of the fact, we will know to avoid such instances in future."

Abercrombie One was about to ask how far in the future his other self had come from, when A Two looked at him loftily and supplied, "Thirty minutes."

A One collected his wits raggedly. But it made sense. "Which you knew I was about to ask, because you were me," he said.

"Exactly," A Two confirmed.

"So in the next thirty minutes I'll figure out it was the radiation that did it, and decide it's something we can work around?"

"No, you won't have to. I've already told you."

"In the same way you were told?"

"Yes."

A One still couldn't make sense of it. His other self had the advantage of having had more time to think it through, which irked him--and which, from the expression on the other self's face, the other self was also well aware of. "So I presume too that you also know how irritatingly supercilious you appear just at this moment?" A One said.

"Of course," A Two agreed. "But then I don't care, because I can assure you that you'll enjoy it every bit as much as I am right now, when you come to be me."

Harold Jaffey was finally managing to find his voice. "This is crazy," he croaked. "How can he tell you what you'll do, like some kind of robot executing a program? You're a human being with free will, for heaven's sake. What happens if you plumb decide you're not going to do it?"

Susan Peters was frowning, trying to reason it through. "No machine or copy of you came back from, let's say, an hour ahead of now. But what's to stop us setting the machine to do that, just like you did before? Let's go ahead and do it. So why isn't it here?" She directed her words at Abercrombie One. He didn't know either, and looked appealingly at Abercrombie Two, as if the extra thirty minutes might have conferred some superior insight.

"Those are the kinds of things we'll be testing in the weeks ahead," A Two told them. "But for now, enough of the mundane and methodical. I've been shut up in this lab, working virtually nonstop for three months." He went over to Zaltzer and draped an arm around his shoulder. "This is the man who believed in me, and he'll share in the glory. Tonight, Eli, we'll go out and celebrate, and talk about how this will be the sensation of the century. Tomorrow we'll be the talk of the world."

This was becoming infuriating. "You seem to be taking over," Abercrombie One told his other self peevishly. "Might I remind you that I had some little part in bringing this about too?"

"Yes, but that doesn't really come into things, because in a little under thirty minutes from now, you won't be here, will you?" A Two replied.

That did it. "And suppose I refuse to go back?" A One challenged. He folded his arms and sent Jaffer a look that said, Good point. Let's try it right now. "What are you going to do--hit me over the head and throw me into the machine?" he asked A Two. "Even that wouldn't work. You came out of it in good shape."

A Two grinned back as if he had been expecting it--which of course he had. "Later, is when we test the paradoxes," he said. "You know as well as I know how full of uncertainties this whole business is. We pursue it methodically and systematically, isn't that what we've always said? And now you want to jeopardize years of work by giving in to a fit of pique. Is that what you want?"

A One felt himself losing ground at hearing his own often reiterated principles recited back at him. But it would need more yet to dissuade him. "A cheap debater's ploy," he pronounced. "You'll have to try better than that, Aylmer."

"No I don't. All that's needed is for you to think about it. You've got about twenty minutes to figure out that if somebody doesn't go back and warn them, some of these friends of yours back there might very well get killed. I don't know the ins and outs of the logic either, yet. That's what we have to look into. But for now, are you going to risk it--just for the sake of that stubbornness of yours?"

A One felt himself wilting. He knew already, with a sinking feeling, what the outcome would be, as he could read his other self knew perfectly well also. He didn't need twenty minutes. He was trapped.

"All right," he said in a voice that could have cut seasoned teak. "I'll do it."

 
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