Thrice Upon a Time
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"I might as well put these covers back while I'm at it," Murdoch called from behind the rack. "You go on upstairs and set 'em up. I'll be there in a couple of minutes." Cartland and Lee left the lab, and Murdoch heard their voices fading away along the corridor outside. He finished replacing the covers, came around from behind the rack, and stood for a while staring at the console of the machine. It was strange, he thought, that everybody could appear outwardly so nonchalant and matter?of?fact about it a discovery that seemed on the verge of rocking the whole of established science back on its heels. And yet, inside, surely the others were all as excited as he was. He tried to picture the possibilities that would be opened up when they could relax the rules and communicate freely with pasts that had been and with futures that still lay ahead. Staggering possibilities, which in all probability none of them had even glimpsed yet.

His eyes strayed to a sheet of hard-copy printout that was lying on the desk by the console. It was a memory map that he had used earlier in the day, showing which parts of the system's memory were reserved for programs and other purposes and which were left free. For no particular reason he mentally selected a portion of the unallocated space and decided that, when the time came, there would be his own personal mailbox from the future. Crazy!

And then an intriguing realization dawned on him: By virtue of his having made that simple decision, every version of himself who existed along the time?line ahead as it then stood would possess that same knowledge, by remembering having been him now. For the same reason, they would remember having thought exactly what he was thinking at that very moment. Therefore, if any of them had anything to say that was sufficiently important to warrant breaking the rules for any reason, this would be the obvious moment in the past to send it to.

With a shrug and not really expecting to find anything, he moved a step forward and tapped a code into the touch board to interrogate the mailbox, As he had expected, nothing was there. He laughed inwardly at himself for being silly, scooped Maxwell out of the trash bin below the desk, and closed down the lab for the night.

But the thought still intrigued him as he walked back along the white?walled passage that led to the foot of the stairs. He would continue to check his mailbox regularly from then on . . . just in case. Something might come in one day. And there was no harm in simply interrogating an area of memory. That wouldn't involve the breaking of any rules. FROM CHAPTER 15

As Murdoch came down the main staircase after getting up and showering the next morning, the first thing he heard was Morna's high-pitched voice coming from somewhere immediately below him. "I cannot see him, Robert. He's gone right down inside. I can hear him scrabbling around somewhere down here near the leg." Murdoch came down the lower flight to find Robert dismantling the suit of early sixteenth?century English armor that stood by the foot of the stairs, while Morna watched anxiously from behind his shoulder. The helmet, gorget, and pauldrons were on the floor surrounded by a heap of ironmongery that had once been an arm. Robert was muttering profanities to himself while he fiddled with the straps securing the breastplate.

"What's the idea?" Murdoch asked cheerfully. "Thinking of selling it on the side as scrap?"

"Och, it s Maxwell," Morna told him. "He stepped off o the stairs and into the helmet. The visor fell shut behind him, and now he s gone down inside."

"He's fallen into the leg and cannot get back up," Robert grumbled blackly. "I'll have to be takin' the whole damn thing to pieces now to get him out."

"Grilled cat for dinner today, huh?" Murdoch said with a laugh, and walked away in the direction of the kitchen.

After breakfast he went down to the lab just for the hell of it and checked his mailbox. There were no deliveries. Then he went back upstairs and joined Charles in his study. Charles had some calculations that he was particularly anxious to complete in time for a clean start on Monday morning, and Murdoch had agreed to spend the day helping out until the time came for him to leave for Inverness to meet Anne. They worked largely in silence throughout the morning and broke off to have lunch with Cartland and Lee, who had been in the lab setting the system up for phase two, and resumed immediately afterward. It was a necessary but not especially exciting part of the research, and Murdoch found the hours dragging. But he consoled himself with pleasant anticipations for the evening that lay ahead.

It was approaching five in the afternoon when Murdoch suddenly screwed his face into a puzzled frown. A check?function that he had just finished evaluating had failed to give the expected result. He sighed and began the procedure again. Ten minutes later the same, wrong, answer was staring him in the face. He gritted his teeth against rising impatience and recalled to the screen a summary file of the results he had stored before lunch. It was five?thirty when he groaned aloud and slumped back in his chair.

"What is it?" Charles asked, looking up from his littered desk on the far side of the study.

Murdoch gestured wearily toward the screen. "I got the third integral of the theta field wrong. It's carried on through all the envelope profiles. Everything I've done since lunchtime has been garbage." Charles got up, came across the room, and stood looking from the papers lying at Murdoch s elbow to the screen and back again while Murdoch explained briefly what had happened.

"Ah well," Charles said with a heavy sigh. "I suppose it's better you found out about it now than in a week's time. Why don't you pack it in now and give your brain a rest. You can straighten it out tomorrow. Anyhow, it s almost time you were thinking of getting away to your fooling around in Inverness, is it not?"

"Ah hell, that'd mess up all your plans for tomorrow," Murdoch said. He heaved a long sigh. "Look, I'll give her a call and put tonight off. Now I know where the problem is here, I'll still be able to get it done tonight. It'll be a straight substitution when I've figured the right integral."

"You can't do that," Charles protested. "That's no way to be treating your lassie."

"No, really, I'd feel better about it if I fixed it and got it out of the way."

"There's no need. Admit, a day sooner or later won't make any difference to me," Charles said dubiously.

"It will to me," Murdoch insisted.

He called Anne fifteen minutes later from the visit in the sitting room. The way her face lit up when she saw him made him feel worse. She was obviously disappointed when he explained the situation, but understanding, and insisted that he couldn't think of letting Charles down under the circumstances. She was due to work late?shift on Monday and Tuesday, but could make it for Wednesday. It seemed a hundred years away.

All through dinner Murdoch was far from happy. By then, his imagination was starting to blow the whole thing out of proportion. He could see how it must have looked to her, even though she hadn't actually said anything to suggest it: a precedent that said computers and theories would always take first place. That wasn't true, of course, but how could Anne possibly be expected to know it wasn't when she had no inkling of what was happening at Storbannon and what it all meant? And his knowing that it wasn't true made matters all the worse. The rational part of him conceded that he was probably exaggerating everything in his mind, but still there was an emotional part that wouldn't stop worrying about it. He knew it was adolescent, but that didn't help much.

After dinner, still moody, he left the others and started walking through the main hallway on his way back to the study to begin work again. As he passed the door that led down to the lab, an insane thought hit him from nowhere. He stopped dead in his tracks. The mailbox! It could remove the whole problem literally. At this very moment he, or at least a "him," could be halfway to Inverness.

A sinking feeling came with the realization that something inside him was yielding to the idea. The rational part of his mind clutched wildly for straws, reciting over and over in his head all the reasons why such an action would be utterly and completely out of the question. But even as he contemplated it, the emotions that were in control were guiding his feet to the top of the stairs.

His reason came spluttering back to the surface when the message was composed and staring back at him from the screen, awaiting only the press of a single key to send it back to the destination that he had specified. He shook his head and blinked at the words in front of him, as if he had just awakened from a dream and was seeing them for the first time. What the hell did he think he was doing? Nobody fully understood the complexities of meddling with things like this yet. And besides, doing so was against all the rules that he had agreed to. No, it was unthinkable.

He had never sent back a signal that would alter a past event. None of the team had. They couldn't, because of the way the process worked. Anybody who sent back such a signal would alter the past that had molded his recollections, and in doing so would establish a new timeline that included a new self whose recollections would be consistent with the signal being received and whatever else followed as a consequence of it. The "self who sent the signal would no longer exist on the new timeline; he would have been erased, and therefore could never exist to remember that the event had ever taken place.

Erased? Murdoch had been about to erase himself?

Something cold and slithery was turning somersaults along his spine at the thought of it. He sat back slowly in the chair and shook his head. And then suddenly, he heard the door leading down to the lab being opened. Footsteps began descending the stairs, and the voices of Charles and Cartland came floating in from the passage outside. Murdoch was seized by an irrational panic; his finger shot out instinctively to delete the words that were glowing on the screen. But for a long time while he had been sitting there thinking, his mind had been subconsciously fixating on the Send key with a morbid fascination.

He hit the wrong button.

His eyes widened with disbelief as they stared stupefied at his hand. But nothing had happened. He didn't know what should have, but something was surely wrong . . . like the feeling he always had in the dentist s chair when he wanted to tell them that the anesthetic they had just given him wasn't going to work.

# # # # #

"He's fallen into the leg and cannot get back up," Robert grumbled blackly. "I'll have to be takin' the whole damn thing to pieces now to get him back out."

"Grilled cat for dinner today, huh?" Murdoch said with a laugh, and walked away in the direction of the kitchen.

After breakfast he went down to the lab just for the hell of it and checked his mailbox. A second later he had sunk into the operator s chair in front of the console and was staring in astonishment at the screen.

It was saying something about the theta?field integral connected with the work he had promised to do that day with Charles. He swallowed hard and shook his head in disbelief as he leaned forward to study the message more closely. It seemed to be nothing more than a detail of a trivial error. The whole thing was ridiculous. What could possibly have been so important about something like that that it justified breaking all the team s rules? He had no way of telling; the message didn't go into any detail. He shrugged to himself, noted the information on a scrap of paper, deleted the record from the system and, still mystified, sauntered back upstairs to join Charles.

The dinner had been superb and the wine pleasantly mellowing. The music was soft and slow, and Anne's body swayed like warm, liquid velvet as she danced close to him. And she smelled nice.

"I don't want to go home," she murmured into his shoulder.

"You shouldn't even be thinking about that," he told her. "There's lots of time left yet."

"Not enough. It s been a nice evening."

"Mmm . ."

"You wouldn't believe how much I've been looking forward to tonight. I had an awful premonition you were going to call at the last minute and put it off." She giggled softly. "There, doesn't that sound terribly schoolgirlish?"

"Nope. It sounds crazy. Why would I go and do something like that?"

"Oh, I don't know You might have got too wrapped up in that work you're doing to tear yourself away. Something like that."

"Now that s really crazy. You don't think I'd have called it off just over a few lousy sums."

"You never know with scientists."

"No way in the world."

A week later Murdoch was still puzzling from time to time over what could have been so important about a trivial third integral that it was worth breaking the rules and jeopardizing the whole experiment.

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