Time Bomb

By Jim Gerrish
2001, Imagineering Magic. All Rights Reserved.

The old man seemed harmless enough. He could often be seen taking long walks around the quiet urban neighborhood, talking to no one, staring down at the sidewalk or up into the trees. Occasionally he would take a tattered notebook out of his pocket and jot something with a worn pencil, but no one asked him about it. Some of the neighbors thought it was a grocery list. Others thought the old man had Alzheimer’s and wrote notes to himself as reminders. All the neighbors agreed that he was harmless and kept to himself. The day the neighbors were asked all these questions by hoards of reporters who invaded their quiet neighborhood with their press trucks, microphones and TV Cameras was, of course, the day the old man received the Nobel Prize in Physics in Stockholm, Sweden.

Then the reporters invaded the little city of Irvington, NJ and wanted to know everything about him. No one in Irvington had read the old man’s theory of universal expansion. No one in Irvington read the American Physicist except maybe a few high school science teachers, but even they seemed to have missed that issue. No one could tell the reporters what the theory of universal expansion was all about, so instead, the reporters asked where the old man shopped, what he ate for lunch, what kind of car he drove, and thousands of other questions that had nothing to do with the reason he was in Stockholm that day receiving applause for a theory that only a handful of physicists could comprehend.

The old man seemed harmless enough. But later in the day, the F.B.I. descended on the house where he had lived alone for the past twenty years, and put up barricades all around. It made the neighbors nervous and the F.B.I. agents on the perimeter of the barricades would tell them nothing. For the remainder of the day, black vans bearing the dreaded initials F.B.I. drove up to the house, and then the doors would open and agents would bring out files and boxes of papers. At one point, a computer was removed from the house and loaded onto the van. The van would be driven away and soon another would take its place and the parade from house to van carrying boxes and files would begin again. By nightfall, the vans stopped coming, but the barricades remained in place.

Don Thorpe was curious. The old man had seemed harmless enough, taking his daily walks to nowhere in particular. He was out of place, a gray haired white man among Blacks and Hispanics who made up the majority of the neighborhood, but he had disrespected no one and was not disrespected in turn. In fact, no one in the neighborhood had paid much attention to him in the past. All that would change, of course, if he ever came back.

Don Thorpe had seen the old man’s stooped, somewhat paunchy figure, accepting the Nobel award on the evening news. Don had even gone to the library and tried to find a copy of the American Physicist so he could find out what the old man had been up to all those years, but of course, the issue wasn’t in. So, Don had gone home and turned on his computer, and eventually found a copy of the old man’s theory on-line. It wasn’t much. A page and a half at most, written in language even Don Thorpe could understand. Don couldn’t understand what the big deal was. They were saying on the news how only a handful of physicists could understand the implications of the theory, but Don could easily understand what had been written. The old man had put forth a theory that everything in the universe was expanding. So what? Don thought that was old news.

Later that evening, watching a TV talk show, which had invited physicists who supposedly could interpret the theory, Don finally understood that up until that time the expansion of the universe was just thought to be galaxies speeding away from the earth at great distances. Nothing so close to home as the old man had imagined it to be. His theory said everything was expanding. Every molecule, every atom, every electron, even the spaces between atoms, all were expanding together. Don laughed at that. How would you ever know if everything was expanding together? Any ruler you might use to measure the expansion would also be expanding. And the earth was supposed to be billions of years old? This expansion had been going on since the beginning of time and still things managed to cling together. Don had almost turned off the TV in disgust. What foolishness! Instead, he went into the bathroom to take a piss. When he came out, the talking heads had gotten around to raising the very same objections that had occurred to Don, so he sat down again to hear what the know-it-all physicists had to say.

Now they were talking about time. It seemed that if the universe was expanding, then time was expanding, too. They called it space-time and seemed serious that everything was expanding. Not only expanding, but also accelerating… constantly speeding up, as if the universe had its foot on a cosmic gas pedal and wouldn’t let up. So the old man had come up with some experiments to prove his theory. Thought experiments, they called them.

That was what the old man had been doing as he had walked around the neighborhood looking down at the sidewalk or up into the trees. He had been gazing deep into the nature of the universe within his head, while strolling the sidewalks of Irvington.

Don was a science fiction fan, and he already knew that Einstein had predicted time would slow down for travelers in space. It was the basis for many of the outer space movies he watched, including one of his favorites, Planet of the Apes. Unlike most of his neighbors in Irvington, Don had not only seen the latest remake of the movie, but had actually gone out and bought the book so he could read it in its original form. Don liked to compare the books with the movies after discovering that the books contained many more details that had been left out of the film versions. In reading Planet of the Apes, Don had struggled with the idea that the astronauts had gone on a long journey at nearly the speed of light. When the astronauts returned to the earth after what seemed only a few years to them, they discovered that many hundreds of years had gone by on earth.

The physicists on TV were, in fact, using that movie to explain the same concept to the TV audience and the talking heads. But what the old man next door had found out was that neither the movie nor the book had gotten it quite right. Not only would the astronauts find themselves many years in the distant future, but the astronauts and their spaceship and everything they brought with them would be tiny in size compared with everything else. The apes in Planet of the Apes would be like giants to them. That was because when time slowed down for the astronauts, the expansion of their portion of the universe had also slowed down, while on the earth, the expansion was continuing at its usual rate.

Don Thorpe sat up straight in his chair as he pondered this new idea. The physicists were now describing one of the old man’s thought experiments that had recently been used to prove the concept. Since they couldn’t wait hundreds of years to send a space ship out and wait for it to return in a tiny size, they had performed an experiment using the CERN particle accelerator located on the border between France and Switzerland. Using that device, they were able to determine that particles accelerated to near-light speeds are always smaller in size than particles traveling at much slower speeds or particles at rest.

That experiment had been done more than five years ago, Don learned. Since then, scientists had been arguing about whether or not the experiments proved the old man’s theory correct. It seems that a few physicists had other explanations for the phenomenon. But the old man had also been busy during those five years. He took a walk almost every day, Don had noticed. Whenever Don had passed him on the sidewalk, Don would say "Hello," and the old man would look at him slowly as if coming back into focus from a distant place, and then respond politely. As soon as Don walked on, the old man would resume his gaze into the depths of his soul. Don had thought the old man was senile and probably ought to have a nurse or someone supervising his walks, but now he understood where the old man was coming from when he spoke polite chit-chat to Don, and where he went to as soon as Don allowed him to move on. Don now felt guilty for interrupting what had obviously been important work to the old man. And yet the old man had always smiled at him and chatted knowledgeably about the weather or other current events that Don introduced to make polite conversation. He had never made it seem as if Don were intruding on anything as important as work worth receiving a Nobel Prize.

That brought Don’s thoughts around to the F.B.I. Surely the old man had not been involved in criminal activity. What possible reason could there be for the government to confiscate all his files and papers?

One of the talking heads had just gotten around to asking a guest physicist if there had been any dangerous implications in the theory.

"Like what?" asked the physicist, evasively.

"Well, you know, like Einstein’s theory led to the Atom Bomb," said the reporter.

"Einstein’s theory of relativity certainly had nothing at all to do with the Atomic Bomb," said the physicist. "Einstein didn’t even know others were working on such a bomb. He was asked to sign the letter to President Roosevelt just because his name was well known and respected and the president would take the warning more seriously. He knew that the bomb was possible in theory. Many scientists knew that at the time. But his was the name the president would respect."

"Well, it seems to me that Mr. O’Neil has come up with a theory that kind of extends relativity and I want to know if we can look forward to any more weapons of mass destruction coming out of this," said the reporter.

"I don’t see how," said the physicist, defensively.

"Doesn’t his theory have something to say about time?" asked the reporter.

"Yes," said the physicist. "He mentions that space-time kind of vibrates as it expands, creating a space-time wave. That’s how he explains the wave-like behavior of sub-atomic particles."

"Well, I’ve been hearing rumors about a so-called Time Bomb," said the reporter.

"I can’t comment on rumors I haven’t heard," said the physicist, wiggling a bit in his chair. "There’s nothing inherently dangerous in any of the work Mr. O’Neil has done. His theories don’t have anything to do with weapons or bombs."

"Well, thank you for your time," said the reporter, beginning to wrap up the talk show. As he yammered on about next week’s guest, the camera zoomed in on the physicist and Don noticed that some sweat had broken out on his forehead. Of course, that could be because of the hot lights in the TV studio, but the body language Don had been receiving from watching him during the interview told him that the man was definitely nervous about more than being on a TV talk show.

That would explain the F.B.I. nosing around the old man’s house while he was out of the country receiving the Nobel Prize. Suddenly Don felt a chill. Maybe there was something to this rumored Time Bomb. But what would a Time Bomb be like? A conventional time bomb was just any old bomb triggered by a timer. Was it possible to use time itself to create a bomb? Don had no idea, and he was positive that the old man had not been walking around the neighborhood planning a weapon of mass destruction, but it seemed that the F.B.I. was not as certain as Don on that last point.

While his thoughts were on that subject, Don Thorpe looked out his window at the house next door. The F.B.I. vans had stopped their coming and going. The barricades were still in place, but as far as Don could see, no guard had been left behind. They must have taken everything worth investigating and just left the barricades as a warning to other citizens who might be thinking deep thoughts about the nature of the universe. Then Don noticed that the side door of the old man’s house was not closed. There was a slight breeze between the two houses and it was making the door swing open and shut ever so gently, but the movement of the door attracted Don’s attention.

Grumbling to himself about the F.B.I. not being very respectful of property, Don put on a light autumn jacket and went out to check on the door and shut it. This was an invitation for looters who would certainly notice the barricades and figure out that the house was ripe for plunder. The F.B.I. might have taken books, files and papers, but crack-heads would be looking for appliances and other goods they could sell or trade for drugs and the F.B.I. probably didn’t give a damn about such things.

Sure enough, the side door of the old man’s house was wide open by the time Don arrived. Don slipped under the bright yellow warning tape the F.B.I. had used as a barricade and went inside. Don decided he would just check around to make sure a looter hadn’t already taken advantage of the situation, then he would lock the door and leave.

Behind the door was a small flight of steps leading up to the kitchen of the house, and another flight of steps leading down into the basement. A light switch near the door turned on the basement lights and Don went down to the bottom of the stairs. It was a simple basement, with a laundry area and a tiny workbench for home repairs. It looked as if it had rarely been used. Don could see at a glance that no one was down there and nothing had been disturbed. Don came back up the steps, turned off the basement light and proceeded up into the kitchen.

The old man had installed automatic night-lights everywhere, probably so he could make his way around the house at night. When Don came into the kitchen, the tiny lights came on so that he could easily locate the main wall light switches and find his way from room to room. The kitchen was undisturbed, but Don noted there were some small appliances that would quickly become targets for potential thieves if left unguarded too long. The fact that they were still in place reassured Don that the house had probably not been broken into. Still, he was inside now and it wouldn’t do any harm to check the other rooms. It was the neighborly thing to do.

The living room was a mess. It had evidently been the old man’s workroom, containing his desk and all the file cabinets, papers and books that the F.B.I. had recently confiscated. They hadn’t bothered to clean up after themselves, leaving scratch marks on the hardwood floors where they had dragged the file cabinets to the front door, worthless (to them) scraps of paper, old newspapers and magazines had been scattered and left everywhere… a clear fire hazard to Don’s cautious way of thinking. He turned on the wall switch, found a wastebasket and began cleaning up the debris left behind by the F.B.I.

"You won’t find it there," said a voice from the shadows of the adjoining room.

Don was startled into pure terror. He froze, then cautiously peered into the darkness. The old man limped out of the shadows and looked into his face.

"Oh, hello Mr. Thorpe," said the old man. "I thought you were with them."

"I thought you were in Stockholm," said Don, his voice quavering from the fright reflex he had just received.

"That was yesterday," said the old man. "I couldn’t wait to get out of there and come back home… to this." He gestured around the room. "My own government doesn’t trust me, it seems."

"I saw the side door left open" said Don. "I was afraid somebody had broken in to steal your stuff."

"Very neighborly. Thank you, Mr. Thorpe. I must have left the door open when I came in. I saw the barricades the F.B.I. had set up, so I came in by the side door."

"You know my name," said Don. In all the years he had seen and casually spoken with the old man, he hadn’t learned his name until he had heard it on the television, and yet the old man knew who he was.

"Of course," said the old man. "I see you almost every day. Why wouldn’t I know your name."

"Well call me Don, Mr. O’Neil," said Don. "My name is Donald Thorpe."

"And I’m just plain Sam," said the old man, shaking his hand. "No more ‘Misters’ between us, eh? Can I offer you a cup of coffee or something?"

"No, thank you," said Don. "I was just going to clean up the mess the F.B.I. left of your living room and then go back home. I didn’t want you to come home to … this." He gestured at the scattered papers on the floor.

"I don’t think it matters much," said Sam. "Once they find out I’m back in the country, they’ll probably haul me out of here and stash me wherever they’ve taken my stuff."

"Why?" asked Don. "What have you done?"

"What I’ve always done," said Sam sadly. "I think about things. Sometimes I think about things they don’t want me to think about. This is one of them."

"The Time Bomb thing?" said Don. "Is it true? Is there such a thing?"

"No!" barked Sam sharply. "And I hope there never will be! Not now, not ever! But that didn’t stop them from building the Atomic bomb once someone figured out how to do it."

"Have you figured out how to do it?" asked Don, a little timidly.

"I’m afraid so," said Sam. "At least I know the theory behind it and I know it’s possible to do. If I can figure it out, it won’t be long before others do, too. That’s what they don’t understand. The secret is already out. Once I hit upon the theory of the accelerating expanding universe, it was a natural conclusion. Someone else will figure it out before very long."

"Look," said Don. "I don’t want to see you getting hauled off by the F.B.I. just for having dangerous thoughts. Why don’t you come over to my house and we’ll figure out what to do about this."

"That’s very kind of you," said Sam, "but I don’t want to intrude. They’ll come for me sooner or later and I don’t want to get you involved."

"Neighbors get involved," said Don, firmly. "Come on. If they want you, let them hunt for you."

Don turned off the lights and they went back out the side door, locking it tightly behind them. Then they crossed the yard to Don’s house, where he helped Sam up the somewhat shaky front porch steps.

The television was still turned on in Don’s living room, and the news was still showing old video footage of Sam receiving the Nobel Prize, with a tiny photograph of him in the corner of the screen.

"Well, I guess I don’t have to worry about anyone recognizing me from that photograph," Sam chuckled. "That must have been taken twenty years ago."

"I’m honored to have such a celebrity as a neighbor, and visiting me in my house for the first time," said Don. "Let me get you a cup of coffee."

"The honor is all mine," said Sam. "I’m lucky to have a good neighbor like you. Just a little milk, if you please, and one spoon of sugar." He had followed Don into the kitchen and sat down at the kitchen table, although Don felt he should be offering his famous guest the best seat in his living room. They sat together at the kitchen table quietly stirring their coffee and Don noticed that Sam’s eyes would occasionally seem to lose their focus and he would stare at the table intently for long quiet periods of time.

Finally Don ventured to break in to Sam’s thoughts when he saw him come back to stir his coffee and take a sip. "Is that how you do it?" he asked.

"Beg pardon?" asked his guest.

"You seem to disappear for a long time," said Don. "Is that how you think? Is that how you worked all this out?"

"Guilty," laughed Sam, putting down his cup. "Is it that obvious? I don’t mean to be rude, but yes, that’s how I work things out. Some people take it as rudeness, but I don’t mean to offend anyone."

"Please don’t think I’m offended," said Don. "I was just curious. You feel free to think all you want while you’re under my roof. Now that I know what you’re doing, I’ll be careful not to disturb you."

"Oh, you can’t disturb me," said Sam, taking a sip of coffee. "I learned long ago how to bookmark my thoughts and come back to them later. It was necessary to for me to learn how to do that for the short time I was married."

Don almost sprayed his guest with a mouthful of coffee as he burst out laughing. "I know exactly what you mean," he said, between gasps for air.

"She’d ask me what she had just been talking about and I’d answer with a description of the origin of the universe. Divorce was inevitable," Sam said with a smile.

"I wonder what she thinks of you now," said Don, wiping the tears from his eyes.

"She’s been dead for about ten years now," said Sam. "I don’t have anyone left to impress."

"Well, you impress me," said Don. "I got divorced years ago for different reasons, but I enjoy my peace and quiet too much to ever think about getting married again."

Just then they were interrupted by a flashing red light coming through the curtains of the living room and bouncing red reflections off the walls of the kitchen. Don jumped up and went to look out the front window. He came back to the kitchen quickly.

"I think they’re looking for you," he said quietly.

"Well, I’d better go out to them then," said Sam. "They can be mean and nasty to people for harboring a fugitive."

"You’re the winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics," said Don in exasperation. "There have been no announcements on TV that you are wanted for anything except some simple respect and the acknowledgement of your own government for your achievements. Don’t go until they make you go and are ready to explain the reason why to you and the rest of the world."

"My, my!" said Sam. "Are you a lawyer, Mr. Thorpe?"

"I used to be," said Don. "I was disbarred a few years back, so now I’m an out of work lawyer, but I still know the law and they had no business breaking into your home without serving you a warrant. They have no business taking you out of my house if you don’t want to go."

"Well, I was looking forward to another cup of your delicious coffee," said Sam.

"Then let me answer the door if they come knocking," said Don.

It didn’t take long for them to come knocking.

"We’re looking for your next door neighbor," said the neatly dressed man at the door, flashing a badge. "Have you seen him?"

"Joe? No. He’s probably at work. He works nights down at the plant," said Don, referring to the neighbor on the other side of his house. He tried to close the door.

"Not Joe," said the man, stopping him. "Mr. Samuel O’Neil. Your neighbor in that house." He pointed to O’Neil’s house to make sure there was no mistake, although the police cars with flashing red lights parked in front of it would have made it obvious if Don wasn’t determined to give them a hard time.

"The crazy old white man?" said Don. "How would I know where he is?"

"Oh. Well if you see him, please call this number," said the man, giving Don a small white card.

"What’s he done? Gone off his rocker? I always thought that old honky was ready for the funny farm."

"Just call us if you see him," said the man, turning to leave.

Don closed the door and Sam stepped out of the shadows just behind him. "That was embarrassing," said Sam.

"Oh, you mean the black-white thing?" said Don. "I was just playing on his prejudices that I, as a Black man, would not be likely to know my white neighbor."

"I knew exactly what you were doing," said Sam. "I’m embarrassed because it worked! He’s supposed to be with the F.B.I. and he bought your attitude hook, line, sinker and fishing pole. Shame on him. What next, lawyer?"

"Oh, I can’t practice law any more," said Don. "I’m disbarred, remember?"

"And if I decide I want a disbarred lawyer to represent me, I can’t do it?" asked Sam with a raised eyebrow.

"Well, I guess you can ask anyone to represent you, even a disbarred lawyer," said Don. "But if we ever go to court for any of this, you’ll have to have a qualified lawyer to represent you."

"Wrong," said Sam. "I’ll have to have the cheapest lawyer I can find sitting quietly in a chair on our side of the courtroom to make what you do and say legal in their eyes. Is that OK with you?"

"This is not going to court anyway," said Don. "All he asked is if I knew where you were and to call him if I saw you. I don’t have to tell him shit, because you have not been declared a fugitive from justice even to your nearest neighbors. Tomorrow I’ll have a little talk with your other neighbors to make sure they all know they don’t have to tell the white man nothin’."

"Playing on prejudices again?" said Sam.

"Exactly," laughed Don. "Shame on them."

After a short time, the flashing red lights went away. Don showed Sam his guest bedroom and went back outside to locate Sam’s suitcase where Sam had stashed it between the garbage cans at the back of Sam’s house. As he put the suitcase down on Sam’s bed, he asked playfully, "Is this where the secret of the Time Bomb is stored?"

Sam tapped his head. "No," said Sam. "The secret is stored in here. They can look all through my files and my computer and they won’t find a single mention of it. I was too frightened to write it down. It would be best for someone to put a bullet in my brain and do away with it. But even if they did, it’s too late. Sooner or later someone else will figure it out. In fact, they already have figured it out but just didn’t know what they were looking at."

Sam seemed to fall asleep as soon as he lay down on the bed, but his statement kept Don awake for hours. Finally, Don managed to drift off to sleep, his head filled with thoughts of how one could possibly make a Time Bomb, and what on earth Sam had meant when he implied that the secret was already known. They both awoke suddenly when the house next door exploded.

What? Still reading? Then you may want to continue the book to find out how it all ends, or to learn how to make your own Time Bomb in your spare time for fun and profit. JG

2001, Imagineering Magic. All Rights Reserved.