“Scientific Inquiry” by J.R.D. Skinner

Scientific Inquiry

The judge waited, and the attorney repeated his question.

“Professor Riddle, how do you explain the video?”

The answer finally came. “Simply: It’s not me.”

Tugging at a well-tailored suit cuff, the lawyer, Benson, nodded.

“That does appear to be you shouting,” he replied.

“Look,” answered Riddle, as he ran a hand through the cloud of ivory wisps that ringed his balding head. “If you discount everything from the day my son was born until the events of the day of the recording, I suppose the trouble began in early September of this year.”

As he spoke he shifted in his seat, his swinging knees making full use of the width of the witness stand.

“I am prone to evening work, a habit of my years at the university when I was required to spend my hours focusing on the distractions of academia – marking, quizzing, mentoring – instead of pure science. Night had fallen beyond my laboratory’s window, and, with aching eyes, I was considering leaving my research to locate a crust of bread with which to fill my belly.

“Now, while my equipment represents the finest in its variety of lines, I do admit the neighbourhood in which I lease my space is not of the same quality. Each evening I take special care to visit the thirty-two locks I have positioned around my property.

“This was why I was surprised when, not a minute after having set my key ring back in my pocket, a light came on in the lab, and a face appeared at the window.

“It was my own cry of ‘what goes on here!?’ that I believe drew the gaze of your supposed witness, perhaps a pedestrian, as you say, although I stick by my contention that this curious fellow was more likely a private detective hired by my own offspring.

“Whatever the case, I was turning to sprint back inside when the window shot up, and the barrel of my experimental particle-beam cannon was thrust through. Behind it was a familiar visage, and, as you said, he was shouting with passion.

“You must understand, though, that this is no ridiculous G.I. Joe gadget to be fired willy-nilly from the hip. The cannon is controlled through an operational software suite, which should have been safe behind several passwords.

“So, yes, I can understand why you might be confused. The intruder not only looked like me, but knew my codes. How could you conclude otherwise?

“Yet, as a man of science, I stand by my principles, and maintain that no two people utilizing the same atoms can exist in the same point in a Minkowski spacetime plane.

“Thus, how could I be in both places at once?”

The judge raised her brow at the question, and the professor offered a grave nod at her interest.

Alone on the courtroom’s rearmost bench, Henry George Riddle Jr. frowned.

The testimony continued.

“Well, by the time I’d dislodged the necessary locks and reentered, the intruder was gone. The sole clue, beyond a slight increase in the room’s backroom radiation, was that the handsome trespasser had left his firing coordinates on the central monitor.

“That’s when things turned truly strange, as I quickly ascertained that the interloper had been aiming not just at the moon, but at a point quite some depth beneath its surface. While I could make some guesses as to the size of the pit’s previous occupant, based on the lingering crater, the weapon had done a thorough job of wiping the site clean of proper evidence as to the target.

“Still, it was clear it had hit something – and something explosive, as the lunar gash was much wider than my beam could have achieved after such short usage.

“While this was a fascinating mystery, my mind leapt forward to a much more troubling conclusion. With some quickly scrawled math, I determined that the impact of the energy exchange was such that the moon’s orbit was, in fact, crumbling – and not slowly either.

“To be clear: I did not think of this as a problem I had created. My attempts to remedy the situation were entirely altruistic, and, frankly, related to the fact that there are few others in the scientific community who are so, er, singularly suited to the task.

“That said, rockets are not my area of expertise, and it was clear I would require a massive fleet to provide the sort of thrust necessary to return Earth’s satellite to a stable trajectory.

“I do admit, though, that under extreme circumstances I turned to extreme measures.

“While my armada would have to be researched, designed, and constructed from the ground up, my cloning tank was fully assembled, if never used. I have always liked to think my mind alone to be sufficient to conquer any task, and I worked in solitude throughout that first week, exhausting myself and sleeping rough on the floor. There was so much to consider, and not just in the physics: A single misfire could drop one of my payloads, and the lifting fuel behind it, onto a major metropolitan area, killing thousands.

“Eventually I was forced to allow myself an extra pair of shoulders to carry the weight. I took every precaution of course, as I know myself to be a wily man. I provided as few details as necessary to succeed in our current undertaking.

“Still, Two was always the most faithful of them all. He would be here to defend me from the treachery of my progeny if he could.

“Anyhow: Freed to update my calculations, I then realized that the lunar body was descending at a much faster rate than I had anticipated. This meant, obviously, having to kick the cloning operation into high gear. In total we created one hundred doppelgangers.”

Benson’s lips tightened, and he asked, Wwhy not a thousand?”

“Well, partially due to simple logistics: Where would we all sleep? More importantly, however, there were only so many ways to divide the labour. Worse, project management was a bit of a debacle. Everyone wants to be captain when the rest of the team is made up of yourself, and it’s hard to argue that any of you merits the position more than another.

“In the end, given our math on the moon’s descent, and the large scale manufacturing necessary to complete the undertaking, we decided it was easiest to construct a time machine to allow for a larger project window.

“If you’re not familiar with quantum mechanics, this can be a tricky bit of business. As I mentioned, I was not eager to cause the collapse of the universe by encountering my atomic configuration in my own timeline, so it was necessary to move the lab backwards to a date before my own birth.

“The trouble is that if you move too far back, the means of production quickly slip beyond your grasp. No matter how grand our design, it would be impossible to carry out our plan if we could not locate the simple components necessary to fashion our fusion engines.

“Worse, my selves did not enjoy the working and social conditions of 1985. It is hard to blame them, although I was clearly able to get on with my work. Perhaps their tolerance was lowered by the fact that they could not quite see the grand vision of my master plan, and they began developing quite the notions as to the proper use of our rocket fleet.

“Tensions increased throughout 1986. Despite the expanded development horizon, I could not shake the worry of the impending doom in my own timeline. I pressed my small army hard. At one point, for a cold March week, there was a strike that led to a complete work stoppage. I managed to negotiate a settlement, with Two as intermediary between the parties, but we never again achieved the same pace of work.

“Yet things did move forward until early 1987, when our goal was in sight. It was then, as Dancing on the Ceiling drifted through a quiet afternoon in the lab, that the mutiny began.

“It was not in them to kill me – to kill one of themselves – but they were happy enough to leave me to a fate as sure as death. Pushing our temporal portal to its limits, they thrust me into the early Triassic period and shut the door behind me.

“I have always fancied myself to be an independent man, but it is quite another thing for a gent to be asked to survive in an age without residential housing or basic agriculture.

“The inevitability of my end yawned before me. The notion that some lurking beast was about to burst through the foliage settled deep in my mind. I was about to push forward, thinking I could at least die a tool user if I might locate a suitable club, when the gap in space and time re-opened.

“It was, of course, Two. The lovely idiot was smiling.

“‘The others abandoned me,’ he said.

“‘Don’t worry though, I fixed it all,’ he said.

“It came out that the clones had absconded with our spacecraft. Two suspected secret communications with my damnable heir. He’d pieced together enough to know they’d built a subterranean moonbase, and had further plans on stealing my identity to carry out nefarious machinations.

“Once deserted it had suddenly struck Two that he still had access to the time machine. He also recalled that my modern-era lab had been equipped with a particle-beam cannon. Without hesitation, he jumped forward, levelled the disloyal duplicates’ by-then-fully-constructed HQ, and finally moved to rescue me.

“He was still explaining all this when three Coelophysis got him.

“I was too wrapped up in the tale – in his excitement – and they came at us at a full, silent, sprint.

“It is a horror to see a friend pulled apart by a trio of pseudo-raptors, but doubly so when the friend carries your face.

“My escape was a narrow thing.

“With the clones dead, the rockets destroyed, the moonbase annihilated, and the time machine’s chrono coils melted from the rescue attempt, my return to the present should have perhaps been one of defeat, but, in truth, I arrived with a renewed vigour.

“I knew the situation to be bleak, but, though I’d been years at the project, I hadn’t actually lost that much of my window in local time. Opportunities had been lost, I realized, but I refused to let Two’s sacrifice be in vain.

“So it was that I was coming up with Plan B, a week ago, when the flicker of torches appeared at my window. My son, having failed to destroy his father by having turned my own science against me, had instead fallen to the most ancient ruse: Gathering the villagers and their clubs.

“There he stood, with two policemen, and I’m sure it was only by the grace of those uniformed gentlemen that I was not torn apart by the lynch mob watching from the sidewalk.

“Now, I have been told, again and again, that I would have my day in court – and here it is. Yet, Judge, the matter of the collapsing moon goes uncorrected, and if I do not return to my work we will all shortly be little more than lunar waffles. Have sense, your honour, and let me get about it.”

The arbiter looked from witness to inquisitor. Benson simply raised a brow and shrugged.

From his position on the stand the professor could easily see that his son’s face had collapsed into his hands, and he could not suppress the grin that formed at the clear sign of his argument’s power.

Clearing her throat with a dry cough, the judge replied.

“Do not fear, sir, you will have plenty of time to consider the problem,” she told Riddle directly. Then her voice raised to address the room at large.

“In light of this testimony, the video, the rapid descent from his position at the university, and the profile provided by his state-mandated psychologist, I feel we can expedite the processes of transferring power of attorney and of relocating the professor into a better environment than the alley-side cardboard box which he currently refers to as his laboratory.

“It is this court’s judgement, for reasons of public and personal safety, that Henry George Riddle Sr. should be remanded to the care of St. Jude’s Psychiatric ward for observation and care, as requested by his son.”

 

 

 


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A writer, adventurer, family man, and man of science, JRD Skinner provides the stories for the http://flashpulp.com podcast. When not on Twitter, as @jrdskinner, the rest of his time is wasted at http://skinner.fm

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6 Comments

  1. I wanted more.

    The concept here is decent. The structure is the kind of thing that Poe used to do, and I did wonder whether we were going to get some Aether-gothic tale about the perils of delving too deeply into ignorance. Alas not. Poe does the “tell don’t show” thing pretty well. Now, though, I think we can dispense with the protagonist standing and telling us things. Show us.

    If you’d shown us, if you’d adopted a third person/omniscient narrator for the exposition, then we’re drawn into the protagonist’s world and the reader hopefully doesn’t do what I did a few lines in, which was to say “oh, he’s nuts”. I spent the rest of the story wondering if I’d find out how he went crazy, which might have been a strong story, and that meant there was no reveal at the end.

  2. I’m a little bit torn about this one. The “reveal” at the end served only to undo most of what I had learned through the story, and I’m not a fan of that.
    But I also felt a bit sad for this crazy old man. He obviously has real problems, and I had connected with him enough through the narrative to feel sorry for his predicament.
    I think this could have worked better if the connection with the son was more obvious, if we understood better the real-world parallels of the man’s raving fantasies.
    Overall I have to agree with Doc; there’s a kernel of something that could work really well here, but it doesn’t go far enough.

  3. I had a ton of fun with this story. I know a lot of people aren’t into the oral style, but I am. It’s a lot of tell, but some of the best storytellers I’ve ever known can spin a tale over beers better than any book I’ve read.

    I was letting the story play out straight and didn’t really consider that he could be entirely nuts, which made the end a bit of a bummer but it was still a fine read.

    Good work, Mr. Skinner. We’ll see if our judges call you crazy or let you go free to pursue your mad story science.

  4. Man I really liked this. I can see where people above me are coming from with the oral presentation, but I’m fine with it.

    This story contained one of my favorite things to see, which is when talent makes something difficult look easy. The voice of Riddle is highly unique, never falters, draws you into the tale and is instantly believable. That’s not easy. The story-line itself is a perfect mobius strip where the attempt to save the earth is what leads to the event that causes the earth to need to be saved. Again, that’s not an easy thing to construct. But the calm confident demeanor of Riddle carries us through this clusterfuck of the infinite so well that I was enraptured the entire time (a favorite detail was when he decided, if he was to be trapped in the Triassic period, that he would at least attempt to go out as a tool wielder and maybe move science along by doing so).

    My only complaint with this story was the end. It was a decent twist and it had some nice payoff where the son as we see him in the courtroom was concerned, but the tale that Riddle had woven was so damn FUN that I much prefer his version of things. In fact, I’m debating interpreting his whole trial as something concocted and put into play by those evil clones of his…

  5. It was worth reading this story just to be able to read the line, “It was then, as Dancing on the Ceiling drifted through a quiet afternoon in the lab, that the mutiny began.”

    At first the protagonist’s manner of speaking threw me off, but then I fell into the groove and loved it. I’m always impressed when a character can be brought into focus just through his words. After a few paragraphs, I was really enjoying listening to this guy.

    But I would have enjoyed the story more if it had been only him talking without any side comments or descriptions of anything around him. It was fun to piece together the circumstances from his words alone. And I would also lose the reveal at the end.

    So in essence, a better version of this story (in my extremely subjective opinion) would begin with—

    “If you discount everything from the day my son was born until the events of the day of the recording, I suppose the trouble began in early September of this year.”

    and end with—

    “Now, I have been told, again and again, that I would have my day in court – and here it is. Yet, Judge, the matter of the collapsing moon goes uncorrected, and if I do not return to my work we will all shortly be little more than lunar waffles. Have sense, your honour, and let me get about it.”

    Whether or not we’re listening to a truly insane scientist would be left for the reader to ponder for a very long time.

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