Giant Steps

Page 1

"This is what I wanted to show you," said Tank as he parted the beaded curtain in the entrance to his apartment living room.

I peered in through the beads and saw a young, mustachioed black man with close cropped hair and dark glasses sitting on Tank's couch, listening to something over a pair of Bluetooth headphones. He held an iPhone in his hands but he wasn't looking at it. His dark glasses were thick framed and retro-looking. He was really grooving to whatever he was listening to, his head weaving back and forth like a snake charmer's python.

"Tank — is that who I think it is?" I asked, grabbing Tank's arm. The young man on the couch didn't look over when I spoke. I was pretty sure he couldn't see me, or anything else for that matter, and with the headphones turned up, he didn't appear to hear us either.

Tank grinned and let the curtain fall back into place. With his arm around my shoulders, he steered me down the hall to his kitchen. Tank looked like a big, swarthy linebacker but he was actually the brightest engineer I had ever had the pleasure of working with, and my closest friend.

"Yup," said Tank. "That's him. He's listening to his own most popular album right now, that one from the seventies."

I was stunned. It had all not seemed real when Tank had told me what he was planning to do.

I had worked with Tank several times over the years, including a project that started about two years ago for which I had set up a bevy of servers. It was a hush-hush government contract in which each person was told only what they needed to know, and I had not needed to know much. I was done after four months, but Tank had stayed on. I vaguely knew that he designed custom integrated circuit chips for the project, plus other odds and ends, but he could never tell me what they were for.

About a week ago something had snapped in Tank. What he was working on was "too nifty" (his words) to not tell me about it, so he did, thereby putting both of us in a precarious legal position.

In the pub where Tank had enlightened me, we had each just taken the first swig of our Guinness when Tank suddenly slid around the table to face the same direction I did.

"I have something to tell you, for your ears only," Tank said.

That was fine. There was enough background noise that only a lip reader could have eavesdropped. I braced for a joke in questionable taste but what I got instead was an earful of state secrets.

Tank proceeded to tell me that the military project we had both worked on had been aimed at creating a portal through which the past could be viewed and through which objects could pass.

I smiled and waited for a punch line. The silence lengthened until I broke it. "You're shitting me."

"I shit you not," was his reply. "They got it working about a month ago. Lars, I'm in the room when they test it. This is not second hand information. I watch it work."

I knew from his manner that I could quit waiting for a punch line. He believed what he was saying. I just didn't know if I did. I had seen that project and knew it was well-funded and took itself seriously, under the oversight of an army colonel. It had paid forty percent above my usual rate.

"You can't be telling me this. I should hold my hands over my ears right now and start saying 'La, la la,' so you can't get me in trouble."

Tank sighed. "Have it your way," he said, swirling his Guinness and staring into his mug. He looked up and said, "So, what are we going to talk about? Your turn."

Tense silence ensued. I struggled, then said, "OK, you bastard. I admit I can't just leave this alone. Tell me more. What do you call it, a time machine?"

He nodded. He said, "Yes, and the server array that you set up. The chips I worked on and their microcode were designed by a massively parallel algorithm running on those servers."

"So what do you guys do with the... machine?"

"That's the problem. We do nothing, Lars! Nothing of note. It's all baby steps and it sucks big time. We calibrate, we test, we write, we plan. We have a goddamned time machine and we sit there like a knitting circle with our thumbs up our butts."

"What does it look like?" I asked.

"It's tiny. The device is a welded, stainless steel box that I built containing the integrated circuits, a power supply I scavenged from an old server, and four rings of electromagnets. On the outside it has a kill switch and five knobs. It's super simple."