[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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Opening Chapter


by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1999 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

He who foresees calamities suffers them twice over.

— Beilby Porteus

Chapter 1

Day One: Tuesday, April 21, 2009

[FlashForward Paperback]

       A slice through spacetime . . .

       The control building for CERN's Large Hadron Collider was new: it had been authorized in A.D. 2004 and completed in 2006. The building enclosed a central courtyard, inevitably named "the nucleus." Every office had a window either facing in toward the nucleus or out toward the rest of CERN's sprawling campus. The quadrangle surrounding the nucleus was two stories tall, but the main elevators had four stops: the two above-ground levels; the basement, which housed boiler rooms and storage; and the minus-one-hundred-meter level, which exited onto a staging area for the monorail used to travel along the twenty-seven-kilometer circumference of the collider tunnel. The tunnel itself ran under farmers' fields, the outskirts of the Geneva airport, and the foothills of the Jura mountains.

       The south wall of the control building's main corridor was divided into nineteen long sections, each of which had been decorated with a mosaic made by an artist from one of CERN's member countries. The one from Greece depicted Democritus and the origin of atomic theory; the one from Germany portrayed the life of Einstein; the one from Denmark, that of Niels Bohr. Not all of the mosaics had physics as their themes, though: the French one depicted the skyline of Paris, and the Italian one showed a vineyard with thousands of polished amethysts representing individual grapes.

       The actual control room for the Large Hadron Collider was a perfect square, with wide, sliding doors positioned precisely in the centers of two of its sides. The room was two stories tall, and the upper half was walled with glass, so that tour groups could look down on the proceedings; CERN offered three-hour public tours Mondays and Saturdays at 09h00 and 14h00. Hanging flat against the walls below the windows were the nineteen member-state flags, five per wall; the twentieth spot was taken up by the blue-and-gold flag of the European Union.

       The control room contained dozens of consoles. One was devoted to operating the particle injectors; it controlled the beginnings of experiments. Adjacent to it was another with an angled face and ten inlaid monitors that would display the results reported by the ALICE and CMS detectors, the huge underground systems that would record and attempt to identify the particles produced by LHC experiments. Monitors on a third console showed portions of the gently curving underground collider tunnel, with the I-beam monorail track hanging from the ceiling.

       Lloyd Simcoe, a Canadian-born researcher, sat at the injector console. He was forty-five, tall, and clean-shaven. His eyes were blue and his crewcut hair so dark brown that one could get away with calling it black — except at the temples, where about half of it had turned gray.

       Particle physicists weren't known for their sartorial splendor, and Lloyd had until recently been no exception. But he'd agreed a few months ago to donate his entire wardrobe to the Geneva chapter of the Salvation Army, and let his fiancée pick out all-new things for him. Truth be told, the clothes were a little flashy for his taste, but he had to admit that he'd never looked so sharp. Today, he was wearing a beige dress shirt; a coral-colored jacket; brown pants with exterior pouches instead of interior pockets; and — in a nod to fashion tradition — black Italian leather shoes. Lloyd had also adopted a couple of universal status symbols that also happened to be bits of local color: a Mont Blanc fountain pen, which he kept clipped to his jacket's inside pocket, and a gold Swiss analog watch.

       Seated on his right, in front of the detector console, was the master of the makeover herself, his fiancée, engineer Michiko Komura. Ten years Lloyd's junior at thirty-five, Michiko had a small, upturned nose and lustrous black hair that she had styled in the currently popular page-boy cut.

       Standing behind her was Theo Procopides, Lloyd's research partner. At twenty-seven, Theo was eighteen years younger than Lloyd; more than one wag had compared the conservative middle-aged Lloyd and his fiery Greek colleague to the team of Crick and Watson. Theo had curly, thick, dark hair, gray eyes, and a prominent, jutting jaw. He almost always wore red denim jeans — Lloyd didn't like them, but no one under thirty wore blue jeans anymore — and one of an endless string of T-shirts depicting cartoon characters from all over the world; today he had on the venerable Tweety Bird. A dozen other scientists and engineers were positioned at the remaining consoles.

       Moving up the cube . . .

       Except for the gentle hum of air conditioning and the soft whir of equipment fans, the control room was absolutely silent. Everyone was nervous and tense, after a long day of preparing for this experiment. Lloyd looked around the room then took a deep breath. His pulse was racing, and he could feel butterflies gyrating in his stomach.

       The clock on the wall was analog; the one on his console, digital. They were both rapidly approaching 17h00 — what Lloyd, even after two years in Europe, still thought of as 5:00 p.m.

       Lloyd was director of the collaborative group of almost a thousand physicists using the ALICE ("A Large Ion Collider Experiment") detector. He and Theo had spent two years designing today's particle collision — two years, to do work that could have taken two lifetimes. They were attempting to re-create energy levels that hadn't existed since a nanosecond after the Big Bang, when the universe's temperature was 10,000,000,000,000,000 degrees. In the process, they hoped to detect the holy grail of high-energy physics, the long-sought-after Higgs boson, the particle whose interactions endowed other particles with mass. If their experiment worked, the Higgs, and the Nobel that would likely be awarded to its discoverers, should be theirs.

       The whole experiment was automated and precisely timed. There was no great knife switch to pull down, no trigger hidden under a spring-loaded cover to push. Yes, Lloyd had designed and Theo had coded the core modules of the program for this experiment, but everything was now under the control of a computer.

       When the digital clock reached 16:59:55, Lloyd started counting down out loud with it. "Five."

       He looked at Michiko.


       She smiled back encouragingly. God, how he loved her —


       He shifted his gaze to young Theo, the wunderkind — the kind of youthful star Lloyd had hoped to have been himself but never was.


       Theo, ever cocky, gave him a thumbs-up sign.


       Please, God . . . thought Lloyd. Please.


       And then —

       And then, suddenly, everything was different.

       There was an immediate change in the lighting — the dim illumination of the control room was replaced with sunlight coming through a window. But there was no adjustment, no discomfort — and no sense that Lloyd's pupils were contracting. It was as if he were already used to the brighter light.

       And yet Lloyd couldn't control his eyes. He wanted to look around, to see what was going on, but his eyes moved as if under their own volition.

       He was in bed — naked, apparently. He could feel the cotton sheets sliding now over his skin as he propped himself up on one elbow. As his head moved, he caught a brief glimpse of dormer windows, looking out apparently from the second floor of a country house. There were trees visible, and —

       No, that couldn't be. These leaves had turned, frozen fire. But today was April 21 — spring, not autumn.

       Lloyd's view continued to shift and suddenly, with what should have been a start, he realized he wasn't alone in bed. There was someone else with him.

       He recoiled.

       No — no, that wasn't right. He didn't physically react at all; it was as if his body were divorced from his mind. But he felt like recoiling.

       The other person was a woman, but —

       What the hell was going on?

       She was old, wrinkled, her skin translucent, her hair a white gossamer. The collagen that had once filled her cheeks had settled as wattles at the sides of her mouth, a mouth now smiling, the laugh lines all but lost amongst the permanent creases.

       Lloyd tried to roll away from the hag, but his body refused to cooperate.

       What in God's name was happening?

       It was spring, not autumn.

       Unless —

       Unless, of course, he was now in the southern hemisphere. Transported, somehow, from Switzerland to Australia . . .

       But no. The trees he'd glimpsed through the window were maples and poplars; it had to be North America or Europe.

       His hand reached out. The woman was wearing a navy-blue shirt. It wasn't a pajama top, though; it had buttoned-down epaulets and several pockets — adventure clothing made of cotton duck, the kind L. L. Bean or Tilley sells, the kind a practical woman might wear to do her gardening. Lloyd felt his fingers brushing the fabric now, feeling its softness, its pliancy. And then —

       And then his fingers found the button, hard, plastic, warmed by her body, translucent like her skin. Without hesitation, the fingers grasped the button, pushed it out, slipped it sideways through the raised stitching around the buttonhole. Before the top fell open, Lloyd's gaze, still acting on its own initiative, lifted again to the old woman's face, locking onto her pale blue eyes, the irises haloed by broken rings of white.

       He felt his own cheeks drawing tight as he smiled. His hand slipped inside the woman's top, found her breast. Again he wanted to recoil, snapping his hand back. The breast was soft and shriveled, the skin hanging loosely on it — fruit gone bad. The fingers drew together, following the contours of the breast, finding the nipple.

       Lloyd felt a pressure down below. For a horrible moment, he thought he was getting an erection, but that wasn't it. Instead, suddenly, there was a sense of fullness in his bladder; he had to urinate. He withdrew his hand and saw the old woman's eyebrows go up inquisitively. Lloyd could feel his shoulders rise and fall, a little shrug. She smiled at him — a warm smile, an understanding smile, as if this were the most natural thing in the world, as if he often had to excuse himself at the outset. Her teeth were slightly yellow — the simple yellow of age — but otherwise in excellent shape.

       At last his body did what he'd been willing all along: it rolled away from the woman. Lloyd felt a pain in his knee as he did so, a sharp jab. It hurt, but he outwardly ignored it. He swung his legs off the bed, feet slapping softly against the cool hardwood floor. As he rose, he saw more of the world outside the window. It was either mid-morning or mid-afternoon, the shadow cast by one tree falling sharply across the next. A bird had been resting in one of the boughs; it was startled by the sudden movement in the bedroom and took wing. A robin — the large North American thrush, not the small Old World robin; this was definitely the United States or Canada. In fact, it looked a lot like New England — Lloyd loved the fall colors in New England.

       Lloyd found himself moving slowly, almost shuffling across the floorboards. He realized now that this room wasn't in a house, but rather a cottage; the furnishings were the usual vacation-home hodgepodge. That night table — low-slung, made of particle board with a wallpaper-thin veneer of fake woodgrain on top: he recognized it, at least. A piece of furniture he'd bought as a student, and had eventually put in the guest room at the house in Illinois. But what was it doing here, in this unfamiliar place?

       He continued along. His right knee bothered him with each step; he wondered what was wrong with it. A mirror was hanging on the wall; its frame was knotty pine, covered over with clear varnish. It clashed with the darker "wood" of the night table, of course, but —


       Jesus Christ.

       Of their own accord, his eyes looked into the mirror as he passed, and he saw himself —

       For a half-second he thought it was his father.

       But it was him. What hair was left on his head was entirely gray; that on his chest was white. His skin was loose and lined, his gait stooped.

       Could it be radiation? Could the experiment have exposed him? Could —

       No. No, that wasn't it. He knew it in his bones — in his arthritic bones. That wasn't it.

       He was old.

       It was as if he'd aged twenty years or more, as if —

       Two decades of life gone, excised from his memory.

       He wanted to scream, to shout, to protest the unfairness, protest the loss, demand an accounting from the universe —

       But he could do none of that; he had no control. His body continued its slow, painful shuffle to the bathroom.

       As he turned to enter the room, he glanced back at the old woman on the bed, lying now on her side, her head propped up by an arm, her smile mischievous, seductive. His vision was still sharp — he could see the flash of gold on the third finger of her left hand. It was bad enough that he was sleeping with an old woman, but a married old woman —

       The plain wooden door was ajar, but he reached a hand up to push it open the rest of the way, and out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of a matching wedding ring on his own left hand.

       And then it hit him. This hag, this stranger, this woman he'd never seen before, this woman who looked nothing like his beloved Michiko, was his wife.

       Lloyd wanted to look back at her, to try to imagine her as she would have been decades younger, to reconstruct the beauty she might have once had, but —

       But he continued on into the bathroom, half turning to face the toilet, leaning over to lift the lid, and —

       — and, suddenly, incredibly, thankfully, amazingly, Lloyd Simcoe was back at CERN, back in the LHC control room. For some reason, he was slumped in his vinyl-padded chair. He straightened himself up and used his hands to pull his shirt back into position.

       What an incredible hallucination it had been! There would be hell to pay, of course: they were supposed to be fully shielded here, a hundred meters of earth between them and the collider ring. But he'd heard how high-energy discharges could cause hallucinations; surely that had been what had happened.

       Lloyd took a moment to reorient himself. There had been no transition between here and there: no flash of light, no sense of wooziness, no popping of his ears. One instant, he'd been at CERN, then, in the next, he'd been somewhere else, for — what? — two minutes, perhaps. And now, just as seamlessly, he was back in the control room.

       Of course he'd never left. Of course it had been an illusion.

       He glanced around, trying to read the faces of the others. Michiko looked shocked. Had she been watching Lloyd while he was hallucinating? What had he done? Flailed around like an epileptic? Reached out into the air, as if stroking an unseen breast? Or just slumped back in his chair, falling unconscious? If so, he couldn't have been out for long — nowhere near the two minutes he'd perceived — or surely Michiko and others would be looming over him right now, checking his pulse and loosening his collar. He glanced at the analog wall clock: it was indeed two minutes after five p.m.

       He then looked over at Theo Procopides. The young Greek's expression was more subdued than Michiko's, but he was being just as wary as Lloyd, looking in turn at each of the other people in the room, shifting his gaze as soon as one of them looked back at him.

       Lloyd opened his mouth to speak although he wasn't sure what he wanted to say. But he closed it when he heard a moaning sound coming through the nearest open door. Michiko evidently heard it too; they both rose simultaneously. She was closer to the door, though, and by the time Lloyd reached it, she was already out in the corridor. "My God!" she was saying. "Are you okay?"

       One of the technicians — Sven, it was — was struggling to get to his feet. He was holding his right hand to his nose, which was bleeding profusely. Lloyd hurried back into the control room, unclipped the first-aid kit from its wall mount, and ran to the corridor. The kit was in a white plastic box; Lloyd popped it open and began unrolling a length of gauze.

       Sven began to speak in Norwegian, but stopped himself after a moment and started over in French. "I — I must have fainted."

       The corridor was covered with hard tiles; Lloyd could see a carnation smear of blood where Sven's face had hit the floor. He handed the gauze to Sven, who nodded his thanks then wadded it up and pressed it against his nose. "Craziest thing," he said. "Like I fell asleep on my feet." He made a little laughing sound. "I had a dream, even."

       Lloyd felt his eyebrows climbing. "A dream?" he said, also in French.

       "Vivid as anything," said Sven. "I was in Geneva — over by Le Rozzel." Lloyd knew it well: a Breton-style crêperie on Grand Rue. "But it was like some science-fiction thing. There were cars hovering by without touching the ground, and —"

       "Yes, yes!" It was a woman's voice, but not in response to Sven. It was coming from back inside the control room. "The same thing happened to me!"

       Lloyd re-entered the dimly lit room. "What happened, Antonia?"

       A heavyset Italian woman had been talking to two of the other people present, but now turned to face Lloyd. "It was like I was suddenly somewhere else. Parry said the same thing happened to him."

       Michiko and Sven were now standing in the doorway, right behind Lloyd. "Me, too," said Michiko, sounding relieved that she wasn't alone in this.

       Theo, standing next to Antonia now, was frowning. Lloyd looked at him. "Theo? What about you?"



       Theo shook his head.

       "We all must have passed out," said Lloyd.

       "I sure did," said Sven. He pulled the gauze away from his face, then touched it against his nose again to see if the bleeding had stopped. It hadn't.

       "How long were we out?" asked Michiko.

       "And — Christ! — what about the experiment?" asked Lloyd. He sprinted over to the ALICE monitoring station and tapped a couple of keys.

       "Nothing," he said. "Damn."

       Michiko blew out air in disappointment.

       "It should have worked," said Lloyd, slapping an open palm against the console. "We should have got the Higgs."

       "Well, something happened," said Michiko. "Theo, didn't you see anything while the rest of us were having — having visions?"

       Theo shook his head. "Not a thing. I guess — I guess I did black out. Except there was no blackness. I was watching Lloyd as he counted down: five, four, three, two, one, zero. Then it was like a jump cut, you know, in film. Suddenly Lloyd was slumped over in his seat."

       "You saw me slump over?"

       "No, no. It's like I said: one instant you were sitting up, and the next you were slumped over, with no movement in between. I guess — I guess I did black out. No sooner had it registered on me that you were slumped over than you were sitting back up, and —"

       Suddenly, a warbling siren split the air — an emergency vehicle of some sort. Lloyd hurried out of the control room, everyone following. The room on the opposite side of the corridor had a window in it. Michiko, who had got there first, was already hoisting the venetian blind; late-afternoon sun streamed in. The vehicle was a CERN fire truck, one of three kept on site. It was racing across the campus, heading toward the main administration building.

       Sven's nose had apparently at last stopped bleeding; he was now holding the bloody mass of gauze at his side. "I wonder if somebody else had a fall?" he said.

       Lloyd looked at him.

       "They use the fire trucks for first aid as well as fires," said Sven.

       Michiko realized the magnitude of what Sven was suggesting. "We should check all the rooms here; make sure everyone is all right."

       Lloyd nodded and moved back to the corridor. "Antonia, you check everyone in the control room. Michiko, you take Jake and Sven and go down that way. Theo and I will look up this way." He felt a brief pang of guilt at dismissing Michiko, but he needed a moment to sort out what he'd seen, what he'd experienced.

       The first room Lloyd and Theo entered contained a downed woman; Lloyd couldn't remember her name, but she worked in public relations. The flatscreen computer monitor in front of her showed the familiar Windows 2009 three-dimensional desktop. She was still unconscious; it was clear from the massive bruise on her forehead that she'd pitched forward, hitting her head on the metal rim of her desk, knocking herself out. Lloyd did what he'd seen done in countless movies: he took her left hand in his right, holding it so that the back of her hand was face up, and he patted it gently with his other hand while urging her to wake up.

       Which, at last, she did. "Dr. Simcoe?" she said, looking at Lloyd. "What happened?"

       "I don't know."

       "I had this — this dream," she said. "I was in an art gallery somewhere, looking at a painting."

       "Are you okay now?"

       "I — I don't know. My head hurts."

       "You might have a concussion. You should get to the infirmary."

       "What are all those sirens?"

       "Fire trucks." A pause. "Look, I've got to go now. Other people might be hurt, as well."

       She nodded. "I'll be all right."

       Theo had already continued on down the corridor. Lloyd left the room and headed down, as well. He passed Theo, who was tending to someone else who had fallen. The corridor made a right-hand turn; Lloyd headed along the new section. He came to an office door, which slid open silently as he approached it, but the people on the other side all seemed to be fine, although they were talking animatedly about the different visions they'd had. There were three individuals present: two women and a man. One of the women caught sight of Lloyd.

       "Lloyd, what happened?" she asked in French.

       "I don't know yet," he replied, also in French. "Is everyone okay?"

       "We're fine."

       "I couldn't help overhearing," said Lloyd. "The three of you had visions, too?"

       Nods all around.

       "They were vividly realistic?"

       The woman who hadn't yet spoken to Lloyd pointed at the man. "Not Raoul's. He had some sort of psychedelic experience." She said it as if this was only to be expected given Raoul's lifestyle.

       "I wouldn't exactly say `psychedelic,'" said Raoul, sounding as though he needed to defend himself. His blond hair was long and clean, and tied together in a glorious ponytail. "But it sure wasn't realistic. There was this guy with three heads, see —"

       Lloyd nodded, filing this bit of information away. "If you guys are all fine, then join us — some people took nasty falls when whatever it was happened. We need to search for anyone who might be hurt."

       "Why not go on the intercom, and get everyone who can to assemble in the lobby?" said Raoul. "Then we can do a head count and see who's missing."

       Lloyd realized this made perfect sense. "You continue to look; some people might need immediate attention. I'll go up to the front office." He headed out of the room, and the others rose and entered the corridor as well. Lloyd took the shortest path to the office, sprinting past the various mosaics. When he arrived, some of the administrative staff were tending to one of their own who'd apparently broken his arm when he fell. Another person had been scalded when she pitched forward onto her own steaming cup of coffee.

       "Dr. Simcoe, what happened?" asked a man.

       Lloyd was getting sick of the question. "I don't know. Can you operate the PA?"

       The man looked at him; evidently Lloyd was using a North Americanism the fellow didn't know.

       "The PA," said Lloyd. "The public-address system."

       The man's blank look continued.

       "The intercom!"

       "Oh, sure," he said, his English harshened by a German accent. "Over here." He led Lloyd to a console and flipped some buttons. Lloyd picked up the thin plastic wand that had the solid-state microphone at its tip.

       "This is Lloyd Simcoe." He could hear his own voice coming back at him from the speaker out in the corridor, but filters in the system eliminated any feedback. "Clearly, something has happened. Several people are injured. If you yourself are ambulatory —" He stopped himself; English was a second language for most of the workers here. "If you yourself can walk, and if the people you're with can walk as well, or at least can be left, please come at once to the main lobby. Someone could have fallen in a hidden place; we need to find out if anyone is missing." He handed the microphone back to the man. "Can you repeat the gist of that in German and French?"

       "Jawohl," said the man, already switching mental gears. He began to speak into the mike. Lloyd moved away from the PA controls. He then ushered the able-bodied people out of the office into the lobby, which was decorated with a long brass plaque rescued from one of the older buildings that had been demolished to make room for the LHC control center. The plaque spelled out CERN's original acronym: Conseil européenne pour la recherche nucléaire. These days, the acronym didn't actually stand for anything, but its historical roots were honored here.

       The faces in the lobby were mostly white, with a few — Lloyd stopped himself before he mentally referred to them as melanic-Americans, the term currently preferred by blacks in the United States. Although Peter Carter, there, was from Stanford, most of the other blacks were actually directly from Africa. There were also several Asians, including, of course, Michiko, who had come to the lobby in response to the PA announcement. Lloyd moved over to her and gave her a hug. Thank God she, at least, hadn't been hurt. "Anybody seriously injured?" he asked.

       "A few bruises and another bloody nose," said Michiko, "but nothing major. You?"

       Lloyd scanned for the woman who had banged her head. She hadn't shown up yet. "One possible concussion, a broken arm, and a bad burn." He paused. "We should really call for some ambulances — get the injured to a hospital."

       "I'll take care of that," said Michiko. She disappeared into the office.

       The assembled group was getting larger; it now numbered about two hundred people. "Everyone!" shouted Lloyd. "Your attention, please! Votre attention, s'il vous plaît!" He waited until all eyes were on him. "Look around and see if you can account for your coworkers or office mates or lab staff. If anyone you've seen today is missing, let me know. And if anyone here in the lobby requires immediate medical attention, let me know that, too. We've called for some ambulances."

       As he said that, Michiko re-emerged. Her skin was even paler than normal, and her voice was quavering as she spoke. "There won't be any ambulances," she said. "Not anytime soon, anyway. The emergency operator told me they're all tied up in Geneva. Apparently every driver on the roads blacked out; they can't even begin to tally up how many people are dead."


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