“I know it hurts a lot, but never lose hope, boy. Stay strong. This is just the beginning. There are bigger storms to fight ahead. I heard that you are brilliant in your studies – one among the top. Keep it up. Pursue interest in the field of science and technology. You’re destined to succeed.”
“Who are you?”
The masked figure looked at me, his eyes distraught with sympathy. He slowly gets up and leaves the cemetery without any reply.
Amidst all the apparent sadness of my parent’s death, his words linger – as if giving a purpose to my shambolic life – wrecked by a heartless dictator – Hitler.
June 03, 1970
“Here’s your evening coffee, Mr Bernard.”
“Oh..thanks Hannah!”, her voice startled me up from my deep slumber.
“Seems like you dozed off recalculating the maximum terminal velocity of the ship, Mr Bernard.”, she stated the obvious.
“Oh yes, I was lost in a dream – my past, to be more precise. The recurring one.”
“The one with the masked man? Again?”, she asked me.
“Well, yes. Meeting that man exactly thirty years ago when I lost my parents changed my life for good. When everyone was busy giving consolations, he was the only one who gave me hope.”, I sigh.
This was one of the usual routines, and Hannah had grown used to it.
And I see you skipped your usual walk to Café de Flore today.”, she smiled looking at her wristwatch which I had gifted on her birthday a few months ago.
“How can I miss my routine, Hannah? I will leave in a minute. Thanks for the coffee and the awakening though!”, I beamed, rubbing my eyes, searching for my glasses.
As I sip the coffee she made for me, my mind slowly thinks about tonight. Almost everything seems to be in place. The calculations, the equipment, everything. All the hard work since the past five years will finally be put to test tonight. History is bound to be created. But will it happen tonight was the question which made me restless. I see Hannah going over the calculation journal for the gazillionth time since yesterday night.
Hiring Hannah Paul as my lab assistant is one of the best life decisions I have made so far. I noticed her for the first time six years ago when I was invited to my alma mater’s Science Fair as a guest of honour. Bordeaux University boasted of its achievements and scholars in the field of science and research, and their annual Science Fair was a medium to showcase it to the world. Her project showcasing radioactive decay of mesons was the highlight of the event. She stood first in the Science Quiz too. When enquired, her teachers confirmed the fact that she was an excellent student. She was a fan of my earlier works, and that clearly showed on her face when we met personally after the event. Tons of questions and doubts from the last book on quantum physics which I published a few months before the fair. That’s when I asked her whether she’d be interested in joining me as an assistant at my lab once she finished her degree that year at Bordeaux. And she said ‘yes’ the very next moment, much to my delight.
As I leave my lab towards the café, I feel unusually positive. It might be the fact that the sky looked prettier than any other evening or might be the approaching scent of path-breaking success tonight.
Café de Flore is one of the oldest coffeehouses in Paris, celebrated for its famous clientele, which in the past included high-profile writers and philosophers. It is located at the corner of Boulevard Saint-Germain and Rue Saint-Benoît, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés in the 6th arrondissement, a five-minute walk from my lab. The café was opened in the 1880s, during the Third Republic. The name is taken from a sculpture of Flora, the goddess of flowers and the season of spring in Roman mythology, located on the opposite side of the boulevard. Authors Joris-Karl Huysmans and Remy de Gourmont were two of the first well-known regulars here. In the late 19th century, Charles Maurras wrote his book Au signe de Flore on the café’s first floor. Even the legend Picasso used to visit this place during his initial artistic years. The mood is always jolly with a plethora of street artists flocking the street, earning their daily bread and entertaining the masses.
I never used to go inside the café. I preferred spending time with my coffee on the chairs set outside on the sidewalk instead. A good thirty minutes of self-introspection, warm food, enjoying the sky set on fire and deciding the further course of action at the lab makes my day complete. But today was different. Unlike the former self which at times thought that thirty minutes here is too much to waste and should be spent in the lab instead, today I decided to sit and muse for about an hour. Observing the street artists, tired yet exuberant kids returning from their evening baseball match, other people in the café lost in their own world along the aroma of freshly brewed coffee made me smile intuitively. Rare.
“Why are you smiling, Augustin?”, a voice echoed in my ears. I turn around and see a younger version of my Mom, mostly in her mid 30’s, tapping a little boy’s shoulder. The boy was sitting along a river looking distant and lost.
“Augustin, you didn’t reply. Why are you smiling?”, the lady enquired again to which the kid just chuckled before going silent.
I couldn’t figure out exactly how I was teleported from the café to this river bank. Is this real or am I hallucinating? They were far away, but still, I could hear them as if they were just a few yards away.
“You know, Mom? I have finally figured out the way this society works. Many a time I feel I should not be doing this particular thing, but I have to just because of the moral obligations enforced upon me by the society!”
“What are you talking about Augustin?”
“This is about what I witnessed a week ago when I was at Bordeaux. There was this boy who was bullied by our senior and thrashed by his gang. All the others present there were just being mute spectators, and none of them did anything to save that poor boy. When I tried to intervene, I was told to stay aside as the senior had big connections. I felt I could help that boy but I couldn’t just because I had those chains of social pressure restraining me from doing what my heart desired.”
“My child, sometimes you act too mature for your age. Yes, you got it right that many times the society holds you back from performing moral duties, but that shouldn’t mean you should hold yourself back. History is full of people who have broken the clutches that society bounded them in and soared up high in the sky.”
“Then, why make the children learn these values when we do not practice them in real life?”
“These are hard times Augustin; the world is at war with each other. Moral values are being forgotten. But these hard times are a real test of one’s character. Always remember this child, whatever be the situation, never prioritise your gains over that of the society as a whole. Even though the same society restricts you, you should never hesitate to work for the benefit of it. Remember this, whatever happens, happens for the best!”
“But isn’t it foolish to help the society that is so selective in its preachings? Why such double standards?”
“You won’t understand this now, Augustin. Come let’s go home!”
They got up and started walking towards me. I couldn’t believe my eyes. How can this be possible? That boy was my younger self, and that lady was my mom. But she is long dead. This is definitely happening inside my head. This can’t be for real. I start running away from them as fast as possible.
“Whatever happens, happens for the best.”
Those words echo through my mind. Suddenly I feel short of breath. Everything around start dimming and the surrounding is now pitch black.
What is happening to me?
The next second I’m jostled back to reality by a blaring horn from a car in front of me. I’m standing in the middle of a road. I apologise and make my way back to my lab. I felt as if this didn’t happen with me during my childhood, but chances are high I might have forgotten them as years passed. Time and again whenever I subconsciously think about my parents, such flashbacks are bound to occur. Yes, this was another weird routine for Mr Augustin Bernard.
As the clock went past 2 in the morning, we complete the final drill of checking through Chronos, the connections and the calculations. A visibly nervous Hannah placed the backup food, clothes and water in the emergency box. As I arrange back the journals in order, I notice the first design draft of the machine I had made five years ago.
A pang of nostalgia hit me as I clearly remember that day till date. I named the ship Chronos, inspired by the Greek God of time. And that’s how Project Chronos started.
“You sure of doing this Mr Bernard?”, Hannah asks, her expressions clearly indicating that she’s unsure of the outcome.
“I don’t have any other option, Hannah. Do I? All these years we toiled to make this a reality and now when we stand at the brink of it, wouldn’t it be foolish to step away from this the last moment?”, I playfully pat her shoulder, trying hard to hide my own nervousness.
“Hmm, that’s true. But what if it malfunctions?”
“Well, we’d know about it only once we take off from 1970 right?”
“Let’s begin then.”, she smiled wryly, still unsure.
“We are here to create history, Hannah. Our names would be etched in the books of history forever. The first scientists who did time travel. Think about it.”, I gave her a small hug and assured her that things would be alright.
My mind had different plans altogether. The plaque and status of being the first time traveller in the history of mankind are not what I yearned for all these years.
“All the best Mr Bernard.”
“All the best!”, I murmur to myself as I slowly enter the capsule and make myself comfortable on the seat.
I power it on, and the machine comes to life. It slowly grumbles, pushing away the silence of the night. I set the date dial to the 2nd of June, 1940 as decided before. The time dial was set to 03:19 in the morning so that my landing won’t be noticed by many locals. The landing coordinates were set to 48°52’43.1″N 2°22’58.6″E – the terrace of an abandoned building near Parc des Buttes-Chaumont – the second biggest park in Paris.
“Au Revoir, Hannah”, I waved at her as I fastened the seatbelt and pressed ‘GO’ on the control panel.
Hannah stood near the main table, her eyes focused on me and the machine, ready to note down her observations in her notepad.
The time machine slowly began to vibrate vigorously, and the indicators went haywire pointing to the future instead. An alarmed Hannah couldn’t help but watch without interrupting since it was my order to do so.
Slowly it started to float in the air, a few centimetres above the ground. The indicators were unsteadily pointing to anything within a range of 1400 BC to 2300 AD! I was petrified at the very thought of landing in a wrong time – especially the extremes, but all these worries were put to rest the next second as the time machine landed on the ground with a huge thud – smoke emanating from an overloaded main engine, engulfing the capsule in smoke. I look down in dismay as all the positivity in my mind died an instant death. In the nick of time, Hannah rushed towards me and opened up the capsule door, helping me to escape the glass structure with ease.
I go ahead and slump on the couch, visibly irritated. After checking on me, Hannah went ahead to examine the machine, noting down the final readings on the controller before turning it off and the state of other components.
I knew chances of an experiment becoming successful in its first few attempts is far too less, blinking on the verge of impossible. I was irritated because, after all these years of efforts and research, we still didn’t know why it didn’t work. The machine in its earlier tests had floated well until I switched it off. I had even mastered the landing. But those tests were just buoyancy tests and were conducted before the time and date controllers – the core time travel components – were added recently. The time and date components malfunctioned in this test, and all this points to the fact that the errors were caused due to non-compatibility or lack of proper connection between the machine and the time controllers. Whatever it was, it had blown out my sleep for the night.
“We only learn and improve with failure. Each failure is a stepping stone to success”, a confused Hannah comforted me with the same words I had introduced her to my first experiment with. I stayed silent which was a clear indication for her to leave me alone. With all these years she had spent with me and her impeccable quality of observing everything so carefully, she realised it in a few seconds, wished me good night and left for her room on the second floor. I lay still on the couch; my mind still stuck on the failed test. Where did we go wrong? The equipment? The calculations?
What if the machine had sent me to the wrong time?
What if the machine had exploded instead of just a minor malfunction?
And what if it had worked perfectly fine?
All these questions made my head hurt even more, and I didn’t realise when I fell asleep.
Numerous days pass as Hannah, and I spent most of our times recalculating and rechecking the controllers. My time at Café de Flore was limited to not more than fifteen minutes. I had lost interest in everything else. The street artists and the aroma of coffee didn’t matter to me anymore. I was oblivious to their presence.
My mind was still stuck at finding the reason why we failed that night. That’s when the waiter brings my order – croissant and ice tea. My eyes naturally search for the sugar cellar, as usual, only to find it missing. The waiter notices my confusion and confirms the fact that he missed placing the sugar containers on the table. That’s when it strikes me. I thank him in a rush and leave for the lab, much to his surprise.
Hannah was in the middle of a nap when I barged into her room. She was taken aback and before she could ask me why I yelled in relief: “I got it. I finally got it!”
“Got what Mr Bernard?”
“The reason why the time machine didn’t work that night.”
“Wait a second! You realised where we went wrong?”
“Yes, Hannah! And guess what, it’s not the calculations.”
“Then?”, Hannah was now wide awake.
“I don’t know how, but we missed considering the time damping factor in the time equation.”
“The time damping factor?”
“Yes, just like the vibrations produced by any physical object when excited at the natural frequency requires proper damping to prevent it from reaching its resonance, exploiting the wormholes to travel in the fourth dimension would require that the wormholes are large in size as well as stabilised.”
“I still do not get the entire picture, Doctor.”
“It’s simple Hannah, to harness the capability of wormholes and enter into the fourth dimension we must increase its size – which we did. We made the receptor of our machine to match the natural frequency at which the wormholes vibrates. As a result, the wormhole started reaching its resonance point and started vibrating at the maximum amplitude, but what we did not incorporate was the damping factor which could have stabilised the size of it.”
“Oh, we never thought about it in the first place.”
“Yes. Now that we know of it let’s recalculate all the other equations and factors.”
“Let’s begin right away.”
In the midst of the recalculation process, I realised something that made me stop. I threw away the calculator in disgust. The calculator met with its apparent end, crashing on the wall opposite me.
Hannah was shocked at my all of a sudden mood swing and stood still. We didn’t speak anything for the next few minutes.
“I don’t know if we’d even complete this machine Hannah.”, I sigh.
“Why so? Wouldn’t backing out at the last moment sound foolish?”, she repeated my words.
“It’s not about backing out, Hannah. We have officially hit a roadblock.”