Einstein screamed something in German and brought the blackjack down across the bridge of my nose. I heard a snap like a child's cap gun and tears filled my eyes. Blood flecked his grey cardigan but he didn't seem to notice. He was wild with rage. "Tell us who zent you?" His accent was straight out of Central Casting.
He had poured some loose change into a sock and was using it as a makeshift sap. He swung again and smashed it against the side of my head. The sock split open sending pennies and nickels tinkling about the room.
Teller said "Albert," as one might admonish a naughty child, then bent down to collect the coins. The clock on the wall ticked away the seconds. Einstein let the empty sock fall to the floor as he regained his breath. The swinging light bulb overhead made a crazy corona of his hair. For a pacifist he made a damn good torturer.
I tried to shake it off. Einstein wasn't even supposed to be in Los Alamos in 1943. Now here he was, going all Jack Bauer on my ass.
He pulled out a handkerchief and mopped his brow. Then his gaze fell on my watch. My Casio digital watch was peaking out from under my shirtsleeve.
I knew in that instant I had seriously screwed things up. Einstein whispered something in Oppenheimer's ear. Oppie smiled ruefully and lit his fifth cigarette of the hour. The MP's were on their way. I had to do something.
They were wrong to think I was a Nazi spy. Wrong to think I was a Communist infiltrator. But they were right about one thing, the most basic thing.
I had come to sabotage the Manhattan Project.
If I lost the watch, I would be stranded here in 1943. My mind tried to calculate the numbing amount of possible outcomes.
What course would history take? So much had begun here-from the birth of supercomputers to the industrialization of chemistry. But those problems paled against the idea that the Germans might actually build a nuclear device while I rotted away in some internment camp. The Soviet Union might win the Cold War. But my mind kept alighting on one thought. My daughter, my gorgeous Becca, might never be born.
I did what I had to. I had a mop handle sticking out of me. What else could I do? I gave them a part of the answer.
"Have you considered a spherical implosion?"
The head of every scientist rose in unison. Oppenheimer lit another cigarette. Teller moved some pennies around on the floor making a crude atomic pictogram. It only took a moment before he began nodding and muttering. "Yes, yes."
Then Oppenheimer picked up the phone and said, "Tell Groves it was a false alarm. One of Feynman's pranks. Sorry for the disturbance."
Einstein leaned in close, my watch all but forgotten.
It's not like in the movies. There are no perky reporters giving updates of impending doom. There is no ticking clock. Instead, you are Skyping with your very serious 11 year-old daughter and your wife is making goofy faces in the background and then there is a flash at the window and the screen bleaches white and they are no more.
They are static, ash, along with nearly two million other souls.
There was nobody to retaliate against. It was not a dirty nuke as so many had feared. This was not a plot to irradiate a population. This was an 80-kiloton tactical warhead-military issue-a direct descendent of Fat Man and Little Boy. This was one of ours. The best that Grumman and GE and my co-workers at Los Alamos could manufacture.
Lower Manhattan was leveled in less than 3 seconds. The island itself was rendered uninhabitable. From satellite images the crater had the shape of a giant sunflower, fallen buildings radiating outward like petals. Even now, the high rises on the Upper East Side lean against one another precariously as if still in the act of recoiling from the blast.
In the immediate aftermath no one could contemplate the scale of the devastation. There were no other news stories just solemn analysis and fallout readings interspersed with lists of the dead and missing. Then triage began. Millions were evacuated to tent cities in eastern Pennsylvania. The stock market was moved to Chicago. Families shattered irrevocably.
I stayed in New Mexico. I had no reason to go back to New York, no reason to leave the small Craftsman that had been in my family since the early 1950's.
My research was immediately suspended as Federal funds were diverted to disaster management and counter terrorism.
No one knew what to say to me and I had nothing to say to any of them. I still went into the lab every day but the framed portraits-Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Hans Bethe-seemed to mock me continually. These people were heroes within my family but their greatest scientific achievement had been the foundation of my ruin. I shut down for three years, just stopped being a person.
But grief sometimes gestates miracles.
When the answer came to me it was so simple it scared me. So simple it could be contained in a wristwatch. Maybe the theoretical physicists who came before me lacked enough engineering know how. Perhaps they thought nanotech could only be harnessed for small things. In any case, they would have taken note that on Thursday evening at 5:14 I disappeared from my laboratory and that I reappeared the preceding Tuesday at 2:59 PM.
Briefly, that Tuesday afternoon, there was two of me in the lab. I remember it as in a dream, I had just gotten up to get some water and when I turned around, there I sat. I blinked several times at the image of the other me tinkering with the watch. We locked eyes, and then he winked at me. Suddenly the nanites took over and the other me began to granulate like sand pouring the wrong way through an hourglass. He/I reappeared on Thursday an instant after I/he disappeared.
Time travel is physically painful. Nobody tells you that. There is a pins and needles feeling akin to when your foot falls asleep-but now apply that sensation to your kidneys, your brain, and your heart. I didn't care. There was no time to study the side effects.
I had to save my family. To make sure the worst thing ever to happen to any of us, never happened at all. It was worth any price. Side effects be damned.
There were certain rules. The most important one being do your research. Is the landing area clear of debris? Being impaled by a coat rack or accidentally fusing with a chair was not a noble way to die. Did you have the correct clothing and accouterments for the time and place? Time travellers had to leave not a trace. They had to be ghosts.
This left the billion-dollar question. Would my actions-could they-actually affect the flow of history? Would I damage the space-time continuum or enable it? There were many schools of thought here but the fact that I had briefly seen two of myself suggested that my experiment had at least briefly created a parallel reality. It suggested that perhaps history could be altered. Or escaped.
I would go back four years. Melanie and Becca would still be here, not yet in Manhattan. I would go during a time of day when the other me was sure to be at the office and sit my wife down and explain the situation.
I transported from and to a hillside behind my house. Once my body stopped buzzing, I did a quick inventory. A few strands of wheat rose up through my feet. They were fused there forever but I would live.
The surrounding mountains still had a tiny crust of snow. The air was still and I could see the whole community spread innocently below me. Blue shadows were beginning to creep up the street.
The neighborhood had an afternoon sleepiness. The kids were at school. It was Wednesday so Alma our housekeeper wouldn't be there.
I felt like a burglar.
The street was quiet. I noticed Arthur Mills' orange Volvo parked several houses away. As I slid down the hill, I saw him get in his car and drive away. My first thought was that that car really was a piece of shit. My second thought was that Arthur lived all the way in Albuquerque, 95 miles away. We usually didn't meet up for beers until Thursday or Friday. The kids were at school, so there wouldn't be a play date. At least not the kind I was used to.
When I got in the house, Melanie was in the shower. Her clothes were strewn about our room. The bed was stripped down to the mattress. The laundry machine churned away downstairs.
When she came out of the bathroom she was smiling as she tied a towel around her head. I sat on the edge of the bed trying to contain my hurt and anger. I tried not to look at the red smudges around her thighs and the undersides of her breasts where his beard had scraped her. She didn't even look at me as she put her robe on. Her only acknowledgement of my presence had been the sudden evaporation of that smile.
"How long have you known?"
"I don't care about any of that,' I lied. 'Just listen to me very carefully."
"Wait. I just talked to you at the office."
"You called like five minutes ago."
"There's an explanation for that."
"Oscar, I'm sorry, but you're really starting to freak me out."
I told her what was going to happen. I gave every detail of the impending disaster in Manhattan. I said that I forgave her, but whatever she did, please don't go to New York. The clock on our wall ticked loudly.
"I'm glad we've had this out."
"Had what out? Weren't you even listening to me?"
"Unless you'd confronted me, I don't know if I could have ever found the courage."
"To tell you."
"You didn't tell me. I caught you!"
She folded her arms. My rising anger seemed to confirm her worst fears.
"Not that. To tell you I'm leaving. That we are leaving."
The room seemed to fold in on itself. She said that my obsession with work had made her lonely and that now she was sure that I had gone off the deep end. She realized that I was hurt but that Becca needed to be raised in a healthier environment. It wasn't permanent. Not necessarily.
Then she said that Arthur had just received an offer from NYU.
She said it was best for Becca if we kept it amicable. And who knew, maybe one of us would have a change of heart.
I desperately tried to think of a way to prove it to her. I tried to call myself at work but there was no answer.
I tried to phase out right in front of her but I screwed something up. Nothing happened. She stood up and went back to the bathroom right as the nanites began to erode my silhouette.
I landed back in my bedroom and discovered that I had fused with the brass bedframe. I had added it right before she left in an attempt to impress her by sprucing up the house a bit. Now one of its bars ran horizontally through the middle of my left hand.
It would take several hours with a jigsaw before I was able to cut it down to a manageable size.
My hand now wrapped awkwardly in an Ace bandage I contemplated my next move.
Any thought of flying to New York, of warning them or disabling the bomb, was out the window. The nanites left a trail of breadcrumbs through time. I was more or less tethered to the lab or at least the general vicinity. The point of origin must be near a nanite incubator and preferably a nuclear power source. This is what had caused the delay in phasing out from my bedroom. For better or worse I was stuck in Los Alamos. Then I started to think bigger. Much bigger. If the Manhattan nuke could not be diverted, perhaps the cause of it could.
I could make it so the thing never even existed.
My grandparents, Elizabeth and Hector Newhouse had been important figures in the Manhattan Project. She was a physicist; he worked for the Corps of Engineers. She died of cancer when I was three but he would regale me with tales of Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman and late night dancing. He made it seem fun to be a physicist.
I pulled down some of my grandfather's history books and began to study.
The centrifuges were vulnerable. If I couldn't get inside the lab, the power supply could be disrupted. It was all that was needed. If I could somehow ruin the first batch of isotopes and set them back by 6 months, the project would be irreparably delayed. History seemed clear on this point. If Oppenheimer's team did not come up with something by the time Europe was liberated, the experiment would be abandoned. This made my mission simple. All I had to do was phase in, take out the centrifuges, and phase back out again.
This was before I had the bright idea of borrowing my grandfather's army uniform. Before I jumped into the middle of a secret late night card game filled with the world's most famous physicists in their underwear and some scantily clad off duty nurses.
Before it was over, every rule that I'd formulated would be broken.
Rose, my nurse, wasn't supposed to talk to me but I pressed her for information.
"Do you know a soldier named Hector Newhouse?"
"I know a Hector Villanueva. But he's not a soldier."
"Who is he?"
"He helps clean up the labs. We have coffee sometimes."
My grandfather was nowhere to be seen. Or rather, when I did see him-through the keyhole of my door-he was indeed pushing a mop.
He was half-Navajo/half-Mexican. He had a bright and upbeat demeanor that seemed at odds with brooding preoccupation of the European scientists he passed in the hallways.
I tried to speak to him as he cleaned the outer office.
He took a half step back then found his courage. "How do you know my name?"
"You were born in Las Cruces in 1925." July 6th, if I remember correctly.
"I'm not supposed to talk to you."
"You have to marry Elizabeth!"
"I don't know any Elizabeths."
"Do you know any Liz's?"
"You're crazy." He hurried back into the hall, forgetting his bucket and mop.
Unless the Corps of Engineers hired janitors, he wasn't quite who he said he was.
I didn't see Einstein again. They hid me in the lab. I was their prisoner. They'd taken my watch and clothes and put them in a footlocker in the stock room somewhere. They put me in a hospital gown and sequestered me behind doors marked by radiation symbols.
Oppenheimer couldn't take me to Groves. He would have to explain the delay in turning me over to the regular Army. It was a major breach in security protocol. He was under too much scrutiny as it was.
Besides, they had a deadline to meet. These were men who were scared and, above all, curious. I was another puzzle for them to pick apart.
In order to achieve my goal, I simply had to do nothing. But this was easier said than done.
At least twice a day, Oppenheimer or Bethe or Teller would 'drop by' to visit. They would ask how I was feeling, make some small talk and then begin to ply me with questions.
I had expected to find a fully functioning lab, with the physicists divided into two teams. One should have been pursuing a Uranium-based solution, the other Plutonium. Instead, the entire Project was in disarray. The bickering and infighting was much worse than had been reported. Only Oppenheimer could get them to shut up and play nice. But Oppie had bigger problems.
General Groves in particular was breathing down his neck. They were over budget, months behind schedule. They had not completely figured out thermal diffusion. They had not progressed the Uranium gun method past a crude theory. They were nowhere on Plutonium implosion.
An aura of dread hung over the camp. Billions of WW2 dollars were being spent to avoid enslavement by the Nazis. The stakes could not have been higher. It occurred to me more than once that I was in some parallel reality where the experiment failed and the Axis powers had prevailed. But it was nothing so nefarious.
When you begin time-travelling you discover pretty quickly that history cannot be trusted. This is to say written history. It's always much more tidy and self-serving than anyone would admit.
I gave them as much disinformation as I could, always careful to bury the lies in a foundation of truth. Eventually their visits grew less frequent.
The nurse who brought me food was not overtly part of Oppenheimer's bimbo harem. Her nametag read 'Rose' but she said all of her friends called her Bertie. She had large, slightly bulging eyes that lent even the most casual comment an aura of intensity that frightened and intrigued me. But she was the only woman brave enough to come in my little room for any extended period of time.
"Robert thinks you're a spy, but it's too late to bring turn you in."
"A lot of people think Dr. Oppenheimer's a spy."
"Well, he's not."
Secrets seemed to beget more secrets.
I developed a mild crush on Rose in the ensuing weeks. We played chess. She seemed very educated for a nurse. She was studying to be a mathematician. Her questions showed a pretty thorough understanding of the various disciplines involved in building 'the Gadget' as they liked to call it. But the urgency of her manner lent poignancy to our time together. I helped her with her homework. I corrected her calculations and gently explained the theories of quantum mechanics with which she seemed to struggle.
But I wanted to comfort her with more than theories. I wanted to tell her that everything would work out for them. The Allies would win the war. Their research would be hailed as the greatest scientific triumph in human history. The men whom she knew would form the basis of the largest explosion of wealth and industry ever known. But I couldn't. Even my non-answers seemed to be somehow precarious in light of the situation.
When she came to me drunkenly on a warm September night I did not refuse her. I hadn't been with a woman in three years. When it was over, I looked her in the eye and said that in five years she should take all of her money and buy stock in Boeing and Dow Chemical. She didn't meet my gaze but kissed me quickly and said goodnight. At the door she paused and turned back to the room. Even though she was silhouetted in the door I could see tears glistening as they hung from her jaw.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"About being a nurse, about who I am. Everything."
It was the Everything that got me. I began to feel nauseous. The words stuck in my throat.
"There is no Rose is there?"
"She was transferred six months ago."
My young lover threw my confiscated watch and uniform to me and left.
I said it before, history can't be trusted.
As the door to my makeshift prison swung open, I knew three things for certain. I knew she'd been spying for Oppie. I knew that her 'homework' had saved the Manhattan Project. And I knew that she would one day grow up to become my grandmother.
Whether they knew what I was, was up for debate.
The dominos would tumble as they should. The engineering and theoretical problems would be rectified. She would eventually be known as the eighth most important Physicist in the lab. The shame of her forthcoming pregnancy would cause her to marry Hector the janitor. His military pension would allow him to embellish his role in the project. My recent investment advice would ensure the long-term wealth of my family. She would name my father after me. And vice versa. Everything in its right place up to and including the NYC detonation.
I set the watch for April 18, 1943, a month earlier than when I'd first arrived. (After weeks of inactivity, the pain of the nanites was welcome). The lab was swarming with MP's. I had to get to the centrifuges. It was 4AM. The place should have been deserted. Something was up. There were more guards then I'd seen in my whole time there. I ducked into the empty break room.
I had to try to break out of this circle of causation. Fuck the fabric of time. I was desperate.
I cleared an area in the center of the room, being careful to push all desks and chairs as far up against the wall as I could. Taking a stray piece of chalk, I drew a large grid on the floor. Four squares up and four squares across. I numbered each square one through 16. I stood in square number one and waited. Five minutes passed. Then ten. I ran the numbers in my head. It was now or never. I took a giant step into square number two. Then I sent myself back in time 30 seconds.
When I arrived, there were two of me in the cafeteria. It was eerie. I had photocopied myself. Every stray hair, every wrinkle, every coffee stain had been replicated exactly. Fortunately the other Oscar seemed to understand what was going on. (He shook his head and smiled and said, "Oh boy.")
I told him to go to square number three and send himself back in time 30 seconds. Once there, he was instructed to tell one of the other Oscars to wait one minute, advance a square and send himself back in time 30 seconds. So long as no one occupied the same volume it should work. And it did.
Soon there were 16 of me in the cafeteria.
Standing in square 16 I felt groggy, as if trapped between waking and dreaming. I had made a platoon of alternate selves. I had opened up multiple parallel paths, perhaps sabotaged not just history but the entire time-space continuum. I didn't care. It beat the hell out of cloning myself. I addressed the troops.
"You all know what to do. There are MP's guarding the lab. Only one of us needs to get through. We have to get to the isotopes. We have to save Becca." They all nodded at the same time.
Klaxons started sounding throughout the building. Somebody knew we were coming. I looked out over the group of slightly disoriented men. I'd never realized how gaunt I'd become. I hoped we'd make up in ingenuity what we lacked in muscle.
I quickly led them into the corridor. The MP's were a bunch of kids fresh out of high school, too green or well-connected to be sent to war. It took them a moment to register that this group of 'officers' in dress khakis were 16 versions of the same guy. Their expressions would have been funny in any other context.
As one we rushed the guards. The first three of me were beaten down before we even got to the door. But the next wave was more successful, tackling the lead guards and forcing them back. It was like an offensive line surge. The linoleum floor was slick with blood.
We were running out of time. I picked up a fallen rifle and emptied a magazine into the hinges of the lab door. It fell inward with a crash. When the smoke cleared, I could see another daisy chain of MPs strewn in front of the centrifuge area.
Except behind them the lab was empty. The centrifuges had been moved. In their place was Einstein. He looked different than when he was interrogating me, younger by at least ten years. He also looked like he knew something I didn't.
The MP's leveled their rifles at us. They were a firing squad. "Now," he screamed.
Gunshots echoed and doubled off the walls. The smell of cordite filled the lab. I could hear different versions of myself screaming in pain. Einstein smiled. He couldn't be here. That first interrogation wasn't supposed to happen for another three weeks.
It's a difficult thing to see one's self shot in the face. Einstein had produced a .45 and was simply walking up to my guys and shooting them at point blank range.
I started to charge in but one of my other selves placed a protective hand on my chest. "Only number one and number 16 matter." He shook his head and said, "Try something else. The fact that they moved the centrifuges means that our plan actually worked at some point. Hurry!"
There were only eight of me left. We weren't going to make it. Not like this. One by one we started tapping furiously at the devices on our wrists. Einstein shot two more before we could dematerialize.
I took a grenade from one of the fallen MP's. Bullets caromed off the linoleum floor. I retreated to the corridor and set my watch for two weeks earlier.
The hallway was deserted. The lights were off and lab was padlocked. Los Alamos was asleep. I went outside past the MP's hut. They snapped to attention but I waved them off with the same dismissive salute I'd seen officers use. In the dark, my uniform almost looked legit.
I passed Feynman and Fuchs staggering home from a mixer. Richard and Klaus, the future Nobel laureate and the Soviet spy, unsuspecting roommates. They argued some arcane point, never imagining what time had in store for them. The desert night swallowed them whole.
I increased my pace and got to the perimeter fence. I took off my jacket and threw it over top of the barbed wire. I started to climb.
I heard shouts coming from behind me. A spotlight swept the chain link fence throwing crazy honeycomb shadows over everything. I landed heavily. Heard footsteps, running.
A young man gave chase. He looked like a civilian. He had a heavy dark moustache but his hair was what caught my attention. Even under the sodium lights I could see that it jutted crazily from his head. He caught me more easily than I would have thought, throwing himself around my ankles.
The grenade rolled away. I clawed after it.
As we struggled, I could see very clearly that it was Einstein. He was no older than 25. He was supposed to be in Vienna at this age. Somehow he had solved the spatial problem that had eluded me. Of course he had--he was fucking Einstein.
I didn't care any more. I brought the inert grenades against his skull and drew blood. His hand went up protectively. He was wearing a digital Casio-the exact same watch as I was. I hit him again, extra hard, something for the future torturer to remember me by.
Then I grabbed his wrist and stabbed at the activation button.
His watch started blinking madly. I rolled away. He started to disappear and I ran towards the generators. There was more shouting. The MP's hit me with their spotlight. I pulled the pin on my grenade and tossed it in the general vicinity of the electrical transformers. Dust kicked at my feet as the snipers in the tower found their range. I scrolled my watch ahead to the present. A minute after I left. And pressed the button.
Why was a man from the future any more far-fetched than a bomb that could destroy a city?
Back in the lab, I tried to call my house. There was no answer. I let the answering machine play. Then I heard Becca's voice. "You've reached the Newhouse residence. Nobody can take your call right now but if you leave a message we will get back to you." It was a voice that had not been there before.
I allowed myself the slightest smile. I realized then that the chapters of my life story could be read in any order whatsoever. There was something strangely reassuring in this.
Then a hole opened in my chest.
Einstein stood in front of me wearing a kind of foil tracksuit. He looked like he was in his late 40's. He had something that looked like a garage door opener in his hand. A wisp of smoke curled upwards from its nose. Blood filled the vacuum in my chest cavity.
I hadn't felt anything there for a long time anyway.
He quickly unstrapped the digital watch from my wrist.
Einstein's critics said he never did anything significant in physics after he became famous. He supposedly died in Princeton in 1955, but who knew how many lives he had lived before then? Had he been going back and giving himself the watch over and over? What if he'd dedicated his life's work to this?
He saw the confusion in my eyes.
"For every new you, zere was a new vatch. It took many years, many to realities, to hunt all off you down."
"But I'm the real Oscar Newhouse," I whispered.
He chuckled sarcastically. "Of course you are."
Our eyes met. He wasn't even supposed to be in Los Alamos. The nanites began to spread outward from the Casio on his wrist.
He winked and was gone.