Borrowed Time

 

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Prologue

    The day Silas Archer graduates from MIT is the day that his father dies.

    It is Saturday, May 16th. Despite spring having arrived nearly a month ago, the weather is anything but springlike. It is raining, cold, and dreary, and Silas has just lost one of his best friends.

    "He really wanted to see you walk across the stage," Silas' mother tells him, her voice hushed. "I am so sorry, Silas."

    He nods woodenly, unable to form words around the lump in his throat. His father is lying there in the hospital bed, pale and unmoving. His chest is still, his face slack in the dreamless sleep of death, and though Silas knows the facts - his father will never open his eyes again - he can't help feeling like any moment now, Lawrence Archer, in typical Lawrence Archer fashion, will jump up from the sterile sheets and shout, "Surprise! Fooled you!"

    Silas waits, but no such thing happens.

    "I'm so sorry, Silas," his mother says again.

    "You don't have to apologize," Silas tells her gently. "It isn't your fault."

    "I know," Olivia Archer sighs. "But you've missed your big day. We were all so looking forward to it."

    "What's the point if we couldn't all enjoy it together?" He asks, and it is only then that he realizes the dam has broken, and the tears that he's been trying very hard to hold back since he walked into the hospital room have started to fall. His mother reaches out for him, and he doesn't shy away. By society's standards, at twenty years of age, he is probably too old to cry on Olivia's shoulder, but he does it anyway. He lets himself be folded into her embrace, and the two of them stay that way for a long time, each of them mourning the loss of the most important man in their lives.

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Chapter 1

    "I saw Hathaway Proctor today."

    It's the way Silas' mother greets him as she opens the door, and it makes him roll his eyes. "Hi, Mom," he answers. "It's nice to see you still haven't forgotten about setting me up with Hathaway."

    "I said nothing about setting you up," his mother protests. "I was merely telling you that I ran into her."

    "In hopes that I would ask how she's doing," Silas starts. "At which point you would tell me that I could ask her myself, and then hand me her phone number. Which you conveniently have written down on a slip of paper within easy reach," he adds with a smile. "I know how these things work."

    "Nobody likes a smart alec, honey," Olivia grumbles, but she's smiling anyway. "And Hathaway is a lovely young lady."

    "I won't argue with that," he shrugs. "And I'll never stop being grateful to her for being so nice to me in high school, when everybody else was too busy worrying about how big of a weirdo I was. But I'm just not interested in her - or anyone - right now. Too much life left to live."

    His mother looks at him shrewdly. "You know," she starts, "you keep this up, you're going to end up like your father and I... letting the world spin on without you while your nose is buried in your work, until one day you look up and---"

    "And find someone who's just as big of a nerd as I am," Silas supplies with a grin, "and she and I get married and live happily ever after and have a son we never planned for at the ripe old ages of forty-eight and fifty-six." He shakes his head. "I don't see anything wrong with that life, quite frankly."

    Olivia appears to be stumped. "We set a horrible example for you," she finally sighs resignedly.

    "I'm only twenty-two," he says. "I've got time."

    "I'm seventy," his mother replies with a laugh. "I don't. And grandchildren are a thing."

    He wrinkles his nose. "I brought you the Wall Street Journal instead."

    "And that's why you're my favorite son."

    "I'm your only son," he points out dryly.

    "Doesn't mean you aren't my favorite." Olivia accepts the newspaper from him and motions to the kitchen. "There's lasagna, if you want it. You may have to heat it up."

    "Thanks," he calls over his shoulder, already making his way toward the kitchen.

    "So what are you working on now?" His mother asks. He can hear the paper rustling.

    "Einstein," Silas says.

    "Very intriguing," his mother muses. "And also very vague. Tell me more."

    He puts a healthy portion of lasagna on a dinner plate and puts the plate in the microwave, covering it with the ceramic top his mother keeps for that purpose. "Spacetime," he starts, standing in the kitchen doorway. "John Frye thinks we can create it."

    "The theory of gravity that unifies space and time and curves in the presence of mass," Olivia says. "And where, exactly, does Doctor Frye think he's going to go if he pulls this off?"

    "Who knows?" Silas laughs. "Probably back to stop the guy who shot Kennedy, or take Hitler out. Isn't that how these things are supposed to work?"

    "Back in time, not forward to the future?" His mother sounds surprised. "He'd have to be going awfully fast to do that... faster than humans are capable of."

    "I know. I told him that."

    "And?"

    "He didn't say much. Only, he gave me that look."

    Olivia raises her eyebrows. "What look?"

    "You know the one," Silas chuckles. "The 'oh, ye of little scientific faith' look."

    "Yes, well anyone working in the scientific field who isn't willing to consider the very factual limitations of science doesn't deserve the letters at the end of their title," his mother grumbles. "And science isn't about faith. It's about facts."

    "Eh, it doesn't matter," Silas says dismissively. "It's a fun project to work on, anyway. It makes the monotony of some of the other stuff we do bearable." The microwave beeps to signal that his food is ready, and he takes the plate out, setting it on the table and heaping forkfuls of salad onto it. "This looks great, mom. Thanks."

    "You're welcome, honey." She waits until he's sitting down at the table across from her before she speaks again. "You sure you don't want Hathaway Proctor's number? I have it right here..."

    The withering look he gives her is all the response she gets.

   ***

    As it happens, Boston the big city isn't quite as big as its residents would have the unsuspecting public believe, and Silas doesn't have to take Hathaway's phone number from his mother to learn of her welfare. It's an odd coincidence that puts the two of them in the same place - a fuel station - at the same time, and Hathaway doesn't waste the opportunity.

    "Silas Archer, is that you?"

    He turns at the sound of her voice. "Hi, Hathaway," he calls, flashing her a friendly grin. "How's it going?"

    "Really good," she smiles back. She peers up at her pump, and when the clicking sound notifies her that her gas has finished pumping, she replaces the nozzle and crosses the short distance to him. "How's life in the wonderful world of physics?"

    He can't quite figure out whether she's using the phrase unironically of she's just teasing him. He chooses not to ask for clarification and answers her question instead. "Truly wonderful," he says, wondering if the sarcasm in his voice is apparent. "I love my job."

    "Oh, I didn't mean to imply that you wouldn't," Hathaway frowns, and her expression is one of puzzlement.

    So. Unironically then, Silas thinks to himself. "How's U-Mass?"

    "It's great," she answers. "Really exciting."

    "Senior year, right?"

    She nods at him. "Not all of us were brilliant enough to finish college at fifteen," she smiles at him teasingly.

    "Oh, didn't you know?" His pump clicks and he lifts the nozzle back into its nest. "That degree they gave me was a fluke. It happens once a year, or so I'm told." His mouth is serious, but Hathaway knows from the way his eyes are twinkling that he's joking.

    "You and I both know there was nothing even remotely fluke-ish about that," she laughs. She pauses, and the way she shifts her weight from one foot to the other doesn't escape his notice. "Hey, we should get a cup of coffee sometime, and catch up," she suggests tentatively.

    To his surprise, the suggestion is actually a welcome one. "Yeah, that would be nice," he nods. He reaches into the driver's side of his car and grabs his cell phone. "What's your number?"

    Silas doesn't know if he's ever seen anyone look so surprised.

***

    "Do you think he'll actually be able to do it?"

    Silas turns to face his colleague. "Skylar, you could be talking about a million different males in a million different places trying to do a million different things," he starts wryly. "You're gonna have to be a little more specific."

    "Considering the fact that males make up roughly fifty point four percent of the human population, your figures are slightly off," Skylar points out. "It'd be more like three point seven billion males that I could be referring to, and the possibilities for where they could be and what they could be trying to do are virtually endless. But in this particular instance," she goes on, "I think you know exactly who I'm talking about."

    "If John wants to find a way to travel back in time," Silas shrugs, "he'll keep working on it. It may not be today, it may not be tomorrow, it may not be next year. But he's a brilliant physicist. Eventually, he'll figure it out. Or he'll get the ball rolling on the formula for someone else to figure it out, and maybe by that time, our technology will be advanced enough to put theory into practice."

    Skylar peers at him closely through her glasses. "Would you go, if he did?"

    "Back in time, you mean?"

    "Yeah."

    He considers the question. "I guess it depends on what the stipulations were," he muses thoughtfully. "When and where I could go, how long I could stay, whether or not I could interact with the people back then. Time travel is a risky thing, and if there are too many - or not enough - limitations, it could just be really messy."

    Skylar nods. "Fair point. I'd go," she adds definitively.

    "Even with all the variables?"

    "Absolutely," she answers without hesitation. "Maybe even because of all the variables. Think about it, Si. It would be revolutionary. Imagine the experience. If you made it back, you'd be able to talk about doing something no one has ever done before."

    "If you made it back." Silas emphasizes the word 'if.' "And there is absolutely no guarantee that you would. Or that the journey there wouldn't kill you or seriously scramble your brain."

    "I'd still go," Skylar maintains obstinately.

    "Because you're crazy," Silas laughs.

    "I prefer intrepid."

    "You also prefer pickles in your peanut butter sandwiches," Silas points out. "Therefore I take everything you say with a grain - nay, an entire shaker - of salt."

    "Hyperbole at its finest," she mutters good-naturedly as she walks away.

    Skylar Brown is a strange woman, but then again, Silas is a strange man. They are a strange man and a strange woman, surrounded by a team of equally strange people. Somehow, in the world of physics, their strangeness works very well.

    Skylar is a fellow MIT alumnus, having graduated six years before Silas. Her passion for physics sprung from her fascination with the behavior of the universe and its parts and her love of astronomy. She prides herself on being the only woman on their team and her ability to, as she's fond of saying, "wrangle the testosterone when needed."

    In addition to Skylar, their team includes Grayson Smith, Silas' best friend and a graduate of Culver University who started out as an English major; two UCLA alumni, Theo Richards (who maintains that he still has time to get into NASA's astronaut selection program) and Jeremy Ferris (who majored in Russian studies, seems completely confused as to how he ended up where he is, and has been head over heels in love with Skylar since the day he met her).

    Last but not least is the head of their small but enthusiastic team of physicists, John Frye. He is also a graduate of MIT, and was the guest speaker at Silas' freshman orientation. When Silas went up to Doctor Frye after orientation with the intention of introducing himself and asking a few questions, their conversation ended up lasting over an hour. At the end of their chat, Doctor Frye offered Silas a spot on his team, to be filled when Silas graduated. Silas accepted, and at age twenty-one, he became a full-blown working physicist.

    "In theory, it isn't supposed to work." Skylar is back at his elbow again, her voice breaking him out of his thoughts.

    He looks at her. "Huh?"

    "It's rude to say 'huh'," she tells him distractedly. "You should say 'excuse me' or 'I beg your pardon' instead."

    "When do you ever say those things when you want me to repeat something?" Silas shoots back.

    "Never. I'm just spouting etiquette you might need to know in the future." She states it as though it should be perfectly obvious to Silas why she said it. "Anyway, like I was saying, theoretically, Frye shouldn't be able to do it."

    "Why not?" Silas asks, knowing the answer but wanting to hear her reasoning anyway.

    "Life isn't an episode of Doctor Who," Skylar snickers. "We can't just build a T.A.R.D.I.S that will take us to any place or time we want. Granted, one could reason that with Einstein's special theory of relativity, it'd be pretty easy to travel forward in time - just hop in a spaceship fast enough to travel at light speed, and you watch the rest of the world speed up time-wise while you're practically standing still."

    "Yeah," Silas murmurs. "The twins paradox. If twin girls split up and one goes on that spaceship, she'll age much slower than the twin who stays behind."

    "Right," Skylar agrees. "The problem, however, would be getting back."

    "Because in order to do that," Silas supplies, "you'd have to be going faster than light speed."

    "Which we can't do yet. In addition to that," Skylar goes on, "even if we could create spacetime and open up a couple of wormholes to travel to and from, the openings of the wormholes would have to be moving relative to one another in order for the person going to cross the bridge between different points in space, which would in turn take that person to a different point in time from the one they started at."

    Silas nods in agreement. "And it would still be impossible to go back further in time than the point at which the wormhole was created, which somewhat limits that person's options for travel. If there are wormholes out there that have already been created by someone else, the points you could go to in the past are limited."

    "Exactly," Skylar says triumphantly. "So, in conclusion, he shouldn't be able to do it."

    "Theoretically."

    "Theoretically," she repeats.

    "But you still hope it'll happen," Silas surmises, "and you'd totally go if he managed it."

    "Totally."

 

    

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Chapter 2

    "Working late, I see."

    Silas looks up at the sound of John's voice, flashing him a smile. "I've almost worked this equation out, and I don't want to break my groove," he explains. "If I leave now, I'll lose my momentum and never figure it out."

    John nods in understanding. "I've had nights like those. How's your mother doing?"

    "She's good," Silas murmurs, scribbling a few notes in the margin of his book. "Still trying to set me up with Hathaway Proctor."

    "I'm guessing you're not taking the bait," John laughs.

    He shrugs. "Hathaway's nice. It isn't that I dislike her. In fact, I saw her at the gas station a couple days ago and we chatted for a bit. She suggested that we go out for coffee sometime, and I got her phone number."

    "But you haven't called her yet," John surmises, his eyebrows raised.

    Silas shakes his head.

    "You're young," the older man shrugs. "There's no rush for you to settle down."

    "Would you let me get that recorded so I can pull it out every time my mom talks about it?" Silas laughs.

    "I'd be happy to." John moves over to his own workstation. "I still remember the day I met you, Silas," he continues, settling down in his chair. "Out of three hundred-plus freshmen at the orientation that day, you were the only one who bothered to come up to me and introduce yourself."

    "It was mostly so I could tell you how big of a fan of your work I was - still am," Silas admits. "I was a little starstruck in your presence. The whole time we were chatting, I was mentally coaching myself on the benefits of breathing regularly and not saying something that would make you think I was stupid."

    "You were in MIT's freshman class at fifteen," John points out. "There was probably nothing you could say that would make me think you were stupid."

    "I don't know if I believe that, but thank you for the sentiment anyway."

    John nods, and the two of them work in silence for a while. Silas buries his nose back in his figures and has all but forgotten the presence of the other man when John speaks again. "You know, this team that we have here, I handpicked each of its members for a reason."

    Silas looks up, his eyebrows raised, but says nothing.

    "You're all bright young minds that aren't afraid of the hard work and challenges that come with science. You all have different strengths, different skills that are unique to each of you, and those different and unique strengths and skills make for a composite team that is a force to be reckoned with." He peers at Silas. "Are you happy working here?"

    "I am," Silas answers candidly. "I like this team." He turns his body to face John. "When my dad died, this job initially just filled a void for me. It was something that kept me busy, kept me from thinking too much about the fact that I'd just lost my best friend. And for a long time, that's all it was: a distraction.

    "It took about a year for me to come out of my funk," Silas continues. "Really, it's only been in the last six months or so that I've felt like myself. I guess you never realize what kind of effect losing someone will have on you until it happens. I never considered myself to be the kind that would need a long period of mourning, but when my dad died, I definitely learned something new about myself."

    "I never suspected," John admits. "You never talked about it, and your work didn't suffer. I figured you were just reserved, and it would take a while for you to come out of your shell." He shakes his head. "If I'd known, I might not have been so hard on you when it came to certain things."

    "But treating me like nothing was different was part of what helped me cope. If you'd handled me with kid gloves back then, I might never have come out of my funk."

    John accepts this with a nod. "How's your equation coming along?"

    "Think I got it worked out," Silas smiles. "Which means I can get out of here in a few minutes. What about you? Figure out a way to send us back to take out Hitler yet?"

    "Not quite yet," John answers with a grin. "I'm still working on it. But if you don't mind, could you just pop into the lab on your way out and make sure I've turned everything off? I'm fairly certain I have, but just in case..."

    "Yeah, no problem," Silas assents, gathering his shoulder bag and his jacket. "Don't stay too late, yeah? We need you most in the mornings."

    This makes John laugh. "I promise not to stay too late if you promise me you'll call Hathaway."

    Silas groans. "You're on my mother's team, aren't you?"

    John doesn't answer. "Have a good night, Silas," he says instead.

    "You too."

***

    

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