*** revised version ****
Bern, 1905 AD
Grinding his teeth in fear created too much noise for someone hiding under a desk. Albert agreed with his logic but defiantly, his molars chattered instead. Another sneeze was trying to say hello, but he gripped his nose to deny it. He was lucky the staff upstairs hadn’t already rushed in. Perhaps Herr Berghaus and his secretary were too busy with each other to check on him. Luckily, his office had emptied itself of other clerks; it was lunchtime, but he’d stayed to try out another experiment.
Hearing the rhythmic screech of tortured metal scared beads of sweat out of his forehead making his eyes smart. Licking his dry lips, he found his moustache was salty.
Had the desk fan slowed? He risked lifting his head above the mahogany bench, but he shouldn’t have done. The remaining blade sang through the air creating a new parting in his spiky black hair before embedding itself in the wooden filing cabinet behind him. His nose, too close to the desk woodwork, wrinkled at the odour of beeswax.
Slumped on the floor, Albert remembered to breathe in while his right hand explored the top of his head. Did blood sting like sweat? Ah, his hand returned with sticky red smears but minus skull and brainy bits. He worried over the destination of the other fan blades. He’d heard the window smash, and the ceiling managed to stop Herr Berghaus receiving one of the flying blades.
Remaining on the floor, he clasped a requisition docket to his wound while contemplating his resignation note and how this episode had its origins.
A large plain brown envelope had lain on the top of Albert’s in tray that morning. It could’ve been any of fifty patent submissions, all in the same anonymous envelopes indicating nothing of the contents brilliant or mundane, except for one thing. The sender hadn’t stuck on sufficient postage. Ordinarily that would be a return-to-sender job, but Albert had a funny tingle up the back of his nose with this one and paid the surcharge.
Settled into his comfy swivel office chair, Albert, hesitated with the envelope lying on his cleared desk and a paper-opener in his right hand. Experience informed him that the application within was fifty pages thick, or thirty if the sender had used satin-finish heavy paper, which would indicate an amateur. He smiled at the red sealing wax and sniffed it. Just like a birthday cake candle.
As if the envelope contents emanated the dawn of a new age, he savoured the moment, the sharp metallic edge hovering, eager to slice.
The blade neatly lacerated the end of the envelope. He gripped the corners of the uncut end and lifted so the contents slid out to be exposed, maybe for the first time, outside the inventor’s home. He always groaned when the submission came hand-written instead of typed. Anyone would think Albert had been in the job for decades rather than weeks, however, it didn’t take years of drudgery to scream at writing that looked like a spider had crawled in ink, and threw a few oil-paint bombs at attempted diagrams.
Tempted to procrastinate by inserting the dreaded application into the sedimentary layers of his pending intray, Albert decided, instead, to read the patent on the train while commuting home.
An hour later, thankful for a quiet carriage and a seat with a table, he sighed again, but fetched the sheaf of papers and a notebook out of his battered black briefcase. In spite of narrowing his eyes he couldn’t make out the inventor’s name for sure; possibly Macs Plank. The title also evaded clarity, but it most closely approximated to A Time and Space Mechanism. Oh no, another pretender to HG Wells. On the other hand, his spots reddened with excitement at physics, so he smiled with anticipation.
The train clickety-clack lurched, sending Planks’s patent application sliding to the edge of the slippery tabletop. With a half-hearted effort to halt the cascade over the edge – he’d hoped they’d drop into someone else’s briefcase – Albert put out his hand, but too late. Twenty or so, of the fifty pages, obeyed gravity but only reluctantly, as they floated, twirled like winged seeds, and carpeted the train floor. Before Albert could retrieve them, a passenger first trod on them and then stooped to gather. A nod and danke later, a louder sigh escaped Albert. The papers were not numbered.
The title page was the only certainty. The rest depended on Albert following arguments, equations and the widows and orphans of the writer’s loose sentences and concatenated words.
And thus was born the Theory of Unrelativity, he thought, or some other serendipitous idea the patent submitter hadn’t intended.. The problem was that Albert regularly came top of his high school class in mathematics. The school was average, the pupils less so, with the consequence that Albert assumed his brilliance when it was mediocre in comparison to really good mathematicians. By the time his train screeched to a halt, he’d worked out how the Time and Space Mechanism (TASM) worked even though he was prepared to admit it was not as Plank intended.
Building the wardrobe-sized TASM took several months mainly because the heavy elemental components proved difficult to source, and because the original schematics spread over several pages, which lost their correct sequence on the train. He realized that his construction was botched but maybe it didn’t matter too much. The differences were probably cosmetic. Consequently, his positive outlook on life in general led to his specific action of switching on the machine. Nothing happened.
Unlike most people, Albert found rising in the morning as easy as sniffing. Not this particular Saturday. His mind was willing but the sheet was leaden. Raising himself on elbows took the kind of gargantuan effort required after a night of swallowing black beer on an empty stomach. But it was different in that his head and belly felt normal; it was only the pushing up into his bedroom air that met resistance. It was as if the atmosphere had swapped the 70 percent reserved for nitrogen with transparent treacle.
Wondering if he resided in a dream, he noticed the extra piece of furniture he’d built. It stood by his DIY lab bench and twice as tall. A humming along with the smell of cooking valves told him he’d left it on all night. He needed to turn the lever on the side to the off position, but at his rate of motion it would be lunchtime before he reached it.
His nose tickled but he could only use will power to fight the growing sneeze. He found that his fingers, dangling down the side of the bed, could grasp a slipper, and so with enormous effort he threw the pungent leather footwear at the lever. Normally, Albert was a fine judge of distance along with the angle of inclination and power required to hurl any object to its destination. So his mouth fell in consternation when his slipper reached only his bedstead, half the distance to the machine lever. A little calculation allowed him to conclude that, overnight, either his room had doubled in length, or gravity had doubled in magnitude.
The latter explanation gained credibility when he considered his difficulty in rising. Luckily, slippers came in pairs and so his second attempt with muscle-hurting effort succeeded with the consequence that Albert found he could throw back the covers and get on with breakfast.
As his breakfast of strong coffee, combined with Emmental cheese and crackers, travelled inside him, he reflected on the apparent increase in gravity the Time & Space Mechanism created. How far did the effect spread? Toast in mouth, he wandered over to his balcony and examined the Saturday morning street activity five floors below. Were they scurrying now because twenty minutes before they could hardly move? Did those lamp standards bend more now, or were they always as twisted as that? He looked upwards. Would clouds have a struggle to stay afloat with double the gravity? And would birds have been hobbling instead of flying? Sadly, he couldn’t answer those questions after the event. He’d have to switch on the TASM again and observe, but he’d install a clockwork timer first.
That done he poured another coffee. His nose savoured the aroma and he returned to the balcony and waited. Nothing happened. Birds flew, no one sat on the pavement and horses trotted tugging their hansom cabs like any other Saturday. Perhaps the machine had not worked. But a stroll into his apartment showed it had. He felt his heaviness immediately. It must be more than double gravity. He controlled his collapse to the floor and thanked his good sense to arrange a timed session. A gaslight fitting creaked away from a wall. Its wrought iron filigree must have had weak screws and waited decades for strong gravity to appear to finish its downfall.
He looked at his wrist and in the blue pulse felt his blood slowing, struggling to flow. Beads of perspiration worried out of his forehead, yet his brain operated normally, although with a touch of panic. He put a synapse to work on how a device labelled as a Time and Space Mechanism should, instead, have had a localised heavy gravity effect. Had gravity been left unchanged but a time and space effect made it appear differently?
The mechanism clicked off. Albert stood but feeling shaky sat at his table. He found he had a tingling sensation travelling up his spine, along both shoulders, down his arms and escaping through fingertips touching the table. He snatched his hands back as a blue static wave surged across the waxed teak. The first rush of fear receded when he decided that the phenomenon was a purging event and that his personal electricity was back to normal. He should test himself. Glancing around his room brought no relief. The large voltmeter for electrical experiments hardly registered when he touched the terminals. Looking around for more inspiration, he was about to test his remaining static by fondling the iron radiator when he was distracted by his apartment door opening. His frowning wife stepped into the room. He’d forgotten she was due home from a week’s visit to her mother.
Mileva let her bag of groceries drop to the floor. “Albert, you’ve forgotten to meet me at Schrödinger’s Pet shop, again.”
He raised a hand in apology while watching an orange roll under the chaise longue.
“I had to leave a box of vegetables. Pick them up this afternoon when they re-open at four. You really are the limit.”
“I’m sorry, I was immersed in a curious situa—”
“Not interested at the moment, Albert. Now, did you fix the…” She blah blahed while he waited – in vain – for the orange to reappear the other side of the heavy chaise longue. A triple nuisance because not only would he have to reveal his weakness at lifting weighty furniture, but action would reveal his lack of cleaning the floor beneath it with the ensuing row, and necessitate his spending time away from the experiment.
“I met Herr Laugmann in the grocery store. He says you’re in danger of being fired from the Patent Office for spending too much time doodling and day dreaming.”
“How else is one to cogitate?”
“Why can’t you pretend to work, like everyone else?”
“I’m not like everyone else. Which brings me to events this morning that might intrigue you.” He ignored the hidden orange.
“I’m not one of your Sunday school audiences, so no more magic, please.”
Mileva scowled at the TASM. “And why is your homework still in our apartment?”
“It’s gone beyond homework, my dear. Would you like a demonstration? I just need to set the timer.”
“I’m fed up with you using our home to test silly gadgets like that mechanical potato peeling machine. Not as good as mother’s knife. The electric lamps have nearly blinded both of us, and look what that hair drier has done to your hair. You must apply for a university post before your job kills us.”
Her chiding affected him no more than continuous drizzle. The pitter changed to patter at random intervals while he screwdrivered the insides of the TASM. A few aspects of the design eluded him. In particular what a Time and Space Mechanism was supposed to do. He turned for the ninth time to the patent submission document under the Aims, but that is where the spider must have escaped after dropping into the ink, Normally, he’d have recommended an outright rejection, but he’d read intriguing papers by this Max Plank – not handwritten – in which the thermodynamics of electromagnetic radiation was explained in terms of infinitesimal quanta.
Should he try the machine again? He changed his mode to listening for a few seconds…
“…we could move back to Munich and rent a house. You know I’ve always wanted to—blah blah…”
He ensured the timer would turn the machine off in ten minutes and pressed the lever. Nothing.
His right nostril felt as if an ant was exploring up there. At last he made the connection: a predisposition to sneeze was a precursor to the machine’s effect. Perhaps that sliver of magnetic bone we have in our nose picked up slight changes.
A few minutes later Mileva, quietened at last, dropped to the floor. Albert wisely had chosen to be seated but perhaps unfairly had neglected to warn his wife – not that she’d have listened. From observing a spilt glass of milk dripping, in haste, to the floor, he gathered the impression of a larger increase in gravitational attraction, if indeed that is the explanation for why objects fall rather than, say, a warp in the way space behaves at a given moment.
Mileva’s look of puzzlement matched the one she displayed after imbibing excess Leibfraumilch, but without the accompanying smile.
To test if his body contained static he strained to put his hand on the earthed radiator. Before skin touched iron he felt the tingling shock as blue lightning flickered across the void. His hand jumped in defiance of the increased gravity as electricity spasmed muscles. Anxiety over Mileva’s health obliged Albert to make the effort to abort the experiment by manipulating the lever in advance of the timer.
“What the hell was that? You strudelkopf. Did you use me as a laboratory rat?”
“Not at all. I was unsure what would happen, although it was a similar effect to one I had earlier and which I tried to talk to you about. Careful, dear, there may be side effects.”
“Such as? And why did I feel so weak?”
Albert helped her to her feet and then for a lie down on their lumpy bed. “Static, and I can only surmise.”
“Static? I don’t feel anything from you now.”
“Probably too many clothes.”
To his astonishment, she smiled and licked her lips. “Albert, I want to conduct an experiment of my own. Remove your clothes.”
“You are as capable a physicist as I, but why the disrobing? Ah, surely not…”
She quickly but carefully stripped away her baggy underwear and lay with her skirt up around her waist.. “I’m intrigued by the static, Albert.” He looked at her as if for the first time. Weeks of celibacy interspersed with moments of incongruity typified their love life; and he rather liked the randomness. He listened intently. “You are not to touch me or anything else until you enter me. Then let the fireworks begin. Are you sufficiently aroused?”
“I am now.”
Sunday school expected him to deliver his magic show. He enjoyed entertaining children; their exuberance was infectious. He found they were more critical than adults, and tested his skills with incisive questions. He couldn’t decide who inspired who the most: he them or them he?
Although he felt his static had been discharged, along with his conjugal duties, the previous night, the morning found both himself and, especially Mileva in friendly moods, but out of sorts. Perhaps the erotic excitement of Saturday coupled with insufficient food played with their stomachs.
Albert’s favourite tricks involved illusions, particularly those using patented gadgets he borrowed from work and modified for the shows. Anything involving electricity was popular even though lights and electromagnets had been around for decades. He would levitate model railway carriages, and combine mirrors with projectors to make ghosts appear, His excitement matched that of his audience. They cheered when he stepped through the green curtains on the stage in the small church hall.
He liked to open with a pinhole camera illusion such that the slobbering audience happy clap at their image on a silver screen. No trick but clever manipulation of lenses and prisms allowed him to enthral them with inverted then righted images, zoomed in then out, made circular then elliptical, the whole group imaged and then a focus on an individual gleeful child. But it went wrong.
Wrong maybe the inappropriate word because the audience shrieked with delight. Albert’s open mouth displayed a gap between two incisors and a betrayal of his lack of preparation. No one looked at his gappy teeth but at the vision on the screen. On a split screen people were shown in various states of undress, apparently in the changing rooms of the Bern Municipal Bathing Emporium immediately across the road. Albert realised that the audience might think he was showing a silent movie or a camera obscura image. More likely the latter, assuming the juveniles realized that silent movies were invariable uncoloured, whereas the pinks and whites of flabby Swiss stomachs and pendulous breasts tipped with raspberries, offered colours galore. The knowledge that he had to end the pornographic intrusion immediately was tinged with regret as he needed to know how the error occurred.
He rotated the lens horizontally, which should normally have given another view of his audience. Instead, it cut to a maternity hospital wing. The screen allowed the children to be treated to a six feet square view between the legs of a woman giving birth; the miracle of a sticky bloody infant. The shocked infant audience howled in disgust, but then shushed as the noise of the newborn filled the room.
“Impossible,” Albert said, to himself. He turned the viewpoint again.
An equally impossible but breathtaking close-up of the Moon filled the screen. The children should have ‘ahhed’ but no one looked because their horror of the view of their own beginnings in this life sent them to the doors.
Before Albert could investigate the often-used device more closely the accumulator released a cloud of noxious fumes and smoke resulting in the projector sparking and then partially melting. His stomach tightening in panic, he threw up his hands at the disaster but then saw several parents storming into the hall as a counter flow to the escaping children. He wasn’t ready to proffer his innocence to an angry mob and so became a fugitive through the rear stage door.
As he ran through the back streets, he knew the problem must have been related to the static electricity from the TASM, and perhaps other effects: magnetism, dark matter or was it dark forces? There were so many ways the unknown could have affected him. Three streets from his apartment block he glanced behind and found a dog following him. No, it halted and growled. Significant? No way of knowing so Albert returned to his flight up stone stairs to the penultimate street from his home. He didn’t need to look behind to know his dog problem had multiplied to at least three. Another couple of steps upward and he stumbled banging his left knee. He winced, but then his nose tickled. He tried to rise and sure enough the increased gravity effect had returned. He must be a catalyst. Charged by the TASM and now he was his own victim. The dogs, now four, seemed to be affected too, laying down and whimpering.
Albert crawled up to the next street level. The dogs had lost interest and after a few yards he found it easier to stand, making him think perhaps his emotions switched the effect on when panic hormones surged. He had a feeling he was going to panic to excess in future.
“Albert, you dolt, you have to go back and retrieve your props.”
“I’d rather not. Is cabbage soup all we’re having for supper?”
“Some of those things are Poppa’s. The slides and magic rings.”
“I know. I’m sorry. Is there at least rye bread?”
Mileva reached into the large white ceramic bread bin and brought out a dark brown lump, slammed it on a bread board in front of him and followed it with a bread knife.
“I’ll slice,” he said, volunteering to protect himself.
“Straight after supper we’ll go to the hall and recover those props. Understand?”
Digestion isn’t helped by worry but his unease didn’t trigger any special effects.
Scurrying through the dark streets, lit only by corner street lamps and escaped house lights, Albert kept his ears on alert for the dogs. For once Mileva kept quiet. Even her shoes didn’t clip clop. He carried his heavy brass electric handlamp but was reluctant to use it unless he had to. He was surprised when they reached the darkened hall’s side door with no parental assault or police whistle. He’d been made to bring a large screwdriver to felicitate entry but the door was unlocked. Inside, he screwed down the knob on the lamp and a yellow beam spread across the floorboards.
Mileva beat him to the box containing his props, and carried it outside. They left the damaged projector.
“That box must be heavy, let me carry it,” he said, knowing there were glass slides, lenses and prisms brass components and a relatively special clock in the wooden box.
“No, you’re carrying the lamp and be ready to fight off dogs. I’m stronger than you.”
He had to acknowledge the latter truth: she had inherited bulky Baltic muscles. So he journeyed in front illuminating the darkest corners, blazing the urban trail, hoping no one would see them. Damn, his nose tickled again. He attempted to calm his nerves, but the incipient sneeze continued to develop. He stopped, put the lamp down and rummaged in his jacket pocket for a handkerchief.
“Never mind a runny nose, keep moving,” Mileva said.
He didn’t reply but blew his dry nose. The tickle grew. She seemed more panicky, for once, than he did. Suppose it was her anxiety that was triggering the effect through him? He wondered what would happen this time. Would gravity increase yet again? Or, indeed, suppose it decreased or became negative? He imagined flying to their apartment, and his moustache hid a smile.
The ‘ant’ transferred nostrils. Albert shrugged, picked up the lamp and continued their journey. Around a street-lamped corner was the long street of Schonburgstrasse. Lights blazed across the grey flat cobbles and yellow flagstone paving from offices working late, and from the expensive homes. He tried to turn the knob to ‘off’ on the lamp to save the battery, but it refused to move. So he stopped, put down the screwdriver-weapon and frowned as if that imbued his fingers with more strength.
Mileva had put the box of tricks on a bench while Albert fiddled. She seemed to be too out of breath to chide, but also he assumed she’d wisely chosen to not attract attention. Eventually, she grabbed the box again.
“Never mind, let’s go.” She marched off in front.
With an extra frown and a sniff, he managed to move the knob, but it came away in his hand. The light went out, but Mileva had to be caught up so he rushed after her.
When he reached her, she was puffing. Oh no, was it gravity increasing or had she tired at last? Neither; it seemed her exasperation affected breathing smoothly.
“What are you doing now, Albert? What are you doing with the light?”
He looked down at it. Nothing. It remained extinguished but wait; light rays appeared to be going into it from the overhead streetlamp. Also, light from the nearest sash window beamed towards him and then into the lamp. He didn’t know whether to be fascinated or worried. He walked on and found that the light around him brightened but at the expense of other light sources. The streetlamp behind him dulled and went out. So did the nearest window. He stopped. Light beams streaked towards him from other lights further away while the periphery seemed darker then black. He heard shouts of consternation from behind nearby windows so he accelerated.
“Come on, my love, before we are accused of stealing light.”
“You are,” she said. Then rushed on ahead, ironically being able to see more clearly than in the daytime where to place her feet in the moving spotlight of usurped energy.
When Albert collapsed on a chair in their kitchen, he thought of the trail of blackness he’d left behind. The lamp, too bright to look at, lay under the kitchen table from where it nicely illuminated the whole apartment. After a minute he realised he couldn’t see through the doorway into the bedroom. He stood and walked over to the window. Sure enough, the light that had burst into the apartment from the lamp when they entered was retreating back into it. With a sinking feeling he saw the sphere of light contract until the only thing he could see was the space under the table. That too snuffed out.
He retrieved the lamp, put it on the table and with light produced by a candle Mileva lit, he examined the lamp. It made him think of what the light was made of. He had notions of it being made up of microscopic bundles of energy – quanta if you will, even if obeying wave functions. So, where were all those quanta now? He rubbed his nose. It had stopped itching.
“Will the gas lamp ignite, my love?” he asked.
“It didn’t just now. Oh, it does now.”
He rushed to the window and watched pinpricks of light blinking on in the neighbourhood.
“You must dismantle that devilish machine, Albert, causing all this trouble, and it’s in the way of the set of drawers.”
He had the feeling the machine was now irrelevant. It had imparted its magic or unmagic into him. “Certainly, my dear, but in the light, so to speak, of all that has occurred I’m going to pursue your suggestion of finding university work in Munich. I’m going to take this Time and Space Mechanism apart tomorrow and go to the office to organise my replacement. What do you say?” he said, as he fiddled again with the hand-lamp. A electrical spark leapt from his hand into it.
“About time. What—”
Albert turned in time to see Mileva’s open-mouthed face shrink then follow the rest of her body into a stream of particles squealing into the lamp. Moments later the lamp shrank. His shocked face watched the lamp tremble, and then crumple to a mote.
His reminiscing took long enough for the ‘effect’ to wear off, temporarily. Luckily, the fan was the only electrical gadget in the office. He’d switched it on, but it seemed the motor drew additional energy from him.
Albert crawled out from under the desk, tidied up as best he could and resumed his resignation letter. That done, he spotted an application that would replace him. Excellent. Another former physics graduate, A. Einstein. He scribbled a recommendation for approval and made sure that the patent submission for the Time and Space Mechanism by Macs Plank was placed with Einstein’s job application for a trial period.