I was suddenly in the train car again, snapped back like a stretched rubber band returning to its original state, my every thought in high definition. My eyes were taking in every detail trying to make sense of my surroundings as if I had been asleep too long and woke in unfamiliar surroundings. I heard the noises of the train car, the hum of the lighting, breathing bot mine and others, sounds I had not been aware of previously.
I stumbled backward only a step or two because Madi caught me by the arms to steady me. “What happened to you?” she asked. “One moment you were staring at the reader, frozen, the next you looked like you were about to faint.”
Had it only been a moment? It felt like I was away for longer. I suddenly did not like being able to sense the passage of time. “I-I was in a private library, in a room larger than this, and I found a book, Madi, about us, about our company, about our cases, even the one we are working now. It told me everything up to the point where I was reading the book but when I turned the page to see what would happen next…I was thrown back here.”
“A parental lock,” said Boerum. “To prevent you from knowing things that could affect the future. I should have warned you, I apologize if the experience unsettled you.”
“But it felt so real, all of it. I could actually smell the books.”
“The reader comes equipped with a total immersion option which I forget to disable. Again, my apologies,” Boerum plucked the reader from my grasp, gave it a quick sharp shake and returned it to its membranous state before placing it back on the table. “The best part of the option is the solitude and silence it offers. Have you ever been in a library or place of study that was so perfectly quiet?”
“Never. And there were so many books, thousands of them. Has your father read each of them?”
“His library contains roughly two point five million research items. A little over a million of them are books, while the rest are microforms, microfiches, photographs, music sheets, maps, programs, prints and the like. Knowing my father, he has reviewed all the materials contained within at least twice over.”
“But the book I was holding, it was about the exploits of my company, private matters that I am certain neither Madison or myself or our clients would divulge—”
“Your records were made public as part of the Open Secrets Act which will be passed long after you and your clients have slipped the mortal coil, so to speak. The remainder of the book, that part you were unable to read not only contained future cases you will be involved in but also cataloged the date, time and nature of both your death and Ms. Wasonofski’s, something no person should know.”
“I hate to admit it, Darius, but she’s right. I don’t want to know how and when I’m going to die,” Madi said as she pulled away from me.
“I have shown you how to operate the reader and it is at your service to make use of freely, though some will be written in languages I doubt you will understand. If you encounter such a tome the reader offers an array of accurate translation services, both written and verbal. You will have access to everything except articles on science, technology and history past the point you came to us,” Boerum said.
“Thank you,” I nodded my understanding for the restrictions, “for placing this library at my disposal.” I stared at the reader and a thought struck me, if the book I was holding detailed all my cases, why couldn’t Boerum simply read through The Pneuma Paradox entry and locate the answer she needed, the solution I was to deliver in two years time? From that moment I made it my mission to find a way to remove the parental lock. I promised if that were to happen, I would not look further than this case for clues on how to solve it. And I was almost certain I was telling the truth.
Boerum stepped to the train door opposite the one we entered this dining car that had been modified into a space where her team, as she called them, conducted their research and we followed her through the door and into the next car.
The first car we entered had been stripped bare, the second car served as a base of operations and the third car should have simply looked like an old-fashioned passenger car with rows of wooden seats lining both sides of the cabin, which it did but there was another interior more technologically advanced overlaid on top of it.
“Hologram,” Boerum said, once again before the question passed my lips. “A replica of our main control stations.”
The overlap image winked in and out in a manner that reminded me of the subway shroud. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi. The overlay was visible for approximately three seconds. And one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi, five Mississippi, six Mississippi, it disappeared for six seconds. There was a device in the center of the cabin on the floor with a flashing light that matched the appearance of the overlay. Obviously the holographic projector.
“Is it defective? The projector?” I asked.
Boerum shook her head, “No, it is synchronized with an anomaly.” And said no more. It was here that the five members of her team were assembled, positioned between seat rows on either side of the cabin, manning stations for three seconds at a time when the overlay appeared. She was lost in their calculated and timed movements. I studied her with great interest, silently analyzing the strange expression on her face. Leaning forward on her elbows against the back of a wooden seat, she no longer saw Madi, McKissick or me. She had forgotten our presence.
At three second intervals, the cabin was filled with various types of advanced instruments and equipment. Signal lights and display panels flickered in repetitive patterns. And each man hunched over their assigned station, hands hovering above where the overlaid panels would appear, fingers at the ready. The tall, wiry man barked out a series of operational orders and the rest of the team shouted responses in time with the actions performed at their stations. They performed this ritual over and over and over again, so many times I lost count and was beginning to lose interest. Finally, the wiry man turned to Boerum and said, “We’re ready as we’ll ever be, Dr. Boerum.”
Boerum nodded and asked, “Will one of you be so kind as to fetch the harnesses and rope our visitors so kindly supplied us with?” The bald man hopped to and raced past us into the car we just left.
I shot Boerum a questioning glance to which she responded, “Mr. Quaice, I understand your confusion. I hope that you and your party will excuse the unceremonious way in which you were received and ask you to bear with what must appear to you to be madness and place your trust in a total stranger that there is a method to it.”
The bald man returned with the items and Boerum ordered both he and the man who wore his hair in a top knot to fit us with the harnesses but we elected to suit up ourselves.
“I am assuming the rope as well,” I held up one end of the rope and was prepared to thread it through the harness when Boerum said:
“I must insist you allow my team to handle this. They know the requirements.”
Top Knot tied a knot at one end of the rope then measured a length of approximately five feet before threading it through McKissick’s harness. Bald Man measured out the same length for Madi’s harness and Top Knot did the same for mine.
We questioned it. We questioned the need for harnesses and the rope, questioned her insistence for the order in which we positioned ourselves, questioned if we were about to be placed in harm’s way, and the doctor took the questions with a strained patience and answered simply:
“Indulge me just a bit further. I promise all is about to become clear.”
We did as instructed and made certain the rope was fastened securely between the three of us before I turned to Boerum and asked, “And why is all this necessary? Why just us three and not you and your men?”
“Experience, sir,” Boerum answered. “We have done this many times before. The first time can be a bit tricky and we need to ensure your safety.”
“Safety for what?” Madi asked.
“Before I answer that,” Boerum turned to McKissick, “may I ask you a question, Mr. McKissick? You are a physicist, are you not?”
“My degree is in theoretical physics, yes. What’s your question?”
“Can more than one object occupy the same space at the same time?”
“The popular answer is no; however, it isn’t necessarily the correct answer. According to Pauli’s exclusion principle more than one identical fermion, particles with half-integer spin, cannot occupy the same quantum state simultaneously. This, of course, applies to normal matter, which is made out of only a few kinds of fermions tightly bonded together. However, electromagnetic waves are bosons; particles of integer spin. Thus, they can and often do share quantum state, as with the photons in a laser.”
“Then allow me to rephrase the question, sir: can two solid man-made objects can occupy the same space?” Boerum reiterated the question more forcefully this time.
“No, they cannot,” McKissick sighed.
Boerum made her way over to the door leading to the next car and yanked it open. “Then how do you explain this?”
And for the second time this day, if this could still be considered a day in a place where time did not seem to exist, Dr. Cariad Boerum exposed me to a sight that left me slack-jawed. My brain formulated no thoughts other than to register that it was in shock. I closed my mouth, then looked at Madi and McKissick who wore similar expressions before glancing back to catch Boerum’s eye. “What are we looking at?” was all I could manage.
“That, Mr. Quaice, is what you so quaintly called my time vessel.”
Beyond the door, it looked as if someone had placed three slides into a projector, each containing a different machine but at the same angle and clicked between the three in rapid succession over and over again. One machine was what I assumed to be the steam engine of the Zanetti, one seemed familiar but was unknown to me and the last matched the image implanted in my mind of Alfred Ely Beach’s pneumatic transit car.
“This is the final destination of our tour and it is also the reason for your tether,” Boerum said, scooping up the knotted end of the rope and handing it to Wiry Man, who walked through the open doorway and stood on the lip of the train car that rested above the coupling.
Boerum’s team chanted nine words repeatedly as they stared at the shifting images of machines before Wiry Man. It was in whatever language they spoke but I knew they were doing the same thing I had done when watching with the holographic overlay. They were counting. Timing the shifts. And on the ninth beat, Wiry Man leaped off the platform lip and disappeared into the shifting machines. The rope went slack for a moment but soon pulled taut, forcing McKissick to step toward the train door.
Bald Man sidled up beside McKissick, right arm around the physicist’s shoulder, then other clutching his arm above the elbow. “Bend your legs. Good, just like that. You’ll feel a quick double tug on the rope,” Bald Man said, “that’s the signal for you to jump forward as far as you can. When you’re in the air, go limp. Don’t worry, I’m jumping with you so I’ll catch your fall.”
McKissick was about to say something, ask a question, argue the matter, but the double tug came and Bald Man pushed him forward which would have been sufficient to cover the distance had the rope not yanked hard. Both men vanished and the rope pulled Madi to the door.
“Darius,” Madi turned to me, we were both thinking the same thing.
“Don’t think about, Madi. Thinking leads to fear and fear is the mind killer. Just do it,” I said.
Top Knot griped Madi and issued the same instructions given to McKissick and when the signal tug came they leaped into the shifting mechanisms and the rope now pulled me to the door.
“I will accompany you, Mr. Quaice,” Boerum said as she put an arm around me to brace me for the jump and as nervous as I was to be leaping into the unknown I found that I was far more nervous about the nearness of her.
“Ready?” she asked and I nodded. She gave a quick jerk and when the double tug came I held my breath and leaped. As I approached the machines I instinctively closed my eyes fearing impact and I did make an impact but with the floor of the first car in the train’s chain. Boerum helped me to my feet and moved me forward as the remaining members of her team leaped in behind us.
We were standing in a demarcated area on the floor while our surroundings were in a constant state of flux. It was a steam engine locomotive car, Beach’s pneumatic car and what I presumed to be Boerum’s time vessel at equal three-second intervals.
“Welcome aboard the Pneuma,” Boerum said. “Now, I suppose, an explanation is in order.”