What’s Past is Prologue
The date is March 20th, 2023. The date is always March 20th, 2023. It’s an inflection point. A fulcrum. A liminal event. Like the crucifixion of Jesus, the fall of the Roman Empire, the assassination of an arch-duke, or the completion of the Manhattan Project, but more than all of those combined. It’s the sort of event where every single thing that came after is different from every single thing that came before. But maybe that’s not true. Maybe nothing is different. Maybe nothing will ever be different again and that’s why this is so horrifying. It’s not an easy thing to understand, but we’ll walk through it together. The date is March 20th, 2023.
Rachelle’s story goes something like this.
Rachelle Faraday is a physicist (no, there’s no relation, but it probably didn’t hurt in her field to let people think that) working at the Black River Particle Accelerator and Center for Applied Sciences. She is the lead researcher working on a project to generate Higgs fields in an attempt to produce broken symmetries and create four dimensional crystals whose structures reach through time. The idea is to try to poke holes in thermodynamics and test the possibility of reversing entropy, and in doing so produce limitless free energy through perpetual motion. Of course this is impossible and she knows that. But don’t the best ideas start out that way?
It’s March 20th, 2023. She wakes in her bedroom in her nice colonial house in a quiet neighborhood called Buena Vista Ridge. She eats an egg white omelet and a spinach smoothie, grabs her keys off of the entry table, gets in her Chevy Volt and drives to work.
She gets stuck in traffic on 206. There’s work being done on a new construction off of the highway and it looks like a piece of heavy machinery broke a water main. The foreman is yelling something at his workers when he almost falls in the hole, but his workers catch him. Rachelle thinks that’s pretty funny, because the incident hasn’t happened yet, so things are still funny sometimes.
She gets to work late so she has to park at the back of the lot. It’s strangely hot for March and she walks through the humid heat, sweating through her blouse by the time she reaches the gate. Her ID card gets rejected at front doors, but she waves to the guard, Mike. He buzzes her in and waves back with a smile. She’s an hour late by the time she’s in her chair and in a bad mood. Or she thinks she’s in a bad mood. She has no idea, not yet.
She chats with her best friend Henry, who’s also the other primary physicist on the project, from across the room and flips the switch to activate the accelerator. The BRPA loop begins accelerating particles at an energy of 11 TeV in each direction preparing for collisions in the late stage of the experiment. They chat as it happens, waiting to review the results. Of course they don’t really know what “it” is. No one does, but they stop talking when they hear the hum, and the crack, and then see things no one has ever seen before. The wall near the accelerator loop pixelates, and doesn’t so much break as it does just stop being a wall.
Henry is closer to the chamber so it hits him first, moving outwards like a wave. Other things also stop being what they are, well, were, as they are hit by the wave. A desk. A coffee cup. Then Henry’s arm. It swells, then withers in an instant and dies on his shoulder, decaying into a stump. Rachelle falls out of her chair and backs up as Henry screams. The effect spreads down his right side. He doesn’t even bleed as his body is disassembled, it’s not that kind of injury. Rachelle backs into a cabinet and slams the door, watching through the gap by the door as half of Henry crawls toward her in agony before he stops being Henry. She has just moments to watch as the reaction speeds up and the world around her dissolves. She finds herself shrieking in unbelievable agony, but just for a moment, because then she stops being Rachelle.
Then she wakes up in a cold sweat in her bedroom in her nice colonial house in a quiet neighborhood called Buena Vista Ridge. It’s March 20th, 2023. What a strange dream, she thinks to herself. But she’s still shaking a little as she makes her egg white omelet.
She can’t shake how real it all felt as she drives her Chevy Volt to the office. But she gets terrible déjà vu as she watches the construction foreman fall into the hole by the water main. Was that part of the dream?
At the front doors Mike seems distracted, but he buzzes her in anyway when her card doesn’t work. She sinks into her chair in the control room and chats with Henry, but neither of them seems to have their heart in it. They don’t really know why they’re going through the motions. Something just feels off. Rachelle flips the switch, and Henry screams. She’s in the closet. Henry’s body is breaking. The world dissolves.
Rachelle wakes up in her nice colonial house and something is wrong. It’s March 20th, 2023. Did she have the same dream twice? She wants to cry. It can’t be true. But she has to go to work, it’s a big day, even if she feels terrible. She makes an egg white omelet. She doesn’t want it, but she doesn’t have a lot in the fridge and she needs to watch her cholesterol.
She watches a construction foreman fall into a hole, but it’s not funny anymore.
She’s at the front door. Mike is uneasy. His hand shakes as he buzzes her in. In the chamber, Henry asks her about her commute through gritted teeth. She smiles, but her eyes are afraid. He can’t take his eyes off the switch. Maybe she shouldn’t do this. Maybe she should let this experiment shut down. But the funding is important. She looks at Henry and he returns her gaze, shaking his head. She flips the switch anyway. The world dissolves.
Rachelle wakes up. It’s March 20th, 2023. Everything is wrong and she cries in the shower. She makes an egg white omelet and a spinach smoothie and hates every second of it, but she can’t stop it. She has to eat. She’ll skip work today, she thinks. Maybe watch some Netflix. But then she’s in the Chevy Volt.
There’s terror in the foreman’s eyes, but it’s not about the fact that he’s falling into the hole. The workers that catch him look at Rachelle with abject terror but she can’t save them, can she?
At the door, she begs Mike with her eyes to not let her in. She shakes her head and mouths the words. His eyes are like dinner plates. He tries to stop himself, but his shaking hand hits the button and the door buzzes. Rachelle despairs.
Henry is holding the arms of his chair with white knuckles, as if he wants to get up and run, be anywhere but here, but he can’t. His eyes are pleading.
Maybe I won’t flip the switch today, Rachelle thinks. I don’t need to. The world holds its breath. She looks at Henry, and flips the switch. The accelerator pushes particles to 11 TeV, and she’s back in that cabinet watching Henry’s ruined half body drag itself across the ground and the world dissolves.
So many days, so many mornings, so many flips of the switch. She watches the fear in their eyes every day, like they know. Because they do. They all know. Everyone knows what’s coming every day. And yet no one stops it. Egg whites. The foreman falls in the hole. Mike hits the buzzer. Rachelle flips the switch. The terror persists and no one can stop it. A hundred times. A thousand? The date is March 20th, 2023. The date is always March 20th, 2023. A liminal event where it’s not that nothing will ever be the same, but that nothing will ever be different. It will be March 20th, 2023 forever.
Until one day it isn’t.
Rachelle wakes up and it’s a Sunday, March 19th, 2023. The world seems different. Oh she remembers everything, the eternity of terror she’s endured. But it seems different. Because it’s March 19th. She gets to go to church and then have brunch with her friends. They know too, they remember. She’s sure of it. She can see it on their faces. Is it weird no one brings it up? She laughs for the first time in ages. It feels strange to laugh. It’s a fun day, but everyone is haunted, and no one knows what to do. But they don’t talk about it.
It’s a different world now, but the wounds are raw. They were just there and they saw the devastation, so many times. After brunch she calls Henry. He’s … lighter… but nervous. After all, today is March 19th. But that would make tomorrow…
March 20th, 2023. And it’s worse with the reprieve. They all think it will be different, but it won’t. Rachelle makes egg whites. Mike buzzes her in. She flips the switch. The world dies in agony.
But time is flexible and it seems, on a long enough horizon, it will begin to heal, in its own kind of way. Eventually it’s March 18th, then March 16th, then March 13th. Rachelle goes shopping to pick up food for the week. She’s trying to eat healthy for her cholesterol. She’s afraid but she can’t quite remember what she’s afraid of.
It always ends in the cabinet watching the half-Henry die, but the start is flexible, and the memory gets fuzzier each time. The destination is the same, but it’s harder and harder to chart the course. The memories fade as time decompresses.
It’s March 1st, 2023. Rachelle has an uneasy feeling. She doesn’t think this will be a good month, but her project is nearing completion, so she tries to put on a happy face. Sure, eventually it will be March 20th and she’ll flip the switch, and the world will disassemble itself amidst unspeakable pain, but the memory is transient and fleeting. Can you even remember something that hasn’t technically happened yet? She thinks it’s her imagination. But it’s not. It ends in the cabinet, watching her best friend’s body be destroyed by forces beyond human comprehension. It always ends in the cabinet.
It’s April 2008. Rachelle Faraday is at a house party in Back Bay. It’s not a party for her, but her friends are treating it that way. She’s graduating this year from MIT and she’s gotten a coveted research fellowship at CERN. She has high hopes to make the world a better place through clean energy, and her future looks bright. They drink late into the night beneath bistro lights and a starry sky. 15 years later she flips a switch and the stars dissolve.
It’s July 8th, 1974 and Amanda is working as a waitress. One day she runs across a man with a broken arm and she’s going to get in his Volkswagon to drive him to the hospital, but she doesn’t. She gets a bad feeling and walks away. Years later her friends will marvel about her close encounter. How lucky it was she didn’t get in that car. But it wasn’t luck, because she has to fall in love with John Faraday and 12 years from now give birth to her daughter Rachelle. If she gets in the car, then Amanda gets murdered in the mountains of Utah and there is no Rachelle Faraday. Then Rachelle can’t die in a supply cabinet watching the world burn. And it always ends in the cabinet.
Time stretches and heals.
It’s November 11th, 1918, and the world is euphoric. They know times will be good from here on out.
It’s 1352, no one knows the month, because that’s not important. The plague doesn’t care about time. What’s left of humanity knows this is God’s judgement and the world is ending. But it’s not. Not yet.
It’s January 10th, 49 BCE and a general leads his troops across the Rubicon.
It’s 3050 BCE and Hor-Aha unites the upper and lower kingdoms. This is the kingdom of a God on Earth and it will last forever.
A tetrapod crawls out of the ocean and gazes up at the sun through a hazy sky with primordial eyes.
A ring of dust floats in the void, cold and silent.
Maybe the switch worked after all. Entropy reversed.
All is silent and still. Then there’s a spark. And from that spark there is heat and pressure beyond humanity’s ability to conceive with logic and mathematics. Particles scatter in a mosaic of fire and plasma, for a brief moment, in a cosmic sense, expand faster than the speed of light. They condense and ignite in a beautiful dance that none can ever witness, here at the start of all things. They burn until they run out of fuel, then explode and seed the fledgling universe with copper, cobalt, tin, and carbon.
In the distant cosmos and band of stone and metal circles a young star and begins to condense and clear its orbit, and become a planet that will change the course of time itself. There will be blue skies and oceans. Bistro lights and particle accelerators. And a group of once primates that believe themselves to be giants.
And through it all there winds a thread. Subtle and faint, but inexorable. The thread traces the contours of history from the merging of the first gluons all the way through humanity’s discovery of fire and the taming of the atom. The thread that leads forever and always to one place: a storage cabinet. It has to, because that’s where it ends.
It’s March 20th, 2023. Rachelle Faraday makes an egg white omelet and is late to work. She flips the switch. Time condenses into a crystal and creation is unmade.
But maybe this time it’s not. Maybe two particles in that early conflagration will pass harmlessly through each other instead of colliding, and the thread will be cut. Maybe that little yellow star won’t have enough mass to achieve fusion and the Earth stays a sterile ball of dust and iron. Maybe, just maybe, the mass of the Higgs Boson will be a little bit different this time around, and when Rachelle Faraday flips that switch, she finds nothing at all.
It could happen, because there’s a lot of time between now and March 20th, 2023, and time is a precious thing. There’s so much left to happen, and maybe this time it’s different. The nascent universe is young and free, and brimming with endless possibility.