Herford sat down at the coffee table across from the pretty young woman, gesturing for a mug of tea from the waiter. Crowds swirled and flowed beyond the iron-gate railing of the little café’s patio.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” said the woman, smiling broadly. Herford looked up at the bright sun — unusual for gloomy Geneva, even in early March — and grunted. He decided to get right to the point. “What’s this nonsense about resigning?”
The woman sighed. “All business, eh, Dr. Herford? Or should it be Sir Burt now? Congratulations on the knighthood.”
Herford softened his expression. “That’s not until the Queen’s New Year’s orders, Dr. Lowenstein. And don’t try to change the subject. Why am I losing my most talented theoretical particle physicist?”
The woman took a sip of her coffee. “Because I decided that I wanted to do something else with the time I had left. But that’s not why I asked you to meet me here.”
Herford was puzzled. “Time left? Cassie, is something wrong — ”
“I’m not ill, if that’s what you mean Burt.” Cassie leaned forward and took his hand into hers. “I’m worried about watching you kill yourself in this project, Burt. Ever since you were my adviser at MIT you’ve been like a father to me, and this thing is sapping the life right out of you.”
“Oh, nonsense, Cassie.” Herford tried to laugh off the young woman’s concerns. “I’m the director of the largest public science project ever. Of course it’s a little tiring.”
“Have you told the Board about the cracked accelerator cooler yet?”
“What?” His eyes narrowed. “How did you know about that?”
“I didn’t, for sure, until you just told me.” Cassie leaned back and took another sip of her coffee.
Herford’s eyes narrowed, but the corner of his mouth curled up at his former student’s wiliness. “So we’ve had some bad luck…”
“The bird last November? With the baguette?”
Herford scowled some more. “Yes, yes — the ribbing we took from that Parisian paper. A bird drops a bit of bread in a capacitor — ”
“Which breaks down the coolant unit and raises the temperature above superconducting level. Which shuts down a four billion pound project. Odd, huh?” Cassie’s smile dazzled in the sunlight.
“Oh my god,” Herford said suddenly. “You’ve started listening to that maniac Ninomiya!”
“Dr. Masao Ninomiya is a Fellow at the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics, Burt. Hardly a maniac,” Cassie responded quietly.
“His theory is crackpottery. Ripples from the future are shutting down the LHC? Time Travel?”
“The math in his paper with Nielsen holds up, Burt.”
“Let me get this straight. You believe that sometime in the future, we succeed and find the Higgs boson. Because the universe, or God, or my Aunt Patty doesn’t want us to find the ‘God Particle’, that event reaches backwards in time and disables the machine today.” He snorted. “Grandfather Paradox, my hindquarters.”
“Don’t,” Cassie simply said.
“Don’t,” she repeated.
“Don’t make fun of nutty mathematicians who have gone off the deep end? Theoreticists! Bah!”
Cassie shook her head. “You misunderstand me.” She leaned forward again, eyes burning. “I’ve been reading a lot of Ninomiya’s work lately, and I’ve found valuable algorithmic tools in it.”
Hereford frowned. Cassie’s mathematical ability was unparalleled at CERN — or perhaps the world. But this —
“Maybe future-me knows I’m susceptible to persuasion because of this. Maybe that’s why I was picked.”
“Picked?” Herford’s mouth went dry. “Picked for what?”
“I went home last night from the lab,” Cassie said, her gaze far away, “got home and found my home computer shut down.”
“I had it running a Feynman diagram analysis that morning when I left. Something had crashed it. I turned it back on, and it booted fine. Even gave me my desktop image back. But…” She hesitated.
“My hard drive had been wiped. All 120 gigabytes gone.”
“The drive was blank?”
“Not blank, no. There was a message on there.”
“A message? What was it? Who was it from?”
Cassie stood suddenly, leaning forward. She kissed Herford gently on the cheek, and put on her sunglasses. “I can see in your eyes I’ll never convince you, Burt. Listen, I have to go. Please stay in touch.”
“Cassie, wait! What was the message?”
“Don’t,” she said. “Just… don’t. One word, four letters written over and over again billions of times on my hard-drive in ODF format. Doors and windows locked, security system engaged, computer disconnected from the internet and someone reached back in time, wiped the hard drive and replaced it with one word: Don’t.”
Cassie smiled again and strode away with the crowd.
Herford looked around at the sidewalk as if it would open up to swallow him, then took another drink of his tea.
Ramon Rozas III creates written artifacts of unbearable beauty in West Virginia. He also writes SF and submits that instead. EDF, Aoife’s Kiss and Atomjack have all made the questionable decision to publish his pieces.