When the pilot and his wife ran from my shadowy, fluid form, leaving me standing in the NASA control center in the Mojave Desert, they placed a lit road flare just outside the door to keep me from following them.
They knew I was a being out of time, a man trapped in an endless limbo only they could see. Fire didn’t bother me just like anything else in normal time, but the pilot and his wife were out of synch with normal time, thrown ten seconds into the future and for them, time was passing thirty minutes for every one second of real time. The flare was also out of synch and was a real danger to me.
Of course, as a limbo being, I could have walked through any wall and followed them, even attacked them, but what’s the use?
I was greatly tempted to replace one of them when time resynchronized, leave one of them trapped in my place, in limbo, timeless, but I knew it wouldn’t work. Someone tried it on me before and it didn’t work. I’ll never know what happened to him.
Re-synchronization would only work with the living people who were thrown out of synch, those who still had a chance, those who hadn’t already been lost.
I knew I no longer had a chance. I was lost over five years ago. I’m not even still alive.
In 1959, Karl Kutter was a young physicist specializing in relativity and working on a government project so secret, Congress was totally unaware of its existence, even through, under a number of real and dummy agencies, principally the Advanced Research Products Agency (ARPA), they were approving hundreds of millions a year in funding.
Only President Eisenhower and a small select group of specialists from his Science Advisory Committee, which he formed after the Soviets launched Sputnik two years ago, were aware of their project.
The project’s code name was Operation Push, but the big secret (besides their very existence) was what kind of push, what would be doing the pushing, and where something would be pushed?
In this case, it wasn’t really where, but when.
Operation Push was located beneath the grounds of the (supposedly) abandoned Basecamp Airfield, a facility north of Warm Springs, Nevada and adjacent to the still mysterious Area 51.
It was suspected that high altitude Soviet spy planes regularly flew over the Groom Lake area, but anything indicating the existence, let alone the purpose of Operation Push was out of sight.
Kutter, age 25, was the youngest member of the core team of scientists and engineers constructing and testing the “time tunnel.” The “tunnel” was actually a linear accelerator precisely 100 meters long and three meters in diameter made of a titanium-nickel alloy. In theory, an object placed in the acceleration couch at one end of the tunnel could be launched forward in time.
Eisenhower had no interest in changing history. His advisors told him that sending someone into the past could result in totally unforeseen consequences. But Sputnik’s launch on October 4, 1957 took the world by surprise and terrified all of America, including the American President (although rumor had it that Eisenhower and the CIA knew the Soviets had the capacity to launch a small payload into orbit since at least January 1957). To that end, and with time travel being potentially possible, the ability to literally see into the near future would be a tremendous boon for national security.
The whole thing would have been impossible without the genius of Professor Kasper Weiss. He was the U.S. Government’s best kept secret because he was reported killed at Treblinka. He refused to allow the Nazis to mine his genius, fearful of the awful weapons they might produce based on this theories.
Of course, Weiss had never been at Treblinka, but the Nazis sent his family there, not only because they were Jewish, but as an “incentive” for the Professor to cooperate with them. He was actually imprisoned in the basement of Gestapo Headquarters in Berlin (and when Berlin fell, it was a miracle that an elite squad of American infiltrators liberated him before the Soviets got to the Professor).
Weiss’s aloofness and emotional detachment was as renowned as his genius. He had allowed his wife, children, and parents to be killed rather than surrender the products of his mind to Hitler. If anyone involved with him and Operation Push objected to his apparent hard-heartedness, they were under strict orders to keep it to themselves.
Weiss hated the Nazis, hated the Soviets, and probably hated the Americans, but at least he retained his relative freedom with the Americans, and they paid him handsomely for his work, kept him well fed and housed, and indulged his tastes in very young women.
Kutter rarely had the opportunity to speak to “the great man,” who he regarded with a mixture of terror and awe. He was also betting that Weiss’s theories, most of which even the senior scientists on the project didn’t understand, were correct, because Kutter was betting his life on them.
“Let’s go over this one more time, Karl.”
Ben Washington was the senior technician on the project. It was somewhat controversial that a Negro had been appointed to such a position, especially since he was in charge of a team of Whites and Orientals, but Weiss valued talent, intelligence, and success above all else. He had hand-picked Ben for the job, and just like their feelings about Weiss, everyone was under strict orders to leave their racism in their quarters.
For his part, Karl actually liked Ben. He was older, maybe forty, he had a winning smile and seemed easy-going, in spite of some of the tension and animosity being mentally sent his way by other members of the staff. It was his job to make sure Karl was strapped safely in the Acceleration Couch at the launch position in the tunnel.
“Remember, we’re accelerating you ten seconds in the future.” Ben finished securing Karl’s safety straps and started on the communications and telemetry leads. “Subjectively, you’ll experience the trip as about a second, but for the rest of us, you’ll seem to disappear at this end of the tube, and ten seconds later, reappear at the opposite end.”
“I’ve been going over the project specifications for weeks, Ben. I could recite them in my sleep.” Kutter was nervous and it made him irritable, but if Ben noticed, he didn’t react.
“I bet you could. If you talk in your sleep, you probably do.” Ben chuckled and Karl laughed weekly. “Anybody listening to you in your sleep?”
“Not that I know of, Ben.” Security on the project was so tight, no one, including Karl, doubted that their rooms were bugged, but Ben was suggesting something a little more personal.
Karl would liked to have had such a personal encounter, but he was tremendously shy around women. He really liked a member of Ben’s team, Barbara Jean Johnson. Her hair was a subtle honey tinted blonde, about average height, with cute, girl-next-door features, an attractive figure, and in spite of her conservative dress, breasts that were only accentuated by her Playtex push up bra.
Karl and Barbara were friendly, but every time he even thought of asking her to join him for coffee or lunch, the pit of his stomach would drop out to somewhere in the vicinity of the center of the Earth.
He could hear her voice among the cacophony of others in his communications headset. He could almost see her through the tunnel.
According to Weiss, the accelerator, when activated, would generate what he called a “chronotronic field,” a particular state that allowed an object inside the field to escape or at least flex the bonds of the time-space continuum. A point-to-point link would be established through the continuum, and the other end of the tunnel, in Karl’s case, would be ten seconds ahead of this end.
This was the first experiment involving a human being (the kitten and chimp had come through fine). Karl volunteered, mainly because he hoped it would impress Barbara, but also, it was one way into the history books, assuming that the project wouldn’t always be classified.
The tunnel was isolated in a large, circular chamber. Power feeds from the project’s nuclear reactor fed into the device through the floor. In addition to the chronotronic field, a secondary magnetic field would contain the accelerator, hopefully preventing any chronotronic radiation from escaping.
The entire circumference of the chamber was windowed, but the “glass” was actually an advanced acrylic three inches thick. Barbara’s tech console was located directly ahead of Karl on the destination side of the tunnel. When he arrived at the other end, she would be the first thing he’d see.
“Okay, Karl. You’re all hooked up. Any questions?”
Ben’s voice startled Karl out of his musings.
“Yeah. Do I have time to pee?” He momentarily forgot that dozens of scientists, technicians, and military and intelligence operatives could hear him through his mic.
“Sorry, Karl. You’ll have to hold it. It’ll just be for a second subjective time.”
Ben was still chuckling as he closed the access port to the accelerator and walked toward the exit.
It was going to be longer than a second. After Ben was out and the accelerator chamber was locked and secured (armed military police), there were several more minutes of calibration and then the amount of time it took to power up the magnetic and chronotronic fields.
“Just a few seconds, Karl.” The sound of Barbara’s voice in his headset made him smile.
Then the chronotronic field powered up and all he could hear was static. The readout on the panel in front of him showed the countdown.
In one second, a blinding pain behind his eyes, nausea and the taste of vomit. Karl didn’t have a sense of acceleration or velocity, but at the end of the second he was at the opposite side of the tunnel, smashing through the access port and crashing onto the floor.
He passed out from shock and pain.
Karl regained consciousness a few seconds later. The acceleration couch was broken in three places, but the retraining straps held, so much so in fact, that he was sure he was bruised where they held his torso and limbs.
“Help. I need a little help in here.”
He couldn’t hear anything in his headset, but his suit’s electronics were likely broken. His vision cleared and he looked ahead, expecting to see a dozen techs and medics running toward him.
No one was there. He popped the emergency release on his restraints and fell to the floor. Looking up, he expected to see Barbara at her station through the safety windows, but instead, he saw there was a large breach in the plastic.
“That’s impossible. Nothing was supposed to get through the magnetic…” He realized he was talking to himself.
“Can anybody hear me?” He called out loud enough for anyone in the control center on the other side of the breach to be able to hear him.
Karl looked at the Timex on his left wrist and saw that it had been over a minute since he had launched, meaning it was well past the ten seconds he had been launched into the future.
Still no one coming. No sound of any kind. It was like Karl was completely alone in the world.
He stood up fighting the pain of his injuries. “Stiff and sore, but nothing seems broken, at least.”
Karl staggered forward, approaching the break in the window just ahead. He could see figures through it including Barbara’s. She was turned away from her console as if trying to run away…but she was absolutely still. Not a muscle moved. He saw other figures frozen in the same way, as if they were in mid-motion when…
…when time stopped.
The experiment had gone horribly wrong, but how?
Karl hesitantly crawled through the break in the window, just large enough to admit him. He could see what Barbara was running from now. Her console had short circuited and exploding in sparks. Even the sparks were frozen in time, as if he were watching a videotape recording that had been paused.
Everyone, a dozen or so people in this section of the control room, were standing like statues of flesh and blood. Professor Weiss was at the back of the room just starting to uncross his arms and with the beginnings of a look of shock crossing his features.
A moan, a woman’s voice attracted Karl’s attention to the floor several meters away.
How was this possible? Directly behind Karl was a frozen Barbara, turning away from an electrical discharge, and then here is a moaning, moving Barbara on the floor meters in front of him.
Karl rushed to the reclining figure. “Barbara!” He bent over her.
“Karl?” She opened her eyes. Saw the young scientist gazing down at her. “What happened?”
“I don’t know. How do you feel?”
She started to sit up. “Must have hit my head when I slipped and fell.” Then she looked around.
“Karl! What happened to everyone?” Then she saw her frozen doppelgänger and gasped. “Karl!”
“Take it easy, Barbara. I’m sure there’s an explanation. Do you think you can stand?”
She didn’t answer, but let Karl put his arms around her and guide her to her feet. For a moment, he held her close, felt her breasts pressed against him, and noticed the beginning stirrings of an involuntary erection.
“I’m fine I think.” Barbara gently pushed away, perhaps because she felt the expression of his lust, or maybe just to see if she could stand on her own.
Karl looked around and focused on the control clock. “Look. The clock is frozen at 1.5 seconds after launch. I shouldn’t materialize for another eight-and-a-half seconds. Why am I here?”
“One second transit time, Karl. From your point of view the trip was one second long, but from ours, you should still be in the accelerator.” Barbara looked past Karl, through the breach and at the broken accelerator couch.
“You crashed through this end of the tunnel. That’s not supposed to happen. It’s a miracle you weren’t killed.”
“Probably the chronotronic field. If time was still in flux, I should have been protected from events in real-time. I think I was until I crashed onto the floor.”
“My watch. It’s still running.”
“So’s mine. Says it’s been about 45 minutes since I launched.” Karl looked at Barbara next to him, and then frozen Barbara and realized frozen Barbara wasn’t the same as before. The position of her arms and legs was different and she was just slightly closer. The “plume” of sparks from her console had subtly changed as well, getting brighter and larger. What had the clock on the wall read when he first entered?
“Come with me Barbara.” He tried to take her hand, but she pulled away.
“I can manage.”
Karl was briefly stung at the rebuff, but now wasn’t the time to worry about feelings. He crawled back through the window breach and into the acceleration chamber. He could hear Barbara behind him, following.
They walked to the broken acceleration couch and in direct line of sight from the destination end of the tunnel and the launch end. Something was still inside.
“It’s so blurry. Indistinct.”
“Barbara, we shouldn’t see anything at all.”
“There’s me and my counterpart still trying to run from the console explosion. She’s in there and I’m here. That means if you’re here, that blur in the tube is…”
“It’s me. I’m still in transit.”
“But you’re here. How can you be there and here at the same time?”
“Let me think. Wait. The clock in the control room.” They both ran back and crawled through the breach.
“You’re right, Karl. The clock has changed. My position has changed, so has everyone else’s.”
“Barbara. I was sent ten seconds into the future. Now I’m waiting for time to catch up to me. It’s not time travel, it’s a warp in time.”
“But what about me?”
“It must be because your console was directly in front of the tunnel. The chronotron field must have projected forward along the line of my trajectory.”
“I was caught in the field and projected ten seconds forward in time along with you.”
Karl looked back toward Kasper Weiss, his hands almost level by his side and his mouth open with surprise. “Some genius you are.”
“Don’t say that, Karl.”
“Why not? He can’t hear me.”
“Let’s just work the problem, Karl. My watch is coming up on an hour since your launch, but the control room clock says not quite two seconds have passed.”
“So…” Karl paused momentarily to do the math in his head. “…for every second that passes in real time, 30 minutes pass for us.”
“That means at launch plus five hours our time, real time will catch up with us.”
“And we’ll be re-synchronized with normal time.”
“We’ve got four more hours to wait, Karl. Four more hours before I complete my fall to the floor. Four more hours before you crash through the acceleration tunnel.”
“I wonder what caused the time dilation?”
“Weiss and his eggheads will probably be working to answer that one for months.”
“Hey, I’m one of his eggheads.”
“But a junior one, so you haven’t learned to become pompous yet.”
They both laughed. In this strange situation, it was the most comfortable Karl had ever felt around Barbara.
“What are we going to do for four hours all by ourselves? It’s like we’re the only two people in the universe.” Karl thought about what he’d like to do with Barbara alone for four hours, but he doubted she was thinking the same thing.
“Let’s go back into the acceleration chamber. Maybe there were other effects.”
Karl irrationally felt disappointment but he complied. This time, Barbara crawled through the breach first, affording Karl with a view of her rather attractive derriere with her skirt stretched tightly across it.
He tried to put those thoughts out of his mind as he followed her through. They started toward their left and made a slow survey of the tunnel and the ceiling, walls, and floor of the chamber.
Karl shuddered as he could see his blurry presence through the side of the tunnel, something that shouldn’t be possible through the thick, titanium-nickel alloy.
“It must be some sort of energy signature, Karl. We aren’t actually seeing you or the couch, but an image of the charge your received from the chronotronic field.”
“I’m nearly halfway through the tunnel. Five seconds…”
They arrived at the opposite end, the launch end of the tunnel.
“This end looks okay.”
“Not quite, Barbara. The access port looks bent inward, as if some force inside the tunnel were pulling it forward.”
“Maybe the problem is with the tunnel itself, I mean physically.”
“If the tunnel physically warps, it would change the shape of the chronotronic and magnetic fields.”
“Maybe it created an unpredicted forward bias, projecting the fields through the wall, breaching the window, and catching me in its wake.”
They continued their slow clockwise walk continuing to survey the area.
“Here’s something, the tube is showing some minor buckling on this side, Barbara. I think your theory is correct. We’ll need much stronger material for Weiss’s project to become successful.”
Barbara started laughing.
“What’s so funny.”
“Don’t you see?” At the end of ten seconds when time catches up to us, we’ll have already figured out what went wrong and can present the answer to Professor Weiss. Maybe we’ll get promotions.”
“Maybe. Weiss does reward innovation.”
“That makes us partners.” Barbara touched Karl’s forearm.
Uncharacteristically, Karl added, “Maybe it makes us more than that.”
This time, Barbara let Karl take her hand as they continued their stroll, carefully surveying the entire 100 meter length of the accelerator.
They stopped when they once again stood by the broken acceleration couch. “What time do you have?”
Karl looked at his watch. “I can’t believe it. Four-and-a-half hours passed since launch.”
“Time flies when you’re having fun.” Barbara was standing close in front of him. Maybe too close. Karl felt proverbial butterflies in his stomach, and he hoped he was reading Barbara right.
Karl bent down, put his arms on Barbara’s shoulders, and softly kissed her. He could feel her lips yielding to his. He became aroused again and then it occurred to him.
He pulled away from the kiss abruptly. “Wait!”
Karl! What’s wrong?” At first, Barbara thought she had gone to far with him, that the kiss seemed too forward.
“We have less than a second, less than thirty minutes before time catches up.”
“Don’t you see?” My image, my other self is almost here. Look in the tunnel.”
Karl’s doppelgänger had almost arrived, a mere ten meters from the destination point.
“Hurry.” He took her hand and they ran back to the break in the window and crawled into the control room.
“Look at everyone! Look at yourself!”
The other Barbara was falling and was ready to hit the floor, right where Barbara had awakened after the accident.
“Get on the floor.”
“What are you suggesting, Karl.”
“You’ve got to be where you were originally. You have to be on the floor when your other self synchronizes with you.”
“What happens if I’m not?”
“I don’t know. Maybe nothing, but maybe you won’t re-synchronize at all. I don’t even want to think about what that would mean.”
“Alright, Karl. I suppose it can’t hurt.”
Karl remembered what position she was in when he first saw her and helped guide her to that same pose.
“Now wait here. No matter what happens, don’t move. I’ve got to get back into the couch and wait there for time to catch up.” He looked at his watch again and then at the control clock. “Only fifteen minutes left, barely half a second in real time.”
Karl paused. He remembered their kiss. He kneeled beside her and whispered. “See you in half a second.” He kissed her cheek and before he gave into temptation, stood and walked back to the breach.
Crawling through, he ran to the couch. Something was wrong. Something was already in it…and it wasn’t human.
“What the hell…”
“Welcome, Comrade. I’ve been waiting for you. Well, not precisely you. I’m waiting for the ‘you’ coming from the accelerator tunnel behind me.”
“Who the hell are you?”
Karl was wrong. He was human, well sort of. It was like looking at a photographic negative of a person surrounded by some sort of hazy or smoky field.
“My name is not important, but like you, I am a scientist and a…lab rat? Is that how you say it?”
Karl noticed his accent. Probably Russian. A scientist and a lab rat.
“The Soviets are working on the same project? But how? We’ve got Professor Weiss…”
Karl suddenly realized that even under these conditions, he shouldn’t say a word about Weiss.
“Relax. The Kremlin knows you have Weiss. We have one of his colleagues, a man who stole Weiss’s early notes on this procedure before leaving Poland ahead of the German army. We were only too happy to protect him.”
“Get out of there. I need to be there before…”
“Yes, I know all about it. You need to be where you were, exactly where you were, when time synchronizes. Otherwise, well…you’ll be like me.”
“Last year. We got our apparatus operational last year. I was the first test subject. Launched ten seconds into the future. Only I didn’t get back to my original position in time. In real time, I died, but my accelerated self lost its bond with normal time.”
“What the fuck are you?”
“A shadow, a ghost, a phantom trapped in limbo…timeless, ageless. No hunger, no thirst, no sleep, no desire. Most of the time I am unaware of the passing of days, weeks, and months. I’m attracted to time anomalies, which is why I’m here. ”
“You want to take my place. You want to take my life and leave like…like…”
“Like me. Yes. And you would do the same in my position.”
“Get out of there!” Karl tried to grab the apparition and experienced intense pain the moment he entered the creature’s field.
“I can’t affect anything in real time. Neither can you, but we can affect each other.”
Karl was on his knees whimpering. It felt like severe frostbite. He hoped his yelling hadn’t attracted Barbara. No matter what happened, she needed to stay right where she was so she could synch up with normal time.
“Please…” Karl was sobbing…begging.
“Sorry my friend, but my destiny is about to arrive, as is yours.”
Karl looked at his watch. Only a few seconds until the five hours were up. He lifted his head and saw his after image in the tunnel was here.
In one second, a blinding pain behind his eyes, nausea and the taste of vomit. The world seemed to shimmer and vanish.
“Barbara. Barbara, are you alright?”
She could hear the voice as if it were coming down a long tunnel. “Karl?” Then she opened her eyes. “Ben.”
“Are you alright. Can you sit up?”
She started to sit up. “Must have hit my head when I slipped and fell.” Then she looked around. “What happened? Where’s Karl?”
“Something went wrong with the experiment. There was an explosion.”
Barbara looked up at the control clock. Over a minute had passed since launch. Karl should have caught up with normal time by now. He was the subject of the most ambitious project in this history of science, but still, Barbara found she was thinking of Karl differently and she didn’t know why.
The speakers squawked. “Henderson here. No breathing. No pulse. He didn’t make it.” Henderson was the project’s emergency trauma physician. He and a team of medics and techs must have gone in right after the explosion.
“No. No, not him.” Barbara started sobbing.
“I’m sorry, Barbara.” Ben momentarily put his hand on her shoulder, then became aware of how that gesture would look, a Negro man putting his hand on a White women. “I didn’t know you two were close.”
“I didn’t either.” Barbara remembered Karl through a haze, not just the Karl she thought she knew, the colleague, the co-worker, but there was another Karl. Why did she feel like she just lost someone she loved?
I, whatever I’ve become, was standing next to Dr. Henderson. His medics were bringing a stretcher in to take away the body…my body. I could see them move slowly, oh ever so slowly, one second for every thirty minutes that passed for me.
What happened to the other shadow man, the Soviet scientist who tried to take my place? Did he die when he tried to synchronize with real-time using my body, or did the accident push his further out of synch with time-space, so that even I couldn’t see him anymore?
I walked into the control room. Barbara was still crying but more softly now. Ben got another tech, Sheila, to help comfort her unexpected reaction of grief while he got back to directing his team, almost, but not quite frozen in time.
It was then I realized Barbara didn’t remember the last five hours with me (or ten seconds depending on your point of view). She didn’t remember the accident, our walk around the acceleration chamber together, our kiss. All she had was a feeling that existed on the edge of recall but always just out of reach.
Now I am the shadow, the ghost, the specter, the phantom. I am a man out of time, trapped in limbo, no hunger, no thirst, no sleep, no desire. Well, almost no desire.
“Good-bye. I’d like to think we fell in love in those five hours together.” I tried to touch her cheek with my photographic negative hand. I couldn’t. I was so out of synch now, it passed right through her. I really was a shadow ghost.
Karl Kutter had stepped out of time forever, no longer part of human events or humanity. But while a man out of time may no longer have a history, he can still have destiny.
The prologue to this story at the top of the page was taken directly from the 1965 episode of the Outer Limits television program The Premonition. You can also read about this episode at Wikipedia. You can watch it using the free trial at Hulu or, for about two dollars, you can watch it via iTunes.
That episode included a minor scene involving something called the “limbo being.” While the episode explained why the pilot and his wife would also become limbo beings if they didn’t return to their original positions when time re-synchronized, it didn’t explain how this limbo being was created.
So I decided to create him. The late Kay E. Kuter, best known for his roles in Guys and Dolls (1955), The Last Starfighter (1984), and Warlock (1989), played the limbo being, but I needed an actual name, so I adapted Kuter’s name for my character’s.
I needed a method of time travel that involved movement, velocity, and distance. In the Outer Limits episode I mentioned, the pilot was flying an X-15 Rocket Plane past Mach 6 when he (supposedly) broke the time barrier. The shock wave struck his wife’s car as she was driving to his landing site, and when they both crashed near each other, they were both thrown out of synch with time just as I’ve described in my story.
Since motion was part of their experience, I designed the acceleration tube or “time tunnel” to accelerate Kutter forward in time. I came up with slightly more credible fake science to explain why Barbara was also thrown out of synch with normal time along with Karl. This is tangentially related to another television show called The Time Tunnel (1966-1976) which had a few good episodes early on, but then descended into garbage. The only similarity between my concept and the Irwin Allen production is they both use tubes, although “The Time Tunnel starts out wide and narrows at the far end and is banded with alternating black and white rings.
I had to look up abandoned airfields to create a suitable location for Operation Push, and I used then President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s real reaction to Sputnik in 1957 to fuel the creation and funding of my fictional project.
I realize I created Kasper Weiss as an unsympathetic Jewish character, but please don’t think I’m criticizing Jewish people in general. My wife and children are Jewish. However, I needed a “Dr. Strangelove” type character, a maverick and rogue scientist, to create time travel in the late 1950s with the limited (think vacuum tubes) technology available. Fortunately, nuclear power was available to play with.
As my story passed 4,600 words, I realized I couldn’t write it all as a single blog post, so there are going to be two more parts to my “cold war thriller”. I don’t know when I’ll write them, but hopefully pretty soon.
I know not many people read my longer stories compared with my flash fiction, but some stories need more words to tell.
I hope you read and enjoy this one. I’m having a lot of fun writing it.
To be continued…