He only came out from his lab after dark. He didn't appreciate the Sun lighting him up to the World as much as he had no interest in life on Earth these days. You wouldn't want to shine a light on a decomposing body and he, Edward P. Almos, certainly didn't want to be exposed to all the putrid detail of the modern failings of mankind.
The World had always been on the brink of devastation. Every year brought another villain - war, disease, poverty. He had got the message loud and clear thank you and decided to let the World get on with killing itself without him.
He had found a new place to live: His Father had bought the site that housed the infamous Hadron Collider. He had pleaded with his obscenely rich Father, even face-to-face on two occasions, after the place had been forced to close due to relatively unsubstantiated claims that it had played a part in destabilising the Earth's core.
His Father had apparently relented although Edward suspected that it had been his plan all along to give it to him just to be rid of his bothersome fourth child. He had a lifetime experience of living in the shadow of his three older brothers but Edward had always found a way to make the situation suit his own agenda and now, regardless of who had manipulated who, he had made a home in the laboratory 3,608 feet underground where scientists had spent so much time and money focusing on dark matter. Much of the equipment had been dismantled and removed but Edward liked wandering the vast empty corridors in the echoed silence. He didn't need conversation; he had other ways to stimulate his mind. His walls were decorated with Hitchcock and Chaplin movie posters and any pop star and movie star calendars from the Eighties which occasionally popped up for sale on the 'net. He entertained himself by re-editing old movies inserting scenes from other films and overlaying music from other decades; James Stewart fretting at the approaching High Noon when he would confront Yul Brynner from Westworld all to the harsh electronica of Kraftwork.
The rest of the time he worked on his space travel project. His extremely expensive science-focused education was the only other aspect of his life that he was grateful to his Father for though it cost him any last interest from his family when he shunned the career he had been prepared for. Military science would have to make its own way without the contribution of his genius. He had learnt to exceed for his own gain, exploiting his Father's resources.
Although he intended to travel into space, Edward would not be utilising anything as clumsy or unpredictable as a rocket ship; not since recent advancements within the field of inter-dimensional discovery. It turned out that distance was something that only existed in a single dimension. Time only exists through a common agreement about seconds and hours; remove that agreement and there is only growth and decay and the passing of the Sun and Moon. The same was true with travel; take away the distance and there are only the places you wish to be. All you need is the address. You just had to slip into another dimension and out again at the desired place. If land were a piece of paper it was like drawing two dots, folding the paper between those points and then punching a hole where the dots met.
Multi-national Corporations first employed the use of Transporter Pods to enable staff to travel quickly between offices across the globe. The Pods had pre-set co-ordinates to other Pods within the Organisation but eventually Companies allowed "receptions" from each other. After just over a decade of negotiations, six deaths, one project shutdown and several major security scares, Governments began installing Public Access Pods. Now anyone could travel to any other Pod, anywhere in the World provided they had the co-ordinates for their destination.
Of course the only reason you needed a precise destination was to avoid accidentally arriving in the middle of a busy road, spliced into a brick wall or in the same spot someone else happened to be occupying. When it came to wide open space, theoretically at least, this issue was not a concern.
Edward P. Almos did not want to explore space however; he wanted to explore time. Or at least observe it. He would do this by first exceeding the speed of light through inter-dimensional travel and then exploiting it for his own gain. Exceed and exploit - it had served him well so far.
Light travels at 299,722,458 meters per second. It takes light from the Sun, which is 150 million kilometres away, eight minutes to reach our eyes so we are only ever seeing the Sun from where it was eight minutes ago. Edward was ten years old when he had first heard this at school and his first thought was to reverse the hypothesis: the Sun is looking at what I was doing eight minutes ago. If I stood on the Sun I would see what was happening in the World eight minutes in the past. If I stood on Mars I would watch events from up to twenty minutes ago. If I stood on
Now, twenty-eight years after he first had that revelatory thought, Edward was ready to make a journey that wasn't really a journey at all.
First he needed supplies. Although this first mission was more of a test run and therefore he didn't anticipate being away for too long, he did want to stock up on food so that he could immerse himself in studying the results on his return. He had discovered that the megamarket was quietest at around 1:30am. He stepped into his custom-built Transporter Pod and out of the one at the nearest megamarket and slipped on his augmented reality glasses transforming the aisles and products into patiently waiting characters that could tell him all about the nutritional value of the food, help him find items, point out special offers and remind him of his buying habits. There were no other customers, shop workers (shelves dropped into the floor and then re-appeared re-stocked) or security staff as the cameras were automated and were intelligent enough to spot illegal activity. Edward made his selection and paid for the items through the self-service terminal and for the first time in his life said a sardonic "you're welcome" to the voice of the Prime Minister as he was thanked for his contribution to getting the economy back on its feet.
He had anticipated being too excited to sleep, eager to get going with what felt like his life mission. Instead, once he had checked his programme to ensure every last job had been completed, he suddenly felt fatigued. He took it as a good sign; that his subconscious mind was satisfied that everything was prepared. He lay out on his bed fully clothed in the grey jumpsuit he would see the stars in and closed his eyes feeling peaceful; after all there was no rush - he had all the time in the World.
When he awoke he drank half a cup of purified water, urinated, cleaned his teeth and combed his hair to a left-sided parting. He then re-applied deodorant under his clothes and, in an after-thought, dabbed a touch of cologne to either side of his neck. The fruity scent always stirred an impression of his Mother though he never knew why as it was a man's cologne and she had died when he was eight years old so he could never ask her.
He studied himself in the mirror for a moment not through vanity but because he was unsure whether his time in space would alter the edges of his appearance at all. He looked into his eyes, the eyes that had remained the same size and colour almost since birth; the one constant in all the change he had experienced in life. They were not only the windows to the soul, he decided, but windows into his own past.
His shuttle pod, The Neutrino, was ready and waiting on wheels so that he could push it into his carefully modified Transporter Pod. Technically, The Neutrino could send itself into space but it made sense to conserve some of its power for that first 'launch' and anyway, he would also need the Transporter Pod as the return address to Earth.
He squeezed through the cockpit hatch and into the comfortable armchair that would be his living space for as long as he would allow himself assuming the mission was some kind of success. The Neutrino was untested in space but Edward was so confident in his considerable engineering skills that the tingle of anticipation he felt was born out of excitement rather than fear. The problem he had had to overcome was inventing 'eyes' powerful enough to allow him to see Earth in any kind of detail no matter how far away he was. But of course he wouldn't be looking at the real Earth; it would be the Earth whose events were being projected through space at 299,722,458 meters per second.
His answer was the development of microscopic - not telescopic - technology that, once it had served his purpose, he would sell to the highest bidder securing his future away from the support of his Father. A microscope magnifies the tiny whereas a telescope only views objects at distance. Edward had found a way to circumvent the law of light to reach out to a travelling image and take millions of snapshots that could be analysed. He would play the sequence of snapshots like a flicker book but the difference was that he could explore the footage. Again, this was technology that had been built on theory rather than trial and error. The true nature of his findings would only ever be ex post.
He brought the systems online. His equipment glowed blue and emitted a warm hum. He didn't even hesitate. The central button depressed with a satisfying click (he had made several versions to get this right) and reality through the cockpit window flickered like the changing of a television channel.
And then he was staring at a tiny blue ball in a field of satin darkness.
Edward realised he was holding his breath. He cautiously exhaled and then inhaled - the life support system was working perfectly; as was the antigravity field. He had no sense of his displacement in the universe. It was like being in one of his Father's enormous cars when he was young. He would close his eyes and had no sense of how fast they were travelling or how rough the road was. The outside world had no effect on him - he was cocooned in his own space to grow. He smiled as the image came to him: he was the hungry caterpillar munching his way through whatever foodstuff he came across until it was time to lock himself away to grow and change.
He wasn't sure how long he stared at his home world but he became aware of an uneasy feeling creeping into his stomach. He ignored it by continuing with the mission. He checked a screen that told him he was 6.6 billion kilometres from Earth then he flicked a switch that brought up a virtual screen in front of his cockpit window. He set a sequence in motion and then reached down to his feet where he had stocked food, drink and flasks for bodily functions. His mouth was dry so he took a few sips from a water bottle, resisting the urge to drain the whole thing. The water suddenly represented a precious artefact from his world and he wanted to consume it; for it to become part of him.
A soft 'boop' (again, he had spent time perfecting the noise) told him that the recording was complete.
Only now did he find himself hesitating. He shook himself, shifted his position in his armchair and then initiated a playback sequence. The cockpit window was filled with a blurry grey image that shifted like thick smoke. As he adjusted the focus and the resolution of the image, the beast turned out to be a Claw-Crane on a building site working its multi-functioning arms at digging and lifting. Except that this was eight months into Earth's past - the job it was working on could well have been finished by now. Edward zoomed out on the image hoping to orientate himself maybe even enough to recognise what the project was to become. But the briefest of adjustment sent the image rocketing away until he was looking down on a cityscape. He had no idea which city he was looking at or even which country it was. He recalibrated the sensitivity of the zoom function and swept back down. The slightly pixelated images had no accompanying sound and as they passed by the screen in rapid sequence. The jittery movement of people and cars resembled early films by the Lumiere brothers in the late 1800’s.
He was still unable to identify the city - possibly American - but it was unimportant. A childish Christmas morning memory washed over him. He smiled. He felt jubilant at his success. It took an effort to prevent himself from expressing his joy through some kind of ridiculous spontaneous movement but he rocked slightly in his armchair swirling his hands over the soft velvet covering of his armchair.
Keen to progress he paused the recording and switched off the monitor projection. Space filled the cockpit window again. It took a moment for his eyes to find Earth and when he did he realised what had been causing the feeling of discomfort at the pit of his stomach: Earth didn't resemble a tiny ball; it was more like a bubble. It was small and insignificant and fragile.
Edward wanted to protect his previous feelings of elation so he inputted new co-ordinates and The Neutrino sent him twenty-five thousand billion miles to the district of Alpha Centuri. There was no point in searching for Earth with his eyes as it was now so far from view and he was glad not to have this distraction. He brought up the program display, replacing the view of the galaxy with numbers and settings and he began to record in the direction of Earth's co-ordinates.
He checked a display that had been counting the seconds of his time in space: twelve minutes had passed. In the time it takes someone to shower and dress he had travelled further than any man; away from his so-called tribe, away from influence, expectation and judgement. He was truly proving himself beyond the reaches of home.
He allowed a longer time to record than previously. The pleasing 'boop' signalled the end of recording and his fingers flowed over the keyboard to recall the images now captured on data-chips. It was four years ago. At first he was disappointed. He wasn't expecting radical change but he struggled to find anything that anchored the images in their time. As anticipated, the colour was beginning to look washed out. Not the black, white and grey of a Chaplin movie but it was like looking at dour cities on cold wintery days. Then he spotted the food riots in south London. They looked farcical from the right vantage point; people looked like large iron filings responding to the movement of a magnetic force.
He paused the recording and idly explored other countries in his Petri dish: hidden soldiers huddled together in the mountains of Afghanistan; gang warfare during a wedding in Brooklyn; the evacuation from Hawaii as it disappeared into the swelling sea. If he looked for them, he could find a hundred different images to justify his opinion of the self-destructive force of mankind.
But he was not seeking affirmation. He was not insecure or unsure of his mind. He wanted to look behind the curtain of time. He checked his power cells and life support systems: a full row of eight brightly-lit P's had become seven. It was nothing to be concerned about - he still had plenty of time - but the line of letters reminded him of school: Dante led through the stages of purgatory with the seven P's marked on his forehead. What was it that it was supposed to symbolise? He didn't allow himself to give it any more thought and instead nonchalantly jumped his pod over three trillion miles deeper into space.
He kept the virtual screen over his cockpit window such was his lack of interest in endless stars. He initiated the recording process and shifted in his seat - this would be last run before he returned home. He would then review the footage in more detail, analyse data from The Neutrino, make any necessary alterations and then prepare for further, deeper journeys into space and therefore time. Then he would sell his inventions and discoveries.
When he played back this new footage he searched for something specific: England; the South East; Maresfield; The Drive; Birchwood House. He allowed the flicker-book to observe the house for a moment and then after only a minute and a half she appeared in the garden - his Mother. She was wearing what appeared to be a floral blouse and her blonde hair, practically white in the images on the screen, was tied back into a ponytail. He watched her take a seat with a drink and settle back. Although Edward found that he did not particularly have any strong feelings for the woman - after all he had barely any memory of her - he did find that he was content to just watch her resting in the garden despite the fact that, for the most part, it was like looking at a still image. The garden stirred memories in Edward that started as impressions: Something pleasing that he realised was due to the beloved tree-house at the end of the garden; a sense of frustration and ill-will towards his older brothers lead to remembering how they had sensed how much he wanted to be alone in the tree-house and it seemed that they would work in shifts to ensure it was always occupied. It was strange, he realised, that he had no pictures or film of the tree-house considering it was so important for a relatively short time. Maybe people tend to feel they need to capture the unusual - events, occasions - rather than what thy judge at the time to be mundane.
Edward had drifted from this recording of an afterimage to barely formed memories until the movement of his Mother putting her glass on the floor caught his attention. With the spell broken he suspected that when he was back on Earth he would wonder what it was that had fascinated him with the scene. But his Mother did not yet stand up. She leant forward, brought her hands to her face and with the shuddering of her shoulders, Edward realised that his Mother was crying. Not just crying but utterly and unselfconsciously surrendering herself to sadness as she sobbed.
In all the hours of film he had watched, all the people he had spoken to, in anything he had read about his Mother, Edward had never had the remotest sense that she was anything but happy with her family, her friends and her life. And yet here she was grieving so completely for something or someone. What could have caused such a reaction when, at this point in her life, no tragedy had touched her life? Was he the only person to have ever seen this?
Suddenly a little boy ran out into the garden from the side of the house and stopped at the sight of the emotional woman. And although his hair was lighter and there was nothing about him that would resemble the man he would become, Edward knew that he was looking down on himself as a four-year-old. Edward gripped the arms of his chair and somewhere inside of him a little door opened. The boy looked towards the end of the garden and then ran towards the tree that held his tree-house.
The woman, his Mother, finally stopped crying and simply rocked with her face still buried in her hands. Was her son watching from the sanctity of his tree house? How could he not have any memory of such a traumatic moment?
He had come this far seeking a chance to witness an unguarded moment of his Mother; something he could capture and keep as his own. Now he had discovered that he had this moment all his life but had not retained it. Why? Had he really subconsciously chosen which moments he wanted to keep?
Without taking his eyes from the screen Edward's right arm reached out to end the display. The scene vanished and his view was filled with the galaxy.
It was like nothing he had ever seen. A silk sheet dotted with tiny sequins and soft folds reaching in different directions. Colours like rainbow ink in water; stars in so many shades of red and blue, even the blackness had a luxurious depth. It was like looking into the cross-section of the rarest gemstone, natural and unrefined. And it was alive. He knew the theories about the universe stretching but it was more than that: it shimmered and breathed as if it were matching the rhythm of his own heartbeat. Or rather his own heart was keeping time with this splendour.
He suddenly felt so very aware of himself - not in a sense that he was small in the face of such natural beauty, but that he was part of it; that the tiny lights were like the billions of atoms that gave him form, inside and out. He felt empowered but also vulnerable, as if those atoms could drift apart and it was only his foolish consciousness that kept them bound together. He glanced down at the power display just as a P switched off leaving six illuminated.
There was still no rush. How could he even contemplate leaving this majestic view? But it wasn't just a view because that suggested something beyond him. He was part of it; amongst it. He wanted to step out of his pod and immerse himself in it. After all what else was there to go back to?
But he felt enlightened. And even if he wasn't exactly sure how and couldn't quantify it, he suddenly wanted to share it. He wanted test his feelings amongst others and it could only be done against those he knew. Home.
There was no place like it after all. It is where our heart is. It is where charity and beatings begin. And now it would measure his change. Home.
He set the co-ordinates to the address of his transporter pod with the strains of Swing Low Sweet Chariot running through his head and made the jump - his chariot, The Neutrino would carry him home.
But Earth was gone.
It was typical of Edward P. Almos that he didn't even question whether he had arrived at the right place. He knew that it was gone. His ship juddered and shook as space debris drifted against it and challenged the stabilisers. It was almost too much. He felt a churn and a wince and fractured tensions. Maybe someone with a lesser mind would have found themselves screaming as they flung themselves into the embrace of madness. Instead he stared intently at the dust opening slowly outward as if it could offer some clue about the fate of his home world. He saw faces in the shapes.
He made a calculation, taking more time than necessary because the exercise comforted him, and then jumped his pod backwards into space to the distance of the Sun. Then he was staring at Earth again - eight minutes into its past.