A pair of BETA-type robots glanced up. The BETA-bots chattered to each other in clicks and beeps as Albert passed.
Between homework and watching videos of Talie Tappler, Albert had tried to uncover more data on the original Einstein: the man with the funny hair, as Albert sometimes called him. The historical database included a long list of scientific achievements: the photoelectric effect, special and general relativity, Bose-Einstein statistics, the E.P.R paradox… Einstein had discovered the particle-wave duality of light. He’d proven the existence of atoms. He’d even revealed the first clues about the possibility of time travel.
The database also mentioned Einstein’s equation E = mc2, which led to the construction of the first atomic bombs. The man with the funny hair had helped the military in other ways too, vehemently supporting the war effort against a faction of ancient Earthlings called Germany.
In modern times, the Earth Empire claimed Einstein as one of its greatest heroes. The history books (approved by the Imperial Government) emphasized the fact that Einstein was among the first to call for a one world government centuries before the Empire became a reality.
“Well, I’m not Einstein,” Albert muttered. “I’m just a poor copy.”
Maybe uniting humanity was a good idea, but not under people like Father or Admiral Pravic. Maybe sometimes war was necessary, like the war against the Swarm or perhaps that ancient war against Germany; but that didn’t mean every war was just, and it didn’t mean Albert had to assist in an unjust war.
Near an airlock separating one section of the space station from another, Albert found a rectangular viewport. Outside, the fiery nebula flickered red while distant stars glowed pale blue. Albert pressed his hands against the glass; then his face. Then, slowly, he sank to the floor.
The two BETA-bots peered around the corner, their scanner eyes recording every detail of Albert’s misery. “Master Albert,” they said, “do you require assistance?”
Albert looked over his shoulder, but before he could respond he heard Father’s sharp voice: “Robots, you are dismissed.”
The robots scuttled back as Father and two armed guards strode down the corridor.
“Dr. Sero, we are conducting routine maintenance…”
“You are dismissed!” Father said. “Return to your operations hub and await further instructions.”
“Affirmative,” the robots said, hurrying off.
Father gestured to his guards, indicating they should wait, then approached Albert alone.
Albert rose to his feet, but he didn’t look at Father. He didn’t want to see this tall, stern man, this figure of authority, standing there with his hands on his hips and his jaw clenched tight. He didn’t want to see the lines of tension in that rigidly controlled face. He didn’t want to see those cold, black eyes studying him like a scientist analyzing the curious results of an experiment. Instead, Albert glared at a small spot of light reflecting off the polished floor.
Father hesitated. “I’m sorry,” he said. “If I’d known how this skirmish with the Hykonians would affect you, I would never have brought you to see it.”
“Whether I saw it or not, it still would have happened,” Albert answered, trembling.
“Albert, I wish you could understand how unkind history has been to our species. If we are ruthless, it’s because we have to be. That’s why we need a functional time machine: so we can set the past right. So we can undo all our defeats and save all the lives we’ve lost. So we can make humanity’s future glorious again. Then perhaps what you saw today will never have to have happened at all.”
Liar, Albert thought, but he glanced up, meeting Father’s gaze, and waited desperately to see some flicker of emotion in the old man’s expression. Some hint that he regretted the massacre or at least regretted deceiving Albert. Some hint that, if given a time machine, he might actually try to make the galaxy a more peaceful place.
Father frowned, puzzled by Albert’s scrutiny. Nothing more. No remorse. No kindness. Liar, Albert concluded, casting his eyes downward again.
“If you aren’t really my father,” Albert said, “am I still supposed to love you?”
Father—or rather Dr. Sero—didn’t answer at first. “No,” he said. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to. Just perform your assigned task. Figure out how the time machine works. Do it for the sake of the Earth Empire and the victory of the human species.”
Albert nodded. He turned and walked away, formulating his own plans for what to do if he got Talie’s watch working. The two guards stepped aside, and Albert marched down the corridor, struggling not to cry.
* * *
How nice it would be, Albert thought, to live in a world of numbers, a world where 2 + 2 = 4, where 14 x 16 = 238, where a2 + b2 = c2. It would be a world where everything added up, where you could prove things through step by step mathematical logic, where you could make decisions knowing with confidence what the outcome would be and where, regardless of the choices people made, everyone would eventually get the same answers.
Maybe, somewhere in the shadows of space-time, the universe really did work like that. Maybe some omniscient observer could predict and explain treachery and violence and cruelty using the secret equations that govern the human heart.
Or maybe, as in the strange laws of quantum mechanics, some things were impossible to know.
Albert slapped the door control to his room and went in. He locked the door behind him, using a fractal encryption algorithm as a passkey.
“Master Albert,” TAU said, wheeling out of her usual corner. “I did not expect you for another fifty-eight minutes. Do you want me to prepare your lunch?”
“I’m not hungry,” Albert said, grabbing the watch from his nightstand.
“Acknowledged,” TAU replied. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Just leave me alone!”
Albert sat on the floor. For a moment, he stared at the holographic images of Talie hovering above his desk; then he turned his attention to the watch. He popped it open. He snapped it shut. He twisted the dial one way then the other, and he pressed the tiny button on the side over and over again. Glowering, he tried to pry the watch apart to examine the internal mechanism, but the brass casing held firm. Sniffling back tears, Albert continued fighting with the stupid time machine until, in a fit of anger, he hurled it across the room. It ricocheted off the wall and clattered on the floor.
Someone knocked at the door. The door controls beeped but didn’t open, and muffled voices spoke in the hallway.
Albert covered his face, his whole body shaking. He began rocking back and forth, sobbing into his hands as he pictured that other Albert, the old man from 3,000 years ago who could solve the mysteries of the universe with nothing more than a primitive chalkboard. The real Einstein wouldn’t be stumped by a magic watch. The real Einstein could decipher its secrets.
Albert pounded his fists against his head, thinking about specific points in time, mentally factoring the chronometric equations that would get him there. He had several options. He could warn himself about how his homework would be misused, or he could alter the solution so it would only work against the Swarm, or he could try to warn the Hykonians about the attack. That would require less energy, according to Lightner’s laws, because he wouldn’t have to interact with a temporal duplicate of himself.
Or Albert could travel eleven years into the past and prevent the Einstein Project from happening. That would create a paradox, the most dangerous and unstable structure allowed by chronotheoretical physics; however, nothing would more efficiently and effectively stop the Empire from weaponizing Albert’s brain.
But wishing to go to another point in time would not make Albert a time traveler.
Glancing up, Albert noticed a holographic image of Talie: one he hadn’t seen before. Her eyes glowed like two violet stars. Even in the recording, that glow seemed to be more than ordinary light. An impossible color.
Albert sat up straight. “Oh,” he said.
Talie winked and disappeared.
“What?” Albert said, jumping in surprise.
TAU’s hand extended, offering Albert the watch. Albert stared at it, knowing now exactly what it was—or rather what it was not.
“Thank you, TAU,” he said, taking the watch. He held it close to his ear and listened for the music. He heard nothing except soft ticking.
The door controls beeped. People were shouting now, but Albert still couldn’t make out what they were saying. The beeping stopped, and with the sound of a gunshot, the controls exploded.
The door slid open, and Admiral Pravic stepped in, a datapad tucked under her arm. Guard Corporal Werner followed, slinging an assault rifle over his shoulder. As they entered, the holograms above Albert’s desk cut to static.
Pravic smiled, flashing her clean, white teeth. “Hello, Albert,” she said in a sugary voice. “How are you today?”
Albert didn’t answer.
“You don’t like living on this space station, do you?” Pravic asked. “Well, I’m going to take you someplace new. Would you like that?”
Albert still didn’t answer.