Harry and Harry – First place winner in the SF/F short story category of Preditors and Editors Writers Poll.
Publishing date May First 2011
12 Jan 2024
Sweat burned Harry’s eyes, cascading over both nose and chin. Although he tried to calm himself by sinking into the worn confines of his leather easy chair, his gut preferred to tremble, and his breathing remained short and raspy. The sole source of light in his basement sanctuary came from a series of blinking multicolored flashes. The apparatus sat a few feet in front of him, and centered in its face was a dark round opening. With a long sigh, he wiped his free hand on his trousers and reached out to turn on the machine.
20 Nov 2014
Harry Simson sat at a lunch table listening to Dr. Jeremy Grimes. He was being considered for a position at Pearl Labs, a leading communications research facility located at the foothills of the Kittatinny Mountains in northern New Jersey. Harry was fresh out of college and had just gotten married to his high school sweetheart, Jayne Bardwell. They hadn’t yet decided upon a place to live when he received an invitation from Pearl Labs.
Grimes finished up his description of the facilities at Pearl, and with tented hands propping his goateed chin, asked, “So, Harry, what do you think of this place?”
“Nice. I mean . . . I really like it.”
Harry was a bit overwhelmed by Pearl Labs and immediately wished he could take back the lame response and substitute it with a series of keen observations, and perhaps several penetrating questions. Grimes was hard to read. His face was deeply creased; an overgrown mop of pure white hair covered the tips of his ears. Dark glasses were propped up by a prominent and bulbous nose, much like his own.
Grimes smiled, sympathetically, and asked, “Is there anything about the work here that attracts you in particular?”
Harry’s face brightened. “Well, I am really interested in the CTC experiments you’ve described. They seem very cutting edge.”
The smile widened. “Our best people have been assigned to the Closed Time Curve project. It’s very ‘cutting edge’ as you put it.” Grimes glanced at his watch and continued, “In fact, we are about to test a phase of the project in a few minutes . . . would you like to come along and see it?”
A moment later, Harry was trying to keep up with Grimes who marched down a brightly lit hallway and angled through a key card entry door. Before them sat a metallic tubular device about a foot wide at the opening, ringed by clear plastic optical cabling. A number of technicians surrounded the odd metal tube, clipboards in hand, checking and rechecking connections and monitor displays.
They turned to look at the pair who entered.
“I’m glad we were able to arrive before the testing. This is our interviewee, Harry Simson. Some of you met him earlier today. Please go ahead.”
After a few nods, the group turned their attention back to the machine and their clipboards. One of the technicians flicked a switch mounted on the tube’s side. The thick strands of cable surrounding the tube glowed red and a low pitched hum filled the lab. Everyone stared at the open end which had turned a deep purple. All at once, the technicians raised their arms and shouted as a small white ball shot out. It flew across the room and ricocheted off cabinets and countertops.
Harry was amazed at the commotion, and turned to Grimes.
“You’re asking yourself what just happened.”
Harry nodded, as the technicians continued to give each other high fives.
“Harry, see the apparatus mounted on top of the opening?”
Harry nodded again.
“Well, that’s a spring-loaded gizmo containing a ping-pong ball. It’s designed to shoot the ball into the CTC any moment now.”
Harry frowned and Grimes continued, “The ball that emerged from the CTC device is the same ball as the one about to be shot into it.”
As if on cue, the mechanism fired off the ball which disappeared into a purple haze.
Harry was dumbfounded. He scratched his head in an attempt to rally the disconnected thoughts swirling about in there. And then realization arrived.
“I get it. Since the CTC is a closed-loop device, whatever enters it in the future will show up exactly when the machine is turned on.”
Grimes nodded in satisfaction, and Harry added, “The entering ball can only travel backward in time . . . and, only if the machine is kept running.”
Satisfied that he hit the mark with his suppositions, Harry threw in some questions. “And what would happen if you prevented the ball from entering after it emerged from the CTC? Wouldn’t that cause a paradox? And what about live subjects . . . you know, like guinea pigs or rats, something like that?”
Grimes laughed. “Great questions. That’s something you’ll find out when you start working here.”
“Start working? You mean I’ve got the job?”
“Harry, you are just the one I’ve been looking for. I expect to see you here Monday morning. You’ll be joining the CTC group as an Associate Scientist. Welcome to Pearl. That’s 8:00 a.m. sharp─we like to start early.”
12 Jan 2024
Ten years later, Harry was laid off from Pearl Labs. He was living in a one-bedroom cottage tucked away in the quiet northern New Jersey suburb of Summit. Each morning, he rousted himself out of bed at 7:00 a.m. The flecked bathroom mirror confirmed that the scruffy brown and grey stubble had grown out a bit more, that his eyes were watery and puffed, that his teeth were turning a pasty yellow, and that his premature bald pate had not sprouted any new growth. The unopened box of toothpaste remained that way. A cup of black coffee later, and he was working in his basement. When noon arrived, he shuffled back up to the kitchen, still in his pajamas, and slapped together a sandwich using the meager offerings available in the refrigerator. With the sandwich tucked away in a coat pocket, he trundled down to the hospice to visit his wife. Each day brought his work nearer to its end, and his wife─nearer to hers.
Harry looked down at Jayne. Her eyes spoke to him. When the sickness had brought her to the hospice, they were frightened, pleading for a miracle. His eyes glanced at the door, maybe a doctor was about to rush in and tell her everything would be fine, that all this was a mistake, that it was nothing but a nightmare from which she was about to wake. Now, only days later, her eyes were but pinpoints in darkened hollows. Pancreatic cancer was fast moving and painful. Her only relief took the form of a call button─begging a nurse to increase the morphine drip, begging for the protective shroud which obscured reality. On bad days, she was lost to the world, wandering the inner realms of imagination, unable to focus. On good days, she coasted through brief interludes when the pain was tolerable and she was lucid. This was a good day.
“Honey, how are you today?”
It was a stupid thing to ask.
“Harry, it’s so nice to see you. Did you talk to the doctor? What did he say?”
Harry had talked to the oncologist that morning as he did every morning; her condition remained unchanged. Jayne had maybe a week, and the final days would be most painful. At some point, a decision would be made between Harry and the oncologist to increase the morphine to the point of suppressing respiration, a point of no return. It was never called euthanasia, but the effect was the same.
“Yes, Jayne. I talked to him this morning. He remains hopeful.”
Their eyes locked on each other, and for a moment they both acknowledged the reality of the situation─he was lying and she knew it. The moment passed and Jayne responded with a sigh, “I can’t wait to get out of this place.”
She smiled up at him, and his heart was ripped open. As her chapped lips moved they creased her sunken cheeks. The disease was consuming her, transforming her into a withered replica of the young, vibrant woman he married. Harry’s eyes moistened, as did hers. He replied, “Me too.”
He held her hand and sat by the bed. He nibbled on his sandwich and watched as her eyes gradually glazed over, and she drifted into a euphoric sleep. He walked back home, checked the letter slot for mail, and descended to his basement workshop.
Harry had become a hermit, a hermit with a mission. High voltage transformers, cables and circuit boards lay scattered about the floor of his basement workshop. Included in the mix were accelerators capable of generating high energy particle and laser beams. With help and enthusiastic encouragement from Dr. Grimes, Harry spent the last few years at the company gathering technological discards, very specific sorts of equipment. Like puzzle pieces these were to be neatly fitted together into a CTC device similar to the working model at Pearl.
Harry was about to go up to bed and call it a day when the doorbell chimed. It was late and visitors to his house were rare even during the day. He climbed the stairs and stood at the door trying to identify the visitor through the peephole, when the chimes rang again.
Harry grumbled, “Who is it?”
“Harry, it’s Jeremy.”
Dr. Grimes had never come to visit Harry before. Considering the hour, this must be something urgent.
Harry cracked the door and peered through.
Upon recognizing his mentor, Harry swung the door wide.
“Jeremy, what brings you here?”
“I was just wondering how your project was coming along.”
Jeremy stepped in from the cold damp. A light snow had begun to fall. Jeremy’s white hair sparkled with melting snowflakes. They even outlined the top rims of his dark glasses. Harry closed the door behind him and pondered the incongruity of wearing dark glasses at night, and then he noticed the small package wrapped in brown paper.
“And, I have something for you.”
As Jeremy unwrapped the package, Harry’s eyes widened and a smile broke across his unshaven face. “I don’t believe it. Is that a high-frequency power relay?”
“How did you know I needed this?”
Jeremy handed over the relay, and without saying another word, Harry turned and clambered down the basement steps, all the while waving Jeremy to follow. When they reached the workshop, he pointed at an assembly of brackets and wiring.
“See. That’s exactly what I was putting together tonight. It’s the last piece. Once it’s connected up, I’ll be able to test out this baby.”
Jeremy looked over the construction, examining each component, and mumbling approval as he inched his way around the assembly. He was very eager to see its completion and always made sure that Harry had what he needed when he needed it. Improvements were made, and this CTC displayed some significant differences from the prototype; in particular, it had a much larger entry tube.
Harry asked, “Is this relay the reason for your visit?”
“In part. I was just curious about how your machine was shaping up and needed an excuse to visit and see for myself.”
Harry began connecting the relay. “This looks perfect. I should be able to finish wiring it up in no time.” Reaching for his toolbox, he added, “If you’d like to stay, you’re welcome.” Harry pointed a screwdriver at the easy chair.
Jeremy appeared satisfied with the layout. He buttoned his overcoat and said, “No, no, Harry. I’ve got an urgent appointment, and actually, I have to leave now.” Patting Harry’s hunched over back, he added, “I’ll be saying good night and good luck to you with the CTC.”
Harry barely heard Jeremy speak or ascend the stairway. By the time Jeremy closed the front door behind him, Harry was lost to his work. This was the final piece of the puzzle. He thought about Jayne and deadly plight. As he spliced in the relay, he became even more frenetic; all his energy was focused on the assembly. Perspiration beaded up on his forehead, and his hands became damp and slippery.
Harry flopped into the easy chair. He was exhausted, his clothing was drenched, and his heart pounded. He surveyed the CTC device, now complete, mentally checking off the connectivity and function of each component. The machine was but a part of a larger scheme, and his greatest fear was that the most significant part was the least predictable.
Satisfied that all was in order, Harry flicked the switch. A deep purple glow emanated from the circular three-foot opening, just as it did with the smaller Pearl Labs prototype years ago. The humming transformers suddenly increased in volume, the purple became brighter, and for a moment, a staccato crackling surrounded Harry. A bright flash erupted from the chamber followed by an acrid ozone stench. Harry strained to see as his eyes beat down the retinal after-image. Someone was stepping through the opening.
Standing before him was a gentleman wearing a bright green wind breaker. His crown of bright white hair was disheveled. His face was deeply wrinkled and very familiar. The man smiled down at Harry and shouted, “It worked!”
Harry jumped in his seat as realization set in. The CTC worked! He was staring at himself, only this Harry was much older.
“From where . . . eh, from when did you come?”
“A lot farther out than I─or is it we?─thought. When I entered this machine the year was 2055 . . . that’s about 31 years away if I’m right in assuming this is 2024.”
Harry was frozen in his seat. The man standing before him was himself, from thirty-one years in the future. A myriad of questions surged through his fevered mind. But the foremost was aimed at the plan, his plan, formulated when Jayne first took ill.
“Did you have any trouble keeping the machine running? That was one of my big worries.”
“Hah. It wasn’t so much keeping it running as it was paying the electric bills.”
They both chuckled. Harry stood up, and both Harrys embraced. Harry couldn’t help but sob. “Are you real? Tell me you are real.”
“There, there, Harry. I grant all this feels like a dream, but I’m real.”
After a moment, Harry asked, “I assume that you were successful? I hope that you were successful.”
Old Harry’s body sagged a bit as he recalled the events of his past. “After Jayne died, it was very difficult for me. I had my doubts that any of this would work. The idea of waiting for a cancer cure seemed pretty far-fetched. I kept abreast of all the research, especially on pancreatic cancer. Progress seemed very slow, and for a while I thought that I would die before anything major was discovered. Then, in the early 50’s a new DNA-based approach was tried . . . basically using a designed viral carrier to make repairs to our DNA . . . and it worked. A couple of years later the drug was on the market. And here I am.”
Old Harry’s face beamed. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a small bottle, a prescription bottle. As he dropped it into Harry’s outstretched hand, he added, “The directions are on the bottle. It’s an oral dosage form, once a day for three days, and she’ll be as good as new.”
Harry cupped the dark bottle in both hands and stared at it, then began crying again. Old Harry reached out and held his shoulders.
“There, there, Harry. We did it. Your . . . our Jayne will live.”
They stared at each other, studying each other. Old Harry spoke first. “We are indeed a living paradox. In a sense we are a kind of hallucination in time. I mean, what if I turn this machine off now? Will I disappear? You would never have the chance to enter it in the future.”
Harry stopped sniffling and asked, “Do you recall the prototype run at Pearl?”
Old Harry’s eyes wandered upward as he concentrated, conjuring memories of his first days at Pearl. They were called the “ping-pong ball experiments.” And, yes, he did recall that all attempts at creating a paradox failed. Even removing the ball before it was launched or turning the machine off had no effect on the ball once it emerged.
“Yes, I do remember. Jeremy explained it. He said that each act resulted in a separate timeline, at least that’s what I think he said.”
“Nature, who detests paradoxes, makes sure none happen,” quoted Harry.
“Hey . . . that’s exactly what Jeremy used to say.”
Harry held up the bottle and shook it. His scientific mind ran ahead of his emotional struggle. “You know, I’m holding a cancer cure in my hands. We both want Jayne to survive, but if this really works, shouldn’t it be made public? Thousands of lives could be saved.”
Old Harry shook his head. “Always the moralist. Have no fear, when you go see Jayne tomorrow, I’m going to borrow your car.”
His hand slipped into his jacket and came out with a single large capsule identical to those in the bottle.
“The Sloan-Kettering Cancer Research Center is only about an hour’s drive.”
A few weeks later, Jayne was released from the hospice. The staff was convinced that a miracle had occurred, as pancreatic cancer was one of few remaining cancers that could claim a near 100% mortality rate. Doctors and nurses, volunteers and administrators, all gathered at the hospice doors to wish Jayne the best and insure a warm send-off. Smiles were abundant and there were no dry eyes in the crowd. Spontaneous cures were rare and were treated as a special occasion by people accustomed to much more somber outcomes.
They drove home in silence, with Jayne staring at the passing scene and Harry sneaking an occasional peak at his beloved. The trip was short and in minutes they were parked in their driveway.
Harry ran around to Jayne’s side and opened her door. “Well, how does it feel to be back?”
She was bundled in a thick beaver coat, and her eyes peered out of a narrow slit between hat and scarf. As she angled her way out of the car, she stopped to take a long look at her home. Harry heard her muffled sobbing. They toddled along the uneven walkway covered in a thin coating of ice. When they reached the brick steps the front door swung open.
Harry whispered, “Oh, Jayne, I want you to meet my cousin. I hope you don’t mind. He’s visiting for a few days.”
Jayne stared up at the old man and caught her breath. His grin was wide, his cheeks grizzled, his face was warm and very familiar.
“Hi Jayne. I’m Harry. Same name as your hubby, so don’t get us mixed up.”
Chuckling at his own joke, he took a step down the icy bricks and the two Harrys helped Jayne up.
Old Harry was asleep upstairs when Jayne poured out some fresh coffee. She sat across from her husband in the breakfast nook, and gave him a quizzical look.
“I’m worried about your cousin.”
“He’s very sweet, and always helpful . . . a bit like you in some ways.”
“And you’re worried . . . because?”
“Well, it’s been a week now, and I thought you said he’d be staying a few days.”
Seeing Harry’s brows shoot up, she continued, “I don’t mean that he should leave, it’s just that . . . well.”
“What’s he up to, right?”
She nodded and added, “Besides, I’ve caught him a couple of times now . . . just staring at me. It’s almost like he’s looking through me. Downright spooky.”
Harry knew what that was about, but nodded in agreement, grimacing as he replied, “Maybe I should talk to him. He did say that he’d be leaving any day now . . . something about a job.”
“A job? At his age?”
“Yeah, I know.”
The living room stairs creaked as old Harry reached the first floor and ambled to the kitchen entryway where he stopped and gleamed. Standing there in Harry’s striped pajamas, he bellowed, “Good mornin’ everyone. How’s my favorite cousin Jayne doin’ this morning?”
Jayne half-finished her coffee and stood as she replied, “Good morning, Harry. Well, I’ve got some laundry to do today, and I’d better get started on it.” Looking at her seated husband, she added, “You left me quite the mess. I’ve been back a week and I’ve still got loads to clean up. Be sure to bring down the bed sheets from upstairs when you’re finished.” Jayne sauntered to the first floor laundry room, turned to give Harry a quick nod, and closed the door behind her.
“Ah, that’s the Jayne I remember.” Old Harry poured himself a coffee and joined Harry at the table.
“Careful what you say. She’s got the ears of an eagle.”
They both snickered.
“You know, she’s getting a bit uncomfortable with you here. She’s pretty smart and you won’t be fooling her much longer.”
“That’s something I want to talk to you about.”
They sipped at their coffees and then old Harry spoke up. “I believe it’s time for me to leave.”
“Leave? But where will you go?”
Ignoring the question, old Harry continued, “You know you have to turn off the CTC downstairs.” Harry cocked his head, while old Harry continued. “It has served its purpose, and believe me, I won’t disappear. It’s just a precaution . . . something we don’t want left running unnecessarily. Just think it through a moment. As long as it remains on, anything or anyone entering, at any time . . . will appear when you first turned it on.”
“But the only thing that showed up was you.”
“That’s true of this timeline . . . the one we created to save Jayne. We wouldn’t be aware of all the other timelines created haphazardly while the machine is running. It’s just a matter of being tidy, of being scientifically responsible.”
Harry finished off his coffee and slowly nodded in agreement.
“So, where are you headed? And, are you sure you can take care of yourself? You’re no spring chicken.”
“There’s something I need to do, and it’s going to mean that we’ll not see each other again.” Seeing the frown erupting on Harry’s face, old Harry continued, “Now, now . . . believe me . . . I will miss being with you and Jayne─it will be as difficult for me as it is for you. I am very happy at the way things turned out. Remember that I saw Jayne die. That was tough. I mourned her and I buried her. I survived in this house with the belief that the CTC would work, and for thirty years waited for science to come up with a cure. And, now here we are. Jayne is back with you, and with me, for a little while. The time has come to say farewell.”
Both Harrys stood from the table and held each other. Harry said, “It’s going to be like losing a brother I never knew I had . . . an older brother at that.”
Old Harry took a good long look at his younger self and said, “It’s no easier for me, kiddo.”
Jayne’s voice reached them through the laundry room door. “Have you brought down those sheets I asked for?”
The next evening a taxi pulled up outside Harry’s house. Old Harry bid Harry and Jayne a fond goodbye, making up a story about getting a part-time job in the city and promising to keep in touch. As he descended the front stairway, he turned to Harry at the doorway and gave him a quick wink. That would be the last time Harry saw him.
It was cold, dark and late when the taxi drove past the main entrance of Pearl Labs and stopped about a hundred paces beyond. Harry stepped out onto the narrow walkway. Blue halogen light from a nearby lamppost glimmered off the slick cement. A breeze slipped between surrounding trees, its cold and damp fingers toyed with Harry’s windbreaker, sending a chill down to his toes.
Harry could see the gatehouse cubicle through the pines lining the walk. It was dimly lit with wrought iron gates to either side spanning the entrance. The buildings beyond were dark except for a few windows. At this late hour only the cleaning crew would be expected to be about. Harry squeezed through the groomed shrubbery alongside the walkway and jogged across a meadow.
He reached a small one-story structure attached to the main building and stopped at a side door illuminated from above with a single spot light. A security camera mounted under the eave stared at him with its dark cyclopean lens. Harry hoped that his 31-year old key card would still work since it was really only a couple of weeks since he was terminated. He held his breath and waved it over a pad affixed to the entryway. After a moment’s hesitation, the small LED turned from red to green, and Harry exhaled as he let himself in. The hallway was long and illuminated in a dull red by emergency exit signs at either end. Jogging the length of the corridor, he zigzagged into an adjoining hallway and stopped in front of the windowless double door entrance to the CTC lab. He was panting now, but too excited to stop. Swiping the key card reader had no effect─no green or red light─the reader was disabled. He tried using his back to push at the doors, but to no avail. Desperation threatened to overwhelm him as he focused on possible next steps, and then he spotted the dim outlines of an emergency fire box mounted on the opposite wall. He kicked in the glass door, retrieved a crowbar, and in moments, wedged it into the seam between the doors. A minute later he broke through and automatic fluorescent lights flickered on.
A number of metal scaffolds and disused cables were piled up in the middle of a large room. Harry nodded to himself. The prototype CTC was gone─something he expected since the project was recently terminated. He walked past the remnants to his former office and quick- stepped his way to another set of doors. These were padlocked with a chain through the metal handles. Several twists of the crowbar wrenched off a handle and the doors screeched open. The light switches within were dead. He felt his way along the walls, with every step increasing the gloom. After a few minutes, he had reached a barrier. His fingers probed the surface of a door. It was a fire door, the type with a thick wire-meshed glass window about a foot square. He peered through the glass and his heart leaped when he saw a glow, a familiar dim purple glow.
The lights in the hallway began flashing on and off. This was followed by a deafening clanging sound. He had been detected. He was unsure of how many guards were on duty. Maybe there were none nearby, maybe he had a few minutes.
“Yo! Stop right there!”
Maybe just seconds.
Harry turned to see a guard enter the far end of the hallway, moving slowly toward him with gun in hand. The lights produced a surreal strobe effect, making it look like the guard flitted from one position to another, each time closer. Harry swung the crowbar into the door window splintering the glass, producing a caved-in bulge.
“Hey! I said stop!”
Harry whacked the glass again, shattering it this time. He reached through the opening and pulled at the handle. The door swung in and Harry followed it. He could hear the guard’s boots clacking behind him. After slamming the door shut, he shoved the crowbar through the handle, wedging it behind the door-frame.
The guard reached the door and yelled through the broken window, “Old man. Give yourself up. The police are on their way.”
Harry saw a pistol waving at him through the window. The door rattled as the guard pushed against it, trying to dislodge the crowbar. Given a few more minutes he would succeed, but by then, it would be too late.
“I have no intention of giving up. You can put away the gun.”
“Hey, just think about it. You’ve got no place to go.” The door jiggled again.
“And that’s where you’re wrong.”
Harry walked over to the source of the purple light. It came from a large round opening. As he expected, the CTC was running. Running since the day it was turned on. Pearl labs had produced two machines. One was a prototype which was used as a demo, in particular to attract new scientists and potential investors. The other, a larger model, part of a larger experiment, was built at nearly the same time as the prototype. It was kept running and it was kept under lock and key.
The guard stopped banging on the door and poked his head through it. “Hey, what do you think you’re doing?”
Harry smiled as he entered the portal.
13 Oct 2014
Harry at once stepped into, and then out of, the CTC. He emerged into a glare of light, a shimmering, crackling light.
“Oh my God!” someone shouted. This was followed by a cacophony of sounds, mostly shrieks and gasps.
Harry was surrounded by a small group of people, all wearing white lab coats. His eyes adjusted to the bright fluorescents above, and a quick glance around the room confirmed he was where he started. The fire door was intact and there was no guard.
“Why, hello everyone.”
The group became silent. They stared at him as if mesmerized.
“When exactly is this?” he asked.
“It’s October 13th,” responded one. Another added, “The year is 2014.”
And then someone asked, “Who are you?”
Harry thought for a moment, and then answered, “My name is . . .
Grimes, Dr. Jeremy Grimes.”