The Essence of Time
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The speed fluctuator had malfunctioned once more.

Sparks burst from the maintenance panel and smoke rushed through the back, but this was no surprise to Doctor Conagheim. He had run multiple tests on the fluctuator and tried multiple configurations, but all efforts seemed useless. He powered down the apparatus and walked back to the cafeteria. He sat down at his usual spot, near the window overlooking what was left of Earth, and drank his afternoon coffee.

Ever since college, he always believed that there could be other universes just like his that have yet to be discovered by mankind. To some people, it would be considered a necessity to find and travel to suitable universes in times of universal cataclysmic events. The thoughts of universe-ending threats did not fear Conagheim, it only pushed him to realize the theory of the multiverse. As he finished his afternoon coffee, he walked back to his office and finished his report.

"Outcome… results were negative… the speed fluctuator was badly damaged… the wide-bandgap semiconductors need to be replaced… and the maintenance panel needs repairs," Conagheim repeated what he typed to fix any errors he made. As soon as he finished, he filed in his report. It would be a few minutes later that his assistant, Charles, would enter his office.

"Doctor Conagheim," Charles entered. "Erica from Ethics is on the phone. She wants to speak to you." Conagheim waved his assistant off and put the phone on speaker.

"Yes, Erica? What's the problem," he asked.

"You know why I'm calling you, John."

He rolled his eyes and explained to her, "Listen. I'm positive that we can get the fluctuator to work. Just give us a little more time to test the fluctuator and-"

Erica cut him off, "John, you know we can't keep funding you forever. If you keep wasting our resources, we'll have to cut funding and the Board will have you removed. It's risky just to keep you here."

Conagheim fell silent to Erica's words, thinking before he responded, "Hold on, let's make a deal."

"What do you want?"

"Give me at least three tries. If I fail, have them put me in the Janitorial Department. I just don't want my creation taken from my hands," he worried with fear in his voice.

Erica sighed, doubt in her voice, and responded, "Fine. I don't believe you can do it, but good luck." The call cut out and Conagheim placed the phone back.

This had been the first time the doctor had actually felt stressed. He had never been stressed in his life, he had been confident in everything he did. He placed his hands on his forehead, combing through the front of his hair, breathing out. He never thought that he would fail, never once in his life. Even though he wanted to be challenged, he thought it would never be like this. He regained his confidence and walked towards his locker filled with schematics. He would study each one closely, trying to find errors or miscalculations. Afterward, he laid down on his bed, thinking of Erica's words repeatedly, and slept, aggravated by it.


This would be a new morning for the doctor. He slowly got out of bed, still exhausted by the thoughts of losing his job. These thoughts kept him up all night, which lit a spark of fear behind the back of his head. This was not like the doctor's usual routine. He was energetic and the coffee had boosted his spirit.

As the sun peeked on the surface of Mars, the doctor walked towards the cafeteria. He had looked different, tired than usual, and it didn't take long for passing scientists to realize this. Conagheim followed his daily routine: he ordered his daily cup of coffee and sat by his usual spot. Just to regain the energy he lost, Conagheim had to order three coffees. The doctor wiped his heavy eyes and walked back to his office.

His office had been full of schematics and redesigns, all of which he thought could work. Which one of you will work, he thought to himself, which one will make me proud? He sat down at his desk to think. He wanted to make sure the best would come out of his project: little to no failures from this point on.

Time itself would be ticking.

He scanned through the collection of schematics, sliding his finger at the edge of each one. He grabbed three of them and walked towards the central chamber. He placed the three schematics on his working station and collected the tools necessary to rebuild the fluctuator. He recruited free researchers who no had projects to work on and began working on redesigning the machine. It would only be a few hours until Conagheim and his team finished redesigning the fluctuator into what had been drafted in the first schematic.

"Begin stabilization," he ordered the researchers, staring down the two of them.

The researchers powered up the fluctuator and observed. The stabilization increased rapidly as the fluctuator began shaking.

"Fascinating…" Conagheim wrote into his notes as he observed with interest.

"Stabilization at 50%. Station power at 75%," the programmed announcer noted.

Soon enough, Erica had entered the chamber to observe Conagheim's creation. "So this is your first shot, hm? I don't think this will actually work," she commented.

"Of course it won't work, it'd be a miracle if it did," he responded. They both looked on as the fluctuator started shaking.

Soon, the lights above the chamber began flickering.

"Stabilization at 75%. Station power at 60%."

The fluctuator began shooting bolts at the windows and every item in the room began to shake.

"Turn it off. I feel like something's wrong," ordered Erica. The doctor stepped closer to the windows as one of the bolts cracked the window in front of him.

"Not yet, Erica. It's almost there, just wait for it…"

"Stabilization at 90%. Station power at 45%."

The chamber began to shake rapidly into a semi-earthquake, which rattled the station.

"Turn it off. It's not going to work," she ordered him.

The doctor hesitantly walked over to the control switch and pulled it down. The lights stopped flickering, the station stopped quaking, and the fluctuator malfunctioned once more. Parts of the fluctuator shot towards the chamber windows, cracking them. Smoke rose from inside and the maintenance panel was lit on fire. As the smoke rose towards the ceiling, the emergency water systems were deployed and water was directed towards the machine.

"I told you it's not going to work. Hopefully, you can impress me next time." She wrote on her clipboard and walked out of the room. Conagheim sighed and looked straight at the broken fluctuator. His team of researchers exited the chamber, leaving the doctor inside.

"Well, not everything is perfect. I hope this one works."

He walked over to the second schematic and took it down from the wall. He took both schematics and walked back to his office. He dumped the first schematic into the bin and analyzed the second one closely. He would not attend the daily dinner service or any special event. It would take him all night to get things right.


Conagheim rose from the bed slowly, his hand immediately moving to rub his aching temples. His office had been scattered with blueprints and schematics he had kept for a while. He got up from the bed, let out a sigh, and gathered his papers together. He stuffed them into a locker and slammed the locker door.

"God, what am I going to do," he quietly asked himself.

He got a shower, got himself dressed, and walked towards the cafeteria. As he passed through the halls, the other scientists noticed his posture as they looked at him with a disgusted look. As he entered the cafeteria, he ordered his coffee and sat at his usual spot.

A few minutes later, Charles came in and asked Conagheim, "How are you holding up, sir?"

He smiled in sarcasm, "Never felt better."

He drank his morning coffee as Charles assured him, "Well, don't worry, sir. You'll get them this time. Here, hope this helps you." Charles placed a sprinkled chocolate donut on the coffee table and left soon after.

Conagheim grabbed the donut and began to eat it. He felt more energetic and was ready for today. He left the cafeteria and proceeded to walk back to his office.

Once he entered his office, he opened the locker which had been stuffed with all his blueprints. He grabbed the one with a green tag labeled "#2" and went to the research center. He assembled his research group and they all walked to the central chamber. Once there, the team began to reassemble the fluctuator.

After several hours of modifications, the redesign was completed. This schematic is supposed to obtain and store a portion of the station's energy while producing its own energy, he wrote.

"Begin stabilization," he ordered the researchers. The researchers powered the machine and observed its working. A few seconds later, Erica entered the central chamber.

"Alright, I'm here to see this for myself. Are you sure that this will work?" she queried.

"Yes, I am a hundred percent positive that this time, it will work. I've been working on this all night."

"Energy portion obtained. Stabilization at 70%. Station power at 30%. Energy generation activated."

"So this is your plan?" she asked unamused.

"If it gets this machine to work, then yes," he responded.

Erica wrote down on her clipboard, her face stern. Conagheim was starting to sweat as he looked at her, who was still writing on her clipboard. He redirected his attention back towards the fluctuator. The station's lights began to flicker again and sparks began to fly out from the equipment.

"Stabilization at 85%."

This time, it was worse.

"We need to shut it down." She walked over to the researchers handling the control equipment. "I want you to shut it down right now," she ordered the researchers. Both of them shook their heads as Conagheim walked closer towards the windows.

"Believe me, we're not shutting it down. Hold it…"

"Stabilization at 90%."

Sparks continued flying from the equipment and the fluctuator began to rumble. Small debris fell from the top of the chamber onto the floor. The researchers blocked Erica from reaching the controls and Conagheim observed the fluctuator with excitement.

"Conagheim, I'm going to shut down this thing right now if you don't!" she threatened, pointing her index finger upwards at his face.

"I'm sorry, Erica. I can't let you do that, not when we're so close." The light began to shudder and flicker, the chamber began to shake, and more debris began to fall from the ceiling.

"Stabilization at 100%."

"This is it…"

Suddenly, electricity flowed into the fluctuator as it released a powerful electromagnetic orb that shot across the chamber. The orb instantly crashed through the windows and bounced throughout the chamber. Researchers and mechanics ducked as the orb came too close to them. The ball vaporized some of the equipment and two personnel in the process. After a few seconds, the orb erupted, sending an electromagnetic pulse and shutting down the station's power grid.

"Emergency power activated."

The lights came back on as it displayed the fluctuator, which was destroyed in the process. Everyone in the chamber slowly got back on their feet. Erica still felt the vibrations of the shockwave.

Erica looked at Conagheim, slapped him, and exclaimed, "You almost killed me! You idiot!"

She stormed out of the chambers as the other researchers looked at him. Conagheim looked at all of them and dismissed them. He walked back to his office, trashed the second schematic, and went straight to sleep. He didn't feel fear for the researchers, he only felt fear for himself.


The next morning, Conagheim rolled out of bed, his body planted on the gridded, metal surface. "Wha, what?" he muttered to himself. He cleared his weary eyes to find… nothing. Everything was clean for once but on his desk laid a note. He walked over to his desk and read the note.

John,

This is your last chance. Make it count.

Erica.

P.S. I got the chance to clean up your mess. You're welcome.

Conagheim folded the letter and stuffed it into his pocket. She's a sweet girl, I don't know what I'll do without her, he thought to himself. He walked out of his office and into the cafeteria. Erica was waiting for him at his usual spot. He ordered coffee and sat down next to her.

"So, you saw the note?" she asked.

"I couldn't miss it," he responded.

"John, you can't keep this up forever. I honestly had high hopes for you, but you fucked up. You never gave up on this, but it's time you did," she harshly advised him, remembering the events of yesterday.

Conagheim sighed, "You don't believe in the impossible, Erica. You never did." Once he finished drinking his coffee, he got up and walked out of the cafeteria. Erica was still sitting there, pushing her pen in hand.

Conagheim went back to his office and cleared his locker full of schematics, but he kept the one labeled, "#3". He went towards the central chamber and began fixing the fluctuator himself. He wouldn't want anyone else near his creation he had worked so hard on. I really shouldn't depend on them. They've sabotaged my beautiful machine, I can only trust myself, he thought to himself. It would take him more than a day to get everything right this time.

Before he called the researchers over, he typed something on a datapad, the contents unknown and the receiver unnamed, and placed the datapad next to the fluctuator. Afterward, he called over his team of researchers into the chamber. With this last chance that he has, it was now or never. He had doubt in his eyes, fear on his mind, and sweat running down the front of his forehead. The researchers on the control equipment turned their heads towards Conagheim, who sighed.

"You know what to do," he hinted, staring down at them without moving his head. The researchers pulled the activation switch, observing the fluctuator as it began powering up. Everything began to proceed as normal, until time began to pass by. As time moved on, the station would begin to shake and everything would go wrong. The doctor would be blind to this failure and he would never open his eyes to the reality of things.

The station was losing power as the fluctuator was close to reaching its maximum point. The alarms sounded throughout the halls of the station as researchers and mechanics began scrambling trying to find a way to escape the doomed station. Doctor Conagheim and his team of researchers watched through the windows of the central chamber as the fluctuator spun quicker. Erica ran quickly to the central chamber to find the doctor. Once she made it to the entrance of the chamber, she swiped her identification card and entered.

"John, explain to me what the hell is going on. The station is losing power and-," She looked at what was happening. The fluctuator had become unstable, the chamber was collapsing, and the station's power was being drained by the machine.

"It's… working.."

Doctor Conagheim looked behind him to see Erica in shock. He walked over to her and explained everything to her, "Erica, you've made it! Right at the moment where I will not fail this time! I've done it, it's finally working!" Erica looked back and forth at the doctor and the unrestrained machination until she came to realize what was going on. Finally, she slapped Conagheim in the face.

"Are you insane?! Look what you've done! By God, you're going to destroy this whole station! You need to shut it down right now."

Conagheim looked right back at her and told her, "And lose everything that I've worked hard for? We are this close to unlocking the multiverse. We can't give up now!"

Erica's patience had thinned out. She walked over to the control equipment, pushed the researchers aside, and proceeded to initiate the shutdown. "Oh no, you don't!" Conagheim pulled her away from the control equipment and started arguing with her.

"Don't you see, Erica, this is what humanity's future holds. We will save the last humans from extinction!"

"John, get a hold of yourself and realize what you're doing. You are about to destroy this station and all of our research. Stop this now!"

"No, this will be for the greater good of humanity and nothing will be able to stop it once it is done." Conagheim hoped.

"No! I won't calm down. I knew you were batshit insane when you started coming up with these ideas. You know what, I'm actually glad we divorced. I just can't stand your stubbornness anymore!" Erica looked away from him.

"Stabilization at 75%. Station power at 25%."

Conagheim felt what Erica had said to him. He walked towards her and thought about what he was going to say. "Erica… I only wanted to do this… so we could have a better life for ourselves. Call me insane, but I wanted to do this just to be with you. I never wanted to let you go…"

Erica, still feeling anger, slowly turned herself towards Conagheim. "If you wanted a better life for us, why put me through this?" Conagheim had no answer. "John, you didn't have to do this if you wanted to be with me. By doing this, you've put everyone at risk… that's how far you went," Erica sighed. She looked down at the doctor as Conagheim grabbed Erica's hands and put them around his neck.

"Stabilization at 90%. Station power at 10%."

"Whatever happens to us next, I assure you, I'll always be by your side," Conagheim comforted her. The two got closer to each other as the fluctuator generated a black hole and pulled everything into it, expanding and creating a Big Crunch. The glass was destroyed as all of the equipment was being pulled into it. Conagheim and Erica stared into each other's eyes and leaned into a kiss before being swept away.

"Stabilizatiò̶̻ṇ̷̑̀ ̵̬̱̋͆a̵͕̦̓͝t̴̖̔̀ ̷̳̳͘1̷͉̘͝0̶̻̃͐0̴̘̈̎͜%."


Silence.

There was nothing but silence.

Was he dead? Was he unconscious? Was he able to breathe, or is he waiting for his unavoidable death?

His soul had felt like he had reached peace, but his body told him otherwise. He felt nothing, he didn't feel the aging of time nor the physics that would apply in a stable universe.

The real question he thought was, "Where am I?"

Spacetime flew around his frozen body. Calm winds blew across the cold surfaces of his skin. He could hear the almost silent meshing of what sounded like transforming globules. Conagheim slowly opened his eyes, slowly revealing what he had hoped for all his life, like a curtain unveiling a prize. He was astonished, bewildered at what he was looking at. He knew that he wasn't dreaming or any of the sorts. He had accomplished his life's work, but now, there was no home to return to.

There would be nowhere to go, no goal to complete, no award to be given, and no Erica to love.

He was floating at the Core of the Multiverse all alone.

"Hello?"

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