At 10 AM on the morning of 10 April 1965, Dr. Thaddeus Xyank was swiping a finger through the air in front of him when Agent Bertrand "Burt" Tomlin arrived. He guessed Thad was checking his email or musing over some interesting equation he'd discovered, or maybe trying to understand a theory of predictive history he'd stolen from a database that wouldn't exist for another 250 years. Next to him on the floor was a device about the size of an era-contemporary living room television, which hummed softly in the dimly lit corner office on the 25th floor of the New York Times Tower. The glassy look slipped away from Thad's face, and his eyes came into focus. "Were you followed?" he asked, deathly serious. "And I don't just mean general personnel or spies. I mean other Δt's or Cause and Effectives or anyone."
"No, no one knows I'm here," Tomlin said, and pulled up a ratty looking office chair. The door opened behind him, and Researcher — Pardon me, Doctor Athena Anastasakos walked in, shaking cold and a few flurries off her shoulders. The three colleagues exchanged a nod as she hung her coat, locked the door, and took a seat.
"Dr. Xyank, this is really most irregular," Athena said, crossing her arms. "I don't understand why I had to leave in the middle of the SCP-614 briefing. Marcus was about to present his hypothesis regarding the 'Future Perfect' when you grabbed me."
"…Attie that meeting was…" A few days ago? It hadn't happened yet, and wouldn't for 30 years. "Erm… what day did he pull you?" Tomlin asked.
"5 June 1999."
"That briefing was on 4 June 1999," Tomlin said. "I was just there myself."
"You're mistaken," Athena asserted, pulling the 442i off of her wrist and pressing the release. They counted the laps together as Thad sat in silence, staring at the light-bulb in the tiny lamp on the desk. "There, 12,474 days, just like I said. Fifth of June."
Almost absently, Thad flipped a small switch on the top of his device. Athena's eyes nearly fell out of their sockets as the watch in her hand stuttered, rewound 2 days, over-wound 5 days, and then stopped dead. "Wha—What did you do?!"
Thad smirked and turned the switch back on. The humming sound continued and the watch resumed its forward march as if nothing had ever happened. "I'll get to that in a minute," he said, folding his hands in front of him on the desk. "I assembled us together today because I've noticed something very wrong. And I've been noticing it more and more ever since we ran into Mr. McDougal some time ago. Do both of you remember that?"
Tomlin nodded. "Yes. Perceptually, it was about 2 months ago for me. He's our first paradox, right?"
Thad's lips turned into a thin line and his head hung loose on his neck. "Right. Though… I'm not strictly sure about that anymore. Attie, do you remember our experiment on the oh-eight-four phenomenon?"
"I try not to," she replied flatly. A pleading look from Thad elicited from her a sigh, and a nod. "Yes, of course I remember. It was probably the scariest thing I've ever experienced. I thought we'd be trapped in that room forever."
Thad nodded, pushing his glasses a little further up his nose. "What year were you born, Burt?"
Tomlin's eyes widened and he stared at Thad. Hard. "I don't…"
Thad pulled a key card from his jacket pocket. It was black. The only lettering on was the title "Department Chair", the Number 5, and the character Δ. "You came into my office once and demanded that I invent time travel immediately. I have done so, as of 12 December, 1997."
"I never asked you that!"
"To be sure that you will, I need to know the date of your birth." Thad's eyes fixed on a point 3 inches past the surface of Tomlin's forehead. "…When were you born?"
Tomlin's jaw slackened. "31 October, 2048."
"I KNEW it!" Athena balked, head flying backward with an uncharacteristic laugh. "I absolutely knew it!"
Thad simply nodded and jotted something down on a piece of paper, handing it to Athena. "Read that. Make sure it matches the date you just heard. Then place it on the far side of the blue line behind you." With another flick of a switch, the machine next to him stopped whirring.
"Thad, you're starting to freak me out, buddy," Tomlin said nervously. "What are you doing?"
"Illustrating something. Dr. Anastasakos; how many people are on your research staff and what is your quarterly budget?" Thad asked.
"We have 5 researchers, 22 JR's, 17 clerical personnel and 15 techs, with a quarterly budget of $10 million." she replied. "What does that have to do with anything?"
Thad didn't answer. Just shook his head and kept writing things down. "Agent Tomlin, to the best of your knowledge, who is the first person of African descent to be elected president of the United States?"
"Easy, Reverend Al Sharpton, Democrat, in 2008. Why?" Tomlin replied.
Thad stopped writing a second, then sighed again and continued, tossing the paper over their shoulders and beyond the blue line. "And my name… Is Dr. Thaddeus Xyank… Department Chair… Temporal Anomalies. Okay." with the last scrap of paper beyond the blue line, he flipped the switch back on, and looked at his watch. "You two might not be the ones I started with, but it's close enough; it'll have to do. Playing with this Temporal Sink we developed, I've stumbled onto something… really odd." Exactly 11.322487 seconds after turning it on, Thad flipped the switch again and turned the device off. "You both remember our first confirmed paradox, Kevin McDougal. There was of course the unconfirmed paradox in our 084 experiment. I'm still not sure what happened to those six duplicates I encountered, or if they were just some kind of elaborate hallucination. But I'm beginning to think… I'm beginning to think the problem is deeper than we realized. Burt, pick those bits of paper up, please?"
Tomlin leaned over and snapped up the little scraps of yellow paper and opened them. "…Who the hell is Barack Obama?!"
"He's the first person of African descent to become President of the United States. At least in the timeline that I'm from," Thad replied, opening a drawer and pulling out a stack of newspapers. "But apparently, that same year saw the election of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Denzel Washington, James Earl Jones, and the Republican candidate John McCain." He patted the stack next to him. "And they're all 'correct' answers."
Athena grabbed the paper from the top of the stack in front of her, studying the look of surprised joy on Mr. Sharpton's face closely. In the other hand, she grabbed the numbers she had watched Thad jot down… 12 researchers, 48 JR's, 30 clerical personnel, 25 techs and… "…50 D class per month?! What on earth would I use 50 D's on in a month? I've never even requested ONE!"
"I asked you the same thing just this morning," Thad said, pulling the black-out curtains back and staring at the window with his hands folded behind his back. It didn't look broken. It looked normal. It looked like a lot of people down below were going about their business in a busy city just like they always had and always would. "But that's not the worst of it. Look at my card."
The two of them opened Thad's note together. It wasn't a piece of notepaper at all, but a business card, heavy weight, cotton fiber, embossed lettering on one face.
Class-A Foundation Asset
"Y-…" Tomlin started. And then again. "You're a…"
"I'm an O5, right?"
He didn't have to hear their heads rattle to know it was right.
"Which one, Burt?"
"Six," Tomlin replied, tossing the cursed thing onto the table.
"Good. That means your birthday card, ought to say… I think 25 November 2048?" Athena dove for it and opened it up quickly. It did. "Right… before you have a coronary, flip the red switch on the desk," Thad said, gesturing absently.
Athena and Tomlin looked at one another for a full minute in silence before, mustering up what fortitude she had left, Athena reached over and threw the switch. There was a burst of color and light from the window the likes of which she had never seen, and together they stood in awe as moment upon cascading moment swished and swirled and darted and dashed and lumbered and plodded and rose and fell outside.
Buildings they had never seen and never would see rose, burned, tumbled down. Human beings spontaneously flashed in and out of existence in a flurry of wind and noise, the dust of them reforming into trees and bushes and dogs and other people. The cars in the street changed color and shape 100 times, or crumpled to rust, or flew through the air, or simply weren't there at all.
"…Make it make sense." Tomlin demanded. "Tell me what I'm seeing."
Thaddeus Xyank sighed mournfully, turning his back on the kaleidoscope of time behind him and raising one open hand.
"This is the present moment, or what's left of it. More precisely, it's every possible present moment in which this office can exist without violating history or physical law. From the point of view of this office, all of those possibilities are correct." Thad turned back to look over his shoulder a moment. Roiling chaos. He had tried to record it once, to calculate just how many possible coherent histories their must be. Then woke up two days later with a high fever, soiled trousers, and one whomper of a headache, with a note on his desk.
"Stack overflow. I recommend not doing that again. Don't worry I covered for you. -Tx"
Hanging his head, Thad opened the bottom desk drawer. There was a bottle of brown liquor (bad bourbon, but who cared) and three glasses. "…Would anyone like a drink?"
"So… wait." Athena rubbed her temples and sat down quickly, trying not to look at it. "Why? I thought the whole point of building that waypoint in your office was to prevent something like this."
Thad shook his head, placing the glasses down and pouring into them sloppily until they were… reasonably full. After all, it was 1965, and in 7 out of 10 versions of 1965 hardly anyone did business in New York sober. "I am finding it more and more difficult to believe that such a thing is possible."
Silence. The three of them reached for their glasses and sipped in unison. Thaddeus tapped his finger on his chair to keep the beat, and precisely 67.934922 seconds after he had turned it on, switched the device off again. The flashes faded. Buildings stayed the same height, cars resumed driving on the correct side of the road, women in colorful hats resumed carrying packages and bags. Business as usual in New York city.
It didn't look broken. Really it didn't.
"We failed," Athena said. "We shouldn't have meddled." She set her glass down brusquely and buried her face in her hands. "I feel like I'm going to be sick."
Thad shrugged, speaking into his glass. "There's good reason to think that we were lost before we even started." The hot amber slid down his throat and left salt hatred behind.
"Gettin' real tired of your half truths, Thad," Burt said with a sneer. "We're supposed to be a team in this. What do you know?"
"I know that causality literally can't exist in a universe in this condition, so the idea that we're to blame somehow is completely incoherent," Thad snapped. "You want me to get out the black-board and show you why, or is that enough?"
Burt pressed his teeth together hard enough to crack walnuts and stared ahead.
Thad brushed a bit of hair out of his face and removed his spectacles, cleaning them with his tie. "If we live in an acausal universe, anything resembling a 'cause' for this must come from outside the universe as we understand it. As it happens, I may - and I stress may - have encountered something like that once when I was a fresh post-doc."
"Where?" Athena asked, raising her head.
Dr. Thaddeus Xyank reached into his briefcase and pulled out an unassuming manila envelope with the number 110 written upon it in red pen. "Some place I've been avoiding," he said sorrowfully. "Southwest of Cobleskill, about 25 years from now."
Agent Tomlin, downing the rest of his whiskey in one go, reached for the file and began to read.
"… SCP-110 is an entire city found buried 0.5 kilometers underneath a large farm in East Worchester, New York."
Thaddeus sighed and slumped back in his chair. "Thank goodness," he said. "Back where we started, that bit was expunged."
Part 6: Set Up Thine Altar Here | Part 8: To be Announced…