By Jeff Robinson (4,443 words)

 The knock on his door was loud and urgent, so Dr. Gerald Hansen looked up from the research paper he was finishing and hurried to his office door to find out what was wrong.  Opening the door, he found his old friend Stephen Lake standing outside.  A look of dread and worry was painted on his face.  The normally calm and placid man was obviously distraught.  Stephen’s clothes were wrinkled and his hair unkempt.  Dark circles under his eyes gave him a haunting appearance and he looked as if he hadn’t slept for days.

“Stephen, what’s wrong?”

Dr. Stephen Lake clutched a small wooden box and stepped inside.  “Gerald,” he said. “You have to help me.  I think I’ve discovered something quite extraordinary and I need to talk to someone about it.”

Gerald had never seen his friend this distressed before.  Stephen had always been an easy-going fellow, not one given to over-enthusiasm or worry.  Indeed, Gerald was the one who was known for his exuberance and passion.  As a theoretical physicist, he would often get lost in a project and work for days without noticing the passage of time.  In contrast, Stephen was a pragmatic, material scientist with a reputation for doing solid, if not mundane, research in the labs downstairs. 

“Sure, Stephen, come on it.,” he said gesturing to the chair in his office behind him.  “I’m always available to talk.  What’s wrong? Has something happened?  Tell me what’s bothering you.”  Gerald cringed at his own words.  God, I sound like some third-rate psychiatrist.

Stephen pulled up a chair up to Gerald’s desk and placed the wooden box careful down upon it.  Then he sat and just stared at the box.
Gerald worried at Stephen’s odd behavior.  Gesturing at the box, Gerald asked, “So what have you got there?”

“This is what I want to tell you about,” Stephen said.  “I made it in my lab a few days ago and it’s unlike any material I’ve ever seen.”  He reached over and gently opened the box.  Inside, resting on a small cushion of cotton gauze, lay a small cylindrical crystal inside.  The crystal was pearly white and tapered gently at each tip, like a stubby pencil that had been sharpened so it had points at each end.

“I don’t know if I told you,” said Stephen nonchalantly, “ but for the past year or so, I’ve been mapping phase diagrams for a variety of different materials for commercial companies.”

“Phase diagrams?” asked Gerald.

“Uh, yes.  Here, I’ll show you.”  Stephen reached into his coat pocket and pulled out several pieces of paper.  He fumbled with them for a second, as if uncertain which one to show his friend.  Then selecting one, he said, “Here. You’ll recognize this one.  Look.” 

Spreading out the folded piece of paper on the desktop, he explained.  “You’ll recognize this one from first year college chemistry.  It’s a phase diagram of water, H2O.  It shows the different states of water, solid, liquid, gas and plasma, as a function of temperature and pressure.”


            “See, at one atmosphere of pressure, water transitions from solid to liquid phase at 0 degrees centigrade and from liquid to vapor at 100 degrees.  However, at lower pressures, ice doesn’t melt as it warms.  It sublimes directly from solid to gas.  In a vacuum, for instance, water can’t exist.  Ice melts directly into vapor.  See?”

Gerald nodded.  He hadn’t recognized the name phase-diagram, but this was elementary physical chemistry.  He looked at his old friend with sudden worry.  This is the kind of stuff had been done way back in the early nineteenth century.  “Are you telling me you’ve been doing phase charts of water for the past year?” 

Stephen looked at Gerald with astonishment.  “My God, Gerald, no.  I just wanted you to show this to you as an example.  Look here.  See this spot?” 

He pointed to the center of the diagram.  “It’s called the triple-point.  It’s a special phase state that only occurs at one specific temperature and pressure.  At that point, water can exist in all three phases at the same time, solid, liquid and gas.  Such a point exists for most substances. For water, the triple point occurs at one hundredth of a degree Celsius and at six hundredths of an atmosphere of pressure.

“Anyway, I’ve been doing this kind of phase mapping on all sorts of exotic chemical compounds for aerospace companies.  They’re trying to develop new products for use in space probes that might be exposed to a wide range of temperatures and pressures.  You know, everything from the cold of interstellar space, to the heat of the Sun’s corona, or the pressures deep in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

“I got the contract for the research because I built some special containment vessels that I use to create extremely high temperatures and pressures.  So, that’s what I’ve been doing, over and over again.  I’ve been generating these kinds of maps for hundreds of different exotic compounds.  It’s been pretty boring, even if I did find a few interesting substances.  Last week, however, I stumbled across a compound with a quadruple-point.”

“A what?” asked Gerald.

“A quadruple-point.  You see, there are actually four states of matter; solid, liquid, gas and plasma.  A plasma is an ionized gas that glows like a flame.  What I found was a chemical compound that has unique material phase properties.  It has a specific temperature and pressure at which all four-phase states occur simultaneously.  It’s unique…absolutely unique.”

“Here, I’ll show you.”  Taking another of the papers he was holding, he opened it and showed it to the physicist.  “See?”



Gerald looked, but shrugged.  “Yeah, so?”

Stephen pointed at the diagram enthusiastically.  “I know, I know,” he said.  “I didn’t think much of it either.  It was just a curiosity.  I would’ve never suspected such a state existed, but it does, though perhaps, only for this one special compound.  When I stumbled across it, I played with it a while.  It’s a halogen compound bonded with an deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen.  It’s a substance that would probably never occur naturally.  Anyway, I set my containment chamber to the appropriate temperature and pressure to study this quadruple-point and this is what I found when I opened the chamber.  This crystal.”

Gerald leaned close and looked in the box once more.  Except for the angular nature of the crystal, it looked like mother-of-pearl.  He nodded and shrugged.  “I see, Stephen.  It’s very pretty, but I don’t think it’s special enough to replace other synthetic gems, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

An expression of aggravation clouded Stephen’s face.   “No, no, no.  You misunderstand.  I’m not here because I think I’ve found a new synthetic diamond or something.  It’s the crystal itself.  It has some quite unusual properties.  That’s why I came to you.  I thought that maybe you could figure out what’s happening here.”

“What do you mean?”

Stephen’s breathed deeply and his eyes grew wide with excitement.  “Watch.”  Reaching into his suit coat pocket, he pulled out a square piece of black metal about three inches on each side.  “This,” said Stephen, setting it on the desk, “is iron.”  Then he picked up the crystal with his fingers taking great care to touch the tiny rod only in the center.  As he did so, one end of the crystal began to glow and the other grew dark as if it were absorbing all light.

“Okay,” commented Gerald with mild surprise.  “I’ll admit.  That’s unusual.  Let me see that.”  He reached for it, but Stephen pulled it away held it close to his chest.”

“Wait, I have more to show you,” said Stephen.  “That’s merely the first odd characteristic I noticed.  I think it’s sensitive to electric fields; even the tiny currents in the human body are enough to trigger this luminescent effect.  But, that’s nothing.  Watch this piece of iron carefully.”

Drawing the glowing end of the crystal across the black piece of wrought iron, an orange line appeared.  Stephen drew the crystal across the metal three times and each time another line about a quarter of an inch across materialized, as if the crystal was a marker of some sort.

“The orange color is iron oxide, rust.  The mere proximity of the crystal to the iron triggers an almost immediate chemical reaction.  Oxidation that would have taken days or weeks occurs in a fraction of a second.  The crystal is some sort of super catalyst.”

Now Stephen had Gerald’s full attention.  This was unprecedented.

“Wait, I have more to show you.  Watch again.”  This time, Stephen reversed the crystal and passed the dark end of the rod over the oxidized portions of the tiny iron plate.  As he did, the orange rust reverted back to black wrought iron.  “What do you make of that?”

Gerald picked up the iron and examined it.  “That’s impossible.  It takes an enormous amount of energy to disassociate oxygen from iron, once oxidation has occurred.  It takes more than a thousand degrees of heat and the iron has to melt.”

“I know,” echoed Stephen.  “Tell me about it.  Remember, I’m the material scientist.  It shouldn’t be possible, but it happens.  I’ve done it over and over again.  It’s the crystal.  Somehow it not only catalyzes normal chemical reaction, it can reverse those chemical processes, as well.”

The physicist’s mind was already revving into high gear, speculating what this discovery could mean.  Financially, this could make them both rich.

“I know what you’re thinking, but you still haven’t seen anything yet.  I’ve been playing with this for a week.  Wait till you see what else I’ve learned.”  Reaching one last time into his pockets, he pulled out two more items and handed them to Gerald.  “Here hold these.” 

As Stephen put the chunk of iron away, Gerald examined the items he’d been handed.  One was a gold pocket watch.  The other appeared to be a short rectangular bar of lead.

Having disposed of the iron back in his coat, Stephen reached out and grabbed the pocket watch.  “This is a bar of ordinary lead.  Using the glowing end of the crystal, he touched the watch and slowly drew it back and forth across its surface.  After several passes, he handed it back to Gerald.

Studying it closely, Gerald found long dark lines marring the surface that had been shiny moments before.  “What’s happened to it?” he asked.
“I couldn’t figure it out myself at first,” admitted Stephen.  “But then I analyzed those gray lines using a spectrometer.  They aren’t gold. 

According to my tests, those dark bands are lead.”

Gerald’s eyebrows furrowed.  “Lead?  But how?”

Stephen grinned like a Cheshire cat and shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I think the crystal not only catalyzes chemical processes.  I think it triggers nuclear reactions, as well.  I had to look it up in a book on nucleides, but there’s a normal decay cycle of some isotopes of lead.  Radioactive lead can emit alpha particles and decay into gold, but the half-life is measured in tens of thousands of years.  This crystal somehow triggered the same decay pattern in a stable isotope of lead.  Think, Gerald.  I’ve just changed lead into gold.”

Stephen let that comment sink in and waited for some reaction from Gerald.  A moment later shock showed on the physicist’s face and Stephen nodded.  “Yes.  I thought the same thing.  Watch.”  Grabbing the watch from Gerald’s hand, Stephen explained.  “This watch casing is made of 14 carat gold.  It belonged to my father.”   Reversing the crystal and drew its dark end along one surface of the bar.  As he repeated the action, dark lines appeared on the watch’s shiny surface. 

After a half dozen passes, Gerald snatched the watch from Stephen and studied it.  Sure enough, inlayed into the watch were now long dull bands of lead.

“That’s right, Stephen.  This crystal can transform gold into lead and lead into gold.”

Both men were silent for a time.  Gerald stared at the crystal and the transformed pieces of lead and gold.  Stephen studied his colleague’s face, as the implications of the discovery became clear to the physicist.  Gerald’s eyes grew wide with wonder.  The potential impact of this discovery was mind-shattering.

“Do you know what I think we’ve got here, Gerald?” whispered Stephen.  “The Philosopher’s Stone of medieval legend.  Think about it.  For untold ages, alchemists claimed that all they needed to do to make the Stone was to combine the four elements together, earth, air, fire and water.  Unfortunately, they never found a way to fuse them into one substance.  They kept trying to refine and synthesize pure versions of each element. 

“But that’s what I did.  That’s what the quadruple-point is.  It’s a unique physical state in which all four states of matter coexist; solid, liquid, gas and plasma.  At that point, the meta-stable properties of a plasma are combined with the contrasting natures of gas, liquid and solid and the compound crystallizes into this form.

“That’s what I discovered, the Philosopher’s Stone.  The ultimate catalyst.”

Stephen grew silent and carefully placed the crystal back in the box and stared at it with a dour expression.  “The problem is,” he added, “I haven’t the faintest idea why it works.”

As the crystal rested in the box, it’s luminescence faded.   Once again, it looked like an innocuous and quite unremarkable piece of off-white rock.

The physicist’s mind raced.  He promptly thought of a dozen other experiments he wanted to perform and struggled to find some explanation for the crystal’s properties.  At long length, he said, “Entropy.  It has to have something to do with entropy.”

Now it was Stephen’s turn to ask questions.  “What do you mean?”

Gerald was nodding to himself now.  “Entropy.  It’s the arrow of time.  It’s an immutable property of the universe.  Chemical reactions occur, iron rusts, radioactive isotopes decay, ice melts, stars burn out and die.

“Somehow, this crystal alters the entropy of objects near it.”  Waving his hands dismissively, he started arguing with himself.  “Oh, I don’t know how.  Maybe when the crystal forms, it does so in a way that stresses space.  Maybe the alignment of atoms in the crystal extends down below the molecular level and some sort of alignment of subatomic results.  I’d suspect the crystal generates a field of weak and strong nuclear forces with some sort of dipole effect.  The glowing end accelerates normal processes; the dark end reverses them.

“If what I think is true, then this catalyst could harness the conversion of matter to energy and back.  This… this is amazing.”

Stephen smiled.  “Okay, Gerald, so what do we do?  Do we patent it?  Do we experiment with it on our own?  Do we sell it, license it, tell the government about it, or what?”  Staring down into the box, he sighed.  “I’m at my wits end.  I don’t know where to go from here, Gerald.  That’s why I came to you for advice.”

Gerald thought for a moment and then shouted, “Wait.  I thought of something else.”  Carefully picking up the crystal, he held it delicately between his fingers.  As it had before, it slowly began to glow.  “Think, Stephen.  There are processes other than chemical or nuclear we ought to investigate.”  Raising the crystal, he suspended the dark tip over the back of his hand.  Moving it gently back and forth, they both watched as a dark age-spot on Gerald’s hand faded and disappeared.  As he continued, wrinkles in his skin vanished.

Excitedly, Stephen said, “Can I try that?”  Taking the crystal carefully he drew one end across his own hand and yanked his hand away in pain.  He had used the wrong end.  Instead of healing his hand, he now brandished an ugly scar of necrotic tissue. Reversing the crystal quickly, he touched the dark end of the rod to the scar and it disappeared completely.  He repeated this action again with another scar on wrist that he’d had for years and it too faded from view.

“If I remember legend properly,” chided Gerald, “the Philosopher’s Stone was not only the key to turning lead into gold, it was also supposed to be the secret of immortality.”

“My God,” whispered Stephen setting the Stone down one more.

“Let me think for a minute,” said Gerald.  He stepped back and paced back and forth behind his desk.  “I think we’re on to something.”  He stopped and sat back down in his chair, staring once more at the innocuous looking crystal.  After long minutes he asked, “Can you make more of these things?”

“Sure,” replied Stephen. “It would take me about a day to get the chamber up to temperature and pressure.  Then maybe another day to let the crystal form.”

“How big can you make them?”

“Uh, I don’t know.  I guess it would depend on the size of the pressure chamber.  With the one I have, I could make rods about a foot or maybe a foot and a half long.”

Gerald chuckled.  “Figures.  They’d look like wands, wouldn’t they?”

Stephen returned the smile.  “Yeah, and really big ones would look like wizard’s staves, wouldn’t they?”  He laughed gently.  “God, this is the stuff of myths, isn’t it?”

Nodding, Gerald stared down at the crystal and a look of shock displaced the excitement on his face.  “Of course,” he shouted.  “Entropy.” 

Jumping out of his chair, he hurried to a bookcase on the other side of his office and began searching through a stack of technical magazines.  “It’s here somewhere.  I was just reading it the other day.”  Throwing up his hands, he turned back to Stephen and explained. 

“There was an article in the Journal of Theoretical Physics a few months back about theories of time and space.  The article expounded on a theory about other universes that would have different physical properties, some with negative mass and negative distance, where entropy and time flow the opposite direction from ours.  Anyway, it speculated that the space outside all these other universes had zero entropy and in that state of neutral entropy, time would cease to exist.”

Stephen looked confused.  “So what does that mean?”

“It means,” said Gerald. “That if we learn how to control this crystal we could not only master matter and energy, we could conceivably travel through time.”

“Huh?” said Stephen.

Gerald grinned.  “Yeah…watch.”  Leaning toward the box, he started to reach for the crystal and paused. After a second’s hesitation, he plucked the crystal from its cushion.  However, instead of it holding it in the middle like he had before, he enclosed it completely in one hand touching both the light and dark ends at the same time.

Stephen started to voice a word of warning, but before he could, the crystal began glow far brighter than it ever had before.  Gerald’s expression turned to one of rapture as he too began to glow.  His mouth opened as if he were going to speak, but before he could, he quite unexpectedly disappeared.  Just like that.  One second he was standing beside his desk and the next moment, he was gone.

Shock of Gerald’s sudden departure slowly turned into horror.  Stephen looked for any sign of his friend, afraid that he had turned himself into a pile of ash or something, but there was nothing to indicate that anything like that had occurred.  As Stephen began to accept to fact of his friend’s demise.  Gerald suddenly reappeared, holding a piece of paper in one hand and the crystal in the other.  Carefully laying the Stone on the desk, he flexed his hand and shook it as if it were numb.

“My God, Gerald.  I thought you were dead.  What happened?  Where did you go?”

Gerald Hansen grinned triumphantly.  “I’m sorry, Stephen.  I know that was reckless of me, but I had to find out if I was right and… well… I was.  You see, when I grasped both ends of the crystal, the activated crystal changed my state of entropy to zero.  As I held onto it, everything around me slowed and stopped.  I was in a sort of limbo, neither in this universe nor out of it.  After a while I found I could move, by force of will.  Apparently the crystal is quite sensitive to the human nervous system when fully activated.  After a little experimentation, I managed to nudge myself forward in time about ten or fifteen minutes.  When I let go of the crystal, I reappeared and met you here in my office.” 

“I don’t believe it,” said Stephen.  “This is all too fantastic as it is, without you bringing in the absurdity of time travel as well.”

Gerald laughed.  “This is so strange.  We had this identical conversation just a few moments ago…or rather a few moments from now.” 

Noting Stephen’s confused expression, Gerald said, “I know.  It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true.  That’s what you said in the future, just moments ago.  That’s why I had you write this.”  Gerald extended his arm and handed the piece of paper to Stephen.  “You said that, if I gave this to you, you’d believe me.”

Stephen read the piece of paper and his face went white.

“What is it?” asked Gerald.

“It’s the encryption key to the notes on my computer downstairs.  No one knows it but me.  I changed the code just before I came up to see you and I’ve never even written it down.  I’m the only one who could have written this.”

“So there,” gloated Gerald.  “Now do you believe me?”

Stephen nodded mutely, then he paused and frowned.  “Wait.  Isn’t this some kind of time paradox?  If the person in the future gave you this note and I haven’t written it, then where did it come from?”

“Don’t worry,” consoled Gerald.  “I guess time is flexible, malleable.  In any case, it seems we now have all the time in the world to make our plans.  All we have to do now is make more of these.”  He tapped the desktop next to the now dull white stone.

Before any more could be said, there was a flash of light and two men appeared in the room.  Both wore identical gray uniforms of some type and each carried a long glowing staff with a handle of silver metal in the center.

Gerald and Stephen blinked in surprise, but before either of them could move, one of the men raised his staff and the two scientists found themselves immobilized.

“It this is?” asked the first stranger.

“Let me check,” answered the other, checking the readout on a small cube he held in his other hand.  “Yes, these are the right coordinates. 

This is the origin of the temporal disruptions that wiped out future history.”

“Well, now you know why the Council set up Temporal Headquarters back in the Pliocene Era.”

“So what do you want to do now?” asked the second man.

“Well, we obviously have to restore the temporal sequence with a minimal amount of disruption.  Are you sure we’ve traced the disruptions back far enough?”

“Yes,” said the second man again studying the device in his hand. “All temporal paradoxes follow from this time segment.”

The other uniformed man walked over and picked up the tiny crystal from the desk where it lay.  “Amazing,” he said scrutinizing it closely.  “This is a high quality level three time-shard.  Where the devil do you suppose they got it?”

“Who knows?  Maybe it’s a fragment from one of the Time War Alternities, but I thought they’d tracked all the broken pieces and destroyed them.  Hey, do you think they could have made it? “

“Hmm…it’s possible, but they’re not scheduled to discover temporal crystals until the Theory of Negentropy is formalized about four centuries from now.  Even then, the construction of temporal devices will be proscribed until the Temporal Corps can be created and Headquarters is built back in prehistoric times.  Let me check, though, just in case.”

The soldier touched a number of places on the cube he held then he made a long, low whistle. “Well, I’ll be damned.  They did manufacture it.  Four hundred years ahead of their time.”

‘So what do you want to do?  Just fry them?”

“Nah, I hate things that drastic.  Besides their disappearance could affect things downtime and it would be difficult, if we had to reconstruct them again.  I’m thinking of just inducing negentropic neural decay and erasing …oh…say… two weeks worth of memories and then destroying their notes and equipment.”

“Okay, let me check that scenario out.”  The second stranger punched at his cube a few more times and then nodded.  “Simulations check out.  Neither of these guys have any significant impact in any future timelines.  Both of them die in an explosion of a terrorist nuclear bomb seven years from now that wipes out half the city.  Any perturbations that result from our restorations are expunged by that event.  Go ahead and regress them.  I’ll deal with their lab and computers.”

Gerald desperately tried to move, but couldn’t even blink.  He heard everything the two strangers said, but was paralyzed and as rigid as a statue.  He shouted, pleaded and prayed in his mind, but the two soldiers were oblivious to him.

The nearest soldier raised his staff and Gerald grew dizzy and disoriented.  Moments later he found himself sitting on the curb across the street looking up at his office.  Smoke was coming out of one of the upstairs windows and someone was yelling, “Fire!”

Glancing over, he recognized Dr. Stephen Lake, an old colleague of his, sitting on the ground further down the sidewalk.  He too looked dazed and confused.

Gerald knew he should be upset about the fire, but what bothered him the most was that he knew there was something important he needed to remember.  It was just at the edge of his memory and he knew that it was the most important thing in the world.  He fought to grasp that fleeing thought and prevent it from disappearing.  Try as he might, however, it slipped away like the memory of a dream when a sleeper wakens.

Sirens from approaching fire trucks grew louder, as the billowing smoke from the building thickened and grew into dancing gouts of flame.  Gerald watched his office disappear as the blaze consumed the building, but all he could think about was how important that lost memory had been. 

As a crowd slowly gathered to watch the growing conflagration, Gerald put his head in his hands and wept.


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