Clark Ericson didn’t know in what direction he was walking, but he had to admit it was his own fault. The newspapers had made that clear, and so had the letter of dismissal from the university. If you destabilize true magnetic north, even by accident, then in all decency, you ought to accept the blame. Still, Clark didn’t like being a pariah, nor did he like getting lost every time he left his house.
He had told an angry world that the effect might be temporary, but that was a small consolation. Airplanes were grounded, ships had to steer by the stars, and birds migrated to the wrong places. North and South Dakota fought over which was which, and everybody was lost.
Worst of all, his family hated him. But his immediate problem was food.
“You screwed things up,” his wife had said, “so you find the store!”
If he couldn’t locate a grocery store, he knew he would be banished to his little lab in the garage.
So here he was, hoping for the best and desperately wanting not to be recognized. Even though the weather was hot, Clark wore his son’s sweatshirt and pulled the hood down to hide his face. A pair of dark glasses helped.
His disguise created its own problems, of course, by making it hard for him to see where he was going.
“I don’t suppose it matters,” he thought when he left home, towing his kids’ old wagon to carry the groceries.
It was going to be a long walk. The nearest grocery store was three miles away and he couldn’t drive. His experiment had affected the electronics in the car, and now it wouldn’t start.
“I wish I hadn’t crossed those wires,” he thought. “I’m a physicist, not an electrical engineer.”
It was an innocent mistake, the kind people make every day, but which usually didn't result in earth-changing consequences. Magnetic true north had always moved a little bit over time, and no one had really cared. But Clark had caused it to start moving thousands of miles a day and in random directions.
“They said it couldn’t be done,” he thought as he turned another corner. “I wish I’d listened.”
All he had wanted to do was find proof of gravity particles, which were missing from the Standard Model of particle physics. This had flummoxed everyone from Einstein on down.
“I should never have gone to the fair,” he thought, as he found a gas station he might never need again.
Clark had ridden the Starship Gravitron at the Grant County Fair. It was circular, and it spun so rapidly it had pinned the riders up against its walls at incredible speed. He had almost passed out, but that state of semi-consciousness had freed his mind and the idea for a gravity particle generator had popped into his head.
It was a simple add-on to the campus’s particle accelerator, just a few more magnets really. He'd called it the Gravitron in honor of the amusement ride. The particle physicists had all thought it was ludicrous, but Clark had worn them down. No one had ever imagined it could have such dangerous effects.
And it hadn't, at first. Not until Clark had crossed the red wires with the green wires leading from the magnets.
“It was such a small error,” he thought sadly, as he came across a game store. “Oh, hey—the kids will like that."
The chances of finding the store again later were small, but still, maybe then they wouldn’t hate him so much.
“Those sparks were probably a warning,” he thought as he trudged along. “Maybe I shouldn’t have turned the particle accelerator on.”
He rounded another corner when – hallelujah! – there it was: Lucky Groceries. His family wouldn’t starve and he wouldn’t be living in the garage . . . yet.
He finished the shopping quickly, and then encountered his next problem: he still had to find his way home. Clark stood in the parking lot with his wagon and closed his eyes, trying to remember what he’d passed on the way there. The first step was the dry cleaner’s, which he could see up at the next corner.
And so, slowly and tortuously, with several wrong turns, he made his way back home. One of his errors led him to a pizza parlor, so he bought an extra-large combination see-what-a-great-dad-I-am pizza for his family before continuing his journey.
He felt so relieved when he finally opened the door to his house.
“I’m back,” he said, “and I brought . . . .”
“Pizza!” yelled his son, who ran into the kitchen and grabbed it with all the gratitude of a feral child who hadn’t eaten in ten minutes, and then ran off with it. Clark thought he heard a growl.
“You were gone nearly three hours,” his wife said. “The ice cream’s melted.”
There was no kindness in her voice. Their invisible daughter stayed in her bedroom.
“There’s no forgiveness here,” thought Clark, on his way to do penance in the garage, intent on staying out of everyone’s way for a while. He checked his email on his phone and the world was still mad at him. He had never felt lower.
Clark headed for the cot, to settle in for a pity session followed by a nap. He got neither. Instead, he got an idea. Sitting on top of the cot was a box of old, failed inventions. And the one on top was his attempt at a flux capacitor for time travel, inspired by “Back to the Future.” It hadn’t worked, of course, but it had been fun.
At the heart of a flux capacitor was a nuclear quantum-stream reverser. And that was what gave him his idea for how to repair magnetic north.
All he had to do was induce a negative charge into the quantum tube in his Gravitron device and hook it back up to the particle accelerator.
“. . . and uncross the wires,” he said to the dog, who really didn’t care since there were no kibbles in sight.
To do all this, Clark would need access to his old lab and some time with the particle accelerator.
This required permission from the head of his former department, Prof. Sophia Agnelli. A phone call resulted in a stream of emphatic profanity, followed by “never again.” Her reply to his follow-up text message was even shorter: “restraining order.”
But Clark knew he was right. He still had his keys for the university, which the security guards had failed to collect when they'd escorted him off the campus. He just needed to wait until no one would be near the particle accelerator, which, on a Friday, would be unusually early.
He spent several hours diagramming his idea and checking the math before leaving for the 11:30 p.m. bus to the university. It took him only 45 minutes to find the bus stop.
“Hey,” said the bus driver after he opened the door, “aren’t you that #@%! who . . . .”
“No,” said Clark, who pulled his hoodie lower and hurried to the rear of the bus.
Since the new passenger was either a mad scientist or a middle-aged wanna-be-thug, the driver didn't stop him.
“They don’t pay me enough to deal with this crap,” muttered the driver, and left Clark alone.
By the time Clark found his office, it was 2:00 a.m. and he knew he had to hurry. He opened the Gravitron, fixed the wiring, and induced a negative charge in the quantum tube, then carted it over to the particle accelerator and attached it.
After waiting for the accelerator to reach full power, Clark re-routed the particles through the Gravitron. It hummed briefly before throwing off the dreaded electric sparks and dying in a small, unexpected explosion.
All the power on the campus went out, leaving Clark more in the dark than usual. But there was one important change. He wasn’t lost anymore, and he ran.
Once he got back to his garage, he found a compass. It pointed to the old north again now, and it stayed there.
“I did it!” he yelled at the dog, who still didn’t care, not even when Clark broke into the approximation of a victory dance.
The world was grateful and everything returned to normal. Birds knew where to migrate, ships could navigate, and North and South Dakota found something else to quarrel about.
Unfortunately, the police also found it easy to locate Clark’s house, so they could arrest him for trespassing. While he was in jail, the university served him with a bill for the damage he had caused, which only added to his misery. But after his wife bailed him out, and he finally got home, he saw a blanket and a pillow on the sofa.
Gradually, life returned to normal again. The university forgave Clark for trespassing and for the destruction from the explosion in exchange for the Gravitron, which had significant potential for gravity research -- if properly wired.
His family life also returned to normal, because Clark, for all his faults, was a good husband and father, and he had only almost destroyed the world just that one time.
The dog, whose main interests were still shaped like beef-flavored rocks, never noticed or cared either way.
* * * * * *
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4. Champion (whipchick) "Buddha Nature" https://whipchick.livejournal.com/75957.html [I am so grateful for her willingness to be my champion and for the excellence of her story]
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