The scanner flashed brightly and finally went dark as the readings scrolled up on the monitor, showing that the item on the targeting pad had been successfully analysed, a process that took several miserable hours of waiting.
Doctor Hubert was tired. It had been a long and annoying night, and before the night had had a chance to be long or annoying, there had been a long and annoying day preceding it. There had been many, many more before that, many more than he cared to count.
He was tense and his temper was frayed. This job should have all been so simple, in essence it was simple but somehow this machine just wasn’t working and for no reason he could ascertain, despite ascertaining why it wasn’t working, being not just his job but the entirety of it.
He was startled by the sudden appearance of a cup of coffee next to him since his attention had been entirely focussed on the readings before him.
“Thanks,” he grunted to the robot that had brought it. She looked essentially Human, but a Human that had been built from rubber stretched over a metal skeleton with a brain made from a select jumble of technology. It wasn’t capable of emotions, independent thought, empathy or logical induction but it was, without doubt, the closest thing to Human contact he had had in the five long months he’d been working on the project.
She (or it) looked at him blankly through her empty, glassy eyes. Her lips fluttered into an approximation of a smile, the kind of smile that the kind of person who enjoyed torturing animals might make. Her expression were often not quite natural since there was nothing quite natural about her.
“You are welcome,” she or it said. Depending on his mood, he thought of the robot as a person or a machine, interchangeably. While she was bringing him coffee and while the machines around him were angering him, he thought of her as a person, albeit a mechanical one.
“This thing still isn’t working!” he grumbled. The robot looked on as if fascinated despite having no ability to understand anything much beyond bringing cups in from the kitchen. “There must be a flaw somewhere but after weeks of running diagnostics, I can’t find it. The machinery I have to work with just isn’t up to the task. This technology is simply too complex.”
“Would another coffee help?” she asked.
He looked at it fixedly for a long moment and then glanced to the edge of his desk where a steaming hot mug of coffee was already sitting.
“No,” he said gruffly, “another cup of coffee would not help. Thanks anyway.”
Because of the budget of the project, he was forced to work alone, just him and three basic service-drones. They were so basic that nobody had even thought to name them and in five months, he had seen no need to change that.
He continued anyway, even though the discussion was entirely rhetorical and completely one-sided, “It has to be the casing, it just has to be. When I fire the transmitter coils, the energy builds up correctly and then the field just collapses in on itself. I think that the casing just isn’t able to hold the field, I think energy is leaking out of it which is creating an imbalance.”
The robot looked at him blankly, “Would toast help, perhaps? We have white bread and wholemeal?”
“No, toast would not…” he stopped himself, another angry tirade would do nothing to improve matters and the only likely outcome would be that it would offer him something else instead. He said sarcastically instead, “How well do you understand forth dimensional physics and quantum-level modelling?”
The robot stared at him, its electronic brain struggling to find a way to respond, “On the last delivery pod, we received several jars of peanut butter. I believe it would be just lovely spread on toast. I believe it’s the chunky kind.”
He stared at it fixedly. “I don’t like peanut butter,” he grumbled at it. “If I can get this damn thing working then we’ll never need a delivery pod again. Nobody will, not ever.”
The robot looked the machine over. It was a tall glass cylinder with cables snaking out in all directions. At the base was a mass of machinery, generators and equipment which was as alien to a service robot as matters of social interaction were to diagnostic engineers.
“Does the machine make peanut butter?”
He glared angrily now. “No, it does not make peanut butter,” he snapped.
It looked back at him as if waiting for him to continue, and clearly his hostility had had no effect whatsoever.
He shrugged his shoulders, “Well it can make peanut butter. It can make anything, that’s the point.” He swiped the cheap holographic viewing goggles off his face and let them clatter to the desk, next to the mug.
He grumbled to himself, “It’s a printer. It’s a 4D printer. The designers of this thing focused on printing energy instead of matter, literally connecting two items through time. All matter is made from atoms which are simply vibrating pockets of energy, so in essence, all matter is simply energy and all energy is connected through time. This machine overlays energy fields to create a duplication of those structures. It makes temporal paradoxes, one item exiting in two different times but with complete stability. Perfect copies of anything we choose. Anything that can be recorded as an energy field can be replicated, even peanut butter, I suppose. We literally move an object through time through a self-stabilised anti-paradoxical replication field.”
For a moment, it did all seem worthwhile to him as he pondered the enormity of it all. “Just think of it. We will live in a universe where all we need to create a thing is energy. No more hunger, no more people going without medicine, no more banking, no more marketing, no more need. This will change us all forever.”
The robot nodded as if it understood, “We have crunchy and smooth.”
He rubbed his forehead wearily, “I don’t want any peanut butter. I don’t even like peanut butter.”
It understood, now that they were discussing something that was really on its level. It nodded at him but said nothing.
“Is there anything else keeping you here to annoy me?” he said wearily.
“There was a message,” she told him.
He looked up with some little interest, “Go on.”
“It was asking for us to get in contact soon but it was dated from many years ago,” she told him.
“You must have got the date wrong, I’ve only been here for five months,” he looked angry. “Either that or some other poor guy was trapped here before me and we’re getting his mail now.” He paused to rub his forehead. He felt truly trapped and had done for some time. It was getting to him, he needed to get away from there.
“Damn them, they hire only one diagnostic engineer to work on a project of this size, knowing the workload would keep ten of us busy for a year. What do they expect from me? Miracles? Only one person to diagnose the entire machine is ridiculous and they still badger me for daily updates. I’ve been working on this thing for two months and I’m still nowhere near to understanding what the problem is.”
“Is the problem connected to the shortage of strawberry jam?” she asked, rubbing her artificial chin. “I did request it, but it was unavailable, that’s why they sent so much peanut butter. I can only apologise.”
“The problem has nothing to do with strawberry jam or peanut butter!” he grunted at it. “The problem is the casing. We’re pouring in too much power and the casing can’t hold it. I’m almost sure of it, not that I can find the proof. The field is leaking out and as it leaks out it’s breaking up. That’s why whatever I put in there to scan and copy just stays as a single item, trapped in time. I can’t be sure, of course, because I don’t have the data and I don’t have the data because the equipment I have to work with is garbage.”
“I think a snack would make you feel better,” it said, not actually capable of thinking anything at all.
He glared at the robot and looked away quickly, glaring instead at the monitor on his work-station. “I need to get out of this place. It’s driving me crazy. It all just seems to utterly pointless, I’m going round in circles, one problem leading into another with no end in sight. It’s like I’m trapped in hell.”
“Does hell have peanut butter?” by now the robot had completely lost touch with the conversation and was just doing its best to say things that didn’t sound stupid. It was failing quite spectacularly, of course.
“Apparently it does!” he said grumpily at it. He began angrily pressing buttons. “You know what? I’ve had enough!”
“Enough coffee?” it asked. “You haven’t even touched it. Normally you like coffee. I think we also have tea but only smooth. I don’t know if it actually comes in crunchy form.”
“I’ve had enough of this place,” he told her. “I’m removing the safety protocols and I’m going to set the coils to full power. I’m going to transmit the most powerful field the machine can possibly manage all in one huge blast of temporal energy.”
“That sounds dangerous!” Even a lowly serving robot with just barely enough processing capacity to operate a kitchen was able to respond to the concept of disabling safety systems just to see what might happen.
“But it will give me the data I need. It’s the only way I can prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the casing is leaking. Once I know that, I can find a way to work around the problem,” he explained to her, forgetting himself for a moment as he set the controls.
He gave one last look at the scanner targeting pad. On it was resting the last jar of strawberry jam. One day the machine, and ones all round the galaxy just like it, would be able to scan such things and record the patterns, producing exact, perfect copies on demand, one item and the present it existed in could exist in different moments, endlessly through time. It would change the universe forever.
He set the controls to emit the pulse and then took a moment to grin at the robot, “I’ve got a full and detailed scan and I’m going to use it to replicate this object’s temporal signature. If this works, I’ll be one step closer to getting the hell out of here.”
He pressed the button, wondering what might happen next.