02: Blackout

written by Daniel Manning

[[SFX: tape recorder start]]

SALLY GRISSOM (SG): Uh, hi. This is the thing, the... Diary, thing. January 17, 1944. It's Monday, and it's damn cold. There's no heat in my house. I've asked to put in a work order, but it seems like every GI is off on other assignments. It always seems like there's a swarm of them buzzing about, but never when you actually need 'em. I scrounged up a couple of blankets from the infirmary, but I can only wrap myself so thickly and still work.

My first few months here have been... decidedly miserable. Sure, when I first got here, I was welcomed with open arms, but ever since the second week or so, I can feel myself frozen out–pun definitely not intended. I mean, I have never seen a more hostile group of people in my life! Not a one of them will speak to me unless under a direct order. My lab assistants spend a single day with me, speak in the tersest of tones, and then refuse to come in the next day. The room full of men and women that are so far removed from any concept I have of a "computer" I barely understand, glare at me. Just stare me down until I run from the room.

Even civilians stop conversing when I enter a room. And it's not like there's no social life here, there is! The other people, they throw dinner parties, they drink, they dance,and I don't. I'm left out in the cold. Pun still not intended. I swear, it's like high school all over again. 

At first, I thought that they were under orders not to speak to me.It would have been a little cruel, trapped living as a pariah in a secret desert town of geniuses, but I mean, I'm from the future, I guess I can understand that. Y'know, for the sake of avoiding paradoxes, sure. Keep me isolated. For the integrity of the universe, and so on. But a few weeks ago, I just kind of snapped.  I couldn't stand it anymore. So I stormed into the Director's office... Well, stormed into the administration building and demanded to be escorted to the Directors office by the receptionist. She told me he wouldn't be back for another three days, so I left and came back, she gave me directions, then I demanded that the big stoic guys guarding his door let me in, and THEN I stormed into the Director's office. I was all set to start yelling at him for the injustice, for the indignity of keeping me in solitary confinement, but... He hadn't given any order. Turns out everyone just hates me. Yep, exactly like high school.

All these people here, I feel like they don't trust me. They don't know where I'm from, but they notice that something's off about me. It's something deep in their unconscious, I guess. I'm uncanny to them. And that wards off any attempt at making living here with people a little more bearable.

And because I'm left all alone, there is absolutely nothing for me to do here. I know I'm not in 20█ anymore. But it is just so paralyzingly boring during the hours that I'm not at work. Day in, day out, it's the same: work, crunch numbers, fiddle with the machine, talk to barely anyone, come home,  eat, slump down in my room at the end of the day and try to pretend that the radio in the corner of my bedroom fills in for the panoply of entertainments so vast it would make these neanderthals' heads spin. Now all I have are the same four or five staticky AM stations that we get here, and none of them are ever clear enough to hear much. There's too much electromagnetic interference from the experiments in town. Seriously, any of you from the 40s listening to this wouldn't believe what we've got. It might as well be magic. Goddamn, I miss the Internet...

At least the work is keeping me sane, but only barely. The technology in 1944 is pretty rudimentary, all things considered. And the Standard Model that I'm working from won't even be theorized for another twenty years or so. But the laws governing the universe haven't changed, so I guess it's all the same... Well I'm pretty sure that they haven't changed... Actually, the whole "laws governing the universe" thing is pretty up in the air right now. 

I suppose we'll find out today. The test of the newly-spec'd machine, which we've been calling the Timepiece, is in a little less than five hours. After three long, lonely months, I finally feel ready. The first phase is supposed to chart tachyon measurements, look for more disturbances of spacetime like the one I rode in on. The idea behind the whole thing is...

[[SFX: static distortion; low rumbling]]

What is that? Wha– OHMYGOD–

[[SFX: electromagnetic pulse; static distortion]]

--yeah? Okay? Okay cool. So, something just knocked out the power is my room... Looks like the whole town too. I think whatever it was gave off a weird electromagnetic pulse that fried the spool I was just using. I tried listening to it, and all I got was this, like...

[[SFX: Sally approximates static distortion]]

But we shield all of our equipment lockers with copper mesh, and there was a spare spool or two in there. Is it weird that the first thing I did was replace the wire spool on my personal audio recorder...? Nah, I'm probably fine. It's just been a while since I spoke to anyone else, I guess. 

There's still a weird buzz on this one though, I wonder which project caused this...

[[SFX: knock knock; door opens]]

GUARD: Dr. Grissom?

SG: Yeah?

GUARD: You're needed down by the computing pavilion.

SG: Me? Are you sure? 

GUARD: Very sure, ma'am. The Director asked for you personally.You'll get instructions when you arrive. He's assembling a team to figure it out. 

SG: A team, huh? Find a lot of volunteers for that one?

GUARD: I'm not sure, ma'am, I was sent to collect you. 

SG: Mmm...Ca-can I bring my recorder?

GUARD: I'm sorry, what?

SG: This thing. Can I bring it with me? I've got an idea. 

GUARD: I guess, if you want to lug it all the way over there–

SG: Then hold on. Let me grab a few other things.

[[SFX: radio tuning]]

SG: ...and we should be good to go! See, this will send the audio signal through the microphone,onto the tape, routed through this device here, and back through to my headphones. It should amplify the EM distortion the closer we get to the disruption. Like a metal detector.

ANTHONY PARTRIDGE (AP): Yes, fine, that's great. We should get going if we want to stay ahead of it.

SG: Well... Say hi first.

AP: What do you mean, say hi?

SG: Into the microphone. Say hi. It's like a podca.... Like radio. Come on, do it!

AP: ...Hi.

SG: And who are we talking to?

AP: Do we really have to do this?

SG: Come on, it's for the record.

AP: Fine, whatever. This is Anthony Partridge, mathematician for the Office of Developed Anomalous Resources. We're looking for an electromagnetic anomaly in the town of Polvo, New Mexico. And we're doing it with a suped-up tape recorder and a pair of headphones that make you look like an alien from Flash Gordon. Are we good? Can we get going now please?

SG: Yes, fine, okay! Let's go!

AP: Thank you.

SG: Sorry. I was just joking around.

AP: I can't believe I volunteered to babysit you.

SG: Hey, man, watch it. I can take care of myself. Done as much so far. I'm just trying to be nice.

AP: Oh sure, you're the girl with the silver spoon. Refocused our whole operation the minutes you got here. I bet you caused this, this whatever it is.

SG: Hey buddy, do you work here?

AP: What? What an idiotic question, of course I work here!

SG: Because for the past three months, I've been working–alone–on the most complex machine anyone in this world has ever seen, and not once did you lift a finger to help me. No one did. You all shut me out like a goddamn leper. So, even if this was me,please excuse me for making one mistake while I am up to my elbows in the primordial fucking forces of the universe.

AP: [sigh] Come on. The last pulse sighting was up this way.

SG: And what in the hell did I do to you all anyway? I am only ever trying to be nice. What could I possibly have done to deserve the entire town giving me the silent treatment?

AP: Come on.

SG: No, I'm serious! You must know. You volunteered for this little scavenger hunt. You know you're the first person to voluntarily stand next to me since the first week I got here? And even you treat me like I ran over your dog backing out of the driveway! Why?

AP: It's because the minute you got here, the Director threw out half our projects! We had to start from scratch! A year and a half of work, just out the window.

SG: Oh... Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

AP: Some people weren't necessary to the new project structure so they lost their jobs. And if you're not working, you gotta leave the town. A lot of good people had to uproot their families. Ones still in town lost a lot of good friends. They won't be able to speak to them until after the war's over at least.

SG: I–

AP: So forgive us for having a little resentment. And you, "trying to be nice?" "Just joking around?" It's rude. It's just damn rude. 

SG: I didn't know.

AP: What do you mean you didn't know?! You came in straight from the Director's orders. You had to know what bringing your work in here would do.

SG: The way I joined the project, it's... complicated.

AP: "Complicated?" What do you mean complicated?

SG: Well I–

[[SFX: EM disruption approaches]]

SG: There it is! I hear it!

AP: Where, I don't see anything. All the lights are still on in these buildings, we should be–

SG: It's this way! It's weak, but it sounds just like the pulse that came through my house. I'm gonna follow it. Are you coming?

AP: I guess so.

[[SFX: disruption fades]]

SG: So, what were you working on?

AP: I was in charge of a team developing an algorithm for predicting systems through an application of quantum mechanics.

SG: You were trying to predict the future based on different choices and math?

AP: Just in a well-educated guess sort of way. It's not like you ask the formula about what you're gonna have for breakfast tomorrow, or what color shoes you were wearing when you met your husband. More like, which countries are likely to be at war in a hundred years. 

SG: How close did you get?

AP: That's classified.

SG: Okay, but... come on. What's the least classified thing you could predict?

AP: Well, we predicted we'd have a polio vaccine by the end of the decade.

SG: Wow, really? That's great! Shame for FDR though.

AP: What do you mean?

SG: Because he had... I mean... Never mind.

AP: Well, when you arrived, the Director shut down the project.We assumed you had come up with a better algorithm. 

SG: Well, I definitely see how my machine might supplant what you were doing, but I didn't know. 

AP: Listen, I've been here for a few years. I know the rules. What the Director says, goes. But I don't have to be happy about it. 

SG: You don't have to take it out on me.

AP: I'm allowed to be resentful of the girl that's displacing me.

SG: I didn't mean to displace you. I'm not trying to displace anyone! I just took a job, man!

AP: What? You just "took a job?" You don't just "take a job" at this place, waltz into Bill Donovan's office and ask if they're accepting résumés. No one makes it to Polvo by accident. Where are you from? Where did you go to college?


AP: I've had my eye on every kid in that school with a twinkle in his eye for the past five years. When did you graduate?

SG: Twenty fo-our...

AP: 1924?

SG: Uh.... Uh-huh.

AP: You received your PhD 19 years ago?

[[SFX: disruption pitch rises]]

SG: Uh, can this wait until later? I think I've got something.

AP: By "something," do you mean a keen ability to lie? Because I've got news for you.

SG: No, I think... I think the disruption is moving!

AP: What are you talking about? Give me those.

[[SFX: Anthony puts on the headphones]]

AP: All right, what am I supposed to be listening for?

SG: It's very slow, but you can see that even if you're not moving, there's still an almost-imperceptible Doppler shift on the signal. I'm going to boost the levels hereto amplify the interfering signal.

[[SFX: disruption intensifies]]

AP: Whoa! Was that you, turn it down!

SG: That wasn't me, I didn't do anything!

AP: It's growing!

[[SFX: disruption intensifies, then recedes]]

AP: Damn, you're right. It's moving. Actually, I think that... Do you have some extra paper? How about a map? And I need you to boost the clarity of the signal.

SG: You have something for this?

AP:  As a matter of fact, I do. Last May, everyone here got into really esoteric forms of radar detection and I was working on this targeted broadcast identifier that I could repurpose to track a similar signal if I substitute...

[[SFX: disruption intensifies, then recedes]]

SG: So if you overlay that vector with the campus, it looks like the disruption is moving south-southwesterly, and it's heading... right toward Site 2.

AP: That's predictably terrible.

SG: Just perfect. My machine is testing there in just a few hours. Damn it. What am I gonna do?

AP: Well, it's moving slowly enough that we could briskly amble over to the test site and still beat it there by a matter of hours. If it's some kind of weapon, I think we could figure out some way to disarm it...has anyone actually seen anything?

SG: I think everyone else is trying to get the town back online, and the few that aren't are collecting data from as far away as possible. We're not far now, though. It should be near the Grant Park playground. You mind babysitting me a little while longer?

AP: Let's see where this goes, at least.

SG: Off we go!

[[SFX: Sally whistles "Hi-Ho"; disruption intensifies, then abruptly stops]]

AP: Ugh... Seeing the playground without children, is just... Unsettling. Are you picking up anything?

SG: Huh.

AP: What's it doing?

SG: That's the weird part. It's gone.

AP: What do you mean, it's gone?

SG: When we walked onto the blacktop. It just stopped.

AP: What happened? Did you see anything?

SG: I don't think so... Hold on. Let me try something.

[[SFX: disruption begins, stops; start, stops]]

SG: Yup, this is it. This must be the eye of the storm.

AP: So we're dealing with the invisible. Do you believe in ghosts, Sally?

SG: Not really. I don't have much belief in anything I can't prove.

AP: I had a grandmother who claimed she specialized in the occult. Used to read our palms every Christmas, to tell our fortune for the coming year. I'm sure she'd be breaking out the candles and asking us to join hands by now.

SG: And you? What do you think?

AP: I think that spirits of the dead probably have more pressing matters than moving rocking chairs around.

SG: Then I guess we've ruled out ghosts.

AP: (laughs) I'm glad that's marked off the list.

SG: So are things ever straightforward around here?

AP: There was a month in '41 where there wasn't much going on.I was bored out of my skull. At least this thing's giving us plenty of notice. It's moving at about 0.88 miles per hour, so we've still got a few hours before it gets to the test site.

SG: Wait... When is it supposed to get there?

AP: About 3 PM this afternoon, if it keeps moving at the same rate.

SG: Yup. Nope. No. This is nonsense, this is–nope. I'm done.

AP: What are you babbling about?

SG: The test today. We're cycling field generators. The schedule puts boot-up at 1500 hours, on the dot.

AP: So, what are you suggesting? Whoever sent the disturbance wants to sabotage the test?

SG: Partridge, I don't think the disruption was a sabotage... I think I'm getting screwed by causality again.  

AP: Do you ever make sense?

SG: I think it's a side effect.

AP: Of what?

SG: The Timepiece prototype... I think it's residue left over from the test.

AP: What is that supposed to mean?

SG: The prototype gives off large amounts of electromagnetic radiation when it's activated. If something goes wrong this afternoon, it's conceivable that the disturbance isn't moving toward the test site, it's moving away from it... But backwards?

AP: That's complete and utter hogwash. The test hasn't even happened yet! How are we supposed to... Sally, what exactly is your machine supposed to–

SG: Can you show me the map you plotted the disruption on?

AP: This one?

SG: Can you extrapolate it? Draw a line across the whole map, as far as you can go.

[[SFX: Anthony messes with maps]]

AP: Well, by the looks of it, it traces a line... Right across here.Goes... Goes right through Philadelphia, near Cincinnati, I wonder if they've experienced any strange phenomena like this...

SG: Goddammit.

AP: ...You've got something you're not telling me, and I'm getting real sick of it. 

SG: We've... we've got some real cutting-edge technology now. Something new.

AP: How wonderful for you, but that doesn't explain how something that goes wrong later makes our lives difficult now. You might have fancy machines but you're not magic! What's your secret? What's in Philadelphia? What the hell are you working on? Just tell me!

SG: It's classified. And you wouldn't believe me if I told you.

AP: Try me!

SG: It's a time machine I brought with me from the future. 


AP: Really?

SG: If I was lying, would I really pick something so ridiculous?

AP: Well... The Director wouldn't need a predictive algorithm if he could just see history first-hand, I guess.

SG: Like I said, I didn't know.

AP: And you think, what, your test exploded backwards through time?

SG: Well it broke when I got here, and it wasn't designed for time travel in the first place. I had to rebuild it with contemporary parts. So maybe something goes wrong with the test. The capacitors overload, and send a burst of energy radiating out from that spacetime event. The wave of tachyons would travel out in both directions in time, and half of them would be drawn back in through time towards the Rainbow project back in October. 

AP: Fine, then. Great. So I guess cause and effect work backwards now.

SG: I'm still figuring that one out.

AP: So our problem should be solved, right? If we just don't turn on the machine today, the disruption won't have existed in the first place!

SG: Yeah, but then what happens to us? Right now. If we don't turn on the machine today, we'd have no reason to be out here deciding not to turn on the machine today.

AP: A paradox.

SG: I can't change things. If I change the past in the slightest, who knows what would happen to my future? So... Are we doomed? Is this like, fated to happen now? What do we do?

AP: Well, there's two way's I see it: either you can change what's coming, or you can't.

SG: Helpful.

AP: If you can't, then we're screwed either way. But what happens if you don't turn on the machine this afternoon?

SG: You know, I don't really know. Either I fade out of existence, or everyone dies, or the whole universe ceases to exist.

AP: Sounds to me like you're caught standing in both lanes of traffic.

SG: Yeah, tell me about it.

AP: Well, is there a chance nothing would happen?

SG: What do you mean, nothing would happen? Everything has to happen. 

AP: What if paradoxes, causes and effects, just don't matter? Tonic water is disgusting and gin is for drunks, but put them together and you get something amazing.

SG: But then how would this happen?

AP: Then how would any of this happen? You came from the future, doll. You already started to change things. Your molecules displaced the air around you, you ate food that wouldn't have been eaten. Hell, you made me lose my job.

SG: Sorry about that, by the way.

AP: It's all right, but if you're looking for a good reason to change the future, you're plum out of luck. It's already happened.

SG: So right now, here, this is me deciding: I'm going to cancel the test. The machine won't turn on.

[[SFX: disruption intensifies]]

SG: You hear that, universe! I don't care about your laws of causality! Do your worst!

[[SFX: disruption crescendos, then recedes]]

AP: I don't think the universe can hear you.

SG: Then I guess I'm not gonna die. At least, not today.

AP: Don't fret. Everyone dies eventually.

SG: When you can travel in time it just seems a lot closer. I guess we should call the Director. He'll have to cook up a pretty good story.

AP: He won't need to. It's too dangerous to carry out a test with all this radiation around the base. Happens more often than you might think. He'll reschedule it for sometime next week. Gives you time to fix your machine.

SG: By the way, uh, don't tell anybody. About me being from the future.

AP: Well I was just about to call the Polvo Gazette...

SG: I'm serious. I can't let a secret like that leak. Director's orders.

AP: Then why'd you tell me?

SG: I needed to tell someone. Poor judgment call, mostly. But I feel a lot better. So can we keep this between us?

AP: Sure. And I'll talk to the town,about lightening up on you. You'll need the help to analyze all this new data by next week.

SG: You have no idea how much I would appreciate that.

AP: So the Director knows? That you're from the future, I mean?

SG: Hah. How else do you think I got here?

[[SFX: radio tuning]]

SG: Three o'clock on the nose. Any minute now.

AP: Do you want a beer?

SG: Yes please.

[[SFX: Anthony pops two beer cans, hands one to Sally]]

AP: So what should I be looking at?

SG: The machine, I guess.

AP: That's your Timepiece?

SG: This is it, yeah. The disruption should be moving through the east wall over there right about now.

AP: And you turned off all the power?

SG: Right before I unplugged the machine from absolutely everything else. If something happens, there's no way it could be us. I should've grabbed goggles, but... I'm sure we'll be fine.

AP: I've got a camera rolling, and I grabbed a Geiger counter too. I was concerned about 'em getting fried, but I couldn't resist the chance at some damn good data.

SG: Say whatever happens destroys the lab. Won't we get in trouble? For destroying equipment, or... everything?

AP: Sally, this is what we're here for. If we're doing good work, they'll replace anything that gets destroyed.

SG: So, what, you just have infinite money?

AP: Not quite. It's all the taxpayers' money. But the Director always replaces what gets broken, gets us what we need.

SG: Outside of the occasional electromagnetic catastrophe, it sounds like a scientist's paradise.

AP: Not quite.

SG: I mean, you could speed things up by replacing the calculator girls with a couple of transistors, but all things considered, it ain't half-bad.

AP: You know, it's just... You see a lot of military trucks, but not a lot of civilians.

SG: The Director's got my number. I'm probably stuck here more than you are... which means by that logic, you're also all stuck in here with me. Welcome to my hell.

[[SFX: disruption enters]]

AP: Did everything just get... redder?

SG: Here it comes, okay, watch this!

[[SFX: the disruption reaches a crescendo, then an unsatisfyingly tame pop]]

AP: That was it?

SG: That was it. 1502 by my watch.

AP: Did you know that would happen? 

SG: The blue flash? Not a clue.

AP: Come on, what were you expecting?

SG: I had even money on mechanical failure and spontaneous bear attack.

AP: Shame no one was around to see it.

SG: We were around to see it. We saw it, so it happened. I think that's enough.

[[SFX: radio tuning]]

SG: Diary of Sally Grissom, January 17th, 1944... it's past midnight so I guess it's the 18th. My regular entry for today was destroyed, so I'm re-doing it. I couldn't make anything out of that old tape, but I'll keep it in the file anyway. Maybe someone some day can figure it out.

This one is going to be short, because I've had a long day, and I'm exhausted. I'm nursing what I think is the single most wicked headache humankind has ever known. 

[[SFX: static distortion]]

So here's what I'll say: I made a decision today to not do something. I acted through inaction. And I think I changed history?

[[SFX: static distortion]]

I feel like I'm breaking some kind of ruleset for the universe, but nothing of consequence has happened yet. I didn't fade away, I didn't disappear. Does that mean I've made the right choice? I've got no idea what the right choice even means anymore. Who knows? Maybe history doesn't care that I'm in it now. I don't really know yet. So I need to do this for myself. Make decisions like I could possibly know what I'm doing. Which I can't. I can't be bothered with what the universe wants to happen. And if we're all still here in the morning, then maybe I was right.

[[SFX: tape recorder stops]]

ars PARADOXICA was created by Daniel Manning and Mischa Stanton.
Episode 02: Blackout features – 

Kristen DiMercurio (Sally Grissom)
Robin Gabrielli (Anthony Partridge)

with special thanks to Isabel Atkinson

Original music by Mischa Stanton.
ars PARADOXICA is brought to you by The Internet: It's where you get the Google.

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