story concepts by Erin Bark
written by Mischa Stanton
[[SFX: tape recorder starts]]
ANTHONY PARTRIDGE (AP): Hello! And welcome back to the continuing adventures of Anthony Partridge and the Desk Clerk’s Office Without Time. Today I have stumbled upon a rather interesting quirk of my Philadelphia forever-home. Sure, it may have cost me a few of my precious medical supplies, but that’s a small price to pay around here for something new and exciting.
I had cleared out my queue, and while waiting for the system to refresh I was killing time by building a rubber band ball. Now, before you go asking, yes I do have a ton of office supplies here, and yes rubber bands do seem like a particularly odd choice. All I do here is shift documents from one place to another, right? It’s all paper, audio tape, microfilm, that sort of stuff. So, paper clips? Sure, logical, yes. Staples? Okay! A little destructive of the documents for me, but covering my bases ODAR, I appreciate it. I mean what I really want is a great big cork board and some push-pins. Maybe some string or something? I don’t know. But Rubber bands? What am I holding together with rubber bands? Just seems like an odd choice, guys, that’s all I’m saying.
So, right, the rubber band ball. Now they’ve included all the entertainment a guy could ask for in the Blackroom–books, music, movies, TV shows on tape, and disc. But what I don’t have are a ton of facilities for physical activity. See the Blackroom itself is pretty big, they found a pretty empty patch of the Eldridge to set me down on But with all the stuff in here it’s kinda cramped. I keep up a basic exercise regimen to ward off atrophy and the like, but... I get antsy. Often. So I built this rubber band ball. For kicks. And I’m bouncing it, right, and then I think, “y’know, what might happen if I were to toss this at the boundary?”
I don’t talk about the boundary much. To be perfectly honest, it kinda gives me the creeps. Most of the time the boxes and crates and shelves in the way let me keep my distance. The few times I’ve touched it... There’s definitely a hard surface there. It’s like a concrete wall. Only it’s warm to the touch, and it gives just a little more than you’d expect. It’s like my nerve endings can’t quite make sense of what they’re picking up, like the information is invalid or corrupted. My somatosensory system crosses a wire. And because the moisture in the air can’t escape anywhere, the pressure condensation gets forced up against your hand, so you hand comes away wet. It almost feels... alive. That along with the drone of the CAGE generator... Breathing. Pulsing. Like the belly of a whale.
So, right, so I have this rubber band ball, and I’m thinking, “okay, what would happen?” So I throw it. Lightly at first.
[[SFX: the ball bounces off the CAGE boundary; Anthony catches it]]
￼AP: See, but it bounces further than I expected. I have to reach to catch it. But now I’m curious, right? So of course, I chuck the darn thing as hard as I can. And it hits me right in the face, full speed.
Normally this is the part where I ice my face and my ego, but when I say “full speed” I mean almost entirely the same speed! Which is weird, because any other surface absorbs at least a little bit of the kinetic energy as heat upon impact–Newton’s Third Law, and all. But this thing came flying back at me and I swear to God it was the same speed as when I threw it.
So it’s all swirling in my head. The ball, the warm touch, this crazy spectacular ECHO [echo, echo]... I think the boundary is 100% reflective inwards. I mean, of course, it would have to be. It’s a complete and total blockade between me and the entire rest of the universe. But I’ve never really dived into exactly what that means. Which can only mean that there are some experiments in my future. Oh, Sally’s gonna love this!
[[SFX: radio tuning]]
SALLY GRISSOM (SG): I mean, it sounds rad Partridge! You know you can count me in for whatever you need.
[[SFX: door opens]]
ESTHER ROBERTS (ER): (in distance) Sally! Hey, the door was open, I hope it’s ok–
SG: Oh, uh, gotta go. Let me know the details. Bye!
[[SFX: hangs up phone]]
SG: Hey Roberts, I’m back here!
ER: (approaching) Hey, how are you doing?
SG: I’m good. I didn’t expect you today, you were just here yesterday.
ER: Oh, I’m sorry. I just had an unexpectedly light day, is it alright? If you need some space, I–
SG: No, no, it’s totally fine! I’ll just finish this up later. D’you wanna play cards?
[[SFX: radio tuning; Newton’s cradle clacking against the Boundary]]
AP: I am going to die.
￼This is not a new revelation. In fact it’s something that comes up a lot here, with just me, alone with my thoughts. But today I’m faced with empirical evidence that even in this entirely closed system, entropy will decay my body and mind and I will still die.
AP: This is a Newton’s cradle I built out of some ball bearings and twine. One side of it is resting up against the boundary, so that when I drop the ball on one side, it immediately bounces back up with near-identical force. I say “near-identical” because even if the boundary is 100% reflective, there’s still heat being absorbed by each of the balls in the line. There’s still kinetic energy lost to the air as the end ball rises. After an hour or so, the ball rising just a little less than the time before, it’s finally starting to slow down.
And it got me thinking. Sure, the Blackroom’s environment was ionized the minute it activated, killing all bacteria in the area. Sure, I’ve got plenty of medical supplies to last me a good long while. But even if I stay fit as a fiddle, even if I live my allotted decades and then some... Eventually I’m going to die in here. From some complication that can’t be solved, some disease they didn’t know about in my time... Or hell, even by old age. Which isn’t actually a thing so much as a nice way to dress up organ failure.
The one thing that really scares me about all of it is that I don’t really have any recourse left to me in the event of a slow, torturous decline. That is, unless I want to burn one of the Catboxes.
I’m not sure I’ve ever really ruminated about them on the record. Basically, ODAR’s done a pretty good job so far in providing whatever I may need. In fact, beyond human company, I haven’t wanted for much of anything while I’ve been here. But–and believe me when I tell you I am utterly aware of the irony of what I’m about to say–ODAR can’t predict everything. They knew that something catastrophic might happen in here, something they couldn’t possibly plan for.
So: In among the various stacks there are sixteen wooden crates, nailed shut. And the way it works is, sixteen times over the course of my life, I can ask ODAR for a specific item, name a crate, open it, and there it’ll be. And sure, each of the crates has something inside it right now, and sure, I could pry each of them open and see what’s in them. But what a waste that would be! Because until I open one, a box could contain anything. Literally any conceivable thing could be in there, until I open it and see it with my own two eyes. The theory is based on a thought experiment proposed by Erwin Schrodinger. It was proposed as a joke, but he had no idea how useful the joke would be when it came down to the nitty-gritty of quantum mechanics. His experiment involved a cat in a box, thus: Catboxes.
So I’ve got sixteen of these things. Sixteen genie’s wishes, as it were, to provide me whatever I need, on demand. But what’s wrinkling my brain today is, am I going to have to save the last
￼one until I’m standing at death’s door? Will I have to request a heavy dose of morphine, or a bolt gun? Is the instrument of my ultimate destruction sitting ten feet away from me, even now?
[[SFX: radio tuning]]
AP: (on phone) Sally, listen, I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, and... I don’t want to die alone. I know I’m stuck here and I know it’s for a reason and I know I deserve whatever’s coming to me, but... What, am I just supposed to sit on my hands and wait for death? I guess it’s just... Not in me not to rage against the dying of the light.
So between my shifts at the console I’ve been working on this design, and well... I’m no expert in quantum field theory, that’s you. But I think if we can figure out a way to negate the strong force the way you did with the Higgs field, it might destabilize the gluon barrier of the CAGE and... I might actually be able to get out of here!
What do you think? It’s worth a shot, right?
[[SFX: click; Sally redials the Blackroom]]
SG: Partridge... I don’t know. I mean, I feel for you, I really do. No one wants to die alone. But think about it: If I let you out, the entire Blackroom will appear on the deck of the Eldridge. That’s the very first thing that ever happened to me in the past, and I definitely don’t remember a ludicrous pile of boxes, tapes and documents falling out of the future with me. It was just me. So messing with that moment, and by extension potentially messing with every moment that’s come after it... That’s a big ask. I’m doing my best to live in the present these days. And that’s just a string I don’t know if I want to pull. It could unravel... Everything.
You don’t have to be alone on your final days. You can always call me. I’m here for you. But... I’m sorry. I just don’t think it’s a good idea. [sigh]
[[SFX: Sally hangs up; the phone rings; Sally answers]]
AP: (on phone) Really? You’re not even going to consider the possibility? Where’s the Sally Grissom I know? The one who laughed in the face of known physics and told the universe to shove it? You would have jumped at a chance to make something like this back when I was free. This is cold, Sally.
[[SFX: click; Sally redials]]
SG: She learned a few lessons the hard way, and now she takes care of herself first. I’m sorry Anthony, it’s just too dangerous to my mental health. And I’ve got to prioritize that now. I can’t do this. Don’t ask me to do this.
￼[[SFX: Sally hangs up; the phone rings and rings; radio tuning]]
SG: I mean, he’s right of course. The old me would have jumped at this. It feels a little wrong not to consider it, at least.
DR. FITZGERALD (DR.F): But you’re not the old you, Sally. You’ve come a long way. You’ve succumbed to reckless behavior in the past, and I’m sorry to pour salt on the wound but it doesn’t always work out for those closest to you. I’m proud of you, that you took a moment to consider the consequences of this line of discovery, before you got yourself so entrenched in thought that you ended up hurting someone. Especially if that someone is yourself.
SG: Okay, but what makes me more worth considering than Partridge? He’s trapped in the work-release program from hell, and... All he wants is not to die alone. And I’m robbing him of that.
DR.F: But is curing Anthony’s loneliness worth putting yourself at risk? Sally, you have value! You’re more than just your brain, you’re more than just what you can contribute to society. You have worth just by being. And I really wish you’d see that, and not beat yourself up so badly over an unnecessarily risky move.
SG: I know that...
DR.F: You say that, but do you believe it? I’m here to help you believe it.
SG: Y... Yeah. I know I’m more than just a genius scientist. I do.... What? I do!
[[SFX: radio tuning; Sally laying blueprints flat]]
SG: Okay, but like was I really just going to leave a stone unturned? Come on. I’d like to think my diary knows me better than that by now. My problem is that I don’t really have access to the materials anymore, but depending on what materials he has with him in the Blackroom, he might be able to make it work.
[[SFX: Esther opens the door; Sally scrambles to hide the blueprints]]
ER: Hey Sally, I was wondering if... what’s all that?
SG: Uh, nothing! Just working on a, um, an extension to the greenhouse! It’s getting a little, uh–
￼ER: You know you’re a horrendous liar, right?
SG: [sigh] So I’ve been told.
ER: [laughs] Sally, it’s okay! You’re allowed to have your secrets. Lord knows, I have mine. We’ll just steer clear of the mysterious blueprints, shall we?
ER: Yes, of course. Everyone’s got some right to privacy.
SG: Roberts... you’re in a top position at an intelligence agency. Your entire job revolves around invading other people’s privacy.
ER: Not my friends though.
SG: That seems a little nepotistic, but... okay I guess.
[[SFX: radio tuning]]
SG: (on phone) –so just have an agent pick it up in the next 40 years or so and you should be good to go. Let me know if you can make it work. Actually... I guess if it works it won’t really matter, because history’ll be pretty different. Good luck anyway.
[[SFX: click; Anthony typing]]
AP: I’ll send it to, oh, 1972, delta point-five-four from Blackroom center. That oughta do it. And then that should be...
[[SFX: Anthony stands, looks around the Blackroom for the file]]
AP: Aha! Okay, here it is.
[[SFX: Anthony unfurls blueprints]]
AP: Hmm, let’s see here... Okay... Hmm. So it’s a gluon emitter? It sort of bombards the barrier, like a diamond-tipped drill. I’m either gonna need to cannibalize some parts from the computer–not really an option if I don’t want ODAR poking their noses in–or... or I’ll have to burn another one of the Catboxes. I felt a little stupid having to use the first one. I wanted something a little more interactive to keep my brain agile, something more than movies and TV programs. They sent me this handheld computer, made by some Japanese company. Nintendo? It came with these little cartridges with games on them. I’m getting pretty good at Tee-tris.
￼But it made me feel pretty dumb. I mean, I get 16 boxes of whatever I want, and no more, for my whole life, and I splurge on a toy? So no more splurging. If I’m burning another box, I’ve got to be sure it’s what I want to do. And Sally’s right, me breaking out of here carries considerable risk. Not just to me, but to Sally, to anyone connected with ODAR... To Helen. Is it worth messing with her life further just to see the sun again, even if it’s just one last time?
... I don’t know. As it stands, I’m young, I’m fit. I think I can wait a while before I’d try to use this. But I think it’ll be nice to have the option available to me, in any case.
[[SFX: radio tuning]]
ER: Dr. Fitzgerald, thank you for making the time to see me.
DR.F: Of course.
[[SFX: door closes]]
ER: How’s your daughter?
DR.F: She’s improving.
ER: The gene therapy’s working?
DR.F: For now. They’re hesitant to call it a full cure–of course it’s all still relatively new to them–but her immunity is bouncing back.
ER: Good. That’s wonderful. I’m glad.
DR.F: Ms. Roberts, forgive me, but you made it sound rather urgent on the phone, and I’ve had to reschedule a patient–
ER: Of course, I’ll be quick. We need to know what Sally’s been working on.
DR.F: Uh… Much of what she tells me goes a bit over my head. Between the greenhouse, the telephone charger, the ridiculous Rube Goldberg–style breakfast machine... It’s gets hard to keep track.
ER: Is there any chance she mentioned anything about a black room at all?
￼DR.F: You mean the one where you’re keeping Anthony Partridge?
ER: ...Dammit Sally–Yes, that would be the one.
DR.F: I become increasingly uncomfortable in this position, Ms. Roberts. This is not the kind of thing I signed up for.
ER: I’m sorry, Doctor, did you forget who’s little Lindy’s benefactor?
DR.F: I think you sometimes forget that your employees are eople, not just pawns on a chessboard.
ER: I prefer a deck of cards to a chessboard. And Sally’s not an employee.
DR.F: Is there anything in particular you’re looking for? I have other patients to see, you only cancelled one of them.
ER: Sally’s building something, but she won’t tell me what. I only caught a glimpse of the blueprint–
DR.F: You know, I really don’t like pretending that she has no reason not to trust you.
ER: I’ll only ask one more time: What is she building?
DR.F: She’s working on something to break a glue wall? I think that’s what she said.
ER: A gluon wall?
DR.F: Sure, if that makes sense to you.
ER: And how’s it going?
DR.F: He hasn’t gotten back to her yet.
ER: Wait, Sally and Anthony are talking?
DR.F: You didn’t know? They’ve been in contact since before we started our sessions.
ER: ...Let me know when she hears from him again, will you?
[[SFX: Esther exits; radio tuning]]
￼AP: It’s not gonna work this way, Sally. The barrier is 100% inwardly reflective, so if I try to bombard the barrier from the inside all the energy will reflect inside the Blackroom. What we need is for someone to use the gluon drill from outside the Blackroom. But since it only exists for a single instant in 1943, I’d need you to travel all the way back to the Eldridge with the drill already running, and I’m not going to let another woman to give up her entire life just for my sake. I already made that mistake once. I’ll have to try something else. I’ll call you back.
[[SFX: Anthony types]]
AP: So I’m not gonna be able to breach the barrier from the inside. Maybe I can weaken it from the outside? The Eldridge keeps all the energy condensed here indefinitely, but... I don’t know, maybe another anchor point might weaken the boundary enough to cause a collapse? Let me see...
[[SFX: Anthony typing; radio tuning]]
DAVID MARIAN (DM): –I can put myself in a position to scrub President Truman’s staff of Communist influence once and for all, well in advance of his speech. I’ve got a list here of people we’ll definitely need to look into further.
[[SFX: David hands Chet a file
CHET WHICKMAN (CW): Agent Marian, thank you for bringing this to us. This is an exemplary brief. How far back do you want to go?
DM: No further than ‘45. Thought I’d start with Elizabeth Bentley and build from there. I’m gonna be there to meet her off the boat. I’d like to be the first friendly face she sees. Might be more willing to open up to me than to Hoover’s boys–
[[SFX: door opens]]
ER: Chet, we’ve gotta talk about Anthony.
CW: [sigh] Good work, David. Get the paperwork in order and we’ll fast-track it to the Blackroom for analysis. Dismissed.
DM: Yes sir. (to Esther) Ma’am.
ER: Agent Marian.
[[SFX: David exits]]
CW: So, he wants to break out of the Blackroom. Could he do it?
ER: I... You’re not mad?
￼CW: [sigh] Do you think he could do it?
ER: Well, I don’t know. We gave him those crates to do with as he pleases, and it’s not like he’d send a memo if he requested something from the future he didn’t want me knowing about. Technically,he’s one in charge of all the information we know, and unless you’ve noticed any actively diverted operations, we can’t call him out or expend resources to investigate. So unless or until we find a red flag in Anthony’s work we can’t do anything about it. And by the time he escapes–
CW: –History will already have changed so drastically as to render basically all of our contingency plans moot. And we can’t relay any new contingencies to accommodate because they’d all have to pass through him to get back to us.
ER: The one flaw in the Blackroom system: Anthony actually getting over his guilt.
CW: Or refocusing it. You know, I kinda thought that reservoir was a little deeper, but I can’t say as I’m surprised. Anthony’s ego is a bulwark.
ER: So... what should we do?
[[SFX: radio tuning]]
AP: Sally, I’m looking over the file from the Nikhil Sharma incident. How much confidence did you have in his theory? I’ve looked over the diagram of the Rainbow generator after he worked on it, but I guess I’m not quite sure how a second anchor point would have allowed you to travel forwards. As far as I can tell it might destabilize the tachyon flow enough to disperse the gluon barrier on my end, but I get the feeling there’s something I’m overlooking. Let me know.
[[SFX: Anthony types; alert beep]]
SG: (on phone) They closed off the area before I could really take a look at what he was doing, but I’ve done some calculations based on what I remember from the road trip and it seemed like a solid plan? I dunno. He had sixty-some years to figure it out, I just sorta trusted his process.
AP: That’s... not entirely convincing.
[[SFX: alert beep]]
AP: Another one?
￼[[SFX: radio tuning]]
ER: So… what should we do?
CW: What if we just... Gave him the information he wants?
[[SFX: radio tuning; alert beep]]
AP: Another one?
[[SFX: Anthony typing]]
ER: Anthony. Listen, I know you’re lonely. You’re afraid. But what you want to do... Anthony, it could destroy everything. Not just ODAR, but... the whole world.
After the Sharma incident was filed away, I had Griggs and Archer take a look into it. And they ran the numbers on tachyon traffic between two anchor points. The problem is that with more than one anchor point, particles are pulled in two directions, and so they end up splitting the difference. Anything that’s ever travelled in time crumbles to subatomic dust and gets scattered across spacetime. But because they never reform into any cohesive body, the mass becomes energy and radiation spreads across the entire interim distance between the departure point and the anchor points. And then it gets worse.
The radiation spreads. Across the whole country. The whole planet. It’s an Endgame scenario, Anthony. I’m including the report in the Endgame files, you can see for yourself.
We don't have any evidence that this wasn't Sharma’s plan from the start.
Sally doesn't want to hear it. She won’t listen to a thing you say against Nikhil Sharma. It's a sore point with her. But he really could have destroyed everything. And you could too.
I’m sorry, Anthony, but the world isn’t a price we can afford to pay for your freedom. It’s just not. I hope you understand.
[[SFX: Anthony searches for the Endgame files; finds the one he wants; flips pages]]
AP: ...How did Sally miss this?
[[SFX: Anthony flips more pages]]
AP: I can’t believe this didn’t occur to her!
￼[[SFX: Anthony slaps the file on the desk]]
AP: In fairness... Sally did only invent time travel accidentally. The obvious doesn’t always occur to her until it’s too late.
[[SFX: radio tuning; Esther hangs up the phone]]
ER: That should do it.
CW: I sure hope so.
[[SFX: radio tuning]]
SG: (on phone) What do you mean, drop it? You're the one that convinced me to look into it! Could you just–wow, I never understood “blue balls” until right now. Do me a favor: Don't get me started down a path unless you want to see it through.
AP: What do I say? What can I say to convince her that she’s not fit to pursue this? She’s right, I asked her to do this for me. But I'm so used to Sally firing on all cylinders... There are gaps in her logic. I guess I never saw it before. Maybe there were gaps in mine.
She’s been through a lot, she’s been away from ODAR for years now... But honestly? I don't know if she could take it. Intelligence is her identity. Lord knows, I know what that's like. And when I found out that I’d played into the hands of someone with a destructive agenda? I sabotaged my whole future. And I won't let Sally make my mistakes. Not if I can help it.
AP: I’m sorry, Sally, you were absolutely right. Listen, I'm gonna keep looking into it, and if I find anything interesting I’ll let you know, okay? Be well.
[[SFX: Anthony typing; radio tuning]]
SG: Diary of Sally Grissom, October 17, 1950. I'm done with Partridge for a little while. He’s a selfish manipulative ass, and he just presses my buttons to amuse himself. What, he doesn't have enough TV shows to binge in the Blackroom?
Ugh, whatever. It's fine. I've got pumpkins to look after, and Halloween’s right around the corner.
[[SFX: radio tuning]]
AP: They need to know!
AP: (as he types) “Alert: Nikhil Sharma is NOT the only rogue to attempt creation of a second anchor point. In the event such an attempt is successful The Blackroom predicts severe unavoidable global catastrophe. Be on extreme lookout: you only get one shot.”
[[SFX: tape recorder stops]]
ars PARADOXICA is created by Daniel Manning & Mischa Stanton.
Episode 18: Boundary features –
Kristen DiMercurio (Sally Grissom)
Reyn Beeler (Chet Whickman)
Katie Speed (Esther Roberts)
Robin Gabrielli (Anthony Partridge)
Richard Penner (Dr. Fitzgerald)
Alexander Cole (David Marian)
with special thanks to Isabel Atkinson
Original music by Mischa Stanton and by Eno Freedman-Brodmann.
ars PARADOXICA is brought to you by The Internet: Cmd–Shift–N. Trust me.
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