Second installment of the word war story. As you may have gathered, this is set in my town of East of Nowhere, which is a little side project for when I have writer’s block elsewhere, not sure how big it’ll get yet. We’re getting into the pseudo-science part of the story now. I have tremendous respect for people who write hard sci-fi, but I’m not clever (or perhaps educated) enough for that yet. So soft it will have to be. Flirting with the border of Clarke’s Law. And because I write what I like, there’s at least as much focus on the characters as on the science. Enjoy!
Turning, I saw the little girl, Sylvia as she was called in town, staring gravely at me from behind a barricade of heavy books both open and closed. She recapped the pen she was holding, and slid down from her high stool at the bench. “It’s a new formulation, going after a little bit more natural of a rise, rather than all at once whoomph running away, and we’re not quite sure of the fractionation yet.”
“New formulation of what?” I had no idea what area of science Helen and Curnow worked in, but if Lou Bell was the sort to be trusted when she told you what she was hauling for them – which she wasn’t, except when tipsy, which was practically never – it probably wasn’t radioactive, and might not explode just from being looked at. It was then I noticed the floor for about a yard around the sink was lowered an inch or so, a square depression in the floor, edged with scarlet tape that contrasted nicely with the cream-colored linoleum. The drain cap in the center of the depression had a greyish slime clinging around it, and the whole area smelled vaguely familiar in a way I couldn’t quite place – not bad, just odd.
“Flooding liquid.” I wasn’t sure if Helen or Sylvia had said it. Didn’t matter.
“What the heck is a flooding liquid when it’s at home?”
Helen didn’t answer me directly, but turned to Sylvia, who stood to one side, tapping her foot. “Helen, there’ll be a man at the door in about ten minutes. Are we going to see him?”
“Thank you, Misty. We will. Be nice, don’t be Wednesday, and turn on the light in the hall, but bring him through the back way and the kitchen, we want to make a normal impression on this one.”
When Sylvia had gone, gliding silently away, not through the door we’d come in by, but out through one of the successions of rooms – I could see her through about four successive glass doors before she vanished around a corner – Helen glanced back at me. “Have you ever heard of thiotimoline?” It must have been obvious from my face that the answer was no: “That one really was a joke, never mind it. But the properties are similar. We used to know a friendly young chap in… Vilnius, I think he based himself toward the end… who handled flooding liquid for most of the world. Dean. Very gifted. Ran in the family, I believe, but he was probably the last; his son is still around, but ridiculously normal and not particularly good at anything beyond standard ordinary chemistry. I’m told he’s quite good at that, though, so we might consider him again when he gets married five years from now. But Dean traveled widely, which you just can’t do in this line of work, and it caught up with him. Drowned in a tar-pit outside of Baku, trying to get a sample. The tar-pits appear self-filling, of course, and he wanted to find out what it really was, in case it would help.”
She stepped down into the well around the sink, and stirred idly at the mixture in the beaker. “Pity. Anyway, when we lost Dean, Curnow sent for Misty – the mother was happy to let us have her, poor woman had no idea what to do with her. We do, of course; she’s better at twelve than Dean was at his very peak. There’s a couple in Hampstead who act as general suppliers nowadays, but with Misty here we don’t need to have anything to do with them anymore, unless we need a lot of a formulation in a hurry.”
“Sylvia is Curnow’s… granddaughter?” She couldn’t be his daughter; Curnow was old when I was a kid, and that was more than a couple of decades ago, and Sylvia certainly wasn’t much more than twelve.
“Misty, yes. Sylvia was just what the mother called her; she can go by her title here, when there aren’t strangers around.” My surprise must have shown on my face: “Oh, you’re from the town, you’ve always been from the town, so you’re family as far as we’re concerned. Now, be quiet a moment and watch.” Helen collected a clean beaker from a cupboard, and went back to the sink, mixing drops of liquid from the droppers, murmuring to herself. “About a tenth should do… don’t want to make a mess… The sink’s second-hand,” she told me, matter-of-factly. “We think the last owner probably had some sort of tank attached to the top of it, so the tank and sink combined would hold about six gallons more than the sink alone. Of course, the sink doesn’t know that.”
I was about to tell Helen how completely absurd that sounded, but she was busy counting drops of the milky green stuff – flooding liquid – and the smoking clear fluid. “What’s that?” I asked instead.
“Fractioning liquid.” I watched as she stirred the mixture with a glass rod: one drop of flooding liquid, nine drops of fractioning liquid. It didn’t look like much. Helen pressed a rubber stopper into the sink drain, and quickly tipped the tiny amount of liquid in the beaker into the sink, before stepping back out of the depression onto the level of the lab floor.
I stared at her in confusion, but she pointed back to the sink. “No, no, watch.” The scraped white ceramic had been perfectly dry apart from the few drops of flooding mixture, barely a moment before. When I looked back, it was slickly wet, and water was rising from nowhere, filling the basin. After a minute or so, the water level steadied a couple of inches below the rim of the sink.
“That is not science,” I said hotly.
“Sure it is. Well, yes, the best description I have of it at the moment is magic, and it’s not totally explicable, but that goes for a lot of the major theories of chemistry as well. Look at the anomeric effect, there’s a full-on feud about why that works. And it’s predictable enough that we haven’t flooded out the lab since about a week after Misty started on this batch. It’s a decent working example of Gehm’s corollary to Clarke’s third law.”
“Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced,” Sylvia butted in impatiently. “It’s not, Helen. It’s just Clarke’s, plain. Everybody who looks at this says magic, and you know it.” I hadn’t even heard her come back in. Sylvia was an eye-catching little figure around town, both empirically funny-looking, and dressed and acting like she’d come from a different century. She had long red hair – not auburn, bright flaming orange – that was always tied into two braids, wound around her head like a tiara, and secured with black velvet ribbon. But not the pale skin and freckles that are usual on gingers: Sylvia was browner than any kid growing up in the overcast climate of East of Nowhere had a right to be, with black eyes that always seemed to be looking straight through you.
She called adults ma’am and sir, even the Vaughan brothers, who everyone from old Vaughan’s own great-grandson Ben Carey upwards knew weren’t worth the sump oil dripping from the wrecked cars rusting in their yard. But that was just Sylvia, she was polite like that. Didn’t run around and cause havoc like the others her age – though that might have been because she was always wearing those old-fashioned print dresses, cheap calico with gathered skirts like ‘50s prom dresses, instead of jeans and t-shirts like a normal kid. Today it was a navy-blue dress with a rainbow of umbrellas printed on it, purple Keds, and a cobwebby grey sweater with a fine sparkle through it that looked like misty raindrops caught in the yarn.
“Where did you leave him?” Helen was asking.
“Lounge. With a cup of coffee and some of the green macarons. I told him I’d come find you.”
“Go get him. Tell him he can talk to me down here. Remind him we’re busy and all that.”
Sylvia nodded and vanished again, and Helen picked up where she left off. “This would be easier if you’d read the thiotimoline paper, but I’ll go slow, and you just stop me if you get confused. Know how you can read a book, and over a few months or years it all sort of drifts away from you? But someday you see something, or hear something, and maybe you don’t even know what, but it all comes roaring back and you remember again. The flooding liquid acts as that ‘something’, for pretty much everything tangible.
“You understand the concept of entropy, I suppose? There’s one specific conformation that is the lowest possible energy and highest possible disorder overall, and everything heads back there. It follows that there are other states. And since everything has ‘memory’ of what the lowest energy state looks like, it turns out it has ‘memory’ of what all the other states look like as well. Nobody was expecting that one to turn out, but it’s convenient. There are other preparations – Dean in Vilnius was compiling as many as he could find, not worrying too much about how well they worked – but flooding liquid is one of the more useful ones to us. The layman’s explanation is that it reminds an object of its fullest possible state, and compels it to return to that state. But because it’s a memory analog, it can only restore to the fullest previous state. A basin that has never had water in it –” she stooped, and drew a cardboard carton out of a cupboard. It was full of empty beakers, each in its own little Styrofoam division. Helen poured a few drops of neat flooding liquid into the beaker, and swirled it gently. The milky green fluid rolled around the beaker, but nothing else happened. “See? That is as full as it’s ever been.”
“You’re creating something out of nothing!” I objected. “Where else does the water come from?”
“Not at all. Guess again.”
“You’re… pulling it here through time?”
Note: ‘thiotimoline’ refers to Dr. Asimov’s excellent article ‘The Endochronic Properties of Resubliminated Thiotimoline‘, to which I am definitely not supposed to provide you with a link. The article starts on page 253, but the rest of the book is very much worth reading too.