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The Tablecloth Under The Universe.

16 August 200905:12PMfiction

The elevator pinged.

"Joe, buddy!", said Stan, a friend from my uni days. Considerably less memorable than my uni nights, but there you go.

"Hey Stan. I heard you had something you wanted to show me?"

"Yeah! Oh man, it's awesome! But you gotta sign this first." Stan was really the greater success of us two. Actually paying attention through all those lectures had paid off. He'd landed a job at some huge research firm first year out of uni, with a six-figure salary. I was stuck changing tyres and hopefully circling job adverts which might be wanting a Biology/Russian Literature double major.

He handed me a stack of paper, which I took to be an NDA of some kind. Non- disclosure worthy stuff... Stan had really hit the big time. He impatiently passed me the pen he'd been spinning in his left had.

"Come on! This is literally going to be the highlight of your week, guarantee it- pages three and four too. Awesome. Lets go." Typical Stan. He always did get way too excited by his work. We stepped into the elevator and Stan swiped a pass while pressing the bottom button.

"Going Down"

We stepped out of the lift, in a massive tacky glass-and-chrome lab which looked just like something out of a low-budget sci-fi film.

"So, Stan. What was it you wanted to show me?"

Stan turned around to me with a gleam in his eye. "Have you ever seen that trick where they pull the tablecloth out from under a fully laid table?"

I sighed. "You didn't bring me all the way here just to see a new trick?" Stan was always big on his tricks. Card tricks, Sleight-of-hand, Pen spinning, you name it. He always claimed it'd make him a big hit with the ladies. It didn't.

"Hold on a sec there, Joe." He ran around a corner and came back wheeling what appeared to be a laboratory trolley, but with the addition of several tablecloths and two large ornate salt shakers.

"Watch this"

He twisted his hands just so, and with a yank sent both salt shakers flying. Red-faced, he gathered them up, dumped them back on the trolley and tried again, with better results.

"Stan-"

"Wait! This was just a demonstration-"

"Of your failure, yeah"

"No... Joe, you haven't seen the big picture. It was just a metaphor for what we do here"

"And that is what, exactly?"

"Theoretical temporal matrix manipulation. Time travel, not to put too fine a point on it."

I shook my head and started for the elevator. "Wait!" He called. "Imagine that you were the salt shaker and the table was the universe and the tablecloth was time. No, no. A period of time. Say, a minute, although really we'd be using the Planck time, which is about- never mind. The point is, what happens if I pull that tablecloth out?"

"We all die?" I try.

"Well, maybe. We haven't turned it on yet, so we don't know. It's a distinct possibility, I guess."

"Whoa, hold on a sec there Stan. You're trying to tell me you've built a time machine?"

"Of course... why else would I get you in here? Anyway, if we pull out that tablecloth, there's another one underneath, and another one, and another one, and that's the normal passage of time. What we do-" He led me back towards his little demonstration table. "What we do is this". He pulled out a pocket knife and cut a little square out of the tablecloth around one of the salt shakers, and very carefully pulled the scrap of fabric out from under the salt shaker. He looked very pleased with himself.

"I don't get it"

"That salt shaker is no longer on this tablecloth. It's on the next one down. It's just fallen into the future. So, as you can see..."

I couldn't believe I was listening to this.

"...and if we can find some way to store these scraps of fabric, we can put them aside, maybe to get a bit of extra time when we need it, or even build a little stack and go backwards in time, although that leads to the interesting idea that in order to send something back we first have to send something forwards to get leftover time-"

"And you built this thing?" I interrupted.

"Yup. Wanna go try it out?"

"Are you sure it's safe", I commented sarcastically "Er. Not as such. Not for living tissue, that is. But there's a first time for everything, right? Let's go."

He took me into the next room, where there was a big glass chamber surrounded by instruments. In the middle of the chamber was a pedestal, with a small fist-sized plastic cube on it. Stan waved jauntily at the technicians and sauntered into the chamber. I followed him cautiously.

"Here we are." he said, as if expecting some huge reaction.

"Where is it?", I said. "I was expecting a DeLorean or something."

"The Time Sink? It's right here!", he said, and gestured at the cube.

Time sink? Was that the best name he could come up with? I had a time sink at home in my house, called the internet. I told him that and he laughed.

"Funny guy always, weren't you Joe? Come on, stick your hand on it. Let's go for a time trip. Hit us with four seconds!"

The cube glowed a bit. Nothing happened.

Then one of the technicians began to clap, within about 30 seconds the entire lab was around us roaring with applause. Stan swung the CCTV screen around and replayed it. There we were, looking like a pair of fools, holding this little glowing cube, and then we vanished, and then, exactly four seconds later, we reappeared.

"Very funny, Stan. Photoshop or something is it? Nice prank. Now can I go?"

"You don't beleive me?"

"No Stan. Not that it didn't look impressive, the lab and all the actors, and the footage and everything. But you can't just travel through time like that, that's Hollywood stuff. Now let me go."

Stan looked at me like I'd just kicked his terminally ill grandmother. "Joe, I swear-"

"Not now, Stan"

"I'll prove it. Hold on.", he said, running for a cupboard and grabbing two heavy packs. "Get back up next to that cube"

"Stan-"

He dragged me up there, threw the pack at me and put his on, pulling the bag over his shoulders. I did the same, rolling my eyes.

"Hit me with four thousand years."

"Stan, wait-"

The little cube glowed for a bit. Then it tumbled into the grey sand. The sun blasted over the horizon. The husks of skyscrapers loomed behind us. The grit of thousands of years of eroded concrete beat our eyes into submission. Somewhere to my right, there were the half-buried battered remains of what might've been a lab trolley covered in what was maybe remnants of a tablecloth.

"Stan? Stan... I think I believe you now"

He looked to me and smiled. "Cool. Because, being as how everyone we knew has been dead for four thousand years, we're all each other've got. And it'd be terrible to start of eternity on the wrong foot, wouldn't it?" He picked up his little cube and spun it on the end of his finger like a basketball, and with that he turned and started walking towards the horizon.

I grabbed the salt shaker from the ground near my feet, rolled my eyes, and followed.

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