There was water everywhere.
They were gasping in it. Writhing in it. White clothing wrapping around their long torsos. Pale and dark. Plump and lean. Long hair plastered to their faces.
The people were in ecstasy.
One pale woman was in the center of it all, practically fainting, as a man’s strong, dark arms reached out, then pulled her down.
Down, down, down, under the water, bubbles rising as she submitted to its damp embrace.
It was a shallow pool in a large white room, limned with golden light, but to the woman and the people gathered there? It may as well have been the ocean off the shore of my own home, without the smell of brine.
They didn’t tell me I would miss the scent of home when they put me in the small capsule and pulsed me back in time. I entered the capsule in 2018 – the year in which I spent most of my time – and here I was, not even sure what year it was.
The tubes were supposed to have set me safely down in 1925, walking down a corridor of light, back into matter. But that was not this time. So clearly.
These people looked much closer to the late twentieth century.
Ecstatic hippies, high on some strange spiritual drug. The naked, transported joy on their faces knocked me, reeling, like a punch in the gut.
I don’t believe in God. Never have. Never will.
Except for one brief moment when I was five, and saw a flower opening its petals for the first time, I never even wanted to believe.
The woman’s head was lifted from the water. She was gasping. Crying. A red haired man stood next to her, face running with tears. He babbled nonsense words from some language that probably didn’t exist except for in his mind.
I even envied that. The ability to loose one’s moorings so thoroughly that words fled. Like the best orgasm I never had. The one I always imagined.
Science had sent me here to study people. To see what they saw. To gauge how far we had come, and extrapolate how long it might take to get where theory said we needed to be.
Science hadn’t ever told me about this longing.
Science had never told that it just might break my heart.
People helped the woman up, laughing, crying, holding her close. Releasing her so another person had a chance to touch her grace. To take in some of the sheen of the other world around her.
That was it. This woman was other worldly. Outside of ordinary space and time.
But not like me at all.
“Science is a virtue,” I said to the class in front of me. Fifty seven expectant young faces stared at me from their seats as I paced in front of the university classroom. “Science helps us to explore, and test, and measure. It helps us to quantify reality, to prove theories, and to discover things we didn’t know before.”
“But doesn’t science also ruin things?” a young white woman in the second row said, her pale face screwed up in question. Tracy, her name was.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean, look at nuclear warheads. And poisoned soil.”
“Yeah,” the young black man next to her chimed in. The two were friends –Tracy and Paul– both highly intelligent. Both troublemakers of the benign sort. “What about toxic waste dumps in poor neighborhoods? And subcritical atomic tests on Shoshone land?”
I paused in my pacing and looked at the two of them, so angry and earnest, only ten years or so younger than I was. They seemed so much younger to me.
“Sure. Science has a lot to answer for,” I said, holding their gazes for a moment. Then I addressed the whole room. “But think of how much worse off we’d be without it. We’d still be living in caves, unable to create fire. Some of you think technology is something bad. Something dangerous. Well so is living without technology, waiting for lighting to strike a tree stump so we can heat up a slab of rotting meat because not only do we not have fire, we don’t have refrigeration, either. Children dying at the first sign of winter. Women ripped apart in childbirth.”
My eyes swept the room. At least they were all paying attention now.
“Those people, our ancestors, all they had was instinct and maybe some animistic sense that the world was alive, a confusing, sentient place that was out to get them. They tried to make sense of it by saying the lightning was sent by a God.”
I shrugged then. “I’d rather have the knowledge that lightning is electrostatic discharge and that some of my smart ancestors figured out how to strike rocks together to make fire, and later on, invented indoor plumbing, gas stoves, refrigeration, the Pill, and the polio vaccine.”
I peered through the magnetic field that kept me hidden for now. It was like a two-way mirror, except the outside layer projected what was behind the operator, making it look as though nothing was there.
These people had all the benefits of science, it was clear. Their skin, whether shades of peach or chestnut, ochre or ash, was relatively smooth, their teeth relatively straight and white. Good bones. No terrible, wasting diseases. No legs twisted by polio. No rickets. No scurvy.
Yet they also clearly had something else. That sense that whatever lightning had hit them was indeed created by some God somewhere. I felt a strange tugging in my chest, and a tightening in my throat.
For the first time in my life, I was filled with longing for a thing I could not measure, and an experience I could not touch.
I shook myself. I wasn’t here to plumb my own emotional depths. I was here to test a new machine to see what information we could gather from the past. And to assess whether or not it might be a useful conduit to sometime in the future, though I had my doubts.
But the important thing was this machine, which clearly needed fine tuning. More testing.
These people and their quasi-religious experiences didn’t matter. The fact that I had ended up closer to 1968 rather than 1925 was what mattered. As time travel goes, that wasn’t a bad miss – we’d certainly had worse – but we needed more precision if our experiment was to be considered a success.
Damn. If I had to stop to talk with a student, it meant I wouldn’t have time to go back to my office before my meeting with the provost.
I stopped anyway. It was clear that I had heard the slight voice, which I recognized as Tracy’s.
Turning, I waited, watching as she jogged toward me, light brown hair cut in one of those supposed-to-look-messy bobs that actually looked quite nice on her. I couldn’t pull that look off, and kept my own dirty blond hair coiled up and strapped into a utilitarian bun.
She pulled up in front of me. “Can I talk to you while you walk wherever you’re going?”
She hoisted her backpack further up onto her shoulders and fell into step beside me, her sneakers silent on the walkway. My own boots made satisfying clomping sounds on the poured concrete slabs.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“I just wondered…”
“I got what you were saying today, about technology being an aggregate good. And I agree.”
We kept walking. I enjoyed the buzz of the cicadas high up in the plane trees overhead. They sounded like strange electrical impulses, buzzing and humming like old fashioned long fluorescent tube lights, ready to go on the fritz.
“But?” I finally asked. Tracy was clearly trying to work out how to say something. I found with students that less input in that process was better. It gave them the opportunity to come to the questions and answers on their own. Not exactly the Socratic method, but it worked for me.
Tracy stopped. I turned toward her, watching the dappled sunlight play across her face and inhaled the scent of green leaves and grass.
“But isn’t there more?”
There was more here, in this place, among these ecstatic, speaking-in-tongues people, with their upturned, rapturous faces, and earnest smiles. My heart slowed down, and my thoughts felt as though they were floating from my head.
I wasn’t exactly sure what I was feeling, but it felt a lot like descriptions of bliss. I tried to catalog it in my mind, to mark the physical and emotional changes for later study, but my mind wasn’t quite cooperating. Not all the way. I set one internal system running, hoping the catalog would return to me when I was back in my right mind.
What was the power source here? What was causing this disruption in my field and the fields of all these people?
They did not seem as if they were on drugs, but I couldn’t discount that possibility. Except, why in the world would I be affected? I had consumed nothing here but the air.
Looking around, I tried to find vents in the room that might be piping in drugged vapors. I didn’t see any. I also didn’t smell anything strange. Just the scent of damp bodies and a lingering odor of…apples? That was strange. There was no drug I knew that smelled like that.
Stifling a laugh, I kicked myself. Of course it smelled like apples. There was a table to the back of the room that I had missed in all my puzzling out of the people and my own rapidly altering state. On that table were pitchers of what looked like water, and slices of apple…and honey?
Uh oh. The tall man with dark skin and bright eyes was no longer in the pool. He approached me, practically floating on the white tiled floor. Like everyone else here, he wore a long, damp, white robe and held out his hands, what looked like a genuine smile on his face.
“Welcome to our family!” he said.
“How can you see me?” I blurted.
“Those who know the heart see so much,” he replied, the smile fading slightly. A shadow of sorrow and compassion crossed his face.
Tracy looked so earnest, just like the people rising from the baptismal pool. The Waters of Grace they had called them.
“Science is enough, Tracy. And the natural world that science measures. We are all in relationship with it. With mathematics. Physics. Biology. What is more wonderful than the sun moving through the trees right now? And the photosynthesis? And the exchange of carbon monoxide for oxygen? And the scent of grass and that patch of lavender over there? The cicadas, looking for their one chance at sex. And the bees, spreading pollen and making honey?”
“Well, when you put it that way…” she laughed. “I never would have taken you for a romantic, Professor Jansen.”
I smiled down at her. “Just because I’m a realist doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate beauty, Tracy. Science enhances that for me. Doesn’t it do that for you? I need to keep walking if I’m going to make my appointment.”
She shook her light brown hair and we fell into step again. “I don’t see it that way. Or experience it, either. For me, all the science does is flatten things out.”
“Oh, Tracy. No. Science doesn’t flatten anything. It gives things depth.”
My own strange, floating feeling left in an instance, and my rational mind returned at full force. I knew what his greeting meant. This was a cult of some sort. They always styled themselves as families. The water on the table may as well have been Kool Aid. And the honey could have easily been spiked.
I was suddenly aware that I wasn’t dressed for this place and time, and hoped that my 1925 gear wasn’t too out of place. Snaking the hat from my head, I offered a tentative smile in return. It wouldn’t do to seem too confident in this sort of situation. An actual spiritual seeker, I assumed, would be awed, or hurting, or both, not skeptical or in charge.
“Have you come to receive Grace?” he asked. I could hear the capital letter.
“I’m not sure why I’ve come,” I replied. Not one hundred percent true, but saying “My time machine was poorly calibrated” didn’t seem like the best riposte.
“Sometimes we are simply led to where we need to be. That is more common than you might think.”
His hand on my arm was warm. Gentle. I found myself liking him. Damn it. Something about him felt comforting. Safe.
“What sort of group is this?” I asked.
“We are those who seek out universal love.”
“What exactly is universal love?” I replied.
“Here we are.” I glanced at my watch, and took one step up on the poured concrete steps leading to the glass and steel science building. I had just enough time to drop some things in my office before rushing to meet the provost.
I could tell Tracy wanted to talk more. She wasn’t satisfied, but I was out of time.
“What if science doesn’t give things depth for me?” Tracy asked. “What if it makes things harder. Harsher? And what if…”
Throttling back a surge of impatience, I waited. I had been that young once, but I was softer now than I had been then. Because a thing I would never talk about had changed me.
“It is the state of being where every person feels acceptance of themselves and their role in the world. Would you like to try?”
Oh, no way was I moving past the magnetic field and entering that space outside. That space where his warm hands were. And the Waters of Grace. Everything in me recoiled at the thought. First of all, I was supposed to have no contact on this foray. Not until we had gathered enough information to make sure a scientist or sociologist could enter and return safely, without too much disruption to the local place and time. We didn’t adhere to “no interference” rules. That would be ridiculous. Everything was interference. But we tried to make sure any changes made were minute.
The smallest shift in the continuum could have large ripple effects. That was the point.
“Tracy, I’m not sure what sort of answers you’re looking for, but I can say that if you keep studying, you’ll figure some things out. It takes diligence. Practice.”
I looked up at the tree tops. A breeze moved through, shaking the green leaves. That sight never failed to move me.
“And you know what’s even more important than diligence and practice?” I asked.
“Curiosity. And a sense of wonder.” I looked down at her again. “Try saying ‘I don’t know’ sometimes. It helps.”
The young woman looked relieved.
The waters of the pool were warm. I could have floated inside that womb forever. I floated, despite the shallowness of the pool, buoyant. My mind slotted in the information that the water must be filled with salts. One point five pounds for each liter. I heard the people singing. I felt those that were in the water with me, and those around the edges of the pool.
We were all connected. Every particle, every molecule, swimming outward, flowing and floating together.
The Waters of Grace bathed me clean, taking away my frustration. The pain of my divorce. The colossal failure of my last project. The damage to the arctic ice shelf. The poisoned air and rivers. The constant sense of impending war.
Those warm, dark hands lifted me from the waters. I gasped at the beauty of it all. I wanted to kiss him, this man who had seen me when he ought not to have. This man who had, with gentle words, convinced me to step through the shimmering force field, and take off my shoes.
I had immersed myself.
And nothing would ever be the same.
“You mean I don’t have to understand all of this stuff?”
I threw back my head and laughed for real this time. Then I put a hand on her arm.
“Tracy? No one understands it all. That’s the beauty of science. There’s always something unknown to explore.”
I returned with precious knowledge. We re-calibrated the machine. I never returned to 1968, but the Waters of Grace remained, beating in my bloodstream. Occasionally, at night, alone in my apartment, in the year 2018, I found myself singing a wordless tune.
Science had changed me. I owed it everything.
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