Martina Slade wonders where the time has gone.
The eighteen-year-old pats the red and white polyester blend of her uniform, glad of her industrial strength antiperspirant, for the marquee’s shade offers little respite from the oppressive heat. Throughout the past week, the mercury has flirted with triple figures Farenheit, unheard of in this temperate town, even in July. The sun bears down from a sapphire sky, baking the earth, softening tarmac, making hotplates of car hoods. The store can’t freeze ice fast enough to meet demand. At Shireboro High, teachers have surrendered their sweltering classrooms, ending the school year early. The sea of faces stretching before Martina are sunburned and jubilant. And yet, a heaviness hangs in the air. Electricity piques the tongue. A storm is brewing.
Martina runs a hand through her wavy blond hair. She was too proud to tie it in a bun, but now wishes she had. Such lush, voluminous locks don’t deserve to be trashed. Her smooth thighs, buoyant C-cups and insistent butt all twitch with indignation. The bronzed skin of her mid-rift, exposed between her top and skirt, tingles with squeamish anticipation. Her white, knee-high boots squeak as she fidgets on the spot. Martina’s wide smile gleams beneath azure eyes and arresting cheekbones, though more strained than usual.
She thinks back to her coronation. How distant and inconsequential this moment then seemed – an irksome coda to the greatest honor any schoolgirl could receive. You don’t turn down head cheerleader – certainly not over a silly thing like this. It’s ages away, she told herself, and besides, they’ll vote for him to get it. But fall turned to winter, then spring to summer, until Martina was marking the days with dread. Every chant, every tumble, ever stunt in her repertoire, time stalked her from the sidelines.
And now, in these few remaining minutes, time is again being discourteous, neither expediting Martina through the tension nor granting her a reprieve by stopping altogether.
Relax, she reiterates to herself, they’ll vote for him to get it.
It is almost lex non scripta that the football captain will get it. The head cheerleader has only got it once during Martina’s school career, and the girl in question had stolen the boyfriends of half her squad. Martina has one or two enemies, but she’s not that unpopular.
And look at the competition. Martina glances sideways at Brad “the Ox” Fox, kitted out minus his helmet. Broad shouldered and lantern jawed, he ticks all the boxes on masculinity, though Martina thinks he’s overrated for handsomeness. His eyes sit too close together, his nose bent up by too many collisions, his brown hair already thinning from excess testosterone. When not charging the field he swaggers about the corridors, permanently smirking at his own perceived greatness. He’s used to having his way with the ladies, and refuses to give up hitting on Martina.
Brad turns his head and catches Martina’s gaze. He winks, sensing her unease and enjoying it. Martina wishes harder than ever that the impending announcement will wipe the smirk off that boorish face. How she’ll enjoy raising that king-size bucket above Mr Cocky’s head! She’ll make quite a show of it, with some choice taunts and theatrical flourishes.
Oh yes, she resolves, I’ll take my time over it.
“Four twenty-nine!” rasps Principal Friedmann over the decrepit PA system. “One minute left; get that cash in!” Refusing to yield his suit jacket to the heat, the principal stalks the stage with his bald head glistening and gray mustache dripping. A man usually so listless and insipid that spiders can spin cobwebs on him during his assembly speeches, Friedmann acquires a rare vigor whenever the slime vote rolls around. His piggy eyes glint with a meanness unbecoming of a charity event, relishing revenge on youth that has long deserted him.
There comes a last-minute surge to the pair of boxes in front of the stage. Amid the throng, Martina spots her best friend Helen Wells, a bundle of bills in hand. She’s heartened and surprised, knowing Helen doesn’t much care for bawdy events like this. Indeed, these past few weeks, she’s barely seen Helen, who has holed herself away to work on some summer science project. Martina smiles down warmly, but Helen doesn’t look up at her, appearing preoccupied as she makes her donation. From her angle, Martina can’t see into which box Helen places her cash, but doesn’t doubt the deposit is in her favor.
“Four thirty! Time’s up!” announces Friedmann. “Ladies and Gentleman, gather round and ready your cameras for the 2016 Shireboro sliming! It’s Bradley Fox versus Martina Slade – two very deserving targets, but who will get the slime?” Friedmann surveys the pair. “I can tell you one thing: Martina sure doesn’t want it! When I saw her earlier, she tried to trick me into thinking the slime vote had already happened, in the hope I wouldn’t turn up!”
“Liar!” Martina seethes under her breath. She did no such thing.
“As if I’d not remember such a grand occasion,” Friedmann chortles. “Sorry Miss Slade, but there’s no escaping the judgment of your peers. Now, let’s count that cash!”
Two teachers empty the boxes onto tables, first stacking the bills, then attacking the heaps of quarters, dimes and nickels, until every last cent is accounted for. Martina bites her lip.
“Mrs Thorne,” asks Friedmann. “How much sayeth young Bradley gets slimed?”
“Six hundred and sixteen dollars and sixty-two cents,” reveals Mrs Thorne. The spectators cheer, and Martina watches Brad’s smirk curl up slightly. It’s a big sum – bigger than the winning amount from last year – and he knows it. But Martina isn’t celebrating yet. She feels fit to pass out from the suspense.
“And Mr Mallett,” enquires Friedmann. “How much sayeth the lovely Martina gets the slime?”
Mr Mallett clears his throat. “Six hundred and seventy…”
The roar of the crowd drowns out the teacher’s declaration, but the cents are irrelevant. Martina hopes she’s misheard – please let it be five hundred and seventy – but no, the reaction around the marquee confirms her fate. Brad whoops and cheers, going to the edge of the stage to high-five his football buddies. He can barely believe his luck. Martina groans aloud as her stomach turns to lead. How has this happened?
“Martina, Martina, it’s time to get greener!” The principal has clearly waited all day to get that quip out. “Please take your seat, young lady!”
The “seat” is a tiny kiddie stool in the middle of a paddling pool. Blood flushes into Martina’s cheeks as she steps over to it. She wants to protest, to stamp her foot, to say this isn’t on, but she knows it’ll be harder to live the sliming down if she doesn’t play the “good sport”. Her knees bunch awkwardly in front of her as she sits down. Her cheerleader’s skirt, skimpy to begin with, offers no protection in this posture. Press as she might her legs together, she’s sure the whole school can see her panties. Friedmann, that wicked mastermind, has overlooked no aspect in making the sliming as humiliating as possible.
“Don’t pout like that Martina; it’s for charity!” says Friedmann. “Bradley, I know you’ll take no pleasure in pouring slime all over this pretty cheerleader, but if you would please do the honors.”
Brad needs no invitation; already he clutches the king-size Gatorade bucket in his trunk-like arms. He parades up and down the stage in a tribal stomp, working up the crowd into a chant of “SLIME!! SLIME!! SLIME!!” Then he stands in front of Martina, and taking a mock bow, presents the slime for her perusal. It’s very thick and very, very green. The smell of applesauce and oatmeal wafts out, matured by the summer heat. Martina’s skin crawls all over. She’s ready to burst with resentment. Then Brad stands behind her and she senses the enormity of the bucket above her head. She hunches her shoulders.
The shouts of “SLIME!! SLIME!! SLIME!!” give way to a frenzied cacophony, and Martina knows the pour has begun. At first she feels nothing, then a heaviness heralds the ruination of her hair. She gasps as the stickiness crawls down her back. Globs of green drip down onto her uniform. She bends her head to shield herself, but Brad strolls forward, coating her thighs with the nasty goop. He swings the bucket with quarterback precision, sending a wave into Martina’s skirt. She shrieks as the slime splashes her panties, squirms as it wraps itself around her buttocks. It’s a very public violation, Martina’s every spasm and squeal captured on dozens of camera-phones for analysis on social media.
“You bastard!” she snarls.
Her cursing only fuels Brad’s grin. He makes sure plenty of goo goes into her boots, then sweeps back the bucket to give her head and torso a second helping. Martina’s hair is now lank, flattened and saturated. The goo flows over her shoulders, past her collarbone and into her top, where it pools wet and clammy around her breasts. Her arms and back fare no better. Martina wriggles in disgust, the pungent smell overpowering her.
Thinking it’s over, she flicks back her hair, her expression as sour as the applesauce. Brad is waiting and sloshes the dregs into her face, completing her green coating. “Finally I got to give you a facial,” he sniggers, while Martina splutters, tasting the gunk on her lips. She wipes her face, burning with humiliation and frustration.
“Oh my word, what a sliming!” Friedmann’s flabby neck wobbles as he guffaws. “Martina, green really suits you! You should do your next performance wearing it!”
Martina struggles to her feet, only narrowly avoiding the indignity of slipping over on the base of the paddling pool. A glut of slime slides off her lap and down her legs. Her sodden hair threatens to whip round into her face. Her trashed top and skirt slap against her skin as she makes the walk of shame off the stage.
“Oh dear, I don’t think she’s too happy!” chuckles Friedmann. “You’ve been a good sport, Martina; give her a round of applause, everyone!”
Martina raises a hand and forces a wan smile under the layers of green, but it evaporates as soon as she’s out of the marquee. Squelch, squelch, squelch – the slime squishes between her toes as she trudges across the field towards the gym block.
Inside the locker room, Martina flings her slimy costume into a corner, not caring about the mess it makes, followed by her saturated underwear. She’s brought a change of clothes, but curses when she realizes she’s forgotten her toiletries. A grimy bar of soap, half-dissolved in a puddle on the shower floor, is the only weapon she has to scrub herself.
To her relief, the slime doesn’t prove that hard to wash off, at least in terms of its visual presence, though the applesauce smell continues to cloak her, and her hair feels matted and greasy as she pats it with a towel. Opting to clean herself more thoroughly at home, Martina pulls on gray sweatpants and sweatshirt bearing the Shireboro logo and a pair of sneakers.
It’s five o’clock when she emerges into the balmy air. Clouds have rolled in and thunder rumbles in the distance; the promised storm has arrived. Shouts of “SLIME!! SLIME!! SLIME!!” float across the field from the marquee. They must have decided to stick with tradition and give Brad the slime after all. Martina hopes the oaf is finding it thoroughly humiliating, but has no appetite to wander over. She’s had her fill of slime for the foreseeable future.
There’ll be big celebrations tonight to mark School’s Out. Noel, one of the footballers, is hosting a house party, with unbridled access to his folks’ liquor cabinet. Martina’s attendance would normally be a non-brainer, but she’s in no mood for the gibes and sniggers and what-did-it-feel-likes that will surely plague her, so instead an evening of comfort cocoa beckons. As the first spots of rain fall, Martina stops at an ATM. Her day turns worse still when she discovers her balance is short. She phones the bank.
“$80 was withdrawn at 16:22 from the Shireboro ATM,” the operator vapidly informs her. “Your card and PIN were used.”
“It wasn’t me!” insists Martina. “Someone must have cloned my card!”
“Ok, we’ll freeze your account and launch an investigation,” says the woman apathetically. “Have a nice day.”
Cursing, Martina trudges on through the campus. The rain strengthens by the second and lightning splits the horizon. In the science block, a solitary light burns on the upper floor. Helen must be there, toiling on that mysterious project of hers. Martina decides to coax Helen away from the lab for a girly night in.
“Martina! Martina!” calls a voice from behind. With the rain turning torrential, Martina pretends not to hear and keeps jogging towards the science block door. It’s probably someone wanting to ask about the sliming.
“MARTINA!!” The voice is female, and strangely familiar, though Martina can’t place it. With her hand on the door handle, she looks over her shoulder. Across the darkening field, two figures roll about in the mud, continuing to shout. I haven’t got time for this, thinks Martina, not minded to get wet and muddy with the pair. She lets the door close behind her.
A whiff of smoke greets Martina as she climbs the stairs. Frowning, she cautiously pushes open the lab door. Helen’s project has certainly progressed since her last visit. Wires and tubes criss-cross the room in a veritable spiders web. Against one wall, a row of pumps gurgle and hum. Along another, a bank of computer screens spew out data. On a third, a blackboard teems with Greek letters and unworldly diagrams, the original white chalking overlaid by sideways scribbles in blue. But dominating the room is a disc-shaped platform at its centre. Eight transparent pillars ascend from the disc’s rim to the ceiling, each pulsing with fluid and shimmering with a violet glow. In the centre of the disc kneels Helen Wells, sorting through a bundle of wires. She fails to notice, or at least acknowledge, Martina gingerly stepping through the web towards her.
“One of these days you’re gonna burn the school down.”
Helen looks up. “Oh hey Martina. How did the slime vote go?”
“There’s no need to rub it in,” Martina huffs.
“I’m only asking,” says Helen defensively. “But from your grouchy mood and that speck of green behind your ear, I deduce that you got slimed.”
Martina scowls and rubs behind her ear.
Martina crossly rubs her other ear. “You know perfectly well I got slimed; you were there.”
“No, I didn’t go,” says Helen. “These slime votes aren’t my thing, sorry.”
“But I saw you! You even put some cash in the box.” Martina’s eyes narrow. “You better not have voted to slime me. You did, didn’t you!?”
Helen gets to her feet. Even with a boost from the platform, she comes up short against the leggy cheerleader. A black t-shirt, two sizes too big and emblazoned with an esoteric joke in binary code, hangs over what is actually a very tight little figure. Grungy jeans and battered sneakers do a similar disservice to her lower half. Owlish spectacles throw off-kilter her cute, small-featured face, which is framed by a shoulder-length mop of frizzy brown hair. Helen could surely shine – perhaps even stun – if she gave some care and attention to her appearance, but Helen directs her care and attention elsewhere, and Martina has given up dragging her to the mall or salon.
It’s an improbable best friendship – the head cheerleader and the prize geek – but the pair have stuck together since kindergarten, and Martina doesn’t let lunch-line sneers dictate her social circle.
“Martina, I wasn’t there,” maintains Helen, fixing her accuser with chestnut eyes. “I’ve been here since quarter past four.”
Martina lets it go, knowing Helen has too much respect for logic to lie. She’s so absent-minded she probably wandered over to the marquee without realizing. “You’re overworking yourself with this science stuff,” Martina smiles. “The cure is a night of pizza and cheesy flicks at my place. Hey, why not sleep over?”
“No can do,” says Helen. “Something happened to my equipment while I was away. I think someone’s been in here and tampered with it. I need to find out what they’ve done.”
“Made toast by the smell of it,” remarks Martina. She wraps a hand around one of the shimmering pillars. “Brad Fox! They voted to slime me over Brad Fox!” She tightens her grip in anger. “Can you believe that?”
“Don’t do that!” cries Helen. “If you misalign the lasers I’ll have to recalibrate everything!”
“Sorry.” Martina sheepishly withdraws her hand. “Uh, Helen… what is this project about?”
Helen avoids eye contact. “I’m attempting to create an asynchronous Einstein-Rosen bridge.”
“English is a very underrated language,” smirks Martina.
Helen looks at Martina guardedly. “Do you promise not to laugh?”
“Cross my heart.”
Helen swallows. “I’m building a time machine.”
Martina’s lips explode in a snort. She can’t help herself. “A t-time machine!?”
“You promised!” glares Helen.
“I expected something vaguely sensible!” chortles Martina. “I may be a cheerleader, but I’m not that gullible! A time machine!”
Helen scowls and turns away. She goes over to the bank of computer screens and pretends to absorb herself in the reams of figures.
Martina shrugs to herself. If Helen is serious, then she’s definitely suffering from overwork. “Do the school know you’re building a, erm, time machine?”
“Nope,” mutters Helen, keeping her back to Martina. “They’d laugh too.”
“Well, if you figure it out, I’d like to skip the next couple of months,” Martina says wryly. “Enough time for folk to stop talking about my sliming.”
“Oh, time travel into the future is trivial,” remarks Helen. “All you need is a fast enough spaceship.”
“That all? It was hard enough getting my folks to buy me a second-hand Kia.”
Helen turns round and walks back towards Martina, her glasses twinkling in the dancing violet light. “You know, you gain a few billionths of a second every time you take a flight – time dilation, it’s called. We know how to speed up and slow down time, in principle at least, but making it go backwards – now that’s a more difficult matter. It’s almost as if the laws of nature conspire to prevent travel into the past. Stephen Hawking calls it the chronology protection conjecture.” Helen smiles. “But I think rules exist to be broken.”
Though still not believing, Martina is struck by her friend’s earnestness. “And you’ve found a way to do it?”
“I’ve found a solution to the equations that suggests it’s possible,” says Helen carefully, gesturing to the blackboard as if that will instantly clarify everything for Martina. “By using intense laser pulses, I hope to concentrate enough vacuum energy to create an Einstein-Rosen bridge, or a wormhole, as it’s called.”
“Helen, you have to remember I got a D in physics,” says Martina.
“Simply put, I hope to curve space and time enough that time bends back on itself,” Helen explains.
Martina frowns. “How can you curve space? There’s nothing there; it’s just… space. And bending time – that makes even less sense.”
Helen picks up a sheet of paper and balances it on her clawed hand. “Here’s a two-dimensional space.” She brings her fingers together, bending the paper. “And now it’s curved. The same thing can happen with four-dimensional spacetime.”
Helen continues to bend the paper until it touches against itself between thumb and fingers. “And now two parts of the page – initially separated – have been brought together, connected by a shortcut. This is our wormhole – a kind of tunnel leading from a later time back to an earlier time.”
Martina shakes her head. “But this is surely science fiction!”
“It’s science theory,” insists Helen, gesturing once again the blackboard. “The equations allow for it; whether it can be achieved in practice remains to be seen.”
“So how far will you be able to go back?”
Helen looks a little sheepish. “With this machine I hope to send a few subatomic particles back a few seconds. It may not be the stuff of action thrillers, but it’ll be a huge breakthrough nonetheless.”
A flash of lightning floods the room, throwing Helen’s features into stark relief. Less than a second later, thunder hammers the building, rattling the window in its frame.
“That was close! Better disconnect the equipment.” Helen kneels on the platform. “Damn! I can’t unplug the master cable. Whatever happened earlier has melted it in the socket!” She tugs without avail. “You’ll have to help me.”
Martina stands by hesitantly, unsure where to put her feet in the jumble of wires.
Martina steps inside the ring of glowing pillars. She bends down to aid her friend…
Brilliant, burning white fills Martina’s vision. Heat rushes past and the air explodes around her skull. She tumbles through the dazzling sea of white, landing on Helen.
The white flash subsides, but a violet glare replaces it. The pillars are ablaze with light, painful to look at directly. Sparks flash up them. Helen’s face mirrors Martina’s own terror, and the pair clutch at each other. Bathed in the eerie light, the lab ripples and warps. Equations drip down the blackboard. The platform begins to sink, the floor bowing until the girls are in the neck of a great trumpet. A shrill whistling splits the air.
“THE BUILDING’S COLLAPSING!!” yells Martina. Amid the ghostly glow, she watches her childhood dog go under the wheels of a truck. She’s back in second grade, crying as a teacher sends her to the principal’s office. Whizzing down a dirt track, she applies the wrong brake and pitches over the handlebars. She’s behind the gym block, putting her hand down a boy’s pants for the first time. She regrets storming out the house this morning after a petty row with her mother. She rues that in her classmates’ parting memories, she will be covered in slime forever.
Martina closes her eyes and waits.
Everything goes quiet. Through Martina’s eyelids, the violet fades to black. Around her there’s a fizzling sound and a fresh smell of smoke. It seems the pastor was right about Hell. But then the pumps on the wall splutter with indignation and resume their soothing whirring. It’s Helen’s nails digging into her arm that convince Martina she’s still alive. She inches open her eyes.
“A direct strike!” gasps Helen, her glasses crooked and her hair slightly frizzier than usual, but otherwise unscathed.
Shakily, Martina gets up. The lab is intact, the floor returned to its normal shape. She goes over to an aluminum plate to check her reflection. “My poor hair,” she whines. “First the slime, now this!”
“My project!” echoes Helen. “I need to check the circuitry! I need to make sure the cryogenic fluid hasn’t leaked! I need…”
“I need some fresh air.” Martina staggers to the door.
“I’ll join you.”
The two girls emerge from the building into searing sunshine. Carefree students amble about campus. It’s as if the tempest never struck.
“Wow. The storm sure passed over quick,” remarks Martina.
“Yes.” Helen looks around uneasily. “It’s very bright.”
Martina sighs. “And here comes the person I least want to see.”
Principal Friedmann strolls up, the slime-inspired spring in his step. “Afternoon, Miss Wells, Miss Slade!” He halts at the sight of the latter’s sweats. “Hey Martina, you need to get your cheerleader gear on.”
Martina snorts. Does the asshat really expect her to spend the rest of the day in her slimy uniform? “That’s not going to happen,” she says curtly. “Sir.”
“Oh yes it is!” insists Friedmann. “It’s a Shireboro tradition, the summer slime vote. And you agreed to it when you accepted the role of head cheerleader. Now, I expect to see you at the marquee in your cheerleader outfit. Understand?”
Martina’s patience is close to breaking point. “I’ve done everything that was expected of me,” she hisses. “I turned up, I took the slime, now kindly leave me alone.”
The wrinkles deepen in Friedmann’s glistening brow; he’s more confused than offended. Then his frown turns to a smirk. “Oh, I get it! Nice try, Martina, but you can’t trick your way out of this! See you at four thirty!” He continues his spirited stroll, chuckling to himself.
“What a freak!” Martina screws her finger at her temple. “Slime gone to his head, I reckon.” She turns to Helen, but her friend isn’t paying attention.
“The sun,” murmurs Helen, swallowing heavily. “It’s too high in the sky.” She calls after Friedmann. “Sir, what time is it?”
The principal looks over his shoulder. “Four oh five,” he replies. His eyes catch Martina’s. “Twenty-five minutes to slime time!”
“I don’t believe it,” gulps Helen. “We’ve actually done it. We’ve traversed an Einstein-Rosen bridge!”
“We’ve gone through a wormhole.”
“Did you not listen to anything I said?!” snaps Helen. “WE’VE TRAVELED BACK IN TIME, GODDAMMIT!!”
Martina looks at Helen like she’s gone mad. “Nah, can’t have! Friedmann’s watch is wrong, that’s all. You’ll see.”
The pair trawl the campus, asking anyone they meet for the time. All concur with the principal’s timekeeping. It’s when they consult the school clock-tower that Martina’s head really starts to spin.
“I th-thought your machine could only transport s-small particles,” she stutters.
“So did I,” says Helen. “The lightning must have given it a turbo boost.”
Martina stops and thinks. “So the sliming hasn’t happened yet?”
“I guess not.”
A satisfied smile spreads across Martina’s face. “Well I’m not staying around here! I’m in my car and outta here! My deputy can take the sliming on my behalf; I don’t care if they call me a bad sport.”
“What are you talking about?” asks Helen.
“I can walk away and avoid getting slimed!” grins Martina.
“No no, it doesn’t work like that,” says Helen. “You see, at this moment there are two yous in existence. There’s the ‘old’ you, who’s going to get slimed, and then there’s the you who’s… well, you. There are two of me too; the ‘old’ me will arrive at the lab round about now and find the smoldering equipment.”
“There are two of me!?” Martina is aghast. “Have you any idea how much this’ll cost in makeup?”
Helen chuckles. “It’ll only be for the next eighty minutes or so. Then the ‘old’ you will disappear into the wormhole.”
Martina ponders a minute longer. “But all the same, the sliming hasn’t happened yet, so it’s possible to save the other me from getting slimed, right?”
Helen shakes her head. “You can’t change the course of history like that.”
“Ah, but it’s not history, is it?” Martina wags a finger, feeling smart. “It’s the future!”
“True, but…” For the first time, Helen is unsure of herself. “But the Novikov self-consistency principle! Einstein’s equations!”
“Listen pal, Einstein didn’t have to suffer a humiliating sliming in front of his peers! Folks will snigger about this til kingdom come if I don’t stop it happening. My dignity is on the line, and I’m gonna save it!” Martina marches off, making a beeline for the ATM. Helen reluctantly scuttles after her.
“It’s simple,” asserts Martina. “All we need to do is put in enough money to tip the balance in my favor and against that asshole Brad.” She inserts her card. “Now, there was about sixty bucks in it if I remember right. Let’s put in eighty to be safe.”
“Wow, you really do want to avoid this sliming,” says Helen, as she watches the bills slide into her friend’s palm. “But seriously, Martina, I’d be careful about unintended conseq…”
“What can possibly go wrong?” Martina pockets the cash. “Come on, we’ve gotta get to the marquee before four thirty. There’s no time to lose!”