Posted 11th May 2018
Nicole hears Edith Piaf. The song seems to be coming from her mass spectrometer. After poking at the output port, she concludes that it is not her homemade scientific equipment, but the radio she cobbled together out of boredom and leftover parts while she was waiting for the vacuum pump to come in the mail. She misses having a lab. She misses state of the art equipment and she misses the resources of CERN, even if she doesn’t miss all her stuffy colleagues pointing out how ridiculous her theories were. She’s possibly not the best electrical engineer, though, or there’s something wrong with the power in her sister’s apartment, because both the radio and her mass spectrometer keep randomly turning on. At least only one of them is playing a French love song.
She’s been in her sister’s place since she came back from Switzerland. She really needs to get a place of her own, not that Lauren hasn’t been nice about everything. Nice and quietly judgmental, and Nicole can’t really blame her.
Physicists didn’t get fired from the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator project. Well, except for Walter, who had been stealing quadrupole magnets. And Stephan, who had a propensity for inappropriate pyrotechnics. And, well, herself. But it wasn’t as though they didn’t know what her specialty was when they hired her. It was only a matter of time until they needed to consider how traffic physics would affect the Large Hadron Collider.
Traffic physics is a relatively new field of research, even though the forces have been around since someone invented the wheel, and everyone knows that other lane is always going faster than you in a traffic jam. You couldn’t smash particles together like sedans in a highway accident and not expect to have the repercussions effect everything moving in that same direction, no matter how large or small. It would necessarily cause some sort of massive destruction, which was all she was trying to prove at CERN.
The property damage from The Incident was presumably a factor in her termination, and she can see now that it wasn’t her best moment to try to use the rubble as proof of concept. The Incident was, embarrassingly, picked up by the news. A fluff piece about a bird breaking the machine that people feared was going to break the world. At least they’d kept her name out of it, though it wasn’t as though she was going to be able to get another job anytime soon. Not without some research to bolster her entirely scientifically-sound theories. Unless creating the Higgs boson particle did open up a black hole, that would count. Except then the world would get sucked into the black hole and it wouldn’t matter what was on her resume.
No, proof was what she needed and proof was what she was going to get. So she shoved everything she owned into the closet of Lauren’s guest room, tucked the futon into the far corner, and built what she needed. She hasn’t actually explained the resulting mass spectrometer to Lauren, who probably suspects Nicole of stealing a bunch of lab equipment from CERN in retaliation for being fired. Nicole usually gets as far as saying “traffic physics” before Lauren gets that glazed expression that historically meant she was dreaming about decorating or elaborate catered dinners.
Her brother-in-law’s borrowed amp, hooked up to the magnet current control, hums to life, red bass and treble needles flicking wildly. Today’s traffic forecast was perfect for data collection; Friday rush hour before the weekend.The light drizzle should slow down people who are afraid of hydroplaning, or can’t remember where their wipers are, or are experiencing the Rule of Hydro-Traffic Convergence which governs why people hit their brakes when they see water start to fall from the sky. The convergence of the Speed at Which People Travel Toward a Vacation Destination should give her ample variables. She’s one step closer to getting hard data that proves her theories right: that traffic physics really does affect everything from particle velocity to lane merging, and more importantly, that if no one listens to her, the Large Hadron Collider is going to destroy the world.
The music, though, is driving her crazy. She wiggles a few knobs, and then freezes when a pigeon, which is confusingly inside the house, lands on her head. She swats it away in a panic and it flutters frantically around, panicking, too. For a brief moment, Nicole thinks that maybe the pigeon is a pet that Lauren had failed to mention, but her sister’s never been an animal person, and it made much more sense that it was somehow Nicole’s fault.
The mass spectrometer starts to smoke and she abandons swatting at the pigeon for unplugging whatever cord is closest to her, but not before the smoke alarm goes off. She grabs the nearest piece of clothing and waves a flannel shirt under the smoke alarm. The movement frightens the pigeon, who can’t seem to decide which to flee from first, shrieking noise or Nicole’s smoke-dispersing semaphore.
Everything is quiet for a moment; no fluttering wings, no torch songs, no sparking electronics, no smoke alarm. It’s so quiet that she can hear every excruciating sound of the bathroom pipes cracking.
Her sister is going to kill her.
Nicole gets her legs soaked using a wrench to turn the water off and starts to give up hope that Lauren might not notice the damage. Maybe at least she can take care of the pigeon before it poops on something expensive. She tries to entice the pigeon out a window, first with bread and then, based on some half-memory of what food attracts wild animals, she makes it a peanut butter sandwich. The pigeon just looks at her with eerie black beady eyes and a cocked head that means it is judging her.
This can’t be her fault. Not anymore than The Incident at CERN. And yet here Nicole is, hardly an hour into her first experiment, and she was back on the theme of debris.
And now she was just glad the water hadn’t seeped through the floor to the downstairs apartment.
She debated whether she was better off texting Brian about the pigeon instead of Lauren. Though she still hadn’t actually told him she’d borrowed his amp. It wasn’t like he was going to pick up that dusty electric guitar anytime soon.
On the kitchen table next to her phone is a card for Mr. Handyman: The Fix It All Solution. It makes Nicole wonder whether her sister is psychic or just more in touch with the reality of Nicole’s bad luck than Nicole is herself. She dials the number. The pigeon coos at her and then perches on the back of a chair.
“Mass spectrometers don’t cause structural damage,” she chants to herself, the same undeniable fact she’d presented to the review board after The Incident. “They are a measurement tool only. Mass spectrometers – Oh, hi,” Nicole says, when the receptionist picks up. “No, I don’t need a mason. I was saying that mass spectrometers don’t cause structural – Yes, sorry, I need a plumber.”
Exactly an hour and a half later, her sister’s cheery door buzzer chimes and Nicole shuts the spare room with the kick to the bottom corner of the door– it’s the only way it will latch. When Lauren showed her, Nicole was ecstatic that something in Lauren’s perfect life needed a kick to work properly. Now, though, it just makes her toes hurt. She briefly entertains locking the pigeon in her room, but the damage it could do to her equipment is either worse or equal to the damage to Lauren’s sophisticated classic style. At least a pigeon on a chenille throw is easier to explain to a plumber than a pigeon on a mass spectrometer.
The door buzzer chimes again and Nicole hobbles to the door and swings it open.
“Hi,” she says. The pigeon circles the chrome chandelier, making her regret her decision not to lock the bird away. “I’m Nicole.”
Mr. Handyman is a beautiful woman, with a red hair in a braid under a well-worn baseball cap. She’s holding a shiny red toolbox and is trying very hard not to look at the pigeon.
“I know,” Mr. Handyman says, because of course she knows who Nicole is. She’s not randomly wandering the neighborhood offering plumbing services.
“And you’re Mr. Handyman.”
“Dianne,” she says. “Mr. Handyman’s the name of the company.”
“I thought it was your title. I’m trying to be respectful and show you how I understand how challenging and fulfilling home repair is as a profession.” Nicole’s making the name thing weirder, but explaining herself is supposed to help. Or that’s what her sister says when Nicole’s being especially awkward. That and “Jesus, Nikki, what is wrong with you?”
“What’s wrong?” Mr. Handyman asks, echoing the question in her head, probably because Nicole is staring now, silently working out how to backpedal.
“The bathroom,” she says, showing Mr. Handyman in.
“Something – broke,” she adds uselessly, “Do you want coffee?”
She really hopes Mr. Handyman says yes, because at least that will give her something to do.
“Sure,” Mr. Handyman says, and then goes to take a look at Nicole’s plumbing situation, dropping her toolbox with a clatter on the tile floor.
Nicole decided to start her experiment early this morning after she’d had the light-bulb moment about the roundabouts. If two vehicles, or two high-energy particle beams in the collider’s case, went off track and veered into each other, the resulting crash would turn the symbolic roundabout into a literal black hole.
Not that Nicole was going to engineer any traffic accidents. She was merely going to simulate one, overlay the data on the readout from a test-run of the collider. Then she could extrapolate the apocalyptic outcome of the collider being operated while unsuspecting drivers entered roundabouts all over the world.
“Nicole?” Mr. Handyman comes into the kitchen and startles Nicole out of her disaster rumination.
She takes off her hat, which can’t be a good sign. “You need some new pipes,” she says. “You were quick with turning off the water. Looks like you saved the floor.”
Nicole imagines a giant hole in the bathroom floor, the supporting floorboards splintering. When she pictures it, it’s a lot like The Incident. She can almost hear the percussive explosion that was absolutely and in no way Nicole’s fault.
“Do I need to go shop for pipes?”
The idea sounds horrifying. She’ll have to tell Lauren. She’ll have to go shopping. She doesn’t like shopping in the first place, but shopping for bathroom components seems possibly the worst.
“I have everything I need with me. I can fix it right now.” For a moment Mr Handyman’s gaze falls over Nicole’s shoulder. “Unless you want me to take care of the pigeon for you first.”
“How did you know the pigeon was a problem?” Nicole asks. The pigeon is viciously tearing away at the shag rug like it’s a fresh french fry, sea green fibers grasped in its claws.
“Seemed like it was being pretty destructive,” Mr. Handyman says.
“No, it’s OK,” Nicole says, desperate to make everything seem normal, though at this point there’s no reason to lie. “Whatever makes it happy.”
It comes out more of a falsely cheerful mantra than she means it to.
“Sure,” Mr. Handyman says, and Nicole hides her face in her hands as soon as Mr. Handyman’s back is turned.
The coffee’s finally ready, after Nicole remembers to plug the machine in, fill the water carafe, then actually press the start button. Coffee making isn’t normally this much of a challenge for her, but the pigeon keeps taking flight at Mr. Handyman’s clanging.
“Mr. Handyman?” Nicole says, carrying the coffee over, and then she promptly stalls out on the rest of the sentence. This is her chance to make up for the weird name issue conversation and the weird pigeon conversation and actually sound like the nice, friendly, flirty, person she is. Or, well, could be. “How’s it going? Do you want milk?” she finishes lamely.
“Black’s fine. It’s Dianne,” Mr Handyman says again. “Mr. Handyman’s the name of the company.”
She unfolds from her pipe yoga and wipes her hands on her overalls before taking the cup. “I’m almost done. It’s a good thing there’s not much of the floor to replace. I’m not that good at floors, have to get Roger, especially with tile. I hate tile.”
“Oh,” Nicole says. “Yeah, me, too. Hate tile.”
Nicole is terrible at this. At talking. To a person.
“I gotta let the caulk set, you got anything else broken you want me to look at? A hole in the wall where that pigeon got in? I can fix a hole in the wall easy.”
“Maybe you can take a look at my…..equipment.” It sounds like a bad pick-up line, and she hurries to say something else. “And tell me why it was smoking?”
She doesn’t really want to show Mr. Handyman the room that makes her look like a pretty convincing mad scientist, but it’s better than having to explain she doesn’t know where the pigeon came from at all.
“Sure,” Mr. Handyman follows Nicole with calm equivocation, like she deals with vague smoking equipment all the time.
“It’s hopefully still not smoking now, but it set off the smoke alarm earlier, and it’s not supposed to do that, I mean, ideally nothing would set off the smoke alarm. Except a fire. It really upset the pigeon. I should warn you, the room’s kind of a mess. Oh, and the door sticks, it’s these old apartments and there’s this trick you have to – ”
Mr. Handyman kicks the door at just the right spot and it pops open.
“Oh,” Nicole says, and follows Mr. Handyman in.
“You must be in a band,” Mr. Handyman says, taking a moment to survey the room. “Never seen anybody with this much stereo equipment who wasn’t in a band.”
“I’m a physicist,” she says. “I got fired.”
Mr. Handyman nods sympathetically.
Nicole continues,”I worked for a big project, over in Switzerland, and they didn’t like some of my theories and I can get a little stubborn and perhaps I might have implied that the universe would end in a black hole if they didn’t listen to me.”
“Wow,” Mr Handyman says.
“And that same day there was an unfortunate incident with a baguette.”
“It was stuck in a vent, right near the section I was working on. A couple of people claimed I was sabotaging it.”
“No, it was most likely a bird.”
“A bird was sabotaging your experiment?
“It was flying by, and dropped the baguette into a vent, causing it to overheat and malfunction.”
“So I’m just gonna put this out there,” Mr. Handyman says, “But is there any chance the bird who dropped the baguette over in Switzerland was a pigeon?”
The pigeon has followed them over into the guest room, and after fluttering entirely too close to Nicole’s hair, lands and starts pecking at wires like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Mr. Handyman hefts open the glass pane of the single window in the room and makes a shooing gesture, and the pigeon flutters over and immediately goes out.
“Why did you ask about the pigeon?” Nicole asks.
“Kind of a weird coincidence, you know, you have two bird stories. I can’t say I have any bird stories.”
This was just her life now; an unemployed physicist with bird problems.
“Pigeons are a touchy subject in the sciences,” Nicole rambles. “And there’s Tesla.”
“The band? See, I knew you were in a band.”
“Nicola Tesla, the inventor. He had a whole thing with a pigeon. A love story. It was strange.”
“So what’s wrong with your mass spectrometer?”
Nicole’s so grateful her ramble is cut short that it takes her a moment to realize that Mr. Handyman knows what a mass spectrometer looks like. Even when it’s cobbled together our of borrowed stereo equipment.
“I’m just guessing,” she continues, not waiting for Nicole’s answer, “but I bet it’s a problem with the wiring. I feel like you’re probably violating some building codes. Or maybe it’s your magnets. They said that’s what happened with the collider.”
Nicole stops short. “What? The Large Hadron Collider? What do you mean, what happened?”
“Are you sure your magnets are OK?” Mr. Handyman is stalling, Nicole is certain.
“Tell me what you know about the collider.”
“Hey, look, your pigeon is back.” It’s another poor attempt at distraction, except, it’s true, the pigeon is back, tottering on the fire escape. “Want me to let it in?”
Pieces of something that’s been bothering Nicole the whole time start to come together, disjointed and puzzlingly familiar. “You don’t seem surprised it’s back!”
Mr. Handyman doesn’t wait for her permission. She opens the window and the pigeon hops right back in.
“You knew this was a mass spectrometer, even though it’s in my sister’s guest room. You knew how to open the trick door. And you knew my name!”
There’s a long silence, where Mr. Handyman takes off her hat, smooths her hand over her hair, and puts her hat back on. “Look, I ought to tell you, we may have done this a time or two before.”
“We’ve done this. This conversation?”
“This day,” Mr Handyman says. “So, there’s good news and bad news. Good news is you were right about the black hole.”
“I knew it! Wait, if I was right, then that means –”
“Yeah, see, I did say there was bad news, too. And it didn’t so much as make a black hole as–well, something else. Non-aligned events and intervals between them,” she says, exactly like she’s repeating someone else’s words. Nicole’s words.
“It made a time loop? You’re–so I’m–Why do you remember and I don’t?”
Mr. Handyman shrugs again. Her braid falls behind her shoulder.
“How long? No, don’t tell me, that will just confuse me because we don’t have contemporaneous reference frames. What happens?”
“What just happened, basically. There’s the pigeon every time. That’s why I asked about its intentions regarding the baguette. I hadn’t heard that part of the story before.”
The pigeon flies over their heads and dives back toward the kitchen.
“Are you the reason we’re in a time loop?” Nicole asks the bird. “Are you trying to tell us something? Are we supposed to go back in time and stop the collider?”
The pigeon lands again, a torn piece of peanut butter sandwich dangling from its beak.
“It does seem to like bread,” Mr. Handyman observes.
The same Edith Piaf song come crackling out the radio again. Nicole reaches for the dial, and stops at Mr. Handyman’s resigned expression.
“This is it, then? This is when the loop resets?”
Mr. Handyman nods.
“So we’re gonna do this again,.You’ll remember and I won’t.”
“Maybe you’ll remember this time.”
“Oh, this is horrible! Is this a prelude to being sucked into a black hole? Is it an infinite loop? You must be exhausted. And furious that you have to explain this to me over and over.”
“Hey,” Mr. Handyman says. “It’s OK. It’s not that bad.”
“You are so nice,” Nicole says. “You are the nicest person I’ve ever met, and you’ve had to fix my pipes and catch my pigeon like a hundred times and I don’t even remember.”
Mr. Handyman smiles at her warmly.
“Maybe you’ll remember something simple. Like my name. You can stop calling me Mr. Handyman. It’s Dianne.”
Edith Piaf’s croon about her beating heart pitches up into static.
“It was nice meeting you,” Nicole says. “Dianne. We should do this again sometime.”
“I think were about to,” Dianne says.
Nicole can’t get that Edith Piaf song out of her head. There’s a pigeon on the fire escape, and she gets this eerie feeling that it’s been watching her for a while. Everything was going fine with the first phase of data collection, until her equipment started playing music like a radio on seek, and giving off an awful burning plastic smell. The smoke alarm starts shrieking the same time an unfortunate watery thunk echoes out from the bathroom.
Her sister is going to kill her.
She picks up her phone and then notices the business card on the table. That’s convenient. She dials Mr. Handyman: The Fix It All Solution. She hopes the floor won’t need replacing.
“… have to get Roger, especially with tile.”
The name pops into her mind as she stares at her sister’s basketweave mosaic tile floor. Was it Lauren who had said that?
“Hi, I need Roger,” she says, when the receptionist picks up. “No, wait.” She listens to the overwhelming feeling in her gut. It’s not Roger she needs. “Dianne. I’m looking for someone named Dianne.”
The pigeon taps at the window with its sharp gray beak, like a knock.