Mary Carver walked down her street from the corner store carrying a few groceries in a plain unbleached brown paper bag. A grocer who used paper bags was one reason she loved her neighborhood, her paper bags crinkled in a way that made her remember her childhood, distinctly not a plastic sound.
As she neared home she could see her boys from a distance in the family garage. Dylan was 10 and Thomas was 12. Mary sighed. Just a year ago, she'd been used to seeing them playing outside or reading science–fiction. Now she even caught herself wishing they’d play a stupid videogame now and then but even videogames had been abandoned since last Christmas when their father, Ray Carver, had bought them a jet bike kit.
Since then, every spare minute away from school, homework and chores had been spent on building that bike, weekday or weekend didn't matter, her boys had found their latest craze.
Mary sighed as she got closer, now that school was out for the summer they had days and days to work on it. Mary caught herself frowning, work was the right word for it. Was it healthy? Whatever it was, well, she didn’t know, where exactly to put her mental finger? Certainly the boys were obsessed with the thing but Ray insisted it was normal for boys their age to get interested in Cassimir-effect ground vehicles. Once upon a time it was model airplanes, then model rockets, then custom computers and now C-mir Jet bikes. What the kids called "Screamers" for the high pitched whine of their engines. What parent in their right mind could think about discouraging kids from an interest in a STEM subject? Ray’s career in advanced propulsion paid for their house, after all and Mary was well paid as a chemist but everyone knew that among all STEMs ‘propulsion was the way to go,’ as Ray liked to say without a trace of irony at every social occasion even when, especially when, he knew everyone had already heard his infamous line several times.
As she walked up her front lawn to the front door, Mary glanced inside the garage as if to confirm what her eyes had told her many times before. Yes, if that squat unfinished metal thing they were tinkering with was a jet bike it was the ugliest jet bike she had ever laid eyes on.
Ray Carver looked through foot thick glass windows at the test vehicle and frowned. a rabbit with a blue number 8 on its back, ‘Jimmy 8,’ had just been loaded into a squat black box mounted on a metal pole in the center of launch pad ‘A’. On launch pad ‘B,’100 meters away, an identical metal pole stood ready to receive Jimmy 8 on his return to Earth.
The test flight for Jimmy 8 would be the same as for is brothers 1 through 7, a single round trip to an empty region of space roughly equal in distance to the orbital path of Mars then a return trip ending at pad ‘B.’ Ray looked at his notes again, the counterfactual propulsion equations were a headache so he repeated the basic idea the way he'd explained it to his boys, he found it calming.
Jimmy was now on pad ‘A’ and when he returned he should be on pad ‘B.’ A nice simple idea to hold on to. his mind put up a fight and kept pulling his attention back to the headache mathematics. The vehicle would be transmitting a crude radio message throughout the test. If all went well, there would be no interruption in the signal from the moment Jimmy 8 left launch pad ‘A’ until it appeared on pad ‘B.’
Ray had thought about it a million times as he’d grown up but it still excited him, got his heart racing, a working Alcubierre propulsion system wasn’t just a space ship. It was also a time machine. If space telescopes saw the vehicle arrive instantanteously at the far end of the flight, it would mean Jimmy had arrived 12 subjective minutes before being launched. If it worked, there would be two Jimmies, maybe three? He shook his head and told himself to relax. Maybe it would work this time.
He pinched the bridge of his nose and shut his eyes. Damn headache. There was nothing in the equa–
When he looked up, the launch pad was already cleared of all personnel. The viewing bunker was crowding up as scientists and generals leaned against the foot thick glass windows. A claxon began sounding. Ray had nothing left to do but watch, along with his design team. The actual launching was up to mission control now.
The countdown began. Ray wasn’t really listening, all his attention was on the squat black box atop launch pole A with Jimmy 8 inside.
…7, 6, 5, engines on, 3, 2, 1, start, 0…
The ground shook. There was a sharp ripping sound. Jimmy 8 vanished. Launch pole A was empty. Unfortunately so was launch pole B.
Ray swore under his breath. He'd better call Mary and tell her he'd be late. Again.
Thomas and Dylan got back to work on the engine once their mom was out of sight inside the house. The jet bike itself lay on a heavy plastic drop sheet. The Cassimir drive exhaust valves had been removed and hung on a hook on the wall.
“Tom,” said Dylan.
“Yeah what?” Thomas was concentrating, face scrunched up in fury, on getting what appeared to be a small plastic ice cube with pipes sticking out of it to detach from the half assembled drive.
“Let’s just put the C-drive back on, isn’t it fast enough?”
Thomas swore as his grip slipped and he banged his fingers on a heavy metal part. “Now look what you made me do! I’ll have to reset the Unruh-Minkowski values all over again!” whereupon he hit the reset button on his little mother and the little plastic ice cube chirped in reply.
“But Tom, it’s not big enough,”
One of the things Thomas found grating about his younger brother was Dylan’s talent for stating the obvious. It was especially distracting now because if anything went wrong, Thomas would be the one to catch hell for it, not Dylan. Even though Dylan was the one who'd stolen the plans from their Dad's little mother. Thomas gritted his teeth and got back to work.
“Why don’t you read off the scale conversions again,” he said.
Dylan dutifully repeated the reading from his little mother and then got back to work.
“Tom,” he said not–enough–minutes later.
“We’ll never get a stable field, we don’t have enough volume,” he said in almost a whisper, his brother wouldn't notice that he'd said it less than a minute ago using different words.
Thomas was scared Dylan was right but he just grunted and kept working. He’d figure out something. The big race was tomorrow, there wasn’t any time left to quit now.
Ray Carver drove down the Eastern Independence hyperway, hunched up tight over the steering yoke and cursing in the privacy of his car, out to the distance of Mars, perpendicular to the eliptic and the radio had never made a hiccup. Jimmy hadn’t come back either though. The field bubble hadn’t burst and Jimmy had been exiled forever to go forever outward, forever in suspension. Alone in his car, Ray shook his head, a habit he'd acquired over the last few frustrating months. What had gone wrong?
Mary Carver saw Ray was about to give her some news she wasn't going to like. She determined to try to be reasonable, the creases on his face had only gotten deeper over the last few months.
“I’m going to have to cancel on the boys,” he said.
“Ray, you promised,” she said.
“The generals want an explanation
You’re a civilian Raymond!” she never used his full name unless angry. “Thomas and Dylan really want you to be at the race!”
"I know, I’ll make it up to them somehow," he said.
Dylan snuck back to his room from the top of the stairs. As he passed his brother's room, he stuck his head in.
“Dad can’t make it,” said Dylan.
“Oh well, we’ll have to bring home the trophy then,” said Thomas from bed. “Get to bed Dylan.”
Saddened, Dylan went to sleep without brushing his teeth, he knew his mom would be too preoccupied to check.
In the morning, Thomas and Dylan had already packed up their jetbike and left for the race course before Ray had left for work, Ray was nearly out the door when he noticed they hadn’t closed the garage door. He saw the husk of the old cassimir drive leaning against the wall and went back inside to find Mary.
“Mary, when did the boys get another drive unit?” he called to his wife.
“They didn’t,” she called back, “they built one.”
“Did you give them the money? Drives aren't cheap, honey”
“No they built something new," she frowned at him, still angry that he was going to work today, "something African-sounding,”
“Yes, unruh something. They called it a zipper.”
“Zero point energy driven Unruh-Minkowski Field generator?”
“That's it, Ray?“ Her husband's face had suddenly turned terrible, Mary took a step back, Ray saw he'd scared her and forced his face into a semblance of calm. When he finally spoke it came out stilted but reasonable.
“Mary. I want you to listen carefully, we must stop that race, call the police, tell them, tell them whatever you have to, tell them there's a bomb if you have to but get them to send a car to the race course.”
“What! I can’t just-“ Mary tried to understand but if Ray was trying to keep her calm he was doing a piss poor job of it.
Ray didn't wait for her to reply, he sprinted to his car and then proceeded to break every speed limit on the Eastern Independence Hyperway. Later that month, he'd have his license automatically revoked for reckless driving and it would be another year before he managed to get it reinstated. By that time however, he didn't care.
Just before the starting lights shot green, Dylan did not rev his engine like the 7 other competitors in his heat, instead, he glanced one last time at the course mapping figures, the red lights became amber, then green. Dylan engaged the zipper drive on his jetbike and as the other competitors roared off, Jimmy, Dylan's jetbike, named in honor of their dad's plans, disappeared with a sharp ripping screech.
The morning after the race, Thomas stayed in bed and stared at his brother's trophy. Their parents was already downstairs with Dylan talking to reporters. Thomas got out of bed and crept to the stairs to get a better vantage from which to eavesdrop.
“We didn’t have enough power to keep the field up but my brother Thomas (Thomas smiled when he heard this) said we should, here he hesitated because the words were bigger than what he was used to using, expected some, uh, threshold effects from a continuously forming and collapsing field,” said Dylan downstairs, Thomas smiled, he'd just been quoted on National television by his younger brother, he decided he'd better go down there. Thomas didn't like being the center of attention, despite Dylan being younger, he was better with people. Thomas steeled himself to confront the reporters, he tried to things of other things but, who had ever heard of a boy winning a race by crossing the finish line a fraction of a second before starting the race?
All he knew for certain was that he and Dylan had done something cooler than they'd initially believed and while the attention their invention had stirred up was annoying right now, Thomas had to face facts, He was only 12, Dylan was only 10, Just a pair of Jetboys who couldn’t wait for their next race. Everything else was just details.