THEY WERE Overjoyed to be back. They whooped it up, giddy with excitement. They climbed over the chairs.
They bugged and patted erne another on the back. All of them were dose to tears. They had succeeded – but not only that, they had returned, safely negotiating all the tunnels. Abruptly, amidst a bail of static, the radio began blar-ing out the Machine status report. All three benzels were decelerating. The built-up electrical charge was dissipating. From the commentary, it was clear that Project had no idea of what had happened.
Ellie wondered how much time had passed. She glanced at her watch. It had been a day at least, which would bring them well into the year 2000. Appropriate enough. Oh, wait till they hear what we have to tell them, she thought. Reas-suringly, she patted the compartment where the dozens of video microcassettes were stored. How the world would change when these films were released! The space between and around the benzels had been re-pressurized. The airlock doors were being opened. Now there were radio inquiries about their well-being.
“We’re fine!” she shouted back into her microphone. “Let us out. You won’t believe what happened to us.”
The Five emerged from the airlock happy, effusively greeting their comrades who had helped build and operate the Machine. The Japanese technicians saluted them. Project officials surged toward them.
Devi said quietly to Ellie, “As far as I can tell, everyone’s wearing exactly the same clothing they did yesterday. Look at that ghastly yellow tie on Peter Valerian.”
“Oh, he wears that old thing all the time,” Ellie replied. “His wife gave it to him.” The clocks read 15:20. Activation had occurred close to three o’clock the previous afternoon. So they had been gone just a little over twenty-four…
“What day is it?” she asked.
They looked at her uncom-prehendingly. Something was wrong. “Peter, for heaven’s sake, what day is it?”
“How do you mean?” Valerian answered. “It’s today. Friday, December 31, 1999. It’s New Year’s Eve.
Is that what you mean? Ellie, are you all right?”
Vaygay was telling Archangelsky to let him begin at the beginning, but only after his cigarettes were produced. Project officials and representatives of the Machine Consortium were converging around them.
She saw der Heer wedging his way to her through the crowd.
“From your perspective, what happened?” she asked as finally he came within conversational range.
“Nothing. The vacuum system worked, the benzels spun up, they accumulated quite an electrical charge, they reached the prescribed speed, and then everything reversed.”
“What do you mean, “everything reversed’?”
“The benzels slowed down and the charge dissipated. The system was repressurized, the benzels stopped, and all of you came out. The whole thing took maybe twenty minutes, and we couldn’t talk to you while the benzels were spinning. Did you experience anything at all?”
She laughed. “Ken, my boy,” she said, “have I got a story for you.”
There was a party for project personnel to celebrate Machine Activation and the momentous New Year.
Ellie and her traveling companions did not attend. The television stations were full of celebrations, parades, exhibits, retro-spectives, prognostications and optimistic addresses by national leaders. She caught a glimpse of remarks by the Abbot Utsumi, beatific as ever. But she could not dawdle.