Strange IndiaStrange India

The strangest dressed man I’d ever seen in my life entered the crowded Washington DC subway car. He was wearing a mud-spattered kimono and yellow duck slippers. The only spot available for him was the aisle seat next to me. I was tempted to put my purse on the seat, but he was already on his way over and I didn’t want to make a scene. I fixed my eyes out the window, studying the vaulted concrete subway walls.

The man sat down. His body odour greeted me. Stale sweat mingled with potato chips and cigarette butts left out in the rain. The train started and the tunnel outside shifted to black.

“Hey, Nina,” said the man.

My muscles clenched. How the hell did he know my name? My eyes flickered down to the name tag on my uniform for the Party Goods Express store. Oh yeah. That’s right.

I didn’t reply, hoping that if I ignored him long enough, he’d get bored and leave me alone. No one else on the DC subway ever took it upon themselves to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Didn’t he know metro etiquette? Sit down. Avoid eye contact. Shut up.

Instead, he leant closer, his arm pressing into mine as the train car jostled from side to side. “Have you ever felt like you were meant for something greater in life than all this?”

Doesn’t anyone who is stuck on the subway at 7 a.m. on their way to their shift at the Party Goods Express store?

“I know this may come as a shock,” he said, “but I’m from the future and I’m here to give you your mission.”

So he was as crazy as he looked. I glanced at the subway map. I had five more stops before I reached my destination, which meant I might have to deal with him for about 40 more minutes. I sighed.

“I know it sounds insane,” he said.

Batshit insane.

“And it probably doesn’t help that I’m dressed like this,” he added. “But you see, I’m hiding in plain sight from the agents of the Time Ministry.” The man gave the crowded train car a furtive glance. “I have the device in my pocket for your mission. Let me show you.”

Was this some kind of Internet prank? A TikTok maybe? I looked around at the other passengers to see if anyone was filming me with their phones. But no one seemed to notice me or the man. They were all staring out the windows or at their electronic devices. Proper DC metro etiquette.

The man fished around in one of the voluminous pockets of his kimono. Suddenly, the train lurched sharply to the right. I grabbed the top of the seat in front of me. Contents flew out from the man’s pockets: nail clippers, an open bag of potato chips, and a couple of rubber balls that went bouncing around the train much to the squealing delight of the children on board.

The man clenched his hand shut. “Oh good. I didn’t drop it.” He opened his fingers and held his palm out before me with reverence, showing me a blue paper clip. In hushed tones, he said, “I stole it from the Time Ministry. Here, take it.”

Not knowing what else to do, I allowed the man to place the paper clip in my hand.

“Be very careful with that,” he added.

“With a paper clip?” I said dryly.

“It may appear as a mere paper clip to the untrained eye. It was made to look that way to hide it. But it’s actually an Alcubierre key.”

My eyebrows raised. What the hell was an Alcubierre key? And why was I still talking to this guy?

“If you decide to accept your mission,” he said, “unfold the key into a straight line. You will open a door through space-time. Time will alternately shrink and expand around you. You will be taken to your pre-programmed destination faster than the speed of light. But you must be careful.” He leant in close. I wrinkled my nose at his stench. “The device is still in development. The ministry was working out the quirks when I stole it. It’s worked for me so far. But I must warn you, if you activate the key, there is a very small — extremely unlikely — chance that it will break the entire Universe. But … it probably won’t do that. Probably not.”

“A paper clip?” I said again.

The train screeched to a halt. Speakers dinged above, announcing the train’s arrival at the next stop. The doors opened. Passengers shuffled out. Without another word, the man got up and made his way out the door, his yellow duck slippers squeaking as he went.

The doors shut. The train started again.

I stared down at the blue paper clip in my hand. Maybe it was just my imagination, but it did gleam when I held it at a certain angle in the light.

I glanced at the map again. I was now four stops away from my destination and had about 30 more minutes to kill. I shrugged and began to unfold the paper clip.

The story behind the story

Table of Contents

Jessica Brook reveals the inspiration behind The Alcubierre key.

I’m not a fan of making small talk with strangers on public transport. Thus, this absurd tale of a time-travelling vagabond with a paper clip that could potentially destroy the Universe was born out of my extreme social anxiety.

The Alcubierre key itself was inspired by theories of faster-than-light travel put forth by the theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre in 1994. Alcubierre proposed a method of faster-than-light travel that would be accomplished by shifting space itself.

What’s interesting is that Alcubierre stated in an e-mail to William Shatner that his theory was directly inspired by the term ‘warp drive’ used in the show Star Trek. Alcubierre also cites the term in his 1994 article ‘The warp drive: hyper-fast travel within general relativity’. This just goes to show how important science fiction is in the development of scientific thought.

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