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At Heidelberg University, Part 1

September 21, 2009

Heidelberg University Square, August 12, 1897, 10:04 a.m.

It was hot. Morning light hit the trees on the edge of the street up with an ambery gleam through the heavy, motionless air. People crowded together in the square despite the heat, accidentally elbowing each other in most unladylike and ungentlemanlike ways, and some enterprising boys had even climbed up onto the rooftops to see. Practically everybody in the city of Heidelberg (and quite a few people had traveled in from other cities to see this, too) wanted to see the celebrated Dr. Werner and one of his physics experiments.

The experiment was running a few minutes late. The doctor was already on stage, but around him workmen were still hauling things up and setting connections. The audience was getting restless. They didn’t understand what the machinery was all for and they’d already been waiting here an hour. The one thing they did understand was the wire mesh cage directly behind the doctor, as big as a man. It had to be for something.

Dr. Werner seemed totally unaffected by the heat and the crowd’s impatience. He was an affable man in a rather out-of-date frock coat, veering towards forty-five. His unimpressive appearance belied his amazing accomplishments. He’d looked inside atoms, built new weapons for the Kaiser, lectured in England and given interesting ideas to a promising young graduate student by the name of Ernest Rutherford. He had a civil Pour le Mérite.
He clapped his hands, and the crowd went silent.

“Thank you all for honoring this demonstration with your attention,” he said. “Lately I have been doing research, with the help of the university, into the nature of teleportation, that is, the moving of objects over great distances. This procedure is completely safe – I have done the same experiment many times on rats and never so much as harmed a fur on their head. I was going to do this first public demonstration myself, but the university has managed to convince me otherwise, since, indeed, it has never been done on a human being before.”

The people gathered in the square were all ears. Somewhere a baby cried.

“They have provided me with a volunteer.”

That was the cue for a pair of police officers to lead a man in prison drab up onto the stage. He looked extremely nervous, sweating too much even for this weather.

“He assuredly will survive the demonstration. When he does, he will receive a full pardon in honor of his contributions to science.”

Somehow the volunteer didn’t seem very voluntary at all. Dr. Werner, on the other hand, was enjoying himself thoroughly. Public demonstrations of science were nine parts theater anyway, and he was building up to the big reveal.

“I am going to move this man across the square. He will step into the cage here,” he indicated it with a flourish, “and when I activate the apparatus, he will move to that spot there.” He pointed to an area at the back of the square that had been kept onlooker free with ropes.

He turned to the convict. “Are you ready?”

The man didn’t answer. He gave the doctor a stony look.

The policemen conducted him into the cage. Dr. Werner pushed a button. Not one of those heavy, sparking levers it took both hands to throw down that you’d see in magic shows. Just a button, painted black, hardly noticeable. Theater, at times, took subtlety.

The volunteer seemed to have changed his mind at the last minute about being a volunteer. He lifted his arm as if to ward something off.

“Wait!”

He vanished.

There was a rustle as everybody in the square turned around in a half circle. They eyed the roped-off place where the convict was supposed to appear and waited. The seconds passed by. Seconds passed into minutes.

One of the ladies in the crowd screamed and fainted.

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