"Yes," said Professor Roney, putting down his wineglass, "I was with Dr. Chomondley when he tested his first spherical-locus generator. A 'bobble', he called it, after some obscure science fiction story or other. A bubble of stopped time, as he poetically put it. It made for a pretty effect -- a perfectly round, perfectly reflective sphere. Photons, being unable to penetrate the field boundary, just bounced back, y' see.
"He was quite mad to try it out. Threw an extension cord out the second-story lab window, carried the generator outside, and plugged it in. Then he started looking for something to encapsulate. It was his weakness, that flair for the dramatic.
"Luckily, the only animate object within his range was one of the campus pigeons. He 'shot' it, of course. I suppose we were lucky it was only a pigeon; he sometimes brought his dog to the lab and -- No, I don't suppose he would have risked the dog. Fond of it, he was. Now, if a teaching assistant had been walking by --
"Should have foreseen what happened next, of course. If photons couldn't penetrate the bobble, neither could gravitons. It was if he had blown a bubble of perfect nothingness, three feet across. More buoyant than a helium balloon, and it floated off like one -- or a bit more briskly. I suppose the bobble collapsed some hours later, at the edge of the atmosphere. I searched the newspapers for the next two weeks, looking for odd stories of a dish-shaped divot of earth or a frozen pigeon falling to earth somewhere, but I never heard any more of it."
"Could I get a bit more of this port?"
"That set Chomondley a bit aback. I helped him, the next few weeks, at embobbling a series of small objects suspended from wires. The bobbles would float up against the top of the experiment enclosure and Chomondley would time their duration to calibrate the generator. By the end, he got quite good at predicting when a bobble would decay. He'd count down -- five, four, three, and so on -- the bobble would burst, and out the object -- a paperweight, a watch, a mouse -- would tumble, not having experienced a microsecond's passage of time since they were embobbled. Yes, they would just tumble out -- Ah, if only we'd had the wit to see!"
Roney paused and fiddled with his pipe for a minute, as if considering how to tell the next part of his story. It must have been hard for him, but I desperately wished he would get on with it. For one thing, I had never heard a full account of the matter, fabulous though the rumors were. For another, I badly needed to go to the men's.
"It was that flair for the dramatic, you see. He felt ashamed of the foolishness with the pigeon, though I'd been the only witness. He was determined to erase the event with a demonstration of spectacular impact. He didn't even confide in me as to its nature, except to make arrangements for the press and the head of the department to be there. Maybe if he had told me what he intended -- Or maybe not.
"Midsummer's Day, it was -- the longest day of the year. He had originally intended to start his demonstration at dawn, until I made it clear that neither the press nor Dean Rumkorff could be expected to show up at such an hour. So he moved the time back to eight o'clock. The press, in any event, did not show up. I drove the dean to Chomondley's little house that morning, imagining that we would be proceeding to some other site for his experiment.
"As soon as I saw the six steel-girder towers erected around the house in a circle, though, and the taut steel cables stretched between them, I had an awful feeling. Chomondley confirmed my suspicions soon enough: He intended to embobble his whole house for a period of twelve hours, returning to the flow of normal time just before sunset.
"Oh, how I argued with him! Madly dangerous, it was -- and I told him so. Rumkorff thought it was all some elephantine joke and sulked in my car. If only I could have thought of a reason why Chomondley should not do this thing! But he had -- he firmly believed -- thought it all through and had an answer for each of my qualms. In the end, I could not dissuade him. Just at eight, he went inside, threw a switch and the house disappeared inside a great silver ball. It rose an inch or so against the steel cables over it, then stopped. I drove Dean Rumkorff (who refused to even get out of the car to look) on to the campus, cancelled all my classes, and went back to the house to await Chomondley's return.
"I must admit I lapsed into complacency over the course of the day. Everything, after all, seemed to be going quite well. It was a perfect warm, sunny June day. The bobble simply sat within its web of cabling. Chomondley certainly seemed safe enough -- safer than I, for that matter. The world could have blown up around him and he wouldn't have known until eight in the evening, whereas I had to answer the monotonous questions of the reporters and television crews that had -- belatedly! -- appeared.
"As eight approached, I knocked the dottle out of my pipe, tucked it into my pocket, and stood on the front walk, ready to greet Chomondley when he emerged.
"And at eight, the bobble burst. Poor Chomondley!
"(Of course you can tell me what happened. Now you can tell me! What a useless torment hindsight is!)
"During the twelve hours of Chomondley's embobblement, the cables had kept his house clasped against the bosom of the earth. But the house had remained oriented with respect to its original inertial frame, while the planet had turned halfway around under it. Just like the "Foucault's Pendulum" demonstration they show children, but rotating in three dimensions. In effect, Chomondley's house reappeared upside down over a great hole in the ground -- with the contents of the hole falling in on him!
"Oh, I can see it before me now. The silvery dome of the bobble was replaced with a rough, black dome of earth which instantly collapsed in on itself. I can see that awful sight before my eyes always, but I can remember scarcely anything of the next three days. I had to be sedated.
"Chomondley was, of course, killed instantly. It took two days to dig him out; he was found crushed and intermingled with the remains of the field generator. I doubt he had time to experience anything between activating his generator at eight in the morning and his death at eight in the evening. There was an inquiry, in which my testimony was wanted. Then the whole matter was declared an official secret. Not that it'll do much good; Chomondley had already sent a preliminary paper to Nature. And he had involved one of his doctoral students, an Irishman with red hair and outspoken political views, in building his big generator. Now, what was his name? No matter; he left the program soon after and rather disappeared."
Roney fell silent and stared into the fire smoldering in the grate. We all must have sat like that for a minute or longer, until the door burst open. It was Tommy Strickland, a huge and unkempt Welshman who worked at New Scientist, shouting madly that we must come outside and see.
I believe we were all glad of the chance to break from Professor Roney's spell, to stumble out into the cold night air and look at whatever minor disaster had excited Tommy -- an automobile accident or a fire. What we found, though --
How to describe it? A great sphere, reflecting the night sky above and the buildings below it, majestically lifting heavenward, rising above the buildings of Fleet Street behind the Stag. I could not guess its size, except that it was huge.
"Oh, my," said a voice by my shoulder. It was Roney, sucking on a pipe now gone quite dead.
"What's down that way? Parliament? Or is it Buckingham Palace? I guess we'll know soon enough -- if it is the IRA..."
Apologies to Arthur Clarke for a cheap knock-off of Tales from the White Hart. And further apologies to Vernor Vinge for borrowing the "bobble". I also freely admit that -- in the course of pointing out a weakness or two of the bobble -- I have myself committed at least two grievous sins against the Gods of Physics. A nod to anyone who points them out.
(And "Chomondley" is pronounced "Chumley".)