Author's Note: This is the first chapter of a time-travel fic that I really wanted to write a few months ago but lost the inspiration to finish. I have another chapter of it completed, but I don't want to post it so long as I don't plan on completing the story. The concept here stands much better on its own.


Equilibrium

Chapter 1: Blinded by Science

Numbuh 74.239 ran his tongue over the slick wires of the braces on his front teeth in nervous habit. He quickly patted down the unruliest puffs of his carrot-colored hair and straightened the frock of his neatly pressed lab coat. The freckled-faced KND scientist stood alone in the brightly lit (and very damp) docking bay of the Deep Sea Science Lab. However, in just a moment, he would be joined by five distinguished guests whom he and his research team had been eagerly awaiting for quite some time.

The first sign of their arrival was when the house-sized pool of water in front of 74.239 began bubbling and roiling. Water was splashing all over the concrete floor and forming puddles around his feet. Beaming in anticipation, the pint-sized scientist pulled out of a deep pocket a collapsible umbrella, which - unlike most objects that resided within the pockets of KND operatives - he proceeded to use more or less as one would expect to see an umbrella used. He popped it open and, just in time, shielded himself with it from the salty spray of water that resulted from the surfacing of a Kids Next Door S.U.B.S.T.A.N.D.A.R.D.

With a hiss from the depressurizing submarine, the main hatch of the vehicle opened and a set of stairs extended down to touch the dock. Five pairs of shoes, one by one, stepped past the yellow caution line at the edge of the pool as the operatives debarked.

"Welcome!" exclaimed Numbuh 74.239 with a quick salute and the slightest of lisps, "Thank you so much for coming, Sector V!"

"Thank you for inviting us, Numbuh 74.239," replied Nigel Uno.

Indeed, before him stood Numbuhs 1-5 of Sector V, living legends of the Kids Next Door.

Nodding respectfully, 74.239 turned around and said with a paper-thin layer of calmness concealing his exploding excitement, "I'm very glad you're here. I think you'll find our project most fascinating. Please, follow me."

He led them toward a door that led down into the mysterious, top-secret depths of the Deep Sea Lab. In front of it, he stood still, allowing the treehouse computer to recognize his face and unlock the door. There was a clang within the mechanism in the walls, and the thick, steel barrier slid aside. With a wave of his arm, the red-haired nerd allowed the Deep Sea Base's guests to proceed before him. He watched them carefully as they passed by in single file.

Numbuhs 1, 2, and 5 seemed curious about what he'd invited them down to the lab for, but professional enough not to bother him about it immediately. Numbuh 3 was oohing and ahhing at every little thing in the docking bay and the very plain hallway ahead, even though the place was nothing special. She looked like the kind of person who would try to touch every shiny object she came across - 74.239 made a note to keep an eye on her until they got to the Vault. Numbuh 4 appeared incredibly bored with his surroundings, and was occupying himself with the quadruple-extra-gi-hugic cup of soda he was hugging in his arms. The disproportionately small straw was practically floating out of the lid as the boy slurped at the massive amount of soda inside.

"Uh-bup-bup! Hold it," Numbuh 74.239 lifted his arm in a stop signal, "That soda is a potential contaminant to many ongoing research projects. Not the one I'm taking you to, but I still can't let you bring it into the lab."

Wallabee Beetles widened his eyes and protested, "But I'm not even halfway done yet! And this thing cost me like, two weeks' and seven quarters' allowance!"

Adamantly, Numbuh 74.239 shook his head and responded, "Sorry, no exceptions."

Nigel was impatiently tapping his foot against the floor as he said, "Numbuh 4, just leave it here for when we get back."

"But it'll go all flat and warm if this cruddy tour goes on for long enough!" complained the blond boy.

It was Hoagie Gilligan who proposed a compromise, "You can still have food and drinks in the hallway, right? And the observation room in most labs?"

"Hm," Numbuh 74.239 scratched his chin as he considered what Sector V's 2x4 expert had just suggested, eventually replying, "Yeah, you can. I guess that works too."

He stepped aside and allowed Wally to rejoin his teammates. 74.239 made a shooing motion to signal Sector V to keep walking down the gentle slope of the sheet metal lined hall.

"Great," said Wally with a scowl, "At least I can keep my soda while we get bored to death!"

Numbuh 74.239 quickened his pace to match that of the agitated blond. He said, "Ah, but only until we get to the observation room. You'll have to leave it there before we go into the lab area."

Hoagie interjected questioningly, "But I thought guests always had to stay in the observation room. What if we accidentally mess something up?"

With a chuckle, 74.239 shook his head and proclaimed, "Trust me, you're not going to."

"How can you be so sure, baby?" asked Abigail Lincoln, joining in on the conversation.

"The lab I'm taking you to is sealed tighter than Knightbrace's cavity fillings," bragged the boy scientist as he pulled ahead to lead the group down another hall, "You'd need a blowtorch or a hacksaw to get at anything you could mess with badly enough to cause problems. We don't even keep the control systems in the same room as this project. Believe me, it's super-triple-foolproof!"


Finally, after a labyrinthian amount of turns and double-backs, Numbuh 74.239 stopped at a plain, steel door with a uselessly small window in the top. It looked just like all the others in that same hallway and all the other hallways they had already walked through. Embedded into the wall next to the door was a semi-circular console that was equipped with an intercom and a variable genetic material scanner (boogers, earwax, or saliva - although the latter only straight off the tongue, which, for obvious reasons, was why most kids preferred to provide one of the former options).

Numbuh 74.239 pressed and held the button next to the intercom, saying into it, "This is Numbuh 74.239. I'm here with Numbuhs 1 through 5 of Sector V for the presentation. Admit six, please."

He released the button and waited for a reply.

None came.

He shrugged, "Eh, they must all be down in the lab. Gimme a second."

Numbuh 74.239 raised his index finger and stuck it up his right nostril. With a deliberate snort, he picked a particularly sticky booger and removed his finger. He gave the booger specimen a moment's consideration, and then forcefully stuck it inside the dish of the genetic material scanner, where it was vacuumed off his finger. The only sound was Wally slurping down as much of his quadruple-extra-gi-hugic soda as he could before he had to leave it behind.

Beep.

A red light above the console turned green. With a pneumatic woosh, the door slid open.

Sinking into a showman's bow, Numbuh 74.239 allowed Sector V to walk inside ahead of him. Exuberance barely contained and biting his lower lip in anticipation, he followed after Abby.

Then, suddenly, his happy enthusiasm popped like a balloon, replaced by needles of aggravation when he saw that there was another KND scientist already standing on the carpet inside the room.

"Numbuh 71.562," grumbled the red-haired scientist darkly, "You're supposed to open the door when asked by authorized personnel."

The dark-haired, bespectacled, buck-toothed scientist responded triumphantly, "Excuse me, but protocol dictates that anyone bringing in guests must supply his or her own genetic material to have it on record when they were allowed access to labs above their clearance. Sir."

"Ugh, nerd fight. Woohoo," groaned Wally in a pause between swigs of soda.

74.239 crossed his arms and flatly responded, "Sector V already has clearance, Numbuh 71.562."

"Really?" exclaimed 71.562, genuinely surprised, "Well, no one ever told me!"

"Yeah, well, you're not in charge of their tour," snapped 74.239, sticking his tongue out at the fifth-grade scientist in a silent insult. He then turned and said to Sector V, "Moving along… Welcome to the observation room of Research Lab Z! It's the largest observation room in the entire base, so we converted it into a control center for our project down below."

Lining all the walls and forming aisles in the middle of the room were rows of computer and monitoring systems. Blinking lights, gauges, a myriad of readouts and buttons - the converted observation room looked like a NASA control center.

Numbuh 74.239 herded Sector V toward the wide, glass observation window on the other side of the room. It overlooked the lab below - if it could be called a lab.

The space beyond the observation window gave off the cavernous impression of a tall warehouse while maintaining the sterile feeling of a dentist's office. The walls, floor, and presumably the ceiling were all made of giant pieces of blue-gray sheet metal riveted or welded together. Everything looked airtight. Giant floodlights embedded in the walls shone almost blindingly down on the floor space. The room more resembled the world's emptiest and most high tech fall out shelter than a research lab. Only the half-dozen KND scientists milling about around the floor made it clear that this was a research lab in use.

"This," said 74.239 with an air of pride, "Is the Vault."

"So," Hoagie was confused, "Where's the project?"

Numbuh 74.239 chuckled, "Oh, you don't understand. The Vault is the project. Come see!"

He walked to the only other door in the observation room and pulled it open. On the other side was a concrete catwalk and a set of stairs. This was the entrance to the lab down below.

"Numbuh 4, you can just leave your soda on that cart with the projector," said the freckled scientist dismissively.

Sector V followed him out of the observation room and down the steps. Wally didn't even complain about leaving his half-finished soda behind. Upon reaching the floor of the lab space, all of them were distracted by looking up.

Hanging from the ceiling like a chandelier was an enormous, four-pointed mobile, slowly rotating above the center of the room. Hanging from chains at its corners were bizarre conglomerations of duct tape and household appliances. The device was some sort of 2x4 technology, but it was nothing that even Hoagie could recognize.

"Woah," exclaimed the chubby pilot, "Is that what you've been working on?"

"Yup," nodded 74.239, "And it's safely behind a glass ceiling, so you can't even throw anything at it from here. Secure and foolproof."

Nigel mumbled to himself, "I swear, it looks familiar…"

Flatly, Wally asked, "Well, what is it?"

Numbuh 74.239 answered flamboyantly, "It's potentially the greatest achievement in the entire history of KND research. And my use of the word 'history' is just a little ironic, because you see, my friends, this is a time machine!"

"A time machine?" Abby was skeptical.

"Yes," replied their guide proudly, "A time machine. You're standing in it right now! I'm the lead researcher on the project - my acquaintance 71.562 is rather jealous."

Kuki Sanban eagerly asked, "Does it really really work?"

"Indeed it does," answered 74.239 with a smirk, "We'll show you some footage of our tests later."

Nigel was amazed, "This is incredible. A working time machine? What would the Kids Next Door even want with it?"

"You're something of a history buff, aren't you, Numbuh 1?" said 74.239, "Well, answer me this: What does the Kids Next Door know about the founding era of the Seventh Age?"

Sector V's leader replied, "Next to nothing. All records from that time period were lost - it's why we only have the legends about Numbuh 0. Well, the legends, and now what's written in the Book of KND."

"And the Book of KND, while a treasure in itself, is sadly nowhere near enough to put together a comprehensive idea of what the founding era was like."

Abby interjected, "So, this time machine is supposed to take you back... just so you can answer a couple a' history questions?"

"Exactly!"

Enthusiastically, Nigel exclaimed, "I think that's a marvelous idea!"

"Ah-hem," Abby cleared her throat.

He revised, "Um… it's probably very hazardous and potentially apocalyptic, too."

"No need to worry," said 74.239, "We're being very careful. Baby steps."

He noticed that the rest of Sector V seemed quite distracted by one thing or another. Numbuh 2 kept glancing at two scientists who had a set of blueprints between them. Numbuh 3 was looking at another pair of scientists who were marking a large circle out on the floor with buckets of red paint. Numbuh 4 was quite clearly just bored.

Numbuh 74.239 made a few suggestions, "Numbuhs 3 and 4, you're welcome to aid us in painting our transport zone." Both immediately left the group without a word. "Numbuh 2, if you'd like, you could go speak with Numbuh 77.328 about the mechanical design of the Vault."

"Really? Yeah, I'd love that! See ya, guys!" exclaimed Sector V's 2x4 expert with a wave as he wandered toward the chubby, African-American boy showing another KND scientist something on the design plans in his hands.

74.239 clapped his hands together, asking the two remaining field operatives with him, "Any other questions?"

"You mentioned you've already done tests?" said Nigel.

He nodded, responding, "Yes, we have. Never with human subjects, but we've sent hamsters back by up to two hours, insects by ten, and plants by twelve. I fully believe we have the capacity to attempt our to reach our ultimate goal right now, but like I said, baby steps. We're inching our way there."

Abby raised an eyebrow and asked, "And that ultimate goal would be when and where, exactly?"

Numbuh 74.239 made a grand gesture at the wall with the observation window. Underneath the catwalk was a large board embedded into the wall. Across the top half was a row of numbers set to yesterday's date being displayed on wheel mechanisms similar to those on a slot machine. On the bottom was television screen displaying the Earth.

"Allow me to show you. This is the target time and location settingfy-er," he announced while yanking down on a lever next to the board.

The numbers spun wildly, exactly like a slot machine. One by one, they dinged to a stop, and they were set to…

"August 11, 1966?" questioned Abby.

74.239 proclaimed, "The exact date of Grandfather's first defeat, as written in the Book of KND forty-one years ago - the dawn of the Seventh Age of Kids Next Door! Someday, when we're ready, we'll send back a team who will document the experience of being a kid during that revolutionary time! And right in the cradle of the Seventh Age."

He took out from another pocket of his lab coat a remote that was little more than bottle caps stuck into a piece of scrap wood (2x4 technology at its finest). With the press of a button, the TV screen showing the Earth began zooming in on part of the image. It went from the entire globe to North America, and then from North America to the eastern seaboard of the United States. From there it narrowed in on the state of Virginia, and then the northern part of the state, and then a single city. Finally, it stopped at a very simplified map of one neighborhood in particular and highlighted a very recognizable landmark…

"Our treehouse?" exclaimed Nigel with no small amount of surprise.

"Yes, indeed," replied the red-haired scientist with great satisfaction, "Given your account of 'Operation Z.E.R.O.', as it was officially named, we know for certain that the Sector V treehouse existed in 1966 as the Treehouse of Coolness, where Numbuh 0 first discovered the Book of KND. We have no idea what state the tree was in, but given how little we know about the rest of the world under Grandfather's rule, it's the safest target location we have."

Abby pointed out, "Baby, ain't time travel dangerous? What if you change something important?"

Numbuh 74.239 responded solemnly, "That's something that was debated before the Vault was even constructed. Trust me, we've given a lot of thought to the risks of time travel. Every thought experiment known to kid-kind was analyzed eleventy ways each, and we came up with a short list of rules that should preserve the larger timestream continuum with no problems."

"Really? What are they?" asked Nigel curiously.

The scientist answered, "Rule one: Don't get yourself on any records if you can help it. By that I mean written records or photographs - things that last. You can introduce yourself to people who haven't met you yet all you like, even your own parents. Human memory is quite fallible. Though, in the case of your own family, we recommend a different last name, just to make you less memorable."

He paused to scratch at his nose before continuing, "Rule two: Know the time period. It's always best to blend in as much as you can. The less you stand out, the better. Rule three is quite obvious, really - don't tell anyone you're a time traveller. And then there's r-rule f-f-fo- achoo!"

Numbuh 74.239 sniffled. He pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose loudly before he apologized, "Sorry, where was I?"

"Rule four," said Nigel helpfully.

"Right," 74.239 found his train of thought once more, "Rule four: Don't reference the future or things that haven't happened yet. It makes you suspicious to the locals. More important than any of these, however, is rule five: Don't interfere with events that directly affect your own time. Like, don't avert your own birth, or break something that saved your life or someone else's before that happens. That would be catastrophic and paradox-inducing." He laughed, "Haha, I know that these rules sound really stressful, but they're really nothing to worry about. You see-"

BUZZ! BUZZ!

When the intercom sounded, all the scientists looked up from their work and dropped whatever they were holding onto the floor. Sector V, as visitors unfamiliar with the workings of the Deep Sea Base, were quite startled. Then...

"Oh boy, lunch!"

"Yeah, it's meatball sub day!"

"Race you to the front of the line!"

Almost every resident of the research lab was out the door in ten seconds flat. The only scientists remaining were Numbuhs 74.239 and 71.562.

Hoagie, who had been left holding a set of blueprints in his hands, spoke, "Well, that was… unexpected."

"I wanted to finish painting!" pouted Kuki from the other side of the room. The wet circle on the ground, incomplete though it was, still covered nearly all the floorspace.

Wally lay spread-eagled on his back, staring up at the ceiling. He groaned, "If the dorks are all going to lunch, does that mean we're done now?"

Numbuh 71.562 interjected, "Since we have some peace and quiet now, why don't we show our guests the trial footage?"

"For once, that might actually be a good idea from you, Numbuh 71.562," acknowledged 74.239 backhandedly. The freckled scientist turned and addressed Sector V, "You guys can just stay here. We'll aim the projector at that wall and you can get a better view of it from in the Vault. I'll be narrating over the lab intercom."

The two scientists both walked to the base of the stairs, and upon arriving at the same time, began a shoving match with each other as they tried to be the first to the top.

"So," said Hoagie, "What do you guys think about this time machine thing?"

"It's shiny! And really cool!" remarked Kuki.

"It's boring with a capital C!" complained Wally.

Abby was more reserved in her enthusiasm, "Numbuh 5 thinks it's a lot o' trouble waiting to happen."

Nigel said brightly, "I think it's a project with a lot of potential. Considerable risks as well, but as long as they're careful, the Kids Next Door has a lot to gain from this."

"Ri-ight," chuckled Abby as she teased, "Numbuh 5 almost forgot you was a history nerd, Numbuh 1."

"I- no, I'm not!" protested her sector leader.

Hoagie joined in cheerily, "But you totally are!"

"Am not!"

"Closet nerd!" jeered Wally with a bark of laughter.

"No! I'm really not!"

Kuki giggled, "Of course you are, silly! You love field trips to the museum, and you wrote the plaque they have for the Book of KND, and you still hang out with Numbuh 101 even though he's such a fanboy, and-"

Thankfully for Nigel, the ribbing his teammates were giving him was interrupted by 74.239's voice over the intercom.

"Sector V, may we present to you... the footage of our first test of the Vault!"

Sector V waited. Nothing happened.

"Um, just as soon as we get the projector working," amended the young scientist.


Inside the observation room, 74.239 sat in a swivel chair in front of a microphone that was attached to a panel of readouts and digital graphs. Next to him, 71.562 was investigating the wire connections between the projector and the main control panel.

"How many times," the dark-haired scientist complained, "Do I have to tell them that yellow goes into the second place on the left?"

His sleeve lightly brushed up against Numbuh 4's unfinished soda.

74.239 said impatiently, "Just fix it already."

"I'm trying, alright? I have to move everything over a spot. Just tell them about the experiments before we show them."


In the Vault, Sector V heard their guide's voice come over the intercom once again, saying, "Well, my friends, we started our experiments with plants, sending them back in time by about five minutes. Gradually, we increased the displacement up to several hours before moving onto insects and recently hamsters. We've experienced greater power drain than anticipated, but that should be easily remedied. Our accuracy is very impressive… but you're probably not interested in all these little details."

"You're cruddy right, we aren't!" exclaimed Wally grumpily.

74.239 continued, "In summary, we haven't worked out all the bugs yet, but someday- Oh no, what have you done?!"

Suddenly, the giant mobile of 2x4 technology above the children in the Vault began accelerating its rotation at a frightening rate. The roar of its motor was growing louder. Electricity arced from the walls to the floor around the edge of the painted circle. The five members of Sector V backed away from the surge of electrical discharge, clustering together near the center of the transport zone.

"W-what's happening?" stuttered Wally, frightened.

Inside the observation room, Numbuh 71.562 felt panic hammer through his chest as he stared in pure horror at the spilled soda on the control panel in front of him. He hadn't meant to knock it over - but that didn't change the fact that he had. And now the console was activating the time machine.

"Shut it down!" shouted 74.239 from next to him.

He reacted by slamming a hand down on the wet and sparking emergency shutdown button, but it was no use at all.

Wide-eyed and terrified, Numbuh 74.239 cursed and yelled a desperate warning into the microphone, "Sector V, you have to get out of there!"

Too late. They were gone in a blinding flash.