TUESDAY: The Last of the Time Machines, Part 1

BY A. COLIN WRIGHT

This is the first of a two-part story. Read the second and final part here. Copyright is held by the author.

FEW NOW will remember those years when real time machines were all the rage — not those beloved of fiction writers that could physically transport people into the past or future. Scientists know that’s impossible, and it’s why George refused to call his invention a time machine at all. But the name caught on, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He called it a photosynchronoscope, and you can see why a name like that never became popular.

George, surprisingly, wasn’t one of those computer nerds with glasses and a high squeaky voice. He was tall, with a square, rugged jaw and wavy, light-brown hair. He was fit and good at sports too, although he’s gone downhill since those days because of spending so much time in front of a computer. And he had a girl-friend, Cathy, a Ph.D. in Literature like myself, but with a determination, a sense of purpose, that I didn’t possess.

In love with her myself, I’ve never ceased to regret that I introduced them. She was tall like George, but younger — simply beautiful, with gorgeous shiny black hair. Of course, I never suspected that she’d fall for George instead of me. And now they were going to get married — I’d remained single — although I never discovered who’d proposed to whom.

It was my fault too that Cathy and I got George interested in the idea of time travel to start with. “The kind of thing that Daphne Du Maurier suggests in her book The House on the Strand,” I’d said to him once, and Cathy added “Or even in musicals such as Brigadoon.”

“I must read them,” he said at once, surprising both of us, since he had little time for art or literature, being interested only in scientific texts. But after he’d read them, he exploded in disgust: “My idea’s completely different. Du Maurier makes it all a matter of a drug that affects a person’s consciousness. Mere psychology! Her hero just returns to one event that somehow connects with his brain, with no control over when it happens. Nothing scientific at all!”

“She’s mainly interested in telling a story, of a particular group of people in the 14th century,” I said, defending Du Maurier, one of my favourites.

“A good story-teller perhaps, but not what I’ve been working on. I’m interested in the traces an event has left on the environment, back to the beginning of the Earth. With the proper equipment, it should be possible to pick that up. Any event. With her there’s no question of selecting such an event, let alone recording it.”

Cathy and I both thought George crazy, and it was hardly surprising that he had difficulty getting anyone to give him a hearing. He had to promote his first lecture and pay for the rental of the room, himself. The press had a field day announcing it, even though his title, “Observing the Past — Travelling Back in Time,” didn’t talk of a time machine at all, which at least got the attention of a number of serious historians who were expecting the standard, dry, academic lecture.

George started with a lot of calculus and technical details I’m not qualified to comment on, and then explained his thesis of every event leaving its mark on the natural surroundings. Thus with proper calibration of dates and times, he went on (the first major difficulty, which could be overcome only by computers), one should be able to “tune in” to whatever date one selected. “Like tuning in to a radio. At the moment it’s all rough and ready. I’m still working on the calibration, and then I have to sort out the sound as well as the visuals.”

His audience was already interested, for here at least was something original.

“There are limitations, of course, because of the way the Earth developed. Try to go back too far and you’ll only find yourself in a solid mass of ice and, before that, fire and volcanoes, which might be exciting to try but is useless from the historian’s point of view. And you won’t be able to see into the future, since there are no traces of events that haven’t happened yet. Think of my photosynchronoscope — or time machine if you insist on calling it that — as a tape recorder, registering what you’ve recorded, but unable to play back things you haven’t. And then, of course, you have to find your place on the tape.”

He went on with something else that was equally logical.

“The problem is that you’re listening to the recorder in real time. If the recording takes an hour to play, it will take an hour to watch. You can fast forward through the boring bits — something I’m still working on — but you can’t be sure you haven’t missed something important.

“Say, as a historian, you’re observing Richard III (one of my own passions) to see if he gives instructions to some murderer to kill the princes in the Tower of London, which could take no more than a couple of minutes. Easy to miss if you’re fast forwarding. Or perhaps he never ordered the execution at all: you’d be sitting there for days on end with no result, like a police stakeout where they never catch a criminal.

“And even if you get a machine built, you come to another difficulty. You couldn’t touch the figures, since they’re only images, you could walk right through them — although this might interrupt their transmission, I don’t know yet. Amusingly, you could also see yourself: your own past!

“But the greatest difficulty is that the landscape has changed between then and now. Take my example of Richard again. He didn’t confine himself to one residence but travelled often, so you’d have to follow him all over London, or indeed all over England. You’d either need a modern road, since you’ll no longer be travelling on horseback, or your path might be blocked by modern construction — Bosworth field is now a housing estate. You’d need an observer outside the machine to drive you and tell you where to go. Even if you go no further than the Tower of London itself, the machine wouldn’t go up the narrow staircases, so you’d need a kind of gantry (I think “scissor lift” is the technical term) to get to the upper storeys. You could move right through walls that have since been destroyed, but again you’d be obstructed by any modern building. And what of the river? You’d need boats capable of carrying a huge machine without capsizing.”

The audience departed feeling well entertained, never imagining that George would manage to build his machine. It was only many years later that he did so, while still teaching at the university. But he started providing articles for the press, reckoning that wider publicity would give his machine greater credibility. He was paid considerable amounts of money for these articles. He spent the money on the construction of his machine.

***

I became quite familiar with the machine as it developed over the years. No doubt realizing he’d be driving around the countryside, George had forethought enough to use one of those cube vans about 12ft high, which gave him sufficient length as well. He’d installed a scissor lift on top, which he still had to try opening up. From the outside the machine looked huge, but inside it was cramped, for there were so many wires, switches, computers and dials, plus enormous television screens, that there wasn’t much room for people.

It was on George and Cathy’s wedding day that his first real success came. I was his best man, and when I arrived at his house, already dressed in my tails, there he was inside his machine tapping away at the computer keyboard, in his dress-coat but without any trousers on at all. He was quite a comic sight — he’d left the machine’s door open — wearing glasses that never seemed to be focussed properly and constantly stretching forward to peer down at the keyboard.

I sprang into the machine and grabbed his shoulder: “George!”

He gave a start of annoyance, shaking me aside, and suddenly I was aware of vague transparent figures like flashes of light sliding round the walls.

“It’s still very hit and miss,” he said without looking at me. “A bit like table-tapping with one of those Ouija boards, where the glass goes shooting around but all you get are nonsense words.”

“George, it’s time we were going!”

“It’s time, it’s all time,” he muttered as if he hadn’t heard me.

“We’ve got to get to the church, the cars will be here any minute. Why you had to work this morning!”

“Just a minute, I’m almost there!”

“Not at the church you aren’t!”

“I told you I’d only be a few moments.”

Which was typical of him, for he was already sinking into that confused state of mind that was to be a problem for him throughout his life. He hadn’t told me he needed a few moments, but he’d already forgotten about that. I gave a long sigh as he typed in something.

“Just one more thing I need to check.” He was dictating various mathematical calculations and every move he made into a tape recorder, since he never had time to write it all down. He turned a couple of knobs, pressed a couple of buttons, and all at once the vague shadow-like figures became brighter. “George, shut the door, then we’ll see better. By God, George, it’s working!”

I shut the door, and there on the television screens you could clearly see figures as if they were real. I was excited in spite of myself, but I had to get him to the church. “You know how nervous Cathy is. The church will be almost full by now. She’ll never forgive you if you’re late.”

“How the hell was I to know that it was suddenly going to start working? It’ll mean success, Harry, fame and fortune. I’ll even be able to pay what I owe you for all your help!” Typing away furiously, he added “Cathy will forgive me for being a quarter of an hour late . . . well perhaps half an hour . . . when she realizes there’ll be no more scrimping and saving. What’s half an hour when we’re talking of a whole lifetime?”

“But you can go back to your machine later!”

He paused again, considering. “Later? I wonder. An hour for the service, then the reception, the dinner. Perhaps I could slip back here while Cathy’s relatives are all stuffing themselves.”

“Don’t even think of it, George.”

“No, you’re right.” He muttered to himself: “So six o’clock, six-thirty, before the dinner’s over. No, I have to do it now or I’ll have forgotten where I am.” He was typing, dictating into his recorder, and peering intensely at the screen. “Or perhaps I can come back after dinner and work then. We could delay the honeymoon.”

“You can’t delay the first night of your honeymoon, man, for God’s sake!”

“Ssh! Something else is beginning to happen. After all, what’s another night with Cathy when we’ve been sleeping together for months?”

I was upset inspite of myself, although I suspected it already. “Anyway, as best man it’s my job to get you to the church,” I said lamely.

George stood up, his mouth open, looking into space. “My God, my God!” He moved sideways, then whispered into the air: “Where are you going? No, of course he can’t hear me. Shit, and I can’t follow. I’m going to have to find a way of moving it, you’ll have to drive it for me.” He returned to his keyboard. “If I reset it, I can play it over again.”

“No, George, you can do it later. Now, how do you save what you’ve done?”

He moved to look into the distance again. “Perhaps he’ll come back? Oh, just press F3. I did it, Harry,” he shouted as I pressed the key. “I did it! Now Cathy will really have something to love me for.”

“Not if you forget to marry her! Now come along!” I almost had to force him to leave the machine.

“Let’s go then. What are we waiting for?”

2 comments

  1. Michael Joll

    I’m no fan of sci-fi, but you’ve got me hooked already. I love the pacing, the vocabulary and the character development. And the reference to Du Maurier, one of my favourite authors, really got me going. I can hardly wait for Wednesday.

  2. Pingback: WEDNESDAY: The Last of the Time Machines, Part 2 |

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