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What You Bring Back
Robert Williams had found a breakthrough. For years his research enlightened and astonished Washington University, but now he was on the cusp of actually harnessing time. He had always known that it that it was possible despite feeling weary of his clichéd childhood dream.
Time was after all just another measurement. If one were to find the correct mathematical equation to convert the illusive measurement while also devising the proper apparatus to apply such precise coordinates, the dream of time travel would be realized.
Dr. Williams had spent most of his life working to solve this mystery. When he stumbled on the equation it was an unexpected series of events that led his brain to understand and develop the proper machine to create a transport. When his car broke down he took it to a mechanic to be fixed, not imagining how it would aid him.
“Well, your engine’s busted,” a greasy mechanic gave the diagnosis.
“How?” Dr. Williams wanted to know.
“The pistons have detonated and damaged the rod bearings and the head gasket. Usually it’s not this bad but the extreme weather we’ve been having lately is causing more issues in a lot of cars.”
“Can you show me the damage and explain it to me?
Once Dr. Williams stared under the hood and had the basics of the engine described to him, something clicked. His degree was not in engineering but with an extensive background in science and mathematics the visual helped the pistons fire in his brain, even if the ones in his car were shot.
Vehicles measure speed and maneuver space. His time travel device would have to measure space and maneuver time. He hurried off in his rental car and barely noticed the other drivers as he sped back to his lab on campus.
Spending the next twenty four hours working to find a link between the simple mathematics of speed and machinery along with time and space he locked himself away. After reclining on his office couch to get a few hours rest he popped awake and sketched out the design that came to him in his sleep.
Having already spent most of his grant money on the project he was meant to be working on, he used what was left on his own credit card to research and buy all the pieces that he would need to create his vehicle, the one that would travel through time. He contemplated hiring the mechanic to build the device but thought better of it. Instead he dropped into the auto shop from time to time to learn as the man worked on his car and gain some knowledge. It took weeks to receive some parts for his project so he was eager to prepare.
Once the items needed arrived, he decided to roll up his sleeves and piece everything together himself. He would have created a team of his colleagues but again, something in him knew that in order to properly be able to handle the device he would need to know it inside and out. There was also a concern that his employer would shut the unauthorized project down.
The process of actually building his contraption was trying. He had strength was of mind, but his hands were not used to building such heavy machinery. His knuckles were rubbed raw. The grime of winding gears and adjusting joints collected under his fingernails, something he was unaccustomed to.
After much trial and error he finally had his vehicle. It was not much to look at but it was a true breakthrough, if it worked.
Being a huge WWI buff, he romanticized the time period. He determined to travel back to early 1918. The war would be in full swing and he wanted to know how people lived with such news at the time. The idea that the war would be ended later that year made him think that he would be able to bear it.
Dr. Williams made sure to look the part. He went out and bought a vintage sac suit with a bowler hat and gloves. It was a fitting look, one that would help his aged form fit in better if his experiment worked.
When he was dressed and ready, he took a deep breath, set the gears for late February 1918 and fired up the engine. The wind was knocked out of him. His head spun and he was forced to close his eyes to avoid being sick as reality warped. The journey was only a few seconds but felt much longer. Once the trip concluded the scientist’s body convulsed and lay still.
A sponge mopped Dr. Williams’ brow when he came to. He was in what was his lab but drastically changed. A highly bewildered man in his early forties stood over him.
“Hello, I’m Dr. Bowman. I don’t know where you came from, but your device intrigues me. We are both men of science I can see. How is it that you appeared in my laboratory?”
Dr. Williams was well aware of his University’s history. He had heard of the man who stood before him. Still, it was a lot to take in. Dr. Bowman had been dead for decades in his own time.
He had expected to be effected by the changes of his surroundings but the many differences in his office were mind blowing. The basement laboratory had no electricity and was illuminated with simple gas lamps. No wall outlets connected wires to devices that were meant to assist with research. The absence of his simple coffee maker left an imprint on the scientist’s perception of his accomplishment of traveling through time.
He found his voice, “My name is Dr. Williams and I too am employed by this university. This will become my lab in the year 2002.”
The man before him just nodded not sure if he believed his visitor, “And what is the world like where you come from?”
“It is 2009 and I have just discovered the secret of time travel.”
Dr. Bowman was not easily surprised. He began to step around the vehicle that had appeared in his laboratory. Reaching out he scrutinized the machine while gently touching its side.
Dr. Williams stood up and began to explain it to him. How it was built and how the contraption worked. He did not however speak of the equation that led him to the discovery of its creation.
The two men were both awe inspired. Dr. Williams had been confident in his handiwork but actually traveling through time was still a concept that shook him to his core.
“Just think what we can do with such a device. You can stop the war…save so many lives…” Dr. Bowman trailed off in thought.
His visitor’s face was sympathetic. “I cannot imagine what kind of fear you have all suffered, but I can assure you that the war will be finished before the year’s end.”
These words had a disturbing effect on Dr. Bowman. “Do we…” his voice shook as he could not finish the question.
“There will be victory for us,” Dr. Williams assured his new acquaintance. He began to grow fond of the man. Knowing what he would accomplish and meeting the intellect was inspiring.
Dr. Bowman relaxed, “Will you be staying for long?” He did not want to seem rude but this encounter was a bit unsettling.
Feeling more like himself Dr. Williams scratched his head. “No, this is my first journey. Best make it short for now.”
His plan was to simply observe his new environment in the hopes that he would be of better use on proceeding trips. The effects of such travel were something he hoped to ease as he continued to move through time.
The relief on his new companion’s face was inescapable. “Pardon my obvious ease. I am glad to meet you, it is just that my family and I are supposed to travel back home to Kansas next week. It is a long awaited, much needed vacation.”
“I understand,” Dr. Williams smiled.
The two great minds conversed some more. After a while Dr. Bowman was so confident in Dr. Williams’ work that he felt the need to celebrate. He offered to take the man from the future to lunch who happily accepted.
Dr. Williams was eager to see the city in its earlier glory. The streetcars alone gave his eyes much to feast on. The roads surrounding Forest Park were not filled with personal automobiles, nor were there as many commuters.
The scientists rode deeper into the city and when the skyline broke, the absence of the St. Louis Arch was so bewildering to Dr. Williams that his head began to ache. The structure he was so familiar with would not be built for another forty seven years.
Once the men got off the car and entered the restaurant, Dr. Williams realized how much of a toll the journey had taken on him. He felt half starved and was grateful for his new friend.
When they sat down even the simple dining room was dated. Everything that Dr. Williams experienced was foreign to him. More formal, less hurried. He highly enjoyed just sitting and eating the meal with no urgency of connecting with others.
Despite his enjoyment he reached for his phone without thinking.
Dr. Bowman leaned forward, “What’s that?”
“Oh this is my cell phone. It is a device that connects me to unlimited information as well as allowing me to talk to other individuals from wherever I am.
This intrigued the man before him, “Interesting, how does it work?”
Dr. Williams handed his phone to his host.
Dr. Bowman jumped when a voice came from the gadget. It stated, “Dr. Williams I am unable to locate an available Wi-Fi connection.”
“Wi-Fi?” Dr. Bowman asked eyeing his new acquaintance.
Dr. Williams went into more detail about the internet and its effect on society. He described how important technology has become and the fact that in his time most people did not leave the house without their cell phones.
Laughing he leaned back. “I haven’t just sat and talked with anyone during a meal in some time. There always an alert or call coming through that I need to take.”
“But what about conversation?” Dr. Bowman’s eyebrows wrinkled in disbelief.
“It’s definitely changed. People still talk to each other we just multitask.” Dr. Williams could tell that he was not making a good case for modern societal ways based on the way that Dr. Bowman shifted uneasily.
He dropped the subject and they finished the meal in silence. Once through, they were both offered a smoke, another sign of the times. Dr. Williams had not even realized how clouded the restaurant had been due to his empty belly. Now that his appetite was appeased his senses were sickened. He had to excuse himself and step outside for a breath of fresh air.
Dr. Bowman shortly followed out on the sidewalk. “Are you alright?”
“Oh yes. It’s just that in my time most people don’t smoke. It’s been banned in a lot of public places.”
“But it relaxes the body, calms the nerves.”
“I’m sorry to have to be the one to educate you, but smoking cigarettes also causes deadly illnesses that eat away at your body through the years.”
This idea was scrutinized by Dr. Bowman but Dr. Williams proceeded to give him the basics of the facts. It was not a favorable conversation and they entered the streetcar back to the university in silence. Each pondered the cultural differences of people from the same place but different times.
When they returned Dr. Williams marveled at the campus and all that his career meant to him. He accompanied Dr. Bowman back to his lab and thanked him for his hospitality. Then taking his leave he sat down inside his vehicle and set the gears. To be sure to keep the timeline intact, he traveled back to the very minute that he had left.
He lost his breath. His head was struck with a series of painful sensations as he closed his eyes to lighten the sickening transition. This time the scientist was able to remain conscious but he was very weak when the journey was through.
Before he could regain his faculties he heard a voice echoing in his head. “Dr. Williams, I’m special agent McCormick with the F.B.I. You have to come with me.”
Dr. Williams stumbled along, supported by the stone faced agent to a black sedan. He closed his eyes once placed in the backseat, and rested for the drive.
When awakened, he was better able to understand the severity of the situation. Agent McCormick opened the door and led Dr. Williams through an alleyway into a tall brick building. He was placed in a small room with a table and chairs. Agent McCormick stood before him expressionless.
“Dr. Williams, have you or have you not discovered the equation that will allow man to travel through time?”
The scientist sat tall and admitted, “I have,” with a proud smile.
“And have you built a machine that applies this principle?”
Again he happily admitted, “Yes.”
“Dr. Williams, I feel that you do not comprehend the gravity of the situation. Did you think that you were the first person to achieve this? In all of our advances in science and discovery did you really think that you were the only one?”
The scientist’s face fell. He began to grow uncomfortable.
“One last question: did you or did you not travel back to 1918 without the knowledge of the university, the consent of the government, or the safety of the public in mind?”
Dr. Williams pondered the question. He did not answer but asked, “What has happened?”
“Answer the question,” was the firm response from the federal officer.
“Yes,” he nearly whispered.
“Your actions have had grave consequences. The bacteria on your body are not like that of the people in the past. As a scientist you know very well that these microorganisms, all illnesses, and diseases evolve just like any other creature. By traveling ninety one years in the past your body chemistry caused one of the worst epidemics that the U.S. had ever seen, the Spanish Flu.”
These words took their toll on Dr. Williams. He knew the history of the virus. That is was speculated to have originated in Kansas, the very place that Dr. Bowman traveled to after his departure. Learning that his actions caused such suffering began to tear away at the scientist. He slowly sank into the depths of his brilliant brain and lost himself forever.
The F.B.I. confiscated everything related to his studies and the general public was none the wiser as H1N1, the descendent strand of the Spanish Flu became news worthy.
arby - I like the ending. Time travel leading to unexpected consequences is always a rich source of entertainment. The trouble is that the ending is the only thing I particularly like. A story like this, it seems to me, has two potential "engines." The first engine is the same engine most stories ride on: conflict. The second engine is curiosity: it suggests answers to the question, how is it possible? Think of The Martian. The writing in that book (I haven't seen the movie) is frankly pretty bad, but you can't stop reading it because it keeps suggesting outrageous -- but believable -- solutions to the question, how is it possible? At the same time, the protagonist is constantly in danger of his life, so there's your conflict. It uses both engines. Your short story doesn't have much conflict since nothing is really at stake. If Williams fails to make his machine, for example, there is no real problem except he'll lose his investment, which can't have been much if he put it all on his credit card. That's fine, though. It's a short story, so you can get away with minimal conflict. The thing is, however, you don't harness the other engine: you provide us with NO details, nothing that makes us say, "wow, that could really work" about how the machine works. I liked it when you made the observation that "Vehicles measure speed and maneuver space. His time travel device would have to measure space and maneuver time" but that was as interesting as you ever got about how the machine worked. So... I'm left with no engine, and for me, the story falls flat before it ever gets to the, admittedly interesting, ending.
micheledutcher - tobiash wrote: Very well done, Jess. As a time travel fan myself, I thoroughly enjoyed this story. I can find no fault with it. The paradoxes of time travel are many and rich and provide the writer with a rich area to explore.
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