Arvin Wainwright, Minister of Science and Technology for the World Assembly, was not amused by the framed poster on Dr. Peter Anderson’s wall. “Everyone can travel in time,” it read, “but only in one direction.”
The Temporal Studies Institute had been consuming a lot of funding lately, and Wainwright didn’t see anything funny about that. The only thing that was keeping him from shutting down this particular money sink was the rumour that the collection of misfit eggheads that worked here might actually have found a way to travel in time.
Dr. Anderson had the spare look of a man who ignored mealtimes when he was immersed in his work. His unkempt shock of dark hair was streaked with grey. The ill-fitting suit the scientist wore under his lab coat looked to Wainwright like something purchased secondhand on the Internet.
The two were sitting across the tiny office from each other, with Anderson’s desk in the middle. Although it looked like they were attempting to stare each other down at long range, they were really watching the space above the desk. Three cameras, two mounted on the walls and the third on the ceiling, were aimed at that same spot.
“Don’t lean forward like that,” Anderson said. “You wouldn’t want it to materialize inside your head, you know.”
Wainwright muttered something unpleasant as he sat back in his chair.
Suddenly there was a popping sound and a pen appeared at eye level almost directly between them. It seemed to hang in midair for a long moment before falling to the surface of the desk. The pen bounced once, rolled a short distance and lay still. Dr. Anderson jumped to his feet, clapping his hands in glee. Wainwright, concealing his growing excitement, stood up and walked to the desk. He picked up the pen and examined it closely. Sure enough, it was the same pen that he had brought with him, the same pen he had placed in the highly modified teleportation chamber not five minutes before.
“Congratulations would appear to be in order, Dr. Anderson,” Wainwright said. “Can you send things backward in time as well?”
“Oh no, not backward in time. You can’t very well do that, not unless you have ready access to a wormhole.” Anderson gestured at the poster on the wall. “We can send objects and even living creatures forward in time, but no, never backward.”
This sounded like babbling to Wainwright. “How far?” he asked.
“You couldn’t have worded your question better. The limiting factor right now isn’t time, but distance.”
Now Wainwright felt like Anderson was trying to bamboozle him somehow, which he didn’t like at all, but he managed to keep it from showing. “Suppose I wanted to arrive in the same place as I left from?” he asked.
“Oh, you wouldn’t want to do that.”
“Because the earth wouldn’t be there anymore. For simple teleportation the process happens instantly, so we can simply determine the destination point relative to the transmission point. When temporal displacement is involved as well, the earth moves between the transmission and reception times.” Anderson tried to illustrate the concept with hand gestures.
“So why is this a problem?” Wainwright asked. “Just compensate for it.”
“Ah, but compensating for the spatial displacement is easier said than done, far easier. The earth revolves on its axis and orbits the sun — although it wobbles on its axis and its orbit is an ellipse rather than a circle — and if that was all there was to it, there wouldn’t be much of a problem. But there’s more to it than that, far more.”
Anderson started drawing great sweeping circles in the air with his hands. “The sun itself is also moving within the Milky Way galaxy,” he continued, “which in turn is spinning like a merry-go-round, all the while moving away from the centre of the universe, and up until recently we had only the vaguest notion how fast or in what directions. The reason we’ve been sending radio beacons forward in time and into space for the last several weeks is to gather just this sort of displacement data. We’re only now starting to accumulate enough to estimate with any degree of certainty where the earth will be at a given point in the future.”
“So what is the practical limit? How far forward in time could you have sent my pen? How many years?”
“Oh no, not years. You have just witnessed our greatest success, in terms of accuracy — approximately two centimetres at four minutes and forty-eight seconds.”
“You have no idea of the uncertainties in our measurements and the vast distances involved. We applied a spatial displacement of more than 220,000 kilometres to compensate for the four minutes and forty-eight seconds that your pen was travelling forward in time. Right now we are limited by how accurately we can determine the speed and direction of the earth’s movement relative to a stationary reference point, which we believe to be the centre of the universe. The reason that we had the pen appear in the air instead of on the desktop was because we didn’t want to risk it materializing inside the desktop. Air isn’t damaged when it’s forced to move aside to make room for a teleporting object, but solid objects are, and in spectacular fashion.
“At a temporal distance of four minutes and forty-eight seconds we were 99.7% confident that we could predict the point in space at which the pen would reappear within twenty centimetres. To give ourselves a greater margin of safety we sent it to a point fifty centimetres above the centre of the desk. As you just saw, it appeared perhaps two centimetres from our aiming point; the cameras are here to record exactly where. If we can replicate this result consistently, we will have improved our accuracy by a full order of magnitude since this time last week.”
Wainwright leaned forward over the desk. “So to sum up, your best effort would be equivalent to teleporting me to my next meeting, except that I would get there almost five minutes late and risk a sprained ankle when I arrived?”
“Yes, yes, but there’s so much more to it than that,” Anderson said, seemingly oblivious to Wainwright’s sarcasm. “So much more. Our research has given us a very good idea of where the centre of the universe must be. Just think of how this will advance the fields of astronomy and cosmology! I’ll be addressing a symposium of cosmologists next week, as a matter of fact. And then there’s the paper we’re writing for the Journal of —”
“I wouldn’t be wasting my time with that if I were you,” Wainwright said, his expression giving him the appearance of that most predatory of accountants, the auditor. “I would be working very hard on proving that your work is yielding practical results by sending a man much farther forward in time — let’s say fifty years.
“Otherwise,” he continued as he rose to his feet, “you and your team might find yourselves travelling to the re-employment centre — on foot.”
Wainwright paused to let that sink in before he went on. “I’ll be back three months from today,” he said. “You’d better have something more promising to report or this institute will be history the day after.”
Dr. Anderson’s hair was noticeably greyer than it had been three months earlier, but his mood was confident, almost upbeat, as they crossed the floor of the laboratory.
“We’ve improved our spatial accuracy considerably, but we’ve also arrived upon a way to make that consideration less important.” He pointed to a smooth metal cylinder, two meters long and a meter in diameter, nested in a half-opened crate on the floor. “This capsule is a larger version of our radio beacons. We propose to place the subject inside it and aim it at a point in space roughly the distance of Jupiter from the sun. At a temporal displacement of fifty years, we calculate that the capsule will arrive somewhere between the orbits of Earth and Saturn. To eliminate the exceedingly unlikely possibility of the capsule materializing inside a planet or asteroid, our aiming point will be at right angles to the invariable plane.”
“The invariable what?” Wainwright asked.
“Imagine that this is the solar system,” Anderson said, using his hand to describe a circle oriented horizontally at waist level. Then he moved his hand up until it was level with his chin. “Our aiming point will be here — above the solar system, if you will. It would be even safer than teleporting. After all, there are no inconvenient flying insects in space, none at all.”
“But that leaves the subject floating in a steel coffin in the middle of nowhere.”
“The capsule is actually made mostly of aluminum, though it does have a steel honeycomb core between the inner and outer shells. We’ve also added insulation, a moisture barrier, an air supply and a few other amenities …”
“That’s not the point.”
“Oh, you’re concerned about retrieval? Well, that shouldn’t be a problem, not in the least. Our successors will know where to look for the capsule, as well as when — fifty years, plus or minus three days. We could manage retrieval easily even with current technology, much less what will be available in the future.”
“And you’re sure you can pull this off?” Wainwright asked.
“Our confidence level is extremely high.”
“Very well, you’ll have your chance to prove that your confidence is justified. When can you be ready to try this on a human subject?”
“Three or four days,” Anderson said.
“Then plan for a week from today.”
“Who is the subject?” Anderson asked.
“I am,” Wainwright said.
Wainwright looked around him and blinked. He felt a moment of disorientation before he remembered that they had given him an injection to put him out before they sealed the capsule. They didn’t want him to suffer panic-induced claustrophobia, they had said, or was it claustrophobia-induced panic? He shook his head to clear it.
He was lying on his back in the bottom half of the capsule. The top half, he saw, was propped against a wall to his left. He raised his head and looked around. The room he was in was a white box, featureless except for several strange fixtures high up on the walls, and a substantial-looking door at the end closest to his feet. Even the ceiling, which emitted a gentle, uniform light, was somehow the same colour as the walls. He rolled half over the edge of the capsule and looked underneath. It was resting on a metal cradle at waist height above a spotlessly clean white floor.
“Welcome to the future, Arvin Wainwright.”
Wainwright sat up and twisted around, and found himself face to face with a man wearing what looked like a cross between a military uniform and a space suit. A mask with hemispherical screens protruding from either side covered his nose and mouth, and he held a gleaming metal cylinder in his right hand.
“Who are you?” Wainwright asked.
“I’m Lieutenant Markham, medical officer of the frigate Tharsis. If you’ll hold still for just a second?”
Wainwright’s immediate impression was that Markham looked too young to be a doctor, but the thought came too late. Before he could object Markham had already pushed the end of the cylinder against the right side of Wainwright’s neck. It felt like being stung by an ice cube. At least one aspect of medical technology had not advanced in the last half century.
“What was that?” Wainwright asked.
“Various drugs — vaccines, antibiotics, antivirals, that sort of thing. They’re partly to keep you from infecting the solar system with diseases long since eradicated, and partly to keep you from catching the ones that have come up since your time-jump. You came from fifty years ago, and I’ve never treated a time-jumper from that far back. Some of the bugs you’ll be carrying around inside of you are seriously unpleasant.”
“Thank you,” Wainwright said, meaning it.
“You’re welcome,” a woman said as she entered the room through the door, which Wainwright saw was part of an airlock. She wore a slightly more elaborate version of Markham’s outfit, an identical mask, and an almost tangible aura of self-assured authority that made her seem larger than life.
“And who are you?”
“I’m Commander Jocelyn Talbot, captain of the Tharsis. In the name of the Interplanetary Council, I advise you that you are being held in quarantine, where you will remain pending disposition of your case.”
“My case? Have I been charged with something?”
“You haven’t committed a crime, if that’s what you’re worried about. You won’t be here long, either. We’re going to send you back to your own time as soon as we recalibrate our teleport chamber.”
Wainwright assumed as arrogant a posture as he could manage while sitting in a metal trough. “Not if I have anything to say about it, you won’t!”
“In point of fact, you have absolutely nothing to say about it,” Talbot said. “I received this tasking straight from the Secretary of Defence.”
“The Secretary of Defence personally gave an order to a mere … what is a commander, anyway?”
“It’s like a ground force lieutenant colonel, one step below captain, which is our highest peacetime rank. But that’s beside the point.”
Wainwright was momentarily taken aback. “I don’t suppose he told you why you have to send me back?” he asked.
“She, actually. And yes, I know why; anyone who’s taken grade six history knows why. That said, all I’m allowed to tell you is that you have a critical role to play in our past.”
Wainwright’s back straightened and his chest-to-waist ratio improved noticeably, but his frown remained fixed. “But how can you send me back? I thought you needed a wormhole to travel backward in time.”
“You do.” Talbot said, “We use a wormhole to power this ship. It’s artificial, of course, but it works just like the real thing. Are we ready, Dean?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Markham replied. He stepped forward, injection cylinder at the ready. “This will keep you under until you return to your own time.”
“One last thing,” Talbot said. “I’m to give you a message for Dr. Anderson. ‘Baby steps.’ You’ve got that?”
“Baby steps. Got it.”
“Go ahead, Dean,” Talbot said.
Markham stepped briskly around the table and pressed the cylinder against the left side of Wainwright’s neck.
“Crap,” Wainwright said. “Now both sides of my neck are …”
Markham caught him as he fell back into the capsule.
“I told you that you were going about it all wrong, but you wouldn’t believe me,” Dr. Talbot said. “You pulled a scientific miracle out of your hat, and all Wainwright saw was an opportunity for personal and political gain.”
“What do you mean?” Dr. Anderson asked.
“He was counting on fifty years’ worth of compound interest to make him rich, and the attendant publicity to renew his political career, once he arrived in the future.”
“And you’re sure this little theatrical performance is going to work?”
“Trust me,” Talbot chuckled. “I’m a doctor. Wainwright’s psychological makeup is quite straightforward. Like so many politicians, the way to influence his behaviour is to stroke his ego. When he wakes up he’ll see himself as a potential prime minister. By the time he realizes that his political career is headed straight for nowhere, your position in the scientific community will be unassailable. I trust you will never again call behavioural psychology a soft science.”
“And you’re certain his political career will fail?”
“Come now, Peter. Have you ever heard of any minister of science and technology who went on to bigger and better things? It’s where political careers go to die.”
Talbot opened the inner door of Dr. Markham’s small but newly renovated biochemical laboratory and held it for Dr. Anderson. “Take my word for it. You’ll have the funding you need to complete your research — that, and all the time you need.”
Jim Robb is an accountant living in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.