January 25, 2006
In 2006, Sam Altair broke a lifetime of following the rules when he stole equipment from his employer, and set up an experiment they’d forbidden him to do. Then he sent himself back in time to the year 1906.
That last part was an accident.
When the Sun Consortium’s Technical Review Team cut off his funding, citing a “lack of results,” Sam could hear the bells sounding a death knell. A lifetime of research was about to be boxed up and filed in a records center somewhere in Waterford.
He knew he was sending objects back in time. He just couldn’t find a trace of them in the past. The Technical Review Team raised the concern that he was starting alternate timelines whenever he ran an experiment. An object sent back in time would cause the universe to split at that point, creating a new universe with an identical history to their own, but with a separate future from that moment forward. Sam was doubtful, but it scared the powers-that-be. He was certain this was the real reason they pulled the plug on his research.
But he would never have another chance.
He had not put a lot of thought into his clandestine experiment. He didn’t have time, and yes, he had to shrug off the irony of that. He’d slipped the small time machine home in his bag, but it wouldn’t take long for someone to notice it was missing. And the moment he accessed the satellite feeds, using the Consortium’s dedicated lines, they would know without doubt what he was doing.
But if he was successful–if he could send a young tree back one hundred years, and if the full-grown tree appeared in its place–they would have to let him continue. They would be delighted to do so, once he’d done the dirty work.
So as Belfast settled into its nightlife, he went for a walk, the time machine and laptop stuffed into a backpack. The area around Queen’s University seldom truly slept, but the Botanic Garden was empty this late on a foggy January night. He was certain no one noticed him take the main path past the gates and over the grass, to the giant oak holding court over the herbaceous border.
He took a few pictures of the large tree with his cell phone’s camera, but it wasn’t really the big tree he cared about. He just wanted to establish the provenance of the foot-high sapling, poking up from the muddy green several feet away. The sapling that would soon be as tall as its parent.
A tickling in the back of his neck made him work quickly, using his GPS to find the coordinates of the tree, and then running the formulas to set up an isolation field around it. There was nothing to see, but on his laptop screen, the field showed a blue border, 152.4 centimeters in all directions around the sapling, including the vertical. Everything within that field would go back in time.
It would leave a bloody great hole in the grass if this didn’t work. But if it didn’t work, that would be the least of his worries.
He’d set his equipment on some large rocks behind the nearby bushes, and now he knelt beside them, inputting the final instructions. The location was the exact spot the sapling now occupied. The time of day was synchronized to current time: 12:02 a.m. and counting. The temporal destination was 1906.
He set the timer for one minute, and allowed himself a moment of glory as his finger poised above the ENTER key. His heart pounded in his chest as his mind raced through the steps of the experiment. All was ready.
He lowered his finger with a swift tap and the countdown started. That’s when things began to fall apart.
The low murmur of a voice reached him as he knelt by the time machine, and he froze in place, breath caught. Who was that? Had someone followed him? Was he being watched? He jerked upward, looking toward the tree, and for several seconds, he could not make sense of what he saw. There, within his isolation field, was a girl, kneeling next to the sapling, patting some dirt around the tree and talking to it in that sing-song voice people used for babies and pets. She wore a dark cloak and gloves, with a cloth cap pushed over her ears. Long hair hung down her back, partially covering the backpack she wore. A student? At this time of night?
The time machine was counting down. There was no abort switch.
His mind refused to think. His actions were beyond any choice he could imagine. So he yelled. “Hey! Get out of there! Hurry!”
The girl jumped in surprise, but lost her balance, falling to sit on the ground. Sam rushed toward her, seeing in his mind how the objects in his experiments vanished from sight with a faint clap of thunder. A hundred and fifty-two centimeters. Five feet. Just a few feet from the tree, and they would both be safe.
She started to stand, arms coming up in defense at his headlong rush. And everything changed.
His senses returned one at a time, as if in slow motion. Sight first–he found himself on his hands and knees, staring at his fingers spread claw-like in the grass. Feeling came next–his heart beat fast and strong in his chest, the pulse points in his wrists throbbed through his hands against the ground. Then smell and taste–his first breath brought a sting of burning coal, and the invasive trace of a broken sewer. Or outhouses.
He was in the past.
He sat, staring around him at the now fogless night, noting the twin phenomena of increased darkness due to no street lights, and a sky bright with a dazzling array of stars and the full moon.
A moan off to his left told him he wasn’t alone. Memory returned with a rush of horror. The girl had come through time with him.
He twisted to look behind him. She must have fallen too. Encumbered by her backpack, the fall looked clumsy–she lay half on her back, the pack caught underneath her. A strap trapped an arm behind her and she was trying to free it.
He scrambled to her side, babbling with constrained concern, turning her so she could free the arm. “Are you hurt, Miss? I’m so sorry. My God, I’m so sorry about this. Did you hit your head?”
Free of the pack, she moved so fast he had no time to help her up. She stood, her dark cloak masking her shape. The hood had fallen back, revealing a mass of hair and a face so pale, it seemed to glow in the darkness.
Her voice revealed her panic. “Who are you? What just happened, here? Where are we?”
He rose to his feet, his sixty-year old knees making it a much slower process than hers. Once at his full height, he looked down about a foot to meet her eyes. She waited without speaking, her stance and eyes alert. The backpack remained on the ground. He suspected she left it there in case she needed to run.
Even amid the other-worldly oddness of what had just happened to them, he noticed her accent. She was American.
“Miss,” he said, holding out a hand to show her he wouldn’t hurt her, “I will explain everything. But it’s not going to be easy to believe.”
“Where are we?” she asked again. “How did we get here? I was by the tree and you came running out of nowhere and… and I… fell, and…” Her hands clenched into fists at her sides, “something happened. What happened?” The last words were a shout.
“I didn’t come out of nowhere,” he said. “I was behind the bushes,” he gestured to the side, staring for moment when he saw that the bushes were no longer there. When he turned back to her, he saw she had backed up a few steps, her gaze stuck on the missing bushes. He stayed silent as she looked around, his own eyes taking in a peripheral glance of Belfast’s Botanic Garden.
It was not the same in 1906.
“Where are we?” she asked again. A whisper.
He prevaricated. “We’re in the Botanic Garden, miss.”
Her head moved sideways. “No. I’m a horticultural student. I know that garden like my own name. This is not it.”
“The Palm House is there,” Sam said, his chin jutting to the right, where the familiar hulk was framed against the sky.
Her glance turned into a stare, and when she brought her attention back to Sam, her face was tight with anger. “Start explaining, mister.”
He rubbed his forehead with both hands. “Right,” he said. “You’re right–something did happen. I was doing an experiment,” he turned to gesture at the small tree, but at his sudden movement she brought her hands up in a self-defense posture. The pose looked quite professional to Sam, and he held his hands up, standing very still. “It was only supposed to involve the tree.”
She didn’t change her position. “Do you work for the city? Who gave you permission to experiment in here?”
“It’s a public park.”
Her eyes narrowed and she took a step toward him. The movement was fluid and controlled. Sam moved back, eyes on her hands. Her voice was hard. “Answer my questions, mister. Who are you?”
He bowed his head. “Dr. Samuel Altair. I’m a physicist.”
Her eye twitched. “Why are things different? I don’t remember going anywhere. Did you drug me?”
He winced at the fear and rage in her voice. There’d been date rape drugging going on around the university, and her fear was understandable. But why had she been alone in the park, so late at night? He couldn’t help feeling annoyed that he was now having to defend his honor, when he’d done nothing wrong.
Nothing along those lines, anyway.
“No, I promise you,” he said, his voice firm. “I did nothing of the sort. You understand I have as much right to be in the park as you.”
“Damn it, mister.” Her voice squeaked and she took a deep breath. “I swear,” she said, her voice stronger, “if you don’t start giving me some straight answers, I’ll put you in the hospital.” She changed positions, her eyes roving over his body. He felt himself assessed, saw her confidence. He suspected it would hurt if she attacked. “Tell me the truth,” she demanded. “What did you do?”
He closed his eyes for a moment. “I’m telling you the truth,” he said. “We’re still in the gardens.”
Her movement was sudden and harsh, her leg swinging out and around before he had time to blink. She kicked his legs out from under him and he fell with a startled yell. Pain lanced his back as he hit the ground, but she gave him no time to think about it. She grabbed his arm, forcing him to his side and twisting it behind his back until he yelped with pain.
“We are not in the garden!” she yelled into his ear. “Stop saying that. Tell me the truth.”
He gasped, the fingers of his free hand scrabbling uselessly to reach her. “I’m telling you what I know,” he said, gasping again. “It’s just not easy to explain. I’m a researcher. I work with time.” He moaned and she loosened her hold a fraction.
“I’m studying time distortion. Time travel.”
He couldn’t see her face, but after another pain-filled moment, she released him and stood back. He groaned, bringing his arm around to cradle it against his chest, as he sat up. He looked up at her through tears of pain.
She hooted. “Time travel? You’re going to have to do better than that, Mister. That’s lame.”
He shrugged the uninjured shoulder. “Look around. You said yourself everything is different.” He stood, protecting the injured arm as best he could. “I was trying to send the tree back a hundred years, to 1906,” he said. “I need a chance to look around. I need to verify where and when we are. I need a chance to think.”
She stared at him. He watched her, saw her struggle with confusion. When she moved again, he flinched, but relaxed when she flipped open a cell phone and pressed a button. In the silence of the dark night, he heard the faint recording telling her there was no service available. The light from the screen revealed her dismay.
“All right,” she said, dropping the phone back in her pocket. “Look around. Think. Verify. While you’re doing that, I’m going home.” She turned around, scooped up her backpack, and walked quickly away.
Sam jerked in astonishment. Where was she going? Well, she’d find out soon enough that home wasn’t there.
But what would she do then? Could he count on her to come back? No doubt she could take care of herself in 2006, but would she know what to do in 1906? Bollocks, he didn’t know what to do. Afraid to lose her, he started after her.
He found her just outside the garden gates, staring in shock at the dark street before them. He felt the same shock, looking at a peaceful residential street with ornate houses, stone walls, and trees. She turned to him, small and frail in the half-light from gas streetlamps, although his aching arm put the lie to frailness. Her eyes reflected the light, revealing her fear.
“Where is my apartment building? Where are the traffic lights and the signs and the cars?” Her voice trembled.
He shook his head, afraid to speak. “They aren’t here in 1906,” he said, trying to believe it himself. “We really are back in time.”
She sat on a bench, wrapping her arms around herself and scrunching down. She rocked a bit, either from cold or fear. “I don’t believe you.” Her voice sounded small and defiant, but her next words were nothing but fear. “Can you get us back?”
He hesitated, then sat on a separate bench, wondering if this was a bus stop. He didn’t know if they had buses in 1906. “I don’t know,” he answered her, watching her rock. “Miss, what’s your name?”
Her eyes shot to his face and she regarded him doubtfully, but finally answered, “Casey. Casey Wilson.”
“Casey, I’ve been working on time travel for a long time, but I have to tell you, it’s still a big mystery. Never, never have I attempted to send a human back.” He rubbed his face, trying to think clearly. “My equipment is in the future. I needed a quantum computer and satellites to do the equations for this. I don’t have any of those things here. I don’t know if I can make them.” That might have been funny if he were in the mood for humor. As if he could build a computer or launch a satellite!
“What do we do?” Her voice was stronger.
“It’s cold,” he said. “We need shelter. Neither of us has any money printed before 1906, so we can’t just go to a hotel.”
She nodded, looking down the street. He watched her get control of herself, looking less frightened, and more like the girl who held him at bay with karate threats. He was impressed.
Her eyes narrowed as she spotted something. “Okay, come on,” she said, and took off across the square toward the church whose steeple was visible around the corner. Sam followed her without argument. She tip-toed to the back of the building and paused, looking around to get her bearings.
Sam caught up to her. “Where are we going?” he whispered.
She turned her head to speak through chattering teeth. “Everything looks different. But somewhere, there’s an entrance into a storage area near the rectory. At least we’ll be out of the cold for the night, and I am really freezing. Ah, there it is.” She slipped across the lot to a small door near the corner of the building. Before opening it, she turned to glare at Sam. “You saw I know karate. Don’t try anything.”
He rolled his eyes. “Please. I’m an old man.”
Doubt showed on her face. “You’re not that old. And I’m not an idiot.” She tried the handle. The door opened without sound, and they slipped through.
“Wow,” she whispered as it closed behind them. “I’ve never seen this much darkness in my whole life.”
Sam pulled out his penlight and turned it on. They were indeed in a storeroom, one filled with wine barrels, small furniture, and assorted boxes. He kept the light going long enough for them to settle into separate corners, then closed it and plunged them back into darkness. “It’s still pretty cold in here,” he said. “But better than out there.”
She tskd as she shifted around. “It’ll be bearable.”
“So you’ve done this before, Casey?”
“Yeah. Freshman year. Got caught out too late and missed curfew. I was with a couple of other kids who knew about this place.”
He smiled at her confession, remembering his own college years at Queen’s. “So you attend Queen’s? You sound American.”
“I do in 2006. I don’t think I’m enrolled at the moment.”
He ignored the sarcasm. “You major in horticulture? What year are you?”
She didn’t answer right away and he wondered if he was asking too many questions. She had no reason to trust him.
“I’m a junior,” she said at last. “And yes, I’m American. From Berkeley, California.”
“Berkeley? Why didn’t you go to Cal?”
“Because I grew up there. And I’ve wanted to live in Ireland all my life. I like it here. Your turn. Are you from Belfast?”
“Aye, since I was twelve. I went to Queen’s, too, although, as it happens, I did my postgrad at Stanford.”
“Oh, dear. Go Bears.” Her tone was light as she invoked the rivalry between the schools. He laughed. “So where do you work?” she continued. “Who pays you to do irresponsible time experiments?”
No one, since they pulled the plug, but he didn’t want to get into that. “A private consortium. Funding comes from several sources and I don’t really know what they all are. We’re just a crowd of scientists, playing around with our pet projects.”
“Sounds like something out of DC Comics,” she said. “You know, some private group of super-rich dudes supporting mad scientists in order to exploit their work, most likely not for the good of humanity.”
He tapped the wall behind him with his head. “That has occurred to me at times. But I never saw a problem, and it was nice to have research funds.”
“It always is, isn’t it?” He heard her shifting around again. “For the record, Dr. Altair, I don’t believe a word you’ve said. We’ll get a better look around in the morning and maybe you’ll have a new explanation then.”
He nodded, even though she couldn’t see him. “Sounds fair. Hope you get some sleep.”
“Yeah. You too.”
But neither one of them did.