By Richard A. Lovett
This story won the 2012 Eloi Bronze Medal for third best time-travel story of the year. It originally appeared in Analog. (©2012 by Richard A. Lovett).
Early morning was Alec’s favorite time in the lab, especially the day after a major advance. There was something about a breakthrough that hung in the air like a spirit haunting the site of its birth. Not literally, of course. He took no truck with the spiritualists and their silly séances. But places could hold mystiques—auras, if you insisted—almost as though prior outpourings of emotion had been absorbed by the woodwork, only to be slowly re-released.
But the afterglow of discovery was fragile. The moment Watson walked in with his cheery “good morning,” it would be over and a new day’s work would begin. There was still much to do to bring the new invention fully to life. But the discovery—that was always the best part.
He thought again of the words he’d chosen for that glorious moment. Initially, he’d considered something more portentous: “One small step…” or some such declaration. But that was too grandiose for a moment shared by only two men.
Even that, however, would have been better than the words Reis used a decade ago in his intriguing but ultimately fruitless efforts. His device had broken sound into a series of electrical pulses like an impossibly rapid telegraph. It had been a wondrously inventive idea that had almost worked. But ultimately, there was no way to generate electrical pulses that switched on and off quickly enough to make it practical.
What was it Reis had said into his transmitter? “Horses don’t eat cucumber salad”? Maybe it made more sense in German. Or maybe it was just what the people listening at the other end thought he had said. When Edison made a similar device, he’d found all but the simplest sounds to be impossibly slurred. It had been enough to cause him to abandon the entire field as a blind alley, giving Alec time to figure out an alternative that actually worked.
“Mr. Watson, come here—I want to see you.” That had been far better: a clear, practical first message for an invention destined someday to replace the telegraph.
The device was now on his desk. Alec was going to need a name for it, one that carried the right sense of the future. Acoustograph, one of his backers had suggested. But that sounded too much like something from one of the fantasies of that French writer, Verne. He needed a simpler name, one that would seem so natural nobody would ever believe it could possibly have been anything else.
The device on his desk buzzed.
It shouldn’t have done that. He had brought the receiver up from Watson’s desk, setting it beside the transmitter on his own. He had not transmitted any buzzes. He’d not done anything but sit, savoring the echoes of yesterday’s success.
Feeling like a fool, he picked up the transmitter. “Yes?”
“Oh wow! Hi!” The voice came from what had been Watson’s receiver. “Wow! A real person, not a machine. I didn’t know those existed anymore!”
About the only part of that which made sense was the “wow.” Alec had grown up in Edinburgh and knew Scottish vernacular when he heard it. Though the accent wasn’t Scottish. More like New World, magnified.
“Yes,” he said again, because it was the only thing he could think of. “Is this Watson?” He couldn’t imagine how it could be when he held both ends of the device, but he certainly wasn’t speaking to himself.
There was a burst of sound, somewhat like coal going down a chute or maybe the type of noise he sometimes got from a badly connected wire. “What about the Sun? Sorry dude, you’re breaking up.”
Reflexively, Alec looked at himself. He was, of course, intact, and his clothing was dignified, not dandified. How could this…individual…know enough about him to pass such a judgment, anyway?
There was another burst of noise, then the voice was back, stronger than before. “But yeah, the Sun is like totally whacked. Have you looked outside? Oh, wait. Where are you?”
“I am in Boston,” Alec said, because it was the only part of the comment he really understood. In the back of his mind, however, he was pleased. Despite the intermittent bursts of noise, the words coming from the receiver were strong and clear—although for all the sense they made, they might as well have been about horses and cucumbers.
“I’m in Bowling Green. Kentucky, not Ohio. So we’re only one time zone apart, which means you should be able to see it too, if you’ve got clear skies.”
“Uhh…” Polite gentlemen weren’t supposed to make noises like that. “Time zone?” The railroads were always complaining about the need for more organized timing, but how could it have happened without his knowledge?
His conversant didn’t notice his confusion. “Yep. I just pulled up the sat-map and you’ve got perfect weather unless the Internet’s as whacked as everything else.” There was another burst of noise, not as long or loud as last time. “Can you see the sky? I mean, isn’t this like totally cool? I don’t know what you’ve got back there, but here it’s like being in the middle of God’s own light show. Without the Mary Jane, if you get my drift. Right now it’s red and green and really does shimmer like giant curtains.”
“Urr…” Alec was accustomed to being in control of conversations or at least knowing what they were about. “Sir, at the moment it is 7:13 a.m., by my watch. If you are talking about auroras, let me assure you that outside my window the Sun is shining and I see no auroras, red, green, or otherwise. Would you be so kind as to tell me the purpose of this…” Alec groped for a word— “call?”
“Seven in the morning? You sure you’re not in India or something? Come to think of it, you do have a bit of an accent.”
Alec stiffened. “I was born in Scotland, but I have been on this continent for several years.” And I used to teach elocution, which is something from which you might benefit greatly. “I am in Boston.”
There was a pause.
“Dude. That’s like totally weird.” Another pause. “Well, it’s the middle of the night here and my Facebook is like totally whacked. And now I’ve got live tech support when I was sure I was going to spend half the night fighting a roboserver, and what am I doing? Arguing about time zones. Sorry, man.”
“So, uhh—” Alec was going to have to brush up his own elocution when this was over. “Can you define what you mean by ‘totally whacked’?”
“It’s my friends list. My ex-girlfriend is suddenly back on it, even though I unfriended her when she did a drive-by on my Stratocaster two years ago.”
“Electric guitar. Sorry man. You do sound like you might be more into that longhair stuff. Bach, Beethoven, all those guys from before the Beatles. Me, I’m a head-banger from way back. Give me Eighties metal, anytime.”
Finally, a tidbit of something that made sense. Other than the head-banging, which sounded painful. “Yes, I do like Bach. And Beethoven.” Emboldened, he went on. “So, your former…sweetheart? …drove a carriage past your guitar? Is that some form of ritual insult in Kentucky?”
There was a sound that might have been a laugh. “Man, you are just way too funny to be wasting your life in tech support. No, it was at a concert. We were on set break, and she and a couple of her weird-ass friends charged the stage and trashed as much stuff as they could before security got ’em. She said it was because I’d written that song for her and had no right to sing it after we broke up. Chicks are weird, man. You never can tell what’ll set ’em off.”
“I’m sorry,” Alec said. Years ago, he’d lived near the Six Nations and spent enough time with them to learn the Mohawk language. They’d even made him an honorary chief. Some things are universal across languages. Saying you’re sorry when you have no idea why is one of them.
“Thanks. Anyway, right now the problem is Facebook. It keeps jumping around, adding in people I’ve unfriended and deleting current ones. I thought it was my PC, but I keep rebooting and each time all I get is a different set of friends. It’s like it can’t figure out what year it is and picks something different each time. It’s either my system, or you’ve got a serious bug in yours.”
That, Alec thought, is what you get for thinking you are starting to understand a conversation with a voice that should never exist. Maybe he’d been a bit too quick to judge the spiritualists. But no, this was a real, living person. Spirits claimed to be dead. That was the whole point of spiritualism. This voice merely claimed to have a broken system.
“So, your problem is that old friends have come back to you?” It was an odd problem, when he thought about it. Wasn’t it a good thing to regain old friends? Nevertheless, Alec ploughed on. “But if this is some kind of portrait album, why can you not just remove the pictures you don’t want?”
There was another pause, longer than before. “Man, you’re not Facebook tech support, are you?”
“Sorry about that. I was sure I dialed that number right. Maybe the phone’s screwed up too. My apologies for bothering you.”
Alec had no idea why this man was worried about his picture book but this conversation was too…exotic…to let drop. And while the term “tech support” was also unfamiliar, the idea was starting to come across.
“I may not be who you wanted to talk to, but I am something of a problem solver. Perhaps if you could explain a bit more simply?”
Alec could almost see the shrug. “Why not? If this is a system bug, the real tech support lines are probably tied up for hours, anyway. And if it’s my own system, maybe we can figure it out. You’re familiar with Facebook, right?”
“I am afraid not.”
“Wow. How old are you?”
“I just celebrated my twenty-ninth birthday.”
“And you don’t know Facebook? You must have been living in a cave.”
“Not literally. But I have spent much time in my lab.”
“So, you’re some kind of scientist? Maybe you can help after all.”
“Mr. Watson and I have had some small scientific successes.” Modesty forbade saying more. “So, what is this Facebook?”
“It’s a website. You keep track of your friends, write on their walls, send messages, share links, that kind of thing. It pretty much started the whole social-networking thing.”
“Write on their walls?” Alec couldn’t imagine how his mother would have reacted. “Isn’t that hard to clean up?”
“It’s electronic, dude. Do you even know what a web page is?”
Alec was sure he didn’t, but felt the need to try. “Does it have anything to do with arachnology?”
“Arachnology. The study of spiders.”
“Man, you better not be funning me. Because I swear I dialed that number right, so if you’re just yanking my chain because I woke you in the middle of the night, I’ve already said I’m sorry.”
“I guarantee you that at the moment I am taking no humor from this conversation.” Alec paused, trying to clear the strange terminology from his head. “I think we need to go back to the beginning. Are you really in Kentucky?”
“And it really is the middle of the night?”
“Then there would appear to be only two explanations. Either, one of us is lying, or, this entire conversation is impossible.”
“I assure you, I’m not lying. I’m in Kentucky, and it’s the middle of the night.”
“Let us presume then, that we are both telling the truth. Although I suppose we might both be hallucinating. Have you recently smoked opium?”
“No way, man. I gave up the drug stuff back in college. And I never did more than a bit of pot, anyway.”
“And I too am sober. So what is happening is impossible. But it is happening. So we are missing something.”
“Are you suggesting the telephone is as whacked as my Facebook account?”
Telephone. That was the term he needed! It would work in other languages, too. Telefon, teléfono—the word would translate beautifully. Whatever else came out of this, Alec had gotten something useful.
But meanwhile he was trying to understand his caller’s problem with his friends’ countenances. “You said that you are undergoing a large geomagnetic storm?”
“Uh, yeah, to put it mildly. I grew up in Minnesota and I don’t remember anything like this.”
Alec did. He’d been twelve at the time, still living in Edinburgh, and remembered being mesmerized by northern lights just like those his caller had described. Later, newspaper accounts reported that they had been seen as far south as Bombay and Havana.
More importantly, there had been reports of electrical currents surging in telegraph wires. Some were so strong the operators could send signals even with the batteries disconnected.
If such a geomagnetic storm could do that to the telegraph, it could certainly “whack” a telephone system. Though at present, the only such system he knew of lay between the two devices on his desk.
His caller must have been thinking along the same lines. “We’re not really talking to each other, are we?”
“I think not in the sense one usually supposes.”
“Yeah. For me it’s night. For you it’s tomorrow morning.”
“I think it might be a bit stranger than that.”
“Wow, so for you it might be yesterday? Weirder yet.”
“Not really. If there is a time shift, it is by definition the future for one of us and the past for the other.”
A pause. “Yeah. I guess that would have to be, wouldn’t it. So which way does it go? For me it’s February 18.
“Here, it is the 11th of March.”
“Wow. So you’re not just one day in the future, you’re…three weeks. Screw Facebook! You got any hot stock tips?”
Alec allowed himself a chuckle. “I think it might be the other way around.”
“Oh, yeah. If the storm had been three weeks ago for you, you’d remember it, wouldn’t you? So that means you’re almost a year back. Sorry, I can’t help you. I don’t pay much attention to the market. Though watch out for the euro. I do know they had a bad year.”
“Thank you but I think it’s more than a year difference.” Alec had to admit that he was now ‘funning’. And if this conversation represented the future, he hoped it was far enough out he didn’t have to deal with it. Though he supposed that if someone from Elizabethan England were to appear next on his telephone, he might sound just as strange. Fie, odds bodkins, and all that. The definition of couth changes.
But his caller had not yet caught on. “So, do you think this has anything to do with those neutrino experiments at CERN?”
“Yeah. Maybe they haven’t started yet for you. They’ve been sending those things back and forth between Switzerland and somewhere in Italy. Sometimes they get there before they arrive—I mean before they leave. I think. This stuff is like really whacked-out. But they seem to be proving Einstein wrong. Or right, even though he was wrong. Sorry, man. I didn’t take science until my last year of college, and even then I was more interested in getting into Suzi Blackwell’s pants, which is why my Stratocaster wound up making a good impression of kindling.
“Anyway, Einstein said you can’t go that fast unless you’ve got imaginary mass. So, I guess it’s possible if it’s imaginary. But I’m a musician, not a physicist. Which, by the way, is why I wanted to get on Facebook. We don’t exactly get rich at it, but we’ve got a gig coming up and I wanted to update my page. Except that in addition to having that bitch back on my friend list, my page now shows only last year’s concert schedule, and nothing I can do will get rid of it.”
Alec felt like he’d had an evening of wine and spirits, without benefit of the conviviality. “Could you…kind of like…slow down…man?”
“Oh. Sorry. Einstein was this dude who said you can’t go faster than light. But these neutrinos are doing it. And now we’ve got the magnetic storm of the century, and we know those mess up wireless communications. So—”
“Wait a second. Wireless communications?”
“Yeah. Everything’s wireless these days. Or just about. My mother still has a landline, but even then she’s always on the cordless. Though she’s like still afraid lightning can somehow come through the line, jump to her phone, and electrocute her. So, she always hangs up on me if there’s a thunderstorm within a hundred miles.”
“Uhh, that could be a risk.” Alec hadn’t thought of it before, but if his system became popular, they’d need some sort of sacrificial protectors to guard people from exactly this problem.
But his caller was unconvinced. “Not with wireless, man. It’s radio. And she’s also afraid of the TV, and that comes from space. But that’s my point. Everything’s wireless these days, even the freakin’ upload from my video recorder. And then there’s the neutrinos. If the folks in the labs are making weird imaginary ones that go backward in time, and some get away into space, maybe they muck up the ionosphere or something. When a storm hits, wireless communications always go wonky, but maybe this time, time itself got whacked and signals leap all over the place. How’s that for a theory?”
“No worse than anything I could come up with.”
“And it might be that something similar is confusing your Facepage thingamajig. In which case it should pass when the storm and the…neutrinos…abate.”
“Facebook, not Facepage. But hey, that makes sense. The storm is already dying down, in fact, so maybe things are already starting to come back. Lemme reboot.” There was another whirring in the background, then a musical chime followed by a pleasant voice announcing, “You’ve got mail.”
“Sorry, gotta figure out how to shut that off. That was already old when that movie came out, you know, the one with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.”
“I’m afraid I never heard of it.” He had no idea what a movie was, either.
“Oh. It was a good one. It was about these two business rivals who hated each other in real life but fell in love on the net.” There was a strange crackling sound. “Damn. I think the storm’s winding down.” More crackling. “…definitely losing the connection. Hey, my name is Hamilton. Hamilton Tyler. The reverse of the bicycle racer who got in doping trouble a few years back, but the similarity was enough to bring me a lot of grief, especially from weirdos who found me on Facebook and the like. Though they say that any publicity is good publicity.”
“My name is Alexander. But my friends call me Alec.” He paused. “Bicycle racer?”
“You’re from a bit farther back than last year, aren’t you?”
“I think that is highly likely.”
“More than a bit, right?”
“No wonder you never heard of the Internet. Imagine trying to explain that to Thomas Ed — ” His voice halted. “Holy cr— ” Oh, Sorry. I bet you guys didn’t say such things.”
“Not when we could avoid it.”
“But holy…ohmygod. What year is it?”
Alec smiled. He’d known the time shift was a lot more than one year. “Eighteen seventy-six.”
“Ohmygod… Alec. That short for… And Watson. You’re—” There were more clicking noises, rapid enough to carry an air of near panic. “And you probably didn’t say ohmygod, either.”
“Not if we could avoid it.”
The crackling was getting worse. The contact was clearly disintegrating.
Alec wasn’t sure what to say, although it was sounded like his invention would be even more successful than he had ever dreamed. Assuming that knowing so wouldn’t change it. But surely not. As long as he did the work, how could he lose simply by also knowing he would succeed? Time moved on, with him, or without him. And the future was going to be a very strange place.
“Odds bodkins,” he said.
“Huh? You guys still said that?”
“No. It was a private joke. It means…” What did it mean? “Nothing important.”
“Okay,” Hamilton’s voice was now barely distinct among the background crackles. “Look, I’ve been online again, and it all makes sense now. And you gave me the right advice on Facebook. My ex- is back to being a non-friend, and last year’s concert schedule is back to being last year’s, which probably means we’ve only got a few moments left to talk. So, let me give you one bit of advice. I was checking your bio, and you’re going to do all kinds of great things. But you need get some exercise and watch what you eat, okay? You might try running. Twenty or thirty minutes every other day would do a lot. And keep away from the sweets, okay? Because otherwise the diabetes is going to get you, and Mabel will be heartbroken.”
Then the connection crackled again and Hamilton was gone.
# # #
Alec stared at the telephone wondering if it would buzz again. When it didn’t, he found a sheet of paper and began jotting words and phrases. A few minutes later, the downstairs door banged open.
“Good morning!” Watson called.
“A good morning, indeed,” Alec said. “Could you come up here? No, wait, I’ll come down.”
It really had been a long time since he’d taken much of a constitutional. Would exercise really stave off diabetes? Who knew? But Hamilton had known Mabel’s name. That wasn’t something Alec had told him. They weren’t even married yet, though they’d been planning it for years.
In the foyer, he handed his notes to Watson. “That’s a list of things we need to start looking into,” he said. “I think the telephone is only the beginning.”
“Yes, that’s what we’re going to call it.”
Watson thought for a moment, then nodded. “That works.” He looked at the rest of the list. “I’ve heard of bicycles. I think they’re a form of velocipede, although they’re not particularly practical. There’s a reason people call them boneshakers.”
“Yes. In our spare time we’re going to figure out ways to fix that.”
Watson was again looking at the list. “Neutrinos? Sounds Italian. What are they?”
“I have no idea. But we want to pay attention to them when they come around. Same with a fellow named Einstein.” Not to mention all the other terms on the list. Facebook. Internet. “But the most important one is wireless communications. We need to be thinking about that. That’s the future. And maybe something called radio.”
Watson was looking at him oddly. “What about ‘whacked’?”
“Oh, that’s something it would be nice to avoid.” If there was a way to keep that word out of the vocabulary, his grandchildren would thank him. “I tell you, there are times when I think I should have just stayed in elocution. It’s a dying art.”
“Really? I hadn’t noticed.”
Alec opened the door. “You will. Meanwhile, I’m taking a walk. A man doesn’t stay young forever.”
But once on the street, he thought about running. Was running even better than walking? Hamilton seemed to think so, and he knew many years of things Alec didn’t. How many years, he wondered, then shrugged. There was no way to know.
For a few blocks, oblivious of stares, Alec broke into a run. But soon he was panting, and soon thereafter forced to stop. Not to mention that his feet hurt. If Hamilton was right, and running was part of what was needed to do to avoid leaving Mabel bereft, he also needed better footwear.
He walked, as briskly as his dress shoes allowed. He could do a bit better with soft-leather boots. But could he do even better yet? The younger Goodyear had made news by patenting some sort of shoe-stitching machine. What would happen if someone tried to merge that with his father’s rubber company? Was it possible to do something with a vulcanized sole. Maybe with a knobby tread to increase both cushion and traction?
Alec picked up his pace again. The future was going to be fun. Just so long as nothing got whacked.