“Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at the same time.”
John Archibald Wheeler
“Who controls the Past controls the Future.”
“The future is flexible, we can change it.”
A few miles further down the road, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge soared majestically on concrete stilts high above the water. Riley drove onto it but, as he reached the central span, an explosion under his car flipped it upside-down and flung it over the low parapet. Strapped in his seat, gripping the steering wheel, he began the long screaming fall to oblivion, but the fall became slower, as if the car was plunging into treacle. At first, he thought that his mind was working faster than events, that in a moment his whole life would flash before his eyes, an upload to the CosmicCloud. Still clutching the steering wheel, he watched as airbags slowly inflated all around him, obscuring his vision. He realized that time was running more and more slowly until finally it stopped all together and the car was suspended in space. Panting he looked at the Potomac River forty meters below him, there was no movement in the water, everything was still. He realized that he was weightless in his seat belt.
“Sorry to have to leave it until the last moment, Dr Riley,” a female voice said from behind him. “If you could just unbuckle and make your way back here to the portal.”
He looked in the driving mirror of his inverted car and saw that a flexible, multi colored membrane had replaced the whole of its rear section. It looked like a soap bubble, strange polychromatic patterns shifting over its surface. A woman of indeterminate age sat on the other side in what appeared to be another vehicle which he did not recognize. She wore a close fitting overall of pastel colors which changed and sparkled in the dimly lit interior.
“We can’t hold this configuration indefinitely, Martin, so let’s get moving.” He sat motionless; her voice became more urgent. “If you don’t come right now I’ll have to disengage and leave you falling.”
Realizing that he had no choice, Riley unbuckled his seat belt and pulled himself towards the rear. He was disappointed that the Colonel and his masters would think they’d won. Fuck them all anyway, he thought, as he slid through the membrane and into the future.
England the 1990s
Not another one of these bloody things thought Riley, looking at the computer screen. It was the third hoax email to arrive in his inbox that week. He called Estella over from the other side of the lab. She was his senior research assistant, although their relationship had started to overlap working hours recently.
“Another email from my future self,” he said.
“Somebody’s taking the piss,” she said looking over his shoulder. “Perhaps a post grad has found a back door into the system. You never know what these geniuses will get up to next.”
“Well if I find out who’s responsible,” he said loudly, “they’ll be off the system and doing their calculations on an abacus for the foreseeable.”
If the culprit was among his team working on one of the nearby computers, it wasn’t apparent. Nobody in the room took more than cursory notice, they all had their heads down writing, typing or plotting graphs.
Estella pointed at the screen.
“It’s dated 2009, almost twenty years in the future and the sender’s address is ‘email@example.com’, an American Government website by the look of it. So apparently, you’ve emailed yourself from a time when you’ll be nearly fifty years old,” she chuckled. “Why don’t you answer it and ask for a picture of your middle-aged self? We could all have a laugh.”
Riley ignored her and read the title out loud.
“Number three -You ought to act on this one Martin.” His finger hovered over the delete key.
“Surely you’re going to open it,” said Estella. She was enjoying his discomfiture.
“Well, as the first two emails were racing tips, I expect this will be the same.” He spoke quietly to her, “I can’t see how it’s being done. Those last two were winners and it wouldn’t surprise me if this is another.”
“Well that’s not likely, is it?” she said. “Come on, I know you’re only a physicist but you must understand a bit about probabilities. Nobody can predict racing results with one hundred percent accuracy. The first two wins must have been flukes.”
“Yes, all right, I know you’re a mathematician and good at arithmetic. So how do you explain it then?” he asked.
“Maybe somebody’s trying to manipulate the odds? I don’t know much about horse racing but I’ve heard of doping and odds fixing. I grant you the date on the email is a mystery but that might be one of the young geniuses showing off. Anyway, what does it say?”
Riley clicked his mouse, and they both read, “Darkling Spy–Aintree two o’clock.”
“I need to think about this,” he said as he stood and walked towards his office.
“So, what are you going to do?” Estella had followed him.
“Go down to the bookies tomorrow morning and put a fiver on ‘Darkling Spy’ to win at Aintree.” He braced himself for her reaction.
“You are joking, surely you’re not going along with this?”
“Go back to your sums.”
The first hoax email had arrived on Wednesday and he’d deleted it as soon as he’d read it. When the second arrived on Thursday afternoon he’d checked into it at his local newsagent’s. Mr Singh had told Riley which paper to buy and shown him the racing pages.
“Nobody wins but the bookies,” he’d muttered, his turban emphasizing the wobbly sideways headshake, that didn’t have a European body language equivalent. Riley had agreed with him, folded the paper and taken it home. Sure enough, the second tip, “Midnight Swimmer” had won at Yarmouth on the previous day. A little investigation and a quick search of his deleted emails folder had revealed that the first tip, “Hoarse in the Morning” had also been a winner.
The next morning was a Saturday and despite the memory of Estella’s gentle derision, he went ahead with his plan. He didn’t want to risk other members of the physics faculty seeing him go into a betting shop, so he wore a hat and scarf by way of disguise. The bookie’s shop was near his Cambridge flat. He walked along the rainy street and stopped outside it, hoping to appear casual, as he looked around to see that no one he knew was on the street. Feeling awkward and unsure he pushed open the door and went in. The scarf was itchy on his neck, the hat felt unnatural, he smelt the sweaty tension in the air. He’d never been inside a betting shop before, illogically he’d expected all the other punters to be bigger than him, but they seemed to be an average lot. Riley was not a big man, and he felt self-conscious about his bitten fingernails and nervy disposition, but nobody took any notice of him as he approached the counter and put a tenner to win on his horse. The race wouldn’t start for half an hour so he bought a coffee from the machine and sat reading a paper and keeping his head down, trying not to call attention to himself.
Riley soon forgot the nasty lukewarm coffee in its paper cup as the race was announced on the TV above his head. He’d never had a bet on before, the personal involvement made such a difference, he was instantly transfixed as the starting gates opened and the horses and their riders exploded out and onto the track. The horses galloped bunched together at first, but as they began to separate he started shouting along with the other customers, his heart racing in his chest. Darkling Spy came into the home straight and broke away from the leaders. The other punters around him were urging their horses on, but Riley’s was ahead and he was screaming louder than the rest as it finished first, at four to one. He was stunned at the excitement and the exhilaration he felt at winning, he stood panting and staring, this was nearly as good as sex. He’d had no idea what he’d been missing. How would he explain it to Estella? Should he even try?
Around him the losers, muttering, tore up their betting slips. They turned their backs on the screen and returned to their racing pages. This could become addictive, he thought as he took a deep breath and mopped his face with a handkerchief.
He was surprised and pleased by the result but now the emails puzzled him even more, three wins couldn’t be a coincidence. Two maybe, but not three, the sender was either predicting the future or knobbling the horses.
He stepped up to the counter, handed his betting slip through the grill and took the small bundle of notes from the assistant.
“There you are dear; first time lucky, don’t spend it all at once.” She smiled to herself as she picked up her knitting.
Riley counted the money as he moved over to the side of the shop. He hated that it was so obvious that he was a betting virgin? He put the notes into his wallet, making sure that they were in the right order, all the same way up and all the same way around, with no folded over corners. The other, older punters, sat and rustled their newspapers, cigarettes dangling from their mouths as they squinted at the tiny lettering of the racing pages. Riley coughed as their tobacco smoke caught in his throat and, still feeling conspicuous, he adjusted his unfamiliar hat and scarf before leaving the shop and walking home.
In their flat on Pound Hill he made tea and held the mug to warm his hands. He stared out of the kitchen window and thought about the emails. An indistinct reflection looked back at him and he tried to imagine lines on its face and grey hair. Martin Riley aged fifty. Surely he wasn’t really sending emails to himself from the future?
When Estella got home from the gym he took out his wallet and, with a flourish, placed his winnings on the kitchen table.
“Ta-dah, another winner,” he said.
“No, really?” she looked perplexed. “This is getting mysterious, what do you think’s happening? Perhaps it’s a doping ring, but why would they want you to put bets on and why would they pretend to send emails from the future? Surely they’d just approach you in the street or the pub?”
“Well, what was it Sherlock Holmes said? Something like, ‘When you have eliminated all the impossibilities then whatever’s left must be the truth, however improbable.’ For the sake of argument, we could assume that my future self really is sending messages back, and see where that leads us? We should consider the means, the motivation and the opportunity.”
“Well the motivations a cinch,” said Estella. “He wants you to make him rich by betting on the gee-gees. Having the means implies access to equipment that can send messages twenty years into the past, perhaps you’ll invent it. The opportunity would only present itself if he could do it secretly or with the approval of whoever owns the Time Machine unless he owns it.”
“Or else something criminal is going on.” They stared at each other for a few moments.
“Let’s talk about it in the pub, I’m famished,” she said.
In the bedroom, hours later, he lay staring at the Victorian plasterwork around the ceiling rose high above their bed. Their clothes were scattered over the floor but he was losing the plot as far as lovemaking was concerned. Estella was blonde, voluptuous and intelligent; well-rounded in all respects with well-developed physical appetites.
“I can tell you’re not concentrating,” she said. She sat back. “You’re still thinking about the emails, aren’t you?” she was slightly breathless. There was a sheen of sweat on her forehead, she pushed her hair back from where it was sticking.
“What, you mean the emails from the future that are predicting the results of horse races, and might make me a millionaire? No, not really, I was wondering what to have for breakfast! Of course, I’m thinking about the emails, I can’t think about anything else.”
She flopped down on her front next to him.
“So, let’s talk about it,” she said.
“Well, assuming this isn’t a hoax of some sort, it all makes sense. The racing tips have certainly got my attention; they’re a quick, simple and legal way of getting rich. At the same time, they prove their own authenticity. It’s very logical. I feel quite proud of my future self for being so imaginative.”
“Something tells me you need to be careful Martin. We should keep this to ourselves. If you get any more tips, save the winnings and don’t flash the money around.”
“The trouble is that temporal messaging must lead to problems with causality,” he said. “What if I killed my grandfather and all those other paradoxes?”
“Temporal Messaging, I like the sound of that, it rolls off the tongue, TM, very good,” she said.
“But interfering with the past will alter the future,” he insisted.
“Well, as long as it makes us rich, why worry about it? What was it Mae West said? ‘I’ve tried rich and I’ve tried poor. Rich is better.’ ” She closed her eyes and her breathing began to slow and deepen. They’d made quite a night of it at the Cricketers.
Us, rich, he thought as he drifted off to sleep. He dreamed of horses galloping backwards towards the starting grid with smiling, high kicking dancing girls throwing handfuls of bank notes into the air.
The next morning, they sat in a local café, nursing headaches over a late breakfast.
“If TM is real then how is it being done?” he asked. “I mean, there’s a Nobel Prize in it if we can work that out.”
“Tachyons,” said Estella poking at her Eggs Benedict. “Don’t they travel faster than light? They could carry information back through time just like photons and electrons do through space.”
“Tachyons are hypothetical particles that have never been observed,” said Riley primly. “What about wormholes?”
“Another hypothetical concept,” she said. “Anyway, they connect different points in space.”
“No, they connect different points in space-time, so they might connect different points in space or time or both. So, you can connect the same point to itself in the past or the future if you only have a wormhole.”
“A Time Tunnel,” said Estella pulling a theatrical expression and waggling the fingers of both her hands in his face. “What about sending people through it?” she said, sitting back.
“No, the energies needed to control one that big would be astronomical. It might be possible to find one at microscopic level and then send information through it, using short wave radiation.”
“It sounds as far-fetched as tachyons,” she said as she lifted a forkful of egg.
“Not really, wormholes are allowed by general relativity and there has been serious talk of them existing at the quantum scale, they might connect everywhere to everywhen. Infinite numbers of the little buggers, our problem would be to detect them; they’re so small, if they exist at all.”
“Well perhaps you’ll send yourself a message explaining how to catch one and control it,” said Estella, taking a sip of tea.
“That interferes with causality, where would the knowledge have originated? I think he wants me to work it out for myself. But knowing it’s possible makes a problem much easier to solve.”
Over the next week he waited to see if anybody he worked with mentioned horse racing but no one did. There was no hoaxer, and every few days another TM arrived in his email account.
He entered a double life. During working hours, he was Dr Martin Riley, respected high energy physics researcher, leader of a team of scientists at Cambridge University, analyzing data from the low Energy Antiproton Ring accelerator at CERN. At lunch times, he became a furtive punter driving around Cambridge, spreading bets in different bookmakers. He had to involve Estella because it doubled the number they could place without repeating visits.
“What are we going to do with it all?” asked Estella. They had pulled the suitcase out from under the bed and tipped the bundles of notes out onto the floor just for the fun of looking at them.
“Let’s buy a house, we’ve enough for the down payment.” He had been reasonably happy as a bachelor but Estella had brought something into his life he hadn’t known was missing. He was a workaholic and could get absent minded when he was fully engaged with a research problem. It was Estella who reminded him to shower and shave, who made him eat properly, made him change his clothes and tried to stop him biting his fingernails. She cared for him. She also took the piss a lot, but he didn’t mind that. He loved her and she seemed to love him. “We could even think about getting married.”
“Was that your idea of a proposal?” she asked after a short pause. “You’re going to have to do better than that Martin.”
They opened bank accounts in the Channel Islands and made occasional trips to St Peter Port to deposit their winnings. They kept their bets moderate and began travelling to betting shops outside their area, they wore different clothes and even used different accents. The money kept rolling in.
Secretly, Riley still worried that this was a scam operated by a gang of horse dopers. He half expected that one night there would be a knock at his front door and imagined himself peering, through the curtains of the upstairs flat, at shady characters waiting on the doorstep below, come to claim their money. He bought a cricket bat in a charity shop and kept it by his bed.
England the 1990s
“Ah, Dr Riley thanks for coming,” Riley stepped into his faculty head’s office. The memo summoning him had been left in his pigeon hole. He supposed that it was too late for an oldster like Middleton to get to grips with the new technology and send emails like everybody else.
“Not at all Professor Middleton, how can I help?” He coughed. He hated the smell of the small cigars that his boss smoked, the air in the room was blue and he never opened any windows.
Riley was unimpressed with Middleton as a scientist. Even though he led the physics faculty he hadn’t published a paper in living memory. He had only two years to go before he enjoyed his index linked retirement. Riley had noticed that he was careful not to cause administrative ripples, he was probably hoping to get an honor for “outstanding contributions to education” or something similar. The framed display of hand tied fishing flies, on the wall above his boss’s head said it all, thought Riley. He might as well put up a notice saying, “I’d rather be fishing than doing science.” Riley wanted to be sitting in this office, leading the department, pushing the envelope, getting recognition from his peers. He secretly dreamed of a Nobel Prize and wondered if the emails were the route to one. The money he was accruing was all right but what he wanted more was recognition. He pulled up a chair, sat down and attempted to look attentive.
“Have you heard of John Oakwood?” asked Middleton as he leaned back in his swivel chair and puffed his noxious smoke at the ceiling.
“Dr John Oakwood, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government?”
“Yes. Well, he’s coming here to discuss a new contract we will be bidding for. We’ll be in competition with the particle physics people at Warwick but I think we can confidently assume that the light blues will have it. Why he wants to get involved at this level I don’t know, but there it is, politics.” Middleton made a gesture of helplessness, gave a wry smile and took another puff on his cheroot. Riley imagined that he must be secretly thrilled to be hosting a VIP of this caliber; the bragging rights would be enormous at management meetings. The best way to magnify them was to pretend indifference, but Middleton obviously knew that.
“He wants to keep things low key, no fuss. He likes to speak to the people at the chalk face doing the research, not old war horses like me, so I’ll need you to be at the meeting.”
Riley felt a frisson of excitement. “Fine” he said evenly, “no problem, I’ll make sure my team wear clean lab coats, in case he wants to go walkabout.”
“Good, good, that’s one problem solved then.” Middleton looked down and placed a tick on the list that lay on his desk. “I’ll send you details of the contract, so you can prepare the proposal.” He looked up and smiled, “Don’t let me keep you Dr Riley.” He returned his attention to his paperwork.
Riley left the office barely able to hide his excitement; shutting the door he silently punched the air as he walked down the corridor to his section. Back in his office, he paced the carpet, unable to settle, he couldn’t believe his luck. He went and found Estella in the laboratory and, holding her by the elbow, hurried her back with him, closed the door and leaned against it.
“I say, Martin, not before coffee surely?” she laughed.
In the early days of their relationship, Riley and Estella had consummated it over his office desk several times, after working hours. These days they were more sensible, although they had recently “done it” in a bus shelter one night, while they were waiting for the last bus.
“You’ll never believe this,” he said. “The Government’s chief scientist is visiting here next week. He wants to discuss a high energy physics contract.”
“Marvelous,” she said, “and what’s that got to do with the price of fish?”
“I’m going to ask him to fund the TM project.”
Estella sat on a chair and looked thoughtful. “How are you going to get him alone?” she asked, “and when you do, how are you going to convince him? ‘Messages from the future,’ it’ll sound completely bonkers. You might find yourself looking for another job.”
“Yes, well, I can always fall back on my modelling career.”
She laughed, rather unkindly he thought.
“I’ll have to play it by ear,” he said.
A week later, Riley was sitting in a conference room listening to his head of faculty, various other section heads, the Government’s chief scientist and his civil servants, discussing the research project. As they broke for coffee, Oakwood announced his wish to visit the gents and Riley quickly offered to show him the way. Fortunately, the place was empty and their footsteps echoed off the hard, shiny surfaces as they walked in and the door swung closed behind them.
The two men stood at the urinals, leaving one vacant between them as convention required.
“So, no sign of the Higgs Boson yet Dr Riley?” asked Oakwood.
“I understood that you were a biologist Dr Oakwood.” During the meeting, the breadth of Oakwood’s knowledge had surprised Riley.
“I’m usually well briefed by my team before I come on these expeditions,” he said. “No scientist could fail to be fascinated by the new discoveries in your area though. Quantum fields, elementary particles, gravity waves, so many exciting things for you young Turks to explore.”
Riley stopped pretending to piss, he would have been far too nervous, even if he’d needed to. He zipped up his fly and turned towards the other man.
“Sorry Dr Oakwood but this will be the only opportunity I have to speak to you alone,” he said, interrupting the other man’s musings. “I need a few minutes to make my ‘elevator pitch,’ I’ve a proposal I believe will lead to the most important scientific breakthrough of the century.”
Oakwood turned to look at him, his face expressionless.
“Really,” he said as if it was something he heard every day.
Riley paused for a second then continued, “For several months now I’ve been receiving messages from the future.”
Oakwood stared straight ahead, Riley knew he couldn’t walk away in mid-stream.
“And what form do these messages take Dr Riley?” he asked. “Voices in your head or something more concrete, Tarot cards perhaps, tea leaves, chicken giblets?”
Riley sighed; he knew this was going to be the most difficult part.
“No, racing tips actually.”
“Racing tips,” said Oakwood as he shook, zipped and stepped back from the urinal. “Racing tips. Winning racing tips?”
“Well, twenty-seven so far.”
“All winners, no losers?”
Riley nodded. Oakwood moved to the hand basins on the opposite wall and spoke to Riley’s reflection in the mirror above, as he rinsed his hands.
“And can you prove any of this?” he asked as he turned to pull paper towels from the dispenser.
“I realize how this sounds Dr Oakwood, but I have records of all the bets I’ve laid. I’d be happy to show you my bank statements, you can see the deposits. In the meantime, I wanted to give you this.” He tucked a card into the top pocket of the older man’s suit. “I’ve written the winners of three races at different racecourses tomorrow on the back of that Doctor. You might like to have a flutter on them, I can guarantee the results.”
Oakwood dropped his paper towels in a bin and removed the note from his pocket. He examined it as they walked to the door and Riley pulled it open to let Oakwood pass. He made no comment as they re-joined the meeting. Oakwood left at lunchtime.
“Very nice to meet you Doctor,” said Riley. He gave a wan smile as they shook hands, Oakwood’s expression was unreadable, as he nodded his goodbye.
The next evening, as Riley arrived home on his new racing cycle, he noticed a black Range Rover parked in the street outside. He leaned the bike against the front hedge and as he went to open the front gate, the driver’s door opened. A man in his early forties stepped out and approached. He wore a grey suit and had flecks of grey in his hair, he moved with confidence and had a characterful nose; Riley guessed, from his build, that he might have broken it playing rugby or possibly boxing.
“Good evening Dr Riley, my name is Paul Burnley.” He held up an identity card for a moment and Riley caught the letters “SIS” printed on it as it passed by his line of sight. “Dr Oakwood has asked me to escort you to a meeting with him, if you could just get into the car sir.” He moved to the rear door and reached to open it.
Riley stepped back, “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what this is about.” His voice quavered slightly and was higher pitched than he meant it to be. He cleared his throat.
Smith tapped the roof of the car and the other doors opened. Three athletic-looking younger men dressed in dark suits climbed out and walked over to Riley. They surrounded him, standing closer than he liked.
“I want to speak to my lawyer if I’m under arrest.” Riley noticed that his voice had quavered again. He felt little trickles of sweat running from his armpits and across his rib-cage. He realized that he didn’t know any lawyers.
The older man sighed. “Look sir, there’s no need to excite yourself, I’m not arresting you, I only want to take you to a meeting with Dr Oakwood.” He spoke deliberately as if to a child. “So, it would save us both a lot of trouble if you could just get in the car please.”
Riley made a move towards the safety of his front gate. With startling efficiency, two of the younger men grabbed his arms while the third cable tied his wrists. They bundled him into the back of the car, with one man sitting on either side of him. The third walked back and got into the driving seat.
“There now, that wasn’t too difficult was it sir?” said Burnley as he got into the front and slammed the door. He sighed and muttered something to the driver. As they set off, Riley looked back and saw a flash of light from his front garden. It was hidden from view as the car rounded a bend. He looked forward as they drove off through Cambridge and then South on the M11 motorway. He hoped Estella was all right, she’d gone to the supermarket but wasn’t due home yet.
Riley’s emotions were in turmoil. He hadn’t had a fight since he was a child. Burnley and his agents scared him, he was trembling and had no idea what would happen next. Would they torture him? Murder him? Imprison him under the Official Secrets act? What powers did these people have, official or otherwise?
“Where are you taking me? Estella’s expecting me, when will I get back? What about my bicycle?” He realized that he was gibbering.
“Now don’t worry,” said Burnley. “You won’t be away for long, Dr Oakwood just wants a little chat with you, and then we’ll get you home safe and sound. I’m sure your bicycle will come to no harm.”
The other agents chuckled quietly and the rest of the journey passed in silence, Burnley ignored him, and the agents stared out of the windows. What with the exertions of his bike ride home and now all this stress, Riley realized that he was beginning to smell rank. Nobody commented, he assumed that they were used to the smell of fear. Other people’s unpleasant body odors, just another, seldom mentioned aspect in the exciting life of a secret agent. He felt calmer as he thought the situation through, Oakwood must take his pitch seriously. If he’d written Riley off as just another nutty scientist, then he wouldn’t be sitting in the back of a car full of secret agents, speeding towards a meeting with the British Government’s chief scientific adviser. Things might not be as bad as they seemed.
Their destination was a detached house in a residential street in Bishop’s Stortford. It was set back from the road, Riley guessed that it had been built in the nineteen twenties.
“This is one of our safe houses Dr Riley,” said Burnley. “Dr Oakwood is waiting for you inside.” They helped him out of the car and then stood in the porch while an agent knocked and spoke into an intercom. A man in shirtsleeves opened the door and as they entered Riley saw the he was wearing a shoulder holster, with a nasty looking black automatic pistol in it. His confidence took a downturn. He stumbled over the sill and realized that he was sweating again. With an agent on either side of him, he followed Burnley through the hall and into the lounge where Oakwood was standing with his back to the electric fire. The room felt warm and welcoming, a piece of classical music that Riley couldn’t identify was playing in the background. The furnishings were bland and tasteless but looked unused.
“Ah, Riley, how nice to see you again. I say, remove those restraints at once,” he said harshly and Burnley produced a pair of wire cutters and briskly cut through the cable ties. Riley wondered what other uses they had been put to.
“Good for pulling out fingernails, are they?” he asked as he massaged his wrists.
“No sir, we use pliers for that,” said Burnley, he put his other hand in his jacket pocket and brought a pair out, “but only if it’s necessary.” He looked into Riley’s eyes for a moment unsmiling, and Riley shuddered as he saw the lack of emotion. He dropped his tool kit, and the broken cable ties, back into his pocket and walked out of the room to join his unobtrusive colleagues.
“I am so sorry,” said Oakwood. “I gave orders they should treat you with the utmost respect. Can I offer you one of these?” Oakwood held out a tumbler with a generous measure of amber liquid in it. Behind him, on a coffee table, Riley noticed a bottle of fifty-year-old Macallan and another tumbler. Oakwood turned and poured himself a small one. “Your tipple I believe,” he said smiling and holding up the bottle. “Sit here by the fire. We can have our talk in comfort.” Riley sat, and knocked back his whiskey.
“I don’t usually do that,” he said and looked at the glass as it trembled in his hand.
“No, no, of course. My dear fellow, you’ve had a terrible shock.” Oakwood leaned across and poured him another measure. “It wasn’t supposed to happen like this, it has all been an unfortunate misunderstanding.” Riley didn’t believe a word, he was convinced that they had scared him on purpose, as a way of establishing dominance over him.
He sat and waited, rubbing his wrists, more from nerves than discomfort. His bonds hadn’t been tight, there was no point in complaining, in fact he was pleased they were taking him so seriously. He looked around at the insipid decor and noticed the slight squeaking from the electric fire’s flame effect mechanism.
“We watch our scientists carefully you know, depending on the work they’re doing and its implications for national security,” said Oakwood. “Your work has not had a high enough priority to merit more than routine scrutiny. After our conversation yesterday, I put in a query about you.” He passed Riley a note which showed the account numbers and balances of all of his and Estella’s bank accounts, including the one in the Channel Islands which his bank had assured him was safe from inspection by the Inland Revenue.
“Please understand Dr Riley, that I am not a spy, I am a scientist, or perhaps a civil servant, but I need to know everything about this, er, Temporal Messaging. It has enormous political potential, but I do not want to go off half-cocked at a cabinet meeting if it comes to nothing.”
Now that the intimidating agents were no longer present, and as the alcohol hit his blood stream, Riley began to relax. He felt better; he noticed that the tremor had disappeared from his hands.
“There isn’t much to tell,” he said, “I’ve been receiving, what appear to be emails from the future, for about a year. I have copies of them.”
“Yes, so do we now,” said Oakwood. His smile had a hint of self-satisfaction. He had the habit of steepling his fingers in front of his face, thumbs under his chin and slowly rubbing his lips with his forefingers. It reminded Riley of an irritating personal tutor from his early student years. “So how do you suppose it’s being done Dr Riley?” he asked
“I’m not sure how Temporal Messaging operates yet, but I assume I’ll work it out once somebody underwrites the research.” Riley smiled at his own faultlessly circular logic. Oakwood reached forward to top up his glass. Riley noticed that Oakwood was barely drinking from his own. “There’s no need for coercion,” he said. “I can’t afford to fund this project; it has to be financed by the Government.”
Oakwood sat back, “You must have conjectured how you can achieve it though, surely you’ve thought about it,” said Oakwood.
“I’ve thought of little else for months now. We need to use wormholes at the quantum matrix level; we might be able to send information back through them using high frequency electromagnetic radiation, X rays or gamma rays, I’m just not sure yet.”
“If we can send information back through time Dr Riley, then we would have control of the future. The idea is extraordinary; we could change the course of history. Have you discussed it with anybody, apart from your partner, Ms Pearson?”
“Talking about ‘messages from the future’ in the senior common room wouldn’t do me any good professionally, would it?”
“No, I don’t suppose so,” said Oakwood, “but a discovery like this would largely obviate the need for intelligence work. Normally, the spooks are trying to get information so they can stop unpleasant things from happening. Foreknowledge would change everything, prevention would be relatively easy.”
“Yes,” said Riley, “but don’t you see how dangerous that would be. Changing the future will have unpredictable consequences further down the line.”
“Yes, well we would need to put on our thinking caps wouldn’t we Dr Riley? But first we need to see if we can do it, then cross our bridges as we come to them.”
Riley leaned forward, “Yes but remember it’s my idea and I want to be in charge of it.”
Burnley drove Riley back to Cambridge alone.
“Not bothering to tie me up this time?” asked Riley as they turned out of the driveway.
“People only make a fuss when we collar them Doctor. They’re usually relieved when we take them home.” Riley wasn’t sure if he had heard a slight chuckle.
During the rest of the journey Burnley was as taciturn as ever, but when they stopped outside Riley’s flat he spoke again. “Apologies about before Dr Riley, I expect we’ll be seeing more of each other, so I’m sorry if we’ve got off on the wrong foot.” He reached across to open the passenger door and Riley thought he wanted to shake hands, after a clumsy moment he climbed out.
“Mind how you go,” said Burnley, as he slammed the door. The Range Rover drove away; its rear lights disappeared as it rounded the corner at the end of the road.
Riley’s expensive new bicycle had disappeared. He saw it leaning against the shed in the back garden and assumed that Estella had moved it. As he let himself into the flat, she came out of the lounge to meet him.
“Bloody hell Martin, you look terrible. Where have you been?”
He walked past her and sat in an armchair. “I think I may have solved the funding problem,” he said, massaging his wrists absentmindedly.
“Well, you don’t look thrilled about it.”
“No, it was all a bit sudden, I need a drink.”
“I’ll get you one,” she said, “and then you can tell me all about it.”
The speed of events, after Oakwood became involved, surprised Riley. He was given an immediate leave of absence from his faculty at Cambridge University. Called to an office in Whitehall two days later, Riley watched a jacket-less Dr Oakwood make hurried calls as he walked back and forth, his movements limited by the length of his telephone cord. Riley sat, making notes as he picked a team of scientists and listed equipment he needed to start the project.
“My name will be mud or worse at Cambridge,” he said. “I’m denuding my former department of most of its mathematical and scientific talent.”
“And that bothers you?” asked Oakwood, pausing with his hand over the mouthpiece.
“No, this project is too important to worry about details like that. You do realize that if I’m successful, this discovery would be worth a Nobel Prize?” said Riley.
“You won’t be publishing scientific papers Doctor, the ramifications are far too sensitive,” said Oakwood. “I advise you to get used to the idea, it’s quite normal with Government scientific work. Academically speaking you will drop out of sight like a stage magician through a trap door.”
Riley knew that he had no choice, he wanted that Nobel Prize but needed Government funding. If he made TM work, perhaps they would eventually release the technology to the United Nations, and then he would get the recognition he deserved.
England the 1990s
A week later Oakwood rang Riley at his flat.
“I’ve found a suitable venue for the project,” he said. Riley heard the satisfaction in his voice. “The Martlesham Heath research station in Suffolk has spare capacity, it’s part of the Government’s signals intelligence network, and very secure. There are useful facilities, computers, telecommunications, all that sort of thing, and it’s an easy run up the A12 from London.”
They met outside the Martlesham facility a week later. Oakwood had clearances that got them through the main gate. They walked through the complex to the recently vacated building that was to be the home of the new project.
“It’s standard Government construction, built in the sixties, rather stark I’m afraid, economy block work,” said Oakwood. He produced a set of keys from his raincoat pocket and unlocked the entrance doors. They walked along a corridor with small individual offices leading off on either side.
“I’m disguising Temporal Messaging as a communications project, for funding purposes, and hoping the accountants don’t ask me for too many details,” said Oakwood.
“Tell them it’s all done with laser beams, that’s what I do,” said Riley trying and failing to get a laugh out of his new boss.
“Good idea, I’ll call it a ‘Laser Communication Project.’ Anyway, I will avoid explaining TM to my masters until we’ve proved the theory. We’ll need something convincing to show them.”
“I’m surprised that you’re taking such a risk Dr Oakwood,” said Riley as they continued along the corridor towards a second pair of double doors. “I’ve always assumed you civil servants were conservative in your habits.”
“This will house the main research lab,” said Oakwood, making an expansive gesture as they stepped through into a large empty workshop with a high, framed roof. He stopped and turned to face Riley, his expression intent. “You don’t get to be Chief Scientific Adviser to the British Government without taking a few professional risks along the way Dr Riley. It’s a matter of picking the winners, to use a metaphor close to your heart. You were right when you said this technology might be more important than the atomic bomb; I believe it could be the discovery of the century.”
Oakwood’s commitment impressed Riley, but he felt exposed, knowing failure would leave him unemployable as a research scientist. He had committed professional suicide by poaching so much talent from his previous employer. If he didn’t succeed, he would end up as a school science teacher. There was nothing for it, he had to make TM work.
He walked over to the electrical breaker board and peered up at it. “Three phase power,” he said, “we’ll need plenty of that.”
In the two months that followed, Riley assembled his small team and their equipment. There was the irksome business of identity cards, chain link fences and even guard dogs patrolling the Martlesham facility. After Riley delivered his welcome speech and pep talk, they all understood the need for security. It had been strange to see so many familiar faces looking at him as he addressed them. Estella had been standing at the front smiling encouragingly. His explanation of the project up to that point had been as nonspecific as he could make it, and he was pleased at the number of his workmates that had still been willing to sign up with him.
In the center of their large laboratory space the team put together the jury-rigged collection of racked hard drives, digital computers, scanners and most important of all, the cyclotron particle accelerator. They jokingly called the arrangement the “Transmogrifier”. Nobody remembered who had come up with the name.
“I’m surprised that you haven’t thought of a more, er, aptronymic title, something more accurately descriptive,” Oakwood said, as he stood looking at it on the second of his monthly visits.
“It’s good security,” said Riley. “The name gives no clue to the machine’s function.”
“Ah, yes, I suppose you’re right,” said Oakwood. “Like ‘tanks’ in the first world war. The fewer clues to our activities here the better.” He surveyed the team working at their benches and computers. “So, Martin, any progress yet?”
“Yes, there is. When we bombard a thin gold specimen and raise its charged state instantaneously we’ve been able to detect a raised charge in parts of the crystal structure a short time before we initialize.”
“What is the time interval?”
“About a nanosecond. We appear to be detecting the ends of charged wormholes with one end in the present and the other a nanosecond in the past. Frankly I’m surprised that they haven’t been detected before now. I can only assume that nobody’s been looking for them.”
“Being able to send information a nanosecond into the past isn’t very useful Martin. It could even be an experimental error. Why can’t you detect wormholes that are further displaced in time?”
“We’re not sure yet, we might need to use higher energies, different frequencies or possibly different materials.”
Riley escorted Oakwood to the staff car park where his uniformed driver, standing next to his car, was hastily stepping on a cigarette. The scientists shook hands.
“I have a lot riding on this Martin,” Oakwood said, his expression serious. Riley couldn’t think of a suitable reply. There was a slight pause before Oakwood got into his car.
That evening Riley and Estella sat in the local McDonald’s.
“You certainly know how to spoil a girl,” said Estella as she bit into her burger.
Riley felt slightly sick and toyed with his. “Oakwood is already pressing me,” he said. “He can only continue funding us unofficially for a limited time. We need to make progress, show some useful results.”
“Get the team together and have a brainstorming session,” she suggested. “You never know what the young geniuses will come up with.”
They finished their meal and went back to the laboratory for another late session.
Riley became more edgy as the end of the month and Oakwood’s next visit approached.
“I need something to show him,” he told Estella. “We’ll all be out on our fucking ears if we’re not careful.”
Oakwood phoned the next day. “I’m travelling down the A12 Martin so I thought it would be economical to make this month’s visit a few days early. I hope it’s not inconvenient?”
“Not at all Dr Oakwood, when can we expect you?” Riley’s felt the beginnings of panic, his mouth felt dry.
“We’re approaching the car park now; I’ll be with you in a few minutes.”
Riley made frantic phone calls. The visit was not a success. They had made little progress and, although Oakwood was polite, he was less patient than before as Riley escorted him to his car.
“Martin, this experiment is costing a lot of money and currently we have nothing to show. The Government will be happy to fund it once we have some results, but you really must come up with something soon.” Riley noticed that he left without shaking hands this time.
Estella walked into Riley’s office to find him with his head in his hands.
“We’ll never get it to work. I feel as if I’m committing career suicide here.”
“We all understand how important this is Martin,” she said. “The team have been working twelve-hour shifts but we need better detectors. We’re pretty sure we’re on the right track but the wormholes become more difficult to find as we move further along the time axis.”
Riley worked longer and longer hours; his moods developed a monthly cycle synchronized with the imminence of Oakwood’s next visit. When he shaved in the morning, he could see that he was looking gaunt. He needed to pull in his belt by an extra notch. His anxiety wasn’t helping his relationship with Estella; he was too tired for sex.
It was the middle of the fourth month, he was in his office examining columns of figures on a stack of computer printout when Estella breezed in.
“Good news,” she said, “one of the geniuses had the idea of trying spent Uranium as the medium, and lowering the excitation frequency. Apparently, it’s not just a question of higher energies, there seems to be an element of tuning. Different materials need different frequencies for us to detect wormholes at varying temporal displacements.”
He looked up, his expression resigned.
“So, what’s the time shift now, two nanoseconds, three?”
“A second,” she said.
“A second, a whole second? Bugger me, that can’t be experimental error, I need to see this.” He moved rapidly out into the laboratory. “Which display are we talking about?” Estella pointed, he stood behind the operator and read the column of figures over his shoulder.
“Show that graphically and give me a printout,” he ordered as he picked up a nearby phone and rang Dr Oakwood.
Oakwood arrived the next day, a measure of his level of anxiety thought Riley. They looked at a series of sheets that Estella had pinned to the notice board in Riley’s office. They showed a three-dimensional graph with peaks and valleys scattered, seemingly randomly.
Riley pointed to it, “Were beginning to get a grip on the situation, we’ve been working all night in shifts, you can see the relationships appearing. The major factors seem to be the density of the medium, the charge levels, and most importantly the excitation frequencies. If we can get hold of a bigger cyclotron with say, double the power, I’m sure we can make significant progress.”
“What sort of temporal displacement would you be able to achieve?” asked Oakwood.
“I’m confident we can make the signal jump back a day.” Riley’s hands were resting openly on his desk but mentally they were behind his back with their fingers crossed.
“That would justify much more serious funding Martin. I’ll go back to London and see if I can call in some favors.”
A new cyclotron arrived from ALCEN Technologies, its manufacturer in France, a month later.
“It’s on loan,” Riley told Estella as they watched it being craned into the space they had made for it, next to its smaller cousin. The rest of the team were waiting impatiently for their opportunity to start wiring it up. “You can’t buy these things off the shelf, but ALCEN’s client has a delay in their building project, and won’t be able to take possession for two months. We’ve got six weeks to nail this.”
“What do you mean by nail it?” asked Estella.
“I mean, produce a significant temporal displacement. I promised Oakwood a day. He needs something to show the Cabinet Secretary before he can hope to start funding us officially.”
Estella pulled a wry face. “Let’s get on with it then.”
The team worked over the weekend to connect and calibrate the new machine. Oakwood called Riley two days later.
“How is the project progressing Dr Riley?” he asked.
“It’s not progressing, the bloody things broken down. I’ve been on to ALCEN, they can’t send a tech rep to fix it for weeks. All their people are busy working on other machines in different parts of the world.”
“Leave this to me.”
A technician arrived two days later, and the machine was on line within twenty-four hours. He left, but the lab smelled strongly of Gauloises afterwards. They had to hunt out all the flattened cigarette butts and bin them.
The new results came quickly. Riley was leaning over Estella’s shoulder, looking at her computer monitor.
“The graphs extend very nicely Martin. As we get the tuning more exact, we find wormholes with greater temporal displacement.”
“What’s the maximum displacement now?” he asked.
“About four thousand seconds, a little over an hour. The problem is that the charged wormholes are more and more difficult to find as the temporal separation of the ends increases. We think we’re detecting clusters but as we increase the separation, the numbers of individual wormholes in a cluster reduces. It’s a law of diminishing returns. I’ve done some statistical work, there will be an upper limit of about two weeks and we’ll need a much bigger cyclotron to achieve it.”
“What’s the limiting factor?”
“Well, at a displacement of two weeks, we’ll be at the theoretical limit of our ability to detect the cluster. It’ll also give us a limited bandwidth for sending digital information through it.”
“Okay, when can we show a one-day separation?”
“Probably next week, but don’t go phoning Oakwood until we’ve got it all sorted.”
It took a little longer than a week. Oakwood and the Cabinet Secretary, Robin Buckley, arrived at Martlesham ten days later. Riley met them in the car park. Buckley seemed too young to be the most senior civil servant in the land, he was shorter than average and dark haired, Riley thought he had a mid-European look and smiled a lot. He appeared relaxed as he shook Riley’s hand, smiled and nodded as Oakwood introduced him. The three men walked through the building to the main laboratory.
“I’ve brought Mr Buckley here by himself because the security implications of the TM project are so critical,” said Oakwood. “I’ll leave the demonstration to you Dr Riley.”
Riley knew that despite the veneer of good manners and mutual deference this meeting would be the most important of his career so far. His chest felt tight, and he’d already given the visitors noticeably sweaty handshakes.
The three men stood beside a bulky monitor and keyboard. Riley hoped that his voice wouldn’t quaver as he began an explanation of the equipment and process. He’d worked on his presentation for hours the previous evening, trying to simplify the science, but Buckley interrupted soon after he’d started.
“Excuse me Dr Riley but I really don’t need to know the technical side of this, although Dr Oakwood has attempted to explain it all, in the car on the way up.” He laughed. “Of course, I did Greats up at Oxford and thoroughly enjoyed it, but I’m afraid I’m not the most practical of types when it comes to science or engineering, all that sort of thing. All I need to see is that you can send information back in time. If you can do that, then the world is your oyster, ‘the crustacean of your choice,’ so to speak. Funding will be showered upon you in biblical proportions.” He laughed. “But you have to convince me, all this equipment could be smoke and mirrors for all I know. How are you proposing to send this message?”
“I’m going to ask you to send it now,” said Riley. He picked up an envelope which was lying on the desk beside the keyboard. “This envelope contains the message you’re about to send. It arrived on the hard drive yesterday at about this time. Please don’t open it, put it in your pocket, then type anything you like on this keyboard.”
Buckley took the envelope, placed it in the inside pocket of his jacket and, after a glance at Oakwood, he began to type. The words “Horas non numero nisi serenas” appeared on the screen. Riley took over the keyboard and copied the phrase into the first line of a screenful of computer code he had called up. He pressed the enter key.
“I’ve just sent your message back to myself. I didn’t have to do it straight away, I could have left it until you’d gone, but I like to keep things tidy,” said Riley. “You can look in the envelope now Mr Buckley.”
Buckley tore it open, drew out a piece of paper and read the same message out loud. One of the geniuses had written underneath “Only count the happy hours.”
“Yes, very clever Dr Riley but I’ve seen conjurers perform a similar trick.” Buckley smiled engagingly. “You must do better than that, if you want me to recommend to the Prime Minister that the Government stump up millions of pounds to support your pet project.”
Despite his friendly demeanor, an image of a smiling great white shark swam through Riley’s mind. He looked at his watch and turned on the television arranged next to the computer monitor.
“How about the winner of the three-thirty at Beverly, Mr Buckley?” Riley took a sheet of paper from his pocket and handed it to the Cabinet Secretary smiling confidently. “I also received this message yesterday.”
The civil servant read out loud, “The winner will be ‘River in May,’ at six to one on the nose. Oh, I say,” said Buckley suddenly becoming animated. “Now you’re talking Riley, now you’re talking. What a shame it’s too late to put on a small wager.” He turned to look at Oakwood, grinning, his eyes bright. Oakwood gave a wan smile, Riley thought he was doing his best to appear enthusiastic.
Riley laughed inwardly and said, “Actually Mr. Buckley I did place a small wager, and I took the liberty of putting a tenner on for you.” Riley handed Buckley a betting slip and the three men pulled up seats and sat down to watch the race.
After the civil servants had gone, Estella brought in two cups of tea, she sat at the desk next to Riley. He was feeling slightly dreamy as the stress leaked out of him. He tapped slowly at his keyboard.
“How did it go?” she asked. “They both seemed pleased as they left, chatting away to one another ten to the dozen. Buckley was rubbing his hands together. He looked positively gleeful.”
Riley finished typing and swiveled to face her. “I got Buckley to send himself a message.”
“The one we received yesterday?”
“Yes, he wasn’t impressed, virtually accused me of sleight of hand. I knew I had to come up with something more convincing, so I fell back on our old friends, the gee-gees. I didn’t tell you but I also got a message from myself yesterday, I’ve just sent it. It gave the winner of the three-thirty at Beverley. I heard on the grape vine that Buckley’s a betting man; in the most civilized way of course. The first message didn’t convince him but the second one certainly did. I even arranged for him to win sixty quid. You should have seen Oakwood’s face. You know he’s a lay preacher, he hates betting, but as they say, ‘Needs must when the Devil drives.’ ” They both laughed out loud and Riley managed to spill tea over the front of his trousers.
“Let’s leave early,” said Estella. “I’ll help you get those off. We can open a bottle of Prosecco to celebrate.”
The research continued, sometimes problems held them up for weeks or even months, but as time passed the team made progress. Oakwood’s visits became more routine and, for Riley, less stressful. Now that funding was no longer a problem they had commissioned a new cyclotron from ALCEN. It was built to their own specifications, and customized for the excitation amplitudes and frequencies they needed. It proved to be a turning point in the project.
One evening, soon after its final commissioning, Riley and Estella were working late together. They scrutinized a monitor on a bench in the deserted laboratory. At intervals of a few seconds, filenames appeared on screen until eventually seven were listed.
“I’ll print them,” said Estella, who was standing nearest to the keyboard. She tapped some keys and went off to the nearby large format laser printer. Returning a few minutes later she laid seven large sheets out along an empty bench.
“So, this is a scan of the back page of tomorrow’s Guardian newspaper,” said Riley, scrutinizing the date and heading at the top of the first page. He pointed it out to Estella. The image was less than perfect, grey and fuzzy but just readable. He stared at Estella. “I can’t believe it, we’ve done it,” he stared at her unblinking. “We’ve done it,” he shouted, “it works, we’re vindicated,” he grabbed her hands and jumped up and down, dancing with delight.
His enthusiasm puzzled Estella at first but then the realization flooded over her and she joined in. “If we can send a page of newsprint back a day, then the sky’s the limit. We’ve done it,” she shouted.
They stopped dancing to take another, longer look at the printout. “Is that your thumb in the picture?” asked Riley.
“It looks like mine but I haven’t got a broken nail.”
“Not yet,” he said.
Estella checked her thumb nail to be sure, but it was intact.
“So tomorrow I’ll scan that day’s newspaper and send it back twenty-four hours to us now, and the file will have appeared on the hard drive the day before we sent it. It’s difficult to get used to the effect coming before the cause. What would happen if I decided not to send it?” she asked.
“But you will, or if you don’t then somebody else will, somebody with a broken thumb nail.”
“I must remember to pick up a copy of The Guardian on my way in to work, although I’ve always been a Telegraph reader myself.”
“Yes,” he said, “and we’ll scan the day’s newspaper and send the file back up the Timestream every day this week. We need to designate one of the geniuses to do this from now on.” He gestured at the bench. They looked at the first sheet again.
“I can just read it,” said Estella. “What a pity that the sports news is so boring, why can’t we scan the business pages and see what the share prices are doing? We could make money.”
“Because we don’t understand the ramifications of making even tiny changes in the present yet, if we fiddle about with the present we’ll change our future. Anything could happen. There might be horrifying consequences, we might blink out of existence; we have to be very careful. Why am I the only one who can see this?”
“Alright, calm down Martin; don’t get your knickers in a twist.”
He calmed himself with an effort and looked at the print out again.
“I see the West Indies are sixty-five for four, or at least they will be tomorrow. Let’s look at the printout from the next day.”
Riley and Estella looked at the next sheet, it was less clear.
“So, we’ll send this one the day after tomorrow. I can’t read it. Perhaps it’s noise in the receiver,” said Estella. They walked along beside the bench looking at each of the pages. “As we go further forward the quality reduces even more. The ones from over four days ahead are just a mass of grey. We have to find a means of sharpening the transmission; we could filter it or perhaps increase the resolution of the scan head?”
“That’ll make the files larger and slow their transmission rate. We have to increase the bandwidth if we want to send files from further down the Timestream and we’ll need a lot more power.”
Riley and Estella were sitting in a quiet corner of their local six weeks later, they were both on their second pint.
“It doesn’t matter how much power we use,” said Estella, “information sent from two weeks downstream seems to be the limit, if we try to send it further it doesn’t arrive. I told you, the numbers don’t lie, if there are wormholes that stretch more than two weeks then we haven’t found any. Perhaps they exist in a different form. It’s probably a quantum effect we don’t understand.”
“You’re right,” Riley agreed, “the further downstream we try to go, the more difficult it gets to detect the wormhole clusters and the more the bandwidth for transmissions reduces.” He thought that if he was still working in academia, scientists would call this the “Riley Effect.” With his name permanently linked to the new field of study he would be the “Father of Time Travel.”
“Well, if we’ve established the limitations then it’s time to try something practical,” said Estella.
“Practical, what do you mean?” said Riley. He had a sudden hollow feeling in his guts.
“Well, we could make a small intervention, a Temporal Adjustment. We might stop something bad happening. That’s what you want to use this technology for isn’t it. You’ve said so enough times, after a glass or three.”
“I don’t think we’re ready,” he said, “we need to gather more data, do more experiments.” He realized how pathetic he sounded, and that Estella knew he was playing for time.
“Oh, grow a pair, Martin; we have to try it sooner or later, Her Majesty’s Government won’t fund us forever and Oakwood’s no fool, he knows how much progress we’ve made.”
Riley felt a terrible emptiness flow over him. He realized she was right, but the prospect of making even the smallest change to the future petrified him.
Next day, back at his office, Riley spoke to Oakwood using the encrypted phone. “I want to try something new Dr Oakwood, I want to try making a small intervention. We call the idea a Temporal Adjustment, a TA.”
“Yes, I suppose it’s the logical next step,” said Oakwood, “given that the whole purpose of this technology is to control or possibly to steer the future. What do you have in mind?”
“I’m not sure yet, it depends what we get from our scans of the newspapers. Something important enough to appear in print but the less significant the better.”
“Do nothing without consulting me,” said Oakwood. “Call me if you find anything suitable and I’ll be there post haste.”
Riley spent days reading future news stories as they arrived on the hard disks each day. Eventually, after much soul searching, he made his choice. He, Estella, and Oakwood met in Riley’s office. Oakwood punched “999” into his brick like, government issue, mobile phone. They wanted to avoid any chance that the call could be traced.
“Hello, is that the police? I want to report a disturbance at 19, Moorefield Street, High Barnet,” he said.
It was the address of a house where a drug addict would murder his partner in about an hour’s time, according to the newspaper story that had arrived almost two weeks earlier. The copy had lain on Riley’s desk for over a week while he overcame his uncertainties. They had chosen this episode carefully.
“I think I heard a gunshot,” said Oakwood, thus triggering the attendance of an armed response unit. He hung up giving no further details. Riley sat quite still, shoulders raised, he didn’t speak, he half expected oblivion. They had finally interfered with the Timestream. He waited to see if there were any discernible changes.
“Well everything appears to be normal,” said Oakwood brusquely after about a minute. “If there were to be any ramifications, they probably wouldn’t be immediately apparent.” He got up from his chair. “Congratulations Martin, I’ll be on my way. Let’s talk next week.” He left and as nothing untoward appeared to have happened, Riley and Estella went home for the weekend as usual.
Riley’s worry that they had caused the Timestream to branch or change in some way nagged at him. He suspected that Oakwood wasn’t interested in the consequences of Temporal Messaging, as long as it worked, and its success reflected on him.
The next day was Saturday, early that morning Riley got up, threw on a pair of jeans and quietly let himself out of their house in Ipswich, they’d moved there to be closer to the lab. He walked around the corner to the tobacconist and bought a copy of the Guardian. Back home, in the kitchen, he made two mugs of tea and took them upstairs. Estella grunted, sat up, pushed her hair back, and reached for her tea.
“Thanks,” she said. “Well, what’s the news?”
Riley opened the paper to the story of the police raid and placed it on the bed. He unfolded a copy of the printout of the page from the future and laid it next to it. They looked very similar, except that the original story’s headline was, “DRUG ADDICT MURDERS WIFE,” while the newer one was, “POLICE STORM CRACK HOUSE.” While the stories differed, the layout of the rest of the page was unchanged.
“Well,” said Riley, “now we know.”
“We saved a life,” said Estella smiling.
Riley nodded, “Yes, yes we did,” he said, although he was far less sanguine than he appeared. Why was it that everybody around him was oblivious to the cliff edge they were sleep walking towards, he wondered?
England the 1990s
Estella walked into Riley’s office clutching a sheaf of printouts. She stood in front of his desk, slow tears slid down her cheeks. It was a shock; Estella was such a toughie and seldom cried.
“What is it?” he asked half rising.
“It’s Princess Diana. She and Dodi Fayed are going to die in a car accident in Paris in two weeks” time. These are the first reports.” She placed them on the desk and sat opposite him. He passed her his box of tissues. “I can’t believe it; Princess Diana is such a force for good in the world. Look at her work with Aids victims and land mines. It’s just not right.” Her voice shook as she talked angrily, “The Royal Family has never forgiven her for that television interview.” She paused for a moment, gathered herself, and spoke more calmly, “Remember, when she was going out with that heart surgeon Hasnat Khan. He had to hide from the press in the boot of her car, when they drove to her apartment at Kensington Palace. I thought that was so funny and romantic, she was even going to convert to the Muslim faith to please his family, but I think they still made him break up with her. I liked him better than this Dodi Fayed. Surely they won’t let her die Martin; surely the Government will intervene.” She was speaking faster now, almost gabbling.
“I never know what they’ll want adjusted and what they won’t,” Riley said. His mind was whirring with thoughts of the ramifications of Princess Diana’s death, if TASC allowed it to happen. “I can’t see the Royal Family wanting to intervene. Diana has been a thorn in their flesh for years. When Prince William takes the throne, she’ll come back into the Royal Family and become Queen Mother. She will have won.” He chuckled mirthlessly. “A nightmare for the Establishment. The new occupant of Clarence House, married to a Muslim and possibly a Muslim herself, with Muslim children and grandchildren. They might find this accident providential. I don’t think they’ll want to change a thing.”
Estella sat opposite dabbing her eyes. He read several versions of the story before he picked up the phone to ring Dr Oakwood.
Oakwood arrived by helicopter an hour later. He’d already been briefed by Paul Burnley. Riley realized that this was a big issue when members of TASC started to arrive in government limousines in quick succession. The group viewing the television footage that was being sent back grew to a dozen. They watched as the French police handled the situation, saw the mangled Mercedes, heard the pronouncement of the deaths of three of its occupants.
All other work came to a standstill in the TA laboratory as the story unfolded over the next few days. More of the Committee arrived; the admin staff booked local hotel rooms for them and equipped a conference room to show the TV footage in private. Riley watched the Prime Minister’s televised speech made on the Sunday after Diana’s death. When Tony Blair used the phrase “The People’s Princess,” he heard a politician mutter, “He owes Alastair Campbell big time for that one.”
Two days later, a disheveled and jacketless Dr Oakwood sat in Riley’s office drinking tea.
“The PM is seriously worried Martin. Footage from two weeks ahead shows the newspapers are making much of the Queen’s refusal to fly a flag at half-mast over Buckingham Palace, it’s triggered an outcry. The crowds outside have grown bigger, there are acres of flowers, and Paul Burley’s sources say there’s a dangerous deadlock between the Prime Minister and the Queen. She’s still refusing to speak publicly about Diana’s death. The Committee are getting worried.”
Riley was struck by the contrast between the mundane, present-day news reports he saw on TV at home, and the drama in those sent from just two weeks downstream to the laboratory. He and Oakwood rose and re-joined the members of TASC, who were filing back into the conference room after a lunch break.
“This is building up to be a perfect storm,” said Robin Buckley, the Cabinet Secretary, sitting on Oakwood’s right. He had arrived on the fourth day and stayed, cancelling his other business. “This could seriously damage the monarchy, we could have a revolution on our hands and be a republic before you know it.”
Riley chuckled inwardly as he thought of the titles and privileges that would disappear if that happened. They love their perquisites, these accidents of birth, these fucking inbreds. He had become more embittered as time passed and the realization grew that the recognition he deserved would never be his. It was a constant simmering resentment, he was just another nameless scientist in the service of the British Government.
Over the next few days, the crowd outside Buckingham Palace continue to grow. Even Estella was surprised at the vast numbers of bouquets the public had laid at various palace gates, on pavements outside municipal buildings and even in supermarket car parks all over the country. Meanwhile, the Royal Family stayed remote and secluded on their Balmoral estate, five hundred miles away. Despite the efforts of the Prime Minister, the Queen remained intransigent, refusing to expose her grandsons” grief to the maudlin voyeurism of the press and public.
It was on the sixth day after Diana’s death that the riot began. The Committee watched footage of the evening crowds massing outside Buckingham Palace, with its darkened windows and empty flagpole. They saw huge numbers of angry Diana supporters surge forward. The police were forced to unlocked the gates, at the front of the building, to prevent the crushing of the innocent. Over the screaming and shouting they heard explosions, as the police fired ineffectual baton rounds at the huge crowd funneling from the Mall into the forecourt of the Palace. They saw the front doors broken down and windows smashed, as rioters, running amok, first sacked and then set the, largely empty, building ablaze.
The Committee and scientists sat in shocked silence as Buckingham Palace burned, and fire engines battled the flames that lit up the London night skyline. It was the unsubtle rejoinder of the masses to their monarch’s inflexibility.
Like the Red Army storming the Winter Palace, thought Riley as, with secret amusement and a carefully neutral expression, he surveyed the horrified looks of the Great and the Good, sitting on their fat arses on either side of him. He remembered how easily Burnley had prevented the fire at Windsor Castle, five years earlier, after the warning from the TM team. He expected that most of the Committee were unaware of that early Temporal Adjustment; it had been before the formation of TASC. The clips of the original incident had been dramatic, but at least that had been an accident. This fire was purposeful, a metaphor, a lesson to the Establishment, the masses are a sleeping giant that will rise and roar if provoked.
One of the Generals stood up and remonstrated at the screen. Riley thought he might have a stroke, his face was red and blood vessels throbbed at his temples. “We’ll shoot the bloody lot of them, leftie scum,” he shouted, shaking his fist. “Flame throwers, that’s what’s needed, burn the bastards.”
Oakwood took a deep breath, and held up his hands for silence. Reluctantly the general sat back down, still muttering.
“We need to decide now,” said Oakwood to the rest of the Committee. “We can prevent the accident in the tunnel and save Diana if we choose to and none of this will happen; but we only have two more days. Those in favor please raise a hand and then sign the memo I am circulating.” Oakwood would never risk-taking action on his own, thought Riley. The vote was unanimous and the Cabinet Secretary, who was murmuring into his cell phone nodded.
“The PM says to go ahead,” he said.
Oakwood called Paul Burnley into the room. “We need to stop the accident. Can you arrange that?” he asked. More meddling, thought Riley, can’t they see the danger?
“The early French police reports say that the driver of Diana and Dodi’s car, was drunk. If we change the driver the accident won’t happen.”
“How can you change the driver?” asked Oakwood.
“We have an asset in their hotel in Paris, she’s a waitress. She can give the driver a Mickey Finn an hour or so before he’s due to drive Diana and Dodi. I’ll get straight onto it.” He left the room pulling his mobile phone out of his suit pocket. Riley was impressed, he and Estella always referred to Burnley as “Mr Bond” when they spoke of him at home.
Two days later, in the Ritz hotel Paris, Dodi Fayed’s driver, Henri Paul, was kneeling, throwing up in the staff toilet. The bodyguard who was standing next to him phoned the head of security. “He isn’t fit to drive the Boss,” he said, his tone indifferent.
“Okay, get somebody else to drive. Make sure it’s somebody careful. Send the car around the back now, they’re ready to leave.”
The Mercedes S280 drove up to the rear entrance of the hotel, security guards escorted Diana and Dodi to it. The driver was a well-trained, reliable member of Dodi’s security team. He felt nervous and knew he needed to resist the urge to drive fast to get away from the paparazzi, waiting outside with their cameras and motorcycles. He didn’t want to put his passengers at risk. As he let out the clutch, he looked into the rear-view mirror.
“Monsieur, Madam, please buckle your seat belts,” he said. Surprised at the driver’s presumption his passengers glanced at each other and then complied.
The next weekend, Estella, and Riley were spending a pleasant morning relaxing over coffee, croissants, and the Sunday papers, in their large modern kitchen. “How wonderful that we could save Diana’s life,” said Estella? “It makes me proud to be doing this job.”
He took a deep breath. “Yes, but what about the ramifications? What effect have we had on the future?”
“You and your ‘ramifications’, we’ve made things better, that’s all. Why beat yourself up?”
“Because Diana was supposed to die, and now we’ve changed history. We’re living in a radically altered Timestream. For all I know, there might be two Timestreams, one with Diana dead, and one with her alive.”
“How many Timestreams could there be?” asked Estella.
“There might be an infinite number of Timestreams, ask Stephen fucking Hawking.” Riley was becoming agitated, he was jealous of Professor Hawking, and usually avoided mentioning him. “It worries me that our masters are manipulating history for their own ends. Power corrupts, and I have no idea where Temporal Adjustments of this significance will lead us.”
“Yes, but if the government are working in the public interest, what’s wrong with that. I may not be a royalist exactly, but I wouldn’t have liked it if there had been a revolution or a coup or something. I think the Queen does a good job, it’s the next incumbent that worries me.”
Riley didn’t reply. She popped another piece of pastry into her mouth and took a sip of coffee.
“Have some croissant with your jam why don’t you,” he said.
“Mind your own damn business Fatso; I’ll have as much jam as I like.” She smiled brightly at him. “Anyway, pregnant women often get an appetite for sweet things.”
Riley had returned to his newspaper, he paused before looking up.
“Pregnant?” he said.
End of sample
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