Thursday, September 7, 2017

First Short Story That I Have Written Since Junior High

Ryan Martin, Time Detective
Ryan Martin.  Of course, that’s not really my name, but this is too good for me to keep to myself.  Tomorrow morning, you are going to wonder: Was I so drunk that I imagined this?  Or was this Ryan guy so drunk that he believed it?  It doesn’t really matter.

I work for the Historical Integrity Verification Project.  We show up on the National Endowment for the Humanities budget, but we are really a “black project” reporting to the CIA.  Other parts appear on the National Science Foundation budget as “Neutrino Focusing Research Project.”  We work out of a building near Danvers, Massachusetts.

The CIA’s Office of Inspector General recruited me out of the Department of State Security service as an investigator.  Why?  I’m short enough and slight enough of build to not stand out where I am going undercover—or should I say when I am going undercover.  Mass matters, too; I will get to that soon.  The XBI clearance also speeded up getting me to work.  I have a certain facility with languages and accents, too.

Anyway, my new boss Jane Rodgers, (you can waste plenty of time trying to find her, too) explains that the reason we are called Historical Integrity Verification Project (HVIP) is to explain  the fairly large number of History PhDs and MAs we hire.  What we do is going to sound absurd, but trust me, I’ve done it, it’s true.

HIVP’s nominal mission is to verify the accuracy of published historical research.  Some years back, a History Professor at Emory University wrote an absurdly false book, and its widespread acceptance in the academic community, and then the judiciary, exposed how weak the history profession is on accuracy.  That’s our cover story, and occasionally HVIP  finds an error—and then has to find a way to prove it without explaining: “We interviewed King Philip’s killer.”

But the truth is, that some scientists working under a National Science Foundation grant involving neutrino focusing (and no, I have no idea what neutrinos are, how you focus them, or why) discovered that they could see into the past; they could see events that happened centuries before.  They were immediately ordered/bribed into the CIA’s black project, and told that when declassified, they could publish their research, after appropriate sanitization, and go directly to Stockholm for their meeting with the Committee and the King.

One thing led to another and they figured out how to transfer objects through this neutrino lens back and forward in time.  But no dinosaur safaris: this portal (so far) only works to one particular year: 1692.  The theory has a lot of work left; they have one example that works.  Like Alexander Fleming’s penicillin in a petri dish, it is a fortunate accident, with a more complex problem than Fleming had to solve.  There is no choice about where; you end up in the same spot as you start.  There is some limited ability to select a time; otherwise you might leave Danvers at 8:00 AM and land at 42 degrees, 34 minutes north latitude over the Atlantic Ocean depending on how many rotations the Earth has made in the intervening centuries.  But so far, location latitude,  seems to be fixed.

You can see why the CIA would be interested.  Remote viewing of the past means remote viewing of five minutes ago.  Time travel allows past mistakes to be corrected, assuming that you know that you change will actually work without causing unexpected results.  The CIA has lots of smart people who will always get that right, right?

I mentioned that mass matters.  Mass and energy are conserved, I am told.  This transfer back in time requires an amount of energy equal to the mass of the object times the speed of light squared.  Yeah, Einstein’s E=mc squared formula.  They recover that energy when you come back, but you better not weigh a lot more coming back than when you left; the energy has to come from somewhere.  Remember that blackout that took down the whole Northeast a few years ago?  Someone had some silver pennies in his pocket and the extra mass demanded huge amounts of power right now.

So why did they recruit me?  They were suspicious about one of their researchers who was verifying history by going to Salem and watching the events that led to the Salem Witch Trials.  It turns out that this guy, Dr. Williams, was suddenly getting very wealthy.  He thought he was hiding his new-found riches, but CIA keeps careful watch on black project employees and their finances. 

Was he selling information?  Not that anyone could tell.  Was he bringing back goods from 1692?  It seemed unlikely; economists call the trading of goods between two different markets to take advantage of price differences arbitrage.  No one could figure out any arbitrage between then and now that made sense and was possible.  Most items were actually more expensive in the era before mass production.  He could be selling steel tools, or chainsaw, or power screwdrivers in 1692.  But these would clearly qualify as witchcraft.  And how would he transport gold or silver to the present.  Any substantial amount would show up as a huge energy consumption as came back to the present compared to energy used to send him back. 

So, my mission was to follow him and see what, if anything, Dr. Williams was doing.  The day came.  They had taught me late 17th century Colonial American English vocabulary and accent as best as their researchers had been able to record it on previous trips.  My clothes were the best possible replicas of Colonial cotton breeches, waistcoat, cravat, and coat, both heavier and warmer than I would have chosen; apparently temperatures were lower back then (my instructor called it the Little Ice Age).  They had picked colors that a visitor from another colony might have worn, so that I could explain my odd attire, if I stood out in some way.

They issued me a large hunting knife and a pair of flintlock pistols.  My first reaction was: “I can’t take my Sig Sauer?”  My instructor pointed me to the sign on the wall: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.—Arthur C. Clarke”; a true statement with which I was not previously familiar.  Of course.  If I had occasion to use it, I might find myself accused of witchcraft, in a time when people were being hanged for witchcraft based on claims of what young girls could see, but no one else could.  A gun that can shoot many times in a row with enormous power and accuracy?  With glow in the dark sights?  No need for a trial.

There was another reason.  All of us have ancestors in the past.  My instructor was part-Wampanoag Indian.  If I defended myself from one of her ancestors, it would change who she was, and perhaps others in unpredictable ways.  Not everyone of mixed blood was willing to admit it to their children in the past; many “white” people today might suddenly have a different ancestor.  The logic on this was very clear. So I went along, and practiced loading and firing my flintlock pistols. 

“So what if I need more than two shots?” I asked. 

“Are you expecting repeating guns in 1692?”

Still, I feel a bit naked with only two shots.  I packed a tiny .22 pistol, the Walther TPH that I have always carried as a backup, in my backpack.  They had built a leather bag similar to what they had observed in the forest, but these were usually distant travelers they were viewing; appearance was thus largely guesswork.  I also weighed my cartridges against pebbles; if I actually had to fire any shots, I needed to roughly balance that loss in mass to keep backward and forward energy as close to equal as possible.  I did not need this to be perfect.  Most travelers lost a few pounds in 1692; hiking through the forest, cooler weather, and a shortage of fast food usually dropped a couple pounds.

The morning came.  I stood by in the shadows watching Dr. Williams walk into the time travel booth (no, not a British phone booth), and after a couple seconds, poof!  They had a viewing screen pointed at his arrival spot, and they could see him remove his goggles and secrete them under the pine needles.  Dr. Williams was, like me, fairly short and slight of build, in his 40s, with hair beginning to gray in a way so professorial that all that was missing was a tweed jacket and a pipe.  They had to wait a few hours to recharge the capacitors to send me back.  As it was, the electric utilities all over the Northeast were probably wondering why there was this sudden surge in demand.

A few hours later, I put on my goggles and walked in to the booth.  I confess that had I not seen Dr. Williams arrival in 1692, I might have been reluctant; when he went, there was a dimming of all our lights that made me think of 1930s prison films where the electric chair draws too much current.
As I was warned, the goggles were absolutely needed.  As I felt a strange tingling, I became aware, even through the dark goggles, of a very bright white light.  Next, I fell.  I was warned that there would be an elevation change.  The floor of our building was a few feet above ground level.  Also, New England, like many areas that were covered by ice during the last Ice Age, has been rising as the ice melting allowed the ground to rise.  Ground level today is several feet higher than in 1692.

It was only a few feet and I was expecting it.  As soon as I landed, at least on both feet, I took off the goggles.  There were still afterimages of the bright light.  After looking around quickly, I found a nearby tree that I was sure that I would recognize in a few days, buried them under the pine needles, and pulled a hatchet from my bag to “blaze” the tree’s bark.  We were not sure when this practice for marking trails through a forest came into use, but it did not seem too out of character for the time.

I knew from the map that I had tried to memorize which direction would take me to Danvers.  Any modern compass would be too obviously anachronistic.  Within a few minutes, I was both walking past a small pond, then the edges of wheat fields.  Ahead I could see a scattered collection of wood buildings that I would have to remember was “Salem Village,” not the more recently named “Danvers.”   In retrospect the delay on sending me back was probably a good thing; two strangers arriving within a few minutes of each other might excite suspicion, especially in such a paranoid time as the Witchcraft Trials.  The entire Massachusetts Bay Colony population in 1692, I had been told, was only in the thousands. 

When I entered the village, I immediately recognized the strange looks on the faces of the villagers.  They were not hostile or frightened; more curious than anything.  I asked around, and found the Ship Tavern, where I exchanged a few expertly counterfeited threepence coins for ale and roast beef.  They indeed has a place for me to bed down for the night on a quilt.  In the morning, I rose early, and began the task of locating Dr. Williams, hinting to villagers that a fellow traveler from Plymouth might have recently arrived.  Eventually my inquiries were rewarded.  He apparently had spent the night with John Darling near Hathorne’s Hill.  I arrived as he was leaving the Darling house.

I was briefly concerned that he might see me, and somehow identify that I was too modern.  I kept my mouth shut.  The inhabitants, like most people of English ancestry, were all in desperate need of orthodontia.  My teeth were the result of many unpleasant years in junior high.

But we passed in the road.  He was headed toward Lindal Hill, if my memory of the map was correct.  After a minute, I turned around, and from a safe distance, followed him past Whipple Hill to the Meeting House.  Dr. Williams was, in a subtle way, interviewing people outside the Meeting House.  I was not close enough to hear the conversations distinctly, but I was not too concerned; this was what he was supposed to be doing.

The next day or two was uneventful.  I enjoyed ale, roast beef, and lamb.  I remembered the horrors of the outhouse and found myself amazed that more were not dying here.  There were enough people walking around the village that I did not stand out, even staying within sight of Dr. Williams.  One conversation that I overheard indicated that he was asking locals about the witchcraft trials and accusations, under the pretense that he was visiting from Plymouth, and wanted to know what unique features of these events Plymouth magistrates might want to watch for; it was a clever method of gathering information that failed to make it into the official records of the Trials.

On the fourth day, I saw Dr. Williams carrying two flintlock pistols in his belt while walking northwest.  I had not seen him carrying pistols before, so this caused me to take interest.  I could not imagine him robbing someone to take that wealth back to our time.  How would he take it back?
I followed him at a few hundred yards until we were almost in Rowley.  We were far enough out from town that we were now in forest.  Dr. Williams approached a tree about two feet in diameter, and dug through the pine needles until he grabbed something and pulled up.  Then he placed the flintlock pistols in two bags, placed them in the ground, in the ground, released the handle, then spread the pine needles over the ground again. 

After he left, I walked to the tree, dug around the pine needles where he had stood about fifteen feet from the trunk, and soon found a handle on a metal box.  Where would Dr. Williams have found such a box?  Was it made in Salem Village?  Did he order it from Boston?  It seemed to be steel of this period.  Inside were the flintlock pistols in transparent plastic bags surrounded by a few bags of a white powder in a perforated white bag, which I was guessing was a desiccant, and a carved wooden rectangle.  I carried it to a sunny spot in a clearing.  Carved in the wood was: “Property Daniel Williams, Ph.D.  Please do not disturb.”  I was now beginning to see how he was making history profitable.

I carefully counted my steps back to town, using the position of the Sun to get as accurate a bearing as I could.  My reason for staying here was over.  I walked to the place in the forest where I had been delivered to this time, and waved my arms frantically to get the attention of whoever was watching the screen.  Then I yelled, “Beam me up!” hoping the joke would not be lost on whatever millennial was left in charge.  I put on my goggles and waited.  A bright flash of light and some tingling, and I was back in the present day.

It was a few minutes before my boss, Jane arrived.  “Did you learn anything?”

“Yes.  I never want to live in the 17th century…. Oh, you mean about Dr. Williams.  Yes, I need a map of this area.”

Within a few minutes we had identified where Dr. Williams’ storage box should be, in Endicott Park.  A short drive, and I was standing next to what had been a small tree in 1692.  It was now gigantic: tall and thick.  A metal detector soon found the chest under a few feet of dirt accumulated over the many decades as leaves degraded.  It had apparently been opened recently in our time.  Inside were the two flintlock pistols, a rather dainty little saucer, and a sealed plastic bag of threepence coins.  I suspect that the saucer and bag of coins might have been added to the box after I returned.  Everything was photographed and dusted for prints as evidence.  Jane left a note inside: “Dr. Williams, report to me at once.  Jane Rodgers, Office of Inspector General.”

Dr. Williams’ mission ended in a few days.  To my surprise, he appeared the following morning at Jane’s office.

“Dr. Williams: We have been wondering where your sudden income came from.  Now we know.”  Jane held up one of the flintlocks.

Dr. Williams had a look like a schoolboy caught texting someone across the classroom: “I didn’t break any laws.  I didn’t try to bring them back with me.”

Jane’s tone was icy.  “No laws broken, and this is far better than if you were selling information.  Still, there’s a conflict of interest.  Is the number of trips for historical research?  Or to gather more artifacts for resale?”

Dr. Williams suddenly looked down in horror, like he had not even considered that angle.  “No, I never let this sideline business influence my… research decisions.”

Jane smiled: “Good.  You will reimburse the Treasury for the profits you have earned, which I suspect were substantial.  I am guessing two nearly flawless 17th century flintlock pistols are worth a pretty penny to gun collectors.  And this dish, and these coins.”

Dr. Williams was clearly becoming more distraught by the second.  My guess is that he was not fundamentally a criminal, and had not thought through the appearance or possible consequences of his “sideline business.”  “Yes.  I can write a check tomorrow, if that is agreeable.  What are you going to do with those artifacts?”

Jane took a long look at them.  “We could either donate them to the Smithsonian or have you sell them, and use it to pay for electricity.  I am inclined to the latter.  How would we explain such perfectly preserved artifacts?”

Dr. Williams smiled, finally.  “It wasn’t just the electricity to bring these back with me that caused me to secrete them in the park.  They needed to show some age.  The desiccant and sealed bags slowed down the oxidation process, but did not completely stop it.  They look well-preserved, but not obvious modern forgeries.”

And so Dr. Williams kept his job; the Historical Integrity Verification Project moved a little closer to self-funding, and collectors of 17th century Colonial artifacts became a little poorer.


JohnG said...

What, no copyright?

Nathan said...

Good story! The most sci-fi thing about it was a government department that would make such a practical decision as in the denouement. :D

Clayton Cramer said...

Since the U.S. signed the Berne convention, everything is born copyrighted at first publication.