Saturday, September 30, 2017

Time Detective

Statute of Limitations

It has been a few months since I last told you about my adventures working for the Historical Integrity Verification Project.   Since no one has come to me from the Office of the Inspector General, I am going to assume that either you found my previous accounts implausible, or any journalists you approached decided that you were crazy.  That's fine.  I just have to tell someone. It's just too hard to have adventures like this, and hold them in.

My boss, Jane, called me in to her office.  “Ryan, we have a new problem for you to solve.  We need you to solve a burglary.”

 “Where?” I was thinking of valuable equipment from the lab, or our carefully crafted counterfeits of 17th century goods.

 “No, when: 1694.”

 “Just a moment.  When I was attending FLETC,” (the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center), “I learned about something called 'statute of limitations,' and I am pretty sure we are a few centuries too late to prosecute.  Also, not sure how to subpoena witnesses from a graveyard.   But I suspect that this is not the reason you called me in.”

She smiled at my wit (or she was embarrassed by my attempt at wit).  “No, it's not.  We recently discovered a 1694 burglary; we fear that it might be something done by either one of our researchers (you will recall Dr. Williams), or an unintentional consequence of one of our travelers’ visits.  We aren't sure that the burglary is our doing, but if it is, there might be consequences beyond just the book change that uncovered it."  I must have looked more stupid than usual; having worked HIVP as long as I have, I usually smell a time paradox centuries before most of you 21st century residents.   “The problem is that we only know of the burglary being dependent on a change in the past by a fortunate coincidence.  One of our researchers was reading a digest of an early 18th century Massachusetts diary, and while he read the page, it changed.  This burglary description just appeared on the page as she read it.  Suddenly, text moved from the bottom of one printed page to the top of the next.  She blinked her eyes, and the new text did not match what she had just been reading.”

 “So how do we know it happened at all?  Is there a version of this book not altered?”

Jane gave me her superior smile.  “Every printed copy of that diary, and the original version in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s collection has the burglary now.  We’ve checked.  A change in the past propagates everywhere.  Only her memory gave it away.  Her memory is not altered by events of the past.   That’s why I call it a fortunate coincidence.  Otherwise, we would never have known about it.”

“So why is it a problem?  The sky hasn’t fallen.”

“You remember when you first arrived here for training, we had you read that story about the professor showing his students that minor changes in the past really do not change much of subsequent events?  He starts a pendulum swinging through a time portal into the Mesozoic Era.  The first swing kills a butterfly.  A proto-mammal starves, removing a very useful mutation from that species’ gene pool.  Mammals do not take over after the extinction of the dinosaurs.  On each swing of the pendulum through the portal another trivial change happens; after each pass, the classroom, the students, and the professor subtly change.  By the end, instead of humans, a reptilian professor is telling his reptilian class that nothing changed.”

I suddenly remember that story and saw why Jane (and doubtless her higher-ups) were worried.  “So we might have made a change so subtle that our recent memories do not detect it, but the risk is high that it might cause an unexpected and disadvantageous change.”

Jane’s triumphant “My student is finally getting it” look appeared.  “Did we cause this change?  If so, where’s the Undo button?  Why does CIA spend so much money for our field trips?  They want to know how malleable history is.  We are not killing butterflies, but we are imposing at least tiny effects as we walk through Danvers and ask questions.”

I was feeling dangerously clever.  “How much change could one little burglary make?”

Jane grimaced.  “Maybe nothing.  The anger of the diary entry is about a gold locket. with sentimental value.  Its value for that era is not enormous; there may be something of greater value in the burglary that has an economic impact.  If Ms. Ballard’s loss of assets causes her grandson Samuel Barrett to lack the funds to open up a gunmaking business in Concord, perhaps it causes a critical battle of the American Revolution to be lost.  Or a gunsmith he trained, plays an important part in Eli Whitney’s efforts to create interchangeable parts.”

I recited: “For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, and for want of a horse the man was lost. For want of a man, the war was lost.   And all for the want of a nail!  I get it.  The change might mean nothing today, but in twenty years, it might mean thermonuclear war or a pandemic.  We might not see it because our memories have forgotten some important change that would clue us in.”

“So you said 1694?”  I thought I might have misheard the year.

“Yes, we are beginning to expand the range of years we can visit.  Still--only a few year range.  The hope is to expand that to a more useful range for the Company’s counter-espionage mission.  No progress on destination yet.  We still seem to be locked to the current location of the portal.”
I was too polite to ask if the Agency’s the primary destination target was Lenin’s World War I Zurich, Hitler’s Vienna, or Osama bin Laden’s 1990s Afghanistan.  All would be tempting targets if you were prepared to risk turning reptilian.

Jane could see I was deep in thought.  “Ryan: We are going to drop you in the day before this burglary.  I hope that it isn’t a criminal form of what Dr. Williams did.  Perhaps some of the stolen goods have some unusual modern value.  If it isn’t a direct action by one of our researchers, try to figure out if our presence in some way encourages this burglary.  Mr. Masolini is visiting at the moment of the burglary, examining the nature of cast iron pricing in the Boston area.  See if there are any contacts that might explain this.  We may have you leave instructions in the drop box describing this interaction.”

The drop box is what Dr. Williams used to deliver 17th century artifacts to the present day.  This is now our method of correcting future mistakes.  A warning letter left in the drop box in 1694 would provide enough information to make mission instruction changes in our present.

Two hours later, I was walking through a snowstorm in December of 1694.  For once, the overly heavy clothing was welcome.  Unfortunately, none of it was leather except my boots; oilcloths were still decades away, as was vulcanized rubber for overcoats.  By the time I reached the Ship Tavern, I was soaked to the skin and cold.  I modestly changed into some dry clothes that I had packed before the fireplace while the customers of the bar politely stared out the door.  All were sympathetic to the miseries of walking in the snow.

This was not my first stay at the Ship Tavern.  If the innkeeper remembered me from 1692, he gave no indication of it.  It was good enough for him that I, a cold and soaked stranger, wanted some warm mulled wine, a Cape Cod Turkey (codfish cooked with bacon), and baked beans.  I paid him with one of the silver Pine Tree shilling coins we had counterfeited.  These are not a terribly complex coin; having the resources of the U.S. Mint made it easy.  I would love to know the cover story CIA told the Mint for counterfeiting 17th century coins.

The next day, after a fitful night asleep on a quilt on the floor, I walked over to Mercy Ballard’s home, a clapboard salt box.  I had decided that after familiarizing myself with all the possible entrances, and watching to see the inhabitants come and go, I would wait for nightfall. 

The one exception to the “no modern technology” rule made for this mission was night vision goggles.  To prevent era contamination, they came with a small explosive charge designed to render them incomprehensible fragments if my fingerprint (and only mine) was not placed on the head mount assembly every few minutes.  To avoid forgetting, there was a brief, low volume beep a few seconds before the autodestruct started.  I had used them the previous night walking through the forest toward town.

I retreated into some nearby trees and waited.  Within a couple hours after dawn, I had seen Mercy’s husband start on farm chores, followed by Mercy, and their seven children.  Briefly, I wondered if Mercy saw me through the trees.  This was a rather small Puritan family.  Of course, Mercy was only in her 30s, I guessed so probably she was not done having children.  No wonder so much of America is descended from these first settlers!  Breeding like rabbits has consequences. 

I had seen no sign of Mr. Masolini.  This was probably good; he would certainly recognize me.  I really did not want to think he had committed this burglary; he seemed such a nice guy.  But greed can misdirect even the nicest of people.

The sun set.  I had arranged with the innkeeper to package up some cod and baked beans; was this the first “to go” meal in New England?  Dinner was cold, but better than being hungry.  Even candy bars had been nixed; dark chocolate would have been immediately recognized by the New Englanders, but the wrapping and labelling would have been both incomprehensible and confusing.

I spent the night using caffeine tablets to stay awake.  Where was the burglar?  Dawn came.  I removed my night vision goggles, turned them off, and walked to the road in front of the Ballard house.  There in the weeds, something glinted in the morning sunlight.  A gold locket on a chain!  I opened it and found a small carved image of a man’s face.  Not a burglary at all, but a valuable and sentimental piece of jewelry, lost in the grasses.  Now that I thought about, one of the girls had stumbled here the previous morning; perhaps she had “borrowed” it without asking? 

What to do with it?  Knocking on the door to return it seemed an unneeded interference with the past, although completely normal behavior for the time.  It was simpler to hang it over the doorknob.  This should not change history at all.  The family would no doubt offer a brief prayer of thanks over the evening meal, but the future would experience no economic impact; nor would Mercy’s upset perhaps embitter one of her children.


I returned to the era of Big Macs, drivethroughs, and even (shudder) the joy of self-heating MREs and gave Jane my happy news: a lost locket; a stranger in the trees; no burglary.  The self-revising book was back to the text our researcher had read.

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