The Time-Space Conundrum
The year was 2145, and humanity was in the golden age of technology. Teleportation, instant communication, miraculous healing, and holograms indistinguishable from life were all common place. New life-changing discoveries were made every day, and the world seemed like a utopia.
Rather than revel in this perfect world like most did, I had always been more inclined to watch the past. I saw the signs of a society at its peak around me, and while others celebrated the success that they thought would last forever, as a historian I knew that every golden age comes to an end – in many cases abruptly.
Of course, there were things that even our technology couldn’t figure out. Time travel was one of those. Groups had been working on it for decades, and although moving from place to place in spacetime- teleporting – had been possible as early as 2120, moving from time to time had eluded us. Researchers had succeeded in speeding up, slowing, even stopping time, but spacetime is highly resistant to rewinding. No one had been able to figure it out, and it had been given up as impossible. Then one day, James Dencarj – inventor, genius, and all around know-it-all – decided to focus his prodigious mind on the problem. To most people, it was a joke. We’d given up on time travel years ago, and what was it useful for anyway? Great minds were focused on bigger problems, and time travel had fallen to the sidelines. For years, Dencarj was a laughing stock among scientists. Even I had heard of him.
Then his work payed off. He and his team succeeded in sending a golf ball a few seconds back in time, making headlines and changing the world’s perception of time travel. All at once it was again a big field, but all the new research teams were years behind Dencarj’s Chronophaser, and no one else ever managed to develop another device. The Dencarj group refused to reveal their strategy to these newcomers. Instead, they slowly improved their technology, sending larger and larger objects farther and farther back in time. They discovered the spacetime coordinates of famous historical periods, and soon they were sending people back to these times.
Like most historians, I was terribly excited. It wasn’t cheap – new technology never is – but we lined up by the thousands anyway, hoping for a chance to visit the times we had devoted our lives to studying. Only a few of us were allowed to go through, as the device was small and could only send one person at a time. Each of us received a number, which were picked randomly to determine who would go. The day that my number was called was one of the happiest of my life, and I gladly handed over the money. I was sent to Medieval Europe, my area of expertise, the 16th of 30 allowed to go to that location.
Time travel is no simple thing, even if someone else is dealing with the science. I had to go through a series of intense instructional courses on what to do while traveling. I began the introduction class, paradox prevention, feeling rather intimidated.
“You have to be very careful,” my instructor told me, “Even a hint that you’re from the future could cause a paradox. You must act entirely as if you are from that time and place.” She leaned forward, looking at me seriously. “Do you understand what I mean by paradox? The future that we’re standing in would disappear. The course of events would be dramatically changed, and the fabric of spacetime itself could unravel. Even after years of research, we’re not sure.” She held out a small device. “This is the Origin Overlap Probability Sensor – OOPS for short. It senses the likelihood of paradox. You’ll know the danger of paradox by its temperature – hotter means more danger, cooler less. You will have it on you at all times while in the past, and it will send us signals through the Chronophaser. If we judge the danger of paradox to be too high, we pull you out and make it so you never went in.” She looked me straight in the eye. “This is important. Do not travel too far from the Chronophaser. The OOPS cannot communicate with us if the signal has to travel too far, and if we cannot detect the paradoxes you’re creating we cannot prevent them. The risk of paradox increases tenfold, and a bad paradox – the world ending kind – becomes incredibly more likely, especially for amateur travelers.” She looked at me suspiciously, like she expected me to end the world just for the fun of it. “The device is calibrated for the medieval town you will be going to. Do NOT leave that town.”
“I won’t.” I replied, as she gave me one more appraising look to determine my sincerity.
They taught me to talk and act like the peasantry of the area and made me memorize a detailed backstory. I was to act as a farmer, traveling to this town – Arsinoch – to sell part of my crop. I would be sent through with a cart containing just the right amount of produce to not attract notice, neither richer nor poorer than average. I was instructed in the skills my persona would be expected to have and in the minor events of the time period – the day to day news that never made it to history books. The Dencarj staff took paradox prevention incredibly seriously. The clothes that I was given were specially crafted to show just the right amount of wear, my “accent” was carefully crafted to match that of the locals. I couldn’t help thinking, though, that it was a bit too perfect. Something inevitably goes wrong with complex plans like this one, and some small detail will always be overlooked. I didn’t say anything. This method, detailed as it was, had worked so far, and it would work for me.
Finally, after months of training, I was judged to be ready to travel. I was confident in my ability to maintain the disguise. My part had been ingrained into me so much that I had trouble, at times, separating myself from the peasant I had learned to be.
Members of Dencarj’s staff dressed me up in my outfit, strapped the OOPS to my upper arm under the sleeve, and escorted me through the corridors of the lab to the room with the device. I must admit, I was rather disappointed. After hearing so much about the Chronophaser, I expected it to look incredible, like something from an old sci fi movie, but there was just an open-sided box-like device in the middle of the room. I was instructed to stand in the middle of the box, and a technician fiddled with the dials around its edges. I was just thinking about how anticlimactic this was, when all of a sudden the room around me was gone. I was standing just outside a town of one and two story wood buildings, to the side of a dirt road. Mid-morning sunlight rested upon rolling hills of farmland with trees interspersed. A grin broke across my face. I’d known that this was going to happen, but a part of me hadn’t believed it until now. I was actually here, in medieval Europe! My excitement increased as I took in my surroundings – and their implications – fully. I ducked down as a horse drawn cart rumbled along the road next to me, its peasant driver slouched in the seat as he guided his horses toward Arsinoch. I would have looked pretty strange to anyone who came across me, sitting in the ditch to the side of the road and smiling crazily.
I felt a burning pain in my arm as the OOPS identified the oddness of my behavior. I forcibly reigned back my excitement, dropping my mind into the medieval peasant persona that I had built up during my training. I waited for the wagon to pass, then stood up and scrambled out of the ditch, dusting myself off. I looked around for my supplies. A hand cart full of vegetables was tucked in the woods near me, so I grabbed its handles and started down the road. The OOPS cooled until it was the same temperature as my body. Apparently, I was doing the right thing.
As I entered the outskirts of the town, I surreptitiously glanced at the buildings around me. My historian self analyzed their architecture – wood buildings, mostly, and utilitarian, as would be expected on the outskirts of a town. There would probably be fancier brick or stone farther in, if this was as big a town as it appeared. It stunk, as the results of the more loud, smelly, or otherwise unsavory businesses located here combined with the odor of human waste and unwashed bodies. This wasn’t a surprise to me. The primitiveness of Medieval times didn’t disturb me, as I’d already known they would be like this – noisy, smelly, diseased. The past would never stand up to the standards of the future, but holding it to its own I was amazed.
I continued down the road, soon reaching the center of town, a square of open dirt space with stands along the edges selling various things. I saw a few people dressed like me also selling produce. Darn, my peasant-self thought. I let the training I’d been given take over, setting out my produce on a blanket and glaring at my competitors. I was beginning to settle into my persona, and that feeling increased the longer I sat there, selling my wares. Peasant-me talked and bargained with customers, while future-me observed the swirls of people and business, learning more about medieval times in a few hours than a lifetime of textbooks had ever managed to convey.
Sales were beginning to slow as the day progressed, and I reluctantly began to pack up as the sun dropped lower in the sky. The role I’d been given only allowed for one-day trips, no matter how much I wanted to see what an inn was like, so I would be heading back to my own time for the night. I began to head toward the edge of town, thinking about the things I had seen today. Everything was so incredible! I’d imagined this a million times over the last few months of training, but the sights, smells, and sounds, were so much more vivid than I ever could have pictured.
I watched carefully for the spot where I had arrived, as there were no markings or landmarks that might draw attention to it. When I reached it, I looked in both directions to ensure there was no one watching before I pulled my cart into the woods and crouched down. The OOPS began to heat up and I was back in the room with the Chronophaser. My instructor stood there, looking down at me. She smiled.
“Congratulations,” she said, “How was the past?” The smiles that I had held in all day broke free in a laugh as I released my peasant persona and allowed myself to fully experience the wonder of what had just happened.
“Amazing,” I told her, “that was the most incredible thing I’ve seen in my entire life.”
“What would you say to going back?” She replied, “It’s less expensive to send people we’ve already trained.”
I was agreeing before she finished her sentence.
I returned the next day, and the day after that. I still had to pay, of course – science isn’t free – but as she’d said, it was a lot less expensive. After the first few days my initial amazement wore off, and I began to notice the details. I was entranced by everything, and became only more so as I continued travelling. The subtleties of the way that people talked to those of different classes, the products purchased and bartered for in the market square, the cadence of children’s laughter as they ran past in the mud, all stood out to me more and more with each passing day. Even the more disgusting elements – the exact nature of the meat sold by vendors, the treatment of the diseased or crippled, the abundance of orphans – only served to draw me in. I loved it all, no matter how strange. This was the world I had spent my life hopelessly imagining, right in front of my eyes. Yes, it wasn’t flawless, but how could anything be? It was what it was, and that was incredible enough for me.
It couldn’t last forever. After a week or two, I got too used to it. One day, returning wrapped in thoughts of everything I’d seen, I passed by the spot where I had arrived without realizing it . I was far too comfortable with my ability to find my return point, and my vigilance of the first few days had relaxed. About ten yards past my missed turn, I walked straight into a wall.
I stumbled back, surprised. There was nothing there, just the countryside stretching away in the fading light. I reached my hand forward, and my fingers sensed the undeniable texture of a wall. Hologram. But how? And why? I was here, in the past! I’d seen it, felt it! The OOPS on my arm was burning my skin, but I ignored it, tracing my hand along this impossible wall. The OOPS got hotter, dangerously hot. I rolled up my sleeve and ripped it off, then smashed it with a nearby rock. I was shocked, my mind numb. I must be imagining this. It couldn’t be true. No, no, no, no, no!
The wall continued, my hand running smoothly along its invisible surface until suddenly it fell through into empty space. I could trace the edge. A doorway. I stepped through the hologram into an empty concrete hallway, the town – no, the set. They put me in a set! – disappearing behind a curtain of light. I slid down the horribly modern wall, unable to deny the falseness of it any longer. I buried my face in my hands as tears began to roll down my cheeks.
Perfect. I knew it was too perfect.