From our fourth floor window in the physics department, we could see the riots in the streets. Only September and this was the fifth outbreak this year.
“He can do it,” Kate said, looking at the picture of Abraham Lincoln we had pinned up between the quantum accelerator and the fridge. “If anyone can make society better, it’s Honest Abe.”
“Do you think we’ll remember?” I turned back to our work, a mass of wires and tubes inside a large crate. “Once we change the past, will we know what we did?”
“We might not even exist, John.” Kate attached the last coupling to the temporal buffer. “But won’t it be worth it, to save Lincoln and so save America?”
As the time machine warmed up, we got out of our overalls and into our costumes, carefully constructed to be authentic for the 1860s. It took a lot of manoeuvring to get Kate into the box with all her skirts, but at last we were inside. I closed the lid and she hit the starter.
I felt nauseous as reality shifted around us. Then the world became still.
In the darkness of the crate, Kate read the atomic calendar.
“April fourteenth, 1865,” she said. “Here we are.”
We climbed out of the machine and looked around the backstage of the theatre. A man in a suit was walking past.
“Excuse me,” I said, reaching out. My hand went straight through his shoulder and he didn’t respond to my words. “Excuse me!”
Even shouting I couldn’t be heard.
“Dammit,” Kate said. “We’re just observers, ghosts in the machine of history. We have to do better.”
“If we can,” I said, dispirited.
We got back into the crate and headed home.
“This is taking too long.” I threw the soldering iron away in frustration. Outside the physics department, the riots were getting worse.
“I’ve got it!” Kate exclaimed. “I know how to do make a better machine quicker.”
“How?” I asked, looking up hopefully.
“By coming back to tell ourselves how,” Kate said. “As soon as we make a better machine, we come back to this moment and give ourselves the instructions. Then we build the machine, come back to this moment, and voila.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “That sounds a bit paradoxical.”
“Trust me,” Kate said. “It’ll be fine. We’ll keep that space clear for our arrival.”
As she pointed to a corner of the room, the air there began to shimmer. Two ethereal figures appeared, the space around them hazy and crackling. Sparks jumped from the surrounding equipment and the air smelled like hot iron.
The figures became more solid, revealing themselves as me and Kate. Future Kate held out a bundle of papers towards us. But as she did so the air grew angrier, a storm emerging around them.
“Quick,” her crackling voice said. “Read. Now.”
Kate leapt forward, but it was too late. With a flash like lightning, the paradox imploded upon itself. The two figures vanished and their work with them.
“So much for that,” I muttered, staring at a blackened smear on the floor. I really, really hoped that future me survived the blast. “Now we’ll never finish the machine.”
There was a thoughtful look on Kate’s face. She pulled a text book out from under her desk and started flicking through the pages.
“An effect like that only fits two models of time,” she said. “If we can narrow it down then… Yes!”
She pointedly excitedly at a diagram in the book.
“This!” she exclaimed. “This is how we do it!”
The first thing I did as I stepped out of the crate was to touch one of the scenery ropes. It was rough beneath my hand and moved as I tugged on it.
“It worked!” I said. “We can touch the past. We can change things.”
“We can save Lincoln.” Kate beamed as she straightened her hat and adjusted the bustle of her skirt. “By the time we travel home, we’ll be living in a better world.”
Following our map of the theatre, we rushed through the wings in the direction of Lincoln’s box.
A door slammed open as we hurried down the corridor. A figure staggered out of a broom closet. She wore a skirt like Kate’s, but torn and stained. As she pulled back her blood-matted hair, revealing a face covered with burn scars, I realised in horror that it was indeed Kate. Behind her was a crate like ours, but with more wires and bullet holes.
“Don’t do it,” future Kate gasped as she slumped against the doorway. “Making a better time machine didn’t make a better world. It destroyed it.”
* * *
This weekend I’m at FantasyCon, where I’m talking on a panel titled “Building a Better Time Machine”. Under the circumstances, I thought I should give it a go, in story form at least. If you’re at the convention then please come and say hello, and check out the panel at 1pm on Sunday.