Time Advisor: A Sci-Fi Time Travel Short Story

Updated on December 28, 2017
RonElFran profile image

Ron is a former IBM engineer who has been a fan of classic Sci-Fi since his teens.

"Dr. Virginia Shepherd"
"Dr. Virginia Shepherd" | Source

“Doctor Shepherd!”

“Good evening, Doug. May I come in?”

The lady standing at the door of Doug Miller’s apartment looked like a lovable grandmother. But looks can be deceiving. Virginia Shepherd was a physicist, and one of the sharpest minds in her field in the entire world. She was Doug’s doctoral advisor as he pursued his PhD, and he considered himself very fortunate to be working with her. But this was the first time she had ever visited Doug (or any other student as far as he knew) in his apartment, and he was extremely surprised.

“Certainly, come on in. I can’t believe you’re here; I was just about to call you.”

“Yes, Doug, I know,” Dr. Shepherd replied as she stepped into the apartment and Doug shut the door behind her. “I understand you’ve had a breakthrough with your project?”

“Yes, yes!” Doug exclaimed, too excited about his discovery to wonder how Dr. Shepherd could possibly know about it yet.

“You know I’ve been investigating whether facial recognition algorithms can be improved to the point that they function as a kind of whole-body scan. So, I’ve been applying my upgraded algorithms to crowd scenes in photographs to see if they could identify the same person in different crowds, even when the face itself couldn’t be clearly seen. And I’ve proved they can! But that’s not what’s got me so excited.”

"Doug Miller"
"Doug Miller" | Source

Realizing that in his agitation Doug had forgotten to even offer her a seat, Dr. Shepherd sat on the edge of the sofa as Doug paced around the room, bubbling over with his discovery.

“So, what have you found?” she asked quietly.

An Incredible Discovery

“Well, you know the famous photograph of Lincoln’s second inaugural, with John Wilkes Booth visible in the background? I was trying to see if my algorithm could pick Booth out of the crowd. Not only did it do that,” said Doug, waving his arms as his exhilaration overflowed, “but you’ll never guess who else it found!”

“Tell me, Doug,” Dr. Shepherd said, more quietly than ever.

“For one of my other tests I had scanned in the crowd scene from Obama’s first inaugural in 2009. When I ran the program to look for Booth, it also identified another man who was in the crowd at Lincoln’s inaugural; and that same man was also at Obama’s inaugural!”

Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural. John Wilkes Booth is thought to be the hatless man on the balcony above Lincoln (center) and to his left.
Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural. John Wilkes Booth is thought to be the hatless man on the balcony above Lincoln (center) and to his left. | Source

“Doug, you know that’s impossible. How could the same man be in a photo from 1865 and one from 2009? I’m afraid your algorithm is giving you false results.”

“You know what, Dr. Shepherd, I thought the same thing,” Doug exclaimed. “So I ran it against some other inaugural crowd scenes. I know you won’t believe this, but the same man was there at FDR’s first inaugural, and at Kennedy’s. And it’s not a flaw in the algorithm or a bug in the program. I checked and rechecked. It’s the same guy!”

“Doug, how could one man live so long?” Dr. Shepherd asked, almost with resignation.

“I don’t think he did,” Doug replied eagerly. “I looked very closely at the data the program generated about this guy, and it’s clear he doesn’t change much between his various appearances over the decades. I don’t think it’s longevity, Dr. Shepherd. I think it’s time travel!”

Doug looked at his mentor with a big grin on his face, almost like a puppy expecting a pat on the head.

But Dr. Shepherd didn’t seem to be in a patting mood.

Dr. Shepherd Takes Decisive Action

“Doug, please sit down. There at your computer. I have something I need to share with you.”

“You’re not going to tell me I can’t use this in my dissertation,” Doug exclaimed in dismay as he sank into his computer chair.

Shaking her head, Dr. Shepherd told him, “Doug, it goes far beyond that.”

She reached into her purse and pulled out her cell phone. After punching in a code, she handed the phone to Doug.

As he took it from her hand, there was a brief flash of intense light from the phone's screen, so microsecond brief that Doug hardly noticed it.

“Have you ever seen this equation before?” Dr. Shepherd asked.


Looking at the screen of the smart phone, Doug saw an equation that was entirely new to him, but which seemed to almost make sense even at first glance.

“What is it?” he asked. Suddenly he realized he was feeling a little disoriented. He’d probably allowed himself to get too excited and had worn himself out.

“It’s called the Morrison-Jamison equation. This is the equation that…” Dr. Shepherd hesitated for a moment, then continued. “The equation that laid the foundation for time travel.”

Time Travel Is Real!

Doug looked at her in perplexity. “What do you mean laid the foundation for time travel? You mean somebody has already discovered how to travel through time?”

Dr. Shepherd silently nodded her head, then went on.

“Doug, you’ll recall how I tried over and over to discourage you from this line of investigation. I did everything in my power to turn you in a different direction. But you were stuck on this. And now, it’s too late.”

As Dr. Shepherd looked at him, Doug could see that there were tears in her eyes. As she continued speaking, the feeling of disorientation and of weakness grew stronger. He had to make an effort to attend to what she was saying.

“Yes, time travel will be invented in about two centuries from now. You’ll be glad to know, Doug, that by that time the human race will have developed far beyond where it is now. The vicious antagonism between nations, ethnic groups, and religions that is turning the world upside down today will be a thing of the past.”

Doug was beginning to droop a little now, and Dr. Shepherd looked at him with great compassion in her eyes.

“You have done great work, Doug, noteworthy work. But you did it too soon. If the fact of time travel were revealed to the world now, the competition between various nations and ideologies to use it for their own ends would throw the entire cosmos into a level of chronological instability that the human race could not survive.”

Doug was trying hard to comprehend what she was saying, but he was so tired! He felt that he had to lay his head down on his computer desk, just for a moment until this feeling of weakness passed.

“Yes, dear, go ahead and lay your head down,” Dr. Shepherd whispered. “It won’t be long, now.”

She shook her head sadly, and now the tears in her eyes found their way onto her cheeks.

The End of the Story

“Doug, I tried so hard to stop you! Because, you see, I really like you. You are a wonderful young man who deserves to live a long and productive life. But it was literally a choice between you as an individual, and the entire human race. And so I was sent here, to this time, to do what’s necessary to ensure that time travel does not come about too soon. I’m so very, very sorry.”

Dr. Shepherd didn’t say any more, because she knew Doug wasn’t listening. She spoke a word into her phone to signal her team to commence altering all the computer records of Doug’s research. If anyone bothered to examine them, they would see that Doug’s algorithms were fatally flawed, and his project had reached a dead end.

Sorrowfully, Dr. Shepherd got up to leave. No one had seen her come, and no one would see her go – that had all been thoroughly plotted in advance. Her team knew exactly where every person in the city was at that moment, and none of them would be in a position to see her leave Doug’s apartment.

When Doug was found in the morning, it would be clear that he had died naturally of heart failure. The crisis for the human race was over.

But Virginia Shepherd knew that there was now a burden on her own heart that would never be lifted until it, too, ceased to beat.

What do you think?

Do you think taking innocent life to perhaps save the entire human race is justified?

See results

© 2015 Ronald E Franklin


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    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 13 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, jgshorebird. If you like time travel stories, there are a couple more you can find on my profile. Plus, I am planning new stories with Dr. Shepherd - when I can find the time!

    • jgshorebird profile image

      Jack Shorebird 13 months ago from Southeastern U.S.

      Interesting read. Left me wanting more...

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 17 months ago

      Yes, it was a difficult and unexpected scene.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 17 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Yes, I remember that movie, and that the character played by Sophia Loren was killed to protect the operation. My reaction in watching was unequivocal: that killing was wrong!

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 17 months ago

      Yes, it is thought provoking. Have you by any chance seen the movie "Operation Crossbow". It's the one with the buzz bombs, more people may know it by that than the title. It had this kind of moral dilemma.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 18 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, Robert. Hopefully the moral dilemma will provoke some thought about ultimate values.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 18 months ago

      An interesting twist on a time travel story. It also asked an interesting moral question.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 21 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, maukajam. I'm glad it was interesting to you.

    • maukajam profile image

      maukajam 21 months ago

      This story really grabbed me. Thanks for writing it so well.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, lambservant. As you can probably tell, I also love time travel stories. I do plan to write more of them.

    • lambservant profile image

      Lori Colbo 2 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      Held my attention. I love time travel stories. Virginia was well written. Poor Doug.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, Nell. The one's I'm afraid of are those who wouldn't hesitate to make such a decision.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

      Hi, what a great story! I am a time travel fan so that's how I got here! lol! what a dilemma not sure what I would have done, nell

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, Keuka!

    • Keuka M Fields Sr profile image

      Keuka Fields 2 years ago from Syracuse, New York

      great short story you just gained a fan

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, Kristen. At first I thought the title was too simple, but I couldn't come up with anything more apropos. I'm glad you liked it.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Ron, this was a great short story for you. I love the title, too. Voted up for interesting!

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      ponder, I'm glad the moral question raised by the story had an impact. Thanks for reading.

    • ponder profile image

      Irma Cowthern 2 years ago from Los Angeles,CA

      Re Time Advisor ...I loved the way the dialogue pushed the story forward. Long after reading this piece, I thought about the extremely difficult decisions world leaders have to make from time to time.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, phoenix2327. As you say, it would be a really tough choice. I'm glad I don't have to make it!

    • phoenix2327 profile image

      Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon 2 years ago from United Kingdom

      It was a tough choice to make but how do we know it wasn't meant to be? Maybe it was necessary to sacrifice a life to ensure the survival of millions. This story will stay with me for a while. Well done, Sir.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thank you, John. That's my hope, that readers will really think about the moral issues raised by the story.

    • John H Rizzo profile image

      John H Rizzo 2 years ago from Chicago

      Very interesting story, Ron. This is indeed thought provoking.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Hi aethelthryth. Interesting questions. First, with regard to look alikes, remember that Doug had developed a very sophisticated algorithm that didn't rely just on facial recognition, but on everything observable about the person. It would be like, for example, a professional mimic imitating the voice of JFK or Jimmy Stewart. Just listening, you might not be able to tell the difference. But if I do a digital analysis, there's no way the imitation would pass as the original.

      One key difference with the Hitler example is the matter of guilt. Most people would agree that Hitler richly deserved the penalty of death. The point of the story is that Doug did not. That's what sets up the moral conundrum.

      Thanks for reading and for your thought-provoking questions.

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 2 years ago from American Southwest

      Two other possibilities that would occur to me ahead of time travel: some people look like each other in pictures (I've been shown a picture of a friend of a friend who did look just like me in the picture, though I was told she has changed since then) and descendants can look a lot alike. I can't think of a way to dispense with those possibilities, but I'm sure you can!

      Also, few people here and now disagree with those who plotted to kill Hitler even though that would have saved far less than the human race. (But at the time, few had the courage to do it at the risk of their own life.)

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thank you, Lee. I appreciate that!

    • profile image

      Lee Cloak 2 years ago

      A great suspense packed story, beautifully intriguing, a splendid read indeed, thanks for sharing, voted up, Lee

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks so much, Ann. I'm just trying my wings with fiction, and I very much appreciate the encouragement.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 2 years ago from SW England

      What a great story and what a terrible dilemma! I don't think any murder is justified but it's an awful decision to have to make, nonetheless.

      This is a well told tale, full of suspense and intrigue.