Updated date:

Time Advisor: A Sci-Fi Time Travel Short Story

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

"Dr. Virginia Shepherd"

"Dr. Virginia Shepherd"

“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.”

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.

“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?

© 2015 Ronald E Franklin


Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on July 27, 2018:

Thanks, Tim, I'm glad you enjoyed the story. I think you are right that no time traveler would be allowed to alter or perhaps even witness the events surrounding the death and resurrection of Christ.

Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on July 27, 2018:

I enjoyed reading this story. It reads like the wonderful sci-fi stories I loved from Asimov and Bradbury. In essence, Dr. Sheperd sought out to preserve a time line she knew and recognized which Doug's research threatened. I wonder: How many of us would have done the same knowing about Hitler, Stalin, and others? If someone was to go back in time to stop Our Savior from being crucified, the time stream would find a way to eliminate that person because it conflicts with God's plan for this time line. Perhaps, that's why we haven't figured out time travel yet.

Besides, if we were to alter the time line, we would be put in another time line, removed from this one, and therefore, a new reality would emerge. Again, this time line would continue without us.

Excellent. I remember episodes of the various Star Trek series that dealt with this ethical issue. Well done. Great Read.

Thanks again.



Rodric Anthony Johnson from Surprise, Arizona on March 27, 2018:

Ronald, I have to say only God can tell us when it is okay to do something different. I love your story because it does not take God out of the equation but gives man the power to act as God and see what we will do with it. Dr. Shepherd had very little choices from her perspective. She did not know what the future would be like, really, letting him live. She knew one possible outcome--one that did not lead to the perfection she knew. What ugly business it was. I actually teared up on that part. It was such a sad scene that played like a movie in my head. She will have to lice with her decision.

God has to go through this--daily dealing with us and decreeing who goes where and why. I could not imagine being in His place. This story gives me perspective on that part of life, to truly be like God and I respect what He has to live with so that I do not have to. Dr Shepherd made the tough call to say all of humanity. I want to say again that I think I could do it if faced with the same decision.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on March 26, 2018:

Dr. Shepherd faced a very difficult ethical dilemma. In that kind of situation, I don't think a person can think their way to the right answer. That's where eternal values like those given in Scripture come in. No matter how acute the danger may appear, is it right to violate God's laws for the "greater good"? Hopefully, this story encourages people to think about such issues.

Rodric Anthony Johnson from Surprise, Arizona on March 25, 2018:

This reminds me of the atonement of Jesus Christ in that an innocent life was taken to save humanity. I did not like that the person was killing without understanding. Jesus decided to die and willing gave up his life. This man did not. However, I would choose each time for his life to end before ending humanities peaceful existence. This was a good story which could also make a good movie or book in my opinion. Note, however, considering my faith, I would no agree to let the man die. With what I believe, time travel is possible but only by God's directive. That is another conversation though.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on December 03, 2016:

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 on December 03, 2016:

Interesting read. Left me wanting more...

Robert Sacchi on August 01, 2016:

Yes, it was a difficult and unexpected scene.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on August 01, 2016:

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 on August 01, 2016:

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.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on July 31, 2016:

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

Robert Sacchi on July 31, 2016:

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

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 20, 2016:

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

maukajam on April 19, 2016:

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

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on January 02, 2016:

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

Lori Colbo from United States on December 22, 2015:

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

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on June 24, 2015:

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

Nell Rose from England on June 24, 2015:

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

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 17, 2015:

Thanks, Keuka!

Keuka Fields from Syracuse, New York on May 17, 2015:

great short story you just gained a fan

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 17, 2015:

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 from Northeast Ohio on May 17, 2015:

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

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 14, 2015:

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

Irma Cowthern from Los Angeles,CA on May 14, 2015:

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.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 12, 2015:

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

Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon from United Kingdom on May 12, 2015:

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.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 11, 2015:

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

John H Rizzo from Chicago on May 11, 2015:

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

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 08, 2015:

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 from American Southwest on May 08, 2015:

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.)

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 08, 2015:

Thank you, Lee. I appreciate that!

Lee Cloak on May 08, 2015:

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

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 08, 2015:

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

Ann Carr from SW England on May 08, 2015:

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.


Related Articles