Time Advisor: A Sci-Fi Time Travel Short Story
“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!”
“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?
Questions & Answers
© 2015 Ronald E Franklin