He reeled a few steps, then fell to his knees. Naked. Vomiting. His head exploding in pain, he tried to orient himself. The road was there, only a few yards away. That was good. He was where he should be, or at least it looked like it. Much had changed in the 150-odd years, but it looked about right – more trees than he expected; that could have been dangerous.
He felt another spasm of nausea. He braced himself against the white stone wall that shadowed the road for as far as he could see. He gagged again. Nothing was coming up but he was still heaving. Think. Think! If he passed out now, the window of opportunity would vanish and things would be much harder. No one had said that the ride would be this severe – it was like coming off the Hammer at the State Fair with a stomach full of pizza, soda pop, and hot dogs.
Miserable or not, he had to act fast; he had allowed only 30 minutes. He knew it would be cold and he would need time for the bruises to rise, but he had not counted on how shocking the vault would be. He held his head for a couple of seconds and then slowly rose to his feet. He looked around. What was that smell? Sulfur? Coming from London, perhaps. No time now.
He picked up a large round stone that fit comfortably in his hand and slammed it against his upper chest near his right shoulder. He slammed it there again. It hurt, of course, but not too badly. Switching the rock to his left hand, he slammed it against his upper right arm in three places. Don’t think about the pain. Now it was starting to hurt.
Now for the hard part, he thought, as he slammed the rock into his eye. Before he had any time to react to the pain, he slammed it against his nose. Blood gushed out, and now he thought he really was going to lose consciousness. Still, he had chosen the right order. If he had done the nose and then the eye, he never would have made it. Was it really only a few hours ago that he had debated with his wife about the right order in which to inflict the injuries? He took some of the blood from his nose and rubbed it at one spot in his hair. Maybe a head injury would not look too out of place.
He was looking for a sharp stick so he could cut up his legs a bit when he heard the sound of the coach coming. Was it early? Had he wasted more time than he thought being sick? Instinctively he looked for his watch, but it was not there. He had to move. He ran to the road and laid down off to one side, but far enough in the road that he would have to be moved out of the way or be run over. He prayed feverishly that it would not be the latter.
The cold stones seemed such an unnatural bed. He tried to control the shakes, but he was starting to shiver. Hold still, he commanded himself, but it was no use. He was shaking ever more violently. He called on whatever mental reserves he had left, and by sheer willpower and an overwhelming sense of urgency, he managed to bring a measure of stillness to his vibrating body. He heard the thundering approach of the horse’s hooves, the wheels of the coach grinding so menacingly he was sure they were upon him. Do not move!
He held his breath and waited for impact, but a loud “Whoa!” from the coachman let him finally exhale quietly. The horse hooves still sounded uncomfortably close, but he did not move. He had finally managed to become still.
“Why have we stopped?” That must be Lord Harrington. “Sir, there is a man in the road!”
“A man you say? In the road? What sort of man? Why is he in the road?” Lord Harrington sounded more bored than put out. But of course he would be.
He heard the sound of the driver leaping to the ground and the crunch of boots moving toward him.
“Sir! The man is badly hurt. He has been beaten. Sir! Keep the ladies in the cab. The man is without a stitch of clothes!”
The shakes were starting again so he gave a low moan and let them go. He could hear the footman coming down from the box and opening the door. Someone was coming out of the cab, no doubt Lord Harrington. The sound of approaching feet again.
“Driver! Help him. You there, good man, grab a blanket.” Roughgarden’s article had been accurate; Lord Harrington was a man of action and compassion. Like hundreds of others, he now counted on it.
The driver helped him slowly to his feet, and the footman wrapped him in a blanket. Both men supported him as he started to sway. He was not acting this time.
Lord Harrington looked closely at him. “Can you speak? Who did this to you?”
“They got it all. Everything. My journals! Oh dear Lord, take everything but leave those! Kind sir, look around. Do you see a bookcase about?” Everyone looked around, but of course there was nothing to be found. “My journal? Gone!” He looked up at Lord Harrington and then straightening himself, as if to gather about him what dignity that remained, he said, “Good sir, I’m sorry to appear before you in this current state. I am Dr. Benjamin Quay, of Boston, Massachusetts, and am pleased to be at your service. Sadly I must report that I am . . .” Then the mixture of pain, cold, sorrow and grief became too much and he slumped to the ground. He really had fainted this time.
It was still dark, and Ben thought for a second he was home in bed. He reached for Emmy but she wasn’t there. She must be up getting Mary ready for preschool. A strangeness slowly settled on him as the sky was starting to lighten the large eastern window behind his bed. The coals of fire still glowed dimly through iron grating in the fireplace to his left. The air in the room felt chilly, no, more than that; it was cold.
Then it all came back. He was not home. He would never see his home again. It was gone. Forever inaccessible. He opened his eyes, but could only see through one of them, the other was swollen shut. His other pains seemed minor except his nose; it was still smarting like the dickens. Dickens! He thought. I’ll get to meet him. And Elliot, Darwin, Trollope, the whole gang! He tried to sit up but his head started to ache, so he laid back down.
His memory cleared and he began to sob softly. He tried to rein them in but the tears would not be stayed. Emmy, Mary, where are you now? Did you have a good life? Will you have a good life? How do you even think about the past or present when you know it’s not either? He knew Emmy would be all right. She had it all worked out, she would be rich and live in Boston. An advocate of women’s rights. She would travel the world. I hope you meet someone that loves you as I do, he thought as the sorrow bubbled up and his tears returned.
But Mary. Dear sweet Mary. She was only four. She would never see Big Bird again. She would never dance with the Teletubbies. He hugged the blanket and rocked softly. Oh, Mary, what a different life you will live. He could see her clearly in his mind: scared and lonely (and now he knew that she would be dizzy and disoriented too). It would be early spring when she arrived – warm and pleasant just before the morning sun started to rise. She would call for her mother, but she would not be there, she would start to cry, call for Dada, and then let out a small whimper. His eyes filled with tears and he turned on his side and started to shake as the grief overwhelmed him.
“She’ll be all right. I know she’ll be all right,” he whispered. He pictured the Sioux getting up and looking at the strange white girl. He saw them getting up and gathering around the strange child, pale white, more fair than anyone they would have ever seen. With hair the color of ripening wheat and deep blue eyes, she would seem like something out of a myth. She will be scared and really start to cry as the strangers gather around her. On her back they will see a tattoo: a perfect buffalo. One of her shoulders will be graced with an eagle and the other a bear.
He laughed when he remembered how proud she was of her tattoos. Even before they let her out of the hospital where they were placed, she was pulling up her dress and showing anyone who would listen. There had been hundreds of little girls, all with the same tattoo, all running around the hospital laughing at the drawings on their young bodies. The buffalo was so realistic; there was almost something photographic about it. The Sioux would never have seen so realistic an artistic representation in their lives. She would be nothing less than a messenger from the gods. He remembered how profoundly “The pre-Columbian Sioux: An option for young children age 1-8” in Timelines: the Journal for Surviving Gaspra-Patronovich had affected him and all his friends. It had been the first ray of hope he had felt in a long time.
He looked out of his east-facing window. The sun was starting to peak above the hedgerow that stretched from one end of his window to the other. He turned away his thoughts, hoping to keep them from going where he did not want them, but it was little use. Would she say the words? Had they prepared her enough? She spoke the Sioux so delightfully, a slight lisp adding to her cuteness. Would they see it that way? Would they understand what she said? The way language changed, her Sioux might sound as foreign as Old English would to a modern man. Would she overcome her fear? She had to. Of course she would. They had practiced every day. They had gone to the preparation camp on the reservation and introduced to her to every family they could find. Several times they made her wake up in the morning in a strange bed to which they had carried her in the night, and the first people she saw on awakening were modern Sioux in period dress. She knew what to say. She would say it.
“I am the Daughter of Sky Father. I am the daughter of Earth Mother. I have come to bless this tribe and honor this people. You must care for me. I am their child. When I have been with you the passing of 12 winters from my arrival I will take the greatest warrior as my husband. He who honors his mother and respects all women.” (He had added that even though he knew it would sound very strange to their ears). “He who has killed the most buffalo. He that has killed a bear. He that has slain an eagle. You, shaman, remember these words, for I will forget them. You mothers, you grandmothers, you women without children, remember my words, for I will forget them. You chiefs and sons of chiefs, remember these words, for I will forget them. I am yours to care for. Please help me grow strong in your care. My children, your grandchildren will praise you forever.”
It was a lot for a four-year-old. Especially in a language she did not speak. But she had learned it so well, despite its length and complexity – the mind of a four-year-old is a wonderful thing. She promised she would say it. Still, she was so young, if only. . . .
His thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door.
“Come in,” he said drying his eyes and trying to gain some composure.
An older gentleman peeked in the door.
“How is our patient today? I am Dr. Forsythe, Lord Harrington’s personal physician. It was I that called the surgeon to attend your wounds. How are you feeling?” There was genuine concern in his voice.
“Better than I was laying on the road.” He tried to sound cheerful, but it was not coming out that way. “I’m sorry, have any of my things been recovered?”
“No, I’m afraid they have not. Lord Harrington has offered a 25-pound reward on your behalf, but I’m afraid that nothing has been found.”
Ben did not say anything. He was not good at rewarding kindness with pretense. “We understood you are a doctor from America? Are you a physician or a surgeon?”
Ben laughed inwardly at the British doctor’s concern for protocol. Where did you fit on the social ladder? was the real question. “How is your health and, by the way, where do I place you in the social hierarchy?” The position of physician was considered the occupation of a gentleman. A surgeon nothing but a tradesman. He was prepared with the answer.
“One of the new hybrids, I’m afraid. Our colleges train us in both. Harvard,” he lied, seeing the next question looming in his eyes.
“Ah. A fine school, I understand. ‘Tis no Cambridge, of course, but a splendid institution.” He coughed into his hand. “Lord Harrington returned you to his home. He has given instructions to treat you as his guest until he returns. Business in London, you know. A very busy man. But make yourself at home. If you lack anything, ring for the servant. He can arrange for the surgeon to check your wounds later. I’ll let you rest.” The gentleman certainly did not overstay his welcome.
He looked at his life over the horizon. It had all been planned meticulously. Every detail sorted out, contingency plans in place for the unexpected, a bright and happy future in store. He would befriend Lord Harrington, or Harry as he would come to call him. They would draw close because they share two common interests: hunting and butterfly collecting. Benjamin knew every nymphalid and every Pieridae in his marvelous and almost complete collection of the British Lepidoptera – he had studied it for months. Harry would set him up in a medical practice. Then, as a new physician, he would discover penicillin, he would revolutionize surgery, he would invent methods for inoculating children for diseases, and so on and so on and so on. He was prepared to diagnose Darwin and cure him of the mysterious ailment that had bothered him his whole life, and would have him feeling good as gold and even save his daughter from the childhood disease that took her. Yes, life was all laid out. He would go down in the history books as one of the greatest thinkers and scientists of his age.
There was a strange sound in the wood near the ceiling. As the scratching ran from one end of the room, his heart rate suddenly took off, beating wildly as a cold panic took him. He broke into a sweat, and the muscle in his chest starting tensing. Rats! It was rats that revealed the problem of simultaneity! Cursed animals! He recognized his irrationality and purposely slowed down his breathing. Rats!
The announcement of the asteroid and the quantum time-field generator had appeared in the newspaper the same day. Some saw the Gaspra-Patronovich collision and the time-generator as a sign that God was still watching over them. Some saw it as a cold irony. Either way, both would change everyone’s lives forever. Gaspra, one of the largest asteroids in the main belt (almost as large as Mars’ moons), and the newly discovered Patronovich comet would violently colide. The comet would be obliterated and wrench the asteroid from its orbit, sending it on a new, more elliptical course around the sun. It would cross Earth’s orbit seven times. On the fifth it would hit the earth. In just over four years, Earth would likely be split in two. Scientists were left arguing over whether even bacteria would survive the collision.
At first, no one was worried. Humans were resourceful; they had survived many catastrophes and would see their way through this one. The solution to the problem was obvious and had been depicted in films unceasingly since the fifties. You just send up a nuclear bomb and either blow it to bits or send it off on a new orbit, something; but they would fix it just like they had fixed everything. But this one was big: over 650 cubic miles of metallic rock. Even so, the plan would save the day it was thought. Until . . . all hope left when Professor Hickman of MIT’s calculations showed that there was not enough uranium in the crust of the earth to make even a tenth of the plutonium needed to make the number of bombs it would take to divert, let alone destroy the monster.
All eyes turned to the quantum-time field generator. It, supposedly, would send things back in time. Hundreds of rats were sent back in time, but they never seemed to arrive in the past like they should have according to every theoretical projection. They would commit to sending the rats from Wednesday morning to Tuesday afternoon. But Tuesday would come and go without a rat appearing at the prearranged time and place. Then they would send the rat to Wednesday just like they planned and it would disappear, but where did it go? It certainly had not appeared Tuesday the day before, like it was supposed to.
The physicists went back to their calculations. The theory was discussed on the Internet by every scientist that could understand the equations. Every graduate program in math, physics, and philosophy had been diverted to the problem. The only way to save humanity would be to move them to the past. There was no more pressing problem on the face of the planet, and all the brain power of the world was working on it. Everyone agreed on one thing, however: The rats that disappeared on Wednesday should have appeared on the previous Tuesday. But they did not.
Rats. Ben shivered and got out of bed. He knew that Lord Harrington’s meeting in London with Parliament would be ending and he would return this afternoon, and he had to be ready for him. In his program, “The Lord Harrington Scenario,” he knew he had to be admiring his butterfly collection when he returned from Parliament. It would not be until around seven that evening, but he wanted to have a look at it to make sure he still remembered all the names he had learned in the museum.
This little ruse was not the product of idle speculation. Six months from now, an American doctor would have been robbed while traveling from Scotland to London. In another timeline, Lord Harrington would have stopped to help him while on another of his trips to Parliament. The two men would have become great friends because of their shared interest in entomology. Lord Harrington would have set him up in practice, and the physician would have spent his life in wonderful leisure treating rich gentlemen and ladies of minor ailments, and collecting butterflies. All this would not happen, of course, at least not on this timeline. The American doctor will be warned of the danger and invited to visit a physician in Wales (who for the life of him will never remember having invited the doctor to stay).
“As a matter of fact, you could go back in time and kill your grandparents without any ill effects like you disappearing.” Professor Xing Li’s work shook the world like a dog might a rug. Time was not so much like a river flowing to the sea as much as it was like a busy expressway with lots of exits. Every instant a million possibilities stretched out in an infinity of directions. Take one and you entered a new universe, which once chosen would never intersect the old time line again. Professor Xing laughed on television when Barbara Walters had asked him what had then happened to Wednesday’s rats.
“Barbara, those rats are appearing in a past that is not ours. As soon as they appear, a new universe is born. We can’t get there. No one can. Just that rat and that rat alone. That rat created an entire universe when it appeared! Time bifurcated. We are down one line, one without a rat appearing on Tuesday, and a new universe is born with the arrival of that rat at a newly created timeline. In fact, I quite pity the scientists in that timeline because they will get the Tuesday rat to appear only once. That will be more confusing than not ever having it appear. Every rat we send back opens a new door in time, a door that is different from ours. When we send someone back, boom, a new door is opened and a separate timeline starts, one inaccessible to ours. So someone can go back and kill Hitler while still a child, and in that time line perhaps a million Jews won’t be slaughtered, but in ours it will still be part of our history. You can’t change the fact that it happened here. But you can open a new door where the atrocity does not happen.”
Barbara Walters looked confused. “So when I and my family go back in time, we can change the history -”
Dr. Xing interrupted. “Whoa there, Barbara, there is already a problem in your statement – “you and your family” will not go together. We can’t control the process well enough to get you all into the past simultaneously. There will be a lag, microseconds admittedly, but still at different times, so bang one door opens and you start down a new timeline, bam another door opens for your husband microseconds later and he starts down another, then boom a third door opens for your daughter a billionth of a second later. All three of you reach our past, but you won’t see each other there. When you appear, you enter down a path that bifurcates from our own timeline, and your husband and daughter can’t get to the one you’ve opened. Barbara, when you travel back in time, we can control where you arrive; we can control when you arrive; but wherever and whenever you arrive, you will be naked and alone.”
Ben stood up in his stirrups and surveyed the rolling green landscape. The sun was just starting to set and long shadows stretched a mixture of trees, hedgerows, and rock walls. His wounds had healed and he felt wonderful. A beautiful day for a fox hunt. However, Lord Harrington should have returned some time ago, and it was starting to get late. The wind had shifted and was blowing from the sea and the air seemed almost alive. It was so rich with smells: kelp, pine, clover, even the sweat from his small horse seemed to add to the delight. He was living in the 1800s! His clothes were not as comfortable as the jeans and T-shirts of his century, but they would do. The food was harder – lots of beef, lots of fish, lots of bread, lots of grease. No more chickpea salads. No more espresso. But he would change that! No wonder everyone felt miserable; they were eating like barbarians. His first paper would be on the health effects of light oatmeal in the morning for breakfast, rather than a piece of pork pie and a joint of beef!
He took in another long draught of the air. Some of the hounds were returning and gathering around him, but no sign of his lordship. He still was troubled that he had spent the day with an army of people and dogs chasing something so harmless as these cute little foxes, but to decline would have strained his growing friendship with Lord Harrington, and he needed him too badly to let “animal rights” stand in his way. Animal rights. The thought would be so foreign to these people that to even to introduce it would seem, if not absurd, insane. Taking care of animals? Most of the people here would not even understand the concept of human rights. He shook his head. So many things had changed in 150 years. It was going to be hard to get used to all the differences.
He saw James riding toward him – Lord Harrington’s son. He was surprised to learn how much he despised his father. James would die on a ship bound for India in about two weeks, and little had been recorded about him. Now he understood why. He was a thorn in everyone’s side. He had mounted huge gambling debts on the strength of his father’s name. In modern times he would be recognized as an alcoholic and drug addict, but such was not spoken here, except perhaps by the kitchen staff and that in idle gossip. Every couple of months his father would have the gamekeeper drag him from London opium dens and bring him back to the estate. Benjamin wondered what he would do when it came time for the boy to set sail for India. Did he have an ethical responsibility to warn him? Some things with time travel were not easy to work through. When you plan on manipulating the timeline for such good, why did such little questions seem to plague him. James maneuvered his horse to face the same direction as Ben’s.
“It’s odd that father has not returned.” James said flatly. He did not like Benjamin, and he was only civil when he was in the presence of his father. He seemed to think that he was a competitor of sorts, and almost always avoided him. There seemed something strange about him now. It was hard to put a finger on it. Ben was surprised he would even talk to him. He refused to look directly at Ben but stared across the grass with a tenseness that seemed in stark contrast to the control of his voice.
James looked at his pocket watch and gave a sigh of boredom. He then reached into his pocket and pulled out a long calfskin wallet.
“I’ll ride ahead and tell the cook dinner will be late. Here, give this to father when he returns. It must have bounced from his coat.” James handed the wallet to Ben and added, “Father will be pleased that I did not remove the hundred pounds it contains. Please be so good as to point that out to him.” James kicked his horse and rode toward the house.
Ben opened the wallet and found two 50-pound notes as well as some other papers. No doubt it had contained 150 when it was found, he thought as he put the money wallet into his coat pocket. For a second the thought crossed his mind that perhaps James would accuse him of taking it, but Ben knew that his father would never believe it. Ben had been staying now for four months and had many opportunities to prove himself trustworthy. He was not worried. It was getting late and he was starting to feel the chill. The warm fire would be nice.
It was dark before he started back to the house with the few dogs that had stuck with him. Perhaps Lord Harrington had gone back to the house by another route? He galloped over to a carriage road and cantered back to the house. Even from the distance he could see there was a large group of men gathering outside the estate. Horses were being mounted and torches being lit. It was obvious to Ben that a search party was being organized. He rode forward to lend his hand, but as he approached, someone shouted, “There he is!” and the group moved toward him with the swiftness that he was moving toward them.
“Take him, boys! Don’t let him get away.” They quickly surrounded Benjamin and pulled him from the horse. He was held tightly by a couple of large men in uniform.
“That’s the man. He didn’t know I was watching. He didn’t know I was watching!” James burst into tears. “My father. My poor father. Gunned down in his prime.”
Benjamin tried to speak but his first utterance was met with a stick in the stomach.
“Silence, fiend.” The man who hit him was preparing for another blow, when another uniformed man laid his hand on the man’s shoulder.
“Time, there, Mickey, time. He’ll get his at the gallows’s hand, not yours.”
“Search him. I saw him take something from my father’s coat.” James was weeping bitterly.
Ben had not regained his breath and watched helplessly as the uniformed man took Lord Harrington’s wallet from his own coat pocket.
“Wrap him up, boys. We have our man.”
The graduating class from Loyola University in the Lord Harrington Scenario was 1,345 students, all men. In the two-year program they had studied 19th-century medicine, had pre-written the papers that they would write on antibiotics, immunization, and surgery; they had studied the life of Lord Harrington, of his times, of the society; they could name in Latin every cure for gout that any good English physician could quote; they could haggle with a street woman over the price of fish.
How many of them would end in prison awaiting the gallows? Ben wondered as he looked at the shadow of the bars that stretched across the straw-lined floor in the setting sun. All of them, possibly. Not only at his university, but in thousands across the country. The Lord Harrington scenario had been a popular choice. Almost as popular as the course in interrupting Hitler’s life. Why did he choose so poorly? In not a single class did they mention the son, except to say that he would die if he went on the voyage as scheduled. The son who hated his father enough to kill him.
Ben looked up and laughed. If he added up how long he would have lived if he had waited for the asteroid back in his own timeline, it was two days longer than he would live when he went to the gallows this morning. He thought of all his classmates, sitting in jail in a thousand universes waiting to die seven months after arriving. Did it take longer in some timelines? How had the prosecutor contacted Harvard so quickly, which showed him to be a fraud? Perhaps his classmates would choose better lawyers and get off. Maybe some were shipped to Australia to start a new life there. Maybe some could ride a horse better and had stuck with his lordship the whole day and escaped this fate, or were sick in bed with one of the 18th-century flu viruses.
Maybe he was the only one who dies? Probably not. He had been just an average Joe in all of his classes. This was probably the average time course, if there was such a thing. Perhaps a few would escape, but he had followed the recommendation of all the learned professors to a T, and he expected only the very imaginative and the very stupid would escape this fate.
The jangling of keys announced it was time. He was led out of his cell and escorted to an open square. He was surprised by the number of people who had gathered to watch him die. Mostly women and a few children shouting at him. “Father-killer!” “Pig!” “Devil!” A few vendors selling pies and candied apples. There was a carnival atmosphere, with people laughing, children playing, jokes being exchanged. It saddened him that he could not join them.
A bored-looking priest said a few words as the noose was placed over his neck. Then he was alone. He could see, out of the corner of his eye, the man holding the lever that would release the trapdoor and end his life. It all seemed so Dickensian! “If only I could have met him.” He laughed, sadly knowing it would now never happen. He looked up for what he knew would be his last look at the world he had longed for since he first read Dickens in college. Onions and tomatoes began to pelt his body.
He looked up and stared at the crowd and raised himself with great dignity and with a twinkle in his eye shouted the only line from Dickens he could remember. “‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” And the lever was pulled.
- Ask two questions about the reading.
- What did you learn from this story about multiple dimensions (you don’t have to be right)?