Sasha is Professor Coltrane’s new lab assistant. He’s an (apparently) great man who believes he was born in the wrong era and who intends to put that right.
For many people – people her age, people she respected, people very much like her in some ways – this would be a dream job. To bask in the reflected glow of a modern genius, to actually assist in his experiments, to be there on the bleeding edge of physics and breath the same rarefied air as this titan of knowledge, that was like something from a fantasy. For Sasha, it was a kind of penance. Like most people her age who’d seen him on TV and read his popular science books, at first she’d idolised Professor Coltrane. He seemed so rational, so ready to challenge mainstream assumptions, but as she’d grown older and (perhaps) a little wiser, she started to see the rough edges, the things his fans dismissed. His middle-class gentility hid a rather unpleasant core, but he was still trotted out whenever the BBC needed a reliably eccentric scientist to match wits with whatever religious blowhard they had on, or front some documentary about string theory, or whatever it might be. Coltrane: the acceptable face of misogyny and white colonialism in the modern world.
They didn’t get off to a good start. She was shown into his lab and found him at a cluttered desk, overseen by what appeared to be a genuine Roman bust depicting Julius Caesar, instantly recognisable by his receding hairline and hooked nose. When juxtaposed so directly like that, it was clear how Coltrane had modelled his image on him. He just couldn’t do anything about his own nose – stubby and slightly upturned – and he might have perhaps worked a little harder (or indeed at all) to emulate the physique of the former soldier. He definitely had the hair down though.
She had to clear her throat to get his attention, and even then it took him the better part of a minute to finish scrawling equations in his notebook before he slowly turned in his chair and looked her up and down, not even bothering to hide the way his gaze hovered over her hips and breasts. She’d have slapped that look off any other man’s face, but not only was he a respected academic in her field, but also technically her boss. “So…” he said after a second, “you’re who they sent?”
“I’m your new lab assistant, yes, Professor Coltrane.” She tried to keep her tone diplomatic. “My name’s Sasha Gord…”
“Whatever.” He waved his pencil at her dismissively. “I don’t expect you’ll be much good with the numbers, but I’m sure you brew an acceptable coffee.”
Sasha bristled. “I was top of my class in theoretical mathematics, actually…”
“Well, they say girls do better in exams. Did I read you were dyslexic?”
Apparently he knew more about her than he was letting on. “Yes. What about it?”
“Got extra time, did you?”
“To make up for my learning disability, yes.”
“Affirmative action,” Coltrane snorted, “that’s what they call it in America. Load of PC bollocks, if you ask me. I expect you got a nice grant to study too, inner-city girl like you.”
She knew what he meant by that. “Actually I grew up in a village in Northamptonshire.”
“I bet they loved you.” He gave her a meaningful glance. “I mentioned coffee?”
Sasha clenched her fists and forced a smile. “No problem.”
“Thanks so much. White with three sugars, please. Good at maths, she says, but not so much with the listening, eh, Julius?”
He was talking to the bust. She turned to look at them both. “Does Caesar want a coffee too?”
“Ah, so you know who he is then?” He smiled at her over his metal-rimmed spectacles. It wasn’t a nice smile. “I thought it was all African studies and the Suffragettes in modern history lessons. Glad to see they’re still teaching you about the men who made the world, instead of how to be good little feminists.”
She only gave him two sugars. It was the only act of rebellion she could think of.
Despite being unbearable company, Coltrane was undoubtedly a brilliant man. He was, as he was only too happy to point out, years ahead of his contemporaries. He liked to lecture at her as he worked – it was no wonder his last assistant had quit. He allegedly went through three or four a year. From these rambling, often angry, monologues, she learnt just how many years ahead he was. “It’s really very basic science,” he explained on one day as she set up his latest experiment for him. “We’ve been sitting on it for years. Exotic matter created through nuclear fission. In a star it gets thrown out into space and accounts for all sorts of cosmological jibber-jabber that those astrophysicists will be only too happy to fill your head with if you give them half a chance.” He had a dim view of anyone interested in space. Despite being a physicist, he was firmly Earthbound, and not just because of his considerable gravity. His great love was in fact history, specifically ancient history, and she gradually began to understand how this intersected with his scientific work. “Exotic matter is the key, you see. You spin it in a particle accelerator just so and then, my nubile young protégé, you have the basic building blocks of a time machine.”
Sasha decided early on he was a nutjob. His equations made no sense at all to her and, despite the way he talked down to her, she knew she was extremely intelligent. But he persisted and she realised that not only was he tenured, but that the university made a lot of money from him. He wrote his books and he went on TV and the radio, and he attracted gullible people like her, gathering around his alleged-genius like moths to a flame. When he came into the lab each morning, usually only just before midday, he always said hello to Caesar, but mostly ignored her. The only greeting Sasha got was an empty coffee cup wave d in her general direction.
After three months, she was almost ready to quit, poor job market be damned, but then something happened that made her decide to stick around. Coltrane was finally ready to perform his first practical experiment. Inside a heavily-shielded chamber that they watched through a webcam, an ordinary billiard ball would be transported through time with the aid of the complicated assemblage of pipes, wires and particle accelerators that was supposedly some sort of time machine. “This is a great day,” he said ominously.
“I’m sure,” she said noncommittally.
“Not long now, Julius,” Coltrane said to the bust, which was sitting on the table next to the controls, watching the computer screen with them, “assuming this goes to plan. Which it will.” He flipped a switch, and the time machine disappeared.
Sasha blinked. “Um…”
“Wait for it,” the professor smiled.
Thirty seconds later, it reappeared, smoking gently, in a slightly different part of the room. Their readings confirmed what Coltrane already seemed to know – for half a minute, no time had elapsed for the time machine and anything within its area of effect. In short, he had succeeded in inventing time travel. It really, really pissed Sasha off.
The experiments came thick and fast after that. The technology became smaller and easier to handle. Coltrane decided after a while that they didn’t need the lead-lined room. At first they only ever sent things forward as that seemed less dangerous, but it was obviously this didn’t please him. He wanted to go back.
“Back, yes!” he ranted one day. “Back to the beginning of things. Imagine it, my loyal nymphette. Imagine being back in the great days of the British Empire. We could see your ancestors, still throwing spears at each other in the jungle, learn the superior ways of the white man! And even further – correct Shakespeare’s grammar, help repel the Spanish Armada, joust with the Black Prince. My goodness yes.” He was visibly sweating as he stared into space, excited by the very notion of the forces he was learning to unlock. “But the best thing of all would be Rome, at the height of its power. That was the real beginning of things. What a era that would be to live in, eh?”
“War and slavery,” Sasha said shortly. She put another cup of coffee down, making sure to spill a little on his notebooks, but he didn’t notice.
“Oh yes,” Coltrane said, waving a hand dismissively. “but that’s just your Western morality talking. The Romans believed in strength.” He clenched one of his pudgy fists for emphasis. “Yes, a finer time, when men could be real men, making slaves of their enemies. But even a slave could rise, if he was strong enough. In the arena, see? Earn his freedom through valour and butchery. What an age! I was born two millennia late!”
“Is that what you’d do then?” Sasha pressed. “Have slaves to attend to your every whim?” She could well believe it.
“Slaves, yes, and concubines.” He eyed her lecherously. “A coterie of lithe Nubians, I think. Hm. What a thought.”
He was utterly repulsive, but she couldn’t help but find his experiments fascinating. When they first sent something back in time and saw that battered billiard ball appear in front them thirty seconds before they even threw the switch, it had been a moment that had silenced even Coltrane. And they’d both wondered whether they might be about to tear apart the fabric of the universe. For a while, they trod carefully, terrified of undoing causality.
Another thing Sasha noticed was the spatial displacement. “Everything moves,” she observed one day.
She pointed at the latest object to have travelled through time – a bowling ball now, that had shown up in the room two hours before they’d even chosen what they’d be sending. Except it was halfway across the lab. It had broken one of the desks. “You silly girl, don’t you understand it’s a time machine, not a space machine?” He laughed. “The world turns, you see? In a few hours, we’ve rotated a little on the axis so the point in space originally occupied by the machine is now over there.” He gestured. “You’d understand, wouldn’t you, Julius?” Sasha hated that bust almost as much as she hated Coltrane.
Their concerns about causality proved unfounded. Further experimentation demonstrated that it worked on some version of the Copenhagen Principle, with observation being the key. After a bowling ball appeared one day, they tried to send a tennis ball back instead. Spacetime did not unravel. Instead, when they glanced away from the bowling ball and glanced back, it had become a tennis ball. That was when Coltrane got a gleam in his eye.
“Today is the day!” Coltrane announced. He was dressed like he was going to a frat party in an American university. She was certain it was a real toga and not a bed sheet he’d repurposed, but it looked pretty much the same to her. “I’m sorry to leave you, and all humanity, high and dry, but you will thank me in the end. I go to change history!”
Sasha gave him a sceptical look. “Don’t you think we should do a few more experiments? We’ve only done a couple of tests on living organisms.”
“And the rats were fine. Don’t you know anything about science? Knowledge is won by great leaps forward. Mechanics, relativity, string theory – all astounding bursts of progress by great men, singular in their purpose. So now Marcus Coltrane will join them! Sadly, no one in this world will ever know what I have achieved. Your wretched lives will cease to exist, for none of you will have ever been. I will travel back, to the days of Gaius Julius Caesar, leader of the Roman Senate, and save him from the assassins that will indirectly usher in the fall of Rome. Three centuries after the beginning of the Imperial age, the old beliefs will be cast aside in favour of the weak Judeo-Christian god. Pah! Pah I say! Pish on your god! Under my guidance, Rome shall be preserved for eternity! I shall see to that. A year here, a decade there, I will flit forwards and backwards, reshaping history as I see fit. There’ll be none of this mewling slave morality, girl. Men will be strong!” He clenched his fist again, and looked so ridiculous in his toga that she couldn’t help but laugh in his face.
“You scoff!” he said, his face starting to turn red, “but that is the era I belong too. My greatness won’t go ignored. Concubines will pay me to bless them with my attention. I shall be as a god! Imagine, a modern man in ancient Rome, with all my knowledge. Oh, what a world you will wake up to, Sasha. What a world awaits all humanity!” He rubbed his hands together in glee and clambered into his time machine. Ungainly at the best of times, he was even more awkward in the silly costume, and he’d gone for full period detail. Sasha nearly threw up as she got a view up the robe while he hiked his leg into the makeshift seat of the machine.
“As a great man will say…veni, vidi, vici!”
“See you around, professor.”
“Only in statues, perhaps.” He laughed uproariously and, as he pressed the button to activate the machine, disappeared.
Nothing happened. Sasha looked around. Would the world change before her eyes? Would she remember? After about an hour with nothing to do in the lab, she went home.
There were investigations of course. The police were called and physics professors almost the equal of Coltrane passed judgment on the readings from the lab. Undoubtedly he had gone back in time, that much was evident, but what had become of him was not clear. The history books were unchanged, and there was no sign of an overweight man wearing eye glasses lumbering around Italy in the year 0 BC, annoying everyone with his rants in schoolboy Latin. After a while, Sasha stopped wondering about it all and got on with her life.
Some years later, after Sasha Gordon had obtained her PhD and was well on her way to become the greatest physicist of her generation, with Coltrane nothing more than a curious footnote, she found out what had happened. At a party, an astrophysicist was explaining the concept of prediction thresholds to a crowd of mostly laymen. Sasha knew all about it of course, but like Coltrane her interest in space was limited. The other scientist said a curious thing: “You know, even though we completely understand how the planets in the solar system move; what orbits they follow, how fast they go, where they fit in the system, even though we’re totally au fait with the initial conditions, we can’t go further than twenty million years. It’s all about Chaos Theory, see. We have no idea – no idea – where the Earth will be that far from now, despite having all the data.”
“That doesn’t seem so strange,” Sasha said, “twenty million years is a long time. I mean, how far does the Earth orbit in a year?”
“Well it’s not just the Earth,” the astrophysicist smiled, “the whole galaxy is spinning, and the universe is expanding and all the rest of it. The Sun moves billions of miles a year as it travels around. That complicates things even further. Why, I think if you did the maths for the entire universe, if that were possible, the prediction threshold might even be just a few thousand years.”
“Makes sense.” It was a good party and she spent more time with her new friend, the astrophysicist. They even arranged to meet up for a drink. It was only when she got home that night that it occurred to her what might have happened to poor old Professor Coltrane.
Years later, whenever she felt belittled by a colleague, or some paper of hers wasn’t as well received as she’d have liked, or she had to deal with some witless white guy on a TV show, she’d cheer herself up by imagining Professor Coltrane appearing in the vacuum of space, millions of miles from the Earth, his equations having failed to take into account the unpredictable motion of the planets. It was the Year 0, but he’d have been as far from Rome as any human in history. She imagined his eyes going wide as he realised his mistake and then his fat, stupid head going pop like a balloon. It never failed to make her smile.