Where’s the harm in helping an old man with a physics experiment? None at all, it seems, but Nicholas is about to unwittingly set into motion a chain of events that will change the world forever…
I shoved my hands deeper into my pockets as a gust of freezing wind near enough cut right through me. It was only early afternoon but it was a grim, cloudy day, one of those empty late-December days when the whole world is dark and dreary. It could’ve been midnight, except the streetlights hadn’t even flicked on yet. I looked up and down the cold little street, wondering what madness had brought me here at this miserable time of year. I knew the answer though: money, not madness. I was skint, going into the New Year with my only resolution to not get evicted by my arsehole of a landlord. That’s what had led to me answering the crazy ad I’d seen in the local paper. A chance for big money, it said, and all I had to do was be willing to be part of some sort of crazy physics experiment. I had to admit, a lot of strange ideas had gone through my head, wondering what I might be signing up for. I’d decided, late last night when I’d finally resolved to go through with this and called the number at the bottom of the ad, that no scientist worth his credentials would expose another human being to something unethical – to something dangerous. Only now, in the cold light of day – not that there was much of that – did it occur to me that no scientist worth his credentials would take out a small ad for experimental subjects in a scuzzy rag like the Evening News.
Too late now. I blew on my hands, a final gesture of futility, and jogged across the road, my breath steaming around me like I was a dragon. I hesitated in front of the door. It didn’t look like somewhere I’d expect to find a laboratory – the street was a narrow, drab affair, all poky little terraces with front gardens just about big enough to shove a couple of wheelie bins and a bike up against the window. It was a grey, uninspiring corner of Cambridge, far away from anything worth seeing. And here was I, a young man adrift in this place, at the end of hope at the most hopeless time of the year. What was I about to let myself in for? I rang the doorbell and heard a faint answering chime within. I braced myself for what was to come.
I blinked several times at the person who opened the door. She was about my age and pretty in a cute, round-faced sort of way. It took me a second to recover my aplomb and I fumbled the note I’d scribbled down during last night’s phone conversation from my pocket with numb fingers. “Um…Professor Harrington?”
She smiled and my stomach did a little somersault at the sight of her dimples. I was always a sucker for dimples. “You’ve come to the right place. Nick, is it?”
“Nicholas.” I always hated being called Nick. Don’t ask me why.
“I’m Mary. I’m Professor Harrington’s…um…” She hesitated and looked at me almost desperately.
“Just come in. You’ll see.” She led me into a dark, narrow hallway and then to a door under the stairs. I could see a staircase leading down to a basement and a light from below. There was also the sound of some sort of machine moving and then, as it cut out with a clanking noise, muffled swearing. She pointed down. “Go that way. The Professor will explain everything.”
What had I been expecting, I wonder? A laboratory, maybe. A clean, clinical environment, a bank of serious-faced men in white coats, administering strange tests while scribbling on clipboards. At least a computer or two. This was like something out of bad comedy. A cramped basement room full of equipment that looked more like it belonged to the Victorian era than the slick iPresent. At the centre of it all, leaning over some sort of stuttering engine, was a little old man with wild hair and a pair of welding goggles on. I stood around awkwardly for a minute while he tenderly administered a wrench to a misbehaving piece of the machine before throwing the offending component across the room with a snarl, narrowly missing my head. He started when he saw me and flicked his goggles up. Two rheumy eyes stared out at me beneath a pair of shaggy eyebrows. “What? What? Who are you?”
“You…we speak on the phone? Last night?”
He rubbed his jaw thoughtfully for a moment and, with his other hand, tapped himself on the forehead with the wrench. It left a smear of black grease on his temple. “Yes…yes I think I remember. Are you here to fix the boiler?”
I looked around at the arcane machinery filling the room. I didn’t like the idea of a man who could build all this stuff but couldn’t handle a malfunctioning boiler. “No. I’m here for the experiment.”
“Oh! Oh!” His whole demeanour changed and he smiled broadly as he walked around the strange machine. Now I had a chance to look at it, I saw it was a sort of vehicle, not unlike a car, with an open cockpit and a wide bonnet which was flung open and held the engine he’d been working on. Instead of wheels, it had long rods along the side, threaded with industrial tubing. Steam rose faintly from their surfaces. “Yes, Nicholas, of course.” He held out a hand. “Professor Harrington.”
I took it gingerly. “I guessed.”
“Lovely, lovely. Um.” He turned and we both looked at the thing he’d obviously built. “What do you think?”
I began to understand what Mary upstairs had meant now. I was a little scared, but also sympathetic. This was obviously just a random pile of junk. He was probably her dad, whiling away his remaining years as he settled into dementia on some sort of bizarre fantasy of being a scientist or an engineer. I was here to humour him. “Very nice,” I said approvingly, “very impressive.”
He looked surprised. “You know what it is? Are you a physicist?”
“Um…well, no, but it’s obvious.” I looked at the machine and tried to think of what it could be. “It’s a…you know…it’s a…”
“A time machine,” Harrington said, his voice full of pride. “The first one ever made.”
“Of course,” I said, “that’s what I was about to say. A time machine.” I was thinking of how to politely excuse myself. But then, I’d quite happily play along with an old man’s game for what he’d promised to pay me. I had no problem at all pretending to build a time machine.
“It’s cutting edge. I designed it myself. It’s going to change the world.”
He turned to me, his eyes alight with passion. “Can you imagine it, Nicholas? Seeing the future?”
I nodded. “It’ll be great, Professor.”
“Yes, yes. And it’s all so clever. Of course, you can’t move anything forward in time faster than the rate that time naturally flows.” He hopped back towards the machine and began to work on something else, tightening a bolt here, polishing a dented surface there. It really did look like a heap of junk.
“Of course not,” I agreed, bobbing my head knowingly. Just keep him talking, Nicholas, I thought to myself.
“No, you have to cheat. The pilot of my time machine will not actually move through time – rather, he will cease to exist in the universe for the intervening period. I have set the machine to disappear for exactly one year and then reappear for a single day. This is just for safety you understand. I can’t be sure that a longer time spent immaterial won’t be dangerous, and it gives us a chance to check you’re okay. Then another jump a year ahead and so on, for ten years. For you, only ten days will have passed, but you will be a decade ahead of the rest of us!”
I did that blinking thing again. “Right. Yes. Yes, I suppose that makes sense.”
“Think you’re up to it, lad?” he asked, eyeing me over the open bonnet again.
“Well…I suppose so…” What else could I say?
“Good! Go back upstairs and Mary will get you kitted up! We start in an hour!”
In the kitchen upstairs, I shared a cup of tea and a biscuit with Mary. I asked her a few of the questions that were on my mind. “What the fuck’s going on here?”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m sorry to bring you into this. He wanted to send me.”
“Send you?” I stared at her. “Are you saying you think he can actually send someone through time?”
“What? No, of course not.” She laughed. “No, he’s harmless, and so’s his little machine. No, you have nothing to worry about, but he knows me too well. We’ve worked together for years. He used to be a great physicist, but he had a car accident and he was never the same since. It’s all very sad.”
“Yeah, I suppose so. But what does this have to do with me?”
“Look,” she said, placing a gentle hand on my arm, “he just needs someone to play along.”
“That’s what I was thinking, but how can I fake time travel?”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll slip something into his coffee. He’ll drop off and we’ll haul you and all the junk out of the basement. That’s what you’re really being paid for. He’ll have forgotten the whole thing before next December.”
“Bloody hell.” I shook my head and looked out of the window. There was a grey, overgrown garden outside. It was even darker out there now, with just a few lights on in the windows of the surrounding houses. “I hate this time of year,” I said, almost to myself.
“I know. So dark and dreary. Nothing to do. Nothing to look forward to until Spring.”
I turned back to her. She was looking wistfully around the sad little kitchen. I wondered what it was like for her, looking after a crazy old man like this, having to trick him with my help just to keep the peace. She deserved better, kind and pretty as she was. I wished there was some way I could make it better. A party to take her to, an excuse to drink and be merry, but it was December, the darkest time of the year.
She sighed suddenly. “Okay, let’s get you into your suit.”
She held up her hands. “Don’t ask. It’s another thing he built. Supposed to protect you from the immaterialisation effects or something.” She dragged it out of a cupboard in the hall – a thick thermal jacket with matching trousers, all in red. I held it up to myself dubiously. “I know,” she laughed. “Please, just go with it.”
I tugged it on with a grimace. I looked a prize fool when I caught sight of myself in the mirror on the wall. “Red’s not exactly my colour,” I told Mary.
“It was all he could get. Hey, you can keep it afterwards if you like. It’s very warm.”
I tugged at the collar. “Don’t I know it.”
“There’s a hat too,” she added apologetically, proffering the matching headpiece.
Together, we went back down to the basement, me waddling along like the Michelin Man in my daft red outfit, her obviously trying to supress her giggles. Harrington was waiting for me, and now his pride and joy was all closed up and he’d managed to clear the space around it. It looked dangerous suddenly and I eyed the big tanks with their hazard symbols at the back warily. Mary had said it was harmless, but what had he actually used to build this thing? I could only imagine what a renowned physicist, invalid though he might be, could get hold of if he was determined enough. He pointed to the seat in the cockpit and I climbed in obediently, feeling ridiculous and terrified in equal measure.
“As I explained,” Harrington said, retiring to a set of controls near the wall, “you will soon cease to exist, but don’t be scared – the counter-entropy field will keep you perfectly safe in your immaterial state. In precisely one year, you will reappear.” Mary passed him his coffee mug and he took a long sip. Soon, I reminded myself, this would all be over.
“Right. And then I’ll be back for a day, right?”
“Hold up,” I said, suddenly realising the flaw in his plan, “I’ll lose a whole year of my life! And if I skip ahead ten years like you have planned, what happens to me then? Can I come back to today?” It was a stupid question, and not just because this was all complete nonsense.
Harrington looked annoyed. “You don’t think I’ve thought of that? I’m not a complete monster! I plan to send you – or another,” he added darkly, “ahead centuries, and that wouldn’t be humane at all. No, the control here sends the machine into reverse. Once we’ve completed this experiment, I’ll simply send you back through time the way you came.”
I frowned. His previous explanation of how he’d simulate time travel had almost been plausible, but this was surely pure technobabble. I looked at Mary and she just shrugged helplessly. Best to humour the old duffer and think of that crushed valium in his coffee. “Right, of course,” I told him, affecting confidence, “no problem.”
“Good. Well, no time like the present haha!” He flicked a switch on the panel. “See you in twelve months, Nicholas!”
“Um…yeah. Bye.” How long until that pill worked? Mary was wearing a fixed smile. I hung onto the cockpit gamely, pretending like it was starting to shake. But then, something odd happened. The room around me started to look a little faded and blurry. I hardly noticed it at first, but soon it became impossible to ignore. I looked back at Mary and her face was stricken. The professor was smiling happily, but then his expression changed too. “Oh no,” he said, “I think I’ve pressed the wrong…”
Well. I don’t know what happened. I suppose, in a way, his time machine worked. Probably too well. But even if he did manage to build this amazing machine, he’d still had that bump to the head and so I found myself not a year in the future – far from it, in fact. I couldn’t tell you what year it was when I opened my eyes from the black nothingness of inexistence, because the guys I met weren’t using the same calendars we did. Let me tell you, a day in that place was no joke. I was glad to disappear again, and in the next place the first thing I did was get myself a stiff drink.
After a while, I started to figure it all out. He’d sent me back instead of forward, and now I was jumping through the centuries, a year at a time, for only a single day in late December. I started to recognise stuff eventually – clothes, languages, landmarks. Of course, for a while I was scared and alone. I didn’t know where I was or what was happening. But then I suppose at some point after the first hundred or so days I decided to start making the best of it. What would you do if you only had one day a year to live your life? You’d do what I did I bet and have a bloody good party. I became the world expert at finding places to get boozed up in primordial Cambridgeshire. I drank fermented cabbage with some guys in blue face paint until it came out of my ears. And I suppose, somehow, I started to become some kind of legend, showing up at the same time every year. They began to look forward to me arriving in my big sledge thing with my stupid red outfit, ready to drink everyone under the table and eat everything in sight. See, that’s the thing about non-existence – you’d think you wouldn’t experience anything, but actually it wasn’t like that. Like being asleep, I was dimly aware of the passage of time, and when I appeared again, I was always ravenous and feeling like I had to hold onto being alive as desperately as possible.
Eventually, I noticed changes around me. I don’t know what it was, but for some reason the days weren’t so dark. It was still the middle of winter, but now there was a different mood in the air every time. There was light and music and dancing. And food and drink of course, lots of that. Just as I had to hold onto my one day of existence in the year, so did the people I met seem to want to bring light and life into the darkest night. I suppose it went back to something ancient, some pagan tradition long-abandoned in the present day.
Now, I’m getting closer and closer to when I came from. I’m starting to worry a bit. It’s been years for me, albeit lived at one-three-hundred-and-sixty-fifth the speed. I’ve seen all of human history unfold around me, and seen that I’ve accidentally made a few changes, at least to this time of year. A while ago I started trying to make good use of the time I had, not just getting plastered but by trying to help people. That seems to have caught on too. They give each other presents now and spend more time with their families. My family won’t even recognise me when I show up! I’m not a young man anymore and, to be honest, I’ve put on a lot of weight. Not much time to shave in my travels through time either so I have a ridiculous bushy beard, and it’s more white than black now. Who am I kidding? It’s all white! But Nicholas is coming back soon, don’t worry! This is the year: this is when I come to town! I’ve been making a list of all the stuff I’m going to do, checking it over twice in my head, and I can’t wait to just get back to normal.
Although, actually, I suppose it has been quite a fun adventure, and everyone seems a lot happier now. Maybe I’ll keep going a little longer after all and see what the future holds. Who knows what people might think if I stopped showing up every December now?