(Dedicated to the author's uncle, Douglas Daniel)
“There is the machine.”
I looked, and in the light of the pale gas jets I beheld a curious device. Workbenches and apparatuses had been cleared aside to make a space in the centre of the lab, and there it was: like a huge glass cabinet, standing upright, with a structure of copper-coloured metal and panels of bluish, opaque glass. It resembled one of those huge water tanks, such as escapologists use on stage for their underwater feats of daring, and I thought for a minute that the interior space was indeed filled with liquid, before realising that it was just the way the panels reflected the light.
Moving closer, trying to compose myself and hoping that the awe was not too evident on my face, I saw that there were some sort of wires and tubes inside the machine, attached to the interior walls; purple in hue, they gave one the impression of arteries running under translucent skin.
I reminded myself as I put my face against the glass that the device was untried; it was a wonder to look at, but represented no great feat until put to the test. I could be forgiven, I think, for remaining skeptical, and told Dyson of my doubts.
“That is why I brought you,” the professor said. “To see the miracle in action. To witness the great trial and testing of a machine that will be the wonder of our age.”
His eyes shone with a pale gleam, though his skin, when he took my hand, was clammy. He looked into my eyes. I saw a man who has toiled at something for years, and who now emerges from the tunnels and caves of his own mind into the light, bearing the bright jewels of all his labours. His face shone with vindication. He really believed, I saw then, that his work was finished, and that the machine would traverse time.
“Behold her, West,” he said to me, leading me around the side of the machine to what turned out to be the door. He took from his pocket a bright key, and turned it in a slot; with a clank the great glass door opened on its brass hinges, and I found myself looking at the mass of wires and tubes that constituted the inner space of the machine. There was no chair, no sitting space, and scarcely enough room for a person, let alone two. I wondered how he planned to operate the thing, and what I, as the sole witness, would be expected to do.
“Thomas will bring champagne,” he said while my eyes ran over the tubes, trying to guess their purpose. There was one which was black, and wider than the rest, and it seemed to end in some sort of funnel. I could not in any case fathom the functioning of these tubes, and decided it best to wait.
Meanwhile, on cue, the butler had brought the champagne and two glasses. “A toast,” Dyson said. “The creator and first witness.”
He poured the champagne and we raised our glasses. Why not go along with the thing, I thought, since the proof would come soon enough.
“To success,” he declaimed. “To scientific revolution. To the conquest of Time.”
We chinked glasses and swallowed the lot in one, and then went to sit next to the window overlooking the garden, shut tight against the deepening evening.
“So, how did you do it?” I asked, keeping my doubts close to my chest.
“A long tale, and tiresome in the telling. I know this is not quite your thing, old boy, and so the details will be lost on you. Pray, do not be offended. You are a philosopher, I a physicist. We are engaged in the same endeavour, but our paths are different, our equipment dissimilar. Suffice it to say that behind this marvel is a new theory, a fundamental understanding of Time, which will demolish several hundred years of civilised enquiry.” He twirled his glass so that it reflected the lamplight in mesmerising patterns. “How did the ancients conceive of Time, West?”
“How? Oh, I don’t know,” I said, growing slightly impatient. “As something that was constantly flowing past, continually being lost?”
“Precisely. The sands in the hourglass running out. For each of us, our appointed measure of sand, and for the universe, from conception until extinction, one constant flow of seconds and minutes and hours, running down into oblivion. Human memory do what it will; history, the remembered and the reconstructed past, just fragments amassed against our ruin, their oblivion postponed until some later day, like sand grains whose fall is slowed somewhat by a conscious tilt of the glass. All must go the same way, in the end, even if the glass is upturned.
“Now dispel that image from your mind, consign it to the same room as superstition and witchcraft and the idea of gods. Picture instead Time as a long, endless thread, winding around and around, like Ariadne’s string in a labyrinth of possibilities. How easy it must be for us, the modern Theseus, to pick up the thread and follow it backwards, to retrace our steps, moving back or taking new paths through the labyrinth, away from the advancing steps of the Bull Man, Death. If we go forward, we can still evade the conquering beast. And if we go backward, what will we come to, at the path’s source? Will we find, Dr. West, the great artificer, Daedalus? Will we chance upon Hephaestus in the workshop of the gods? All of these questions can be answered, all of our theories proved or disproved, and objective truth grasped.
“Do you realise the possibilities? Not only can we cheat death, flee forever from the bull in the labyrinth, but we can uncover once and for all the origin of the labyrinth itself. Let us be men of science, and proceed unbiased, following the thread where it will, whether it be to evolutionism or to that great artificer. We have an infinite amount to learn.”
I couldn’t help but scoff at this fancy. “I rather think that we discount superstition,” I said. “As men of science, we can be as objective as the occasion demands, but we can discount at once such primitive fancies as gods and makers. We are concerned, after all, with the advancement of science.”
Dyson was smiling. “Of course, of course. But don’t you see? That is just what my machine will determine once and for all. There will be not even a case for subjectivism once we have travelled in her. Science will conquer every whim and every fancy, every wish and false belief. We will build this palace from the foundation up, casting away every stone and every beam that is not sound material.”
“You realise where this will lead,” I said, deciding to humour him.
“Of course, old boy, of course. To infinite knowledge, to control over human destiny, to the extinction of all lesser human foibles. Man can emerge at last from the dark cellar of his theorizing. He can step into the light, he can perfect himself. Yes, I will dare say it, even human perfection is possible.”
“And the death of science.”
He raised a speculative eyebrow. “By what token?”
“There will be nothing left to learn. Nothing to prove. Infinite knowledge means exactly that. It leaves no space for what is unknown.”
“Now, now. I do not think that is the proper perspective on this. And besides, we can never truly know all, even if we see the path of human progress stretched out before us, as gods from a mountain. We can get the fundamentals right, and proceed from there. The endeavour need never come to a close.”
“So then,” I said as the last dregs of the champagne were finished. “Do you think we ought to open another bottle, or are you going to show me how this thing works?”
He got up from his seat and proceeded towards the machine. His eyes were alight with obvious pride in his achievement, and I, electing to remain seated, prepared to observe the mysteries.
“We start the thing by means of an electric charge. There is a fuse, here, that will send a current into the heart of the machine. The door is locked, like a common wardrobe, though of course from the inside, and the ‘traveller’ – ‘traveller,’ yes, let us call him that - breathes into this tube at the funnel end. It is necessary that he be sustained by the machine’s own oxygen supply, because the place to which he is going, the corridor between one temporal room and another, is beyond the grasp of space known to our physicists. By means of a scientific process too long-winded and seemingly contradictory to explain here, the machine moves from one region in Time to another. The traveller controls the direction of the time flow, and moves either into the past or into the future at will. When he has arrived, he may exit from the machine and explore his new surroundings.”
“I notice you say ‘he’, and not ‘we’.”
“That is because the machine can hold only one person. It is impossible for two travellers to be sustained. Perhaps in future a larger model will be built, but at present…”
“So you expect me to watch you disappear?” The champagne had left me feeling a little light-headed, and I felt no compunction if my tone sounded mocking. “Am I to be the witness to a conjuring trick? For it will look very much like one, at least to my untrained eye. Should I check the place for mirrors?”
Disarmingly, the professor continued to smile. He went through the machine’s open door and stood in the centre of the thing. I glimpsed him there, grinning, with the door still lying open, wrapped around by arterial wires.
“I do not expect you to watch me.”
“What, then, do you require of me? It is getting rather late, and I have research to do. Hadn’t you better get on with your little show?”
Still he was not deterred. “The show will begin in a moment. I do not think, Dr. West, you have properly grasped what I require of you. I do wish you to be a witness to this thing after all, but the prime witness, as it were. I want you to travel in the machine. I want you, my dear friend, to be the first traveller into the unknown region.”
“Very well, then,” I said, springing to my feet. “Let’s get it finished. Tell me what to do.”
Now, as I remember, I did not feel any specific fear at that moment. I was not, to my mind, the guinea pig in an experiment, because I did not believe for a second that the experiment would come off. Nor did I feel that there was any danger. Professor Dyson, my friend for long years since our undergraduate days, had obviously lost his faculties. He was severely deluded. Even though I mocked him, I felt a great sadness inside me.
He stepped out of the machine and guided me into the space he had left. I followed without reluctance, stepping over the threshold and looking around at all the pipes and tubes that covered the walls. Following his directions, I took up the thick black tube that had caught my eye earlier and pressed its funnel end to my mouth. There was no oxygen there, and I was not surprised.
“Wait,” he said. “The key.”
He handed it to me, and instructed me to lock the door from the inside. I did so, so that the cloudy blue glass separated me from him and the rest of the lab. Indeed, all around my inner space seemed shadowy and indistinct, and his form became as a ghost, floating airily beyond. Even his voice was surprisingly distant, as if it was coming from a different room entirely. It was a strange feeling, to be suddenly cut off. At that second, a submerged fear began to rise sharply to the surface of my mind: perhaps this machine was some sort of trap after all; that while his expected miracle would not occur, something disastrous would, and this space would become my tomb.
His voice suddenly cut off my contemplation of my fears. It was thin, faint, but I got the meaning. “You will start the electric current in a moment. Do not lose the key. Keep it in your pocket, and once you get out, keep the door locked at all times. We do not want an accident occurring that will cut you off from your means of return. Travelling is quite simple. You set the destination by means of the set of dials on the exterior of the machine; I have now set the wheels to, let’s see, approximately one hundred and forty years in the future. I do not know what precise effect travelling will leave on your consciousness; it may appear to you, once the current is flowing, that the air in the chamber has changed density and that you are in fact weightless. Your idea of space may change. The interior of the machine might no longer retain its dimensions. At all times you must keep breathing the artificial air of the machine. When you appear to emerge into the light, you will find yourself in another time. Good luck, Doctor West, and bring back tales of what you find. Don’t forget, you are the first, and the entire race will follow you, from our or any other time.
“Now then, quickly, proceed. The dial is set; now for the electric current. You see the two wires, there at your feet. Bring them into connection with each other, and the thing will be done.”
The fear returned. Was this all a great folly of mine, to allow myself to be entrapped in a device that could end in my death? I looked down at the wires he had indicated, and for a moment I decided I would refuse, and demand that he be the one to test this probable death trap. Then something overcame me, a feeling that it was all folly, an immense delusion, and the fear of accident part of the whole thing. So I decided to do what he said, and expose the whole deluded fantasy. I brought the wires together, and at the same time breathed into the apparatus against my mouth. There was a blinding flash, and I remember cursing myself for my mistake in listening to him; surely an explosion had occurred? Then, with sudden wonder, I realised that my environment had changed.
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