Thursday, 12 August 2010

Father's Day

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Scott was a genius; that was beyond doubt. He had been the prodigy of his day: the most promising intellect in generations. His education had been swift and successful: A Levels at 12 years old, his first degree of several at age 14; he had been famous the world over, but now by the age of 19, it was as though he’d disappeared, or at least he had as far as the media were concerned.

That was ironic, because back in the days when the newspapers had delved into his life, his history and his parentage, they’d made a point of emphasising that his own father, a famous and renowned physicist of the 1990s, had physically disappeared a couple of months before Scott was born. His father had never been seen again, so Scott had never met him. It seemed that Scott’s own intelligence had provided an answer to the ‘nature or nurture’ question once and for all. His mother was in no doubt about where Scott got his genius from, though she herself was an academic in other fields, Scott’s particular talents were in theoretical and applied physics, just like his father.

Nowadays, Scott was kept away from the public eye. The work he did was so innovative, so ground-breaking, that the organisation he worked for thought it best to keep Scott and his labours secret. They were exceptionally good at that kind of thing; their own existence was hidden away from society, and their own purposes were known to very few, so providing a life of secrecy for their most promising scientist was well within their abilities.

Scott sat in his lab feeling melancholy. His work was progressing nicely. He had no doubt that he’d soon solve the latest of the minor problems he’d encountered: he always did; he was more than capable of thinking himself through any dilemma. He knew that his theories were sound, that he was working to known principles and concepts, (as well as some that he’d developed and theorised himself, that he was equally as sure of.)

Scott’s problem was that he was lonely. He’d always been somewhat solitary; he’d had to be: nobody throughout his school or even his university life had been on an intellectual level that came close to his. Since his mother had died six months ago, he’d realised just how alone he really was. Even here, with countless members of staff at his disposal, he found it difficult to relate to people on a personal level and impossible to form any kind of proper relationship other than a working one.

He had to admit to himself that he missed his father. No, that wasn’t right: he couldn’t miss his father, because he’d never actually met him, though he’d read all of his papers and knew every part of the work his father had completed; he felt that he probably knew him as well as anyone ever had. What he missed was not ever having a father. He knew they would have worked well together, but that wasn’t it. There were people he worked with here, but they all looked up to him and deep inside what Scott really wanted was someone he could look up to. Of all the people Scott knew, nobody really deserved that kind of respect from him. In Scott’s mind, only his father could ever have commanded that kind of reverence.

There was a quiet tap on the door to the lab that roused Scott from his thoughts. “Enter,” he said quietly without turning away from the touch screen visual display on the lab wall.

The door opened and in walked Geoff. Geoff was Scott’s assistant; he was in his early thirties but treated Scott with such esteem that people would have thought that it was Scott who was the elder of the two by more than ten years. Scott was pleased to see Geoff, not because they were friends, though Geoff was the nearest thing Scott had to a friend. He was pleased to see him because he was eager to tell him of his latest breakthrough.

“Ah Geoff: good news. I’ve finally cracked that problem with the temporal reset stability. I’m almost certain that we can determine duration before or even during use now, instead of being restricted to fixed length trips.”

“Before or during?” Geoff replied, “You mean the subject will be able to adjust durations while the trip is active?”

Scott nodded. He smiled. Geoff smiled. Scott’s smile was one of satisfaction, whereas Geoff’s was more one of admiration, almost one of hero worship.

“That’s right,” Scott said, “But you can take some of the credit, for the concept at least. I was all for regulating and controlling everything at base, but it was you who suggested making the controls portable and taking them on the trips; then once we’d managed to get them miniaturised sufficiently, we were halfway there.”

“I’ll admit I helped,” said Geoff, “but the physical principles were the real sticking point. I didn’t even know if it was possible to control the device remotely, but you never lost faith. You were so confident.”

“Geoff, do you know how close we are to our final breakthrough?” asked Scott, “I still have a couple of problems to work through, but do you realise that it’s only a matter of days now before we could well have a device to transport ourselves through time?”

He looked at Geoff, who looked pleased, but not as overwhelmed as Scott had hoped he’d be.

“We’re going to be the first people to experience time travel. That’s pretty damned amazing, don’t you think?”

Experience time travel?” Geoff looked concerned, “It’s your invention Scott; it’s always been your project, but surely you’re not thinking of testing it yourself?”

Scott walked over to his assistant and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Let’s have a drink Geoff,” he said, “We need to talk about a couple of things.”

~o~O~o~

“What I’m really worried about is causality,” Scott said over his drink. “The possibility that what I do in the past may influence things here and now, that I could actually change the present.”

“Those are only theories though Scott,” Geoff replied, “Current thinking runs along the lines that the present is a result of anything and everything that happened in the past, and that includes any other actions you may provide by travelling back there.”

Current thinking?” Scott raised an eyebrow, “Don’t tell me that you’ve read more papers on the subject than I have Geoff.”

Geoff looked a little taken aback; Scott laughed. “It’s ok,” he said, “I’ve heard the theories and I can appreciate the concept. I can see that the present is affected by all the causes that went before, and that if we were able to travel back in time, we may yet be about to contribute some of those causes ourselves.”

“Yes,” replied Geoff, “And those causes we may contribute have already had their effect on the situation as it exists now; they may be in the future from our perspective, but they’re actually in the past. In short, anything that might happen in the past has already happened in the past, and nothing we do can change that.”

“But the old paradox of travelling back to prevent your own conception,” said Scott, “How is that dealt with?”

Geoff laughed. “It just is,” he replied. “You can’t go back to prevent your own conception, because if you did, you wouldn’t be here. The paradox appears to refute the pre-determination theory, but it’s the fact that the theory declares that a paradox can’t happen that actually supports and simplifies the theory.”

“But what if I did?” Scott said, “Went back and killed my father before I was conceived, I mean?”

“You won’t” Geoff replied.

“But if I did?” Scott insisted.

“Something else that happened at that time would prevent you from being successful, has already prevented you from succeeding. Nothing you could do deliberately in the past can have any effect on the present, other than the effect it has already had.”

“So what if it happened accidentally? What if I had no control over my conception being prevented?”

“Nothing could happen accidentally,” Geoff replied, “and before you ask, I know nothing could, because nothing has – you’re here aren’t you?”

Geoff got up to refill their drinks.

“Scott,” he said when he returned, “You’ve made time travel possible. OK, so we haven’t tested it yet, but you and I both know that it will work. And one day, it will more than likely be commonplace. By then there’ll be people travelling back and forth in time regularly. If there was a problem with causality and with paradoxes being formed all over the place, don’t you think we’d know about it by now?”

“So you’re saying that I can’t change the past then?” Scott asked.

“I think you know that you can’t Scott,” Geoff replied, “Why would you want to?”

“My Father,” said Scott. “I know that he was working in a similar field to us when he disappeared back in the ‘90s. I suspect that it was a fault in his work, or maybe an error in his calculations that made him disappear when he did.”

“So you want to go back in time and do what? Help him out? Correct his work? Give your work to him?”

“I won’t give him my papers of course,” said Scott, “because there are aspects of our work, theories of mine and others that weren’t even conceived of back then. His contemporaries wouldn’t understand or accept what we’ve done. But look at this.”

Scott went into his jacket pocket and took out a black and silver bracelet, almost like a manacle, with a clasp on one side.

“This was the casing for the prototype of the device before we thought about adding the controls,” Scott said “The components are all there inside it. It isn’t operational, and couldn’t possibly function properly in its present form. It would just look like a piece of electronic junk to anyone who examined it.”

“Anyone but your dad, you mean?” said Geoff.

“Exactly,” Scott’s eyes were almost aglow with enthusiasm by now, “but if my father found it, I know he’d dismantle it; I’m certain that he’d know exactly what it was, and that he’d learn enough from it for it to give him a nudge in the right direction with his own work. Access to this piece of ‘junk’ may be all my father would need to ensure he didn’t make the mistakes that led to his failure...” He let his words trail off for a moment, and then added: “...and to his disappearance.”

“Nothing can come of this Scott,” Geoff insisted. Geoff was being noticeably more forceful and direct tonight. They were closer than ever to having a conversation on similar intellectual levels. It seemed that Geoff had found an area where he had confidence in his ability to match wits with Scott.

“I know what you’re going to say Geoff,” Scott interrupted. “My father did disappear back in 1998, so nothing I do can prevent that. Well I don’t intend to attempt to prevent it. That’s why I’m going to leave this note together with the device.”

He passed a piece of paper to Geoff, who looked puzzled as he opened it and read:

My Dear Father, 
That salutation will sound odd to you, since from your current perspective you have no children, certainly none who would be writing to you, but I assure you that I am, or at least I will be, your son.
You may be pleased to learn that I will have some measure of success in my own work which will be in the same field as yours. I say some measure of success, because I have to inform you that without my assistance, your own endeavours are destined to fail, and to fail tragically.
It is my aim to prevent such tragedy and with that aim in mind, I’m leaving you the device you have found, together with these instructions.
The components within it are designed and manufactured according to both common and lesser known scientific principles, some of which you have theorised yourself, some of which came as a result of the work and research I and my own team have accomplished.
The device is non-operational as you will discover. You will also soon become aware that the resources required to repair it don’t exist as yet in your time, which should help to convince you that this communiqué is indeed from the future. 
I have delivered both the device and this note from the year 2018 to be precise; this is a task I have undertaken because your life, your very existence depends upon it.
It is my hope that you will follow these instructions accurately, as this is most important if you are to survive past the year 1998.
You have a little less than two years. You must dismantle the device, learn the principles and concepts you’ll discover from examination of the components within, and incorporate these principles into your own research. Do not share your findings with anyone else. The existence of this device and of these instructions must not be known to anyone, not to your closest colleagues, not even to your wife, my mother.
I’m confident that you will have enough information and enough time to complete your research by spring 1998. By then you should have built your own device and be ready to test it. You should be able to determine the control mechanism employed in this device. You must incorporate a similar mechanism into your version, as it’s imperative that you select a destination time when you eventually use it. Also, remember to destroy the device I have given you as soon as you’re certain that you have your own working version.
You must follow these next instructions TO THE LETTER:
  1. On the evening of the 6th October 1998, you must ensure that all of your staff have been sent home. You MUST be alone in your lab.
  2. Set the destination time and date on your device to 8pm on Sunday 17th June 2018
  3. Activate your device. You will be transported to the selected date and time.
Not only does your work depend on this, father: your survival and even your very existence are at stake here. 
I look forward to meeting you on June 17th 2018.
Your son.

Geoff found Scott's handwriting a little difficult to decipher; he was used to reading online documents in an easily readable font, but he struggled on. He eventually finishing reading the letter and looked up into the eyes of Scott, who was eagerly anticipating his reaction. “June 17th,” he said, “Fathers’ Day, a nice touch.”

“You see: It doesn’t matter which theory of cause and effect is valid,” Scott said, “I’m not actually changing anything in the past so I can’t possibly cause a change here, and my father will still disappear on October 6th 1998, just as we know he did. OK, so he’ll reappear here in about four weeks time, but who’s to say that wasn’t what was meant to happen? Who’s to say that isn’t why he disappeared in the first place?”

“But what if your dad ignores the instructions?” asked Geoff. “What if he decides instead to go public with his research and with yours too?”

“But he won’t, will he?” replied Scott, “If he had done, we’d know about it by now.”

~o~O~o~

“You know what day it is, don’t you?” said Scott.

“Of course I do; it’s June 17th, Fathers’ Day.” Geoff replied, “We still haven’t had a successful test run, and today’s a significant day if you still intend to carry out your plan.”

“It’s a big day for me, but not really that significant in the way you mean Geoff,” Scott said, “Nothing will prevent my father arriving here tonight at 8pm, providing I set events in motion, but we have no deadline. I can deliver the device and the instructions at any time today, or even in the next few days.”

“You’re still determined to play around with cause and effect, aren’t you?” said Geoff, “You still want to tempt yourself with paradox?”

“What do you mean?”

“What happens if your father does indeed arrive here at 8pm tonight, and from your perception, it’s before you’ve actually travelled back in time yourself? Then what’s going to be your motivation to actually go back to initiate the whole thing?”

“Well, I’ll need to,” replied Scott, “Of course I’ll still go back and do it.”

“But you’ll have experienced the effect already, won’t you? So there’ll be no perceived necessity to initiate the cause. So what if you don’t initiate the cause?”

“Well, if my dad was already here, then that would be a paradox.”

“But paradoxes can’t exist Scott,” explained Geoff, “So the only way for that paradox to be avoided is if your dad doesn’t turn up tonight at all. If your plan is going to be successful then it follows that you have to initiate the cause before the effect, from your own perspective.”

Scott smiled. “It’s a good thing that I’m all ready to go then,” he said, “It’s OK Geoff. I was just winding you up. Everything is ready for my trip this afternoon.”

“There are a couple of things I’d like to check before you go,” Geoff said, “Just a few loose ends I’d be happier about if we could clarify them.”

“There’s nothing fundamentally important we’ve left out Geoff,” Scott assured him, “We’ve sent the device back in time on automatic for fixed periods and it’s returned OK; we’ve tried it with living subjects, with no adverse effects. We’re all ready to go.”

~o~O~o~

Later that day, Scott was alone in the lab. He picked up the prototype device and the letter for his father and put them into his jacket pocket. He fastened the working device around his arm and keyed in his destination date: 25th December 1996, nearly two years before his father’s disappearance and just about the only day of the year that he could be certain that his father’s laboratory, this same lab he now worked in himself, was guaranteed to be deserted.

He activated the device and the lights seemed to become more intense; at first, he thought that nothing else had changed. Then he noticed that the decor in the lab had subtly altered. Looking around he noticed the touch screen display unit on the wall was replaced by a large A0 size whiteboard, covered in calculations and diagrams drawn in red and black marker pen.

Overall, the lab was a lot less tidy than he was used to. The walls behind the benches seem to be just walls, with no computer displays embedded in them; instead they had diagrams and notes pinned to them. There were computers at one end of the room, but most of them had heavy ancient looking CRT style displays and each of them actually had an old fashioned keyboard; it looked like tablet PCs hadn’t been thought of in 1996 or at least they hadn’t caught on by then.

Scott knew by instinct, which area of the lab bench his father used as his own. It was the nearest to the whiteboard and also the most untidy. Scott moved over to it; he piled up the assortment of papers on the bench feeling almost as if he were violating his father’s privacy by doing so, but it had to be done. He had to make sure that his father was certain to see the gift he was about to leave for him.

He placed the now tidy pile of papers in the middle of his father’s bench and put his own note on top of it. He’d written it out on bright yellow paper, knowing that would catch his father’s eye as soon as he saw it. He placed the prototype bracelet on top of the whole thing like a kind of high tech paperweight.

Scott looked at the device on his wrist. He’d been there only three minutes: not a very significant period for man’s first journey through time. He walked over to the window and looked out of it. He toyed with the idea of strolling outside to experience the world as it was two years before his birth, but then he realised that the building would be locked today, with him trapped inside; not only that, but it was Christmas day: nowhere would be open for him to explore anyway. He sighed: there was no reason to remain here any longer. He walked back to the centre of the lab and pressed a button on his wrist. The layout of his surroundings changed again; the harsh light changed back to the softer fluorescent lighting he was used to. He had returned to his own time successfully. He sat down to wait until 8pm.

~o~O~o~

It was just before seven o’ clock when Geoff came bursting into the lab. He looked concerned. “Scott,” he said, “I have bad news.”

“What is it Geoff?” Scott asked, “It can’t be that serious. I told you nothing would go wrong. Everything went according to plan. I’ve travelled to the past and back” He looked at the clock. “My father will be joining us in just over an hour.”

Geoff walked over and sat in the chair beside him. “I’m afraid I don’t think he’ll be coming Scott,” he said solemnly.

Scott suddenly went silent as he noticed the look of concern on Geoff’s face. “What do you mean?” he said. “What’s happened?”

“There was something bothering me about the control mechanism,” Geoff explained, “something that I felt wasn’t quite right, though all our tests seemed to prove that it worked OK.”

“So what was it?” asked Scott, “I made my trip and it worked ok for me.”

“That’s because you went into the past,” Geoff said. “The device can lock accurately onto a time and date in the past; we know that, we’ve done it so many times in testing; returning doesn’t present any difficulties either, because it’s travelling back to somewhere it’s already been. Travelling to the future though presents major problems.”

“In what way,” asked Scott quietly, though he was almost certain that he already knew what the answer would be.

“It just doesn’t work Scott,” Geoff confirmed Scott’s worst fears, “It doesn’t lock onto a specific date at all; regardless of what date and time you program it with, the device just travels forward to some random time: it could be a couple of days in the future or even millions of years. There’s no way of telling.”

“So my father....” Scott began, and then tailed off as he seemed to choke on his own words. After a moment of silence he continued: “He could be anywhere, or at any time I should say. Can’t we fix it Geoff? Yes, I’m sure we can fix it.”

“Even if we could it wouldn’t save your father,” Geoff said as he put a comforting hand on Scott’s shoulder, “It can be corrected; it will be corrected, but I know that won’t make you feel any better.”

Scott sat back in his chair. His feelings were mixed, he felt anger, he felt guilt but most of all he felt grief for the loss of his father; it was a loss he thought he’d managed to put right, but he hadn’t. He thought about what Geoff had told him about effect and predetermined cause, and he realised that the predetermination theory was correct and that he had been totally and solely responsible for his father’s disappearance all those years ago, that his plans had led to his father’s demise without him even knowing it. If he hadn’t gone back in time to interfere, then his father would never have disappeared, but then again if his father hadn’t disappeared, he would never have felt the need to go back in time anyway; it seemed that paradoxes did actually exist after all.

“How did you know?” he asked Geoff, “What made you realise?”

Geoff sat in silence for a while before saying: “The control mechanism we came up with seemed ok, but something about it didn’t ring true.”

Scott raised an eyebrow, “What do you mean?”

“It wasn’t like the one I was used to; the one in standard usage where I come from.”

“What the hell are you talking about Geoff?”

“Let me explain,” said Geoff. “My childhood was much like yours Scott. I achieved a lot more than anyone expected me to, even though I came from a line of gifted physicists. Even as a child I threw myself into my studies for pretty much the same reasons that you did. Oh, I had a father, but he was always so tied up with his work that I rarely got to see him at all, and almost never spent any time with him. When I reached my twenties, I realised that I knew more of my father from books than I knew of him from my own experiences. I regretted never having known him when I'd been a child, but I knew that he would never have had time for me back then. Of course I got to know him a little more when I grew up, but somehow I always wished I had known the younger him, the energetic, pioneer that he once was, rather than the scholarly old man he’d become.

“That’s why I decided to travel back in time to be with him. To work alongside him, to bask in the glow of his genius and perhaps to help him along with all the things I already knew he would achieve. So I used my father’s own invention to travel back forty five years to be here, to work alongside him.”

Scott stared wide eyed at Geoff as the older man squeezed the younger’s shoulder.

“There was never anything I could do to help you bring your own father back, no matter how much I wanted to,” Geoff continued, “All I could do was guide you, but I knew that nothing you did would have any effect in bringing him back. I must admit, that when I heard your plan, you almost convinced me that it would work, but I knew in my heart that it never could, because my father never met my grandfather, so I knew that you had to fail somehow. I must admit, it never occurred to me that it was your plan that had actually led to your father’s disappearance.”

“You could have stopped me,” Scott heard himself speak the words, though he knew how inaccurate they were as soon as he’d said them.

“Predetermined cause, remember?” said Geoff, “there was nothing either you or I could do to prevent your father’s disappearance.”

Scott nodded his head: “Yes, I know; it was destined to happen. It was events that happened prior to 1998 that caused it. The fact that those events originated here and now, and originated with me made no difference.”

Geoff continued: “My own father suffered from never knowing my grandfather, and I know I suffered, though perhaps to a lesser extent for never really knowing him. I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted to be a part of my father’s life. What I’ve done, I’ve done because I had to do it, for myself, and now that you understand, I hope you’ll agree, for you as well.”

Scott lifted his hand and placed it on Geoff’s where it rested on his shoulder. He squeezed Geoff’s hand; he half smiled at the older man. “Perhaps,” he said, “Perhaps.”

Geoff smiled back: “Happy Father’s Day dad,” he said.

Friday, 6 August 2010

I Know I Parked It Somewhere

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It was the early hours of the morning in a city square somewhere in England. The square was illuminated by the moonlight, like a clearing in the forest of buildings surrounding it, as if this were an area buildings didn’t dare infringe upon. All that was, apart from two squat, oval concrete and steel figures, one each side of the square; two of the buildings known as ‘superloos’, the only structures in the otherwise empty field of concrete.

One of these buildings stood alone and unbothered; the other was under attack. A young man kicked the concrete walls and hammered on the curved chrome door; he banged his fist upon the steel panel on the side, all the time swearing and cursing as though the structure itself had somehow offended him.

An older man, wearing a long overcoat, despite the warm night, emerged from the shadows. “Are you ok?” he asked. “You look like something’s bothering you.”

“This bloody thing has done me,” the younger man replied, “It’s taken my last coin and the flaming door won’t open; I’m absolutely desperate to go.”

“So do you want the door open? Or are you trying to get your money back?”

“Either will do at the moment. I need to pee, badly,” came the reply. “Listen mate, you wouldn’t have any change would you? There’s another loo over there, and I’m going to have to go soon or I’ll wet myself.”

The look on the older man’s face was one of concern, mixed with mild revulsion. He watched the younger man as he hopped from foot to foot, screwing up his face in an expression of agony. It puzzled him. “Are you sure you’re not ill?” he asked, “You look as though you’re in pain, perhaps suffering some kind of injury.”

“I just need to pee!” shouted the younger man, “Why do you keep asking me if I’m ok? Are you a doctor or something?”

“Yes, a doctor... or something,” said the older man thoughtfully, “I’m sorry I have no change. I don’t carry... change. Don’t often carry money at all to be honest.”

With that, he approached the steel panel on the side of the concrete structure. It seemed undamaged despite the other man’s attack. He placed a hand either side of the coin slot and stroked downward. There was a metallic clink as something dropped into the cup for returned coins. He turned and presented the coin to the other man who grabbed it and, without even thanking his benefactor, raced to the matching building on the other side of the square.

The older man watched until his former associate had successfully entered the other structure, then he looked at the one he stood by; he shook his head then approached the steel door. Another pass of his hands, and the door silently slid open.

The doctor, for it was indeed he: The Doctor, stepped inside and closed the door behind him.

The Doctor travelled alone these days. He’d had his fill of companions; indeed it was a companion who’d persuaded him to repair the Tardis’ chameleon circuit.

“Why a police box?” she had asked, “If it’s supposed to blend in with its surroundings, when did a police box not look out of place?”

He’d had to admit there was only a short period of time in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the sight of a police box wouldn’t be looked upon as being out of the ordinary, and then only on Earth and only within large British towns and cities: absolutely anywhere else in the universe, or at any other time and it stuck out like a sore thumb.

“You can fix anything Doctor,” his pushy companion had said, “Don’t tell me a mere faulty chameleon circuit is beyond your abilities.”

It was true; he’d left the Tardis with the same appearance, never attempting to repair the broken circuit. The truth was he quite liked the blue box look; and the fact that it did actually look out of place in most environments, meant that he never had any trouble spotting it, when he wasn’t quite sure where he’d parked.

Since making the suggested repairs though, he’d had all kinds of problems. On his last visit to the forest planet of Chimera IV, his departure had been somewhat delayed while he determined which of the hundreds of trees had a door in it. Then on the desert planet of Manussa, he should have realised that the Tardis would take the shape of a rock, and in a landscape comprised totally of sand and rocks, a really big rock like the Tardis, was absolutely bound to be prized by the natives and dragged away.

He’d set off on this latest journey, letting the Tardis choose its own destination, and was due to materialize again soon. He checked his instruments. Ah! Britain again. It seemed the Tardis had a liking for Britain. The time period was mid sixties. The Doctor half hoped that the Tardis might revert to its familiar shape for this visit, but he realised he was due to land on the rural Lincolnshire coast, so a police box would hardly be a likely shape.

He landed; it would be nice to spend a day or two at the seaside. The sun was just coming up, so The Doctor decided to do some exploring while there were few people about.

He walked toward the beach and eventually people started emerging from little brown and white houses as he passed. He wondered why all the houses were the same. A big sign above his head read “Butlins”. That sparked a memory, and suddenly he realised he hadn’t looked at the Tardis before he walked away from it.

He raced back to his landing site and looked out over a thousand identical chalets. An old man nearby spoke to him: “Look at ‘em, all the same. Which one’s yours?”