What You Bring Back (story)

Okay, I talked about the horrid cliche of time travel stories and my reluctance to share mine yesterday. Well, it’s already been published once before and may go in my short story collection after I polish it again, so here you are. (Thanks for showing interest in reading it Samantha!)

What You Bring Back 

Dr. Williams had found a breakthrough. For years his research enlightened and astonished Washington University, but now he was on the cusp of actually harnessing time. He had always known it possible despite growing weary of his clichéd childhood dream. Time was after all just another measurement. If one were to find the correct mathematical equation to convert the illusive measurement while also devising the proper apparatus to apply such precise coordinates, the dream of time travel would be realized.

Dr. Williams had spent most of his life working to solve this mystery. When his car broke down he took it to a mechanic to be fixed, not imagining how it would aid him.

“Well, your engine’s busted.” The gruff explanation from the stocky mechanic in a smeared jumpsuit didn’t offer much.

“How?” Dr. Williams wished to understand better.

“The pistons have detonated and damaged the rod bearings and the head gasket. Usually it’s not this bad but the extreme weather we’ve been having lately is causing more issues in lots of cars.”

“Can you show me the damage and explain it to me?” Something pushed Dr. Williams to learn more. The mechanic led him around to the engine and once he stared under the hood and had the basics of the engine described to him, something clicked. His PHD was not in engineering but with an extensive background in science and mathematics the visual helped the pistons fire in his brain, even if the ones in his car were shot.

Vehicles measure speed and maneuver space. His time travel device would have to measure space and maneuver time. His mind became a blur of possibilities. He thanked the mechanic, hurried to get his rental car and barely noticed the other drivers as he sped back to his lab on campus.

He spent the next twenty four hours working to find a link between the simple mathematics of speed and machinery along with time and space he locked himself away. Coffee and energy drinks were always available, but this breakthrough excited him so much that adrenalin alone kept him moving.

After reclining on his office couch to get a few hours rest he popped awake and sketched out the design that came to him in his sleep. He’d already spent most of his grant money on the project he was meant to be working on. He looked over the books and decided to use the remaining funds and his own credit card to research and buy all the pieces he’d need to create his vehicle, the one that would travel through time.

He contemplated hiring the mechanic working on his car to build the device, but thought better of it. Instead he pressed to gain more knowledge when he picked his car up and invested in some guides to aid him. It took weeks to receive all of the parts for this unprecedented attempt which offered time to read up and fully gain a tight grasp on all he would have to do.

Once the items arrived, he decided to roll up his sleeves and piece everything together himself. He had bearings, screws, piping, endless mechanical pieces strewn about his workspace. Unable to created a team of colleagues for aid, he held up a gasket and breathed deep ready to take on the full responsibility of his unauthorized experiment.

The process of actually piecing together his contraption loomed before him like a plague ready to suffocate him into darkness. His strength was of mind. His hands were not used to grappling with heavy machinery. As he fitted each tube in place, tightened each bolt, his palms blistered. His knuckles became rubbed raw from knocking against metal as his vehicle began to attain a structure.

After cursing at it and banging his wrench against it enough times, the contraption sat before him. Ready.  He stared at the grime collected under his fingernails. A strange warmth spread through his head. He had done it. The bulky ovular device seemed to stare back at him. It didn’t seem like much but it was a true breakthrough; if it worked.

Dr. Williams grabbed a rag and went to the bathroom to clean himself up. The sting of the water on the cuts over his hands reminded him of reality. He had worked as if in a dream, now he had to decide how he would test his creation. As a huge WWI buff, he’d always romanticized the era and determined to travel back to early 1918. The war would be in full swing and he wanted to know how people lived with such news at the time. The idea that the war would be ended later that year made him think he’d be able to bear it.

To make sure he would look the part, he went out and bought a vintage sac suit with a bowler hat and gloves. He smirked to himself as he made his purchases and returned to his office with eager anticipation. Even if his machine didn’t work, he felt it was worth the attempt.

He undressed and pulled on the outdated outfit. When he went to the bathroom to prepare himself he drained his body and then stopped to stare in the mirror. The new clothes were a fitting look, one that would not only help his aged form fit in better if his experiment worked, but held an old timey class Dr. Williams admired.

He nodded at himself and took a deep breath. “We’ll see how this goes.”

He headed back to his office and went straight for the vehicle. He climbed into the round base and sat before the controls hoping to make history and bend time. Setting the gears for late February 1918 Dr. Williams grasped the handle bars before him and fired up the engine. The atmosphere began to thicken, an incomprehensible high pitched squeal rang around him and he found it difficult to breath. His head spun and he was forced to close his eyes to avoid being sick as reality warped. The journey lasted only a few seconds, time had seemed to slow. It became too much for him, and Dr. Williams blacked out.

A sponge mopped his brow when he came to. His blurred vision began to bubble into focus and he blinked around at what was his lab, but drastically changed.

A highly bewildered man in his early forties stood over him. “Hello. I’m Dr. Bowman.” He extended his hand and Dr. Williams reached a shaky hand forward to clasp it. “I don’t know where you came from, but your device intrigues me.” He stopped as if waiting for a response, but Dr. William’s tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth.

Dr. Bowman rubbed his nose and continued. “We are both men of science I can see. How is it that you appeared in my laboratory?”

Dr. Williams stared in disbelief. He knew his University’s history and had studied the man who stood before him, a man who’d been dead for decades in his own time. His mouth gaped open and he glanced around his surroundings trying to grasp that his experiment had been success.

Even having prepared himself, the changes of his surroundings, the difference in his office alone left him speechless. The basement laboratory had no electricity and was illuminated with simple gas lamps. No wall outlets connected wires to devices were meant to assist with research. The absence of his simple coffee maker left an imprint on his perception of his accomplishment of traveling through time.

He struggled to rasp, “My name is Dr. Williams.”

Dr. Bowman offered him a cup of water and sighed in relief as he took it and drank the entire contents. As he finished he noticed the disapproval of the tight features of his new acquaintance and tried to remember his manners. “Please forgive me. It has been a strange experiment.”

The apology seemed to please Dr. Bowman and he leaned in as if expecting more of an explanation.

Dr. Williams sat tall trying to steady himself. “I’m also employed by this university. This will become my lab in the year 2002.”

Dr. Bowman narrowed his eyelids, but he nodded. “And what is the world like where you come from?”

“It’s 2009 and I have discovered the secret of time travel.”

Dr. Bowman was not easily surprised. He began to step around the vehicle that had appeared in his laboratory. Reaching out he scrutinized the machine and gently touched the curvature of the sides.

Dr. Williams tested his balance and stood up. He began to explain his vehicle to him: how it was built and how the contraption worked. He did not however speak of the equation that led him to the discovery of its creation.

“Just think what we can do with such a device. You can stop the war…save so many lives…” Dr. Bowman trailed off in thought.

Dr. Williams thought to himself before daring to meet Dr. Bowman’s steel grey eyes again. “I can’t imagine what kind of fear you have all suffered, but I can assure you that the war will be finished before the year’s end.”

“Do we…” Dr. Bowman’s voice shook as he couldn’t finish the question.

“There will be victory for us.” Dr. Williams had begun to grow fond of Dr. Bowman. He had always admired him, knowing what he’d accomplish and meeting the intellect was inspiring.

“Will you be staying for long?” Dr. Bowman still seemed unsettled.

Dr. Williams scratched his head as he began to feel more like himself. “No, this is my first journey. Best make it short for now.”

He planned to simply observe his new environment in the hopes that he would be of better use on proceeding trips. The effects of such travel were something he hoped to ease as he continued to move through time.

The relief on his new companion’s face was inescapable. “Pardon my obvious ease. I am glad to meet you, it is just that my family and I are supposed to travel back home to Kansas next week. It is a long awaited much needed vacation.”

“I understand.” Dr. Williams smiled.

The two conversed on the subject of time travel some more. After a while Dr. Williams prided himself in having gained Dr. Bowman’s confidence. “You have done the impossible Dr. Williams. This call for a celebration.”

Dr. Williams smiled on his new friend. “We must not make it known to others yet.”

“Of course not. You have many tests ahead. But for now, how about I take you out to lunch?”

Dr. Williams agreed, ready to see the city in its earlier glory. As they exited the building and walked down to the road, the streetcars alone offered a strange sense of wonder. The roads surrounding Forest Park were not filled with personal automobiles, nor were there as many commuters.

He followed Dr. Bowman into a waiting streetcar and tried not to stare at all the people sitting before him as he entered. Their attire made the truth of his success sink in further. Dr. Bowman found them a seat and he took his place next to the great scientist. They rode deeper into the city rolling over the tracks. When the skyline broke, the absence of the St. Louis Arch bewildered Dr. Williams to such a degree his head began to ache. To see the area without the familiar structure made it seem as if he’d entered a parallel universe. Traveled to another world.

When the car halted a few stops ahead, Dr. Bowman smiled. “This is us.”

Dr. Williams stood up and moved toward the side doors and stepped out, back into the familiar and foreign area. He waited for Dr. Bowman to lead him ahead, unsure of what to expect. They neared a strip of shops and Dr. Bowman took him into a nice little family owned place, so small the name wasn’t anywhere to be seen from the outside.

Dr. William’s stomach grumbled so hard his ribcage ached. He realized how weak the journey had made him as the reviving scent of beef broth lingered in the air around him. When they sat down even the simple dining room seemed foreign to him. More formal, less hurried.

The waitress made him catch his breath. The cut of her dress hugged her curves, her hair was perfectly curled around her face to offer and angelic look to match her rose red lips. It took him a moment to order as he tried not to gawk.

“You act like you’ve never seen a pretty girl before.” Dr. Bowman laughed.

Dr. Williams shrugged as he sat back in his chair. “Sure I have. But a lot of women in my time don’t seem to pay as much attention to presenting themselves like that.” He motioned at their waitress as she brought them some coffee.

Even the way she set his drinks down and seemed to listen to him was more careful than anything he’d experienced dining before. When she brought him his soup, he had to restrain himself from draining the bowl fast. But he knew better. Everyone around them sat poised and ate with a delicate reserve. It seemed choreographed. How could time have changed so much in 91 years?

Despite his fascination he reached for his phone without thinking.

“What’s that?” Dr. Bowman leaned forward.

“Oh this is my cell phone.” He stared at t trying to figure out the best way to describe its function. “It is a device that connects me to unlimited information as well as allowing me to talk to other individuals from wherever I am.”

“Interesting. How does it work?”

Dr. Williams handed him his phone.

Dr. Bowman jumped when a voice came from the gadget. “Dr. Williams I am unable to locate an available Wi-Fi connection.”

“Wi-Fi?” Dr. Bowman asked eyeing his new acquaintance.

“It’s like an invisible telegraph.”

“What?”

“A technology that flows through the airways unseen to connect our phones together.”

“So you can talk to anyone?”

“No exactly. We have different ways of messaging each other through texting and the internet.”

“The internet?”

“Yes. That’s how we really connect. This,” he waved his hand around, “Is strange to me. Most of us have updates and emails to check on while we eat. Technology has become so important, it’s a necessity. Most people don’t leave home without their cell phones.”

“Sounds like you rely on it.”

“Yeah, we do.” Laughing he leaned back. “I haven’t just sat and talked with anyone during a meal in some time. There always an alert or call coming through that I need to take.”

“But what about conversation?” Dr. Bowman winkled his forehead.

“It’s definitely changed. People still talk to each other we just multitask.” Dr. Williams could tell that he was not making a good case for modern societal ways based on the way that Dr. Bowman shifted uneasily.

He dropped the subject and spooned the rest of his soup into his mouth finishing the meal in silence. Dr. Bowman reached in his coat pocket and opened a case of cigarettes once through. Dr. Williams hadn’t even realized how clouded the restaurant had been due to his empty belly and his previous smoking history. “No thanks, I quit over a year ago.”

To keep from succumbing to temptation, he excused himself and stepped outside for a breath of fresh air.

Dr. Bowman shortly followed out on the sidewalk. “Are you alright?”

“Oh yes. It’s just that in my time most people don’t smoke anymore. It’s been banned in a lot of public places.”

“But it relaxes the body, calms the nerves.”

“Yeah, but it also causes deadly illnesses that eat away at your body through the years. I had to quit for my own health.”

Dr. Bowman scrutinized him. “You look fine to me.”

“Looks can be deceiving.” Dr. Williams began to walk toward the streetcar stop.

Dr. Bowman followed. When the next streetcar picked them up, neither seemed to have much to say to each other. The cultural differences of people from the same place but different times divided them. The sobering generation gap reminded Dr. Williams of the disagreements he’d had with his own grandfather about certain societal standards. He thought of the difficulties people must suffer as they reach extended old age.

When they returned Dr. Williams marveled at the campus and all that his career meant to him. He accompanied Dr. Bowman back to his lab and thanked him for his hospitality. Then taking his leave he sat down inside his vehicle and set the gears. To be sure to keep the timeline intact, he traveled back to the very minute when he had left.

He lost his breath. His head was struck with a series of painful sensations as he closed his eyes to lighten the sickening transition. This time Dr. Williams was able to remain conscious, but he was very weak when the journey concluded.

Before he could regain his faculties he heard a voice echoing in his head. “Dr. Williams, I’m special agent McCormick with the F.B.I. You have to come with me.”

Dr. Williams stumbled along supported by the stone faced agent into a black sedan. He closed his eyes once placed in the backseat, and rested for the drive.

When awakened, he found himself better able to understand the severity of the situation. Agent McCormick opened the door and led him through an alleyway into a tall brick building. He was placed in a small room with a table and chairs. Agent McCormick stood before him expressionless.

“Dr. Williams, have you or have you not discovered the equation that will allow man to travel through time?”

Dr. Williams pushed his shoulders back. “I have.” he beamed with pride.

“And have you built a machine that applies this principle?”

“Yes.”

“Dr. Williams, I feel that you do not comprehend the gravity of the situation. Did you think that you were the first person to achieve this? In all of our advances in science and discovery did you really think that you were the only one?”

Dr. Williams searched the stone face of his interlocutor and began to grow uncomfortable.

“One last question: Did you or did you not travel back to 1918 without the knowledge of the university, the consent of the government, or the safety of the public in mind?”

Dr. Williams pondered the question. He did not answer but asked, “What has happened?”

“Answer the question,” was the firm response from the federal officer.

“Yes,” he nearly whispered.

“Your actions have had grave consequences. The bacteria on your body are not like that of the people in the past. As a scientist you know very well that these microorganisms, all illnesses, and diseases evolve just like any other creature. By traveling ninety one years in the past your body chemistry caused one of the worst epidemics that the U.S. had ever seen, the Spanish Flu.”

These words shook Dr. Williams from his insides out. He had wished to travel again for the betterment of mankind, but this new information destroyed those hopes. He’d finally achieved his dream. But he knew the history of the virus, that is was speculated to have originated in Kansas, the very place that Dr. Bowman traveled to after his departure. Learning that his actions caused a widespread epidemic of suffering began to tear away at the scientist. He slowly sank into the depths of his brilliant brain and lost himself forever.

The F.B.I. confiscated everything related to Dr. Williams’ studies and the general public was none the wiser as H1N1, the descendent strand of the Spanish Flu became news worthy.

2 thoughts on “What You Bring Back (story)

  1. Dave S. Koster says:

    That’s pretty good. I wasn’t expecting the twist at the end. That said, I feel like the past scientist would have a much stronger reaction to the news and the cell phone. I think he would immediately recognize the utility of it, and a cellphone without service does do quite a bit. Anyhow, that’s my two cents 🙂

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