The Machine

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Brice was sure about his calculations. So sure that he told me that when he had worked out the last part of the theory, he almost hugged himself. Brice had started out trying to develop a time camera, as he thought it possible that images from the past could be still around us. That if one stood in the city centre, for example, then the images from everything that had happened there would still be around. All he had to do was invent a camera for seeing these images. It would make him a fortune.

Imagine, he said, being able to go back and watch history’s greatest people and events. Stand in the senate in Rome and watch the great Julius Caesar speak. Well, watch Caesar speak anyway, as there could hardly be speech. Images would remain but sounds lost, or so his theory went. See the Pilgrim Fathers’ landing in America, famous battles, the building of the pyramids. The possibilities were endless. Then of course there would be a massive market for the more seedy and gruesome. The gladiatorial games in the Coliseum, Roman orgies, the bedroom antics of anyone famous in history. Brice insisted the mere idea of the money coming in made his head whirl.

Except of course, there was no way that he could find a way to view images from the past, once the events were over the images were gone. However, Brice did realize that he could do something else. He tried to explain the mathematics to me when he came to see me in my shop, but it was way beyond my understanding. Then of course Brice always did have an odd way of looking at things. “Thinking outside the square,” it’s called. And with mathematics, he was definitely out somewhere. So he explained as much as he thought I could handle and what he had been trying to do.

“So you didn’t,” I asked, “come up with a time camera, I mean?”

Brice grinned. It was a little weird, that grin, as Brice had been neglecting his teeth. He and toothbrushes were obviously only casual acquaintances. Brice had been working on his time camera theory idea for most of the year, and his appearance had suffered. As well as his poor dental hygiene his clothes were scruffy, his hair lank and none too clean. His usual designer stubble had extended to a full sized beard, complete with forked ends. “Something better,” he told me after several seconds of that unsavoury grin.

“Better than your time camera?”

“Yes,” Brice explained again that he realised that images, like sound, were gone as soon as they were made. But he could make a time machine.

“Never,” I said dubiously. “A time machine?”

He nodded happily. “Definitely.” He tapped his head. “All worked out in here. Worked out, refined, definite time travel!”

“But isn’t that dangerous?” I protested. “Isn’t there that thing about killing your own grandfather?”

Brice nodded enthusiastically. “Of course. Go back in time and kill your own grandfather when he is young.”

“Then your father can’t be born,” I continued, “so you can’t be born to go back and kill your grandfather in the first place?”

“Oh yes, I’ve thought of all that.”

“And?” I prompted.

“Well it’s obvious, isn’t it?”

“No.”

Brice spread his hands. “Well when we go back, we’ll just be very careful.”

“That’s it?”

“Of course. No genuine historian would try and change the past. Anyway, they’d have to be licensed or something to use one of my machines. It would be part of the contract. And we could keep modern human activity in the past to a minimum.”

“How?”

Brice tapped me on the chest. “That’s where you come in.”

I had been wondering why Brice was telling me all this. We had been to school together but we were hardly best friends. “Me?”

Brice looked round my shop at the display cabinets of cameras and recorders. “You and your video cameras. We’ll send cameras back.”

I hadn’t thought of that. “You can control them from here,” I asked, “present time I mean?”

Brice laughed. “Of course not. I mean we go back just long enough to put a few cameras in place and video everything. Then recover the cameras and their videos later.”

“But you won’t be able to control what it videos,” I pointed out.

Brice shrugged. “So what? Just think how many people will want to watch a video of a medieval street for example. Watching everything that happens and how they are dressed.”

“You think?”

“Yes.” Brice was emphatic. And he was probably right when I thought about it. I’d watch a documentary about a medieval street.

Brice continued, “Or a camera set up to video a famous battle, or set up in a palace when a king was holding court.” Brice waved his hands around as if to indicate a king’s court. “Of course, you’d have to go to the exact location to set up the camera.”

“You would?”

“Yes, I can’t move the time machine to another place. Only through time. It videos where we place it, just in the past.”

The idea of all this was getting more and more intriguing. But I could see an obvious pitfall. “But the cameras might be found, then what? You’d change history.”

Brice had thought this through and gave me another unpleasant grin. “So they’re found, so what? A roman soldier or medieval knight is hardly likely to know what they were, let alone how to work them. And just getting a battery recharged back then is impossible, so they’d soon stop. And we’d stay away from the recent past where they might be copied. No, the camera can be set up to record for an hour or a day, then we recover it. And selling the videos will make us a fortune, and once we are rich we can work out a safe way to send people back.”

“Rich?”

“Of course. Everyone else will want to see the past as well as us. So why not charge them for it? We will have a new product to sell with no competition.”

For a man who makes a living out of selling, repairing and using video cameras and recorders, the whole thing was quite intriguing. I could set up spy cameras in places where nobody in the past was likely to spot them. This would be a real test of my talents. Well not me actually set them up, because I’ll do lots of things but going through time is out. “And you want me to get the cameras for all this, get someone trained to set them up?”

“Of course. You do all that and I’ll cut you in for five per cent of the profits.”

“Five per cent?” That sounded measly, particularly if I was paying for all the cameras and recorders.

“Five per cent of a million is what?”

That shook me so I had to calculate the answer carefully in my head. “er…fifty thousand, I think.”

“And of one hundred million?”

Now I was really shaken and took longer to work out this one. “um…five million? You think we can make that much?”

“Oh, much more I expect. How much do you think we will be paid to produce videos of the Spanish Armada, the Vikings, Christopher Columbus discovering America, dinosaurs?” I was obviously looking stunned here because Brice paused then leaned forward and asked, “And what’s five per cent of a billion?”

I swallowed and tried to drag my excited imagination back to the practicalities. “Yes, okay, so when are you making this time machine?”

“Making the prototype this afternoon.”

“This afternoon?” I was surprised. I had thought of several years of experimentation first.

“Yes, it’s quite simple to make really. Got the theory all mapped out in the brain,” here he tapped his head again. “Got the actual stuff together to make the circuit board, so I’ll make the prototype this afternoon. Only a small scale one, of course, running off small batteries. I’ll need a bigger power source for the full sized one.”

“The one to carry a human?”

“Correct. I mean the videos will sell but eventually, historians will want to go back, plus someone has to go to place and recover the cameras to start with. Anyway I’ll make the prototype this afternoon and give it a whirl. All going well I’ll make the full sized one tomorrow.”

“That quick?”

“Oh, yes. There’s not a lot too it really.” He strolled over to the door and looked back. “So I’ll be off. I should be sending the first machine back before dinner time. Just thought I’d make sure you’ll be on board for the cameras, editing videos, fitting in a commentary on a sound track, maybe some mood music and all that.”

Well it didn’t happen quite that fast or easily. Brice was back in my shop the next morning. “Got a problem,” he said. “Should’ve thought of it before. Don’t know why I didn’t.”

“Yes, I was thinking last night,” I agreed. “I mean how will you know it won’t break?” I patted the shop counter. “Put the machine on this counter, send it back a hundred years. This counter was not there then. So the machine will appear in the past, and fall to the ground and break.” I raised my eyebrows in a question.

My question seemed to annoy Brice. “No! No!” he snapped. “That’s all been sorted out. That’s not my concern.”

“Then what is?”

“I can’t tell where it’s gone.”

“What?”

“Well I sent it off the first time after dinner. Programmed it to return in five minutes, which it did.”

“And?”

“Well there’s no physical proof, is there?”

“What, where it went?”

“Well I know where it went, it went to the same place but back in time. There’s just no proof that it went through time.”

“No proof?”

“None. Well how could there be? Unless there’s an old newspaper clipping somewhere that this mystery machine appeared one day, then vanished in five minutes.”

“I see what you mean.”

“I’ve sent it off thirty-two times and it’s always the same. Been up half the night doing it. So I need proof. Need to bring something back to from the past as proof.”

“What, send a human to grab something? Better ask for volunteers then. Something like that could leave you in the past.”

“No, no,” Brice said then pointed to my shelves. “Need to send one of those back.”

“A camera?”

I got another unsavoury smile. “Of course. Video the scene for five minutes back a hundred years, then we will know it’s done it.”

I couldn’t help Brice that morning, I was far too busy. After all I had a business to run and I wasn’t going to hand over a video camera to him and say “Go for it” Instead I did something I rarely do, I shut for lunch.

Brice had a house overlooking Stockade Hill in Howick and his idea was to mount the camera on the time machine so it pointed at the hill and send the machine back two hundred years. “Video of the hill two hundred years ago should be fairly conclusive, don’t you agree?” he had asked. Well of course it would be, there was no settlement here then, and the absence of the war memorial on its peak would be a definite clue. So I was round at his house ten minutes after I had shut up, with a camera.

Brice had the machine already set up on an old table on his scruffy patio pointed at Stockade Hill. The time machine was a disappointment. A piece of board no bigger than a paperback book was its base. On this were mounted four type ‘D’ batteries wired together, a homemade circuit board, a triple digital display that had today’s date and time in the upper part, and some other odds and ends off to one side that I could not recognize.

Brice was impatient to be off but said he would show me the machine working once before we tried it with a camera. He pointed to the upper part of the digital display. “That’s today’s date and time to the second, okay?” I could see the seconds of the upper display changing and said yes.

“Right, now I’m going to set the middle display to be the same but the date to be two hundred years ago, right?” I said yes again and Brice set the middle display to be a mirror image off the first, apart from the difference in centuries which now showed two hundred years ago. Brice pointed to the lower display. “Now I’m going to set the timer for five minutes, which is how long I want it to stay in the past, right?” Again I said that was a yes and Brice set up the lower display to read five minutes.

“Can I ask a question, Brice?”

“Yes, what?”

“How long will it be gone from here?”

“Well five minutes of course.”

“Well why you don’t get it to be gone for five minutes in the past, but reappear back here merely a second after it left.” It seemed an obvious thing to do to me. To Brice it seemed absurd.

“What?” He glared at me which was nowhere as bad as the weird smile. “Were you listening when I explained how this worked?”

“Yes, but who can understand all that maths stuff? But why five minutes? Why not go back to the past then return here in the same second or so that it left?”

“No, I won’t know then if it went. Or I might be wrong and it might return before it’s gone, and I don’t know what would happen then with two machine occupying the same space. Maybe I’ll get round to just seconds away when I’ve refined it, but for now if it’s gone five minutes in the past then five minutes will pass here, okay?” The ‘Okay’ was obviously a signal; that he did not want an argument about his machine. So I just said yes again, and left it at that.

There was a single push button in the middle of the circuit board and Brice hovered a finger over it. “Ready?”

“Sure.”

“There’s a five second delay before the machine takes off,” he told me. “Gives me plenty of time to get my finger clear of the field.” I didn’t like the sound of this field, so stepped back so I was at least two meters from the machine. Brice saw what I did and smiled. “The field doesn’t reach out that far.” He pushed the button. Two LEDs came on, one red and one white. Brice pulled his finger clear but kept leaning over the machine. Five seconds after he had pushed the button the machine disappeared.

It was so instant that it was like a conjuring trick. Except it was no trick because I could clearly see the patio, table and Brice the whole time. So he could not have pulled off a conjuring trick. Any doubts I had went now. Brice had sent his machine in to the past. I went through five per cent of various numbers of millions and billions in my mind while we waited for the machine to return.

I was timing the machine on my watch and five minutes after leaving it reappeared. “Brilliant!” was all I could think to say.

“But no proof,” Brice insisted. “That’s why I need your camera.”

“Yes, well there might be a bit of a problem there.”

“Why?”

I went over to my bag and opened it. “I thought your machine would be a bit bigger.”

“So?”

I pulled out an old clunker of a video camera. “I think this might be a bit on the large size.”

Brice cursed me for nearly two minutes. Obviously putting the video camera on his machine was not going to work. The weight alone might break the machine, plus once the camera was in place Brice would not be able to switch it on. He stopped swearing long enough to ask why I had brought an antique camera.

I tried to explain that I wasn’t going to risk an expensive new camera on an untried time machine, but I don’t think he was listening because he started swearing again. Finally Brice calmed down. “Can you get another camera? Something smaller?”

Eager to please, and keep my five per cent interest, I said, “Of course. Can we try this tonight? I’ll come back at five-thirty when I close up the shop.”

Brice agreed, and said he would transfer all the machine’s bits and pieces to a bigger board to leave room for the camera. I gave him a rough idea how big my smallest camera was, and he went off to find another piece of board while I went back to my shop.

That evening when I returned Brice had the whole machine mounted on a much bigger board, with a space in the centre to take the camera. Apart from two more batteries he had added to create a bigger field around the machine, it appeared to be the same. “Tried it, tested it, she works,” Brice told me as I set up the camera in the middle of the machine. He had fitted a couple of hooks to the board, and insisted string tied to these and over the camera would keep it steady.

I had brought a small monitor along and I connected the camera to the monitor cable. The monitor showed a slightly tilted view across the patio and towards Stockade Hill in the background.

“Seems to be okay,” I told Brice disconnecting the monitor cable from the camera. “Recording now.” I switched on the recording function. Brice had the machine already programmed to go. Two hundred years back for five minutes like before.

He pushed the button on the circuit board, the LEDs came on and five seconds later the machine disappeared. I spent the five minutes calculating five per cent of innumerable billions that I could earn over my lifetime, while Brice paced up and down. Once he stepped towards the edge of the patio and pointed to Stockade Hill and said, “We should find some old photos of the hill to compare it. Isn’t there a historical society around here?”

“Think so.”

“Well they should have some photos shouldn’t they? I mean when the settlers came here. Give us some idea of how it was two hundred years ago at least.”

I didn’t know if there were settlers here then, but was sure they would not have had a camera. However it didn’t matter as just then the machine reappeared on time. I stopped the recording and hooked the camera up to the monitor, pushed rewind and then play. The recording showed the tilted view across the patio with Stockade Hill in the background. There was a shadow across the foreground which I assumed was Brice’s as he switched on the time machine, then the shadow went away as he stepped back. There was nothing but the tilted view across the patio. Stockade Hill looked the same, with the same houses and trees.

“What’s wrong with it?” Brice asked after at least a minute had gone by of the playback.

“Nothing.”

“Well something is wrong, because it’s just the same view.” Another minute or two went by. “It’s from before, when you were trying out the camera,” Brice whined.

“No it’s not. I wasn’t recording then, we were looking at a live picture on the monitor.”

Brice’s voice had taken on a real whiny tone now. “Well this is the live picture now, not the recording.”

I waved my hand in front of the camera but it didn’t show on the monitor. “No, this is the recording all right.”

“Then where’s the video from two hundred years ago?”

I pointed to the monitor. On it Brice had come into view and was pointing at Stockade Hill. “That’s you asking about old photos of the hill from the historical society,” I pointed out.

“It can’t be,” Brice protested, “the machine was gone then.”

I pointed to the machine. “Switch it on again, Brice.”

“What, why?”

“Because I think I know what happened.” I looked back to Brice. “This field we have to watch out for, how far does it extend?”

“Only a few centimetres, and that’s only for the spilt second the machine is disappearing, why?”

“Just want to make sure I’ll be safe.” Brice set up the display then switched on the machine. The two LEDs came on, then five seconds later the machine disappeared.

While he was setting the machine off again I had broken off a long twig from a bush. I stripped its leaves off and went back to the table. I carefully prodded the area where the machine had been. It proved what I thought had happened. I looked back to Brice who was watching me as if I was about to perform a miracle.

“Sorry, Brice,” I said.

“Sorry, why?”

“Your machine didn’t work. Well not as a time machine.”

“But it’s not there.” Brice pointed towards the empty table top that I was leaning over. “It’s gone.”

“No it hasn’t.” I tapped the thin air where the machine had last been seen with the end of the twig producing a tapping sound. “It’s still here. However look on the bright side. You have managed to produce the world’s first invisibility machine.”

We looked at each other for a while, then I said, “Who do we know in the military because they are going to love this?”

Brice looked at me for a long minute, then replied, “I don’t know about the military, but I do know a few people who are criminals. Still want five percent?”