Note: This was first published in Darrow on 14th July 2019 which has since gone defunct (see archive for more details). I reproduce the story here. Perhaps I shall get the second part done one day.
Professor Bartholomew Storme was in a state of excitement and trepidation. This was it. This was the day. Last night had been spent completing the final calculations. No sleep, no rest, just frantically scurrying like a gerbil on a wheel to finish the work. And it was finished, checked over, checked again, checked and checked and checked. And it was really done. A whole lifetime’s work completed. And Professor Bartholomew Storme was about to become a pioneer.
She was a fit and sprightly 73, a professor of physics at the University of Edinburgh, and had been working on unlocking one of the universe’s greatest secrets for decades. A winner of a Nobel Prize many years ago, she had taught and researched at the physics department in Edinburgh all her professional life. She was an odd mixture of stern and kind and was revered for her sharp mind. Always dressed in a sensible cardigan and skirt, white hair flowing loosely- some would say magnificently- around her shoulders, she was a formidable woman, her face lined ruggedly with the passage of time yet retaining a certain aloof elegance in its features.
Eccentric and proud, Bartholomew pursued her studies in isolation from her colleagues. She was friendly to them, and a great teacher to her students, but there was a distance to her. She had her own personal corner of the department which very few people had even caught a glimpse of. A small lab-cum-study, untidy yet perfectly organised, it was a room she had spent more time in than any other place in her life. She had travelled widely, seen the pyramids and the jungles, but this little room was everything to her. She would happily have slept in it if the janitors would have allowed it.
As Bartholomew raced through the city streets- she had never learned to drive and hated cycling- from her small flat to the building where her only true home was located she roughly pushed aside all the people in her way, who she saw as mere civilians. As odd a sight as an elderly woman rushing through crowds and seeming to throw grown men aside with ease was, it was nothing compared to what she was heading towards.
For in the corner of her physics room, her Sanctum, there was something very odd indeed. A small rectangular platform stood there and from its edges a transparent circular sphere encased it. It looked like an empty snow globe. There was just about enough room for a single person to fit inside the sphere, provided they weren’t too tall, and stand on the platform. On one of the sphere’s inside surfaces there was a touch-screen interface. Thick cables led from the rectangular base to some sort of engine, which loomed over the room rather ominously, incongruent in its bulk and inelegance next to the little sphere.
This machine had been Bartholomew’s life work, a secret she had kept from everyone. It was hers, hers alone, only she knew this existed, only she knew the mind-boggling mathematics which churned those engines, only she understood the impossible dimensional feats this machine was capable of. And she had made it from nothing. She’d done all the physical stuff, the heavy lifting, and she had completed the thousands of calculations, and she had experienced the long nights of being stuck on some problem when everything seemed pointless, and the mornings when answers slowly came to her, and the eureka moments those slow mornings led to, and the unbearable and tear-producing excitement those moments engendered in her buzzing brain.
The machine was a time machine.
And Bartholomew Storme was about to become the first person to travel through the fourth dimension in anything other than a terribly slow forward pace.
The professor gave the barest of distracted smiles and nods to her colleagues and students as she made her way through the physics department to her Sanctum, all of whom simply made a note of Professor Storme’s latest eccentricity and got on with their day. Clutched in the professor’s hand was a notebook filled with calculations. She had always been more an analogue girl despite her far-reaching mind. If her colleagues and students had looked a little more closely they would have realised she was holding on to the notebook extremely tightly, as if a cheque for a billion pounds was in her fingers and she was afraid it might flutter away in the breeze.
Bartholomew reached her room, unlocked the door, went in, and locked the door behind her. Her brain was on fire, buzzing with energy and fizzle. Fear and excitement coursed through her body, making her tremble slightly. She turned to face what she called, simply, The Machine.
There it was! Her life’s work! And it was complete- or would be just as soon as she entered the final, vital numbers and symbols. She tore through that work with ferocious speed, her fingers hammering away at the huge and powerful computer hooked up to the sphere. She had had friends, lovers, even a child (somewhere along the line, she thought) but they had all come second in her life to this work.
As the final calculations were inputted, The Machine was very nearly ready. Just a few more minutes for it to fully set itself up and then she could zip across a previously uncrossable frontier. She decided she would take her own trip first. Yes. She would see some history, perhaps take a peek into the future. She would record what she saw, return here, and announce her discovery and provide her evidence to the world.
That would certainly earn her another Nobel Prize- or twenty, she thought as she sat back in the chair, ignoring as she always had the building’s rules and lighting a cigarette. Bad habit, she knew, but she had to have some sort of release. And she was celebrating. Her eyes gazed lovingly at the sphere, then she took a bottle of unopened whisky from her desk and poured herself a celebratory glass. Sitting there with a whisky in her hand and surrounded by the smoky tendrils of the cigarette smoke, she waited for The Machine to tell her it was ready.
“Come on, old boy,” she muttered to it in her Edinburgh accent, her legs moving impatiently, “come on, hurry up.”
Allowing her mind to flash briefly through her memories- her mother absurdly naming her Bartholomew, the eccentric childhood doctor who had both irritated and inspired her with his insouciance and intelligence (an image of his untidy waiting room and office flitted swiftly into her mind and passed even more swiftly away), her schooldays in the city, her university years, those lovers and friends and even the child- she reflected that this would be the crowning moment of her entire life, atop all else. The only achievement she had ever cared about, the one she had yearned for as far back as she remembered. She wasn’t even bashful that this fascination and dedication had grown out of her love for a Saturday teatime science fiction serial. She simply recalled the serial with fondness and continued to wait.
And as the professor downed the last of her whisky and stubbed out her cigarette, her computer beeped.
It was time.
Shaking, Bartholomew unplugged the cables between the sphere and the computer. She reached out a trembling old hand and opened the sphere’s hatch. With the love of an enraptured church worshipper contemplating a cross, she caressed the interior of the sphere and slowly closed the door behind her. Eyes wide, Bartholomew began to tap away at the interface.
“What now?” she said aloud. “Where do I go? What do I do?” Funny that in all these years of work and planning she had never even pinpointed what to do at this exact moment. Her grizzled, elegant face scowled. “Well, I’m an Edinburgh girl. Let’s see what the city was like back in…” she plucked a figure from the air, “1750.” Yes, that would be fascinating. She could visit David Hume! Oh, this was good.
So, Bartholomew Storme typed in the necessary information, completed the simple calculations each new trip would require, and tapped a button saying ‘Go’.
Professor Storme felt a storm around her, electrical energy pulsating and crackling on the outside of the sphere as the big engines powered up. A terrible rocking almost made her lose her balance, so she hung on to the door’s small handlebar. A screeching, wrenching noise tore through the air. Bartholomew was afraid but excited. She wondered if her colleagues could hear all this racket.
And then the room disappeared beyond the transparent surface of the sphere, and it was as if she was in some sort of kaleidoscopic dream, shapes and colours morphing around The Machine’s exterior, indistinct and indistinguishable. Bartholomew knew a lesser mind would recoil, and she stared, only slightly disturbed, at the fabric of the universe’s temporal dimensions as they twisted around her, somehow sounding both silent and deafening in some indefinable and incomprehensible way.
Then, suddenly, came a thud. She had landed. Wherever she was was invisible from the sphere’s interior- the journey had fogged up the glass-like material so that by now it was opaque. A shaky old hand reached out for the door. Bartholomew wondered what wonders lay outside. The past, living, breathing, tangible- and all hers! She gathered her courage, opened the door, and strode briskly out of The Machine.
And Professor Bartholomew Storme walked right into the tatty old waiting room of her childhood doctor.
To be continued.