Monday, September 13, 2010

Travel Guide

It was Professor James Johnson who made the incredible statement during a sophomore philosophy class that caught the fancy of one of the students. Standing on a raised stage in the huge lecture hall, Johnson, waving a hand as if to emphasize the point, said, "Time travel cannot exist because if it did, we’d already have it."

David Alexander, sitting in the back of the auditorium where he could hide from the prying eyes of the professor and his teaching assistants, thought, "That’s was an interesting philosophical theory."

Alexander was a science fiction fan who spent his spare money, such as it was, on conventions and fandom, which meant he thought understood the concept of time travel a little better than most of the other students in the class. Time travel, he believed, could solve some of the great mysteries of the past like what color were the dinosaurs and it could prevent the great disasters because to be warned about them meant they could be avoided.

Back in the dorm later, lying on his bed, his earphones on so that he didn’t have to listen to the music of a dozen other students, and staring at the ceiling, Alexander thought more about Johnson’s time travel comment. Alexander was well aware of the alleged paradoxes. He knew that going back in time and killing your grandfather which, some believed was the paradox to prove time travel couldn’t exist, meant nothing of the kind.

How could you kill your grandfather and not wipe out your own existence as those skeptics often said? Simple. The killer, as the instrument of the change, would still exist because he was the instrument of the change. His siblings probably wouldn’t be so lucky because the loss of the grandfather meant the loss of one parent and so his siblings would no longer exist, at least as he knew them. But he could go back and kill his grandfather, not that he ever would.

What troubled him the most now was the idea that if time travel were possible, then it would already exist. His descendants, or someone else’s descendants would be traveling in time and the historical record should show it. Somewhere, someone would have screwed up and left a sign of an advanced civilization in the middle of a primitive one. Someone would have left a clue, probably unintentionally, but the evidence would have to be there. If only he could figure out how to find that evidence.

And that, he thought, was the problem. What would be the evidence and where would be begin to look for it? He needed to find something that existed where it didn’t belong or something found where it didn’t belong. Something that shouted time travel to the enlightened researcher who was looking for evidence of time travel but that might only confuse and confound someone who was looking for something else.

Now he was beginning to get excited about it. He sat up, swinging his feet off the bed and looked at the computer sitting on his desk. He thought about going to the library, but why? The computer gave him access to everything in the world he needed and had more resources than the largest library ever built.

He moved to the desk and heard someone knock at the door. It opened a moment later and Sara stuck her head in. She waited until he reached up and pulled the earphones off his head and the she asked, "You going to eat?"

Ignoring that question, he said, "I was thinking about what Doctor Johnson said today. About time travel not being real because it would already be invented."

"Yeah," she said. "Stephen Hawking wanted to know where all the tourists were."

Alexander looked confused.

"Hawking thought that if time travel were possible, there would have been tourists from the future already. We’d have seen them."

Alexander grinned broadly, believing at that moment he was nearly as smart as Hawking because he’d thought of the same thing. He said, "Yeah, there should be evidence of it."

"Unless they have a prime directive a la Star Trek."

Alexander chuckled. "Even with their prime directive they were always interfering with someone. Even when they tried, they left behind clues..."

"That doesn’t tell me if you’re going to eat or not. I’m hungry," she said.

"You’re not worried about the freshman fifteen?"

"That was last year and I only gained five pounds. I needed those five pounds."

Alexander turned to face the computer, signed on, and then brought up his search engine. He sat with his fingers on the keyboard and stared out the window, into the deepening green of a late spring evening.

"Food?" she said.

"I don’t know what to search for," he said.

"Gees, David, what does it take to get through to you? I’m going to eat."

He was about to tell her to go on without him but he couldn’t think of a way to phrase his request. Time travel was too vague. Time travel facts would probably bring up scientific papers on the reality of time travel. He realized that he needed more information to make the right search but he didn’t know how to get that information.

He stood up and asked, "What’s the weather like?"

"Getting cool," she said.

She was standing there wearing shorts and a light jacket. It wasn’t getting very cool.

They left the dorm, walking along the tree lined street and turned into the downtown area. There were a dozen small places that catered to the college crowd which meant they sold beer, cheap fried food and had a sound system that threatened to create earthquakes.

They took a booth in the back corner, away from the bar, away from the speakers, and away from the entrance. It was slightly quieter and when the music stopped, it was almost peaceful. They ordered both beer and hamburgers and then waited for the food.

Jason Davies, a graduate student who didn’t mind talking to undergraduates came over, inspected the food and then dropped into the booth next to Sara. He grabbed one of her fries, ate it, took a sip of her beer and then sat back.

Alexander was slightly annoyed but didn’t want to offend Davies because he was a teaching assistant. He just said, "Make yourself comfortable."

"Always do. Buy me a beer and I’ll tell you what to study for the next test."

Sara said, "Sure you will.

The waitress appeared and Davies pointed at the glasses and said, "A round. Bring me a beer too." When she was gone, he asked, "What are you two talking about?"

Alexander didn’t really care to tell him so, instead he said, "Why we haven’t seen the time traveling tourists."

Davies grinned and said, "You’ve got Johnson for philosophy. He thinks he’s quite clever with that and never mentions that Hawking came up with it first or that Fermi said the same thing about alien creatures. Fermi wanted to know why we haven’t been visited yet, if there were other intelligences in the galaxy."

"If you’re going to keep eating my fries," said Sara, "get your own plate."

"I’m not hungry," Davies said.

Now that he had thought of it again, Alexander wasn’t willing to drop it. He said, "I was trying to think of a way to prove the point. I mean, I would assume that these travelers wouldn’t want to announce themselves. They’d be human so they’d look like us and I suppose they would have records so their clothes wouldn’t stand out."

Davies waved a hand to indicate the room and then the rest of the city, "I have heard that this is the only town where you could rob a bank carrying a sword and wearing a cape and disappear into the crowd. Clothing here certainly wouldn’t stand out."

"So," said Alexander, "we’d have to look for some other sort of evidence. Something that didn’t belong in our time, or something that didn’t belong in another time. Something that was out of place in time."

The waitress appeared with the beer, set it down and then disappeared quickly. She didn’t ask if they wanted anything else or if the food was good. She was just a college student trying to earn a couple of bucks and didn’t want to make a career out of waiting tables. It showed.

Davies took a sip and said, "You’re talking about Out of Place Artifacts."

"Yes," said Alexander enthusiastically. "That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Out of Place Artifacts."

"Well, all you have to do is type those words into your search engine and you’ll find dozens of web sites telling you more than you care to know about them."

Alexander sipped his beer and then said, "You already know about them."

"Of course. You’ve heard of the ancient astronauts. You know, the space travelers who came down to build the pyramids and leave drawings on the ground?"

"But that proves nothing. The Egyptians had the technology to build the pyramids," said Sara.

"I’m not advocating a point of view here," said Davies, "I’m merely providing information. He wants to check this out. I’m giving him a starting point."

Alexander leaned back, against the wall and put his feet up on the bench. He held his beer but didn’t drink any of it. He said, "You’ve checked this out."

Davies shrugged. "Some of it. Others have done it too. Johnson makes a good point and we’ve all come up with ways to search for the proof."

"These Out of Place Artifacts don’t do it?" asked Sara.

Now, like he was in a lecture hall, Davies began to pontificate. "Not really. Take the Baghdad Batteries. They’re about two thousand years old. Here are earthenware jars with copper and zinc rods in them and some kind of sealant on top. Fill it with a liquid like citrus juice and you’ve created a type of battery. Not one with much voltage, but a battery none the less. What did they do with it? I don’t know, but the existence of the batteries is well known. You can find pictures on the web."

"But from what you’ve described," said Alexander, "you’re talking about something that could have been made in Baghdad back then. It’s not like a double A battery I put in the remote control."

"Your point?" asked Davies.

"The Babylonians had the ability to make the batteries so it proves nothing."

"Precisely. They prove nothing."

"What we need is something that clearly doesn’t belong where it was found. Not some bizarre aberration in history."

"Now you’re talking," said Davies. "You mean like a molded metal bowl that was found inside solid rock. Something that had to be dropped before that rock was rock. Something that would indicate it was millions of years old."

"Exactly," said Alexander.

"It happened in 1852 in Massachusetts," said Davies. "Some kind of an metal bowl inlaid with silver that was found as workmen quarried rock."

Alexander looked at Sara who raised her eyebrows in surprise. He said, "You know about it?"

"Don’t take my word," said Davies. "Look in the Scientific American in June, 1852. The article is there."

"You’ve seen it?" asked Alexander.

"Of course." He drained his beer and stood. "It’s been real. See you later." He disappeared quickly.

"He didn’t pay for his beer," said Sara.

"No, but he never does."

* * *

The main library was nearly on the way back to the dorm and Alexander pulled Sara along with him to the front entrance. They climbed a set of stairs that looked as if they lead to the second floor at Tara and then took another set of stairs, as dirty and grungy as any in any other downtown building to the fourth floor where the bound periodicals were housed.

They entered, walked down a hallway that was lined with work stations that held computers tied into the main library index so that they could search for information on anything in the libraries massive holdings that included almost a complete set of government records.

Alexander always expected an old, musty smell in a dim cavern, but the truth was that there wasn’t a hint of dust anywhere, there were banks of windows along the walls and overhead lights that might have been useful in an operating room.

The stacks were marked, but there were three separate rows and Alexander had never figured out exactly how it worked. He could follow the alphabet back until he came to the "S" section and then worked his way along the shelves until he came to the right place.

The old Scientific Americans were bound in volumes that were a foot high and four inches thick. The dates were noted on the spine so it didn’t take him long to find what he wanted. He pulled the volume out and then walked back to one of the many tables available for use.

"You know you could have done this on line?" said Sara.
He grinned at her. "Sometimes it’s just more fun to look at the original. The book is over a hundred and fifty years old. It came from a time when there were no airplanes or electric lights or radio. It’s from a time when you could argue that the Earth was hollow and people would believe you."

Sara pulled out a chair and sat down. "It’s cold in here."

"It’s always cold in here," said Alexander.

On page 298 in one of the June 1852 issues, he found a story entitled, "A Relic of a By-Gone Age." It told of a metal "vessel" that seemed to come out of the rock in the quarry. But reading it carefully, he noticed that the "vessel" could have been lost in the dirt on top of the rocks and didn’t necessarily come from inside the rock.

To Sara, he said, "This isn’t quite what I thought it would be."

"Make a copy and let’s go."


"Because, tomorrow, you’re going to wish you had a copy and then we’ll have to come back here. This way you’ll have it and not have to find it again."

* * *

The physics building was a new structure that stood ten stories high and was set on the perimeter of the campus. Across the street were a couple of bars, a laundry, a restaurant, and several office buildings including an attorney. When they built the physics building, they were careful not to damage the trees that looked to be a hundred years old.

Alexander had taken several classes in the physics building including two in psychology and one in Spanish. Ironically, the astronomy class was held in one of the older buildings that was the home to the anthropology department.

The only physics professor he knew was Robert Carpenter, and Alexander only knew him because they both played pinball at a small hamburger joint. It had one machine and no one ever put money into it because they all knew how to beat it. They took turns at the pinball, drank Pepsi continuously and sometimes ordered food. Carpenter almost had a second office there.

Alexander knocked on the door and was told to enter. Inside was a small room of cinder block walls, yellow paint and more of the operation room lighting. Carpenter had his desk pushed up against the single narrow but long window so that he could look out. There was a chair for a visitor, a book case that held neatly arranged volumes, a small round table that held journals and a small rug on the vinyl floor.

"David, what can I do for you? Thinking of taking my physics class?"


"Well, have a seat anyway. I was trying to write an exam that I need to give this afternoon."

"I just have a question, but it can wait."

Carpenter grinned. "So can the exam."

Alexander sat down and suddenly felt a little foolish. Discussing time travel with friends was the sort of intellectual masturbation that all students engaged in, but now he was about to talk to a professor about something that belonged in the realm of science fiction.

He hesitated and then asked, "Can we travel through time?"

Carpenter laughed and said, "Johnson’s lecture?"

Alexander nodded. "Yeah."

"Hawking, I think, views time as a continuum," said Carpenter. "You can enter it at any point, not unlike a movie on a continuous loop. When you walk in has no real relation to the beginning or the end of the movie. You can leave when you want and walk in later finding yourself nearer the beginning of the movie, or the end, depending."

Alexander smiled, not sure if he really understood, but, at least, he didn’t have to take notes and there would be no test to worry about.

"Others think of it as more like a hose that you need to wind into it’s carrier. In other words, there is a specific beginning and an end and you have to move forward just one way. You might say that you’re always moving into the future and you have no control over it."

Carpenter held up a hand and said, "I know what you’re thinking. Einstein and time dilation. But that is still a one way trip. You just move forward faster than your fellows and you can slow down to join them."

"Which tells me," said Alexander, "that you don’t think we can travel into the past."

Carpenter leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head. "A couple of years ago I would have agreed with you, but there has been some thought, based on new theories about gravity, that suggest it might be possible to travel backwards."

"So then Doctor Johnson’s comment doesn’t make sense, or does it?"

"If you think of time as a continuum and that the future to us already exists in some fashion, then the question could easily be, ‘Where are the tourists?’ But if it is more linear, then the future where they might invent time travel hasn’t arrived yet, so the answer is, the tourists haven’t left yet."

"Unless, of course, this isn’t our first go around," said Alexander, not sure exactly what he meant.

"Well, we know that time dilation works," said Carpenter, "and as we learn more about the nature of gravity, we begin to alter our concepts of time and travel through it. But as it stands right now, we have no evidence that travel back works and certainly no evidence that anyone has."

"What sort of evidence would you look for?" asked Alexander.

"For time dilation, the experimental evidence already exists. If you are looking for something more tangible about time travel into the past, I would think you’d want to examine archaeology. That might turn up something."

Alexander thought, "We’re back to the Out of Place Artifacts." He said nothing though, just nodded.

"Anything else?" asked Carpenter.

Alexander stood up. "No. I’ll let you get back to writing your exam."

"If you have any other questions, let me know."

* * *

Alexander walked slowly back to the dorm, thinking that he was just wasting time. He allowed an off-hand remark by a professor in a core course distract him. He shouldn’t be chasing information on time travel, or attempting to search for evidence of it. Instead, he should be doing research for a paper or studying for one of his classes, or finding out what Sara was doing. Time travel should stay in science fiction where it belonged, not dogging him on campus.

When he got back to the dorm, his roommate was gone, but he had left on the TV, the DVD, and the coffee pot, not to mention every light in the place. The man never turned off anything. It was almost as if he owned stock in the power company.

Alexander turned it all off and then sat down in front of his computer. He typed in Out of Place Artifacts and came up with all sorts of hits. There were iron nails found in granite, but the circumstances suggested the nails might have been hammered into the stone rather than the stone forming around it. There were links of a gold chain found inside coal which was interesting until he learned that a coin, dated 1397 had fallen out of a lump of coal in England. It was clearly a manufactured item and it was found inside the coal, but the date didn’t suggest anything extraordinary.

He learned of a road found in Colorado under ten feet of sand in a region that hadn’t been inhabited by anyone who would have been building roads, but the "road" looked more like the remains of a dried up river bed than something of human construction.

With some excitement he read about a bullet hole in the skull of an long extinct beast. This was the sort of thing he had been wanting to find. Evidence of a technology that was far beyond that of the time when the animal was killed. Hunters from the future playing out their blood lust in the past. This was the stuff of science fiction but it might also be the stuff of science fact in the future.

But he learned that not everyone interpreted the hole in the skull as a bullet hole. There were more mundane explanations for it, and those explanations were more logical and more likely than a bullet hole.

There was something that looked like a sparkplug found inside a geode. If true, then the sparkplug was half a million years old. The problem was that the sparkplug was identified as having been manufactured in 1920 and the geode might not have been a geode. In other words, Alexander realized, it wasn’t the proof for which he searched.

After hours on the Internet, looking at site after site, after seeing the same items written about endlessly, he realized there was nothing definitive in what he found and therefore no proof. If the proof existed, he would have to go into the field to find it and an undergraduate didn’t have the money to make those sorts of trips even if he could figure out where to go and what to look for.

He stood up and looked out into the growing darkness of the late evening. There were students walking between buildings and a game of rugby going on in the field across the street. The lights were just coming on.

The door opened and he expected his roommate but Sara walked in, glanced at him and then moved directly to the bed. She sat down, looking shaky.

"What’s the matter with you?" he asked, somewhat annoyed.

She looked up at him as if surprised to hear his voice in his room.

She said, "I’ve just come from the library. I was in the Special Collections section."


She stared at him. "I think you should come with me. I think you need to see this."

Without a word he walked to the door.

* * *

The Special Collections were held in a large room on the top floor of the library. In the hallway outside the room were display cases showing some of the more interesting items such as a Civil War journal by a soldier killed on Little Round Top that had a hole in the top of it, photographs taken by a student who had served in the First World War and a large collection of NASA materials that demonstrated the university’s participation in space exploration.

Sara grabbed the door and pulled it open. Since she worked, part time, in the Special Collections, no one stopped her to ask her reason for being there. She took Alexander by the hand, lead him through the large reading room and into the back which looked like a smaller version of the Bound Periodicals but that didn’t have the windows or lighting. The air conditioning was set to maintain a temperature of 72 and the humidity was regulated.

She stopped near a small table and pulled on a couple of cotton gloves. She said, "You’ll need to wear gloves if you want to touch anything."

Alexander took a pair of gloves but didn’t put them on.

She directed him to a small work room in the back. There was a table in the center of it, a light on a long pole that could be moved around and directed at a specific place, a magnifier and a stack of old books.

She pointed and said, "Willed to the university. We have to look through them and supply the estate with an estimate of their worth."

"You do that?"

"No, I just catalog the books, give a description, and then one of the librarians looks at the lists to see if there is anything unusual or rare on it. Most of the time it’s just old books that have no real value other than sentimental for the owners."

"I didn’t know this place existed," said Alexander.

"Not many do. Over in the vault area there are some books of real value. I mean one of a kind type things that are hundreds of years old and worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to collectors."

Alexander pulled out one of the chairs and dropped into it. "What have you got?" he asked.

"I know that you’ve been searching for proof of time travel," she said.

He laughed and asked, "And you found it in this library?"

She didn’t like his tone and shot him a look. Then she said, "We got a collection in a couple of months ago and we’ve just gotten around to looking at it. Nothing spectacular, though I think there is a first edition of Poe that is worth quite a lot of money."

Alexander looked at the stack of books. They had gold-lined pages and the spines on some were broken and flaking. He saw one that was set aside that looked old but did not fit in with the other books.

The cover was colorful but the pages were stained with age.

Sara touched it with a gloved hand and pushed it toward him. The title was A Brief History of the 21st Century.

"Look at the copyright date," she said.

Alexander did and said, "It’s a typo."

"They don’t make typos like that," said Sara.

"I saw a book once called The Galactic Silver Star and they had misspelled galactic on the spine. Two Ls."

"They don’t make typos on the title page. Look at it."

He slipped on the cotton gloves and opened it to a color picture of American soldiers standing beneath the crossed swords of the Baghdad parade grounds. He recognized the picture from the news.

He saw a picture of the twin towers on fire and another of a space craft on Mars with a caption about it’s construction in California. There was a picture of a smoking downtown San Francisco that was reminiscent of the 1906 earthquake but the picture was in color and was dated 2025.

He looked up at her and said, "I don’t get it."

She rolled her eyes as if he was being obtuse. "That book reports on what happened in the 21st Century."

"So someone put out a book of predictions about what would happen and included stuff from the beginning of the century. Stuff that already happened."

"No, they didn’t. Look at the pages. They’re aged. The paper is old. This book was in with other books that were more than a hundred years old."

"Someone was playing a joke like those newspapers you see at fairs. Put a fake headline on it. Hell, today anyone with Photoshop can fake pictures and make them so real it’s impossible to prove they’re faked."

"You don’t get it do you?" she said.

"Get what?"

"That’s your proof. It’s not a book of predictions of what’s going to happen. It’s a book about important locations where things have already happened."
"It’s just some gimmick that was put together for a joke."

Sara shook her head sadly. She glanced at him and then the book and said,"This is what you wanted. This is your proof."

He looked at her astonished. "How is it my proof?"

"It’s a list of historic places to visit. It’s what those tourists that Hawking and Johnson and you have been talking about need. A way to find their way around in the past. It’s the Triple A guidebook from the future. It’s your proof."

He looked at her and then at the book. He felt chills along his spine as he reached out to touch the book. She was right. Time travel did exist and the tourists had been spotted.

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