Humor Science Fiction


By Susan Forest
Mar 13, 2018 · 4,605 words · 17 minutes

From the author: Two time machine inventors become famous when they send small objects back in time; but the real breakthrough will come when they can send a sentient being to the past – and retrieve him to the present. Finalist for the 2009 Aurora Awards.

It was while Alan and Victor were touring the warehouse with the real estate agent that a slip of paper bearing the words, "It worked," materialized on a desk in the office.

Alan stared at the note, strength draining from every muscle in his body as disbelief turned to realization, then to euphoria.

"Alan--" Victor swallowed, turning white as the paper, his eyes wide beneath unruly curls.

Alan lifted the note and fingered its crisp, white softness. It was real. Real.

"We haven't started the experiments yet."

Thirteen years--thirteen goddamn years of hope and faith. And now, his belief in Victor had been borne out.

Victor turned to the real estate agent. "We'll take it."



"This proves it." Words poured from Alan's mouth, out of control, as he paced the room. "It's going to happen, Victor. The world has changed. It has."

"Well, something's happened," Victor conceded. He snapped his laser measure closed and knelt on the concrete floor to record the width of the West Vancouver warehouse in his notebook.

Alan squatted in front of him, next to the wall. "And no one knows it but you and me."

It was pushing ten o'clock, and neither of them had thought to go home. The warehouse was dusty and dark, lit by a half-dozen fluorescents high above their heads and the sound of traffic and trains filtered in from beyond the aging brick and lumber walls. The real estate agent, frightened and suspicious--but ten thousand dollars richer--had left with their signed lease hours ago.

Victor pushed his stylus behind his ear. "We still have to build the time machine and send that paper back to today's date. The experiment isn't done until we do."

"But we know the results. The rest is just technical."

Victor eyed Alan. "Maybe."


"We can still screw up, Alan."

Alan slapped the paper as proof. "Look at it. How can you be so skeptical?"

Victor frowned in annoyance. "Put the paper down before you wear it out. If this turns out to be what we hope, that's a valuable archive you've got your biodegrading sweat on."

Alan hurried to the office holding the evidence gingerly by one corner and put it in his briefcase, letting his eyes linger on the handwritten scrawl for one last moment. Then he whirled back to Victor, who was on the floor, pointing the laser measure at the ceiling.

"What do you mean, 'maybe'? How could this paper appear out of nowhere, unless we sent it back in time?"

"Lots of explanations. Maybe someone's working on a molecular transporter or duplicator. Could have been someone else also working on time travel. There's been sufficient data in the world archive since 2032 for anyone to access." Victor collapsed the laser beam. "We have competitors, you know, Alan."

"Competitors with a paper marked, 'It worked,' in my handwriting?"

Victor pulled himself to a sitting position and pushed his long curls away from his glasses. "Alan, you set your heart on things. I don't want you to be disappointed. I don't want you to give me credit for being a genius when so many things can still go wrong. It's possible to want something so badly you miss the obvious, you know."

"The paper appeared out of nowhere in front of our eyes in the very location we leased to do the experiments. I didn't miss that."

"Besides, we don't know how far along other researchers are. We still have a lot of work to do." Victor punched the measurements into his notebook. "And we have no university or grant money or big corporations behind us."

Alan sat cross-legged on the floor. "Because we don't want red tape to tie us up until we're ninety."

Victor shrugged. "Academic backing lends credibility."

"Not always. Corporations and universities have agendas, Victor. The only way to really do this is on our own."

"So you say. But, Alan, have you thought about how much it'll cost before we get results we can publish? Have you really worked it out?"

"You know I have the money."


"Great Uncle Alan never made a bad investment in his life. There's more than enough."

"But, are you sure?" Victor closed his notebook. "There are other things you could do with your inheritance."

"Like what? Lie on a beach somewhere?" Alan snorted. "Would you do that with your life?"

The sound of a freight train slowing as it approached the docks almost drowned Victor's response. "No," he said. He lifted his head. "I wouldn't."

"Listen. The money's mine. I can do with it what I want."

"Whatever you want, sure." Victor crawled over to the wall to inspect an electrical outlet. "But Alan, your great uncle, or whoever he was, may not have meant investing in time travel."

"Who knows what he meant? I never met him. But his will repeated--" Alan punched the floor with his finger. "Repeated, Victor--that I was to do anything I wanted with the money, anything at all, and none of it was to go to any other relatives. Uncle Alan might not have known me, but he had complete faith in me."


"Who cares? We've got the money." Alan leaned his elbows on his knees. "Victor, I've wanted this since I was a kid reading Weird Tales with my flashlight in the attic. I wished I'd been the first astronaut to set foot on Mars, if that hadn't happened before I turned ten. And even that was a privately funded mission."

"You're not a kid, now. You're thirty-five."

"Yeah. Thirty-five, and what have I done? I want to do something important. Don't you?"

Victor grinned. "Yeah."

"We'll do it and we'll be the first. We'll go down in the history books." He could imagine what it might be like to go back in time. "We'll make the study of antiquity a completely new science, Victor--solve mysteries from the beginning of time. Maybe--I don't know--cure poverty, or prevent crime." Alan slumped against the wall and the air puffed from his lungs. He shook his head. "Maybe even see the future. Wouldn't that be something?"

"First we've got to finish perfecting travel into the past." Victor picked up his instruments. "Come on. It's late."

"And we will perfect it. In fact--we have."

Victor put his notebook in his pocket. "Say, did you know the real estate agent told me this warehouse has video surveillance tapes that go back to 1958? Do you know how rare that is?"

"That settles it. This was meant to be. Everything's coming together." Alan put a hand on his friend's wrist. "Victor, this machine could be the number one most important invention in the history of mankind. And it's you and me."

Victor smiled at his friend with affection. "Once we've done it."


Alan bit his nails ragged the night before the first experiment. Victor had built a small machine that took up less than a quarter of the warehouse space and it was ready to be tested. 

The day dawned overcast and threatening rain. Outside the warehouse, engines chugged up and down the yards in fine salt mist. Within, Alan hovered over the technicians, holding the note that had materialized out of thin air in a pair of tweezers, while interminable minutes dragged into interminable hours as the technicians double- and triple-checked the calculations.

Then Victor tore a page from his notebook and pulled a pen from his pocket, waving Alan over to the table in the office. The actual time travel booth was a glass bell jar; every molecule within it--the air as well as the note--would be sent back eighteen months, to the day Victor and Alan had toured the warehouse. A valve on the top of the booth would allow a pre-specified amount of air from the room to be sucked into the bell jar as its contents departed.

Alan set his note on the table, and picking up the pen, began to write. But before the ink was dry, the time-travel paper vanished, leaving only the note Alan had just written.

The technicians stared. Victor frowned. Alan felt his mouth go dry.

Then, nodding, Victor took the note from him, put it in the bell jar and activated the time machine. There was a hum, and the note disappeared, leaving no evidence that it had ever existed. "Of course," Victor said softly.

Alan couldn't believe what he had just witnessed. "It's gone," he whispered. "Our proof . . ."

"No--" Victor shook his head. "No, the theory predicts this. The two notes can't both exist at the same time."

"But--but--did you know the note would vanish?"

Victor considered. "No," he said slowly. "But it makes sense when you think about it. There can't be an anomaly, like a time traveler meeting himself. The disappearance of the time-travel note proves it."

"But you didn't know that would happen."

"That's why we call it an experiment, Alan. We make predictions but we don't actually know what will happen until we try it." Victor's grin spread. "But really, the disappearance of the note proves that we were right."

"It does?"

"Yes! Alan, we have just sent the first object larger than an atom back in time." Victor grabbed his shoulders, nodding slowly at first, grinning behind his unkempt beard.  

The technicians cheered.

"Really?" The other's rare enthusiasm infected Alan, and he could do nothing but grip his old friend by the arms and pull him close in a heartfelt hug. The celebration that night at the Granville Pub went until three o'clock in the morning.



Victor published, and the race was on.

Working twelve and fourteen hour days, it took seven months to build the equipment for the next experiment. Alan withdrew his inheritance and savings, and talked friends into lending money; but the publicity brought investors in droves.

The new time machine had to have a larger booth and Victor had to recalibrate the computers for more complex living biological material. Rather than using a bell jar, he emptied the entire warehouse office and converted it into the new booth. He designed it to both send and receive, because the third stage of the experiments would revolve around bringing subjects back to the present, and with the pressure of competition, Victor didn't want to halt between the second and third stages to build a more complex booth.

The second stage experiments with flat worms, stray cats and Alan's potted palm went just as smoothly as the experiments with inanimate objects. Victor and Alan appeared on the cover of Time Magazine and Alan quit his position at the chartered accountant's firm to take on the full time job of managing the publicity, investors and lawyers.

But the success of time travel in any useful way hung on one question: getting back; the stage three experiments. Flatworms, stray cats and potted palms were the wrong test subjects to make a return trip.

An air of excitement infused the warehouse as Alan arrived--two hours early, too excited to sleep or to stay away--for the first of the stage three experiments. As always, he tried--unsuccessfully--to  stay out of the technicians' way to as they worked. It was all he could do when a new technician came in, not to jump up and correct him; he'd seen the procedures so often.

"Alan." Victor stood before him in jeans, t-shirt and scruffy beard. He looked exhausted and irritable. "It's time."

Alan sprang to his feet and followed Victor to the office/send-and-receive booth. "I'm nervous about this chimp, Victor."

"She'll be fine. She's been training for six months."

"What if she breaks the return switch?"

"It's made of tempered steel."

"I thought she was kind of slow in the last test."

Victor stopped abruptly and turned to face Alan. "She'll have seventy-seven years to pull the switch." He turned on his heel and continued toward the array of generators and computers that filled every square foot of the warehouse.

"But what if she gets distracted and doesn't pull the switch? I don't think chimps are reliable test animals."

Several folding chairs had been set up, but the few VIPs they had invited--the president of Simon Fraser, his Physics Department Head, visiting experts from Moscow, Berlin and Seattle, a select handful of science reporters--were too excited to sit. Alan shook hands perfunctorily and followed Victor to the main console.

Victor turned and whispered sharply, "We've specifically designed the return mechanism to be chimp-friendly. Listen, Alan. I know you have a lot riding on this experiment, but sometimes you get in the way. Just back off a little. I know what I'm doing."

The barb stung. Of course, Victor was just touchy. He was under a lot of pressure to succeed. Alan'd wanted to bring in the big guns today--major world media--but of course, that was premature. He needed to give his partner space.

Victor summoned the animal handler. "Chimps are ideal for this type of work," he said pointedly, ostensibly addressing the visiting experts as the handler took the chimp from her cage. "They're trainable and reliable."

"She's going back to the early sixties," Alan told the visitors, feeling a little subdued. He had to support Victor.

"We're sending her back seventy-seven years to 1962. We chose that gap because it's longer than the chimpanzees' lifespan," Victor said.

"Yes. In case anything goes wrong, she can live out her normal life. We don't want animal rights groups complaining about our experimental procedures. Although, one could assume that dying by becoming non-existent would be preferable to many ways a chimp could die." Alan cringed at his own words as they came out of his mouth. It wasn't good PR to talk about the experiment failing and the animals dying.

But, the semi-circle of sages murmured in agreement. The trainer strapped the chimp onto a recliner just inside the office/booth. The switch that activated the banks of computers arrayed in the warehouse had been mounted to the wall of the office, easily within the chimp's reach.

"We have a photograph from May twelfth, 1962," Victor said, salvaging their audience, "showing this whole warehouse to be empty."

"Except for the cigarette package," the Russian added.

Alan was impressed--and a little frightened--that a potential competitor knew this level of detail about their work. "Right. Exactly." He'd searched for months to find security footage of the warehouse office, showing some proof that the chimp would be able to bring back to the present.

The trainer closed the door to the converted office. "Ready." Alan could see the chimp, small on the full-sized recliner, through the office windows.

"The chimp'll appear in the warehouse office twelve hours after the time of this photograph," Victor said. "At two-oh-one AM when, we expect, no one will be there to witness her arrival." A prompter, which would cue the chimp to release herself from the harness, open the office door, find the cigarette package, come back to the booth, fasten the harness and flip the switch on the wall of the office to return to the present, was strapped to her wrist.

A hush fell on the assembly. At ten o'clock, Victor nodded to the animal trainer, who signaled the chimp. The chimp reached over to the wall and pulled the switch; and disappeared.

The prompter remained in the recliner.

The assemblage stilled at the implication. Victor looked at the technician. The technician shook his head, mystified.

Alan gripped his face in frustration. He knew it!         

"Hold on," Victor said. "The chimp has been trained. The prompter was only a backup."

The Russian raised her eyebrows.

"The return time is preset for two minutes after ten o'clock," Victor said. "Let's just see what happens."

They watched the digital numbers on the time machine flicker through milliseconds, punctuated by the rhythmical tick of seconds.

"We expect the cigarette package to have a traceable lot number or excise tax stamp, or that the paper can be analyzed for composition compatible with the manufacturing processes of the early sixties." Victor's words, though quiet, echoed through the room, an irritating attempt to make everything seem normal.

The clock clicked ten-oh-two--

--and the milliseconds ran on.

The technicians watched the clock in stunned surprise.


An entire second late.

The Russian shifted her feet. Eyes flicked from the clock to the office to the technicians. To Victor.

A minute passed.

A technician checked settings and read-outs. The assemblage waited, silent. The hum of electronic machinery, the occasional shuffle of a shoe on concrete magnified the moment. The animal trainer scraped the chimp's cage against a wall. Victor stared at the console, his face pale.

When a technician offered to go for coffee, Alan realized their investment, their fame and their future had vanished as irrevocably as the chimp.



After the third chimp went missing, the last of the investors pulled out.

"At least we still have the equipment," Victor said the day Alan told him they had to put everything into storage. The money was gone, and Alan couldn't justify rental on a space that wasn't being used. "Maybe the chimps lived out their lives naturally."

Alan shrugged. Maybe. He had other things to worry about. "Sure you don't just want to sell everything?"

"You know, the surveillance video from May third didn't show the cigarette package on the floor." Victor turned the key in the warehouse door. "I think one of the chimps must have done what it was trained to do, and picked it up."

Alan pulled his collar up against the wind and stuffed his hands into empty pockets. He didn't want to get back into a debate with Victor about what went wrong. He knew what went wrong. The chimps didn't pull the switch to return. Alan had tried to smooth things over, saying that this was why they did the experiments; to see what happened, to iron out the glitches.

In hindsight, of course, they couldn't expect the prompter to go back in time with the chimp; the time machine had been re-calibrated for complex living organic material. In hindsight, scientists understood why the Mars Climate Orbiter crashed in 1998, too; Alan had laughed when he heard that a NASA subcontractor had used imperial units instead of the specified metric units. So simple. So many experts involved. But hindsight was irrelevant. The mission had failed, and Alan wasn't laughing now. So had their time travel experiments.

But the loss of money and the failure of the three experiments wasn't the worst of it. Every publication from Science to Star On Line had denounced Alan and Victor as frauds. The reporters, the experts, even the technicians, who tried to be loyal, had to admit they had seen the chimps disappear. But was that time travel? None of them had been in the warehouse in 1962 to see the chimps reappear. Tabloid reporters went back to the real estate agent who was present when the first paper appeared and she claimed not to have seen it actually happen; that Alan could have pulled the paper from his pocket when she wasn't looking. Even the verified experiments with the potted palms came into question.

Now, colleagues who once stood in groups around Victor at conventions looked the other way as he approached. Alan's picture was on the cover of the National Inquirer. The scandal was bigger than cold fusion, the Stanford prison experiment and Piltdown man put together. They were laughing stocks. They would never be taken seriously again.

"Want to go somewhere for a drink?" Alan asked.

Victor looked down the street toward the train yard. A dust devil tormented a newspaper out of the alley and plastered it against a power pole. "Nah."

Alan turned his back on the wind. His bequest was gone, the accounting firm thought he was a flake and Janice had walked out four months ago, saying she couldn't go on living the life of an impoverished widow while he spent all his time with Victor. Tomorrow he had to begin bankruptcy proceedings before the investors descended to claim everything he owned.

They'd been so close to doing something of significance. Changing man's understanding of the universe. Time travel was real. It existed. And he and Victor had almost proved it. Maybe someone would do it, build on their work; but it wouldn't be them.

Alan still lay awake nights replaying what went wrong. What they could have done. The disappointment was so bitter he could feel it in his mouth. And for what? Chimps that wouldn't pull a goddamn switch!

And, Victor. Like Alan, he'd wrapped himself in the project for so long, to the exclusion of friends, family, love life--Alan wasn't sure what Victor would do. The two of them were a real pair.


He turned back to his friend.

"I'm sorry. About the money."

"Hey." Alan punched him playfully on the arm. "We knew it was a long shot. And anyway, wasn't this really about bettering society? What an impact we could've had, eh?"

"I really feel bad. Your whole inheritance."

"I could've said no."

Victor kicked a can down the street.

"It's just so damn frustrating," Alan said. "We were this close. This close!"

"I know."

"Victor, I really think chimps were the wrong animals. They just didn't pull the switch to return."

"It wasn't the chimps."

"How do you know? They're not as smart as everyone says."

"Listen, Alan, I'll tell you what. We'll figure this thing out, yet."

"I've figured it out--"

"The universities that were courting us have disassociated themselves, but there's a small college in Alabama that's still offering me a position. I'm going to work out what went wrong with the return apparatus. I promise."


"There's no money. Just my salary and what I can scrape together in research grants to do the work. But some day, Alan. Some day. You and I will be back."

"You're going to Alabama?"

"Yeah. I leave Monday."

"You're moving to the States?"


"You're leaving."

"Yeah." Victor put the keys to the warehouse in his hands. "You know, I've been combing the webnet, looking for anything that could give us a clue. There was an article from May of '62 in the Vancouver Sun about chimps that escaped from a private zoo. I was thinking, maybe they were our chimps. You know? Maybe our chimps got there fine--they just couldn't get back to us."

Victor was carrying on with the project.

He'd bled Alan dry and now he was using the results, their results, to rebuild his name in academia. Alan felt the blood rising in his throat. "When were you going to tell me?"

"Tell you what?"

"Tell me what? That you're taking this project away from me!"

"Taking--whoa, now. You're the one that pulled the plug, Alan."

"Yeah, once the money was gone. How much longer did you think I'd be able to keep financing your private little scheme?"

Victor blinked. "You offered! You got the investors! You--"

"Time travel's no good if you can't get back!" Alan punched every word in an attempt to get the idea through the blockhead's skull.

"Hey, I proved--proved--that time travel works, Alan. Who has ever done that? Nobody! Getting back--getting back, that's just a technical glitch, a puzzle to work out--"

"A technical glitch that put me into bankruptcy!"

"You'll get your money, if it's so goddamn important."

"Yeah? Well, a livelihood, yeah, that's important. Food on the table. I've been excommunicated from my family for bilking them all out of their life's savings. But you know what is the worst part? That you don't believe me when I tell you I know what the problem is. It's those goddamn chimps!"

"It's not the chimps, Alan. Listen, you'll get your money. I'll work out the problems. We'll set up the corporation, just like we planned."



"And once you have the answers, what's to stop you from putting it together with some big German investor, or Japanese, or some entrepreneur you meet in the States?"

"Alan, what are you talking about? You--"

"I have no money. I have debts. I can't back you. I can't invest in this scheme."

"Well, wherever we get the money, we're in this together."



"Hah." He stomped down the street.

The traitor! He was getting off too easy. Alan turned and came back.

He jabbed Victor in the chest with a finger. "You're going to find out why those monkeys couldn't get back?"


The word felt like a detonator on dynamite. Alan's fist exploded on Victor's face. Victor crumpled to the sidewalk on his backside, blood spouting from his nose.

Alan shook the sting from his fist.

Victor looked stupidly down at his bloody shirt.

Alan took a step toward him, then got himself under control--barely--and  stomped back to his car. He opened the door. "You?" he shouted back.

Victor pulled himself to a sitting position and leaned forward, hands pressing on his nose.

"You go to hell!"



You don't send a chimp to do a man's job.

There was a way to find out how the chimps screwed up. A very simple way. And Alan was goddamn going to prove it.

He returned to the warehouse and powered up the time machine. The target time still read two-oh-five AM, the arrival time for the third chimp, so he reset it for two-oh-seven AM. He had seen the operation--participated, even--and asked so many questions over the years, he had no trouble operating it. He double-checked the settings, just as the technicians had done each time they ran a test.

The warehouse was quiet but for the hum of the generators, dim but for the single light Alan used to finalize his preparations. He stepped into the office that had been converted into a time-travel booth. He sat in the recliner and flipped the switch on the wall.

The experience of traveling back in time surprised him. He was simply there. He fell onto the floor because there was now no recliner in the office. There was a shock of displaced air molecules against his skin; his clothes were gone. Nausea touched his stomach momentarily.

He breathed, and blew out sharply.

The time-travel booth was now an office, with a desk and swivel chair, neither of which were occupying the space he had materialized into, thank God.

Through the window that looked out onto the warehouse floor, he saw no time travel computers or machinery; only three chimps fighting over a cigarette package.

God. It worked.

"Yeah!" he cried aloud and pulled open the office door. The chimps scattered, then turned to look at him. "Hey!" he yelled, and they ran in all directions. "We did it! Hey, chimps, we did it! It works!" He spun in a circle. "Victor!" he yelled. "We did it! You did it, you bastard!"

Whatever the problem was, it didn't exist now.

He had to tell Victor.

First, though, he needed proof that he'd been here. He picked up the cigarette pack the chimps had dropped and flipped it over. BD02613 was stamped on the bottom. "Yes!"

He flung open the door to the office to pull the switch to return to the preset time.

He stopped short. He would never laugh about the Mars Climate Orbiter again.

There was no switch.



And in 2004, on his seventy-seventh birthday, his affairs in order, contentment in his heart and his wife at his side, Alan vanished.

This story originally appeared in Analog.

Susan Forest

Thought-provoking science fiction that examines social causes.