Prompt: Write a story about a time machine
Harry Thompson sat back in his chair and looked across the desk at the woman sitting in a hard back chair. He had misunderstood her on the phone. In person, she was clear and concise in what she wanted from him.
“I need to know when I’m going to die,” she said matter of factly. Her bony hands clutched a small black purse.
She was attractive, stunningly so, despite, or maybe because of, her near ninety years. Her eyes were a deep, sharp blue. Her hair was white and rested on her forehead, the rest of it covered by a red hat with a wide brim. She had nearly translucent skin and her face had no wrinkles. He asked her why she wanted to know when she would die.
“Dr. Thompson,” she said with some resignation in her voice, “You, as a scientist should know why one wants to know the answer to that question.”
But he didn’t know. Since he had a report in the International Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical Physics, he had gotten calls, letter, and emails from around the world. He had described the presumed time travel of a lab rat, Rattus norvegicus, the rat’s official name was A56P-79, but Harry had called him Sebastian in honor of his father. He had sent Sebastian two days into the future. He had kept the information quiet until the report appeared in the Journal. He had hoped for some calm scholarly praise for his accomplishments. Instead, he had the animal rights zealots after him, the University sanctioned him for failure to have the proper approvals, and every time-travel fanboy in the world was knocking on his email to get a crack at time travel.
He did not expect Jessica Simmons to be at his door this morning.
“Wouldn’t you want to know?” she asked him, leaning forward.
Harry was a practical man, well as practical as a theoretical physicist could be. He didn’t think a lot about life and death, the future or the past. Just science. He spent eighteen hours a day in the lab; he had burned through three marriages, was estranged from his two sons, and didn’t really think about the next day other than how to set up the next experiment.
“Mrs. Simmons, I’m …”
“Miss Simmons. Not Ms. Simmons, Miss Simmons. I’ve never been married. Didn’t have time. And I want to know how much time I’ve got left.” She paused for a minute and stared at him.
Harry fidgeted in his seat, obviously uncomfortable by either her presence or questions. It didn’t matter, both worked to her advantage. He had small brown eyes and a weak chin. He rolled a chewed on pencil between his fingers. He needed a shave and his clothes needed to be pressed. She had appealed to his scientific and human interests. It didn’t work. She opened her purse, withdrew an envelope, and placed it on the desk in front of her.
“That’s fifty thousand dollars. Cash. I want to rent your machine for a ride into the future and a return trip.”
“But I …”
“But what? Don’t need the money? Not sure if it works? I don’t care about the disclaimers. If it doesn’t work, it answers my question. If I come back, I’ve gotten what I want. And you know that it works and you’re famous.”
Harry looked at the envelope. He wanted to grab it and count every dollar. His grants had expired; the graduate students had abandoned him. The wives all got alimony. Hell, the Russians sent people into space for a fee. Why not send an old lady into the future if it made her happy. He tried to buy time by telling her he needed to draft a waiver for the trip. She reached into the purse and took out a notarized indemnification of harm or injury for time travel.
“We’re wasting time. Let’s do this,” she said, closing her purse.
Harry took the paper from her and read it. He had learned a lot about legal paperwork from each of his divorces. He turned to the last page. Jessica Simmons’s signature filled the page, large looping letters, not the birdlike scratching he had expected.
“Let’s do it,” he said, standing from his seat, and extending his hand to hers.
He led her to the laboratory and explained the process to her during the walk. The hall was narrow and cluttered and it opened into a large open laboratory with a high ceiling and exposed brick walls. In the center of the room were three furnace boxes connected together with duct tape.
“Not what I thought I would find,” she said.
“The movies distort the reality of the science. “ He explained that there were no flashing lights or ringing bells. But the room housed a vacuum and that is where the transformation would occur.
Jessica sat in the chair and Harry attached a single sensor to her ear. He put a thin tube into her nose and turned on a cylinder of oxygen.
He took her hand in his and looked into her eyes. “I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
He stepped out of the small room and turned on the power and adjusted a knob. There was a long slow swooshing noise as a vacuum was created in the room and then there was a popping sound from the top of the contraption. He killed the power and looked into the room. Jessica was gone.
Emotions flooded him. He was ecstatic that the machine had worked; he had sent a human being into the future. After a few moments, he was struck with dread as he realized that an elderly woman had walked into his lab and was now gone without a trace, except for a pile of cash. He paced throughout the lab, rubbing his chin, trying to imagine where she had gone and when, or even if, she would return to the lab.
Harry checked the chamber every hour for the next day. He slept in the lab, waking every hour or so to see if she had returned. One day extended into two, then three, and finally four. He sat collapsed on the couch in the laboratory near his time machine. He heard the pressure pumps turn on and after a few moments Jessica Simons pushed open the door.
Compared to Harry, who had not slept for four days, Jessica was radiant, even more beautiful than when she stepped into the time machine. She walked over to him, took his hand, and kissed it.
“I got what I wanted. Thank you.”
She turned; her red hat tipped over her left eye, and walked toward the door. Harry was astonished that she had returned, his machine worked, it really worked, and he was dumbstruck for something to say. Jessica turned toward him.
“You’re in for quite a time,” she said as she walked out the door.