The Machine by Jeff Fleischer

The time machine really had seemed like a good idea.


Dr. Wyatt had spent the better part of his long career working on the technology and the process. Of course, when he opened his research to peer review, there were always other scientists who questioned the ethical implications of his endeavor, wondering if sending people back in time would dangerously alter the present, or even arguing that the existing present was already the byproduct of some inevitable future discovery of time travel. While they questioned his ethics, though, Wyatt always pointed out that none of them questioned the accuracy of his science. He’d effectively solved one of the great challenges of modern thought, a seemingly impossible task the greatest minds in the world had contemplated for more than a century.


That turned out to be the easy part.


The hard part was getting anybody back. Not from a technological standpoint. Part of the rigorous testing process involved sending test subjects back in time inside a capsule Wyatt designed, then recalling them. That worked fine, first with rats, then chimps, then volunteers. As long as they stayed in the capsule, or close to it. The problem came when people left the security of the sterile little pod and tried to actually experience the past. Once out of the capsule, it never took long for them to die. Often in horrible ways.


For all his peers’ fears of his subjects altering the past, Wyatt was more concerned about the fact that they never lasted long enough to change anything. He kept having to bring back empty capsules.


Of course, part of the problem was the subjects got to pick where they were going, and basic scientific ethics prevented Wyatt from switching their journey’s time and place without their knowledge. Subjects, quite understandably, never chose to travel back to the Cleveland suburbs in 1992. Rather, they wanted to see great moments in history, take in eras they’d previously only read about. In doing so, they kept writing their own death sentences. Without any kind of camera or communicator that could still function after getting sent back, Wyatt never got to find out exactly how each one of his volunteers died. In fact, the only recording device Wyatt had been able to supply to the subjects was a heart monitor. It didn’t do much, but it had been critical in the early stages of research, when it confirmed that the rats were still alive in the past. With the human subjects, it served mostly to let Wyatt know when the time came for him to bring back the empty capsule. He’d perfected the technology so that the capsule wasn’t visible when it went into history; unfortunately, the people were.


The first man Wyatt had sent back in time, John Nicholas, desperately wanted to see the Battle of Hastings. It was certainly impressive that the machine got him there, the capsule traveling more than a millennium of time and depositing him right on a beachhead in Briton. Nicholas was amazed by the sensations he experienced as soon as he left the capsule. The air smelled so clean, until the wind shifted and his nostrils filled with the stench of gore from the battlefield. Even that horrific stench seemed oddly pleasant for an instant, since Nicholas knew it meant he was right there, right in the middle of things.


But only for an instant, before a Norman arrow hit him from behind.


Famous battles were particularly popular choices for Wyatt’s test subjects, and visiting them always produced the same basic result. Richard Soto was speared by a hoplite near Thermopylae. Dominic Caruso took musket fire at Gettysburg. Warren Boothe managed to get shot by both sides at Yorktown. More than a dozen men were gunned down trying to relive their fathers’ experiences on the beach at Normandy.


Those were among the most violent deaths, but in some ways the least painful. They were quick. Most of the time travelers died from diseases long eradicated, their utterly unprepared immune systems breaking down almost instantly. Phyllis Monroe, a devout Christian, went back to the date she figured the crucifixion had taken place. She learned two lessons—that the biblical calendar could stand to be more historically accurate, and that ancient Jerusalem was swarming with germs that destroyed her in just a few minutes. Wyatt lost people to smallpox, malaria, and multiple versions of the plague. Weather did its part, too. Dennis Tomasin froze to death in the middle of the Alps long before any of Hannibal’s elephants had the chance to trample him, while the extreme heat of Ptolemaic Egypt dehydrated Rachel Wilson before germs ever got a chance to infect her.


Overall, in his first three weeks of using human test subjects, Dr. Wyatt managed to unintentionally kill a total of two hundred and three volunteers. All of them knew the risk, and all of them signed a consent form relieving him of any legal liability—much to the chagrin of quite a few children, spouses, and life partners. Most of the deceased actually would have considered the trip worth it, as even going back in time for a matter of minutes or hours, they knew they were among the select few to live out one of mankind’s great dreams. They had no way of telling Wyatt that, however, and he never got the specifics of how they all met their demises.


Those twin factors led to the professor gaining the reputation of a killer. Scientists who months earlier feared his potential ability to alter all of history now feared him as a man smearing the noble goal of scientific inquiry via the increasingly sensational stories about his creation of a killing machine that sent willing participants to their deaths, leaving no remains and allowing for no autopsies. Rumors even began that the machine didn’t send people back in time at all, but simply disintegrated them. Wyatt’s research backed up his time-travel device, and even his most skeptical peers acknowledged this, but it became very easy for those forces in society who feared science in general to popularize the notion that he was a mad scientist. Threatened with lawsuits and wary of bad publicity, the university withdrew Wyatt’s funding and terminated his position, less than three months after the first human used his machine.


Sensing the inevitability of such a course of events, Wyatt brought the machine home to a makeshift lab in his garage a few days before his termination, hoping to find ways to improve it. He was prepared to fight his former employer in court for the right to his intellectual property, but he didn’t need to. The university wanted to distance itself from the machine entirely.


It didn’t take long for Wyatt to receive phone calls from people interested in using his machine. The Luccino Brothers nursing home offered him a considerable sum for letting the terminally ill patients end their lives in the historical era of their choice. More than a few suicidally depressed townspeople offered to pay him for assisting their demise. The governor of Texas called him personally, hoping the machine might speed up the state’s execution process. None of this had been Wyatt’s goal—in fact, he had planned to use the time off to work on developing the equivalent of a space suit to protect his subjects from the ravages of history. But the money proved too good to pass up. In his first month outside the university, he had made more than he had in his twelve years as a tenured faculty member. That month, his machine sent four hundred and seventy-six people back in time. None survived. The second month, a further nine hundred and twelve people went back. Most of them were terminal or condemned to death anyway, so he didn’t feel bad about that. The suicides bothered him a little, but his logical mind correctly argued that, if they were going to do it anyway, this way was a lot less messy— and gave them a valuable experience. In a way, he had become like one of those charities that granted dying children a final wish. And only a few of his subjects were children. (Most of them wanted to travel far back enough to see dinosaurs, and the Paleozoic Era had enough alien pathogens to take them out quickly).


The problem Wyatt eventually faced was that, as word spread, more and more people wanted to use the machine. It doubled its intake nearly every month and, though the former professor was becoming far wealthier than he’d every deemed possible, this march of death had become his full-time occupation. As the only one capable of operating the machine, he no longer had any time to work on other projects or even to fix the flaws in his current one. At a certain point, he realized he was no longer even a scientist, just the operator of a machine. He’d become the equivalent of a factory worker, albeit a very rich one with a post-doctoral degree. As word of his invention spread, he also started getting offers to apply it in new ways. A think tank from Washington considered it a potential solution to unemployment. A number of prisons suggested it had uses beyond death row, as prisoners on life sentences might be willing to give it a shot, and open up cells in the process. The army offered him a billion-dollar contract to weaponize the time machine, seeing a way to avoid the Geneva Convention on the technicality that it would be events in the past that actually harmed the targets.


Still holding onto his notion of scientific integrity, Wyatt resisted these kind of overtures. Part of him still worried that people would try to influence the past. A suicidal or terminal individual had no goal beyond dying in an interesting way, but if, say, the army started sending people back, wouldn’t they try to alter Vietnam or Korea to their advantage? More than that, though, his sense of ethics still prevented him from letting anyone go through unwillingly. That was why the espionage attempts began. The first came from a white supremacist group, and involved two skinheads breaking into Wyatt’s garage laboratory in the middle of the night to try stealing the machine; fortunately, they lacked the security codes to get into the metal crate Wyatt used to protect the machine itself, and the police responded quickly when he called. That attempt alerted him to the potential for more thieves—an important warning, since future attempts would be far more sophisticated. The bulk came from a number of prominent defense contractors, which tried everything from hacking into Wyatt’s computer to search for his long-deleted blueprints to trying to kidnap the professor himself. Wyatt had already had to hire around-the-clock security, and learned not to go anywhere without a cadre of bodyguards. By the fourth month of his post-university career, he felt like a prisoner in his own home. What little time he didn’t spend operating the machine was spent protecting it from interlopers. As the only person who knew how to work it, or how to build another, he knew he was the only one who could fix everything.


He knew he had to destroy the time machine.


Still, it seemed a shame to destroy such a rare device without ever getting the chance to use his invention himself. So Wyatt put his affairs in order. He donated his now-vast fortune to his former employer’s scholarship fund. He bought an electromagnet to completely erase all traces of his research from every computer he’d ever used. Then he bought enough bars of C4 to completely obliterate the time machine, and set up a timer to trigger them. That all seemed easy enough for him. The hard part was trying to decide where he wanted to go. When he’d first envisioned the time machine, he thought he’d get the chance to use it many times, to keep a checklist of great moments in history and spend the rest of his life crossing them off the list. He’d envisioned learning the answers to some of society’s greatest mysteries, from who killed John Kennedy to how Stonehenge was built to what exactly happened at the end of the Bronze Age. He’d similarly thought of visiting his own childhood, to track how closely his memories mirrored the actual reality he could re-experience. Having only one chance made his decision extremely difficult.


By the time his scheduled subjects arrived the next day, Dr. Wyatt was nowhere to be found. The machine itself had been destroyed, with tiny fragments spread far beyond the site of the imploded garage. The army managed to get a hold of his hard drives, but the electromagnet had done its job. The university was only too happy to name a scholarship after the man it had so unceremoniously dumped just a few months earlier, as his largesse was enough to fund dozens of students.


None of those people would ever know that the capsule lay forever abandoned under the snows of the Pleistocene ice age, where its frozen-to-death creator figured glaciers would soon cover it, and prevent any humans of the past from finding that part of their future.

Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based author, journalist and editor. His fiction has appeared in publications including the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row literary journal, Shenandoah, Steam Ticket Third Coast Review, Pioneertown, Crossborder Journal, Zoetic Press Non-Binary Review, See the Elephant, Chicago Literati, and Indiana Voice Journal. He is also the author of non-fiction books including Rockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries (Zest Books, 2015), Votes of Confidence: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections (Zest Books, 2016), and The Latest Craze: A Short History of Mass Hysterias (Fall River Press, 2011). He is a veteran journalist published in Mother Jones, the New Republic, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, Mental_Floss, National Geographic Traveler and dozens of other local, national and international publications.