Novell Short SF story by Malte Ellström
People often say `If
these walls could speak...´ and think of what has happened in the
room in past times. Right now it would be more fitting to say "If
these walls could express feelings..," well then the whole
century-old building would tremble with excitement. And the building,
housing the faculty of physics at the university, could well endure some
shaking. The architect who once made the drawings had visited Cambridge,
England, before sharpening his pencil. The building shared some
characteristic features with its ancient model but everything was bigger,
bolder and richer. This was, after all The United States of America.
The expectant hum from the mingled voices of crowded
journalists filled the large press room, where formerly Edison´s
electricity machine and Marconi´s electron tube had been elaborated into
contemporary perfection. To `these walls´ and to the world a scientific
sensation was to be announced.
There was an air of tension
about Professor Robert Hartford as he prepared to face the press. To him
it was something out of the ordinary. He was more used to putting forward
his research results to learned fellow scientists than to standing face to
face with an ignorant pack of wolves in disguise. To aid him in taming the
wolves he had Karen Fields, the university press secretary.
Karen struck a small gong and prayed silence.
"Ladies and gentlemen, friends! Throughout the years many
scientific discoveries have been made in this room. Nevertheless, today
our great predecessors will have to stand aside for professor Hartford who
will tell you how he conquered TIME. "
There was an excited rustling in the room while Hartford nervously
shuffled his papers, tapped the microphone and cleared his throat.
"I assume that the audience has some knowledge of physical
conditions and the laws of nature and thus I refer to Heissenberg´s
uncertainty theorem which postulates that the position of an electron in
space is indefinable. I have managed to show that this is also valid for
its position in time. Accordingly we can assume
that ....." Here the audience lost track and listened to the rest of the
lecture totally without comprehension.
The man from the Herald called: "Say it again in
English." Others joined and demanded plain language and "You get
that Heisenberg to speak instead."
Karen struck her gong.
“Calm, calm please. I understand that some of the scientific
shoptalk may sound a bit unfamiliar but I´ll try to explain. Professor
Hartford some time ago proved that the light from everything that happens
does not disappear but stays on forever. It is very weak and in a
different form from ordinary light. He has managed to design a camera that
can capture that special kind of light.
Now I´m looking at Carl Morrison from the Herald. If I take the time
camera here tomorrow at this time and set it for minus twenty four hours,
I will see what is going on here now. If I set the camera for minus one
hundred years I will see what happened here at that time. In other words,
you can film old times. The Battle at Gettysburg, D-day, the Boston
Teaparty, you name it. Historians will love it."
For a few moments the room remained in baffled silence which
exploded in shouts and questions and crowding for the press releases lying
in sheaves on Karens desk. The meeting ended in turmoil. Nobody got any
more information that day.
Professor Hartford had felt more and more uneasy while he was
confronting the `wolves´. He had to completely shut himself off from the
surroundings to be able to finish his lecture. He had spent years of
mathematical labour trying to prove the existence of the sub-light as he
called it and now he felt he was near the summit of his carrier. He would
surely be a Nobel Prize winner next year; he would be an honoured and
popular lecturer invited to all the famous universities and he would have
a place in the history of science. According to the mathematical formulas,
the sub-light was totally abstract and would exist only as an additional
letter in the laws of nuclear physics.
But there was more to it than that. He got on to the far-fetched
possibility of making sublight visible when he saw a quick gleam of
sunlight in the nyloned leg of a waitress in the canteen.
Light through a mesh! As work with the time camera continued, his
expectations of honour and fame increased. The thought that it also would
bring higher income had not occurred to him. But now, watching the
excitement and turmoil in the room as the journalists were milling around
Karens desk, he realised that his discovery was of
interest also outside the world of science. He would be rich. If he
kept the secret of the time camera to himself, he could control where and
how it should be used. The first warming feeling of power began rushing
through his veins.
Martin Thorman remained seated for a while after most of the others
had left. He was a journalist and an archeologist. He regarded the
consequences of the discovery
with mixed feelings. He had a tickling feeling in his mind about the
prospect of being able to travel with his eye to far away places in time
and space and see the great events of history exactly as they had happened.
So what! When you had seen it all, when all old riddles had been resolved,
when all hidden treasures had been found, what would be left? What of the
joy of discovery, that indescribable feeling when you make a find after
years of preparations and deduction. He felt uneasy as he approached the
rostrum. Professor Hartford was engrossed in his papers and did not answer
when spoken to. Martin knew Karen from earlier press conferences and he
went to her desk.
"A bit stormy for a while, wasn´t it?"
"Well we expected SOME excitement but in spite of that I was
sure we could have a matter of fact communication about this."
"They did get the press release so I guess you got through to
"Professor Hartford insisted on writing it himself, so I´m
afraid it´s in the same spirit as the lecture. You journalists are always
trying to make a hen out a of feather and I don´t dare think of the
headlines we´ll get tomorrow. "
"Since my magazine is a weekly, I have a couple of extra days
to prepare my hen. I´ll buy you a lunch if you supply an extra feather.
Martin learned that to record an event you had to take the camera
to the exact place where it had occurred. You could not travel in time
physically, change anything or contact people you saw. No sound could be
heard since it was only the `ghosts´ of old photons that were retrieved.
The newspaper editors were generous with their ink for the
headlines the next day. As Karen had feared it was mostly conjecture.
Did you marry the wrong girl? Travel back in time and change!
All murders will be solved. Crime will never again pay.
Have an hour with the Trojan War on TV. Live!
Sorry guys. No more two-timing. The missus will get on to you
before you start.
Watch it brats! Your Old Man will use a condom. Retroactively!
That night meetings with mistresses and lovers were cancelled and
crimes were committed only by masked persons. Motels advertised
“sanctuary rooms“ with non-peep warranty. Board rooms and other
premises where business deals were made, were locked and placed under
Professor Hartford felt his chest swell with pride as he sat at the
keyboard of the computer controlling the time camera. They were gathered
in the Oval Room, the President, his
secretary, his wife, a selected few from the President´s staff and Karen
Fields. A few moments ago they had seen President Roosevelt hold his
famous speech after Pearl Harbour in
"Set the camera for the day of my inauguration two years ago,"
the President ordered. "Set it for my speech at eight that
When Hartford had set date and time, the Oval Room could be seen on
the monitor connected to the camera. The room was empty. After a minute
the President came in, took a few dancing steps and stood beside the large
desk. Then the secretary came, made a couple of waltzing turns and smiled.
The President tapped the desk with his open hand and said something. Karen
saw clearly by lip reading that he said "We haven´t done it here
before." She ran to the keyboard and moved the time setting one hour
forward. There the President
was in the middle of his speech.
"The time setting has an accuracy of plus minus twenty four
minutes per year sir, " Hartford said.
"Well, everything can´t be perfect from the beginning",
the President said, smiling while he clenched his fists knuckle-white
behind his back. "Thank you for showing your interesting discovery.
Now I have to return to my duties."
His first duty was to summon his most trusted advisers to a meeting.
"The new invention, the time camera, has great potential but
in the wrong hands it is dangerous. It must be put under the direct
control of the President. Find
suitable legislation to allow us to have Hartford put under constant
surveillance. Take people from our staff. Not the CIA, not
the FBI. Hartford must be prevented from putting up his camera
anywhere were it can cause inconvenience for us. Make a list of
appoint a committee to set up rules for control and usage. Base it on
personal integrity. Cover all aspects. As soon as possible. All this shall
result in a legislation that puts all time research under the
control of the White House. Leak some fears to the press. Social
chaos. Extortion. You`ll think of something. And employ Karen Fields: I
got the impression that she has common sense and
acts effectively on it."
As it turned out, no leaks to the press were needed. It managed all
by itself in a few weeks time, to
whip up a hysteric opinion
against the time camera. Demands were
raised for the
destruction of the camera and prohibition of further research on it.
There was also a positive effect. A large number of crimes were
solved. To prevent jails from brimming,
the camera should be
used only on crimes with a penalty value of
more than five years imprisonment.
Professor Hartford, to start with, got all the glory and fame he
had been dreaming about, but
it was held against him that he did not reveal
the design of the time camera.
How was it possible to convert
physically non existing rays to
TV-pictures? He didn´t tell. Also
the opinion against Time Peeping as it was called, were growing. At his
lectures he was more and more often interrupted by heckling and
demonstrations and even boycott. In
consequence he spent more time in his laboratory, his prison.
He could no longer walk freely outdoors
without being harassed.
Hartford, with a lot of secrecy had
allowed ten time cameras to be
manufactured. The last few vital parts
he had installed
himself , alone and in darkness. At all other times he was in the
company of someone from the White House. He discovered that the pictures
got worse the further back in time you
were viewing. A hundred years back they were unintelligible.
Historians and archeologists were incessantly demanding
improvements but he felt fenced in and
so totally uninspired that
he neither could or wanted to think
of an improvement, especially in the absence of the expected riches. The
state claimed all rights to his discovery.
A committee was appointed to decide
about how he was to be compensated. It was a difficult problem and
it took time.
"Phew, this was the busiest week of my life, " Karen said
at lunch with Martin at the White House canteen. "First the offer to
work at the President´s staff, then
notice to the university and then starting the work to organise the use of
the time camera. I´m glad you took it upon you to talk to Hartford. What
was it like?"
"He is rather depressed you know.
And no wonder. Making the discovery of
the century and be treated like a leper. Cruel. Of course he kept
tight about The Great Secret but he
explained the general design. He refuses to improve the time depth. He was
disappointed in mankind which was just as well he said.
Leaves him with no obligations. I think he is planning some kind of
"I hope he will stay in line. At least he can gloat over the
scientific glory. Isn´t there anything that could be done about the
camera. A hundred years is nothing for an archeologist."
"As if I din´t know. I´m a former TV-technician and
photographer and I think
Hartford has missed some of
the basic things. Actually, in the present form you can´t adjust anything,
neither the image element , the power field or the crosslight. I´ll do
some testing tonight."
"Isn´t that dangerous? The image element will explode if you
touch it, wont it?"
"Not if you touch it. But if you try to remove it and see what
makes it tick. Then the last thing you hear is a bang." Back in his
office Martin was thinking of how quickly things can change. Although
Karen did not know Martin very well, she had demanded to have
him as technical
adviser when she took the job at the White House. He had accepted, taken
leave from the newspaper, been interrogated and he now had an office at
the department of energy. All
of it in a few days. After that he had spent two days with Hartford to
study the time camera. He was responsible with his life for
the one that was
exclusively to be used as directed by the President.
Martin had borrowed some tools from a workshop in the building and
now he he was manipulating the camera.
He made power field and cross light adjustable and fixed
provisionally the image element to be movable for better time resolution.
The building where he had his office was thirty years old. He set the
camera for minus sixty years and pointed it slightly downwards since the office was on the tenth floor.
The picture that appeared on the monitor screen showed bushes,
slightly out of focus. Martin tried different settings
of the new controls and the resolution improved. He continued
further back in time and saw a street with old cars, with horses and
carriages, then only a footpath and finally only vegetation. All the time
he had to use the controls to get the picture clear and sharp. He had been
right! But did he really want
the camera to be perfect? When he raised the camera to look further away
details were obscured in a haze. After several attempts to get a
clearer picture he realised that the camera
could "see" only a couple of hundred yards away.
Strangely, he was relieved for
the limitation and hoped it would
The next day as they sat in Karens room at the White House, she
told him that the President wanted to see a place in Virginia 1862. There
his grand grandfather had been involved in a skirmish during the civil war.
It was more than a hundred years ago so she had not promised for sure, but
"You sounded so hopeful yesterday when you said you would
change some settings, so I was convinced you´d manage at least two
hundred years. Wont you?"
"Sure. Yes two hundred years is okay. Plus."
" I knew it! You´re a genius Martin."
"Not at all. I just did what any one with some knowledge of
photography would have got on to. Hartford may be a genius within his
field, but he i suffering from partial brain death when it comes to
simple technical matters. But Karen, why did you chose me for this
job? You don´t really know very much about me, do you?"
"I know more than you think. I did some research on you. I
wont tell you what I dug up but
I noticed a few things. You have a sound
judgement and a broad
education. I conclude that
you are good at finding new solutions to old problems. What made me think
of you in the first place was our talk at
the press conference. You realised from the start the dangers with
the time camera. Both ethical and practical. And when I met the others in
the committee, I realised we needed some one like you. Each and everyone
of them had a dream of his
own to change the world. Rewrite
history, see Jesus crucified and start a religious revival,
start a crusade against crime. All with personal gain as the bottom
line. I don´t like any one of them as a person. And they are joking
openly about taking the time camera to this and that hotel room, well then
they would catch the President with his pants down. I think it is scary.
We have to get a firm grip on that camera."
"I have been thinking a lot about this. Let´s do like this: I
contact an electronics design company
and get the controls mounted
in a professional way. Then I´ll have them install a new program
in the camera computer that makes it impossible to use the camera unless
it is programmed centrally by the White House.
Specially for each occasion. If someone wants to
catch a scene from 11 October
1752, that´s the only time it can be used for. To turn on the
camera at all a personal code must be used. That way
we prevent people who are allowed to use the camera record
something in a motel room instead of the Columbus land fall in `India´."
"Sounds good to me. That will put a stop to some personal
plans for the camera that a
couple of members of the
committee told me today."
"Shouldn´t there be only mature and judicious men and women
in your committee?"
"Yes but they seem to be most mature when it comes to sensing
where they can make money. Or make dreams come true. But it´s the boy in
them. Do you have any boy´s dreams Martin?"
"Sure. One of
them is about two persons at
the Captains Inn at Chesapeake . They are eating
fresh lobster and feel great.
Now I´ve got into my head that it must be you
and me. What do you think?"
"I was just on my way there so it must be me. Let´s go there
and see if the other one is you."
Martin and Tyrone were walking about in the shrub at Brown´s Gap
in the national park of Shenandoah. Tyrone was the nephew of
the President and would take
over the responsibility for
the White House camera. The
President´s grandfather had
been injured in a skirmish at this place during the Civil War and now they
were trying to find the right time and place.
"Now we have been fiddling around
in this damned shrub for
three hours, " said Tyrone. "I think it´s the wrong day. Or the
old good for nothing has imagined the whole thing."
"We have only searched the summit of the pass yet. Let´s go
down a bit."
A few hundred yards downhill they finally saw some soldiers in grey.
Martin set the camera at `fast forward´ After a while they saw he
soldiers start and look to the west.
"Probably they heard a shot. Let´s go the way they looked."
The terrain was difficult and
it took them almost an hour to find the scene of the firing. They walked
up to the summit and reversed the time ninety minutes and directed the
the western slope. Soon they saw four
riding Yankees approaching,
a lieutenant and three soldiers. They dismounted and three of
them crawled up to the
summit. One held the horses. Martin compared a photo of
the President´s grandfather and saw
that it depicted
the horse watch. Puffs of smoke came out of the grey clad soldiers
weapons and the three Yankees
started to withdraw. The
horses were getting exited by the firing and `grandfather´ scratched his
forehead against a broken branch. The other three came back and they all
set off, galloping down the slope.
"Was this all?" Tyrone said. "And for this e have
spent half a day. And this HERO wont do any good in an election campaign.
Brother, when I get my hands on this camera I wont
be running around in the scrub.
Then you´ll see real pictures. I´ll be master of
the White House.
A few months after the cameras had been made, the first one broke
down. It was placed on a bench
in the laboratory. There was a `puff´ and the camera started to burn. The
fire was extinguished but it it was too late. It was destroyed. The
following weeks the cameras broke, one by one. Martin realized it was not
chance, Hartford must have built in a self destroying mechanism
that set the cameras on fire. But how
had he done it? Martin was sure there was no electronic timer
involved. It must be something to do with chemicals. An acid slowly
eating through a coating? The remains of an image element was analyzed. It
contained a large number of elements
and compounds.Hartford probably had
put in several
elements extra to confuse and make
the deduction of the true composition of the image element more difficult,
if not impossible.
In spite of the efforts of scientists all over the world, nobody
could come up with a solution to the secret. How was it, how had
Hartford put it? ´The whole idea with the time camera is so illogical
that I needed a totally
improbable and unconnected association to
to get it.´
Martin had racked his brains for several days and sleepless nights
and suddenly he had it. Sodium! The metal that immediately catches
fire at contact with oxygen. Of course, Hartford had
coated the image element in sodium and then sealed it with plastic
film to prevent contact with air. Any damage of the plastic film would
cause the whole thing to burn. There were no explosives involved as
Hartford had made them believe, but something just as good for protection.
Probably there was some seam in the plastic sealing that was not
sufficiently air tight, oxygen in the air had penetrated and set fire to
the picture element. Was it calculated or accidental?
The next day Martin started to make his camera air tight. It was in
form and size like a shoe box.He enclosed it in thick plastic and made air
tight connections for cables
and controls. It took a few days and he did it in his own office. Now he
would call the head of the Time Camera Custodians at the laboratory
to learn how many cameras were still working, how many he could
save. As he dialled the
number he started to hesitate. Was it in the interest of humanity to be
able to see backwards in time? To
have the access of a device
that must be guarded at all times and nevertheless sooner or later was
bound to fall i the wrong hands . He was thinking of
Tyrone and the people in Karens committee. No, the world would
have one problem less without the time camera. When he heard the harsh military voice answering, he made up
"Hi, it´s Martin. I have to report that my camera has broken
down. Only soot and ashes
left. Do you have one I could borrow?"
"No, there are only two left now and my orders are to keep
them here whoever wants them."
The President at first was disappointed
at the result of his grandfather´s war effort.
But with all the time cameras ruined, his spin doctors would allow
him to to say he had seen the his
in his next campaign speech. He saw
new ways to use the time camera posthumously. Now no one could
check what he had seen or not seen. Time
peeping consequently should be banned. The news of the destruction of the
time cameras was generally
received with relief. To
prevent new cameras to be made, it was suggested that Hartford should be
isolated on an island like Napoleon or killed directly. But powerful
interests wanted differently. In
spite of the knowledge that general opinion
and the President was
against it, negotiations were
taken up with Hartford.
Hartford felt he had a strong position. This time he would not be
considerate or manageable, he would not bend.
When he had put together the ten cameras he was fully aware that
people would try to find out how they were made. He had more than one
hundred elements and chemical compounds in his laboratory and he knew
exactly where each of them was placed on shelves and in cupboards. When he
mixed the compound forming the sublight sensitive coating, he did it in
total darkness. All that could be deduced afterwards, was that something
had been heated and deposited on a silicon crystal. Hartford was still the
only one in the world who knew how to make a picture element for sublight.
But to what use? Had his life
got easier or more pleasant by the one million dollars he had been given
as an advance payment by the state? No. He lived
his life among security guards and could not go outdoors without
risking to be kidnapped, tortured or killed
by those who wanted or did not want
time cameras to be allowed. There was only one way to regain a
normal way of life and he had planned
for a long time to make it happen.
One day Hartford got the chance. His supervisor at the laboratory
left his mobile telephone on the table when he went to the mens room.
Hartford immediately called his colleague Sally Croydon who he had dated a
few times. Even if their talk mostly had concerned nuclear physics, they
considered themselves to be almost engaged. Sally thought that Hartford
had been unfairly treated and
welcomed a chance to help him. They agreed that Sally would park her car
in the alley at the back of the house where he lived and put the
keys in an envelope in his mail box. On her suggestion she would also put
the keys to to her parents summer
house in the glove compartment in the car. That way he would have
somewhere to hide.
"But you can´t stay there very long. They´re bound to find
out where you are,. Where are you going then.?"
"I will need ten days. You see the only way for me to be
free is to write a paper on my discovery. Theory and practise. The
technique will be available to everyone and the reason for having me under
surveillance will be removed. Of course I cannot give a thing like that to the idiots at the daylies. It is to vulgar a medium. No, as usual I will let
The Science publish my paper and I will send copies to some of my
colleagues at the larger universities."
On the next morning, just before they were leaving the flat,
Hartford told his guard he had to go to the bathroom. From there he
climbed out on the fire escape and down to the street. There he found
Sallys car and drove away. The country house was in North Carolina and it
took all day to get there. Tired but satisfied Hartford moved in. The
contents of the deep freeze and his
own purchase at a supermarket, would last him the time he needed.
There was a great ruckus when it was discovered that Hartford had
escaped. He was described as dangerous and the FBI was alerted land wide.
Hartford´s incentive was
considered to be economical.
Probably by discontent with the compensation he had got.
Would he make more time cameras? Would he sell to
anybody? What if the mafia got hold of
Sally Croydon was interrogated but denied all knowledge of the
escape. She had a watertight alibi. Investigations lead nowhere until one
of Sally's colleagues tipped the FBI that she no longer had a car. The
telephones Sally had access to were tapped and after a week Hartford
called her. The call was traced to her parent's summer house and
preparations for action were made. As representatives of the White House
committee, Karen and Martin were allowed to join as observers.
There was no one there when they arrived at the summer house. The
men from the FBI were posted in hiding around the house, waiting for
Hartford to return. They had not long to wait. He came, parked the car and
walked towards the house. As he unprepared heard someone shout, "Stop
or I'll shoot" he panicked and ran. Three FBI men shot simultaneously
and Hartford fell.. Martin ran forward and lifted Hartfords head. A
trickle of blood came out of his mouth. He wheezed.
"Hid....money. Staunton copying service.......Get. Send ....
Hartfords eyes became vacant, his body relaxed. He was dead.
Karen was shocked and yelled at the FBI men. It had not been
necessary to shoot.. Her criticism had no effect and the men started to
search the house. On behalf of the committee Karen took care of all papers
Hartford had left. As far as Martin could judge, there were no completed
notations about the secret of the picture element.
Martin and Karen had
arrived in the same car and left the house together. On their way back
they stopped at the Staunton copying service and fetched Hartfords paper.
In spite of his ignorance of the advanced mathematics, Martin realized at
once that the time camera
secret lay before him. His fingertips tickled as he thought he in a way
had the fate of the world in his hands. In silence and on mutual agreement
the drove to Martins house.
"Didn't you mention once that you have a fireplace," said
"You are right Karen. We could have an indoor barbecue.
We do have enough material to make a fire, haven't we?"
"Yes material to build a fire we have. In abundance."
Martin found some sausages in the deep freezer and they set fire to
Hartfords paper in the fireplace. They watched the flames in silence. "Goodbye
time cameras and all problems, " Karen said.
"Almost," said Martin and fetched his time camera. He cut
the airtight plastic enclosure with a pair of scissors. "Soon the
time peeping era will come to an end with a puff. When all committees are
dispersed, what do you say about coming with me to Egypt and have a look
at the pyramids, real time?"
"I thought you'd never ask. I'd love to."