Novell                 Short SF story     by Malte Ellström


           Old Times   


                   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.

                "Any questions?"

                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 them anyhow."

                 "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. Okay?"

                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 guard.


                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 1941.

                "Set the camera for the day of my inauguration two years ago,"  the President ordered. "Set it for my speech at eight that evening. "

                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  taboo-sites.  Then 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 revenge."

                "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 be unrepairable. 

                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 maybe.

                "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 camera  downwards  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 his mind.

                "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 grandfather´s  bravery  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  a camera?

                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.

                " Staunton copying service.......Get. Send .... Science. Edit....edito...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 Karen.

                 "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."