Where do I begin – by saying that I am the worst criminal ever – that I have caused more deaths and pain and suffering than any other man or even war in history? You would laugh and call me a lunatic, but I know what I have done, and the world will never be the same.
You have never heard of me. I’m the anonymous guy who may have sat behind you in school, but you can’t quite remember his name – an oblique silhouette from the corner of your eye that gave no cause for a second glance. Yet your life has been irreparably damaged by me. You are, in fact, far worse off as a direct result of my existence; and for that, I apologize.
If it were widely known what I have done, I would surely be put to death in the most lauded execution in the history of the world. But how could the world ever know… no one would ever believe me.
This letter is my final confession – a confession that I’m sure will go largely unheeded. I write it only to explain my suicide, and in the hope that someone, somewhere, might come to believe in what is possible… what was possible in another world – the world I came from – the world I destroyed….
I miss Douglas. He was my childhood sweetheart. To you, ours would seem an odd marriage – a marriage between science and religion – but our marriage was my reason for living. Without it… without him, I cannot bring myself to smile again.
Douglas Sanchez is… was a Catholic Archbishop in the Archdiocese of Chicago. We had such a life together with two beautiful, smart daughters and more than our share of contentment. I worked at the Bell-Tone Subatomic Propulsion Development Lab, also in Chicago, on the project that killed him and countless millions of other innocents, and forever changed the face of the planet.
You will of course be less interested in my loss than in your own, so I will try outline a brief history of what, one short week ago, was the world in which you… all of you lived.
One week ago, the President of the United States was a black woman, Anita Thornbury. A quick internet search produces a presidential history that is largely unknown to me, so I can tell you that the presidential succession over the past hundred years, with the exceptions of Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton, is vastly different. Even Clinton’s history is different, however. I knew nothing about a sex scandal, for example. Lost to history is the great congressional corruption cleansing of 1957, and I am unfamiliar with all the wars since the Great War, which you call WWI. There was no WWII, Korea, Vietnam, no Gulf War and no Iraq.
Just one week ago, in March of 2007, the World Trade Center stood as a shining symbol of the free market. One week ago, I had never heard of Middle Eastern terrorists or Wal-Mart. One week ago, I drove a hydrogen-powered car and most Americans lived in smart homes and condos. Even your architecture is bleak compared to the Chicago skyline I left behind, though I have only myself to blame for the current lack of vision.
The world I left behind was largely bereft of the prejudice and disease that now seem to govern your fear and hatred. I cannot understand how hatred dominates the global attitudes and mores. If you must hate, then hate me – before I intervened last week, you were less hateful anyway.
A week ago, AIDS never happened – the terrible disease that in your history killed my husband shortly after he graduated high school in 1982. Our life together never even happened. I guess it’s only fitting that the joke’s on me – I am left alone, an apparent anomaly. In your world, I was never born.
In 1961, a gay man by the name of Axel Steinbrenner won the Nobel Peace Prize for his groundbreaking work on human rights, forever changing the prejudicial attitudes of much of the world’s population. His “Nation of Nations” speech in 1949 was a landmark in the history of human development, leading to the most comprehensive international cooperative effort on record, virtually ending world hunger. One short week ago, his famous quote, “We are one people of many peoples” graced the marble cornerstones of many of the world’s governmental buildings. Similarly, a Jewish doctor by the name of Jergen Strauss earned the world’s homage in 1970 when he discovered the process by which disease mutates, leading, by 1978, to the eradication of most incurable diseases including all forms of cancer and even herpes. Of course, you have never heard of either of these men. Both of them died in concentration camps during WWII.
I mentioned earlier that there have been no major wars since the First World War, but you may never comprehend the full reality of that statement. Without expending such huge investments in war, the nations of the world grew wealthy. Poverty had been all-but eradicated. Thanks to the Global Health Initiative and Shared Health Resources Act, all of humanity enjoyed the guarantee of healthcare.
I’m not sure where in your history America became a global “superpower,” though it seems to be largely a result of your military buildup during the Second World War. In my world, Americans were gentler in spirit. We gained some prestige through our remarkable ingenuity in the global marketplace, but did not make a habit out of throwing our weight around… militarily or otherwise. Our military strength was bolstered mainly by warm and cooperative relationships with our allies around the world.
The American congressional corruption scandal of 1957 was a turning point in American politics that brought our democracy to its knees. Some 120 members of congress were indicted for making policies based on campaign contributions and gifts from lobbyists. Of those, 92 were convicted and 58 served time in prison. As terrible a blow as it was to our national pride, what emerged was a nation much stronger. Never again would Americans place such blind faith in our elected officials. It was a wakeup call that made Americans realize the danger of unchecked power in Washington. We began by instituting procedures that encouraged transparency in the political process, valuing truth and disclosure over efficiency. This process was greatly enhanced when, in 1968, the first personal computers were made available. By 1975, 60% of the American public had access to near real-time monitors and opinion surveys of congressional activity in key areas such as education, trade issues, health, security/civil liberties, and a new website called “the Corporate Watchdog” that guarded against monopolistic practices by the largest businesses.
One week ago, Israel didn’t exist, though the moderate Islamic people had allowed the reconstruction of King Solomon’s Temple, making Jerusalem a huge tourist draw. Still, the nation of Palestine had a vast Jewish population and even a Jewish Secretary of State, among other key positions in that government. Moreover, Christians, Jews and Islamic people had come to believe they worship the same god, bringing all three religions into close alignment. American televangelists, like those around the world, preached about love and peace, embracing differences in all people.
Communism gradually fizzled out in the 20th century, replaced in each case by budding democratic republics. The last country to make the transition was China, in 1972. While there were many theories, it was widely believed their decision was encouraged as a prerequisite to their inclusion in the Global Health Initiative.
A colossal amount of global resources had been employed to develop extraterrestrial technologies, and already we had a colony of 120 living in a facility in lunar orbit. Several private vehicles mined rare minerals from asteroid dust, and a dedicated satellite orbited the sun inside Mercury’s orbit, gathering valuable information on solar processes – a direct precursor to the technology I shall discuss in a moment.
Einstein’s theories were never used to build a bomb. Instead, they were employed in a multinational initiative to develop faster-than-light transportation, which is where my story intersects the vector of human history.
Founded in 1940, the Bell-Tone Corporation started by making hearing aids. Then, in the 1950s, they opened an advanced research facility to study sound waves. As computer technology advanced throughout the 1960s, they branched out into sound and light wave research, which put them in a position of opportunity when, in 1984, the “Faster than Light” global transportation initiative was formed and funded. Bell-Tone, having the best light wave research facilities in the world, was an easy choice for the multinational committee to win the contract for propulsion development.
The idea was, obviously, fast transportation. The benefits of such technology were profound and infinite… from delivering product and supplies to medevac to mass evacuations during natural disasters to vacations to business to interstellar exploration and travel. The list of benefits was endless – the downside was zero. Or so we thought.
I came to work for Bell-Tone in 1995 as a project manager after a highly competitive interview process. Ironically, I wouldn’t have even been looking for jobs in Chicago had Douglas not been recently assigned there by the Catholic Church as a priest. But there I was, applying for one of the most sought-after positions in the world – on the cutting edge of the faster-than-light initiative. I never really asked why I was selected from the hundreds of applicants. I suppose the fact I had been a Rhodes Scholar didn’t hurt; or my subatomic light particle research experience, or the fact I had served on the National Technology Advisory Council. My guess is that I was comfortable enough, in the fourth round of interviews, to tell a self-effacing joke about two scientists and a golfer.
I was in charge of four propulsion groups, and over the years we made tremendous progress in the field of field-bending. The eyes of the world were upon us as we conquered issue after issue, gradually progressing toward what was widely believed to be imminent success.
Our counterparts in other fields progressed as well. Vehicle design, assigned to Protidyne, a French company, was in the final stages by 2006, as was the energy contractor. Energy had, interestingly, become a major focal point in the overall scheme of the project, given the enormous amount required to make any of this work. The generator, developed by Eaton Energy Corp in Seattle, utilized a fascinating technology called “symbolic fusion” to amplify fusion reactions to millions of times more powerful than that produced in typical fusion reactors. Still, the problem of stored energy was a major one. In order to be effective, the device would have to be able to store enough energy for a single return trip. Most faster-than-light journeys would need to return to their point of origin, and one of our basic parameters was to presume that the destination points would not necessarily have symbolic fusion power available. We briefly looked at placing a reactor on the vehicle itself, but this was not possible due to size and a frightening potential for disaster known as the “Eaton paradox.” Simply put, the paradox is similar to trying to lift yourself off the ground by pulling on your own hair.
So before we could make our first “test flight” we had to solve the problem of energy storage… enough energy to return to the point of origin. Here, the project bogged down for months, until Mathias Billings, a seventeen-year-old prodigy at MIT, hit upon an idea. Our paradigm had always focused on capacitors and traditional battery storage, which was a mistake. Mathias solved the problem by starting at the finishing point – having scooped up energy along the initial voyage, like a wind-up toy. The process easily stored more energy than we would need, since the physics of field bending provided for a return trip that was vastly more energy-friendly than the initial field disruption. We were therefore able to place a modified fusion reactor aboard the vessel. The reactor was to “store” the energy of the initial journey as a kind of subatomic “memory,” which would then be “played back” for the return flight.
All of this was so revolutionary that no one considered the necessary repercussions of the design. It wasn’t until February of 2007, as I sat staring blankly at a particular algorithm on my computer screen, that it hit me. The “storage reactor” wasn’t simply storing field-bending energy… it was storing time! I grew instantly dizzy with the ramifications of my revelation – oblivious even to a drop of drool I had allowed to escape from my mouth. I reached up to wipe my lip at the precise moment the droplet landed on a sheet of paper as it materialized from nowhere.
Yeah… I said “from nowhere.” On my desk was a sheet of paper that had not been there a moment before, upon which settled a small, moist droplet of drool, and on which had been scrawled, in my handwriting, the words “Destroy this document immediately, then make another one just like it and send it back.”
I sat staring at the document, perfectly motionless, feeling as if I could not move. How treacherous was the landscape over which I now gazed – how infinite the potential for disaster? How could I, in my right mind, allow our grand experiment to continue? Would not any thinking, ethical person immediately sabotage the project? Would not even my own life be a miniscule price to pay to prevent this technology from being exploited to the detriment of humanity… indeed, of all life?
But then I realized that my decision had already been made. I had already decided to continue; else the paper would not have appeared on my desk. I realized at length that my scientific curiosity was more powerful than my fear -- I had elected to peer briefly through the looking glass – to see what no one had seen before. I would move through time. But I would proceed with caution. I would start with something small, a piece of paper, for example.
It was growing late. Most of my comrades had left for the day. How could I completely destroy the page in front of me, I wondered, leaving no trace… no potential for paradoxes unknown – the possible paradox of simultaneous existence of identical matter, for example? Just to be safe, I didn’t want any molecular trace of the page on my desk to exist at the same moment in time as the page I was about to write. At length, I chose the reactor. With tweezers, I carefully placed the page into the expansion chamber of the symbolic fusion reactor we had on premises, knowing all molecular traces of the paper would be consumed in the process of going on line. (In retrospect, my excessive caution was likely unnecessary, since the sheet of paper is itself a different object from one instant in time to the next, given the fact of its constant molecular motion.)
Then I pulled, from a fresh ream, a sheet on which I scribbled the words: “Destroy this document immediately, then make another one just like it and send it back.”
First, I considered that the proximity of all the destinations involved in my initial experiment would allow for the page to be sent remotely, without the need to be accompanied by the transportation vessel. I set the equipment for faster than light travel to our test facility on the other side of the Bell-Tone Development facility, then proceeded to the “memory reactor” that powered and controlled the return trip. Here, I imposed the algorithm that would make the return anything but typical – setting coordinates slightly above the surface of my desk and forcing the presumed constant, which literally described the speed of time, to be instead a variable quantity. I couldn’t help but smile at how elegant the algorithm appeared on the screen – like a page of music in Mozart’s own handwriting. And like Mozart, the only thing better than the manuscript’s proposition of music is the playing of it – the effect of the music transcending its beauty on the printed page.
It was a truly bizarre, if somewhat anticlimactic, sensation… dutifully transmitting the page I had already received and destroyed, the only proof of my success having been witnessed hours earlier. I stared blankly at the empty transmission chamber, considering my next move.
“Caution,” I thought. Moving through time was fraught with danger beyond reason. Fearful of the repercussions of the technology in the wrong hands, I resolved to keep my secret to myself… at least for the time being. Furthermore, I knew that any experiment would require the utmost caution against altering the past in any appreciable way. Any incursions into the past, I knew, must be observational only. Great care would need to be taken not to materially vary prior events.
So I asked myself, with some glee, what event in history I would most like to observe. My first thoughts were of Abraham Lincoln. By way of researching my subject, I looked him up and printed out a few paragraphs from the history. Little did I know that these few paragraphs would soon hold the only dubious “proof” that my world – the world – had ever existed.
“Against strong opposition, Abraham Lincoln (1809-1901), at the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, insisted on a gentle, loving approach to southern “reparations,” resisting the northern consensus that a more severe response was called for. His tempered approach, including the recognition of many existing Southern state governments, led to a quick re-integration of the South into the Union. His policy of the “Fruits of Forgiveness” ultimately made him the only candidate acceptable by both North and South during the Presidential campaign of 1868, leading to his unprecedented election to a third term. To this day, Lincoln is remembered as the only American President to serve more than two terms in office.
“Most importantly, Lincoln is remembered as the President whose gentle approach to postwar reparations led to a more stable postwar environment, reducing hostilities still felt by the South. This approach and the post Civil War successes felt here in America would have a profound effect on twentieth century politics around the world, most notably the Treaty of Versailles after the Great War.
“Lincoln had been friends with Walt Whitman (1819-1892) since 1869, when Whitman was still working in Washington. In 1873, Whitman suffered a stroke and moved to Camden, New Jersey to convalesce. Lincoln followed suit by moving to Philadelphia, just across the Delaware River from Camden, in 1880 following the death of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Their friendship flourished after that, with frequent afternoon meetings at various Camden restaurants.
“In 1887, the Saturday Evening Post ran a story about Lincoln and Whitman that referred to the two gentlemen collectively as “Those Grand Old Men”—a moniker that came to define a new category of acquaintanceship between two men. Though their sexuality was not spoken of, Whitman’s and Lincoln’s friendship in their later years was embraced even during their lives as an archetype of a relationship between two uniquely American minds. Their subsequent essays, both individually and co-authored, skirting the issues of same-sex friendship and even sensuality, struck a nerve in an emerging American gentility; and they had unwittingly begun the process of mitigating prejudice against homosexuals. In later years, they will be viewed by most as founders of the gay civil liberties movement. Lincoln in particular gained iconic status as a cultural hero among proponents of gay rights.
“Interestingly, neither man ever publicly admitted homosexual tendencies. Whitman rejected the thought outright, while Lincoln took the high road and refused to respond to such questions altogether. Both men are forgiven for their position on the subject, however, given the puritanical atmosphere of the era. Such topics were not considered proper in “polite society.”
“In 1882, a young Oscar Wilde (1854-1920) paid a visit to Whitman, whose “Leaves of Grass” had already gained enormous popularity around the world and was especially inspirational to the gay culture in Britain in the late 19th century. There, he met Lincoln, with whom he kept correspondence until Lincoln’s death in 1901.
“In 1905, Wilde produced a comedy entitled “Those Grand old Men,” ostensibly about the relationship between Lincoln and Whitman. The play was poorly received, however, and closed after only a week in London, yet it left a lasting impression and later became a cult classic within the emerging gay culture. While it made no explicit reference to sex, its comedic inferences were unmistakable and considered in poor taste by conservative audiences of the time.”
Over the following few days, I said nothing to anyone of my revelatory experiment, but set about the task of secretly planning my next move – a short excursion into history. My original hope of observing that famous meeting between Lincoln, Whitman and Wilde was too fraught with danger – the danger my presence might cause a disruption of their private histories. A public appearance, I considered, would provide the best opportunity for an observation unnoticed and unaffecting the course of events that must follow. Ultimately, I settled on Lincoln’s speech at the conclusion of the Civil War… the one where he began to lay out his vision of reconstructing the Union, just days before the thwarted assassination attempt by John Wilkes Booth.
On the morning of Tuesday, March 13, 2007, I kissed Douglas goodbye and packed our daughters in the car for the ride to school. After the kiss, my gaze lingered on him for a moment and he asked me, “Is everything all right?”
“Yes,” I responded. “I just have a lot on my mind. Have I told you today how much I love you?”
“As a matter of fact, you have,” he smiled, “but only twice.”
“Third time’s a charm,” I said, as I walked out the door.
That vision of him, standing there in the doorway, is stamped in my memory like an indictment. It was the last time I would ever see him.
I was late getting to work that day, having stopped to purchase from a theatrical costuming company some period clothing and from a numismatic firm about a hundred dollars in period currency and coin. How stupid I was not to have brought a tiny video recorder… but I had much on my mind and was mainly concerned with not altering history.
Our faster-than-light transportation project was, for all practical purposes, finished. We had sent live animals from one side of the vast Bell-Tone complex to the other and back again without a hitch. Press releases had been digested by the world’s population, though as with any major technological innovation, few had truly considered the benefits they would soon enjoy from it. Soon, transportation would be as easy and as inexpensive as a phone call or an email.
Still, the corporate rollout process can be cumbersome. The first human transmission would be televised and coordinated with political leaders and movie stars and, of course, scientists. I had myself become quite a celebrity over the previous few months, especially since the project assembly from the various contractors had been assigned to our Chicago facility. All of this had placed me in the best position, among all those great minds who put the project together, for interviews and (dare I say) public adoration.
The members of my four teams found all of this public attention quite humorous, and took the opportunity to chide me at every turn. “Hey, hero,” was a common greeting at work, and this particular morning, I found a note taped to my monitor. It was a checklist of things to do, all of which had been checked off as complete. The list started with “drop kids off at school,” and “pick up laundry,” and ended with “change the world.”
We were all preoccupied that day with preparations for the project’s televised global rollout in two weeks. My personal preoccupation therefore went largely unnoticed – the preoccupation with my secret journey, this evening, through time.
As was my habit, I hung around the office after work, waiting for the building to clear out. At 6:30, I retrieved the 1860 clothes from my briefcase and prepared for the trip.
The vessel, dubbed the Proteus by its designing firm, Protidyne, looks a bit like an elongated pewter-colored egg on its side… considered a fitting model, since the project represented the birth of a new era in transportation. Our prototype… the one you’ll find in an overgrown field just west of your current Chicago, was large enough for only a single person, though future models were blueprinted to carry hundreds.
My first task was to get enough stored-up energy in the memory reactor to both convert to time and to return home. Accordingly, I set the unmanned vessel for transmission to a point in space about halfway to Neptune’s orbit and back. The vessel was gone only a few seconds, and I was almost surprised when it returned undamaged with enough surplus energy to penetrate a hundred twenty years of history, just as I had planned.
I chose a location just north of Washington, in what, according to some Civil war sketches, was a thicket of trees. I set up the failsafe for “unsurveyed destination” to prevent myself from materializing inside a tree or a hill – since even a blade of grass could cause dire and unpredictable results – then the date of April 11, 1865 and a time of 4:00 am. In the unlikely event that I could not return, I also set the memory reactor to return automatically on the morning of April 12, with or without me, so that no trace of the equipment would be left behind.
Wearing the black pants, waistcoat and white shirt I had purchased at the theatrical shop, I emptied my pockets of all but the antique cash and a copy of a Civil War era map. For some reason, I also elected to carry the few pages of history I had printed out. In retrospect, it was a stupid thing to do, though now I’m happy to have them, since they are all I have left of my world.
I barely hesitated, once I found myself sitting in the prototype, to initiate the startup sequence. Once the reactors were online, I received the three green lights that signaled system readiness. The label on the fateful button was comically straightforward… like an old-fashioned fax machine; it simply read, “Send.”
Nothing happened at first, besides an odd deja-vu sort of subjective experience that time was slowing. It felt very much like those last instants of time before one is involved in a car accident, when every detail seems to slow as the adrenaline rushes through your mind, watching the offending vehicle plow toward you. The first thing I noticed was the sensation in my ears that the ambient sounds in the room were fading, or rather “stopped up,” like when your head dips beneath the surface of a pool. This was followed by a ripple in my field of view that, starting at the front of the craft, quickly enveloped everything. For a moment, I felt weightless, then immediately my weight returned to me, exactly as though my car had just crested a small hill….
It was dark outside, the lights of the test facility conspicuously absent… the only illumination provided by my instrument panel. I heard the sound of what must have been the branch of a tree scraping gently against the side of the craft and, beneath that, the slow drip of water on leaves. It was raining.
My excursion, I realized, had been poorly planned. It was dark and it was raining and I had no flashlight, no umbrella, no compass…. I hadn’t even packed a lunch. But I didn’t care. I was lost in a late nineteenth century forest six miles north of the White House, and all I could think was, “I’m actually here!”
Given my circumstances, it would have been pointless to leave the dry safety of the vessel, so I resolved to wait for first light. The clock on the instrument panel read “2013,” or 8:13 pm – the time when I departed from Chicago – but I knew it was 4:00 am now, and I knew that sunrise in Washington, DC on April 11, 1865 was at 5:32 am, giving me an hour and a half to calm down and collect my thoughts. I powered down the vessel, and sat in the darkness; the drip-drip-dripping of the rain marking time, like a grandfather clock in the foyer of some great Victorian house.
Gradually, the dripping slowed, and then stopped altogether. Gradually, my eyes adjusted to the darkness, and the outlines of trees emerged, silhouetted against the emerging glow of the early morning sky. I slid back the door just as the sound of a distant rooster announced the arrival of morning in the otherwise silent environs.
Since I had placed myself just west of a north/south running road on my map, I headed out in the general direction of the rising sun – my footsteps through the forest bramble muted by moisture. The cool air smelled sweet and clean. The more distance I put between myself and the Proteus, the more I felt at home, considering myself, for the time-being, a resident-in-fact of Lincoln’s milieu.
Finally, after about a half-mile of trudging through the thick, hilly underbrush, I came upon a clearing that bordered a finely constructed dirt road; built up to better shed rainwater. There, I headed south, picking up my pace a bit, and quickly came upon an intersection with a smaller road that led off to my right. A short, hand painted wooden sign read “J Seldon.”
Within a quarter mile, I came upon what appeared to be a roadside stand or farmer’s market, a small wooden roofed structure with no walls and enclosed only by tables on three sides. As I drew closer, a sign on one of the posts revealed it to be a toll booth, though it was currently unmanned. The booth sat at an intersection, providing options of one left turn toward the northeast, two right turns headed northwest and southwest, or continuing on my present path, which headed almost due south. The roads were labeled “Milkhouse Ford,” and “Blagden’s Mill,” and revealed that my current path was called “Georgia Ave.” Beyond the intersection, more private drives and a few farm houses close to the road indicated a more densely populated area. I was getting close to town.
After walking another mile down Georgia Avenue, I was startled to hear the sound of singing. Within a few minutes, I was just able to make out the words: “The Union forever,” the song went, “hurrah, boys, hurrah. Down with the traitor, up with the star as we rally ‘round the flag, boys, rally once again, shouting the battle cry of freedom.” And now I could see a small detachment of twenty or so soldiers, wearing Union blues and carrying packs and rifles as they walked across the road from my left to right. By the time I arrived at the intersection at which they had crossed, they were a few hundred feet down a road called “Rock Cr.” The sign in that direction read “U.S. Military Asylum,” and the one on my path read “Washington 2 Mi.” Hearing horse’s hooves, I turned to see a horse-drawn wagon, laden with produce, headed toward town.
“Good morning,” I shouted as the driver passed me. “Good morning to you, sir,” the driver responded, tipping his straw hat. By now, a few dogs were barking as well. Washington was waking up.
By the time I reached Florida Avenue, another mile or so down the road, I had been joined in my journey toward town by some twenty fellow pedestrians of various ages, some traveling alone, and others in groups of two and three. Every few minutes, another horsedrawn cart would pass, as well as the faster horseback riders, both civilian and military. Florida Avenue represented a clear demarcation between city and country, the land to the north clearly divided into farms, while the area to the south was composed of smaller lots, containing rows of white one- and two-story homes. Here, the street signs were professionally made. It began to dawn on me that I actually had traveled back in time. I took a deep breath of the sweet air. Exhaling, I said “Welcome to Washington,” out loud.
The air was filled with the smells of breakfast, awakening in me a powerful hunger, and I rapidly revised my plans to include a meal. While I had originally planned no contact whatsoever, my earlier greeting got me thinking that some minor contact would be unlikely to alter the course of history. A passing greeting or one additional customer in a restaurant would not, I considered at length, cause any great tragic changes in the path of human events to follow. Now, of course – through the window of hindsight – my naiveté looks criminal.
Just inside Washington proper, Georgia Ave. became 7th Street, and precisely at the intersection of 7th and G Streets, the dirt pavement gave way to cobblestone, and the homes to businesses. I was downtown. By now, the streets were alive with activity, people of all sorts hurriedly walked or rode hurriedly to and fro. On the outskirts, the flow of traffic had been toward town, though here, it would be hard to discern the most popular direction. The business signs were straightforward, composed of a single word, such as “Meats.” Some added a family brand, such as “C Miller, Dry Goods.”
The noise level was now significantly higher as well, hooves clacking on cobblestone, and voices echoing off brick buildings. The air downtown was decidedly rank, which surprised me. It smelled of horse feces and spoiling produce and meat and even a twinge of human urine. The odor was offensive at first, but after a few minutes I didn’t notice it.
From the corner of 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, my view revealed the Capitol Building to my left; to my right, in the distance, an oblique view of the White House. All along Pennsylvania avenue, street vendors were setting up carts and improvised stands to sell all varieties of goods, from foodstuffs to housewares to presidential and Civil War souvenirs, such as postcards and figurines. A block further to the south I crossed a bridge over a man-made canal to a vast grassy mall and a view of the Washington Monument, which was unfinished. Just south of the mall, a train whistled as it slowly eased southward.
I headed back toward Pennsylvania Avenue, where I found a small restaurant, abuzz with conversation and frenetic with activity. Sitting on a stool at the counter, I found it easy to determine the most popular topics of conversation. The Civil War had just been won, and everyone was talking about it. “General Grant,” and “Abe Lincoln” frequently rose above the din of conversation. Someone said, “…calls himself a Republican,” to which a response was yelled, “Whatever happened to the Whigs,” resulting in a short burst of laughter. The atmosphere was jubilant… relieved… though I noticed a few silent, lone patrons who seemed more perturbed than celebratory – dark faces turned downward toward the task of eating. The accents were decidedly less “American” than I had expected, sounding more like their parent British, German, Irish or Italian dialects.
I ordered pancakes, eggs and sausage, along with a cup of coffee, absorbing the experience as easily as I devoured the food. The tab came to thirty-five cents, which I paid with a worn half-dollar coin. My change; a dime, a two-cent and a three-cent coin, dated 1864, 1861 and 1862 respectively, were as shiny and new as if they had just been pressed the day before.
I spent the remainder of the morning on a walking tour of the city, stopping for a few minutes to get my shoes shined and to clear the mud from my feet. After dusting my trouser legs, the shoeshine man, who spoke with a thick Irish brogue, remarked, “Those are a fine pair of shoes, sir. Might I inquire where you purchased them?”
“In Boston,” I lied, “though I can’t recall the maker.”
“Well, I’ve never seen a finer pair,” he added, increduously.
To this, I added my thanks and hurried off. My shoes, a pair of black casuals, were in fact of modern make. I had presumed no one would notice them.
By 11:00 am I found myself sitting exhausted on a park bench on the national mall. My feet were weary and the rest was most welcome. The grounds were beautifully landscaped, with trees and ponds and undulating footpaths, all of which led, ultimately to a castle-like structure – the Smithsonian.
As I approached the building, I saw a man hanging a notice near the museum’s great doors, announcing Lincoln’s public appearance this very evening at the White House. Spectators were instructed to gather on the front lawn at 6:30 pm to hear “the President’s pronouncement of the end of war and measures proposed to restore the Union States.”
Inside, the Smithsonian was largely a museum of natural history. Chief on display were the fruits of the Wilkes Expedition, a U.S. Navy exploration of the Southern Seas between 1838 and 1842, which had amassed thousands of specimens of flora, fauna and minerals from the South Pacific. Before seeing this exhibit, I had not realized its importance in our early understanding of the Pacific Ocean, from Rio to Antarctica; from an accurate mapping of the West Coast to a comprehensive overland route that far surpassed, in detail of discovery, the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition.
The Smithsonian visit had left me famished. It was almost 2:00 pm. I stopped into Gautier’s Restaurant, on Pennsylvania Avenue, since it appeared to be the most elegant option in the vicinity. The menu was impressive, if a bit pricier than my thirty-five cent breakfast. As a first course I had options ranging from game soup to carrot soup to soles a la crème. Entrees included curried rabbit, pigeon pie, larks and potato or pigs feet with truffles. More exotic items graced the second and third courses, including “tongue garnished,” roast hare, and mince pies.
Feeling ambitious, I ordered the game soup, rabbit, and boiled turkey and celery sauce, which was delicious, and a pint of ale to wash it down. Finally sated, I sat back and watched the busy foot traffic outside the restaurant’s large, curtained windows. A few elegant ladies strolled leisurely by, but most of the pedestrians were in a hurry -- many important things to be done in this capitol city on this auspicious day. I was shaken from my wonderings by a sudden clap of thunder, followed by the lower, rolling variety. I paid my check, which came to $4.25, left a handsome tip of one dollar and set out to purchase an umbrella.
A short walk brought me to the W.W.Corcoran Haberdashery, a narrow storefront on Maryland Avenue specializing in gentlemen’s accoutrements. It was primarily a hat store, and there I found all varieties of headgear, from top hats to derbies to gaucho hats to bowlers. I selected a tan topper, which was shorter than a proper top hat, with a slight flare at the crown. With my intended purchase on my head, I browsed through a selection of combs made of horn and toothbrushes with wood or bone handles. For children, the store also offered a “Bilbo Catcher,” a simple amusement made by attaching a wooden ball and spindle by means of a short length of string. The object was, apparently, to catch the ball on the cupped end of the spindle. Finally, I selected a fine, silver-handled umbrella, completed my purchase and stepped outside just as the first drops of rain began to fall.
Somewhere in the distance, a clock tower chimed five o’clock. My appointment with President Lincoln was drawing near. The poor planning of my excursion once again crossed my mind as the stores around town closed and I realized I had failed to purchase a kerosene lamp to help me find my way back to the Proteus.
I wandered through the streets and parks near the White House for the following hour as city employees went about raising the gas flames in numerous street lamps and an audience began to gather on the White House lawn. By six o’clock, the rain had subsided to a barely detectable drizzle, replacing in the process most of the complex smells of the city with the familiar scent of moist earth. The damp air also cocooned in a softer version the sharp sound of hooves and wagon wheels on cobblestone.
The audience was in a chatty mood this evening, and there was much to discuss. I took up a position at the rear of the gathering crowd, behind two young women wearing evening hooped dresses. I soon found myself next to a handsome young goateed man who was quite well dressed. “Good evening,” I offered, almost yelling to be heard over the mounting clamor.
“Good evening to you,” he replied, unsmiling.
Off to my left, a middle-aged man was engaged in a debate with a small group of acquaintances. “The South must be made to repair what they have broken,” he yelled. This remark, heard over a momentary lull in the overall commotion, resulted in a brief celebratory applause across the throng. Other discussions mentioned Jefferson Davis, the Battle of Five Forks, and the inevitable complaints that the President was running later than the advertised appearance time of six thirty.
Trying to make small talk, I asked my young friend, “What is your opinion of the current state of affairs?”
“I am, my good man, for what is just and right,” was his curt response.
By a quarter of seven, the lawn was full, with more people gathering in and across the street, even spilling over onto the national mall. My position was now toward the front and in the center, providing a better view of the balcony than most. From time to time, a call for Lincoln would rise and fall through various parts of the multitude – like a mindless religious chant, they would repeat, “Lincoln, Lincoln, Lincoln,” rhythmically, until they seemingly grew bored and the chanting died out, only to start up again a few minutes later in another part of the mass.
The White House was abundantly lit with scores of gas lamps, which cast a dim glow over the assemblage in the encroaching misty darkness.
When the clock tower struck seven o’clock, the crowd’s impatience grew, and everyone joined the chanting, which ceased abruptly only when the President suddenly appeared on the second floor balcony. Next came his twelve-year-old son, Tad, a few officials and a man who seemed, by his readied writing implements, to be a reporter.
What had moments earlier been a raucous assemblage now stood completely silent. But for the sound of a dog barking some few blocks away, we might have heard the distant ocean waves lapping against the shore.
The President was also silent, a tall, gaunt figure standing in the authority of deep contemplation, sizing up an audience that easily extended beyond the realm of his vision.
Finally, Lincoln turned toward the reporter and nodded perfunctorily, to which the reporter responded by stepping forward, holding a kerosene lantern out to better illuminate the pages of notes the President now held against the balcony’s railing.
“We meet this evening,” he began, “not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart. The evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond, and the surrender of the principal insurgent army, give hope of a righteous and speedy peace whose joyous expression cannot be restrained.”
The audience remained utterly silent, intent on hearing every word as the great man’s presentation began, though I heard a strong sigh from the young man to my right, who seemed oddly perturbed as he shifted his weight from one leg to the other.
In 1865, the world was still several decades from the inventions that would enable the recording of the human voice, and I had only guessed at what Lincoln may have sounded like, but now I listened intently, not to a re-creation by an actor, but to the man himself, with his peculiar style and inflections. The reality of it gave me goose bumps. He spoke in a way that can best be described as considered – each phrase carefully planned and delivered for maximum effect. Moreover, he spoke with a kind of affection that a father might reserve for his children, conveying a profound lesson or message of integrity. Unlike many of the voices I had heard on this day, his accent was distinctly American. He talked like a country boy with country diction, and this only served to magnify his mastery of the English language.
“Unlike a case of a war between independent nations,” he continued, “there is no authorized organ for us to treat with. No one man has authority to give up the rebellion for any other man.”
From time to time, the completed pages would drop to the balcony floor, where they were dutifully retrieved by the young Tad Lincoln, after which Tad returned to his father’s side, peering in silent astonishment over the mass of people, who were ourselves enthralled by the realization that we were witnessing a truly historic moment in time.
“It is also unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.”
The young man to my right grew increasingly anxious at this part of the speech, making an unintelligible remark under his breath. A burly working class gentleman next to him seemed now quite perturbed himself and said to him quietly, “Would you please be quiet!”
The President continued: “Some twelve thousand voters in the heretofore slave-state of Louisiana have sworn allegiance to the Union, assumed to be the rightful political power of the State, held elections, organized a State government, adopted a free-state constitution, giving the benefit of public schools equally to black and white, and empowering the Legislature to confer the elective franchise upon the colored man. Their Legislature has already voted to ratify the constitutional amendment recently passed by Congress, abolishing slavery throughout the nation.”
The suggestion that any blacks should be allowed to vote was apparently too much for the man to my right to stomach. “No!” he shouted, loudly enough that the President himself surely heard it. “That is the last speech he will make.”
The burly man next to him had also had enough of his interruptions. “You, sir, are no gentleman,” he responded, as he shoved the young man into me so hard that he knocked both of us onto the damp earth. This caused some commotion as everyone in our immediate vicinity turned to see what was going on. The two young women in hoop dresses were particularly fascinated, one of them excitedly saying to the other, “Look! That’s the actor, John Wilkes Booth!”
“I am most terribly sorry, my dear sir,” said Mr. Booth to me as he quickly jumped to his feet and offered his hand. “Are you all right?”
My mind was spinning. I knew I had heard that name somewhere, but I’m embarrassed to admit I could not at first place him. I rose off the ground without his assistance, to which he responded, “My views are apparently unwelcome here. I bid you good evening.” Brushing his hands together as if to wash the entire affair from memory, he exited by way of the back of the crowd, toward the uncompleted Washington Monument.
“John Wilkes Booth,” I mumbled to myself as the President concluded his presentation. “Where do I know that name?” And then it hit me. A mere footnote in history, Mr. Booth was famous for his botched assassination attempt. If memory served, the poorly planned attempt was easily averted because of the suspicious attention he had drawn toward himself at a local theater. His sprained wrist, bandaged in white, had apparently acted like a beacon during the darkened performance, and he had been tackled by a bodyguard even as he raised the pistol toward the back of Lincoln’s head.
Of course, your history records a quite different tale. In your history, Booth’s attempt was better planned. In your history, his routine had not been interrupted and he went to the theater hours before the play “Our American Cousin” to check his mail, where he learned of Lincoln’s plans to attend. In your history, Booth’s wrist was never sprained. In your history, his fall was softened by landing on me!
At the time, I only knew about the potential for disaster my presence might have set into motion, though I had no way of knowing the fact of it. Still, my face flushed, my heart pounded, my breath quickened with the realization that I had just made contact with an historical figure with possibly toxic historic consequences. If I could have guessed at even a fraction of the effect my presence was about to have, I would not have bothered returning to the present day. But I didn’t know. I knew only that I should never have come in the first place. Erroneously believing that I might, by means of a hasty exit, mitigate any damage my existence in this time might have set into motion, I hastily made my way back toward the Proteus.
Long past sunset, the darkened environs of Washington suddenly looked alien and hostile. Where I had once felt like a welcome resident, I now felt foul and poisonous to these unsuspecting victims of my folly.
Back on 7th Street, I saw a middle-aged man with a kerosene lantern, for which I offered the outrageous sum of fifty dollars. The incredulous gentleman instantly accepted my proposal and I, heart pounding through my chest, continued northward at a pace just short of a dead run.
“Please, God,” I silently prayed over and over, “don’t let my actions change history.”
Within a half-hour, I came across a familiar road sign, marking the property of J Seldon. A short distance further, I recognized, even in the dimly moonlit darkness, the small clearing I first came across after leaving the Proteus. I knew I would probably have to wait for first light before finding the Proteus. Still, I left the safety of the road, hoping against hope that I would find the machine, and end up sleeping in my own bed tonight.
Using my umbrella to hold back the underbrush, I made my way through the mucky terrain, and was surprised after only twenty minutes to come across one of my own footprints, aimed in the opposite direction, neatly stamped into the forest floor and full of water. Looking straight ahead, I could just make out a shimmer of moonlight reflected off the egg-shaped prototype vessel. I allowed myself, in that brief moment, to believe that no harm had been done. Soon, I thought, I would be home, and all would be well.
In retrospect, I suppose I was fortunate to have forgotten to disengage the “unsurveyed destination” failsafe before returning to the present. Fortunate inasmuch as that the “present” I was returning to was indeed unsurveyed. Had I disengaged that particular failsafe, which allowed for variations in the destination coordinates, I would have, as it turns out, materialized inside a large oak tree. But I didn’t. My craft instead “returned” to the present day in a field just adjacent to said tree, in a place just west of Chicago where, in my world, was part of the enormous Bell-Tone Subatomic Propulsion Development Lab.
For my part, I had no idea where or even when I was… only that I recognized nothing… only that my craft had expended the last of its stored energy to get here… only that I had been awake and fully engaged and active for over twenty-four hours… only that I was far too tired to try to solve my current predicament. After a quick walk around the immediate area, I crawled back into the craft, choked back my tears, and immediately fell asleep.
The details of the following day are now a blur in my memory. Most of it was spent walking in my ridiculous costume down various roads and highways, trying to get back to Chicago. I remember futile searches through phonebooks for any vestige of the people and places I left behind. My little remaining currency proved useless, and I finally came across a homeless shelter, where I was served a meal and given a place to sleep. I was, of course, found by everyone I met to be quite insane.
On the second day, I pawned my hat and umbrella and sold my antique coins and remaining Civil War currency to a coin shop, the proceeds from which I used to purchase an outfit from a second-hand clothes store. Then I went to a public library, where I took up the study of currently available technologies.
The storage reactor on my prototype vessel is useless in your world. Trying to use it would be like rubbing a fluorescent tube across a carpet in King Henry’s court. You may get a flicker out of it if you could get it near light speed, but without a very different form of energy than now exists on this planet – without the ability to send it perpendicularly across spatial fields – it will never again be operational. With only the most rudimentary understanding of nuclear fusion, your occasional and inefficient fission reactors seem to act as a band aide for an energy infrastructure that still relies primarily on fossil fuels. In my world, oil had long ago been abandoned as a Victorian energy source. Even if you had mastered fusion, it would have merely provided a starting point – a launching paradigm from which the notion of symbolic fusion might have been imagined. My background in propulsion rather than energy technologies serves only as a further symptom of our collective misfortune. I haven’t the foggiest idea how to help you get from where you are to where we were. My machine runs on time, and no one present has any better understanding how to generate it than a caveman would have understood how to power an electric blender. On your current path, it may be millennia before such minds come together again to create such potentialities.
My third day in your world was also my second day in the library, though I now focused my attention on your post-Civil War history. Lincoln was, as you know, assassinated. He never met Oscar Wilde and never unwittingly facilitated an early acceptance of gay and lesbian culture. Even if I or Archbishop Sanchez had lived in your world, we would have been prohibited from marrying by both your legalized discrimination and by the Catholic church. Nor would we have been permitted to adopt our beautiful daughters.
The differences in our histories are so numerous that I find little value, at this point, in exploring them in detail. Of major significance, however is your use of hatred and violence to “solve” your political and cultural problems. This dysfunctional approach can be traced, I believe, to one of the major turning points when our respective global histories took irrevocably divergent paths.
At the conclusion of World War I, the leaders of four countries met in Versailles, France to discuss the post-war treatment of a defeated Germany and its people. These leaders, in both of our histories, were Prime Minister David Lloyd George of the United Kingdom, President Georges Clemenceau of France, Vittorio Orlando of Italy, and President Woodrow Wilson of the United States. Of primary importance to President Wilson in your history was the establishment of a “League of Nations,” and he was willing to concede most of his remaining “fourteen points” to realize this singular aim. His concessions necessarily included a vastly kinder treatment of postwar Germany, as Clemenceau insisted was necessary.
Given his preoccupation with the League of Nations, Wilson deferred to France, and the people of Germany were made to suffer for their arrogant play for world dominance. Accordingly, huge chunks of German territory were given over to its neighboring states, the German military was restricted to the size of a modest police force and Germany was required to pay the then-enormous sum of 6.6 billion British pounds. In addition, all German ocean liners, locomotives, commercial motor vehicles, factory equipment and much else was confiscated. In other words, Germany was first made to pay for the war and then deprived of the means to generate payment. Even your historians are in agreement that the severe conditions of the Versailles Treaty created, in Germany, the resentment which made possible Hitler’s subsequent rise to power and the resulting chaos and destruction you know as the second World War.
In my history, however, Wilson was far more interested in global post-war recovery than a League of Nations, and he had good reason. Using the American model successfully implemented by Lincoln after the Civil War, he convinced Britain and Italy (who had also studied the Lincolnian approach) that the “Fruits of Forgiveness” would yield a vastly more stable future for all concerned parties, and they were right.
When I compare our divergent histories, I find the Treaty of Versailles to be a critical moment when humanity chose hate over love as a policy. The religions and governments of your history since that crucial moment are defined more frequently by common enemies than by common interests.
You are alien to me. Though you continue to suffer for your decisions, you clutch your hatreds close to your hearts… you are addicted to them, holding them as dear as your children. Hatred colors your media, your technology, your politics and your economics, and it is utterly my fault.
The world in which you live was never supposed to be. It is an error… an aberration… an abomination of what should have been… what was and what can never be again. I only hope that you will at least strive to get back to even the slightest approximation of the potential I have erased.
-- Troy Carlyle