Mucking about with time is a difficult business.
The Rules of Time Travel
Bustling between students on his way to lectures, Digouri just about stopped himself bumping into a tall, lean figure huddled into the alcove. “Why the hell are you lurking about here, Font?”
The other man unfolded himself a little and put a finger to his lips. “Got to make my grand entrance, Digouri. New recruits. Introduction to Chronological Displacement.”
Digouri snorted and sat himself down on the stone bench. “Ridiculous euphemism. Time travelling is time travelling. Nothing else to it.”
“Remember the robots?” Font asked, idly scanning the youngsters hurrying in and out of the glass-metal buildings. “How stupid that got when we reached AI and how we scrambled to call them androids or droids or AI units and Andrews/Andreas – ”
He was interrupted by a huge clanging bell, incredibly out of place in this modern structure. Digouri stretched and bounced up from his seat. “Well, whatever it is, I wager you’ll do a lot of weeding within the first few months – eh? ChronIn doesn’t take in stupid people.” He paused, and looked down at Font. “And this year should be more interesting than usual, I hear.”
Font smiled, looking endearingly mischievous. “We’ll see about that.”
The Chronological Institute, often abbreviated to ChronIn, was the primary organization dealing with the study of and travel in time. Once people cottoned on to the idea that traveling in time wasn’t automatically suicidal, the interest in it was, of course, enormous.
After five years of painfully recruiting research scientists from all over the world, ChronIn had given in and established the Academy. Instead of taking in university graduates steeped in the usual math and sciences, who thought uselessly linearly, the Academy would drill them in proper time-traveling techniques before unleashing them on the past.
Intro to Chronological Displacement was one of those iconic first year courses that every recruit was required to take. Chron-Dis Intro was the cornerstone of the discipline, the introductory course without which no geochronohistorian, no cold-jumper, no tragedy-prevention expert, should venture into a displacement vehicle.
And Richard Font was the professor who taught the course. Unusually tall, Font was famous for his patrician nose and high-planed cheekbones – he cut a striking figure, recognizable anywhere in the campus.
When he strode into the lecture hall, five tiers of Chronological Institute Academy recruits fell silent, the whispers seeping away in seconds.
Font swept silently onto the podium, fumbled discreetly for the room lights under the desk, and plunged the room into semi-darkness. A huge holographic screen, spanning the entire room’s length, flickered to life behind him.
There was a second’s pause while Font let his gaze linger over the first row. Then he drew in a breath.
“Welcome,” said Font, his deep voice reverberating dramatically, “to Introduction to Chronological Displacement.”
Time Travel Is Not To Be Used For Personal Gain
For a man who liked order and simplicity, Font was unnecessarily fond of dramatics. His general idea was to hit them with the Rules the first lecture, impress upon them the necessity of the things most high schoolers would take for granted these days.
ChronIn Academy took in only the best of the best, and the recruits knew it. But the sheer amount of knowledge available these days, coupled with their high intelligence, usually led them to believe they were intellectually invincible.
Font – and he secretly relished the idea – was here to prove them wrong.
“Why,” said Font, after the administration and introduction were over, “do people do bad things?”
He let them fumble around for a while – “Because they want to!” and “No one told them not to do them!” – before he picked one of the quieter kids.
“Um, because they’re greedy?” said the boy, cringing slightly. Font gave him a half-nod, privately classifying him as one of the future maniacal first-cause detectives whom tragedy-prevention always needed.
Font himself had had any number of philosophical discussions about the subject of first-causes – some even with those aforementioned tragedy maniacs – but “greed” was his favorite reason. Greedy for money, greedy for a woman, greedy for revenge, was how he looked at it.
When the screen came to life, the projections were perfect. He could hear the small wave of murmurs cross the lecture hall; the holo screen was often decried as an indulgence by taxpayers, but studies had found that students remembered measurably more from three-dimensional screenings than the old, flat 2D screens.
Two men were seated in two armchairs, and the look was of a hidden eye somewhere, one of those context-aware cameras that responded to specific verbal and visual input changes. The men had originally been labeled by the eye, which identified firearms and other contextually important things, but Font, with typical glee, had screened those out until the very end. The man on the left hadn’t actually showed up in the newsfeeds except in the occasional glimpses, so that would indeed be a surprise.
“I don’t understand, Inspector,” said the man on the left, with dangerous calm. “I am Director of the Chronological Institute’s External Relations, am I not? Direct liaison with the Board of Global Controllers? Yes? Then why do I only now hear about this special inspection?”
The man on the right looked no less dangerous himself, and Font knew him personally, enough to know it was no act. When Robins was on a scent, he was a downright devil.
“Perhaps the ChronIn Board did not fit to mention such a trifling matter to you,” Robins suggested, studiously careless.
The director was growing steadily more apoplectic. “Trifling? A sweep of fifty of the most highly placed men in the chronological society, and you – “
“Or perhaps,” said Robins, clearly enjoying himself, “there is an alternative reason.”
The lecture hall was almost silent, the smarter students reveling in the suspense of a case they were slowly beginning to piece together from months of vague, censored newsfeeds.
“What alternative reason?” the Director spat, leaning forward in his comfortable seat.
Robins paused. Font remembered how Robins had luxuriated in the end of a difficult and embarrassing case, the utter disdain he’d felt for the Director, a man with a resume as long as an academic paper.
“Perhaps,” Robins continued silkily, “you were part of the inspection.”
There was a dead silence, both from the Director and the students in the lecture hall.
Robins leaned back comfortably. Even in the slight color distortion of the holo, the Director’s face had gone grayish.
“Several apparently innocuous travels, scheduled as part of a psychological survey, which did not actually exist. The recent stock market plunges, which coincided strangely with these assignments. Your extraordinary good luck during the stock market somersaults, which you kept quiet enough from your wife, but not from your mistress.”
The Director looked two seconds away from a complete collapse.
“A discreet new villa, Director? Some incredibly expensive investments in the Mars terraforming companies?” Robins continued inexorably. “And then there was a sudden shower of funding for a completely unnecessary psych experiment testing human reactions to chronological displacement – the sort of experiment we’ve repeated every year for the past five decades – because, apparently, your nephew was on the team.”
“Did you think we were stupid, Director – the men you personally hired for their brains?” Robins steepled his fingers. “Or did you think we were too afraid to catch you out?”
The man on the left swallowed in anger and, Font suspected, shame. A sordid case, but conducted with the help of high technology, as Robins had described it, with some disgust.
Even in the holo, Robins’ lips were twisted in revulsion. “A textbook case, Director,” he said. “I should probably thank you. A perfect introduction to my new recruits.”
The Director had just enough time to lever himself out of the chair before Robins had hit him with the restraints. The goo spread and hardened around the Director’s hands, the impact ignominiously toppling him into the armchair. Robins relieved him of his tiny pistol in a leisurely manner.
“Well,” he said, pocketing the firearm, “I think we’re done here. Just allow me, if you please, to read out your rights.”
The now ex-Director opened his mouth just as Robins reached to turn out the recording eye. “You goddamned arrogant American -”
The tape, of course, had continued for a few more seconds, but Font had never really been one for vulgarities.
There was actually a scattering of applause from the audience when Font disabled the screen. Most of these kids, he knew, had grown up on a steady diet of chrono-exoticism (he was definitely going to write a paper on that) and the idea of the chrono-irregularity officers catching someone red-handed obviously appealed to them. It was, he thought, exactly like the detectives and officers of the past.
“Now that you’ve had fun with that,” he said, into an ebbing silence, “let’s talk about why our Director became our ex-Director.”
The screen came to life again as he jabbed it with a stylus, this time in passive mode. “Time traveling! Sounds fun, doesn’t it? In fact, if you’re not careful, you’ll screw up, and screw up in a massive manner. The rest of this lecture will concentrate on how not to do that, but for now, let me tell you how we make sure causality doesn’t fall apart.”
Font inscribed a huge eye in the middle of the screen. “This is how: we watch you all the time. We keep logs of the system. We vet every single chrono-displacement procedure, and we vet it through three different departments. About a mile’s worth of servers are stationed in the static room, ratcheting up the historical differences. There are five different policing teams, none of whom know who belongs to the others, all working on catching people like our ex-Director.”
His stylus darted across the board as the students scribbled frantically on tablets or made notations on their recordings.
“Now, that’s the pragmatic reason for why Travelling for personal gain is a bad idea.” Font watched some of the skeptical students sit up straighter.
Font stalked to the edge of the lecture seats. “We first began to catch on to Tomas because of the terraforming investments he made – you’d probably have seen those on the newsfeeds, if nothing else. He was quite a supporter of complete rebuilding.”
A few of the environmentally conscious students – which was really most of the kids in the room – sucked in surprised breaths. Complete rebuilding was wiping out the Mars landscape altogether, no romantic interest in preserving some of the truly breathtaking formations or potentially helpful natural laboratories, all attention focused on livability. Any number of environmental groups had scraped up funding to send delegations to the red planet, and anyone who followed the pollution index each morning had a vested interest in how the Greening happened.
“We are regulators. Policemen,” said Font, leaning against the podium. “If we venture into the past, it is to study it, to investigate the reasons for why certain things are the way they are now. And if our tragedy prevention experts travel into the near past, it is to make sure no terrible things happen in the present.”
“It’s the opinion of a great number of learned people that if you already have a large gap between the haves and the have-nots, exaggerating it is about the worst possible thing you can do. And time travel… it can either be a tool for progress, or it can be used for people in power to further entrench the hierarchy.”
Font looked up at rows of impressionable students. “You’ll probably be tempted. Perhaps, if you end up exploring the Spanish Inquisition period and you have the rare chance to look at their loot, you might want to take away a bit of gold, something to use for your retirement, maybe.” He smiled grimly.
“But using time to steal things for ourselves only makes us common criminals, with a bit more sophisticated technology.”
“And do you see the impact we could have? Just one man, and our ex-Director could’ve changed the face of Mars, of a whole new colony, of our future and how we view it.”
He didn’t know if they bought any of this – some of them certainly didn’t – but he tried every year.
Font brandished the stylus at his class. “Don’t. Do. It.”