When in ancient Rome, do not ask for a spare laptop.
Do Not Behave Anachronistically
“I’ll tell you a story,” said Font conversationally. The students had relaxed into the seats, focusing on the material and less on him.
“When we first began ChronIn, we took quick trips back to successive centuries, just to make sure we could. We reached the 18th century, and booked into an inn – a sort of hotel,” Font elaborated. “We must have been slightly strange, but we explained that we were from out of town.”
Font paused for dramatic effect. “Then one of them used an old ink pen, one of those pushbutton ones where the nib pops out. It’s about two centuries old, that pen. But the innkeeper saw it, made the sign to ward off evil, and ordered us to leave.”
Some of the kids looked astounded. “When was that kind of pen invented?” asked Font. “The 1950s! Nowhere near the 18th century. They’re not interchangeable, you know, centuries.”
That got a chuckle out of them.
Font flicked the screen on again. “All right, take a look.”
This part of his lecture was one of his favorite bits, perhaps because Font actually featured in it. The holo opened to old Italy this time, a sort of hand-camera effect that was the result of Font wearing a camera eye. The eye wasn’t too bad, stationed as it was at his collarbone, but the earpiece, embedded halfway in the flesh behind his ear, was annoying as hell.
The worst, of course, was the neural implant.
Bio statistics scrolled past on the left hand side of the eye feed, all his vitals a little too high. The discomfort of the implant had been getting to him, and 16th century Florence was making it no easier. The smells alone were mind-boggling – refuse and unwashed humans, animals in the streets, food smells from shops horrifically close to open sewers, all marinating under a summer sky. Perhaps he’d have been even more uncomfortable breathing in the smell of car exhaust in the 21st century, but at least there they’d had electricity.
Font wasn’t a very frequent Traveler.
The students were captivated, craning forward to look at colorful streets as charming as they were dangerous. The muttering and exclamations stopped when Font turned left and grabbed hold of a man lingering near some kind of drink stall.
“Lucas, what the hell?” said Font, in near-perfect Old Italian. Even now, seven years after that assignment, Font twitched at the memory of the neural implant automatically correcting his words before they left his mouth.
Lucas seemed to have no such difficulty. “I wasn’t to know it would make such a big difference! It was a simple sketch, I came by and doodled in some struts that would increase the surface area and – “
“I don’t give a damn,” snapped Font. “And it has made a difference. Did you learn nothing at the Academy?” He pulled out a sheaf of carefully doctored, artfully aged papers. “Three hundred years into the future, the Wright brothers discover some of his earliest work, which concentrates mostly on wing mechanisms. Perfect for their own research into gliders, but it works so well they delay the addition of a power mechanism. Modern airflight is localised, delayed, and eventually disrupted.”
He thrust the sheets at Lucas, who had slumped miserably into his rickety chair. When Font turned his head to consider the street, the screen showed children running by, screeching, stopping to stare at his aquiline face.
“Maybe if we – “ Lucas began suddenly, and the camera swung back to his hopeful face.
‘We cannot jump further,” Font growled. “We’re straining here already, people in Tragedy are all involved now.” The camera leaped as he stood quickly. “Take me there, show me the workrooms. We’ll see if we can do something about it now, since I’m already here.”
Lucas led him back to the city center with the air of a mournful puppy. The Palazzo Vecchio was swarming with people, apprentices carrying oil paints, cloths, and all manner of artistic paraphernalia. It was mercifully cooler inside and the stern exterior gave way to marble pillars and gracious courtyards. None of the frescoes were there yet, but it had made Font shiver with anticipation. Now, watching the screen, he could hear the reverent murmurs of the recruits behind him. Too much had been stuffed into museums, too many things moved and preserved underground for them not to appreciate a sunlit Italian courtyard in 1503.
“There’s a bit of tension here,” said Lucas in an undertone as they walked towards the Hall of Five Hundred. “Michaelangelo is about to arrive to start working on the other painting…”
“I know,” Font murmured, and then they were through the doorway.
Lucas gave him an indecipherable look and hurried at a half-crouch to a rather good-looking man standing before one of the walls. Font, standing at the doorway, saw the man turn and fix him with sharp, intelligent eyes, felt the goosebumps on his arms even in the summer sun.
The eye, with mechanical bluntness, zoomed in on the stranger’s face, matriced it, identified it, and labeled it. There were outright gasps from the students, and Font let himself feel just a little smug.
Lucas had returned by now and was leading him up some stairs, towards a dingy work area, heaped with battered boxes and piles of papers and books. “Told him you were a potential investor, that you wanted to commission a special painting,” he muttered, shoving papers aside and inspecting the boxes. “Told him I’d show you around. I hope no one notices we’re actually in his private – ah, here.” He’d pulled out a standard-issue platinum lockpick and was working on one of the trunks with a will.
Font opened the front of his ridiculously heavy coat and pulled out a single sheet of paper just as Lucas found the right set of notes. The topmost page of those was crinkled and some of the ink sprawled over the diagram, but the notes were perfectly legible. The words were precisely and delicately mapped out, looping gently and quickly over each other – and written back to front, in mirror image. Font had always marveled at this code, at this sheer ability to take the obvious and make something extraordinary out of it.
The lecture hall, he noticed vaguely, was utterly silent.
But there were some obvious – to Font – additions in another hand. Probably the same ink, but a heavier hand, had drawn in some clever support structures so that the glider would, in essence, work.
“Here,” said Font, replacing that top page swiftly with his own sheet of paper. Lucas, though he’d been brought up with the technology, gaped. It was a perfect reproduction – or at least as perfect as they needed it to be.
Lucas shuffled the bundle together and stowed everything away into the trunk. “All right, we’re done,” said Font unnecessarily, but the eye showed that neither of them moved away for nearly a minute. Light from a single narrow window spilled riotously over the trunk, illuminating notes covered with intricate sketches and more of the finely printed writing. As if in a dream, Font crouched for a second and sifted through a pile of paper. It was a notebook, coming apart, but in it were two-dimensional treasures – a heart, threaded through with painstakingly drawn veins; geometric shapes doubling upon themselves into infinity; bare-bones sketches of wings and flight details drawn by a man consumed with curiosity and fueled by sheer intelligence.
And there were things he had never seen before – cogs, gears and wheels making up what seemed to be a torso, and the means to maneuver it around. Good god, it was his robot notes, the rest of the creature he had first sketched out in 1495. There were cunningly balanced weights, and then a pneumatic system to inflate an artificial heart (perhaps the thing was an elaborate support system for medical research?), some kind of connecting bridge that would have led to a mobile head…
This was what Lucas had wanted to do – to give this genius the benefit of the hindsight, so his brilliance could take him and his century far beyond what it was capable of.
“Font,” said Lucas quietly, and he jerked back. Font remembered, standing in front of a quietly, hysterically excited classroom, that at that moment, if Lucas hadn’t spoken, he would have thrown up everything and left his century to be an apprentice to this genius.
The eye bobbed up and down as Font drew in a breath and then swallowed, just to make sure everything was working. Some of his stats, scrolling by on the left hand side of the screen, had actually ventured into the red zones.
“Yes, we, ah. Let’s, uh. Let’s leave, in case. Uh,” he managed, and put everything back with hands that trembled only a little.
When they reached the street outside, Font stood blinking furiously for a while before turning and nodding curtly at Lucas. “I’ll probably get the downstream statistics when the vehicle reappears, and I can reappraise you of the situation then. The probability, however, is at about 95% that we will be in the clear.”
Lucas nodded slowly, not quite meeting his eye. “Well, goodbye then. Thank you for the timely interference.”
Thank you for the timely interference – it was a fairly formal way of saying thank you to a Traveler, but Font knew it wasn’t simply for setting something straight. It was about sharing two minutes in a dusty workroom, acknowledging an ingenious pile of notes that would be destroyed within a year or so.
Font turned on his heel then, and walked out of the shadow of the Palazzo, away from the blinding brilliance of Leonardo da Vinci.
The screen went blank, and the class sighed audibly.
Font spoke very quietly. “What Lucas wanted to do was entirely understandable, from a certain point of view. He wanted to help Leonardo along, to give him just that tiny intellectual push. He was already so close! And he was a man who was easy to admire.”
“But any change, made for any reason – the pushbutton pen, because of our ignorance and carelessness; Lucas because of misplaced good intentions – is wrong. It skews our present unbelievably, and then a whole lot of people have to be involved to go back and fix that mistake.”
Font sighed. “Be careful. What has happened has, well, happened. ChronIn, as you already know, takes the view that the distant past should not and cannot be changed. We’re going to keep it that way, or the universe as we know it will be irretrievably changed.”