by Liam Hogan
“If at first you don’t succeed… ” the wiry haired Professor muttered, dusting ash and still glowing embers from his quilted smoking jacket and resetting the time machine for fifteen minutes earlier, “ … try, try again.”
The chronometer spun faster and faster, a blur of colour and light, small tendrils of blue fire licking at its edges, until, with a flash and the pop! of an imploding vacuum, it was gone.
“Professor Albus Arkwright Winklebaum. You are hereby charged with attempting to pervert the natural course of time and space. How do you plead?”
The Professor blinked, owl-like. The Judge who had just spoken was large and ruddy-faced, a wig flowing down either side of his shiny red forehead like cream poured over a strawberry. He shook the unhelpful image from his head. “I’m sorry?”
“Being sorry is all well and good, Professor, but this is a Court of Law. It must attend to cold hard facts, before it can tackle the thornier issues of remorse and appropriate punishment. Do you plead guilty, or not guilty?”
There, in a corner of the cluttered chamber, squatted the time machine he’d been sitting in a moment earlier. Though, a moment earlier, there hadn’t been a label attached to the device that declared it: “Exhibit A”
He peered round. To his right sat the members of the Jury, dressed in oddly eccentric clothes. Some wore cravats, others mourning coats, a few sported ornate pipes, thankfully unlit. Most of them peered myopically at him over either spectacles or monocles, from beneath wild hair and even wilder eyebrows, particularly those of a rather severe looking woman. He knew their type: the Royal Society was full of people like this. A jury of his peers then, a jury of Victorian scientists.
He wasn’t entirely sure this was a good thing.
“I’m a bit confused,” he admitted. “A moment ago I was in my parlour?”
The Judge snapped his hand aloft commanding the accused to silence as he turned his lobster gaze on the Clerk, hunched just below. “Coordinates?” he demanded.
The Clerk studied the notes before him, a thin finger tracing the text. “51.516156 North, 0.143548 West. 8:13pm, April 14th, 1915. Timeline… ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha.”
“ZZ9?” barked the Judge, “Do we have jurisdiction?”
“Absolutely, your honour. Precedence was set by Asimov versus Monty Stein.”
“I see,” the Judge nodded. “Has the accused been read his rights?”
“No!” protested the Professor. “I most certainly have not!”
“–ahh…” the Clerk referred back to his notes. “He will have been, in about three hours’ time, your honour.”
“Hmm. Under the circumstances, Court adjourned.”
The gavel bounced off the desk and the Judge, the Clerk, the Jury, even the packed galleries, emptied in the blink of an eye. But, while the Professor was still wondering where he should be going, they refilled again just as quickly.
“All rise! Court is reconvened.”
“Hey!” he clamoured.
“Yes, Professor Winklebaum?” the Clerk asked
“I thought Court was supposed to be adjourned?”
“It was, Professor. I trust you used the time wisely?”
“It wasn’t,” he blustered. “You weren’t gone five seconds.”
“ZZ9 is mono-linear,” the Judge said, frowning at the accused. “Your temporality is somewhat out of step with ours, Professor. An occupational hazard of time travelling, I’m sure you’ll agree. Never mind. In your absence we’ve appointed a defence lawyer for you. Mr Pilgrim, I believe you’d like to say a few words?”
A raggedy man stood up, scratched at his head, tilted his glasses from one side of his face to the other. He rattled a few type-written pages on the table and looked up sheepishly. “Thank you, your honour. It is my contention that Professor Winklebaum is an idiot.”
“It’s as though he thought the timelines were completely un-policed and he was free, not only to make any changes he wished, but to also revisit the same point in time over and over again until the effects of the changes were what he hoped for. He has, in the opinion of this humble advocate, flaunted his time travelling escapades in the very face of this august Court.”
“I thought you were supposed to be on my side?” the Professor complained.
“I am,” his defence lawyer said, a shrug rippling down through his entire upper body. “But really. What’s a man to do?” He sat back down again. “Defence rests.”
The Professor stared at him in horror.
“Thank you, Mr Pilgrim. Let’s take lunch, shall we?”
The Professor hadn’t fully realised how hungry he was, but in the few seconds the courtroom was empty, his stomach had the chance to rumble two and half times. It was during the third rumble that the benches refilled and before it had entirely faded away the Judge was already calling out: “Prosecution?”
Slowly, ponderously, his nemesis rose and the Professor’s heart sank. He knew she was his nemesis, not only because his defence lawyer was patently useless and certainly no match for this formidable looking woman, but because this formidable looking women bore an uncanny resemblance to the matron-come-PE teacher from his earliest and most painful memories of boarding school. She eyed him now as she had eyed him then, as a malingerer, a wastrel, a hypochondriac afraid of a little mud. Fifty years on and still he had to check he wasn’t suddenly wearing gym shorts.
“Prosecution intends to show that the accused not only flagrantly abused a wide number of Temporal Statutes, he isn’t even a bona fide time traveller, not having invented the device in which he has been popping willy-nilly hither and thither.”
“Then to whom does this time machine belong?” the Judge asked.
“We’re not sure, your honour,” the nemesis admitted, “it’s not licensed.”
“Unlicensed! I assume the accused doesn’t have insurance, either?”
“Indeed not, your honour.”
“And how did the defendant come by this unlicensed, uninsured device?”
“According to his own testimony, it materialised in his parlour late Friday evening.”
“Isn’t that rather unlikely?”
The prosecuting lawyer rocked back and forth as if trying to decide whether press-ups or a brisk jog around the sports field were a more suitable punishment for the accused. “There was, apparently, a shortage of adequately sized laboratory space in the London of ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha, during the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century. It is, therefore, theoretically possible that two scientists could non-temporally co-exist in the same physical space.”
The Judge tutted. “I meant the ‘late Friday’ part?”
“Ah, quite so your honour. I too doubt that anything of note can ever be achieved on Friday afternoons. But we only have the word of the accused and it isn’t strictly material to the case anyway.”
“I see,” the Judge said with obvious distaste. “Go-on.”
“With pleasure. The defendant, having broken the oldest law in the book, as specified by the Temporal Defence Act of AD 2357–”
“2357!” erupted the Professor. “But that’s in the future!”
The Judge levelled a beady eye at him. “Chronal penal code is laid down at the point in time best suited to getting the legislation through the High Court. The 2357 act comprises our oldest law, despite being the furthest in the future, because it is the one that applies retrospectively for the longest period. Is that clear?”
The Professor shook his head half heartedly, as the proceedings… proceeded. His character, his actions, even his science, were picked apart mercilessly by the Prosecutor and he found himself utterly unable to reply. A hot tear threatened to trickle down his cheek and a bubble of snot inflated beneath his left nostril as images of jeering school kids and playground taunts haunted his thoughts.
Twice more the courtroom emptied and refilled before his weary eyes and, as the Judge announced yet another break so that the Prosecution could present her closing arguments, the Professor raised a forlorn hand.
“Yes, Professor Winklebaum?” the Judge asked.
“It’s not fair!” the Professor snivelled, “Every time you adjourn for lunch, for discussions, or whatnot, I’m left standing here while you pop off. I’m tired and I’m hungry.”
The Judge cocked his head. “Was there a point, Professor?”
The Professor wiped his nose. “Perhaps, your honour, it might balance things out if, on this occasion, I adjourned, but the Court did not?”
The Judge tugged at his wig. “And how long, exactly, would you need?
“Five minutes? Maybe ten?” the Professor said. “Long enough to stretch my legs, to visit the men’s room, and to… to consider my situation?”
“It is most irregular, but I don’t think prosecution has any objections?”
She narrowed her eyes, then sneered. “The accused is quite obviously time wasting, your honour. But no, no objections.”
“Very well,” the Judge announced, reversing his gavel. “Defendant will adjourn for five minutes.”
And with a solid bang the courtroom… stopped. His hopeless defence attorney, the Judge, everyone: completely motionless.
The Professor laughed in giddy relief and scrambled over the barrier, heading for Exhibit A. He sat in the time machine and considered his options. Not forward, obviously. Back, then, to some period before this Court existed. Before the rulings of 2357 applied. Before any rules applied. The signing of the Magna Carta, perhaps? And, if that didn’t work, there was always 1066… though he might have to brush up on his schoolboy French.
He spun the dial, looked around the frozen courtroom one last time, and pulled the lever.
There was a whirr, a stuttered cough, and a loud clunk. The wooden panelled room abjectly failed to vanish. He threw the lever again, and again the clunk. Once more and the machine lurched and then stopped with yet another sickening clunk.
He looked about in desperation and it was only then that he saw the triangular yellow clamp, with a sign that read: “POLICE NOTICE! Do NOT attempt to move this illegally parked Time Machine.”
The court bustled back into motion around him and no-one seemed to notice or care that he had changed his seat. He slumped on the red leather armchair, resigned to his fate.
Guilty! The Jury announced, after another one of those adjournments that didn’t affect him.
“Has the accused anything further to say in this matter before I pass sentence?” the Judge asked.
He shook his head, what was the point? He was a condemned man. Doomed–
Professor Winklebaum looked up in hope and surprise, not sure who had spoken. His defence lawyer was standing. The hope withered and died.
“Your honour,” Mr Pilgrim said, “as is customary with unlicensed, uninsured, impounded time machines, Exhibit A is to be scrapped. Might I make the suggestion that it is scrapped on or before the 13th April, 1915?”
The Judge rocked back in his seat and then, after a moment’s thought, nodded.
“No objections,” the Prosecutor said, without even being asked.
“Very well. You’re a lucky man, Professor Winklebaum.” And again the gavel came crashing down.
The Professor jerked awake. The clock was tolling twelve, the beginnings of a new day, and the parlour room was lit only by the dying glow from the small fire in the grate.
He shook his head. Perhaps he’d been working too hard, neglecting his health and his sleep. He looked down at the papers and schematics arrayed across his lap.
The War was supposed to be long over by now. “Over by Christmas” they’d said, but it hadn’t worked out that way. Already it was April, a stalemate having quickly developed; both sides pinned down by new-fangled machine guns that chewed and spat out brave young men. It was up to the scientists and the inventors to come up with ways to break the impasse they’d created.
But Professor Winklebaum was hopeless with high explosives, deadly gases, or designs for metal-tracked monsters capable of spewing flames and crushing all before them. So there he was instead, dreaming of time machines and other such nonsense.
Tomorrow, or more accurately, later that day, he’d start afresh. A pump to keep the trenches dry. Guaranteed sterile field dressings. A better design of tin helmet. Not exactly what the Generals were asking for, but rather more his style.
“If at first you don’t succeed…” he muttered, with a long yawn.
Screwing up his notes he threw them onto the fire, watched them burst into brief life before sleepily making his way from the room, walking around the edges of the rug to avoid the thing that wasn’t there.
“Time Trial” © Liam Hogan
Liam Hogan is a London based writer and host of the award winning monthly literary event, Liars’ League.
Winner of Quantum Shorts 2015 and Sci-Fest LA’s Roswell Award 2016, he’s been published at DailyScienceFiction, NoSleep Podcast, and in over a dozen anthologies. Find out where via http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk
Digital illustrations © Omnia, stock used from the public domain