The Time Traveller
People need something to hope for, Albert, they want to see that mankind can do great things.

October 3rd, 1933. As my train trundled its way toward the Bulgarian border, I took out a letter from an old school friend, Trevor Pinsky, and read it again, with growing skepticism;

Dear Albert,

Of course it would be my pleasure to have you stay with me. But I should let you know that you would have to spend your time far from Sofia and other interesting places, as my work is done at the research centre, and at the moment I must be available there around the clock.

I have no doubt you have read 'The Time Machine' by H. G. Wells. I'm sure you'll agree that its literary value lies more in the story than any scientific explanation of how time travel is actually achieved. But a time machine is precisely what we are developing here at the research centre, and if you are interested, it would be my pleasure to show you exactly what we have created and how it works.

I have enclosed my card so you know where to go, please cable me when you are about to arrive. I look forward to seeing you again!



When I had asked Trevor if he could put me up for a few nights, I hadn't anticipated a science excursion. Trevor wasn't one of my close friends, but he was a nice enough sort of chap, a rather typical boffin, self-absorbed and bookish. He spoke with a ridiculous, low drawl which often came across as an affectation - this frequently made him jeered at by some of the bigger students, although this never seemed to mar his cheerful outlook. He won every science prize on offer at school, and continued his study at Cambridge University, then moved to Bulgaria in 1926. Although he didn't possess the flair and brilliance of my friend Professor Woff, he was always a hard worker, and there was no doubt that he was highly regarded in academic circles, as his research was frequently published and cited.

Yet the claim of a time machine seemed rather improbable even for him. None of the works of literature regarding time travel gave any idea of how a time machine might work. There were vague references to clockwork boxes or bumps on the head, then the time travel was completed and the adventure began. We would meet strange monsters or historic figures, and sooner or later we would return to our own time. As for the papers and books of scientific discourse, they seemed to show no interest in the matter whatsoever.

On the card he had enclosed, the title of my destination was;

International Centre for DX Interplanetary Ionosphere Reflection Radio Telescopic Research

This only served to further confuse me. I had a vague memory that Trevor's area of expertise was electrical engineering and wireless radio transmission, although I couldn't see how this related to time travel. But I presumed it would all be explained sooner or later, and hopefully in such terms as a retired librarian could understand.

The research centre was situated in a province that seemed to be the most isolated part of the country, and I took two separate trains and an old bus to get there. As I travelled, not only the signs of mankind, but all features of landscape withered away, until the bus was crawling across a grey, barren plain. Eventually we approached a group of modern buildings clustered tightly together. As my bus neared the research centre, I saw on the roof of the largest building a huge, bowl-shaped construction, which I estimated to be about three hundred yards across.

I met Trevor at the reception area for the centre. Everything about the place reminded me of a university, as if Trevor had managed to drag a part of Cambridge to Bulgaria. Trevor himself had lost weight from when I saw him last, and his ginger curls had finally surrendered to grey. But his face was beaming with enthusiasm and energy, and I wondered if he had already begun his travels through time. He shook my hand vigorously.

"Albert, old chap! Jolly good to see you after all this time! Marvellous! Marvellous! How are you, Albert, how are you?"

"Yes very well thanks, Trevor! Lovely to see you again. You're looking well. And this is quite the little city you have here!"

"Oh yes. Oh yes. Did you know, this is one of the three barest pieces of land in Europe? And the only one we could afford. But absolutely necessary. We must have the radio quietness, you see."

"Radio quietness?"

"Well, all will become clear. There will be many questions, and I shall try to answer them all. Let me show you to your living quarters, then tomorrow we shall begin. We regularly show journalists and associate researchers through the centre, and you can join our usual guided tour. You're in luck, Albert, the equipment will almost certainly be in service within a day or two!"

I was shown my room, and a small mess hall was available for meals. I had a comfortable night's sleep, although every so often during the night I was roused by a grinding, creaking sound from somewhere above my head. As I took my breakfast in the morning, I looked through a window and realised that the noise had come from the huge bowl, which was now in a new position.

We began a lecture session that morning. There were perhaps twenty or so other scientists there with notepads, and there was a large blackboard against the wall covered in sums, diagrams and zigzag lines. Most of the writing I recognised from school as Trevor's erratic scrawl. Trevor entered with a large pile of papers under one arm which he dropped onto a desk. Half of it fell onto the floor, and he began his talk as he was picking it up.

"Righto gentlemen, time to make a start. So, my name for those of you who I have not been able to chat to yet, is Doctor Trevor Pinsky, and I'm the director of the International Centre for DX Interplanetary Ionosphere Reflection Radio Telescopic Research. I'm sure many of you will think that's quite a mouthful, but you will soon see that there are a number of different fields of science that are vital to this project, and must be outlined. Alright, I'm going to start with a few words about the dish and its special qualities. The idea for the project began about nine years ago, the centre was constructed and funded by The Royal Astronomical Societies of both London and Canada, using an initial funding of twenty million pounds over four years, and negotiated after that. We've had to struggle at times, mainly due to the depression and the Bulgarian Government, but relations between our staff and the funding officials were always cordial. I suspect they were just as excited about the project as we were! To enable the telescope to work to its best advantage requires a minimum of nearby radio transmissions, and we were lucky enough to secure land here in Bulgaria in what we have calculated to be the largest radio quiet zone in the Balkan Peninsula.

"The construction of the actual dish began three years ago. A significant part of our research was done to design the dish, including mechanical and motor innovations and the application of aluminium and titanium alloys. Our dish is a fully steerable radio telescope with a diameter of two hundred and eighteen metres. We've had scientists from the Bell Telephone Laboratories in the United States visiting us, and they're very jealous, but happy for us at the same time. They gave us a great deal of crucial advice. I'd like to be able to take you across the dish, but the balance between the strength of the aluminium panels and their efficacy is extremely tight. But we will see it close up after the lecture. Now I want to introduce my colleague John Le Maistre, he will be talking to you about radio propagation."

"Greetings ladies and gentlemen. Now I want to start from a point you are all familiar with, the standard radio. You will be aware that there is a transmitter which creates radio waves that travel through the air to reach the radio, and you hear the music in the way you are all familiar with. Now. Again you are probably aware that there are certain places, behind a mountain for example, where you cannot hear the radio. What happens? Radio waves are not very good at travelling through certain substances. Again, something you will have no trouble understanding. BUT! IF radio waves cannot travel just anywhere, how do we hear transmissions from around the planet? The answer is skip propagation. Skip propagation. We are very lucky to have on this planet an IONOSPHERE. Because of the ions inside the ionosphere it will cause radio waves to reflect back. A radio wave will leave the antennae of the transmitter, it will bounce off the ground, it will head out into space, AND THEN IT WILL BOUNCE OF THE IONOSPHERE, AND WILL RETURN TO THE EARTH! And then it will bounce off the Earth, bounce off the ionosphere, Earth, ionosphere, etcetera etcetera etcetera etcetera. Skipping around the Earth until it reaches the antennae of your transistor radio. We call this phenomenon SKIP PROPAGATION. Skip propagation."

"Right thanks for that, John. Good man. Now I would like to introduce Anthony Merriweather, he will be talking to you about relativity and time."

"Thanks, Trevor. Righty-ho. So. Let me start by reminding you that the speed of light is three hundred million metres per second. That's roughly the distance from here to the Moon. Now. Just imagine you're on the Moon. Light takes one second to get from the Earth to the Moon and vice versa. You light a match. Your sweetheart on Earth is looking at you, but she doesn't know that you've lit the match until a second later. You're still there on the Moon, but she sees the you of one second ago. So from her perspective, you have gone back in time one second. I'll just wait a moment while that sinks in... Righto. Don't worry if you don't get it. Now just imagine you're on the moon with a mirror. Your sweetheart takes off her dress. The light rushes to the moon, WEEEEE, bounces off the mirror, comes back, and reaches your sweetheart's telescope. She sees herself from two seconds ago, taking off her dress! I wish I could too! Righty-ho now. Almost there. Now imagine that instead of having your mirror on the moon, you had it on a planet two hundred light years away. Something happens on the Earth, the light travels for two hundred years, bounces off your mirror, travels back for two hundred years, and your sweetheart sees it four hundred years later. Your sweetheart has seen four hundred years into the past. Now watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat! HA!"

"Thanks Anthony, nice to see all those sweethearts enjoying science! Alright, there isn't a lot more to tell, you've seen how radio waves can reflect and you've seen how somebody could possibly see back in time. Now that I place the two concepts side by side, you may even start to understand the whole thing yourselves. Say something happens on the Earth. The light beams showing that event travel in all directions. Anthony was talking about a mirror on a planet two hundred light years away. You can't really see a mirror, it's too far away. But if you had a great big fat telescope, you might! Or if it was a radio telescope, and instead of a mirror it was an ionosphere, even better! Can you see? Light is essentially a radio wave of a certain frequency. The light leaves the Earth, travels for two hundred years, bounces off the ionosphere of a planet, travels back and is picked up by the radio telescope. The one sitting above us. There you go. Find a planet with an ionosphere. If it's two hundred light years away, you can look back in time four hundred years. There you go! Now are there any questions?"

The other people in the room asked a number of questions, but their interest was mainly scientific, involving different types of ionospheres and so forth. It took some time, and Trevor frequently turned to the blackboard and wrote out his explanations. I was a little reluctant to say anything, but after a while I decided a layman's interest was surely of some value. Like a foolish schoolboy I slowly raised my hand.

"Tell me, what exactly is a radio telescope?"

The question was met by silence.

"Well I'm sorry, but I'm not a scientist," I said.

Eventually the question was fielded by Le Maistre.

"Ah. Right. Fair enough. Well it is essentially a radio. That... well, sees radio waves. Things that can only be detected by radios... a giant antenna, of things that can be... well, seen."

Obviously it was taken for granted that everybody else knew exactly what it was. But my curiosity was piqued, and I wanted to understand as much as I could. After all, a lot of money was clearly being spent, and in the midst of a global depression.

"So, let me see if I understand," I said. "Your facility doesn't actually allow one to travel to different time periods, it only enables you to see different scenes from the past."

Trevor said hastily,

"Yes, Albert, if I gave the impression there was any travelling involved, it was entirely unintentional. I mean, if we could literally travel through time, I think travellers from the future would have made themselves known to us by now. And can't you imagine the mess we'd be in if people could jaunt back and forth in history as they pleased? Oh my. But I like to think we can legitimately call the telescope a time machine."

"So are we likely to see the Battle of Hastings, then, or Julius Caesar being assassinated? Will we be able to finally identify Jack the Ripper?"

"Well, it's a bit too early to say. But no, I don't think history will be our lucky dip. We will have to work hard."

"Isn't it an awful lot of effort to go to if you might not see anything?"

"Well, there are many other benefits to the research," said Trevor. "In a sense it is a body-building exercise for the radio telescope. Sometimes in science we set a goal that may not be of any practical use merely so we have something to strive towards, and in doing so develop the skills that will be used to other purpose. In the case of this radio telescope, it is the only one in the world at present, and so will be demanding expertise that nobody has. Anyway, are there any more questions? No? Righty-ho, thank you everybody for your attention. If you'll follow me this way, we shall examine the telescope more closely."

The tour of the dish took about half an hour, although I paid virtually no attention to it. Eventually Trevor finished his explanations.

"... and I'll end with my favourite piece of trivia - in the bearing assembly of the dish are three bearings which gave us quite a bit of trouble. We couldn't come up with a lubricant that would do the job. We asked the engineers at Bell, and they said try using lard. We did, and hey presto! Well, thank you folks, I hope you've found our telescope interesting. In a day or two it will be operational, then we will begin to spend our time waiting for optimal radio conditions between a likely planet and the Earth."

Trevor was quite happy for me to stay at the centre for as long as I liked. I suspect he was hoping to show off any success he might have. The telescope began to work about a week after the tour, and late that night Trevor dragged me away to see it working for the first time. All through the centre, technicians and workers were dashing back and forth, and frequent announcements were blaring out of the tannoy. As we walked along I could feel the entire building vibrating. Trevor turned to me and said,

"Can you feel that? Right now there's enough electrical power in the dish to light up Paris!"

We went to an elevator that descended two floors, down a passage a little way, then through a door into a room with no windows. There were three men there - one man was adjusting a movie camera which was placed on a tripod directly in front of a screen. The other two were in chairs sitting to one side of the screen. One of the men was typing vigorously on a strange typewriter connected to a large box by numerous thick electrical cords. The man beside him sat looking at a bank of electrical meters and gauges below the screen, and every so often he would call out numbers and information to the typist. Trevor pointed to him.

"This is Stephen Catz, our chief engineer. What's happening, Stephen?"

"Evening Trevor, we're trying to focus on the second planet of system 352. We're reasonably sure from the spectroscopy that it has an ionosphere, and the radio conditions are quite good. It's three hundred and twelve light years away, so we're looking at the year 1309 - early middle ages. Fingers crossed!"

We waited for hours. Stephen was constantly typing, and every so often we could feel the enormous radio telescope shifting back and forth over our heads. The screen remained blank. Eventually he sat back in his chair.

"Look, chaps, I think we've done all we can tonight."

"No luck?" said Trevor.

"Well, I don't know for sure, but I think we may actually have had a picture for most of the time. Roughly seventy-one percent of the Earth is covered in ocean, and that would show up as grey on our screen. It looked like it wasn't on, when we were actually looking at the ocean of 1309."

Trevor said nothing, but maintained a polite smile.

"Well, it was just a first try," I said.

Four nights later conditions were suitable for another attempt. As we entered the operating room, Stephen looked up.

"Righty-ho, we should have better luck today. This planet definitely has a D class ionosphere, and the bearings on the telescope have been looked at. They were a little shaky the other night. We're looking at the year 3 BC. That could be jolly interesting."

As before, he was constantly typing and conferring with the man watching the instruments. After about twenty minutes, he suddenly muttered,

"Oh damn. Damn. Blast."

"What's up?"

He just sat there for a while looking down.

"Look chaps, I'm sorry to have gotten your hopes up. We've lost radio conditions. There's a lot of sunspot activity just erupted. It won't die down for hours. We can forget it."

I looked at Trevor. Again, he said nothing.

The next evening we were summoned to watch another try with the same planet. But we had only been at it for about ten minutes, when suddenly everything stop working - all the lights went out and the vibration of the building stopped. This triggered off a stream of profanity that I found rather unbecoming of civilised Englishmen.

"Calm down, for Pete's sake!" I exclaimed. "What's happened?"

"Almost certainly the water coolers," Stephen grumbled, as he found an electric torch and restored some light.

"When the temperature of the main cathode tubes goes over a certain level the whole system shuts itself down. If it didn't, the entire research centre would be blown to pieces."

"Will it take long to fix?" I asked.

"Well there's probably a leak in one of the pipes in the dish. If so it's going to take days to find it, repair it and test everything."

I looked at Trevor. I started to read on his face the grief of defeat, as every day the prospect of wasting so much money and effort and hope was looking more real. I put my hand on his shoulder, and said,

"Stay with it, old man. You're not finished yet."

The next morning in the mess hall, I saw Trevor sitting by himself. Most of his breakfast sat unfinished, and he was looking at the floor.

"Morning Trevor! How's it all coming along, old chap?"

He nodded, but didn't say anything. I sat down beside him, and after a moment or two I said gently,

"Well... you said it wouldn't be easy."

"Yes, you're right. It's just that... well, did you ever meet my mother, Albert?"

"Um... no, I don't think so."

"She's still alive, she's ninety-three. But Father died when I was four. She has forgotten what he looked like. When I told her she might be able to see him again, she began to cry. It's not just me and my team. So many people are hoping this will work. We've had a war, now we're in a depression. People need something to hope for, Albert, they want to see that mankind can do great things."

"Well it's still early days, Trevor. Things will come right. Come on, let's have a cup of tea."

It took a number of days for the repairs to be done, and during that time I saw nothing of Trevor. About a week after the shutdown, I began to see the dish in operation again. It was only the next night that there was a pounding on my bedroom door.


I threw on my dressing gown, and joined Trevor. His hands were shaking with excitement.

"We've got a picture, Albert! You won't believe it! It's incredible! The year 1629!"

We dashed to the operating room. This time something was definitely moving on the screen. Stephen turned to the man cranking the camera.

"Are you filming it?"

"Yes, I've already told you three times!"

I looked carefully at the screen. I began to make out three men wearing capotain hats, and two women in bonnets - there was no doubt they were wearing plausible attire for the year 1629. We were seeing them from above and to the right, as if we were sitting in a tree, looking down on them. They were just standing, talking and laughing, and every so often one would slap another one's arm in good spirits. There was no doubt that Trevor and his team had finally been successful. There was obviously no sound, but this seemed to heighten the impression that we were seeing people who had been dead for centuries. Yet here they were, alive. Trevor's face was rigid with excitement.

"This is incredible! Actual people from the past! Incredible!"

"Ah, Trevor, I'm afraid there's no more film in the camera."

"It doesn't matter, Stephen. I'm sure we have more than enough to convince them to continue our funding!"

We kept watching the people on the screen. After a while, they waved to each other, then they all left except one. The last man waited for a few moments, then removed his hat, turned around and looked straight at us. It was Trevor Pinsky. He was clearly a number of years older, and had a huge smile on his face, but it was him, beyond any doubt. From under his cloak he took out a sign, and written in his umistakeable handwriting were the words;


July, 2006. Revised October, 2015

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