“What Does a Time Machine Cost?”
by Elliotte Rusty Harold
A few family photographs and her childhood diary were all Dr. Elizabeth Huang had left from her preteen years. The intervening decades had turned the paper in the diary yellow and faded the ink; but the writing was still legible:
January 17, 2016
We buried Mama this morning. Dad says I shouldn’t blame myself. It’s not my fault her car skidded off the bridge on the way to pick up my birthday cake.
He doesn’t understand that when I say I’m going to fix it, I’m not blaming myself. I’m taking responsibility. He doesn’t get the difference, but Mama would have understood. She knew that sometimes you do things because you have to, and because you’re the only one who can.
I’m going to build a time machine like the one in the book, and I’m going to tell Mama not to pick up my birthday cake in the storm.
The painful naivete of youth. She’d really believed she could build a time machine. And then, miracle of miracles, she’d done it.
The very next day Lizzie sold her American Girl dolls on eBay and used the money to buy math and physics textbooks. While her friends read Twilight and shopped at the mall, she read Calculus the Easy Way and soldered electronic circuits.
She skipped eighth grade and went straight to high school. She took extra courses in the summer and didn’t date or go to school dances so she could skip another grade and still graduate as class valedictorian.
Lizzie matriculated at Brown at 16. She chose Brown because it was the only top school where she could load up on math, physics, and engineering without wasting time on English or history. Paying for Brown wasn’t easy—with her mother gone, her father’s salary only stretched far enough to cover household expenses—but she took out loans and worked nights in the school cafeteria. In her junior year, she sold her eggs to a childless couple who wanted a smart Chinese baby.
For four years of college, she paced a triangle between classroom, the library, and her dorm. When classmates invited Lizzie (now Elizabeth) to a party or a game, she politely declined. Eventually they stopped asking. She wasn’t valedictorian at Brown, but being valedictorian wasn’t her goal. Learning relativity and quantum mechanics was, and that she did.
After graduation, Elizabeth went straight into a doctoral program in physics at MIT. She finished her Ph.D in three years. Her thesis extended Julian Barbour’s work on timeless quantum mechanics. She found his mistake. The future wasn’t fixed. Neither was the past. History could be changed.
Of course just because history could be changed, didn’t mean it was easy to change. That some solutions to the equations of relativistic quantum mechanics looked like spacetime wormholes didn’t prove such wormholes existed in the real world, much less that she could build one. It took Elizabeth (now Dr. Huang) fifteen years to turn the theoretical possibility hinted at in her thesis into a practical plan. When her sister called to tell her that her father had died, she sent flowers.
Constructing a working time machine was going to be complicated and expensive. It took another ten years, but she built it. She sent a few molecules back a few seconds, not sufficient for her purposes; but it proved the theory was sound. She celebrated with a cupcake. She thought maybe she should ask somebody to join her, but she couldn’t think of anyone to invite.
Molecules were a good start, but sending a macroscopic object back a few decades was going to take more energy, more space, and more money, especially more money. It wasn’t easy for a woman of 47 to get her foot in the door on Wall Street, not even one who was on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize; but Dr. Huang was persistent. She found a firm that would hire her as an entry level quant. Five years later she made partner. Three years after that, she left to start her own hedge fund. She cut some corners along the way, and ran into trouble with with the SEC, though nothing lawyers and a few well-placed campaign contributions couldn’t handle. She rode out the crash of 2062 without panicking so by the time most women would be traveling the world or spoiling their grandchildren, she was ready to break ground on the Anna Huang Linear Time Center in the desert outside Barstow.
Construction and testing took another three and half years, but now the machine was finally ready, the machine that would send the message back in time to her younger self, warning her.
Elizabeth read the page from her diary one last time. Then she grasped it at the top. Tearing it felt wrong. She’d kept the diary safe through a lifetime of moves from one job to the next. Even when she lived in dorm rooms and apartments barely big enough for a single bed and a desk, she never considered getting rid of it, almost as if she knew she might need it one day.
Silly. This was what she’d saved the diary for. She forced her reticence down and pulled. The page tore down the middle. No matter. Her younger self would still recognize it and know what it meant, even with half the page missing.
She laid the torn page on the table and picked up a blue marker. Carefully, trying to imitate her twelve-year-old handwriting so there’d be no doubt about who sent the message, she scrawled across the top:
Don’t build a time machine — Yourself
She put the paper in the machine and pushed the button.
When not laboring in his secret identity of a mild-mannered software developer, Elliotte Rusty Harold lives in a secret mountaintop laboratory on a large island off the East Coast of the United States with his wife Beth and dog Thor. He’s an avid birder and insect photographer. His fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, and numerous anthologies.