The Past Like a Pudding

Hart surveyed the team of Time Engineer s busying about the parking garage. He knew this mission was more likely than most to get him killed, but at least it promised to be extra interesting. Partly due to ‘technical challenges,’ but mostly because of his guest agent.

The spies Hart usually escorted into the past were quiet, stern, and in their mid-forties. They didn’t care about Hart’s part of the job—the ins and outs of time travel. They wanted to get straight to the secrets he could show them. But Agent Victoria Cross, a young, red-headed Brit, had been downright effervescent about traveling through time. As well she should be, Hart thought. His job was, after all, really cool.

He secured the Time Hoops around the Time Buggy and donned the heavy components of his Time Suit. All of Time United’s equipment had the capitalized word ‘Time’ in front of the names, in case anyone needed reminding of their function.

Other Time Engineers busied about in and around the vans, checking the temporal reading equipment and uploading mission parameters to the Time Buggy’s computer. Plotting a driving course through the past required good directions and oodles of satellite data.

The vans and Time Buggy were parked on the ground floor of an empty parking garage in a Parisian suburb just south of LeBourget. Time United had paid to have the garage shut down and emptied for the day. They pretended to be a film studio shooting a movie, of course. Only a few powerful outsiders knew about Time United, time travel, or the espionage opportunities they sold.

And speaking of espionage, here she came. The gray security van pulled up and parked next to the Time Buggy.  Two large Time Officers stepped out and opened the back doors. There, wearing her hydraulic Time Suit, arm and leg restraints, and a big grin Hart could see through her helmet, sat Agent Victoria Cross. The officers carried her politely into the Time Hoops and sat her in the Time Buggy. Then they deposited a metal suitcase—her now thoroughly scanned, checked, and re-checked mission equipment—into the buggy’s cargo hatch.

“Many apologies, Agent Cross,” Hart said. Time United had strict security policies regarding what may be brought into the past. They had to take extra precautions with the spies they worked with.

“Oh it’s totally understandable. I am a spy, of course,” said Agent Cross with her bright, London accent.

“Ah. Most spies seem insulted when we imply that they might…”

“Be sneaky?”

“Exactly.”

Agent Cross laughed. It was a loud, melodic laugh.

“Well, maybe they’re not as sneaky as me. I don’t know about them. But I completely understand why you might need me in irons.” She held up her gloved hands, bound together with magnetic restraints.

“Well good. I hate to insult the clients. But we must preserve the integrity of the past.”

“Indeed. Now…you’re in charge of this suit right?” She asked. Hart nodded. “It’s just I’m not used to putting my life so directly in another’s hands. You will make sure I can breathe, yes?”

“Absolutely,” Hart said.

“Splendid!”

“I’ll even remove the restraints when it’s time for you to do your stuff.”

“Even better.”

Hart secured the seal on her helmet, waiting for the telltale ‘click.’ Then he prepped his own. He signaled to the Time Technicians who controlled the outer Time Hoop—the piece of the Time Hoop that would stay in the present while the inner one took them to the past.

When they signaled back, Hart took an involuntary deep breath. The technicians faded and were replaced by rows of mostly black or white compact cars. It was twelve hours, 3 minutes, and 27.0375 seconds ago now. That was as exact as Hart’s human brain had to get to do his job. The computer knew the exact micromilisecond they were visiting. Micromiliseconds were the atom of time. Tiny, indivisible slices of the fourth dimension. You could slice it smaller, but, as with atoms, time wouldn’t really be recognizable anymore.

“Wait, was that it?” asked Agent Cross. “We’re in the past now?”

“Yup.”

And they were safe and whole. As part of standard prep, Hart’s team had scanned yesterday’s security footage of the garage and found a 12’ radius circle of space with no people, traffic, or litter exactly 12 hours, three minutes and 27 seconds ago in time. To the milimicrosecond. Wouldn’t want to jump back in time and mix molecules with a SAAB. This particular milimicrosecond was chosen because satellite images confirmed a concurrent clear driving path to Agent Cross’ target destination.

“Woah! I can barely move!” Agent cross was swaying slowly in the seat next to Hart, pushing against the gloopy air of the past.

“Didn’t your superiors brief you on the conditions?”

In slow motion, Hart got out of the Time Buggy to pick up the pieces of the inner Time Hoop they would need to jump back to the present. His hydraulic Time Suit helped him move in the thick air. Everything in the past was more solid. The daffodils were tougher than diamonds, rocks were so solid they could qualify as a new state of matter, and even the air was like swimming in almond butter. Thus the Time Suits with their own breathable air supply. They had an eight hour supply exactly.

“They did brief me,” she said. “But hearing it and feeling it are two different things.” Cross was slowly dragging her helmeted head back and forth in the transparent air-nutbutter.

“Even the air will be solid in about eleven hours,” Hart said.

“So this is why we can only go back in time one day.”

“One rotation of the earth,” He nodded.

“After that and the past just sort of…sets up. Like a pudding?” She said.

Hart laughed as he laboriously collected the last piece of the Time Hoop and brought it to its compartment in the Time Buggy.

“Right. You could say that. Malleable for one day only. Then it’s set in stone, so to speak.”

Hart was sad about that. The top executives at Time United and most of its engineers were sad too. Most were historians at heart who could never truly get what they wanted from the miraculous technology they’d created.

Time travel couldn’t take you back to when the pyramids were built or the Magna Carta was signed. They could send a camera back farther than a day and get a single photograph. That was all. And each of those trips cost six billion dollars. Only high level espionage bought by world powers and despots could pay Time United’s bills.

If Hart succeeded on today’s important mission, Time United would let him have his moment. Hart was the kind of history enthusiast who itched to solve mysteries. He wanted a photograph of the construction of Stonehenge.

“So only the air is malleable, right?” She asked.

“Yes. Once the present slips even one micromillisecond into the past, solids and liquids are unchangeable.”

“Pity.”

“No,” Hart said, climbing into the Time Buggy and turning on its silent, no-oxygen-needed engine. “Time United’s best theoretical physicists don’t really know what would happen to the world if the past got changed. They argue about it at every Christmas party.”

“What do you think?” she asked.

“I have my theories.”

“We have a long drive,” said Agent Cross as the buggy crawled along at half a mile an hour.

Hart tried to relax into the pressure of the thick air against his whole body as they drove. He pushed the gas pedal to the floor. They would make it two miles down the road to the target site in about four hours. They’d have three hours of oxygen left by the time they got there. They were cutting it close.

“I think,” he said, pulling out of the parking garage and down the avenue, “Time is localized. So if something got changed here in the past, it would change only within a small radius. I think the rest of the world would have dual memories surrounding the changed point in space/time. But in a small area, people would remember only one of the possible days. If the past were changed enough times or in big enough ways, what we call ‘history’ would become infinitely complex.”

“What radius do you think?” she asked.

“It’s hard to say. But things I’ve seen in my work make me think…hmm. Ten city blocks or so.”

“And only the people in the affected area would remember an uninterrupted time stream?”

“Something like that.”

“So, you could have a one night stand, the past gets changed and you forget. But your mistress was far enough away so that she remembers?”

“Ha ha! That’s a sordid scenario! We don’t even know if we can change the past 24 hours. Time United wouldn’t allow tests of that nature. We guard the past as well as peek at it, you know.”

“That’s what we’re doing? Peeking?”

“Well it’s your mission. You know what you want from it. By the way, what is your mission? I assume you’re in His Majesty’s Secret Service.  I’m not technically supposed to know what you’re about, but I can be helpful if I know a little more about what you need.”

“Tut tut.” Agent Cross shook her head at him.

“I see. Well, if you change your mind once we’re at the site, let me know. We like satisfied clients. Time travel isn’t cheap!”

“Mum’s the word,” said Cross.

Hart figured he shouldn’t pry for more details about her mission.  All he knew was that she’d be on scene at the banquet of a world trade summit. Lots of high ranking officials from many countries. A setup like that usually meant his guest spy would be looking at the smartphone screens of various diplomats, hoping to glean vital information. It wasn’t the most effective way to spy, but if you got lucky with the right people the payoff could be huge.

Suddenly, Hart saw something in the road that shouldn’t be there. A crumpled sandwich sack loomed ahead on a white crosswalk line directly in the Time Buggy’s charted route. Time United’s techs must have missed it in the satellite images. Understandable. It was white and blended in. The shadows it cast could have been mistaken for chipped paint.

“Crap! Obstacle.”

“What? That bag? It’s just a bag,” said Agent Cross.

“It’s a bag that’s harder than a diamond on Moh’s hardness scale. I have to measure it to see if the Time Buggy can clear it.”

Hart killed the engine and started the slow climb out.

“And if we can’t?”

“I have to measure a new way through this intersection.” Hart gestured in front of him. The two cars ahead of them at the intersection were spaced just so as to make weaving between them look impossible. The only other option was to roll over the median grass, across the other lane, onto the sidewalk, and around the fire plug. The route that direction seemed clear enough. It would take lots of precious time to navigate, though. Maybe too much time.

He pulled his tape measure from his belt and prayed the paper sakc wasn’t more than 26 cm high. But no luck. He looked between the two other route options: intersection and sidewalk.

“Hang on!” He called to Agent Cross. “I’ve got to go measure.”

“Do we have time?”

“I hope so,” he said, walking slowly and with purpose toward the more direct intersection. “We’ll measure this route. If the Time Buggy won’t fit, we’ll go around the bag via that sidewalk.”

Hart measured. The intersection wouldn’t work. Nothing for it but to drive around the whole busy intersection. He walked back to the Time Buggy and climbed onto Agent Cross’s lap.

“What are you doing?” she asked. She’d probably have pushed him off if it hadn’t been for the restraints.

“Some fern fronds hang down over that brick wall. I’ll hit them if I’m in the driver’s seat. I’m going to steer from over here.”

Hart turned on the engine and started toward the sidewalk route. He checked the air guage. Measuring had cost them an hour. Even if this new route went well, it was going to take an hour to carefully weave it through all the natural, solid as Hell obstacles. They’d arrive at the site with 3 hours of air left to do their spying and get home.

***

When they arrived at the hotel where the summit had taken place, Hart smiled. He drove down the sidewalks, weaving between heavily armed security agents who were now frozen solid in time.  The improvidsed route had gone well. A fern frond had sliced through the Time Buggy’s driver’s side head rest. This had served to mollify Agent cross’ outrage about having Hart in her lap.

Hart drove all the way to the door of the target hotel—as far as the Time Buggy could take them. As slow as the Buggy was, walking took even more time. Even in the hydraulic suits.

Once he’d killed the engine Hart slowly pressed the release button on Agent Cross’s suit restraints. He helped her stand. She rose slowly under the pressure of the thick, solidifying air. All the newbies had trouble adjusting to movement in the air of the past.

He checked their gauges. The drive up here had taken five eighths of their air. Forget Plan B! They’d have to hoop back out from a plan C or D location. It was more likely to arouse suspicion. Cross’s bosses would have to pay through the nose for this.

He handed Agent Cross her suitcase and stepped out of her way.

“This is now your show, Ms. Sneaky Spy,” He said.

But it seemed her levity and humor were gone now that it was go time. Wordlessly, she grabbed the case and strode through the doorway, past all the security guards hired specifically to stop people like her. Maybe it was the thick air, or maybe all spies went taciturn when work was before them. Whichever it was, the formerly bubbly Agent Cross was all grim purpose.

Hart followed her through the doorway and toward the ballroom that was, thankfully, on the first floor. Taking the stairs in the air of the past was exhausting and Hart couldn’t afford to expend so much air. They were already looking at hooping back from a broom closet. Hard to explain away your sudden presence in a broom closet wearing a space suit at a diplomatic summit.

He pushed down thoughts that he might not hoop back at all. It was in Time United’s contract that if returning alive to the present compromised the client’s larger interests, he was contractually obligated to stay in the past with his guest agent. Their oxygen would run out together.

Then the ballroom took his breath away. There was a lavish dinner set on exquisite crystal plates. The French could do it right. Mirrors and candles lent the room a wholesome glow that flattered all the gowned ladies and suited gentlemen. The French did dinner right.

Here and there the natural warm candle light was interrupted by the LCD glow of a smartphone. Cross’s likely targets. In fact, she’d probably hit some excellent pay dirt. Around a table of exquisite pastries, the US Secretary of State, England’s Secretary of State for International Trade, and the French Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs were at this very micromillisecond, comparing screens. Perfect timing. He could almost taste that photo of Stonehenge.

Hart turned to Agent Cross. He expected her to be acting like all the other spies: taking notes, snapping pictures, and measuring various purses and briefcases in the room.

But instead she had the Time Hoop. When had she taken it? She’d set it up correctly next to her open suitcase. Inside the suitcase was a device with a digital clock that was counting down. Hart started for her.

“What are you doing?”

“Really bad espionage,” she said, stepping laboriously from her suitcase to the completed Time Hoop.

“That’s a bomb!” he said. The air was thickening as the Earth turned ever closer to the 24 hour mark of final solidity. Walking was getting harder.  “How did you sneak a bomb in past our security?”

“I didn’t, love. They let me bring it.”

Hart almost stopped walking. Time United’s ethics code was to never interfere physically with the past.

“I’ll stop you,” he said. He knew he couldn’t. A bomb. A micromillisecond when the air surrounding these people and inside their lungs would have turned to fire twelve hours and three minutes in the past. Maybe it wouldn’t change anything. Maybe it would shake the world.

Time terrorism. No day would be safely written until 24 hours had passed. You wouldn’t know if anything you were doing would ‘stick.’ A conversation. A surgery. A shooting spree. A kiss. Not until the day was done.

“Your employers thought you might disapprove of the company’s new direction,” she said. “It’s why they picked you to accompany me.”

“They couldn’t have. They know the risks to the time stream! They’d never!”

The timer ticked down to 28 seconds. He wasn’t going to make it across the room to the device in time.

“The money’s too good, love. My employers are very well funded.”

“Who are they? You can tell a dead man.” A dead man who’d never see Stonehenge.

But Agent Cross just shrugged.

“Mum’s the word,” she said. She pushed the button on her suit that activated the Time Hoop and Vanished.

She’d pop up wearing her suit in the ballroom Twelve hours, three minutes, and 27 second from this moment. Normally, such a thing would never happen. She’d give the whole time travel operation away. But the world had just gone mad.

Hart ran forward helplessly through the peanut buttery air. He wasn’t going to give up. But it was like a nightmare of impeded movement. The timer ticked 5…4…3…2… And Hart closed his eyes and prayed he was wrong. The worst of it, Hart thought, is that I’ll never know.

 

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