A few miles further down the road, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge soared majestically on concrete stilts a dozen stories above the water. Riley drove onto it but, as he reached the central span, an explosion under his car flipped it upside-down and flung it over the low parapet. Strapped in his seat, gripping the steering wheel, he began the long screaming fall to oblivion, but the fall seemed to slow, as if the car was plunging into treacle. At first, he thought that his mind was working faster than events, that in a moment his whole life would flash before his eyes, an upload to the CosmicCloud. Still clutching the steering wheel, he watched as airbags slowly inflated all around him, obscuring his vision. He realized that time was running more and more slowly until finally it stopped all together and the car was suspended in space. Panting he looked at the Potomac River forty meters below him, there was no movement in the water, everything was still. He realized that he was weightless in his seat belt.
“Sorry to have to leave it until the last moment, Dr Riley,” a female voice said from behind him. “If you could just unbuckle and make your way back here to the portal.”
He looked in the driving mirror of his inverted car and saw that a flexible, many colored membrane had replaced the whole of its rear section. It looked like a soap bubble, strange polychromatic patterns shifted over its surface. A woman of indeterminate age sat on the other side in what appeared to be another vehicle which he did not recognize. She wore a close fitting overall of pastel colors which changed and sparkled in the dimly lit interior.
“We can’t hold this configuration indefinitely, Martin, so let’s get moving.” He sat motionless; her voice became more urgent. “If you don’t come right now I’ll have to disengage and leave you falling.”
Realizing that he had no choice, Riley unbuckled his seat belt and pulled himself towards the rear. He was disappointed that the Colonel and his masters would think they’d won. Fuck them all anyway, he thought, as he slid through the membrane and into the future.
Martin Riley – The Scientist
England the 1990s
Not another one of these bloody things thought Riley, looking at the computer screen. It was the third hoax email to arrive in his inbox that week. He called Estella over from the other side of the lab. She was his senior research assistant, although their relationship had started to overlap working hours recently.
“Another email from my future self,” he said.
“Somebody’s taking the piss,” she said looking over his shoulder. “Perhaps a post grad has found a back door into the system. You never know what these geniuses will get up to next.”
“Well if I find out who’s responsible,” he said loudly, “they’ll be off the system and doing their calculations on an abacus for the foreseeable.”
If the culprit was among his team working on one of the nearby computers, it wasn’t apparent. Nobody in the room took more than cursory notice, they all had their heads down writing, typing or plotting graphs.
Estella pointed at the screen.
“It’s dated 2009, almost twenty years in the future and the sender’s address is ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’, an American Government website by the look of it. So apparently, you’ve emailed yourself from a time when you’ll be nearly fifty years old,” she chuckled. “Why don’t you answer it and ask for a picture of your middle-aged self? We could all have a laugh.”
Riley ignored her and read the title out loud.
“Number three -You ought to act on this one Martin.” His finger hovered over the delete key.
“Surely you’re going to open it,” said Estella. She was enjoying his discomfiture.
“Well, as the first two emails were racing tips, I expect this will be the same.” He spoke quietly to her, “I can’t see how it’s being done. Those last two were winners and it wouldn’t surprise me if this is another.”
“Well that’s not likely, is it?” she said. “Come on, I know you’re only a physicist but you must understand a bit about probabilities. Nobody can predict racing results with one hundred percent accuracy. The first two wins must have been flukes.”
“Yes, all right, I know you’re a mathematician and good at arithmetic. So how do you explain it then?” he asked.
“Maybe somebody’s trying to manipulate the odds? I don’t know much about horse racing but I’ve heard of doping and odds fixing. I grant you the date on the email is a mystery but that might be one of the young geniuses showing off. Anyway, what does it say?”
Riley clicked his mouse, and they both read, “Darkling Spy–Aintree two o’clock.”
“I need to think about this,” he said as he stood and walked towards his office.
“So, what are you going to do?” Estella had followed him.
“Go down to the bookies tomorrow morning and put a fiver on ‘Darkling Spy’ to win at Aintree.” He braced himself for her reaction.
“You are joking, surely you’re not going along with this?”
“Go back to your sums.”
The first hoax email had arrived on Wednesday and he’d deleted it as soon as he’d read it. When the second arrived on Thursday afternoon he’d checked into it at his local newsagent’s. Mr Singh had told Riley which paper to buy and shown him the racing pages.
“Nobody wins but the bookies,” he’d muttered, his turban emphasizing the wobbly sideways headshake, that didn’t have a European body language equivalent. Riley had agreed with him, folded the paper and taken it home. Sure enough, the second tip, “Midnight Swimmer” had won at Yarmouth on the previous day. A little investigation and a quick search of his deleted emails folder had revealed that the first tip, “Hoarse in the Morning” had also been a winner.
The next morning was a Saturday and despite the memory of Estella’s gentle derision, he went ahead with his plan. He didn’t want to risk other members of the physics faculty seeing him go into a betting shop, so he wore a hat and scarf by way of disguise. The bookie’s shop was near his Cambridge flat. He walked along the rainy street and stopped outside it, hoping to appear casual, as he looked around to see that no one he knew was on the street. Feeling awkward and unsure he pushed open the door and went in. The scarf was itchy on his neck, the hat felt unnatural, he smelt the sweaty tension in the air. He’d never been inside a betting shop before, illogically he’d expected all the other punters to be bigger than him, but they seemed to be an average lot. Riley was not a big man, and he felt self-conscious about his bitten fingernails and nervy disposition, but nobody took any notice of him as he approached the counter and put a tenner to win on his horse. The race wouldn’t start for half an hour so he bought a coffee from the machine and sat reading a paper and keeping his head down, trying not to call attention to himself.
Riley soon forgot the nasty lukewarm coffee in its paper cup as the race was announced on the TV above his head. He’d never had a bet on before, the personal involvement made such a difference, he was instantly transfixed as the starting gates opened and the horses and their riders exploded out and onto the track. The horses galloped bunched together at first, but as they began to separate he started shouting along with the other customers, his heart racing in his chest. Darkling Spy came into the home straight and broke away from the leaders. The other punters around him were urging their horses on, but Riley’s was ahead and he was screaming louder than the rest as it finished first, at four to one. He was stunned at the excitement and the exhilaration he felt at winning, he stood panting and staring, this was nearly as good as sex. He’d had no idea what he’d been missing. How would he explain it to Estella? Should he even try?
Around him the losers, muttering, tore up their betting slips. They turned their backs on the screen and returned to their racing pages. This could become addictive, he thought as he took a deep breath and mopped his face with a handkerchief.
He was surprised and pleased by the result but now the emails puzzled him even more, three wins couldn’t be a coincidence. Two maybe, but not three, the sender was either predicting the future or knobbling the horses.
He stepped up to the counter, handed his betting slip through the grill and took the small bundle of notes from the assistant.
“There you are dear; first time lucky, don’t spend it all at once.” She smiled to herself as she picked up her knitting.
Riley counted the money as he moved over to the side of the shop. He hated that it was so obvious that he was a betting virgin? He put the notes into his wallet, making sure that they were in the right order, all the same way up and all the same way around, with no folded over corners. The other, older punters, sat and rustled their newspapers, cigarettes dangling from their mouths as they squinted at the tiny lettering of the racing pages. Riley coughed as their tobacco smoke caught in his throat and, still feeling conspicuous, he adjusted his unfamiliar hat and scarf before leaving the shop and walking home.
In their flat on Pound Hill he made tea and held the mug to warm his hands. He stared out of the kitchen window and thought about the emails. An indistinct reflection looked back at him and he tried to imagine lines on its face and grey hair. Martin Riley aged fifty. Surely he wasn’t really sending emails to himself from the future?
When Estella got home from the gym he took out his wallet and, with a flourish, placed his winnings on the kitchen table.
“Ta-dah, another winner,” he said.
“No, really?” she looked perplexed. “This is getting mysterious, what do you thinks happening? Perhaps it’s a doping ring, but why would they want you to put bets on and why would they pretend to send emails from the future? Surely they’d just approach you in the street or the pub?”
“Well, what was it Sherlock Holmes said? Something like, ‘When you have eliminated all the impossibilities then whatever’s left must be the truth, however improbable.’ For the sake of argument, we could assume that my future self really is sending messages back, and see where that leads us? We should consider the means, the motivation and the opportunity.”
“Well the motivations a cinch,” said Estella. “He wants you to make him rich by betting on the gee-gees. Having the means implies access to equipment that can send messages twenty years into the past, perhaps you’ll invent it. The opportunity would only present itself if he could do it secretly or with the approval of whoever owns the Time Machine unless he owns it.”
“Or else something criminal is going on.” They stared at each other for a few moments.
“Let’s talk about it in the pub, I’m famished,” she said.
In the bedroom, hours later, he lay staring at the Victorian plasterwork around the ceiling rose high above their bed. Their clothes were scattered over the floor but he was losing the plot as far as lovemaking was concerned. Estella was blonde, voluptuous and intelligent; well-rounded in all respects. She had well developed appetites for both food and sex. The reverse cowgirl was one of her favorite positions. He knew she liked the feeling of control it gave her, and it also did something for her G-spot. She stopped rocking.
“I can tell you’re not concentrating,” she said. Carefully keeping him inside her she lifted one leg over and slowly turned around to face him. She sat back, a cowgirl now. Perhaps he should buy her a Stetson for Christmas, he thought, she could wear it when the mood took her. No, on second thoughts, she might take it off and beat him with it as they raced towards the finish.
“You’re still thinking about the emails, aren’t you?” she was slightly breathless. There was a sheen of sweat on her forehead, she pushed her hair back from where it was sticking.
“What, you mean the emails from the future that are predicting the results of horse races, and might make me a millionaire? No, not really, I was wondering what to have for breakfast! Of course, I’m thinking about the emails, I can’t think about anything else.” He could feel himself softening. “I’m sorry I’ve lost it.”
She lifted herself slightly, they disengaged, and he felt their sweaty skins part. She flopped down on her front next to him.
“So, let’s talk about it,” she said.
“Well, assuming this isn’t a hoax of some sort, it all makes sense. The racing tips have certainly got my attention; they’re a quick, simple and legal way of getting rich. At the same time, they prove their own authenticity. It’s very logical. I feel quite proud of my future self for being so imaginative.”
“Something tells me you need to be careful Martin. We should keep this to ourselves. If you get any more tips, save the winnings and don’t flash the money around.”
“The trouble is that temporal messaging must lead to problems with causality,” he said. “What if I killed my grandfather and all those other paradoxes?”
“Temporal Messaging, I like the sound of that, it rolls off the tongue, TM, very good,” she said.
“But interfering with the past will alter the future,” he insisted.
“Well, as long as it makes us rich, why worry about it? What was it Mae West said ‘I’ve tried rich and I’ve tried poor. Rich is better.’ “She closed her eyes and her breathing began to slow and deepen. They’d made quite a night of it at the Cricketers.
Us, rich, he thought as he drifted off to sleep. He dreamed of horses galloping backwards towards the starting grid with smiling, high kicking dancing girls throwing handfuls of bank notes into the air.
The next morning, they sat in a local café, nursing headaches over a late breakfast.
“If TM is real then how is it being done?” he asked. “I mean, there’s a Nobel Prize in it if we can work that out.”
“Tachyons,” said Estella poking at her Eggs Benedict. “Don’t they travel faster than light? They could carry information back through time just like photons and electrons do through space.”
“Tachyons are hypothetical particles that have never been observed,” said Riley primly. “What about wormholes?”
“Another hypothetical concept,” she said. “Anyway, they connect different points in space.”
“No, they connect different points in space-time, so they might connect different points in space or time or both. So, you can connect the same point to itself in the past or the future if you only have a wormhole.”
“A Time Tunnel,” said Estella pulling a theatrical expression and waggling the fingers of both her hands in his face. “What about sending people through it?” she said, sitting back.
“No, the energies needed to control one that big would be astronomical. It might be possible to find one at microscopic level and then send information through it, using short wave radiation.”
“It sounds as far-fetched as tachyons,” she said as she lifted a forkful of egg.
“Not really, wormholes are allowed by general relativity and there has been serious talk of them existing at the quantum scale, they might connect everywhere to everywhen. Infinite numbers of the little buggers, our problem would be to detect them; they’re so small, if they exist at all.”
“Well perhaps you’ll send yourself a message explaining how to catch one and control it,” said Estella, taking a sip of tea.
“That interferes with causality, where would the knowledge have originated? I think he wants me to work it out for myself. But knowing it’s possible makes a problem much easier to solve.”
Over the next week he waited to see if anybody he worked with mentioned horse racing but no one did. There was no hoaxer, and every few days another TM arrived in his email account.
He entered a double life. During working hours, he was Dr Martin Riley, respected high energy physics researcher, leader of a team of scientists at Cambridge University, analyzing data from the low Energy Antiproton Ring accelerator at CERN. At lunch times, he became a furtive punter driving around Cambridge, spreading bets in different bookmakers. He had to involve Estella because it doubled the number they could place without repeating visits.
“What are we going to do with it all?” asked Estella. They had pulled the suitcase out from under the bed and tipped the bundles of notes out onto the floor just for the fun of looking at them.
“Let’s buy a house, we’ve enough for the down payment.” He had been reasonably happy as a bachelor but Estella had brought something into his life he hadn’t known was missing. He was a workaholic and could get absent minded when he was fully engaged with a research problem. It was Estella who reminded him to shower and shave, who made him eat properly, made him change his clothes and tried to stop him biting his fingernails. She cared for him. She also took the piss a lot, but he didn’t mind that. He loved her and she seemed to love him. “We could even think about getting married.”
“Was that your idea of a proposal?” she asked after a short pause. “You’re going to have to do better than that Martin.”
They opened bank accounts in the Channel Islands and made occasional trips to St Peter Port to deposit their winnings. They kept their bets moderate and began travelling to betting shops outside their area, they wore different clothes and even used different accents. The money kept rolling in.
Secretly, Riley still worried that this was a scam operated by a gang of horse dopers. He half expected that one night there would be a knock at his front door and imagined himself peering, through the curtains of the upstairs flat, at shady characters waiting on the doorstep below, come to claim their money. He bought a cricket bat in a charity shop and kept it by his bed
England the 1990s
“Ah, Dr Riley thanks for coming,” Riley stepped into his faculty head’s office. The memo summoning him had been left in his pigeon hole. He supposed that it was too late for an oldster like Middleton to get to grips with the new technology and send emails like everybody else.
“Not at all Professor Middleton, how can I help?” He coughed. He hated the smell of the small cigars that his boss smoked, the air in the room was blue and he never opened any windows.
Riley was unimpressed with Middleton as a scientist. Even though he led the physics faculty he hadn’t published a paper in living memory. He had only two years to go before he enjoyed his index linked retirement. Riley had noticed that he was careful not to cause administrative ripples, he was probably hoping to get an honor for “outstanding contributions to education” or something similar. The framed display of hand tied fishing flies, on the wall above his boss’s head said it all, thought Riley. He might as well put up a notice saying, “I’d rather be fishing than doing science.” Riley wanted to be sitting in this office, leading the department, pushing the envelope, getting recognition from his peers. He secretly dreamed of a Nobel Prize and wondered if the emails were the route to one. The money he was accruing was all right but what he wanted more was recognition. He pulled up a chair, sat down and attempted to look attentive.
“Have you heard of John Oakwood?” asked Middleton as he leaned back in his swivel chair and puffed his noxious smoke at the ceiling.
“Dr John Oakwood, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government?”
“Yes. Well, he’s coming here to discuss a new contract we will be bidding for. We’ll be in competition with the particle physics people at Warwick but I think we can confidently assume that the light blues will have it. Why he wants to get involved at this level I don’t know, but there it is, politics.” Middleton made a gesture of helplessness, gave a wry smile and took another puff on his cheroot. Riley imagined that he must be secretly thrilled to be hosting a VIP of this caliber; the bragging rights would be enormous at management meetings. The best way to magnify them was to pretend indifference, but Middleton obviously knew that.
“He wants to keep things low key, no fuss. He likes to speak to the people at the chalk face doing the research, not old war horses like me, so I’ll need you to be at the meeting.”
Riley felt a frisson of excitement. “Fine” he said evenly, “no problem, I’ll make sure my team wear clean lab coats, in case he wants to go walkabout.
“Good, good, that’s one problem solved then.” Middleton looked down and placed a tick on the list that lay on his desk. “I’ll send you details of the contract, so you can prepare the proposal.” He looked up and smiled, “Don’t let me keep you Dr Riley.” He returned his attention to his paperwork.
Riley left the office barely able to hide his excitement; shutting the door he silently punched the air as he walked down the corridor to his section. Back in his office, he paced the carpet, unable to settle, he couldn’t believe his luck. He went and found Estella in the laboratory and, holding her by the elbow, hurried her back with him, closed the door and leaned against it.
“I say, Martin, not before coffee surely?” she laughed.
In the early days of their relationship, Riley and Estella had consummated it over his office desk several times, after working hours. These days they were more sensible, although they had recently ‘done it’ in a bus shelter one night, while they were waiting for the last bus.
“You’ll never believe this,” he said. “The Government’s chief scientist is visiting here next week. He wants to discuss a high energy physics contract.”
“Marvelous,” she said, “and what’s that got to do with the price of fish?”
“I’m going to ask him to fund the TM project.”
Estella sat on a chair and looked thoughtful. “How are you going to get him alone?” she asked, “and when you do, how are you going to convince him? ‘Messages from the future,’ it’ll sound completely bonkers. You might find yourself looking for another job.”
“Yes, well, I can always fall back on my modelling career.”
She laughed, rather unkindly he thought.
“I’ll have to play it by ear,” he said.
A week later, Riley was sitting in a conference room listening to his head of faculty, various other section heads, the Government’s chief scientist and his civil servants, discussing the research project. As they broke for coffee, Oakwood announced his wish to visit the gents and Riley quickly offered to show him the way. Fortunately, the place was empty and their footsteps echoed off the hard, shiny surfaces as they walked in and the door swung closed behind them.
The two men stood at the urinals, leaving one vacant between them as convention required.
“So, no sign of the Higgs Boson yet Dr Riley?” asked Oakwood.
“I understood that you were a biologist Dr Oakwood.” During the meeting, the breadth of Oakwood’s knowledge had surprised Riley.
“I’m usually well briefed by my team before I come on these expeditions,” he said. “No scientist could fail to be fascinated by the new discoveries in your area though. Quantum fields, elementary particles, gravity waves, so many exciting things for you young Turks to explore.”
Riley stopped pretending to piss, he would have been far too nervous, even if he’d needed to. He zipped up his fly and turned towards the other man.
“Sorry Dr Oakwood but this will be the only opportunity I have to speak to you alone,” he said, interrupting the other man’s musings. “I need a few minutes to make my ‘elevator pitch,’ I’ve a proposal I believe will lead to the most important scientific breakthrough of the century.”
Oakwood turned to look at him, his face expressionless.
“Really,” he said as if it was something he heard every day.
Riley paused for a second then continued, “For several months now I’ve been receiving messages from the future.”
Oakwood stared straight ahead, Riley knew he couldn’t walk away in mid-stream.
“And what form do these messages take Dr Riley?” he asked. “Voices in your head or something more concrete, Tarot cards perhaps, tea leaves, chicken giblets?”
Riley sighed; he knew this was going to be the most difficult part.
“No, racing tips actually.”
“Racing tips,” said Oakwood as he shook, zipped and stepped back from the urinal. “Racing tips. Winning racing tips?”
“Well, twenty-seven so far.”
“All winners, no losers?”
Riley nodded. Oakwood moved to the hand basins on the opposite wall and spoke to Riley’s reflection in the mirror above, as he rinsed his hands.
“And can you prove any of this?” he asked as he turned to pull paper towels from the dispenser.
“I realize how this sounds Dr Oakwood, but I have records of all the bets I’ve laid. I’d be happy to show you my bank statements, you can see the deposits. In the meantime, I wanted to give you this.” He tucked a card into the top pocket of the older man’s suit. “I’ve written the winners of three races at different racecourses tomorrow on the back of that Doctor. You might like to have a flutter on them, I can guarantee the results.”
Oakwood dropped his paper towels in a bin and removed the note from his pocket. He examined it as they walked to the door and Riley pulled it open to let Oakwood pass. He made no comment as they re-join the meeting. Oakwood left at lunchtime.
“Very nice to meet you Doctor,” said Riley. He gave a wan smile as they shook hands, Oakwood’s expression was unreadable, as he nodded his goodbye.
The next evening, as Riley arrived home on his new racing cycle, he noticed a black Range Rover parked in the street outside. He leaned the bike against the front hedge and as he went to open the front gate, the driver’s door opened. A man in his early forties stepped out and approached. He wore a grey suit and had flecks of grey in his hair, he moved with confidence and had a characterful nose; Riley guessed, from his build, that he might have broken it playing rugby or possibly boxing.
“Good evening Dr Riley, my name is Paul Burnley.” He held up an identity card for a moment and Riley caught the letters “SIS” printed on it as it passed by his line of sight. “Dr Oakwood has asked me to escort you to a meeting with him, if you could just get into the car sir.” He moved to the rear door and reached to open it.
Riley stepped back, “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what this is about.” His voice quavered slightly and was higher pitched than he meant it to be. He cleared his throat.
Smith tapped the roof of the car and the other doors opened. Three athletic-looking younger men dressed in dark suits climbed out and walked over to Riley. They surrounded him, standing closer than he liked.
“I want to speak to my lawyer if I’m under arrest.” Riley noticed that his voice had quavered again. He felt little trickles of sweat running from his armpits and across his ribcage. He realized that he didn’t know any lawyers.
The older man sighed. “Look sir, there’s no need to excite yourself, I’m not arresting you, I only want to take you to a meeting with Dr Oakwood.” He spoke deliberately as if to a child. “So, it would save us both a lot of trouble if you could just get in the car please.”
Riley made a move towards the safety of his front gate. With startling efficiency, two of the younger men grabbed his arms while the third cable tied his wrists. They bundled him into the back of the car, with one man sitting on either side of him. The third walked back and got into the driving seat.
“There now, that wasn’t too difficult was it sir?” said Burnley as he got into the front and slammed the door. He sighed and muttered something to the driver. As they set off, Riley looked back and saw a flash of light from his front garden. It was hidden from view as the car rounded a bend. He looked forward as they drove off through Cambridge and then South on the M11 motorway. He hoped Estella was all right, she’d gone to the supermarket but wasn’t due home yet.
Riley’s emotions were in turmoil. He hadn’t had a fight since he was a child. Burnley and his agents scared him, he was trembling and had no idea what would happen next. Would they torture him? Murder him? Imprison him under the Official Secrets act? What powers did these people have, official or otherwise?
“Where are you taking me? Estella’s expecting me, when will I get back? What about my bicycle?” He realized that he was gibbering.
“Now don’t worry,” said Burnley. “You won’t be away for long, Dr Oakwood just wants a little chat with you, and then we’ll get you home safe and sound. I’m sure your bicycle will come to no harm.”
The other agents chuckled quietly and the rest of the journey passed in silence, Burnley ignored him, and the agents stared out of the windows. What with the exertions of his bike ride home and now all this stress, Riley realized that he was beginning to smell rank. Nobody commented, he assumed that they were used to the smell of fear. Other people’s unpleasant body odors, just another, seldom mentioned aspect in the exciting life of a secret agent. He felt calmer as he thought the situation through, Oakwood must take his pitch seriously. If he’d written Riley off as just another nutty scientist, then he wouldn’t be sitting in the back of a car full of secret agents, speeding towards a meeting with the British Government’s chief scientific adviser. Things might not be as bad as they seemed.
Their destination was a detached house in a residential street in Bishop’s Stortford. It was set back from the road, Riley guessed that it had been built in the nineteen twenties.
“This is one of our safe houses Dr Riley,” said Burnley. “Dr Oakwood is waiting for you inside.” They helped him out of the car and then stood in the porch while an agent knocked and spoke into an intercom. A man in shirtsleeves opened the door and as they entered Riley saw the he was wearing a shoulder holster, with a nasty looking black automatic pistol in it. His confidence took a downturn. He stumbled over the sill and realized that he was sweating again. With an agent on either side of him, he followed Burnley through the hall and into the lounge where Oakwood was standing with his back to the gas fire. The room felt warm and welcoming, a piece of classical music that Riley couldn’t identify was playing in the background. The furnishings were bland and tasteless but looked unused.
“Ah, Riley, how nice to see you again. I say, remove those restraints at once,” he said harshly and one of the agents produced a pair of wire cutters and briskly cut through the cable ties. Riley wondered what other uses they had been put to.
“Good for pulling out fingernails, are they?” he asked as he massaged his wrists.