The Drift

A Science Fiction Story

Eric stared out at the stars. He was in his time machine, floating in space. It was a metal capsule around six feet high with just enough space to fit his muscular frame inside. The top and bottom of the capsule were wrapped with temporal tunneling rings, their glow slowly fading.

Inside the capsule, red lights flashed. He checked the control panel by his waist. The indicators marked MAP DATA FAULT, TRACKING FAULT, POSITION FAULT, and a dozen other errors. The time machine’s location anchor had malfunctioned. When he made the trip, the anchor hadn’t adjusted for the difference in earth’s position six centuries in the past. Instead of landing in what would become Wyoming, he was sailing through nothingness, drifting farther and farther from home.

“Glad I added that seal around the door,” he thought. “I just wanted to keep out bad air, so I could visit time periods with plagues or volcanic eruptions. I never planned on testing it in a vacuum!” He rubbed his arms. It had only been a couple of minutes, and it was already getting cold. “Wish I had thought to add insulation, too.”

He could hit the time machine’s recall button. That would take him back to the present and the warmth of earth’s surface. “But with a broken location anchor,” he thought, “I wouldn’t end up where I left. I’ve drifted to a different location relative to present day earth. If I returned to the present now, my location would be off by… Why, it must be well over a hundred miles. That could put me somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Or even inside one of them.

“But if I don’t return, I will eventually run out of air. I remember reading about a magician from India who survived being buried alive in a coffin for twelve hours, meditating to slow his breathing. The time machine is a little larger than a typical casket. Let’s say I manage to last for eighteen hours. Then what? The earth would still be miles away.”

There was barely enough room to work, but he might be able to figure out what was wrong with the location anchor and reprogram it. Unfortunately, next to the temporal tunneling rings, it was the most complex part of the machine. He barely knew how it functioned. The anchor was the brainchild of his assistant, a young computer named Audrey. Two years earlier, he had convinced Audrey that his time travel experiments would be more exciting than working on ballistic missile calculations for the military. Compared to crunching numbers all day, meeting Billy the Kid or riding a dinosaur sounded like a real gas. Besides, his time machine was more important than any silly rocket. Once he had perfected his machine, they could prevent wars before they even started.

Audrey was brilliant, an aces mathematician and full of moxie, but she lacked the patience for teaching. Every time Eric asked her to show him how to program the anchor, she made some excuse to get out of it. She had to replace the interrogator’s fuses. She had to run out to the shop to buy new thyratrons. She had a headache and had to take the rest of the day off. He always knew when she was fibbing, but he kept letting her off the hook. He enjoyed having her around far too much to fire her.

She was charming, with a grin more dazzling than Broadway lights. She didn’t even mind the bum leg that had kept him out of the war. He knew he wanted to marry her, but not until he’d made something of himself. Thankfully, the ability to travel through time guaranteed him a massive fortune. He already had a notebook with the next decade’s major stocks. He just had to scrape together some money to invest. But first, he had to get home.

He opened the panel and examined the anchor’s inner workings. There were dozens of rows of miniaturized crystal diodes, relays, capacitors, and a punch card reader. The back of the panel had pockets with hundreds of the tiny cards, the holes too small to see with the naked eye. He sighed. He was a physicist, not a computer. Fixing it would be guesswork. Eighteen hours of trial and error might be enough to figure out what went wrong, if he was lucky, and managed to keep his breathing slow.

He laughed darkly. “I would never manage it. I can barely stay relaxed enough to fall asleep, and that’s in a cozy bedroom with a warm blanket and pillows, and without the deadly vacuum of space just inches away.” He rubbed his arms, his teeth chattering. “Even if I had days of air, I’d freeze to death long before I fixed the anchor.” He had to return to the present. But first, he had to figure out where he would be returning to.

He checked the radio navigation system. As radio transmission towers wouldn’t be invented for hundreds of years, the gauges only offered an estimate of his location. Months earlier, on a brief journey a century into the future, he learned of a future navigation technology called the Global Positioning System. Unfortunately, he had been unable to take one of the devices home to study. The people of 2048 used bullets as currency and refused to accept good old American greenbacks. Without radio towers or fancy future gizmos, he would have to figure out where he was himself.

He compared his position to the sun, the moon, and Sirius. The time machine’s sensors and some quick trigonometry gave him an estimate of his distance from each point, allowing him to roughly triangulate his position. He took his estimated position and compared it to the radio navigation system’s estimate and split the difference. This put him roughly 148 miles from earth.

He set his return time to 8.472 seconds earlier than he’d left, hoping the difference in the earth’s rotation would counteract his drifting through space. With any luck, he’d end up more or less where he’d started. He’d be able to wish his earlier self bon voyage!

He rubbed his stubbly chin. What would happen when he stood before his other self? Time travel was a brand new science, and the rules were still unwritten. “Must the earlier me take the same disastrous journey into the past as I have, or can he skip the trip? Audrey is a marvelous assistant, but it would be so useful to have another me to help in my research. Can I ask the other me to stay, or would it create some kind of temporal paradox? I guess I will find out!”

What would Audrey think about having two bosses? She wouldn’t be able to get away with taking a long lunch with one of them always looking over her shoulder. He smiled. This was going to drive her crazy. “It might create some difficulties after I propose to her, but I’m certain I can convince the other me to be a good sport and find a gal of his own. There’s the blonde at the café, or Audrey’s redhead friend Amy… I’ll be the first man to live two lives! I wonder which of us will wind up happier.”

He pressed the recall button. The stars faded, replaced by a tunnel of light. The tunnel moved forward, swallowing him up like some immense, shining snake. The light passed around him until a new opening appeared. The light dropped him off just moments before he’d ever left.

However, he didn’t end up where he had expected. Instead of the electric calculating machines, instruments, and bookshelves of his laboratory, he saw only dark and dusty brick. His miscalculation had entombed him in the old building’s thick walls. To his horror, he had materialized through the wiring. The copper wires were running into the time machine and inside his body. He howled in agony.

He tried to reach for the machine’s controls, hoping to send himself to an era before the building existed, but it was far too painful. Even the tiniest movement made the wires pull at his insides. “The location anchor!” he called weakly. “Don’t let him leave, Audrey! Keep him here!” He let out a groan, closed his eyes, and was gone.

On the other side of the building, the earlier Eric turned, frowning. “That’s odd. I thought I heard a scream.”

Audrey shrugged. “It was probably just some children playing outside. When I was a girl, my brother would catch a frog and chase after me, saying it was a prince that needed a kiss. I would flip my wig!”

They shared a laugh. “Ah, the joys of endless summer vacations. One of these days, I will have to visit my own past. It would be wonderful to see the old playground and baseball field again. I could look up Ronnie Johnson and warn him not to buy that chemistry set. I’m sure he would be happy to keep all ten of his fingers.” He opened the time machine door. “But that will have to wait. For today’s experiment, let’s try a longer jump. How about six centuries into the past? I want to see something new!”

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