This is my second attempt at writing a SF short story. I’ve tried to make it stand by itself but it’s really a sequel to the first so reading ‘Experimental Philosophy’ might make the following more comprehensible. Thanks are due to someone (who refuses to be named) who rightly thought the early draft read like a school essay and suggested many grammatical and other changes. Comments and criticism are always welcome!
A pint o’ heavy an’ a whisky chaser, Ewan!” said the tall, quite handsome young man in his cloth cap and working clothes. He collected his drinks, looked around until he spotted an empty seat and fought his way through the heaving crowd to Jim and Sue’s table. Jim grimaced as the man splashed down his drinks. Startled, Sue looked up.
“Sorry hen! Dinnae mind me.” smiled the man and added hesitatingly, “The name’s Tam.”
“I’m Sue and this is my brother Jim – pleased to meet you!”, said Sue brightly as she helped herself to the liquorice drops Tam offered from a large poke.
Trapped in 1914 Edinburgh in what might or might not be a bad dream was not at all to Jim’s liking and neither was being persuaded by Sue into the ‘Deacon Brodie’ pub posing as her brother. She was determined to improve her standing with the Experimental Philosophy Unit (EPU) and Jim understood this well enough to know that his returning to 2014 depended on her success and his co-operation.
“Whit’s yer poison then” queried Tam looking at their empty glasses.
Jim shot Sue a warning glance but she smiled broadly at Tam.
“Oh – a pint of heavy please – and a lemonade for my brother!”
Tam, expecting a dusty reply, chuckled at what he took to be a joke. When he was back he plonked the beer down in front of Jim who hurriedly took a sip before Sue could stop him. Tam grinned at her mischievously.
“I couldnae get a lady’s glass for the beer but there’s a dash o’ vodka in yer lemonade!”
“Cheers!”, said Sue. “Doon the hatch” said Tam.
Jim sipped his beer morosely while Sue and Tam cheerfully conversed. Sue claimed to be a writer from London researching her new book on ‘Working Men of the North’ and eager to interview Tam. She handed him a crisp new pound note.
“Something on account – and oh! … I’ve finished my lemonade!”
Tam took the hint and went off to buy more drinks.
“Jim, I really am sorry that my project on early 20th century working class moral relativism got you stuck back in 1914 but here we are and we might as well make the best of it. Tam could be an ideal subject with a strong moral sense. I could finish off my project here and the EPU would be so pleased I’d probably get all the resources I need to spirit you back to 2014. Anyway, I really like Tam. Let’s see what I can do.”
So when Tam returned she opened a notebook and began to interrogate him about his early life. Feeling a little left out, Jim bought a copy of ‘The War Cry’ from a Salvation army seller doing the pub rounds and settled down to read.
Tam spotted the paper’s title.
“Aye, I hope it disnae cam to war. My wee brither, Alan, he’s wantin’ to jine the Scot’s Guards; only 16 an he’ll lie aboot his age if he can!”
Jim looked up. “Same name as my granduncle! He joined the Scot’s Guards too but sadly he was …. HEY!”
Sue, waving her notebook at an imaginary fly, knocked his beer over.
“Sorry Jim!”, she exclaimed loudly, “Go get him another Tam!”
Tam went off with another pound note while Sue glared at Jim.
“Don’t make that sort of remark in front of Tam!”.
Jim protested that it really was quite a coincidence about Tam’s brother and his granduncle.
“Hmm – maybe less of a coincidence than you think. Maybe Alan could be your granduncle in 2014 but do remember where you are in time!”
Jim dropped his paper and stared at Sue. Then another thought struck him.
“Grandfather’s name was Thomas but he was always called…”
Before Sue could reply Tam was back with the drinks.
Conversation turned to the chances of war breaking out. Tam was certain war would be averted but Sue was more pessimistic and summarised the confused state of 1914 international politics with considerable accuracy. Tam was very impressed.
“Yer a clever wee lassie, I’ve nae doot, but tak it fay me – it cannae happen. Things dinnae happen by chance.”
“Oh but they do, they do!” Sue gulped down the rest of her drink, “And I’ll show you how!”
Jim looked on in some alarm while Tam went off with yet another note for more drinks. Sue, scrabbling under the table, emerged with handfuls of debris from the floor and proceeded to build a large circular pyramid of sawdust, fag ends and bottle tops on the table top. Tam, back with the drinks, watched with amusement as Sue stood up to demonstrate.
“The pyramid is the universe – life, everything we know”, she announced grandly, attracting the attention of several nearby drinkers.
“With careful management things evolve gradually – on they go in a regular way and everyone’s happy. But see how a tiny change can bring about terrible cataclysmic changes, changing eveything for ever!”
Nudging the tip of the pyramid she caused rivulets of sawdust to cascade and spread downwards, sticking on some obstacles and carrying away others in the flow. She paused only to finish the rest of her drink.
“A cascade of cause and effect! A small chance disturbance of grains near the top dislodges more further down and then others even further down in a chain reaction, but not necessarily so and very unpredictably.”
Becoming bored the crowd began to dwindle.
“Look, here!” and she gestured dramatically at a stopped rivulet.
“Aye, stopped – by a fag end.” countered Tam in mock solemnity and the remaining onlookers tittered. Sue glared at him.
“A tiny trivial change MIGHT cause major changes or it might not; a critical uncertainty as we say in the EPU. World political systems are on a knife edge at this time. Tam’s brother wants to join the army and he’s only 16! I know he’ll be sent to an early death along with thousands of others!…”
She talked at length about the ravages of war, tears welling in her eyes and Jim could see they were genuine. How much vodka had Tam put in her drinks? But Tam was standing open-mouthed at the front of the now swelling crowd, lost in admiration. “Nonsense! Let the youmg lad join for king and country!” someone heckled. There was some supportive cheering, some dissension and then several arguments broke out. A shout of “Workers of the world unite!” followed and for no obvious reason two scruffy-looking youths at the front yelled, “Up the EPU!” and started to bellow the ‘Red Flag’. A punch was thrown somewhere followed by several others and soon the whole pub was brawling. Just then the police burst in.
The steam train huffed and puffed its way slowly out of Waverley Station in a cloud of dirty smoke. Jim sighed. Running off to London just to escape a pub brawl seemed over-reacting. The two scruffy youths had helped Jim, Sue and Tam evade the police and head for the station. Sue, in what Jim took to be drunken magnanimity, had bought them all return tickets. This had followed a mysterious chat with an old man she found on the platform who eagerly accepted a handful of her pound notes.
“Change of plan! – Found a Grandfather!” she had hissed in Jim’s ear as he helped her onto the train.
Settled in their compartment, the two youths, introduced themselves as Adam and Vojtech. Both insisted they were on their way to London for an urgent meeting anyway and Tam was keen to continue his interview with Sue and benefit further from her generosity. Adam explained that Ewan the barman had called the police because someone had been passing forged pound notes with identical serial numbers. Startled, Sue fished out a small cigarette rolling machine from her handbag. At the touch of a button a pristine pound note glided out from between the rollers, then another and another.
“All absolutely identical!”, she said with feeling. “But I forgot the numbers had to be different!”
Adam and Vojtech looked at her with a new respect.
“A brilliant orator and now an expert forger!” gasped Adam.
Vojtech asked what EPU stood for.
“Experimental Philosophy Unit but I can’t tell you more…”, retorted Sue truthfully.
“Ahhh, clever!” Vojtech touched his nose and smiled knowingly. “You are right to hide – our mission hidden too.” Adam interjected,
“Always happy to assist comrades in need. The revolution – a critical certainty! Ha! Ha! – loved the demo.”
“We deliver stuff to blackened handle and…” muttered Vojtec darkly but Adam blew his nose noisily and the rest was inaudible.
Jim wondered if Tam would be missed at home but his Mam was used to him being away. He was more worried about the girl he was courting.
“Christine’s a braw lassie but whit a temper! ‘Thomas MacPherson!’, she’ll say, ‘WHAT have ye been up tae?’ I wouldnae dare cross her! Today she’s aff to see her mither on the next train but …..” but Jim MacPherson was not listening. Certainty dawned. Tam is / was / would be his grandfather because his grandmother’s name happened to be – Christine.
When they saw two railway policeman boarding the train at the next station Tam and the two youths scuttled off to find the bufffet carriage leaving Jim and Sue alone in the compartment. Sue beamed.
“It’s okay Jim. I’ve got it all worked out now. Nobody’s ever properly tackled the Grandfather Paradox before you know.”
Before Jim could make anything of that a large railway policeman appeared at the door and asked politely to see any pound notes they were carrying. Jim held his breath as Sue nonchalantly handed him several from her purse.
“Sorry to bother you Madam. Somebody passed off some duds at Waverley but these are fine!” and off he went.
“How did you do that?” asked Jim. Sue shrugged. She had no idea how notes were numbered in 1914 so she just had her machine do random numbers.
Jim had many more questions but then Tam returned demanding to know who Sue really was. Sue, by now almost sober, held to her story about being a writer and placated him with two randomly numbered pound notes on account of his unfinished interview. Tam was motivated to pass round more liquorice drops but he was convinced the youths were up to no good. Maybe they ought to look inside the cloth bag Vojtech’s had left on his seat? They did. The bag was surprisingly heavy with the contents wrapped in several layers of dirty linen like a set of China dolls. They were astonished to find a large pistol along with a small bottle labelled ‘Not to be Taken’. Tam examined the pistol.
“Pop was a poacher!” he winked, expertly opening up the pistol and fingering the mechanism until he discovered it was loaded. When they heard the two youths noisily returning down the corridor, Tam pushed everything back into the bag and Sue restarted the interview.
Now Jim was unfamiliar with the philosophy of time travel but the grandfather paradox was very well-known. Go back in time and kill your own grandfather. Would you cease to exist – or what? Well here he was back in time with his grandfather in close proximity to a loaded gun. Could Sue be intent on experimental verification of the paradox?
A sudden and furious commotion in the corridor; just as Tam stood up a short woman in a headscarf burst in lunging at him with a cloth bag.
“Hey!”, yelled Tam, collapsing beside Sue. “Cut that oot!”
“So this is the trollop yer aff wi! So help me, I’ll niver speak to ye again!”
But she did and throwing her bag accurately at his head she screamed, “TAK THAT, ye bastard! Ye’ll be sorry by the time I’m finished wi ye!”
She stormed off, stopping only to scoop up the bag on the way out.
Tam rubbed his head sadly.
“Ah thought Chris wis on the next train!”
Sue went after Christine to try to explain. Tam, less disconsolate about Christine than he might have been, wanted to talk to Jim in private. They went out into the corridor as Adam and Vojtech began bellowing ‘The Red Flag’ again.
Tam was serious. “Yer sister’s a bonnie wee lassie, clever tae – for a wummin that is. Noo that Chris’s finished wi me ah think I’d like tae walk oot wi Sue. I ken she likes me and I hope ye dinnae mind.”
Jim said nothing which Tam took for tacit agreement but Jim was greatly troubled by the thought of Sue as an alternative grandmother. Would he simply cease to exist if his grandmother was not Christine? On the other hand if that was the case why was he even here now? Maybe there was hope but ceasing to exist might mean an untimely death for him here but if it was all a dream anyway …..
The train stopped at a station to pick up more passengers and several piles of luggage and mailbags. Peering out into the corridor Adam saw the large railway policeman striding towards their compartment. He rushed out the door and slunk down the corridor in the opposite direction. Vojtech grabbed the cloth bag.
“Now lads that’s quite enough song for now..” began the policeman sternly from the compartment door.
“Off back!” shouted Vojtech, “I have gun!”
The policeman backed away nervously as Vojtech opened the bag. A small metal comb jangled onto the floor followed by a tube of lipstick, a red toothbrush and several tissues. The policeman grinned and rapidly grabbed and handcuffed the astonished Vojtech.
“Oldest trick in the book – eh?”, chuckled the policeman.
“You’re in for it pal!” and he marched Vojtech off the train.
No other cloth bag could be found so they concluded that Christine must have taken Vojtech’s bag. The implications were not lost on Tam as he hurriedly packed Christine’s personal belongings back into her bag. A minute later the sound of pounding feet echoed down the corridor. Adam ran by in distress shouting at them as he passed.
“Look out! She’s really mad and she’s got a …!”
Looking out into the corridor Jim and Tam spotted a distant but rapidly approaching Christine waving something above her head and shouting, “Tam! Tam!”
Jim and Tam, with different but compelling fears of impending non-existence both closed their eyes as Christine burst into the compartment throwing herself at Tam who begged for mercy. He felt her swiping the side of his face with something.
“Hey! Dinnae be funny!”, she said excitedly,”Look whit I’ve got!”
Jim slowly opened his eyes to see Christine brandishing a large roll of pound notes. When Christine realised that Tam had her bag she smothered him with hugs and kisses and hoped he’d seen off that thief Adam with more than a black eye.
“And noo we can afford to get marriet!”, she announced to the world and dragged Tam off to visit her mother.
Jim had just about convinced himself that these events were definitely the stuff of dreams when Sue returned with a perfectly rational explanation. She had hurried after Christine who had locked herself in the loo. Shouting through the door, Sue told her that Tam had acted honourably in agreeing to be interviewed for her book. Christine was only fully convinced when Sue, now desperate, persuaded her that Tam would put his interview fee towards his future with Christine. As they walked back along the corridor, she gave Christine a substantial roll of pound notes on account. About to put away the money, Christine realised she had left her bag in the loo and rushed back just in time to see Adam running off with it. So off she went after him in a fury, waving the money roll and shouting for Tam.
Sue laughed at Jim’s account of what had happened.
“So all’s well that ends well but you still look worried Jim?”
Jim tried to explain that ceasing to exist if something had happened to his grandfather-to-be was more than worrisome. Sue laughed again.
“Existentialist angst, eh? That’s not how it works Jim. If Tam died now you’d never meet your Dad or your young self if you stayed on here. A critical uncertainty for you and your family for sure but probably not for the rest of the world. Mind you, it would be more difficult for me to get you back to your proper timeline in 2014. On the other hand, if you stayed on here without Tam meeting an early demise you could have some really strange meet-ups with your relatives and friends to be. Don’t worry though, if you or they couldn’t remember anything about it in 2014 then it probably didn’t happen.”
She looked round making sure that they would stay alone.
“Look Jim, you know that a certain Gavrilo Princip will assassinate an Archduke in Sarajevo in a couple of days time and trigger off the first world war? Now if you went off right now and murdered Princip before he even had the chance to get near the poor Archduke, that really would be a disaster for both of us unless something else happened to start the war.”
She decided to confide in Jim.
“You probably think that I’m very wise and knowledgeable Jim.”
Jim thought no such thing and Sue continued.
“I’m only a very junior member of the EPU and I was in very big trouble when my copy and paste went wrong and I cloned 37 identical Jims from the wrong century.”
Jim did remember.
“But you must admit that I got you back to your own timeline – a 100 year error is not bad in over 2000!”
“All the same, I’ve never studied your timeline without a first world war and a radical divergence could be interesting if it happened – a monumental change in world history! But if it did, I’d have absolutely no idea how to get you back, even if I had the resources and you’d be stuck here for ever! Not to worry, it’s certainly a critical uncertainty for the world but we’ve absolutely no connections with Princip and he’s probably gearing up at this very moment to do his dastardly deed. ….. Hold on!”, and she paused “Something’s coming through now from that grandfather I left at Waverley Station……”
She muttered silently to herself in a few moments of concentration.
“Good news Jim! I HAVE verified the Grandfather Paradox!”
Jim looked blank.
“Tam didn’t know it but I planted a deadly accurate chronometer on him when he boarded the train and now he’s a few femtoseconds younger than that grandfather I paid to stay on the platform at Waverly!”
Jim stared at her in disbelief.
“That’s not the Grandfather Paradox!”
“Of course it is! Maybe you’re more familiar with the original formulation” she said condescendingly.
“Two grandfathers – one makes a journey into space in a high-speed rocket but when he comes back he finds the grandfather who stayed on Earth has aged more. Great experiment but my way of doing it is far more straightforward!”
“That’s not the Grandfather Paradox! That’s the Twin Paradox – it’s done with twins!”
“Nonsense!” She began to look a little defensive. “It’s done with grandfathers!”
Jim forgot it was 1914.
“You only need to look at Wikipedia!”
“Oh!” she said, worried. “I’m looking …. you can’t always trust Wikipedia.” but she knew she was clutching at straws.
“Let’s go home now” she said, crestfallen.
A few days later Ewan scrutinised Jim’s pound note carefully in the ‘Deacon Brodie’. “One for yourself?” Jim asked the barman nervously.
“No problems there now.”, smiled Sue when Jim returned with the drinks.
She was very cheerful and had been in touch with the EPU. To her great surprise, her twins experiment, now correctly renamed, had gone down extremely well with the top brass. Damaging criticism about wasting resources on unscientific experiments had been countered by pointing to Sue’s groundbreaking work on relativistic physics! Now she had every hope for extra resources and was sure Jim would get home, “in no time at all! – Ha! Ha!” she chuckled in an attempt at humour. Jim smiled with relief.
“So all’s really well that ends well!” he concluded.
A loud conversation was going on a few tables away.
“Aye, efter shootin the Archduke this Princip boy fae the Black Hand – tried to kill himsel but the poison didnae work. Then he tried tae droon himsel but the river wis only 4 inches deep – whit a loser!”
“What did I tell you?” Sue whispered quietly. “I don’t like to celebrate a killing but this was a very critical uncertainty – it had to happen for us!”
They clinked their glasses together. A woman continued the conversation at the other table.
“Whit a cheek!” she chortled heartily.
Unaccountably, she and her friends burst into laughter stomping their feet noisely on the floor. Sue and Jim listened intently.
“Aye, if the pistol had been true the Archduke wid have mair than a grazed cheek!”
Jim and Sue stared at each other aghast.
Then Tam entered the pub and came over looking very serious.
“Did ye no hear aboot the Archduke? An that Adam and Vojtec? I kent they wis up to nae guid – they were takin that pistol tae the Black Hand! – a bunch o’ assassins!”
Tam looked round furtively and hissed, “I should hae taen oot the bullets! At least ah filled his wee suicide bottle wi liquorice drops!”
Tam showed them the morning newspaper. The headline, ‘Failed Assassination Attempt Could Herald World Peace’ was followed by an article on how the attempted assassination had brought shocked world leaders to their senses at last. Recognising the dangers of the current complex system of political alliances they had hastily convened a conference to guarantee world peace and stability. An international body, a ‘Club of Nations’ was now under serious consideration!
Sue turned white.
“I telt ye there wudnae be war, wummin”, said Tam kindly.
“Don’t panic!”, she said quietly to Jim and began to cry.
Taken aback, Tam threw his arms round Sue and kissed her – she did not resist. Just then Christine came in.