THE TIME TELEPHONE
Adam Roberts is a University of London professor and writer of science fiction, the most recently published of his fourteen novels being Jack Glass (Gollancz 2012) and Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea (Gollancz 2013). He lives a little way west of London, England, with his wife, two children, and no cats. “The Time Telephone” was first published in Infinity Plus in 2002.
A mother phones her daughter. The call costs her nearly €18,000. The number she dials is several hundred digits long, but it has been calculated carefully and stored as a series of tones, so the dialling process takes only seconds. The ring tone at the far end makes its distant musical drumroll once, twice, three times, and with a clucking noise the receiver is lifted.
The mother takes a quick breath. ‘Marianne?’
‘Speaking. Who’s this, please?’
‘This is your mother, Marianne.’
‘Ma? I thought you were in Morocco. You calling from Morocco?’
‘No, dear, I’m here, I’m in London.’
‘This is a call from the past, my darling,’ says the mother, her heart stabbing at her ribs. ‘As I speak now, as I speak to you now, I’m actually pregnant with you. You’re inside my tummy here, and I’m speaking to you there.’
For a moment there is only the polluted silence of a phone line; that slightly hissing, leaf-rustle emptiness of a line where the person at the other end is quiet. Then the daughter says, ‘Wow, ma. Really?’
‘Yes my dear.’
‘It’s that time telephone thing? Yeah? I read about that, or, or I watched a thing about it, on TV. You’re really calling me from the past?’
‘Yes my dear. I have a question I want to ask you.’
‘Wow, ma. Like, wow. I watched this programme about it on TV, it was a whole big thing, like, decades ago. And now it’s actually happening to me! And I’m only on a, like, regular phone.’
‘It uses the ordinary phone system, you know.’
‘It’s incredible, though. Isn’t it?’
‘I want to ask you this thing, my darling, and I want you to answer truthfully. I know that you are sixteen there, aren’t you. Aren’t you?’
‘Well, from where I’m calling you’re not born yet. So I want to ask you.’ She takes a breath. ‘Are you glad you were born? Are you pleased to have come into the world?’ The drizzly silence of the phone line. ‘I mean the question absolutely seriously, my darling, absolutely. I mean the question, in the way that a child will say…’ But she finds it hard to find the words. ‘The way a child will say I hate you, I wish I’d never been born. That’s an unbearable thing for a parent to hear, my darling. Do you see?’
‘You’re weirding me out, ma. This whole conversation is weirding me out. This whole concept is weirding me out.’
‘But I have to ask it of you, because now you’re sixteen, you can tell me. Are you glad you were born?’
‘Are you sure? Really sure?’
‘Ok, sure I’m sure, I’m really sure.’
Which is what the mother hoped to hear. She even sighs. And the remainder of the question is conversational scree, just talk about the weather and the chit-chat. So I go to Morocco? Well, yeah, ma. Hey, Scannell just won the board championship. You should make a bet. You could be rich. I don’t think it works that way, my darling. You look after yourself. Hey, you too. That sort of thing. You know the sort of thing, the sort of chit-chat a mother and daughter will make on the phone.
The world cable telephone network is some 7,672,450,000 miles long in total, when the different international, national and local lines are added up. And they are all interconnected. They would hardly function as a telephone network if they weren’t. We are talking about cable, copper or some other electron-conducting material; optical fibre is no good for us, because photons travel only at the speed of light no matter how you slice and dice them. Neutroelectrons – a self-contradictory-sounding name, but better than the alternative mooted by the Italians of ‘anti-electrons’, for surely an anti-electron is a proton? – anyway – these ghostly particles travel so fast as effectively to travel instantaneously, but they can only do it in a material that conducts their shadowy anti-selves, their phase-inverted electrons. By plotting out a pathway along the telephone network, a neutroelectron can be passed instantly across the seven billion miles of cabling. The phone line becomes a gateway into the past; when they arrive they arrive from the past, if you see what I mean. This is because it would take light about eleven hours to travel the pathway mapped diligently through the phone lines. Which means that the far end of the cable is eleven hours away, so that the instantaneous transmission of the phased particle actually passes eleven hours back in time. For it to happen any other way would violate laws of cause-and-effect. I’m sure you’re following me.
Technicians carefully map out a route around the millions of miles of telephone cabling, turning innumerable sharp corners, fleeting back and forth underneath the oceans, rushing along smile-sagging lines propped up every fifty yards by another pole, curling and spinning around the electronic spaghetti of the bigger cities. A path through all this is mapped, and particles are fired along it.
In a year, light travels approximately 5,865,696,000,000 miles.
Looping the signal 900-or-so times around this loop, the neutroelectron effectively opens a phone line a year into the past. The problem is that the repeated passage through the same cable degrades the integrity of the signal. The scientists experimenting with this new phenomenon were able to obtain fax signals, and internet connection, over the time distance of eleven hours. Extending it to just under a day, looping the signal twice, the internet connection becomes choppy, unreliable, and painfully slow: too slow, in fact, to be cost-effective, when the large expense of running the time telephone system is taken into account. The fax signal works better, but only a small amount of visual information is carried by fax tweetings. Any more than a day and the bandwith is too small and too fragile to allow internet access. But even looping it two thousand times allowed a signal of reasonable, if crackly, integrity. More than this and the noise and static swallowed meaningful information exchange.
The initial researchers established an integral network of connections to the past: in effect they set up standing-wave each-way passageways for the neutroelectron connection. The theory owes something to wormhole physics, but it is much more limited on account of its need for a physical infrastructure. They phoned scientists from the past; sometimes phoning themselves, sometimes others. They explained the situation, giving them the know-how necessary to set up neutroelectron generators themselves, and plumbing them back into the phone line. And once the network was established, and people in the past had been contacted, it became evident that people in the past could reuse the connections to speak to people in their future, many years, to such phone terminals as had been utilised by the original scientists.
Soon crosstalk filled the time-phone lines. The future-people move through time at an hour an hour, dragging their envelope of past-talk with them at an hour an hour. But the past-time scientists could act as way-stations, taking the signal and relaying it further back, or further forward. In this way the envelope was extended to more than sixteen years. But no further. The generation of scientists at this blockage time, back in 2004, refused, for some reason, to be beguiled by these whispery voices on the phone, that declared themselves future humans; refused to spend the money on the ridiculous expense of setting up neutroelectronic generators, refused to believe the physics of it. Without their assistance the reach of the time telephones stopped dead. People before a certain date had no knowledge of the technology at all; for them, it had not happened yet.
In the future, researchers tried and failed, tried again and failed, to raise the money to build an enormous cable, billions upon billions of miles long. They wanted a space probe sent to an asteroid, to mine and refine and spool out huge stretches of cable through space, cable that earth people could hook up to the phone line and use to call back further in time. To call back in time before the 2004 blockage. But the expense was too much, and the project had not brought about any useful improvement in the quality of life. A person could place a bet in 2010, and call up an internet page from the following day to guide him; with the result that, under such circumstances, betting shrank to long-term wagers only. People could find out tomorrow’s news today, but almost always tomorrow’s news is merely an extrapolation of today’s news.
As the network grew, people called their friends and family in the past, warned loved ones of imminent death and told them which stock to buy, but the past is fixed in curious, physics-consistent ways. You are not fixed, as you read this sentence, I’m not suggesting that! But, then again, as you read this sentence you are at the now, between the past and the future. That is where you always are. I, writing it, am in the past. That’s just the truth. And even if you could call me up, so that my telephone here on my desktop, this blueblack-plastic Buddha-shaped machine here would ring and you could talk to me, it would make no difference, almost certainly no difference, in almost every case. You can’t really reach me, not easily, hardly at all. I’m sorry to tell you this, but it is the truth, it’s better you know the truth. Information does flow backwards, but sluggishly, treacly. It rushes much more forcefully the other way. So although people warned loved ones of imminent death and told them which stock to buy, the loved ones still died, and nobody found themselves suddenly rich because their earlier selves had invested more wisely. None of that happened. It might still happen, of course. There is nothing in the theory that suggests it could never happen.
And so 2019 turned into 2020, and 2020 into 2021, and people could talk to one another from any time from 2004 to 2038, but nobody built the superlong cabling that would have enabled the technicians to get clear neutroelectron signals that reached further back in time than 2004, to get internet access from the past and into the future. There seemed little point.
A phone rings.
The phone is shaped something like a tapered loaf, cast from blood-brown plastic, with a broad steel ring like a buckle on the front that is rimmed with little circular holes. The receiver, bone-shaped, shivers in its cradle in time to the rings. The bell is a mechanical bell, located inside the hollow body of the thing, so that, ringing, it vibrates the whole device a little bit. The receiver is connected to the body of the phone with a brown flex, a flex which had come from the manufacturer curled as precisely as DNA, but which now is gnarled and knotted, unwound in places, scrunched up in others.
The phone sits by the wall on a shelf in a small kitchen area. You might, perhaps, describe the area as a kitchenette. Against the west wall there is a unit containing a small sink, and next to it a dwarf-fridge on a shelf, with a kettle on top of it, and next to that a two-ring hob. On the south wall at tummy-height is a shelf upon which storage jars of coffee and of tea and of sugar, and three mugs, stand next to the phone. A door in the east wall, the north wall decorated with a poster for the film Gladiator. Somebody has pasted a photocopy of the face of an individual called Vernon St Lucia over the face of the star of the film, the humour of this gesture deriving from the ironic contrast between the muscular good looks of the film star and the weedy, querulous nature of St Lucia, who has authority over the three laboratory technicians who work here.
Only one of these technicians is in the building. It is shortly after seven o’clock in the evening, and everybody else has gone home for the night. The single technician remaining is called Roger. He comes through to the kitchenette.
The penetrating chirrup of the phone-bell stops.
A rainy, white-noise sound, overlaid with a rhythmic distant thudding, and behind it, as if very far away, a tinny vocalisation, or singsong, or whistling. But no words.
‘Hello?’ says Roger. ‘Hello?’
The hissing swells and subsides like surf, the crackles pop more frequently. The oo-aa-ooing in the background might be words.… couldn’t get through earlier …
‘Hello? The connection,’ Roger says, ‘is not good.’
Crunching and flushing noises, and then sudden clarity: ‘… imperative that we get a message through…’ but then, with a swinging, horn-like miaow the line dissipates into static.
‘Hello? This is a very bad line.’
Nothing but noise.
Roger replaces the receiver in its cradle. He meanders back to his desk, and switches on a light. He cannot decide whether to go home or not. There is nothing for him at home this evening. His girlfriend, a woman called Stella, is having a girl’s night out with four friends. These friends’ names are Susan, Susan, Miranda and Belle. He doesn’t fancy going back to an empty flat. But the prospect of staying at the lab and working on into the evening is not appealing either. His brain feels muffled, fuzzy. He can’t concentrate on his job-in-hand.
He mooches back into kitchen and turns the kettle on. He inspects one of the mugs standing beside the telephone, and, fussily, runs a finger inside the rim. Behind him, the kettle’s spout turns into a miniature chimney. Steam pillows out.
Roger changes his mind. He drinks, he tells himself, too much coffee anyway. Six or seven mugs, most days, and strong stuff too.
He walks back to his bench and turns the anglepoise off.
The phone goes again.
As he shuffles back to the kitchen to answer it, he finds himself thinking how annoying the sound of a phone ringing is. How insistent. A mechanical baby’s cry that it is almost impossible to ignore. He resents it.
This time the voice is clearer, although the static is still thorny and distracting. ‘Please don’t hang up! It’s vital you listen to … information we have to give you.’ The sentence is broken in half by a crack, like a plank breaking.
‘I’m sorry,’ says Roger, annoyed rather than intrigued. ‘Who were you trying to reach?’
‘The institute…’ A whoosh and a clatter drown the rest of the sentence.
‘I’ll tell you what you’ve done,’ says Roger, prissily. ‘You’ve dialled the one twice by mistake. You want extension three five one seven, but your finger has accidentally pushed the one twice and it’s put you through here. There’s nobody here, except me and I’m about to go home. Three five one seven will get you the night secretary.’
‘No! No!’ The panic in the person’s voice is evident enough to break through the hisses and spatters of interference. ‘Please don’t hang up. We’re calling as far back as we can, and the boundary withdraws all the time, one second per second. In a very little time it will be too late. Do you understand?’
‘No,’ says Roger, crossly, ‘I don’t.’
‘I can’t stress too greatly, your future is at stake. All our futures. The people much further along the line from us have only just encountered the disaster, and they have called us, and we have called you. This may sound strange to you. The chance to change things … it must happen there, in your time. It’s got to be you.’
‘I have no idea what you are on about,’ says Roger. ‘Is this a prank? Is this Seb?’ This, he thinks, is exactly the sort of practical joke that Seb would try.
‘Please, no, just listen. You don’t have to believe me, it doesn’t matter if you believe me, the thing you have to do is so simple, so simple it won’t take you a moment. All you have to do…’
But Roger has put the phone down again. He stands looking at the kettle for a moment, his mind floating free. He thinks of Seb, a man he has never really liked. By a chain of association too oblique to be represented here with any ease, he thinks of a holiday in France, and then of another friend, and then of Stella, and finally of Susan, one of Stella’s friends. He and Susan had kissed the previous week, but both had pulled away, startled, before things had proceeded any further. It had been at a party at another friend’s house, at the bottom of their garden away from everybody, in the darkness. Two cigarette smokers underneath the stars, the noise and chatter and muffled music of the party sounding very far away. Kissing, and then pulling away. The path not taken. But then again, who knows? It wouldn’t be a good idea to tell Stella. He feels sure Susan thinks this too. Best not mention it at all, and certainly not tell Stella.
He puts on his coat, and is about to lock up the lab when the phone rings again.