The Time Telephone
a short story
A mother phones her daughter. This call will cost her nearly
eighteen thousand euros to make. 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 the time telephone thing? Yeah? I read about that, no, 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, 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
'Sixteen last month.'
'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, yeah, 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
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 by the 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 re-use 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, 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 a 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 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 otherwise.
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
buddah-shaped machine here would ring and you could talk to me, it would
make no difference, 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 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, flared
at each end, shivers slightly 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. On the west wall
a small sink and a dwarf-fridge, with a kettle on it, and a two-ring
hob under a blocky cupboard. 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.
Their 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, rather fussily, runs
a finger inside the rim. Behind him, the kettle's spout turns into a
Roger changes his mind. He takes, 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, 'I don't.'
'I can't stress too greatly, your future is at stake. All our
futures. The people much further along the line 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 flatly. 'Is this
a prank? Is this Seb?' This 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, of another friend,
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 do to tell Stella. He feels sure Susan thinks this too.
Best not mention it at all, and certainly not to tell Stella.
He puts on his coat, and is about to lock up the lab when the phone
© Adam Roberts 2002.
This story is published here for the first time.
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