Third Place Contest Winner

David Blackburn

In 1987, I developed a time machine. It was my most expensive mistake ever, and by “ever” I mean in all of recorded – and unrecorded – history. Most philosophers of time travel dismiss it by saying that no one has traveled back in time with information from the future, otherwise they’d bet on horse races and become ludicrously rich. Well, yeah, you can go back to 1938 and buy a hundred shares of a little typewriter company called “International Business Machines”. Good idea; the problem is that you have to hang on to them in real time to make the profits.

I had a better idea. I wanted to change the world for the better. I’d looked at past events. I watched the freezing but clever Homo Sapiens as they survived the ice ages; I heard the gossip in the streets after the assassination of Julius Caesar, listened to the Sermon on the Mount (more of a picnic discussion, really), and eavesdropped on the Constitutional Convention in 1789. There were a tempting array of possibilities: stopping John Wilkes Booth on his way to Ford’s Theater, tweaking Hitler’s application to art school so he could have a more wholesome career, or making Lenin miss that train to St. Petersburg. But too many of these had consequences that couldn’t be controlled by the subtle manipulations of one man. After all, where would I be if I had changed the nation that birthed me, educated me, and allowed me the resources and freedom to build my invention.

I decided the best opportunity was to build a second free democracy from a British colony. I traveled to London, 1774, and began making my way up the bureaucratic ladder. A few years later, with the American colonies in revolt, the British government needed a place to export their troublemakers and common criminals. The Botany Bay colony in Australia was just starting up, and I contrived to be sent as an assistant to the governor.

Unfortunately, the ship I was on was poorly commanded – anyone competent was involved more directly in the war effort. Our vessel was becalmed for weeks off Africa, and all of the crew came down with scurvy. The captain was terrified of fevers and refused to head inshore for fresh provisions; we made do on salted meat, dried peas, and rain water until the crew’s one-in-four rations of rum and tobacco became unbearable. My manservant lost his life to illness in his weakened state, and my own hair and teeth began to fall out.

When, finally, we reached India for reprovisioning, I was put ashore to recuperate. Within days of reaching fresh vegetables, I began to feel better. Four months later I had fully recovered and had regrown a respectable fringe of hair, enough that I had to have it trimmed to wear the wig befitting my station. My teeth, of course, could not grow back, so I had a set of false teeth made from ivory and gold. The craftsmanship of Indian goldsmiths was the equal – no, the better of any in Europe. I do not know where they found the pink stone to model the gums, but aside from the filigrees the effect was reasonably natural and I could at last chew my food.

Eventually, I was well enough to book passage to the new Australian continent. My attempts to bring about an enlightened form of government had been sadly weakened by the delay. Though I endeavored to bring a humane policy to the treatment of those criminals who had been transported, those who had established their power were enriching themselves with the slavery of the convicts and treating them even worse than the Americans treated their slaves – convicts had no resale value. My entreaties were in vain and I found myself on the wrong side of certain corrupt elements.

After a few unfortunate encounters with those who profited from the misery of their own fellow-men, I was obliged to abandon my position in haste. In such haste, in fact, that I left without my baggage, my papers, most of my money, and even my teeth.

I made my way to a port where I was able to take passage back to London with a ship whose captain was as disgusted with his mission as I was. Of course there was no way I could have brought my time machine on the voyage, nor did I trust it intact to any individual, so I had stored it in several separate locations with a number of reliable warehousemen. When I finally reached England again, I retrieved the bulk of my equipment but found myself without a power source for the return journey. That building had been destroyed by fire in my absence and my batteries were lost.

Recalling my high school science courses, I was able to give a bit of clandestine guidance to the great chemist Humphrey Davy in exchange for access to his “Voltaic pile” which was in essence a giant battery. With a huge supply of copper, zinc, and seawater, we were able to develop a high enough amount of power to return me to the present. As a parting gift, I suggested he run his batteries though a molten crucible of potash, with results that made him famous.

I have been back for over two decades now, regretful of my silly and naive attempts to change history even in a far-off part of the world. While I treasure modern conveniences such as electricity, indoor plumbing, and computers, my most grateful thanks is given to the inventions of modern dentistry which have given me a set of dentures I can wear without discomfort and that do not overly transmit the heat of a cup of boiling tea to my sensitive palate.

I am truly pleased to see that my old false teeth have been recovered and placed on public display. It makes me wonder about their story – no doubt kept by my landlady Mrs. Wiggins in lieu of back rent, passed on and forgotten by her descendants until today. I do not wish them back, they may stay in a museum forever. But I do thank you for this opportunity to reminisce about an adventure in time that had quite different consequences than I had hoped.

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