The-PresentThe Present

By Steve Bates 


He stumbled and fell to his knees, gasping for breath while battling waves of nausea. As his senses began to clear, he reached out to a workstation and pulled himself slowly to his feet.


He noticed that the tan linoleum floor was cracking and badly in need of sweeping. It took a few moments to identify that recurring sound: an irritating “plink.” Dripping. Water dripping into a sink or bucket every few seconds.


Something is wrong, he realized. Something is very, very wrong.


*   *   *


Daniel Levinson burst into the lab like a running back crossing the goal line. “We got it!”


“Can I call you back, Catherine?” said Martin Phillips, looking up apprehensively from his handheld. “It’s—you know how Dan gets.” Before Marty could even break the connection, Dan had cornered him in his alcove. Marty had become accustomed to his colleague’s brash behavior, but at times he wondered if Dan actually enjoyed annoying people.


 “We’ll have enough power to generate a huge field,” Dan exclaimed, throwing his arms wide and nearly smashing his left hand into a bank of equipment. As occurred often when he was excited, Dan’s head bobbed as if it could not contain all the energy pent up inside it. His brown eyes flashed with frightening intensity. “They bought that crap about a dark matter experiment. They hardly asked a question.”


“Not surprising, since your uncle donated a fortune to the university,” said Marty, whose thinning brown hair and old-fashioned spectacles made him appear years older than his partner. “But misleading a few physics professors is a lot easier than fooling Mother Nature,” he continued.


 “Come on,” said Dan. “First the paperclip, then the clock and finally the rabbit. Three successful tests.”


“It’s one thing to send a paperclip back in time. It’s another to send two humans and to bring them back alive. And we don’t really know what happened to those objects. All we know is that they went somewhere—or some when—and that something came back.”


“We can’t stop now. Once the university discovers the machine, we’ll never get within a mile of it again,” Dan said. “You should be excited, Marty. We’re going to make history.”


Marty sighed. Like always, Dan would get his way.


Once relegated to the realms of novels and fringe science, time travel had ignited the fervor of the international physics community in 2016 when Alexander Molinov’s seminal study was published. Dan and Marty were among his most enthusiastic disciples, pouring countless hours into the paper they entered in the 2017 Fundamental Physics Prize competition. Their “Blueprint for Time Travel Experimentation” claimed fourth place, despite the fact that they were unknown graduate students at the University of Pittsburgh.


 Since then, many theoretical physicists had moved on to the next fad. But Dan and Marty would not let go. In a few days, the young men would power up a device designed to hurtle them back to 1909 and to allow them to return with a treasure of immense value: a thin piece of cardboard measuring about one and a half by two and a half inches.


*   *   *


 “What is it?” demanded a hostile, gravelly voice.


“Mr. Brinkman, it’s Martin Phillips.”


“Go away.”


“Please. I need your help interpreting a couple of equations.”


After a few moments, a chain slid and the door opened. “Five minutes.”


Howard Brinkman turned on a lamp, which cast a pale glow on a sad shambles. Thick curtains blocked every window. Aged furniture and frayed carpets were laden with books and papers stacked at all angles. The dank, dusky odor lent the impression of a tomb long lost to civilization.


Since he had last seen “Uncle Howard,” Marty realized the man had become even more estranged from the world. It wasn’t completely clear whether Brinkman was Dan’s uncle, though the family resemblance and scientific talent were undeniable. Perhaps a great-uncle. Dan’s family history was murky; his parents had died in a plane crash when he was only five. After being shuttled through a series of foster homes, Dan won a scholarship to MIT and moved on to grad school.


Even though Brinkman was his only known relative, Dan avoided him. “He creeps me out,” Dan had told Marty. “He won’t even look at me. I hope I never get like that.”


But Marty felt sorry for Brinkman and craved his reassurance before he and Dan took their big step. Marty opened a weathered, leather-bound notebook measuring about nine inches by seven inches and more than an inch thick, with a strap and clasp across the front. Equations, diagrams and comments were recorded in a riot of colors on dog-eared pages. Some notations were crossed out; others were scribbled in margins; a few were faded almost to oblivion.


Marty pointed to equations on facing pages. “Can you clarify these variables here—and here?” he asked. “Do they mean that mass must remain constant in time displacement, or that it is correlated with distance—”


“Why the hell do you want to know?” interrupted Brinkman. He began to pace and stroke his scraggly beard. “You’re not actually trying to implement these theories, are you?”


“N-no,” said Marty. “I need to … write my thesis this fall.”


Brinkman seemed to be light-years away. He muttered: “If only you could….” Presently, he focused on Marty with an expression that morphed to betray savage pain. “You and that headstrong friend of yours—you don’t know what you’re doing!” he declared, his voice cracking. Suddenly, every iota of energy seemed to drain out of him. He collapsed into an overstuffed chair. Head in hands, he pled morosely: “Leave me alone.”


Marty closed the notebook gently. He considered confessing his plans and begging for guidance. But Uncle Howard’s scolding had shaken him.


“Sorry to bother you,” said Marty. Pausing outside the apartment, he thought that he heard Brinkman sobbing.


*   *   *


 “So, did Katrina like her birthday present?” Dan asked without taking his eyes off his monitor.


“It’s Catherine,” said Marty, suddenly feeling like he had collided with a speeding maglev train. “And, oh Jesus, how could I forget her birthday?”


“Man, I’m sorry,” said Dan, for once sounding almost sincere. “I just assumed you were headed to see her when you left the lab last night.”


Marty punched in her code. She didn’t pick up. He struggled to find something to say into the 3D recorder.


“Just tell her how much you love her,” said Dan.


Marty ran a hand absentmindedly through his hair. “I haven’t exactly told her that, yet. She knows it. I’m sure.”


“Whoa, Marty.  It’s not good enough for a woman just to know you love her. You have to say it—really say it.”


Marty noted the irony of being lectured about romance by a guy whose relationship skills resembled a black hole, but a greater issue weighed on him.


“Dan, I’m still not comfortable going all the way back to 1909. We could travel back five or ten years and still have a successful test.”


“Marty, Marty. We have been over this a thousand times. If we bring back even one Wagner card we can pay off our student loans, upgrade the time machine—and maybe throw a bodacious party.”


“If it’s money you want, why not go back twenty-five years, buy some tech stock real cheap and cash in when you return?”


“You’d have paperwork and tax problems. Besides,” said Dan, breaking into a sly grin, “didn’t you tell me once that if you could go back in time you would want to witness some baseball history? Well, this is baseball history. And you’ll finally be able to buy an engagement ring for Carol.”


Marty recalled the evening when the two young men—just starting grad school—sat nursing beers in a noisy pub and talking about the time travel theories Marty was developing. “Just imagine,” Marty had said. “It’s 1954, the World Series. Cleveland’s Vic Wertz hits this monstrous drive to centerfield, and Willie Mays of the New York Giants races back and makes an unbelievable over-the-shoulder catch. We could see that. We could be there.”


The son of a dentist and a bookkeeper, Marty had blown away every previous top score in math and science tests. But being the smartest kid in the class—and too ungainly to play sports—was hardly a formula for making friends. Somehow, Catherine Byrd recognized and admired the real Martin Phillips. She was still coming to grips with his tendency when working on a scientific problem to withdraw without warning into a mystical dominion that even Marty could not describe. But she had become resigned to the fact that Marty never appeared to get excited about anything—except baseball.


Dan was not much of a baseball fan. But sitting in the pub and listening to Marty, he too came to recognize Marty’s unique attributes. “I have something that I’d like you to look at,” said Dan after finishing off his beer. “Something my crazy uncle gave me a couple of years ago.”


Later that evening, in Dan’s apartment, Dan confessed that at first he didn’t understand much of what he encountered in the notebook. But after he ran computer simulations on several sections, something clicked. Marty sat enraptured, flipping through pages sketching out various theories of time travel that he was familiar with—and some that he wasn’t. It didn’t take long for Marty to become convinced that the notebook would be the perfect complement to his theoretical work and Dan’s engineering skills.


A few months later, when Dan saw a vid report about a Honus Wagner baseball card selling for ten million dollars, the dream of traveling to 1909 began to take shape. The report explained that the Wagner cards were distributed in the packs of some brands of cigarettes made by the American Tobacco Company. Legend had it that Wagner, an all-star shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates, objected to having his picture appear on the cards because they might encourage kids to smoke. But some historians disagreed; all anyone knew with certainty was that the company stopped printing Wagner cards during the second half of 1909. Only about 60 were known to exist in 2019, and all were worth many times their weight in gold.


*   *   *


 “Man, this stuff itches,” said Marty. “And I feel so conspicuous.”


“In a few minutes, the last thing you’ll be thinking of is wearing old wool clothes on a warm July afternoon,” said Dan. “Besides, I kind of like the suspenders.”


Purporting to be actors in a play, Dan and Marty had acquired gray and brown shirts and pants typically worn by working class men of the early 1900s. They were able to borrow antique watches from a museum, but paper currency from the period had consumed much of their savings.


Dan locked the lab door and activated the sign warning “experiment in progress.” He opened a map and traced the alleys and streets that fed into Fifth Avenue, a major thoroughfare in Pittsburgh in 1909 as in 2019. “Remember,” he said, “we have to reenter the energy field between 4:50 and 5 o’clock to make it back.”


“Got it.”


After a restless night, Marty had spent the morning checking and rechecking calculations and settings obsessively. All that remained was a stupendous leap of faith. He and Dan stared at the machine’s monitor with a mix of apprehension, awe and exhilaration.


“Here goes nothing,” said Dan, clicking “execute.”


The empty area near the far wall of the lab began to shimmer. Soon the young men could discern the incandescent, pulsating boundary of a corridor. They inched toward it, felt their hair stand on end, fought the impulse to close their eyes and—kaleidoscopic colors, sounds and emotions surged through their minds, bodies and souls. In the roiling ether to either side flickered successions of images like frames from old celluloid movies, each one suggesting a fraction of an instant of existence, as the grad students pressed forward toward the far end of the corridor and—they tumbled onto pavement, their heads swimming and their stomachs churning. As the side-effects lessened, they brushed dust from their clothes and peered through deep shade at the back sides of brown buildings. Laundry rippled in a light breeze along balcony railings. Children’s shouts and the clip-clopping of horses’ hooves echoed around them. They were assailed by the foul odor of garbage. Their eyes started to water.


“Why is everything so smoky?” whispered Dan.


“Either it’s our two-million-dollar lab burning down,” said Marty, “or our machine might actually have worked. In the early 1900s, Pittsburgh had thousands of smokestacks. Before the EPA and the Climate Change Treaty.”


They made two turns, keeping their heads down and avoiding eye contact with passers-by. By the time they reached Fifth Avenue, they felt comfortable and curious enough to halt and examine their surroundings. A medley of brick structures lined both sides of the avenue, ranging from two to ten stories high. A trolley half-filled with passengers clanged along the street, forcing horse-drawn carriages to change course. Businessmen in top hats gestured in debate as they strolled briskly. A woman in a white dress and a flowery hat pushed a dark blue baby carriage along a bumpy sidewalk.


Dan and Marty found themselves touching walls and telephone poles and exchanging glances. This wasn’t a dream. They really were in 1909.


They spotted a tobacco shop wedged between the Hotel Henry and a tailor. Hand-painted letters on the storefront glass proclaimed:


TOBACCONIST The Finest Gentlemen’s Cigars and Tobacco Products Also Featuring Elegant Pens & Stationery Lukas Reimer, Proprietor


A bell jangled as the grad students entered. “Come in, come in,” the shopkeeper exclaimed with a thick German accent. Dan and Marty gazed at walls crammed with every kind of tobacco product known to man—right up to the ceiling—and a handsome glass display case featuring pens and paper. Dust motes danced in streaks of sunlight like agitated bubbles in a lab experiment. The shop’s rich aroma provided almost a contact nicotine high.


 “I hope you can help us,” said Dan confidently. “Every heard of Honus Wagner, a baseball player?”


Reimer, a neatly groomed, bespectacled man with a vest and a watch chain, leaned toward Dan and fixed an incredulous stare. Dan appeared flustered; his head started to bob furiously.


“Young man, where are you from?” asked the tobacconist.


“Uh, Altoona,” Dan ad-libbed, pretending to study cigars on the wall behind the cash register.


Reimer leaned back and chuckled. “Well, in Pittsburgh,” he said, “Mister Wagner is not just our most famous citizen, he is our most loved citizen. Why, I do not think Mister Carnegie wins a popularity contest against him.”


Marty came to Dan’s rescue: “Mister Reimer, we are looking for picture cards of Honus Wagner that are being sold in certain cigarette packs. Sweet Caporal and Piedmont brands, I believe. By any chance—”


“ ‘Baseball men! Baseball men!’ This is what the kids shout when they come in my shop. ‘Mister Reimer, please, can we have the baseball men?’ I shoo them out every day.” Reimer folded his hands on the counter. “I really do not know how one finds a baseball man other than to buy the cigarettes and see the card you get inside.”


The students paid eighty-five cents for his inventory of Piedmonts and proceeded to open the packs gingerly, extracting cards of players with names like Evers, Ames and Brown, but no Wagner.


 “Boys, I am closing shop,” Reimer said when they were done. “The whole town is going to the new ballpark. If you are not working, come to the game. There are men smoking cigarettes and tossing the packs. They do not bother with the baseball men. Maybe you find your card.”


*   *   *


The trio arrived at Forbes Field just after the last ticket for that day’s game was sold. Downcast, they trudged along a road that snaked toward the Carnegie Library. A few young boys wearing short breeches and knee-high socks were gathered in a dusty, rubble-strewn vacant lot beyond the centerfield wall of the ballpark. A bow-legged old man was hitting a baseball to them.


 “Can it really be?” Reimer whispered to himself. He crossed the road. Dan and Marty followed, glancing at their watches. Fifty-seven minutes before the energy field would shut off. They had to move soon or be trapped in 1909.


The man with the bat was wearing modest clothes and a plain cap. When Reimer managed a close look at those massive shoulders, those huge hands, that broad nose and those sad brown eyes, he was certain. The tobacconist picked up something that looked like road kill but proved to be a catcher’s mitt, and he positioned himself to the right of the batter.


Honus Wagner prepared to hit another bouncing ball toward the youngsters. “Keep runnin’ boys,” he counseled them. “You never know when the ball will hit a rock and jump right into your glove.”


Momentarily, the stained, slightly lopsided baseball came dribbling back to Reimer. His face awash with reverence, he handed the ball to Wagner. The ballplayer winked at him and hit another grounder. After several minutes, Wagner announced, “That’s all for today, fellers. It’s time to go to work.”


Marty couldn’t contain his inquisitiveness. “Mister Wagner, it’s an honor to meet you. But would you mind helping us settle a little bet? About why you do not want your picture used on baseball cards sold with cigarettes.”


Wagner spat a thin stream of tobacco juice. “Did the tobacco company send you fellers?”


“No,” said Marty. “We’re just curious.”


“Young man, I don’t know anything about these cards. I don’t recall the tobacco company even asking me if they could use my picture, so I couldn’t exactly tell ’em what lake to go jump into.” Wagner started climbing a shallow slope toward the rear of the ballpark. Four boys tagged along, each carrying a piece of baseball equipment as his ticket of entry.


Reimer turned to Dan and Marty. “Well, lads, you have quite a bit of luck to meet Mister Wagner. Now mark my words: Any day now he cuts down on his stride, and that little slump is over.”


Wagner halted, pivoted and glared at Reimer. “What did you say?”


 “Oh, Mister Wagner, I am so sorry. I do not mean to insult you.”


“My stride. What did you say about my stride?”


For a moment, it looked like the tobacconist would faint. But he took a deep breath, exhaled and raised his chin proudly. “I mean to say: I see when you stride too much you are swinging too early for the curve ball and too late for the fast ball.” After a pause: “Any day now you be perfect, I am sure.”


Wagner regarded him with an unreadable expression. Then he unlatched a gate to the ballpark and followed his young charges inside.


*   *   *


 Back in Reimer’s shop, the tobacconist discovered a supply of Sweet Caporal cigarettes on a storeroom shelf. Three dollars later, the young scientists were ripping into wrappers without restraint.


Before long, Dan exposed the top edge of a card with a bright orange background. His hands started to tremble as he teased the card from the package, revealing first the short brown hair and then the sunburned face that had taunted him in countless dreams. He held a tiny portrait of a man with a solemn expression who was wearing a gray uniform with a blue collar and the letters “PITTSBURG” displayed across his chest. The Honus Wagner card was the most wonderful thing Dan had ever seen.


The young men almost leapt into the shimmering energy field.


*   *   *


It took Marty a minute to shake off the disorientation and nausea. As he confirmed that the time machine was powering down, Dan discharged a volley of curses.


“What’s wrong?” said Marty.


“What’s wrong!” barked Dan, slapping his computer monitor. “What’s wrong is that our Wagner card is worth almost nothing!”


“But you’re okay?”


“Yea, sure, whatever,” said Dan. “Look for yourself. A good condition 1909 Wagner sells for about fifteen hundred bucks—same as a Cobb or Mathewson or any other star.” He turned toward Marty, eyebrows raised. “The old man didn’t tell American Tobacco to stop printing his card. That’s the only possible explanation.”


“The butterfly effect,” Marty said softly. “We changed history, Dan. We screwed up.”


“Surely you don’t believe that old science fiction trope. This is just a minor glitch.”


Marty scanned news headlines on his handheld. “I wonder what else changed. Maybe Hitler won World War II, or there was a pandemic that killed millions, because we got greedy.”


 Dan grimaced, then proclaimed: “Only one thing to do now. We go back to 1909 and fix it.”


“Go back? Are you out of your mind?”


“A very quick, very focused trip. We tell Wagner the tobacco company is killing kids and ripping him off, then we come back and everything’s cool.”


Marty shook his head. “We might already have caused too much damage. And besides, we used up all that power.”


“I think I can find enough juice for two energy fields of very short duration,” said Dan. Marty was too weary to argue. He changed out of his 1909 outfit and went straight to Catherine’s apartment. No one home. “Oh God,” he muttered. “Playing games with time has done something to her. She’s married or she never met me.”


That night, Dan knocked on Uncle Howard’s door for the first time in many years. No answer there, either.


*   *   *


The time travelers surged through the energy field and found themselves about six feet from the meanest looking Doberman Pinscher in all of 1909 Pittsburgh. They gathered their wits and tiptoed out of the alley. Under a blustery sky, they trekked to the lot where they had met Wagner, but it was empty. They managed to open the ballpark gate that Wagner had accessed, and they strolled toward home plate, posing as sports writers planning to interview Wagner.


They approached a cluster of men lounging near the third-base dugout, notebooks sticking out of their jacket pockets. A couple were passing a flask between them. A wispy man with a pencil-thin moustache and a straw hat intercepted the newcomers. “Can I see your press passes, gents?”


“Um, I have my pass here somewhere,” said Dan, reaching into pockets and stalling for time. “Martin, do you have our credentials?”


Before Marty could answer, a screaming line drive smashed into his head just above the left temple. He crumpled.


First baseman Robert Hamilton “Ham” Hyatt, the responsible batter, stood over Marty long enough to determine that he wasn’t dead. “Welcome to the big leagues, kid,” said Hyatt before swaggering back to home plate.


Wagner dropped his bat and called for the clubhouse boy. “Sam, would you see that this feller gets some ice and sit him in the locker room till the cobwebs clear.”


Dan and Marty were ushered into a brightly-lit room that featured polished wooden lockers and wide benches and bore the scents of mineral oil and talcum powder. Ballplayers were playing cards, donning their uniforms or admiring their muscles in a mirror.


Presently, Wagner entered. “You fellers aren’t from around here, are you?”


“No sir,” said Marty. “We’ll be leaving shortly.”


Dan spoke up. “Mister Wagner, we think you shouldn’t let your picture appear on baseball cards sold with cigarettes. It will encourage young people to start smoking. Tobacco can ruin their careers and shorten their lives.”


“Tobacco may shorten a man’s life and interfere with his baseball career,” conceded Wagner. “But I have noticed that where a player starts to quit hitting, it will shorten his career a good deal quicker than tobacco.”


Dan removed his precious Wagner card from his shirt pocket and handed it to the veteran player. “This is the one we’re concerned about.”


Wagner stared at the image in silence for several seconds. Without warning, the big man tore the card into tiny pieces.


Dan started to scream but stifled it, assisted by a kick in the shin from Marty.


Said Wagner, “That picture makes me look like I’m lying in my coffin. I had better get my attorney after these tobacco people.” He grabbed his glove and added: “Thank that friend of yours for his hitting advice the other day. I’ve been swatting ’em like they were grapefruit ever since.” Wagner headed back to the field.


After clawing through ballpark trash for half an hour without finding another Wagner card, the young men jogged along Fifth Avenue toward the alley. Crackling thunder and powerful wind gusts presaged a summer storm.


The energy field was about five minutes from dissipating when they heard a familiar voice. “Boys! Boys!” It was Reimer, emerging from his shop. “Such a wonderful thing happened. Never do I believe such a thing happening to me.”


“That’s great, Mister Reimer,” said Dan. “But we’re in a bit of a rush.”


“Wait here. I have something for you, a present,” the tobacconist said. He vanished into his shop.


Marty frowned. “If he’s not back in thirty seconds, we’re out of here,” he said.




A minute passed. Marty started running toward the alley. Dan followed.


“I have it!” called out Reimer. “Another Honus Wagner baseball man for you.”


“Thanks anyway,” yelled Marty as he reached a corner. To Dan he said: “It’s not worth it. We have to go—now!—or we’ll be stuck here.”


Dan looked at Reimer and then back toward Marty, but his friend already was gone. Surely a few more seconds won’t matter, thought Dan. He dodged pedestrians, horses and an automobile to reach the sidewalk where Reimer was standing.


“Take this as my thanks,” said Reimer, offering Dan a heavy canvas bag. “Because you come to my shop, I meet Mister Wagner. And he is so happy with my advice that he finds my shop and buys my cigars and talks to my customers. His family comes from same region of Prussia as me, and—”


“Yea, yea, thanks,” said Dan, grabbing the bag and racing toward the alley.


*   *   *


Marty emerged from the energy field and walked unsteadily to his alcove, where he searched for net references to the Wagner card. “Yes!” he exclaimed when he discovered that its rarity—and perhaps the life he had known—had been restored. He called Catherine. She answered immediately.


“Can I come over now? He inquired. “I have something to tell you. I mean to ask you.”


*   *   *


When Dan reached the alley he saw no sign of Marty, and he could barely detect the energy field. Was it already too late? Dan launched himself forward.


He stumbled and fell to his knees, gasping for breath while battling waves of nausea. As his senses began to clear, he reached out to a workstation and pulled himself slowly to his feet.


He noticed that the tan linoleum floor was cracking and badly in need of sweeping. It took a few moments to identify that recurring sound: an irritating “plink.” Dripping. Water dripping into a sink or bucket every few seconds.


Something is wrong, he realized. Something is very, very wrong.


He was in some sort of lab, but not the one he had left from. These workstations had wooden sides, whereas his lab was all metal and plastic. The lighting here was lousy. And the computer terminal looked like it belonged in a museum.


Maybe I’m in a different part of campus, he thought. He began to pace. He noticed a folded-up newspaper on a counter. He remembered seeing newspapers as a teenager. He opened this one and read the date:


November 1, 1986.


He read it again, and again. He flipped through pages rapidly, scanning headlines about nuclear missile talks and tax code revisions. Incredulity turned to panic.


He tossed the paper aside and ran out of the lab, down a hallway and out the front door. He surveyed his surroundings, desperate to detect any shred of normalcy. Some of the university buildings looked pretty much like he had always known them, but there were lawns or parking lots where other structures should be. The air was quite cool, and brightly colored leaves formed montages in rain puddles.


He dashed back into the lab, located Reimer’s bag and withdrew a small white envelope. It was empty save for the promised Wagner baseball card. He experienced a measure of joy that almost vanquished his feelings of confusion and fear. This card was nearly as magnificent as the one that Wagner had destroyed—just a slight crease marred one corner. Somehow, he felt certain that the card was worth a king’s ransom.


Two other items in the bag were gift-wrapped. The first proved to be a handsome fountain pen. It fit naturally in his hand.


The second package was much larger. He slid a hand across it and turned it over and over, assessing its shape and weight. He closed his eyes. With each passing moment, the package’s contents—and significance—became clearer. He opened his eyes and removed the wrapping paper slowly, hoping against hope that he was wrong. When he was done, he beheld a beautiful leather-bound notebook. He undid the clasp and caressed perfectly clean, blank pages.


He contemplated how he would make his way through the years ahead, all the work to be done about how to make things right.


He turned to the inside cover of the notebook and began to write:


“Daniel: I believe this will help you.”


A slight smile played across his lips as he signed the inscription: “Uncle Howard.”