“I’ve brought your tea, professor.” Albert shouldered open the door to the old man’s study and set the tray on a few sheets of paper, the only corner of the old man’s desk not buried beneath books.

“Not there, Albert. I need those papers.”

“Sorry, sir.” Albert didn’t move the tray, but instead placed a tea strainer above a cup embellished with rosebuds, surreptitiously dropped a little white pill into it, and poured the tea. The pill dissolved instantly.

“Not now.” The professor waved him away.

“I must insist, sir. You’ve taken neither food nor drink since noon.”

“What time is it?”

“After seven, sir.”

“Light the lamps if you will.”

The steady light from the gas lamps on the wall behind the professor’s desk already lit the room with barely a flicker. It was the old man’s sight growing dim. He was close to the end. Albert fervently hoped the old man wouldn’t try to demonstrate his work before death took him naturally. If he did then Albert’s mission was clear. He must protect the timeline.

“Take your tea, sir, it will make you feel better.” The pill would ensure it did — a painkiller better than anything available in this benighted century.

“My life’s work is complete, Albert.”

“Then it will wait while you take refreshment.”

“The Royal Society can’t deny the mathematical proof.” The professor sat back, grunted, and put one hand to his belly.

Albert removed the strainer and offered the cup. “Just the way you like it, sir.”

The professor sighed and ran one hand across his sparse grey hair. “You know me too well.”

“I should think so, sir, after 43 years.”

“Do you think they will be able to cure cancer in the future?” The professor’s hand twitched towards his belly again.

“Man was never meant to be immortal, sir.”

“True enough.”

The professor reached for his teacup, breathed in the steam, and took a sip.

He stared at nothing for a full minute, then looked up and said, “It’s time.”

“Time, sir, for what?”

“Time, man, time. It’s not real. Time is a construct of our imagination. We think of time as linear. It ticks past, second by second, flowing like a river, but what of that river when it gets to the sea?”

“Sir?”

The professor swirled his cup and stared at the liquid within. “Time is not a river, Albert, it’s a vast ocean. Its currents churn and eddy.” He sighed and drained his cup. “And, finally, when time is running out for me, I have the answer. We can pitch ourselves from 1892 into the vast sea of time and emerge where we will. Past or future.”

“You’re sure, sir?”

“I am, and now I’m ready to prove it. My calculations —”

“These calculations, sir?” Albert lifted the tray to reveal papers covered in neat equations.

“Yes, those, just so. I’ve arranged a meeting with Hopkins tomorrow, to reveal everything. I thought time was going to beat me, Albert, but I’ve beaten it.”

Albert slid the tray to one side, sending two books crashing to the floor. He scooped up the papers and glanced at them briefly. “Close enough, sir, close enough.” Then he ripped them in half, stalked to the fireplace and flung them into the flames.

“Albert! What are you doing?”

The old man stood, shaking, but it was too late. His life’s work was already curling up the chimney to be dispersed as smoke on the wind.

Speechless, he flopped back down into his chair, his eyes wide, staring at the man who’d looked after him for more than four decades, his gentleman’s gentleman, trusted servant, companion and, even, friend.

“As you say, sir, it’s time. And now I can go home.”

“Home?” It was the only word the old man caught on to.

“Home, sir, back to 2246.”

“Twenty-two —”

“Your work is impeccable, sir, but it’s too soon. The world isn’t ready.”

“But —”

“Imagine someone using it to travel back and strangle Bonaparte in his cradle.”

“Would that be so bad?”

“It depends on who rises to power in his stead.”

“So —”

“So, you will never meet with Hopkins. The Royal Society must remain in ignorance, but you, sir, will never be forgotten. You will be known as the father of time travel, though not in this century, or the next, or even the one after that.”

“I don’t understand. Forty-three years, Albert, and now I feel as though I’ve never known you.”

“I was sent to watch over you and your work, but under no circumstances was I to allow you to reveal your findings to this century.”

“Then you needs must kill me, for I will not be silenced.”

“Those were indeed my orders, but I am relieved that nature is doing it for me.”

“I’m not finished yet. I have my notes.”

“No, sir, I have your notes.”

The professor tried to stand again, but his knees would not support him.

Albert crossed to the wall lights, turned off the gas, let the flames die and the gas mantles cool, then he opened up the gas taps again to a soft hiss. The gas smelled sulfurous as it seeped into the room. In the flickering firelight, he placed one hand on the professor’s shoulder.

“You have a choice, sir. History says you died in a gas explosion, but will you come with me instead? I owe you at least that.”

“To where?”

“To the future.”

“Why should I trust you?”

“Trust your own mathematics.”

Albert reached into his pocket and activated the device. As the first tendrils of gas seeped towards the fire’s flames, Albert and the professor faded out.

The story behind the story

Jacey Bedford reveals the inspiration behind Time’s restless ocean.

Before lockdown, in that dim, dark, distant past when we didn’t think twice about hopping on a train and heading for this nation’s crowded, germ-laden capital, I attended Science for Fiction Writers run by Dr David Clements at Imperial College, London. It was an annual event that brought in top scientists to talk to science-fiction and fantasy writers. Once of our guest lecturers was Dr Fay Dowker. (You can catch some of her public lectures on YouTube, and very fine they are, too.) Dr Dowker began her lecture with, ‘There’s no such thing as time.’ I found it difficult to get my head around the concept, so it festered in my brain for a few years, through lockdown and beyond.

Of course, we’ve known about time being wibbly-wobbly and timey-wimey ever since the Doctor Who episode ‘Blink’ was broadcast in 2007. So the non-existence of the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff coalesced in my brain, and eventually came out in story form as Time’s restless ocean.

It took a few years, Dr Dowker, but I got there in the end. Thanks for the lecture.