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art by Richard Gagnon

Professor Jennifer Magda-Chichester's Time Machine

Julian Mortimer Smith has worked for a university (as a teaching assistant), a board games company (as an editor), and an army (as a clarinetist). His writing has previously appeared in Daily Science Fiction, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (forthcoming). He currently lives in a small lobstering village in rural Nova Scotia.
Professor Jennifer Magda-Chichester stood on the stage of Stockholm Concert Hall, smiling proudly into a sea of tuxedos: "It is a great honor to receive this most prestigious of awards," she said, a cluster of ubiquitous nano-microphones reproducing her every word in perfect fidelity, in the minds of a million listeners worldwide. "A very great honor, the greatest that any scientist can ever hope to achieve. I am very proud of my team, and of course I am indebted to all the brilliant minds who laid the foundation for my work. If I have seen further than others it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.
"And yet, my near-perfect happiness on this day is tainted by the tiniest speck of regret. I am an old woman and, as you all know by now, the device can only travel backwards through time. I therefore stand here before you today in the full knowledge that I will never live to see my invention reach its full potential. I can only imagine all the wonderful uses that future generations will find for the thing. Did Alan Turing imagine all the benefits of today's sentient quantum computers? Did Neil Armstrong imagine the wonders of Luna Colony Alpha?"
The professor paused for a moment, letting her audience consider the potential of backwards time-travel, letting them consider how limited their own imaginations were, letting them imagine how much they couldn't imagine. She had always believed that the most important quality in a scientist was an awareness of how much was beyond one's understanding.
Then she delivered her punch line, gesturing to the machine with a grin: "Well, I guess we'll just have to go back and ask them."
And yet it didn't happen like that. It happened nearly a decade earlier, and someone entirely different had stood on that stage in Stockholm, graciously accepting the prize, dispensing words of wisdom and bon mots to the enraptured crowd. Jennifer Magda-Chichester had wasted the last ten years of her career working stubbornly on an invention that her one-time mentor Professor Maxwell Honksworthy had invented and patented years earlier. She had simply refused to believe that he had gotten there first. The Nobel Prize was nothing but a fantasy, born of envy and denial.
"You bastard," she breathed, the taste of Lutefisk still fresh in her mouth, despite never having existed. "Two can play at that game."
Professor Jennifer Magda-Chichester invented her time machine in the late '90s. The announcement came out of the blue. Nobody within the scientific community saw it coming. It was that rarest of things--an invention that seemed beholden to nothing that had come before it, born sui generis from the mind of a solitary genius. When, during her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Professor Jennifer Magda-Chichester made the obligatory reference to standing on the shoulders of giants, the audience actually jeered. Her work was so original and groundbreaking that they wouldn't accept any false modesty.
Except that that was nonsense. It was basically the same invention for which the prize had been awarded to Professor Maxwell Honksworthy in the mid '80s.
One of the most curious technological innovations to come out of the Second World War was Jennifer Magda-Chichester's time machine, developed in secret at Bletchley Park but allegedly never used until after the war was over. Although much admired for her brilliant mind, the device's eccentric inventor received harsh criticism for her refusal to use the machine to go back in time and assassinate Hitler.
Maxwell Honksworthy was the enigmatic figure at the center of one of history's most controversial criminal trials. His case provides us with a thorny ethical dilemma. Does his world-changing invention, and the knowledge he claims to have gained from its use, justify his murder of the innocent child, Adolph Hitler?
Professor Magda-Chichester was without doubt the most creative and influential figure to emerge from the bohemian movement in fin de siècle Europe. Her feminist ideas were decades, if not centuries, ahead of their time, but she made her greatest contributions in the field of science. Working alone, in a remote laboratory in West Sussex, she invented and built the world's first working time machine, a staggering achievement that required her to invent entire scientific disciplines essentially from scratch. H.G. Wells is said to have given up writing upon meeting her, saying, "Jennifer makes my fiction irrelevant."
Quite apart from its practical uses, the time machine forever laid to rest claims of female intellectual inferiority, thus validating Professor Magda-Chichester's arguments in favor of equal rights for women.
Lord Maxwell Honksworthy made his fortune as an inventor and industrialist. His corporation, The Royal Honksworthy Company, produced many of the 19th century's most profitable inventions: including the light bulb, pasteurization (a process he mockingly named after a French chemist who had been pursuing a similar line of research at the time), and the robotic butler. His greatest invention, however, is the Honksworthy Time Machine.
The writings of Lady Magda-Chichester give some insight into the life of one of the most brilliant and enigmatic figures of Renaissance England. She was given a peerage by Queen Elizabeth for her invention of what was then known as Her Majesty's Chronic Engine--the device upon which all modern time machines are based. Little is known about Magda-Chichester prior to her peerage, but her diaries and personal correspondence give a picture of a woman at odds with the mores of her time. She was deeply troubled by the low status accorded to women and minorities in Elizabethan England, even though it was one of the most progressive societies in the world at that time; furthermore, she seemed revolted by prevailing standards of hygiene and sanitation.
Although she writes of her great pleasure in witnessing Shakespeare's plays and listening to the music of William Byrd, it seems she led a deeply unhappy life. The final entry in her diary, dated 1625, simply reads: "I went too far."
An intriguing fragment of manuscript has recently been unearthed in a crypt beneath the ruined monastery of Kilfarlich. The manuscript seems to describe a machine that was capable of traveling backwards through time, created by a magician. Sadly, the manuscript is incomplete. If such a precursor to Lady Magda-Chichester's famous device ever existed, the identity of its inventor and the specifics of its workings are lost to history.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, September 19th, 2012


This story evolved out of a conversation with my brother, Daniel. He deserves all the credit for the central conceit.

- Julian Mortimer Smith

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