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Week #14: Creative Writing Challenge – Time Travel

April 11, 2021

Time travel works, but only once in a person’s life. Write from the perspective of someone who choses to go back in time, knowing they can never return. Where do they go and why?

“In summary, remains from the Ural Mountains indicate inner ear bones with unclear origins, but all other evidence from the area indicate that Homo neanderthalensis was secluded from outsiders in this location, having survived 9,000 years after the extinction of the rest of the species.” I said to a room of graduate students. “Possible hypotheses?” I challenged.

“Misidentification of remains.”

“The original seclusion hypothesis is not supported.”

“Deformity due to nutrition or climate.”

I heard lots of answers shouted from the different corners of the room. My lecture had drawn more than the normal crowd of graduate students for the weekly lunchtime talk. Everyone liked a good mystery. The truth was that the few artifacts found at Byzovaya in the Ural Mountains clearly indicated a Neanderthal hideaway, cut off from the rest of the migration paths of other Neanderthals and H. sapiens. During the collection of stone tools and animal bones at the site, a set of three inner ear bones was found. They were originally mis-classified as those of a juvenile woolly mammoth or similar large mammal because they were found among a cache of animal bones.

Years later, as a graduate student, I had been instructed to go through the Byzovaya drawer of artifacts to compare the Neanderthal tools with those of a nearby H. sapiens site for a paper my major professor was writing. I found the ear bones and immediately knew they didn’t belong to a woolly mammoth. They looked like they belonged to H. sapiens. I didn’t get any further in the drawer and got swept up into the story as my major professor and I searched for hypotheses to explain their presence. It became one of anthropology’s biggest mysteries. Were they Neanderthal? Were they Homo sapiens? And if they were modern humans, how did they get there?

I had been to Byzovaya twice on expeditions as an assistant professor trying to locate other remains, collecting other tool caches and animal bones in the hopes of getting more accurate radiocarbon dates for the site. With an accurate date, maybe we could trace Homo sapiens migration patterns and put them in the area at the time.

When I became a full professor at Harvard, I decided to go back to the beginning, and searched the Byzovaya drawer again. I didn’t think I would find anything, but I had to see. After a week of detailed sketching and looking at bones under the microscopes I found what I thought was a fragment of a radius from a H. Sapiens. It showed evidence of bone deposition, like the arm had been broken and had repaired itself. The fragment was so small that there was no way I could say for sure which Homo species it had come from. I didn’t tell anyone, but late at night my thoughts frequently wandered back to that bone fragment.

After I finished answering all the questions I could from curious graduate students, I cleaned up my materials from the front of the lecture hall and started to leave.

“Don’t you wish you could just jump in a time machine and take a look to see what actually happened?” I heard from near the door. “Howard Finwright, with Chronos Industries.” The man said as he reached his hand out to shake mine.

“Yeah, wouldn’t that be lovely?” I joked. “What can I help you with today Mr. Finwright?”

“I have a proposal for you if you have a few minutes.” He replied.

“I actually have a grant due at 5pm and still need to do some work on it. But go ahead and call my secretary and we can set something up.” I said, already thinking about the list of things that still needed to be submitted with my grant.

“I’ll do that. Here’s my card.” He handed me a black card with silver embossing that said CHRONOS on one side. “Thank you for your time. Have a great day!”

I forgot about him until a week later when my secretary called to tell me that a Mr. Finwright was here to see me. I couldn’t place the name until he walked through my office door. I stood to greet him and indicated a seat for him to relax in. Mr. Finwright was immaculately dressed in a navy colored tailored suit and and matching navy tie with silver flecks. I couldn’t for the life of me remember what he wanted. Had he even told me?

“I won’t waste your time professor.” I nodded for him to continue. “We’re impressed with your research in Byzovaya and intrigued by the mystery that your career has sought to unravel. At Chronos we are always searching for people who are deeply critical and yet can think outside the box in the face of the status quo.”

“I think I can stop you right there. I’m very happy here at Harvard teaching and doing research. I’m not looking for new employment opportunities.” I said hurriedly before he got too far down a rabbit hole.

“Respectfully, sir, I think you misunderstand me. Chronos isn’t looking for new employees. We’re looking for people who are interested in new opportunities that they might not have otherwise.” He paused. “Professor, do you know what Chronos means?”

“Of course. Chronos was the greek god of time.” I answered.

He smiled. “And our company Chronos deals with time. All I ask is that you hear what I have to say with an open mind.” At my agreement, he continued. “What would you do if you could actually go back to Byzovaya when the Neanderthals lived there? What would you do if you could actually go back and find the owner of those inner ear bones? That piece of radius that you haven’t told anyone about? What if you could go back in time and solve your mystery? Would you do it?”

There was a crazy person in my office. He didn’t seem to be the normal crazy sort, and I felt safe. I figured the easiest and quickest way to get rid of him would be to play along. “Well, let’s assume that you have perfected time travel, and let’s assume that our radiocarbon dating is accurate enough to provide an appropriate date in time, and let’s also assume that the traveler would be unharmed… an interesting proposition. But I’m also going to assume that the technology to send someone forward in time hasn’t been created yet or you would have said something about taking a trip instead of implying one way. That would mean that it would only be one person to have solved the mystery and the scientific community wouldn’t benefit. I would have to say that the loss of an academic brain and the failure of the mystery to be solved for the greater community would outweigh the individual satisfaction of one professor.” I worked my way through it logically.

He responded equally as thoughtfully. “Your assumptions are largely correct, but you haven’t considered the weight of a mystery on a soul over the years. I’m guessing that already your productivity has slowed. You find yourself staring out the window too often picturing the Ural Mountains. You have dreams about bones and your friends have stopped asking you to socialize with them because all you want to talk about is Byzovaya.”

There was silence as I looked out the window and did catch myself visualizing the Urals. This was bad. Mr. Finwright needed to leave, so I thanked him for his time. He left with a reminder that his contact details were on the business card if I changed my mind.

A month later and I still couldn’t get Chronos out of my mind. It was driving me crazy. I watched a string of Sci-Fi time travel movies, read some books on time travel, and even found myself in the theoretical physics building asking my colleagues about the feasibility of time travel. One night after watching a double feature of “Primer” and “Back to the Future” and drinking a couple too many beers, I found myself holding Mr. Finwright’s card and standing in front of the phone.

I called and made an appointment for the next day.

I pulled up to a fenced complex and gave the security guard my name. She gave me directions to building 3M, on the other side of the complex and sent me on my way. I parked where I was told. By the time I got out of the car, Mr. Finwright was walking down the entryway stairs to greet me.

“It’s good to see you professor. Come on in and I’ll walk you through the tech and show you the booth. You’ll have to sign an NDA. I’m sure you understand.” He told me. I nodded, stunned that I was actually here.

Mr. Finwright took me through the building introducing me to people as I went. As we walked through laboratories he explained the technology, which sounded vaguely familiar to what the theoretical physicists at Harvard told me. It sounded very formal, and lord help me, legit.

Finally we came to a conference room full of people. “Professor, this is your team. They’re here to help you prepare for what you might encounter when you get to Byzovaya and to help you with the actual travel. Do you have any questions for us before we get to the nitty gritty?”

I hesitated for a moment. This was going to sound like a stupid question, I was sure, but I took a deep breath and asked anyway. “I’m not the first one to try out this technology, right?”

There were some nervous titers from around the room before a man in a white coat cleared his throat and said, “No, you are not the first, but you will be traveling further back in time than anyone else. Before you ask, we have sent objects back in time that far and recovered them during our lifetimes, so we know that the process works.”

I considered for a moment and closed my eyes. The Ural Mountains appeared and those bones floated in front of my closed eyelids. “Okay, what’s first?”

I lived at the complex. My days consisted of mountaineering, orienteering, survival and first aid training. I was after all being dropped into an extreme northern climate with none of the creature comforts I had become accustomed to. It was an extremely dangerous mission. My goal was just to survive long enough to figure out where those bones came from and I could die happy, or at least satisfied. Mr. Finwright was right that I didn’t have many friends that still wanted anything to do with me. I had immersed myself into work and hadn’t come up for air in the last 15 years. At least solving the mystery would give me a sense of peace. I hoped.

Launch day came, and I was ready. Well, ready enough I figured. I wouldn’t be coming back, I wouldn’t be able to tell anyone I had survived, and there wouldn’t be anyone to help me. I was taking a leap and hopefully it would be enough.

I sat in the booth and strapped in. I still didn’t really understand the physics of the machine, but I understood the practical aspects. I would be strapped in a standing position with a backpack full of supplies. Sending me back in time would also send the straps and backpack back with me, but the machine itself was firmly rooted in the current time. I gave the thumbs up and a final smile before everything went momentarily black and I closed my eyes.

When I opened them again, I saw the mountains that floated behind my eyelids and in my dreams. It worked. I couldn’t believe it. After getting my bearings, I headed towards the foot of the mountains where the Neanderthal camp was found.

It took me a week to get close to the camp and my anticipation was palpable as I recognized landmarks and found evidence of activity near a small creek. I hiked into a valley and scrambled up the scree on one side to get a better vantage point. In my haste, I didn’t see a small root sticking above the gravel. I tripped and rolled down the steep hillside until I found myself wedged against a gnarled tree. I tried to push myself up, only to feel intense pain in my arm. There weren’t any bones breaking through the skin or boney lumps, so it was likely just a clean break across the radius or ulna. I wrapped it with compression tape and popped some ibuprofen after deciding that broken bones definitely warranted the use of my medical supplies.

After a bit of a break, I continued hiking up into the valley. I was high above the tree-line when I saw smoke, but it was late in the day and I didn’t want to come into camp in the dark. I didn’t know what kind of reception I might get and I’d rather deal with it in the daylight. I set myself up on a flat ledge and ate some dried jerky and fruits. Under the stars that night I contemplated how I would communicate with them. Would they accept me? Would they kill me outright?

That thought made me pause. What if they killed me before I could figure out my mystery? This would be all for naught.

I fell into a restless sleep. I dreamed of my bones again. The three inner ear bones. The radius with evidence of a break and bone deposition. I awoke with a start to intense pain in my arm and understanding dawning on me.

** Inspiration from this article about evidence of Neanderthals in the Ural Mountains later than previously thought.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Karen permalink
    April 13, 2021 4:31 pm


  2. Yael Kisel permalink
    April 15, 2021 3:30 pm

    Ah, nothing like a good time travel twist!

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