It was four in the morning and the birds were already warming up outside. In a couple of hours the sun was going to crest the trees, glare through Nicholas’s window, and he’d have to go to school.
Nicholas was sitting at the worktable in his room, rushing to put the finishing touches on yet another science project. Tools were scattered across the benchtop… drills, pliers, tinsnips and wirecutters… and a dusty set of welding goggles was propped on his head. Behind him sat a welder, gas tanks and the ruin of a CAT scanner. It was one of those giant white machines hospitals use to get a better look inside patients, like a suped-up x-ray machine. He’d seen it over a year ago, when his mother went to hospital the first time.
John “Bones” Jones, who worked at the hospital, had let slip they were throwing the CAT scanner out (“Uh… are you really sure you want this thing?” he’d asked) and Nicholas had jumped at the chance.
So, rather than driving the scanner to the disposal station, Bones had taken it to Nicholas’s place. Nicholas’s dad had helped him break it down in the backyard, and move all the bits Nicholas needed up to his room. His dad was pretty cool like that. So was Bones. Nicholas decided he’d have to do something really nice for him as a thank-you.
Nicholas had been working all night. Nothing new in that. He worked like mad every single time, and yet it always played out the same way: his project would revolutionise science, and Mr Graves would fail him.
His dad didn’t mind the noise. He’d helped Nicholas get the tools he needed for the project, and every now and then brought up sandwiches and cups of tea. Nicholas and his father had become much closer since his mother died.
As he worked, Nicholas remembered the last time he had to make something for class. Fargus Cartwright had entered an overweight rat as scientific proof that mice like cheese, and received a B. Nicholas had built a jumpsuit that allowed people to walk on walls, and Mr Graves had failed him. Being upside down will make people sick, he’d said.
Nicholas couldn’t win. Mr Graves just didn’t like him. Not at all. Nicholas could not understand why.
And yet Nicholas couldn’t stop inventing. He just didn’t have it in him to be ordinary. So he sighed, and slid the welding goggles down over his eyes. He fired up his father’s welder and set about sealing his creation shut.
His room flashed white and blue as metal smoked and melted. Outside, the sun was creeping up his window.
Nicholas stood at the bus stop. To his tired eyes the morning felt way too bright. All the seats were taken and so he stood, holding his creation inside a big cardboard box. A couple of other people from Nicholas’s class were waiting there, their projects on their laps or in their hands. He held the box with both hands, leaning on the wall.
He must have nodded off, because someone nudged him and Nicholas snorted awake. A ruddy face with blond hair was grinning at him: Fargus.
Fargus had a massive lump of papier-machê under one arm. Nicholas guessed it was meant to be a model of Einstein’s head. He knew this because Fargus had hung a sign around its neck that read: EYNSTINES HED. The model’s moustache was falling off.
“Hey, Gonzo. What’s in the box?” Fargus’s breath smelled like milk.
“What do you think, Fargus?” Nicholas said.
“I know what’s in the box,” Fargus barked. “But give us a look anyway, see if I’m right.” Fargus towered over Nicholas. He opened the top of the box and peered inside. “Yep, I was right.” He turned to the others. “It’s another F.”
He hooted at the top of his lungs, and some of the other kids chuckled.
Nicholas was grateful when the bus finally rolled up.
“All right, Nicholas. Let’s see it. What wondrous innovation do you have for us this time.”
Mr Graves was a huge man. He had grown out of his old suit about two sizes ago and never replaced it. Now it stretched over him in ungainly ways.
The class tittered as Nicholas rose to his feet. He sighed, beginning to wish he’d caught at least an hour’s sleep. He rested his hands atop the cardboard box on his desk. “Telepathy, sir,” he said.
Mr Graves hitched one side of his mouth halfway up his face, in a belittling half-smile. “Is that right?” he drawled.
“Telepa-what?” bellowed Fargus. He was sitting behind Nicholas.
“Telepathy,” Nicholas said, turning around. “I’m going to read Mr Graves’s mind.”
There was a stunned silence. Then the whole class burst out laughing.
“Go for it, Gonzo,” Fargus hooted. “This’ll be a laugh!”
“I could start by reading yours Fargus,” Nicholas offered. “But then how would we know if it worked?”
Fargus’ brow furrowed at this, and the class laughed even harder. “Hey,” he said, face reddening with anger. “That s’posed to be funny?”
“Nicholas! That’s enough troublemaking! Get up here and let’s get this over with.”
Nicholas walked to the front of the class. He placed the box atop Mr Graves’s desk and turned to the class. Mr Graves’s chair squeaked dangerously under his weight as he turned to watch Nicholas. “The human brain,” Nicholas said, “is a collection of on/off switches. These switches communicate via tiny electrical pulses. These pulses are detectable through the skin.” Nicholas opened the box and withdrew two headsets, one black and one white, which had been made from what looked like motorcycle helmets. A cluster of wires and cables trailing from them led to a central box. Nicholas placed the box on the desk. “This box,” he said. “Translates the signals sent from the white helmet, and sends them to the black helmet. The person wearing the black helmet will then be able to ‘read’ the mind of the person wearing the white helmet.”
Mr Graves eyed the setup warily. “And… what exactly did you make all of this from, Nicholas?”
“A friend of mine at the hospital told me they were throwing out a lot of old equipment. So I cobbled this together from a couple of crash helmets, a car battery and a five-million-dollar CAT scanner.”
Mr Graves nodded slowly. “I see… and, this black-and-yellow symbol here… on the box those two helmets are attached to…”
“Means ‘radiation’, yes.”
“Isn’t that exceptionally dangerous?”
“Only if you crack it open.”
“So don’t crack it open.” Nicholas noticed the class was suddenly very quiet, and very pale. “Shall we start?” he suggested, hopefully.
Mr Graves nodded, very slowly
Nicholas handed Mr Graves the white helmet. Mr Graves slipped the helmet over his head. It sprouted and trailed wires like some kind of stainless steel clown wig. The class snickered.
“Stop that immediately!” Mr Graves barked. “Nicholas, the school says I can’t fail this ridiculous contraption without your first demonstrating it, so…”
“Let’s just get it over with,” Nicholas said, resignedly. He slipped the black helmet on his own head.
The box had a large switch, right by the radiation symbol.
Nicholas flicked it.
It started out as a buzzing in his scalp that spread over his entire head. There was nothing more than that for a few seconds, and Nicholas began to wonder if he should have tested this thing on his dad before bringing it to school.
When it started it felt like a cat bumping into his forehead, stronger and stronger, wanting in.
Nicholas held his breath, seized up, then reminded himself to relax. He unbunched his shoulders, breathed out, and let it all happen.
And in they rushed.
It was like having his brain suddenly invaded by interior decorators.
The way he saw things changed. The way he felt about things changed.
He looked out from the black helmet at his classmates. He didn’t think of them the way he used to. They stopped being his friends, or his enemies. They were all a… responsibility. Something that brought him back to this school every day. A weight.
Nicholas no longer viewed the world in terms of an endless stream of school days. He realised there were other things he wanted to be doing with his time… with his life. He hadn’t wanted to teach science in a school. He had wanted to be famous. And rich. And adored.
Nicholas gasped as he realised the helmet really was working. All these thoughts were Mr Graves’s thoughts.
Nicholas felt Mr Graves struggle to clear his mind. He was trying to think about nothing.
He felt Mr Graves struggle to not thinkabout one thing in particular.
The more Mr Graves tried to not think about that one thing, the clearer the memory became.
Nicholas saw Mr Graves’s turning into the driveway of his house last night. It was a ramshackle old single-level place. This surprised Nicholas. He thought that teachers lived in neat and orderly houses, but Mr Graves’s place wasn’t like that at all..
Nicholas was also pleasantly surprised by how much he enjoyed driving.
Nicholas saw the headlights of the car swinging across the overgrown yard, the peeling house paint, and spotlighting the garage door.
Suddenly there was an explosion of light, and space itself buckled, right in front of the car.
A gaunt and pale man was standing there, staring through the windshield at Mr Graves. The man wore an impeccable black suit of a style Nicholas had never seen. Tiny spectacles rested on the bridge of his nose, and he looked around, taking in the details of the place in which he had appeared. Smoke curled up from the shoulders of his pitch black jacket. After a while he nodded to himself, as if understanding or approving of what he saw. Then he turned his eyes back on bloated Mr Graves, sitting behind the steering wheel like a rabbit in headlights.
The thin man walked to the side of the car and leaned down to the driver’s side window. He looked Mr Graves in the eye and said:
“I am you.”
Mr Graves swallowed. “Wh… whh… what?” he spluttered.
“I am you, ten years from now. Here, look at this.” The black-suited man stood upright, opened his jacket, and revealed something looped around his waist. It was the most unusual belt Nicholas had ever seen: a piece of segmented metal, each section joined to the next by a bridge of wires and filaments. It had two buckles, each with a glowing readout. The first buckle read PRESENT. The second read DESTINATION. Beneath each word was a date, glowing green.
The destination date on the man’s belt was APRIL 12TH. Yesterday’s date.
But the ‘present’ date… and this was what made Nicholas’sjaw drop… read NOVEMBER 9TH, ten years in the future.
What did it all mean?
The man leaned down once more to look at Mr Graves. “This belt is the key to everything we… you… have ever wanted. It is a chronoporter,” he said.
Mr Graves stuttered. “A chrono… ?”
“A chronoporter,” the future Mr Graves explained. “It moves you from time to time. It is a time-travel device.”
Mr Graves’s eyes grew wider. “I invented a time machine?”
The future Mr Graves shook his head. “No, you steal it. With it, you get everything you’ve ever wanted.” He leaned snake-like into the car and drove his meaning home. “In ten years, you’ll rule the world.”
Everything seemed to freeze, or go silent. Nicholas couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “So…” the present-day Mr Graves eventually stammered. “Where… where did I get the belt from?”
“That’s a funny story,” his future self said. “This belt, you see, invents itself.”
Mr Graves blinked. “How…?”
The dark-suited man rose to his full height. “Take a good look at it,” he said, opening his suit jacket. “Take in every detail. Try to fathom how it works…”
Nicholas watched Mr Graves peering at the belt, the shiny steel segments, the wires holding it together that must feed information to the two buckles.
The man closed his jacket and leaned down again. “There,” he said. “That should do it.”
“What?” Mr Graves said, confused. “That should do what?”
“We just helped the chronoporter invent itself.”
“I… I don’t understand.”
The future Mr Graves smiled, and the smile was wide and white. “Tomorrow morning one of your students will unveil his science project. He will place a helmet on your head, and he will place another helmet on his own head. With those helmets he will read your mind. He will see all of this. He will see the belt that I’ve just shown you. It will fascinate him.
“He will build it. But because I have traveled here from the future to tell you all of this, it is therefore unavoidable that I will acquire the chronoporter. That means it is undeniable that the belt exists. Once this student of yours fully realises that, the belt will simply leap into existence.” The dark man smiled. “And then you will steal it.”
Mr Graves stuttered. “But… why doesn’t it just leap into existence now, for me?”
The future Mr Graves shrugged. “Because I stole it from Nicholas.”
Inside the helmet, Nicholas gasped to hear the man say his name.
“That’s how it happened for me,” the tall man continued. “So that’s how it will happen for you.” He leaned a little closer, and smiled wider.
“See you soon, Nicholas.”
With a sudden flash, the future Mr Graves vanished.
There was a rushing tingle across Nicholas’s scalp, and he realised he was thinking his own thoughts again. Mr Graves’s memories were no longer pushing their way into his head.
Slowly, Nicholas removed the black helmet, and looked over at Mr Graves.
His teacher had taken the white helmet off, and was writing on a card. When Graves was done he slapped it down, over the radiation symbol.
Mr Graves popped the lid back onto his pen. “Sorry, Nicholas,” he said, chirpily. “It looks like this invention of yours doesn’t work.” He smiled, and Nicholas recognised it immediately. It was the dark man’s smile. The smile Mr Graves will wear ten years from now, as a thinner, older man. The man who ruled the world. “Perhaps you’ll have more success with the next one.”
Nicholas spent the day keeping one eye on Mr Graves. And it looked like Mr Graves spent most of the time keeping one eye on him. Nicholas had never realised how cold those eyes were until he’d seen them nestled in the head of the thinner, crueler-looking Mr Graves from the future.
Both Nicholas and Mr Graves now knew what the future held for them. It was just a case of waiting for it to happen.
Or was it?
Nicholas knew that he had absolutely no idea how to build a time belt. And he couldn’t make something if he didn’t know how, could he?
The science lesson ended once the last project was demonstrated; Fargus got a B. After that came an hour of maths before lunch. The class took out their textbooks and Mr Graves walked them through the week’s new chapter, keeping a knowing eye on Nicholas the whole time. That look seemed to say, I’m going to rule the world, and there’s nothing you can do. Except make it happen.
Nicholas didn’t like any of this. If he was going to invent a time belt, he’d prefer to discover it in his own good… well… time. Not have some creepy future version of Mr Graves pop up and tell him about it. Where was the fun in that? Secondly, what would the world be like if it was run by Mr Graves, of all people?