“You must be my new assistant,” barked the head of wispy white hair that stuck out from the doorway of the office. Dropping the football magazine back onto the coffee table, Linh got to his feet and offered his hand.
“Good morning, professor. So glad to have been given this opportunity. Looking forward to helping in any way I can.”
The head having disappeared back into the office, Linh moved closer to see inside.
“Grab that and follow me down the corridor. First lecture starts in 10 mintues.”
The professor stabbed a grumpy finger at a primitive-looking cuboid device about half a meter high. Black plastic on five of its faces and glass on the other, with a small plastic keyboard at the bottom.
Leaning his wispy-haired head over the cluttered desk, the professor heaved a battered leather satchel out of his chair, almost dislodging sheafs of paper and empty coffee mugs from the desk.
Linh crouched down to get a purchase on the device without straining his back.
“Is it fragile?”
“Only the glass,” replied the professor. “Hurry up.”
Linh backed out of the office and managed to close the door by hooking his toe around it. He wondered if the highly polished brogues he had worn for his wedding were too formal for his role as academic assistant. He followed the professor at a steady pace, craning his neck around the cumbersome device he held to catch glimpses of the floor ahead.
“Well, congratulations on getting this position, Linh. I’ve needed some help around here for a while.”
“Thank you, professor. Eager to get started. What’s the subject of your first lecture today?”
“Introduction to chrono-linguistics.”
As he was following the professor, Linh was glad that the look of disappointment on his face would not be noticeable. Chrono-linguistics was one of the three optional modules which students were required to take to complete their Bachelor of Time-Travel degrees, and it was not popular. The only reason any students chose to take the module was that the other optional modules were – arguably – worse.
The first alternative choice was Feminism and Time Travel. The curriculum for this module was loosely defined, and it had been a popular choice when it was taught by Professor Ochebe, who presented her students with the findings of visits to pre-historic cultures and post-state societies, and asked them to discuss how gender had defined the role of the individual within society. However, Professor Ochebe had retired and been replaced by Professor O’Malley, who spent the whole first lecture justifying why she would be referring to Old Father Time as Old Mother Time from thereon in, and arguing that – as the time machines were vaguely phallic and the space-time continuum inherently female – all time-travel was motivated by lust.
The second alternative was Pre-Post-Post-Modernism which was taught by (and had been invented by) Professor Peu-Concluant. Originally a Professor of Post-Modernism who had earned his tenure by asserting to anyone who would listen that nothing could possibly be known, he had travelled to the next century to see how his field had progressed. He had learnt, upon arriving in the next century, that Post-Post-Modernists now asserted that it was not possible to know whether anything could be known or not. He had returned to what had then been the present day and begun running a series of seminars in which students were presented with the findings of the Post-Post-Modernists, and then challenged as to whether they could reliably believe that Professor Peu-Conluant had in fact travelled to the future to find out that it could not be known whether or not anything could be known. The seminars were mind-numbingly dull, but the upside was that the only way to fail the module was to commit oneself to concluding anything at all.
That left Chrono-Linguistics as the least unpopular choice. The subject matter of the course was a series of pedantic and prescriptive rules about the formal language which had to be used when writing reports of time jumps. It was a frustrating and almost useless course which most undergrads managed without, preferring to run their essays through grammar correction applications.
“I don’t expect you to feign any enthusiasm for Chrono-Linguistics, young man, but the fact that you completed the module was one of the deciding factors in selecting you as my assistant. You should consider yourself lucky.”
“Oh, I do, professor. I absolutely do.”
Suddenly, Linh began to laugh.
“What is it?” grunted the professor, stopping with his hand on the door-handle of the lecture theatre.
Linh reddened slightly. “Oh it’s nothing really. It’s just that I was saying to my wife this morning, how I’ve been so lucky to get this position, but I was called here for my first day at work just as the World Cup is starting. Of course she had no sympathy.”
Linh could have sworn he saw a smile flicker past the professor’s face as he pushed the door handle down and entered.
“Who are you supporting?” asked the professor as he marched over to the podium and grasped a confused bundle of notes from the leather briefcase.
“England. Their first match kicks off at 9:30. Against the Californian Emirates.”
“Well, Linh. Sometimes we have to make sacrifices for the sake of our work,” the professor mumbled, scanning his notes through narrowed eyes.
“Good morning, class. Welcome to the first of a twelve-part series on Chrono Linguistics in which we will spend most of our time covering the language prescribed for writing reports of time jumps.”
The professor had elected not to speak into the microphone as there were only six students present in the vast auditorium.
“Before we get started, I’d just like to remind you that, merely by attending this lecture, you have not committed yourselves to participating in the entire course. However, if you do have a last-minute change of heart and decide to change to either Feminism and Time-Travel or Pre-Post-Post-Modernism, you will have to make your way to the Douglas Adams building, where the first lectures will begin in about half an hour.”
He paused and took a moment to eyeball each of the students in turn, as if to make sure that this information had sunk in. “If you decide to leave, I will not take offence. The modules you decide to complete your degree with are your choice, and I do not believe your choices reflect my teaching style.” He paused again.
He pushed a button on the podium and a large screen behind him lit up, showing a table cluttered with text.
“Let’s get started then,” he said. “The English language has two tenses; the present and the past, but for our purposes we will also be counting the future as another tense so lets say three. There are four combinations of aspect that are possible with each tense. Simple, progressive, perfect, and perfect progressive. For example, the past progressive…”
Linh was sitting at the side of the stage and there didn’t seem to be anything for him to do at that moment. As the professor listed the tenses and aspects, Linh’s mind wandered back to the World Cup. He knew that England had a stronger team than California, but then this World Cup was being hosted by Phobos, where, despite grav-generators, the ball would still be a little lighter than on Earth. All of England’s players played in Earth Leagues, whereas a few of California’s players plied their trade on lunar leagues and would be accustomed to simulated gravity. The odds were still with England, but if California could find a way to use the weaker, synthetic gravity to their advantage…
“Okay, so we understand how tenses and aspects work. Now, here’s where time travel comes in. Imagine I make a time jump in January, and I jump to March. I see Tom punch Harry. Then in February I want to talk about what happened during the time jump. What tense should I use? Hands up if you think past tense? Four. Okay. Hands up if you think future tense? One. And one undecided. Well, in a way you’re right to be undecided because there really isn’t a right answer. Or at least there wasn’t until Professor Marcy came up with the Reformed Grammar of Time Travel.”
The professor pushed the button on the podium again and another table appeared on the screen. Compared to the previous table, this one had twice the number of boxes, and text half the size. The students leant forward in their chairs and squinted in an effort to read the text.
“Professor Marcy suggested additions to the tenses and aspects we already use, in order to make discussion of time travel clearer. Now, I see a lot of you wincing at the table I put up. The rules aren’t that difficult to follow. Basically, you put the tense of our timeline first, and the tense of the timeline jumped to – that is, the target time – second. So in our example, I would say, I saw-will see Tom punched-will punch Harry.”
Linh chanced a look at the students. Four of them looked at the professor with their mouths slightly agape, as though they had realised they had accidentally attended a lecture which was being delivered in Swahili and were wondering if it would be presumptive to ask for an English translation.
As the professor paused to shuffle his notes, the two other students whispered to each other, then slipped their notebooks into their bags and quietly stood up. The professor’s eye was caught by their movement as they edged away from their seats.
“Not for you, eh?”
“We’re sorry, professor. It’s just that… Uhm… Feminism is something we feel-“
“No problem,” he cut in. “Cross the quad. Left at the all-faith prayer room. That’s the Douglas Adams building.”
He addressed the remaining four students. “Okay. So who wants to be brave and tell me when the first time-travel jump was. I mean, the first from our chronology. Okay you.”
The student stood and spoke confidently.
“It was made in 2387. By James Fielding.”
“Correct,” said the professor. “And when and where did he go?”
“Dallas, 1963,” said the student, apparently glad to be such a success in the class.
“Great. And what did he find out?”
“He saw that it wasn’t Lee Harvey… Uhm.”
The professor was tapping the screen where the table was projected.
The professor shook his head.
The professor shook his head again.
“He saw-had seen…” The professor nodded, “that it wasn’t didn’t… uhm okay… that it done-wasn’t… that it didn’t-hadn’t been Lee Harvey Oswald who fired-had fired the shot.”
“Good!” said the professor. The student looked flattened as he sat back down.
“You see. It’s not that hard, is it?”
“I don’t know, professor.” The student’s confidence had deflated. “It, uhm… I’m not sure if this course is for me.”
“Well I don’t want to influence you.”
“Maybe I should take Pre-Post-Post-Modernism instead. I’m not sure.”
“Well.” The professor spoke softly. “If being unsure is your thing, then maybe you should.”
The student took a while to understand this, but then began to nod. He slid his notebook into his rucksack and stood up to leave. Two other students quickly packed their books and stood up with him.
“We aren’t sure either, so we’re going to try Pre-Post-Post-Modernism too,” said the student closest to the door.
“Yeah. Sorry, professor,” the other student said. “This seems very advanced. I’m going to try Pre-Post-Post-Modernism. How hard can it be?”
“You won’t find the answer to that,” the professor said as they left, mostly for his own benefit, “or any other question for that matter.”
He turned to the one remaining student.
“And then there was one.”
The student blushed a little.
“Well you obviously have more interest in Chrono-Linguistics than those others so, tell me, what’s your area of interest? What are you planning to write your thesis on?”
The student fidgeted with his pen, self-conscious at being alone with the professor and his assistant.
“I thought I might go back to the Chernobyl Power Plant in 1986, you know? Hide next to the control room at the plant and observe what went wrong with the safety test to trigger the disaster. See if what I observe matches the historical record.”
“Okay, let’s try that again.” The professor moved back to the screen and tapped the boxes on the right.
The student swallowed nervously.
“I… uhm…would like to travel to Chernobyl in 1986. I will-would have hidden near the control room and I’ll observed what is going to gone wrong with the safety test which is going to had triggered the disaster.”
“Excellent!” said the professor. “Excellent grammar that is. The idea is no use I’m afraid.”
“Seriously?” The student slumped in his seat.
“Yes. You know Professor Sokolov? He went back there as part of his Doctorate research. He did-done hid in the control room and did-done see-sawed what happened. Unfortunately, he set the return time a little late. Have you noticed how this side of his face is…” The professor grimaced and gestured vaguely toward his cheek. “Yes, well that’s because the radiation did-done started leaking while he still done-was there.”
The student slumped his jaw onto the palm of his hand.
“What’s the point?” he said. “I mean, of time travel. Everything’s been done, you’re not allowed to change anything, you have to describe what you couldn’t change in this weird language… It just seems so meaningless.”
“Well if that’s how you feel…” the professor spoke softly, examining his finger-nails, “and again, I don’t want to influence you, but if you really feel it’s all meaningless, then there’s a Professor Peu-Concluant just starting a module in the Douglas Adams building who gives out pretty good grades for that line of thinking.”
The student exhaled as he sat up. He slung his bag onto his shoulder.
“I feel really bad about this, Prof. I mean leaving you with no students at all. We’ve really wasted your time this morning.”
The professor smiled, benevolently. “Don’t mention it, young man.”
The student gave a chuckle.
“It’s ironic, isn’t it? If one of us had travelled forwards to this moment, we could-will have seen that this lecture would end up being cancelled, and you wouldn’t done-have wasted your time.”
“That is the irony,” remarked the professor. “But you’re not qualified to initiate your own jumps until you have your bachelor’s degree, so you couldn’t really have done anything.”
The student left.
As soon as the door closed behind the student, the professor clicked his fingers.
“Linh!” he barked. “Bring that thing I asked you to carry over here and put it on the edge of the stage. There should be a cable attached. Plug that into the socket at the base of the podium.”
Linh was shocked into action by the abruptness of the professor’s orders. As he plugged the cable into the socket, the Professor seated himself in one of the students’ seats, looking towards the stage.
“The other way round, Linh. The glass side facing towards me.”
Linh swivelled the cube on its base so that the glass faced the professor, who was unbuttoning his collar and yanking down his tie.
“Now, you see the control panel at the bottom? Press button number three.”
As Linh did so, a green glow instantly came from the glass, and a compressed voice from beneath what was now obviously a screen.
…Phobos municipal stadium for the first match of this world cup. Will it be England or the Californian Emirates who are able to make a winning start…
As shocked as he was to see the broadcast coming from such a primitive object, he was more shocked still when he saw, out of the corner of his eye, the professor’s feet near to the back wall of the auditorium. Lifting his head to confirm what his peripheral vision had shown him, he saw that, sure enough, the professor seemed to have instantaneously leapt from the seat behind him to the back of the stage.
As Linh looked up, he saw that the professor was not looking at him but over his shoulder.
“So, is it will-have worked?”
Linh turned to see who the professor was talking to, only to see that the professor was also sitting in the student’s seat again.
“It has,” said the seated professor.
“Is it will be the worst lecture ever?” asked the professor standing on the stage.
”Stultifying,” replied the seated professor.
“Good. Hope Yai enjoy the game.”
And in an instant, the standing professor vanished.
Linh turned his head from where the standing professor had been to where the seated professor still was, his brow furrowed in bewilderment.
“Was that you?”
“Yes,” replied the professor. “Earlier, I travelled to the present to see if my lecture was-is bad enough to get the students to leave.”
Linh stood there, blinking.
“Why?” asked Linh.
“So I can watch the football.”
Linh nodded his head as he processed the information.
“Why did he call you Yai?”
“Yai is an amalgamation of you and I, and it’s the proper pronoun to use when addressing oneself during a time-jump. Could you move so I can see the screen?”
Linh shifted sideways and then made his way towards the professor and sat down in the adjacent seat. For a moment, the only sound was the commentary coming from the cube, which Linh knew to be the artificial intelligence of a football punditry supercomputer, which used language generation software and thousands of hours of recordings of John Motson’s voice to communicate its insight to viewers.
Linh wasn’t sure whether the curmudgeonly professor was open to small talk about the game or not. He gave a polite cough.
“I reckon England should do well this time. If they make it out of this group they’ll probably get the Democratic People’s Republic of Catalonia, but they’re not as strong as they used to be.”
“No,” said the professor. “They’ll cruise through the group stage, and then get knocked out on penalties by the Former German Republic of Bavaria.”
“Oh,” said Linh.
They watched in silence for another moment.
“Hang on,” said Linh, “Are you sure you used the correct grammar there?”
“What?” asked the professor, irritably.
“I mean, if you’ve been to the future and have-will seen that England went-will go out on penalties to Bavaria-“
“I haven’t will-see any such thing.”
“How do you know England will lose on penalties then?” asked Linh.
The professor grunted and crossed his arms.
“They always do,” he muttered.