The passing of time is a strange thing.
“Uncle Mike’s died,” mom told me over the phone.
I was devastated, but not shocked. My great uncle Mike had been an old man, very old indeed. He was in his mid-nineties when he died.
I’d only ever met him when I was a kid, so my memory of the man wasn’t too clear. When my mom called me to give me the news of his death, I hadn’t seen him in almost a decade.
That’s the reason I was so surprised to find that the old man had left something for me. It was an old, rusty metal box.
I carefully opened the lid. I’m not going to lie, I hoped he’d left me something interesting, knowing he was quite a collector. What I was greeted with was an assortment of strange items though.
The first was a black and white photograph of two people, dating back to the early 30s. One of them I assumed must’ve been my great uncle in young years. The man next to him was quite a bit older. He had short dark hair and a scar on the left side of his face. Probably his father or another relative, I thought. I put the picture aside after a few moments.
The next one was a simple postcard. It was a typical one from the German Democratic Republic, depicting the World Clock in Berlin. When I checked the back the only thing written on it was the name ‘Struganow.’
“Why is this postcard in here?” I wondered.
The other items all seemed to be products of the same period. One was an old portable radio, one an old egg whisk that appeared to have been part of a hand blender and there were a few metal badges. Why was this stuff in here? Was it some sort of elaborate joke? I mean, an egg whisk for Christ’s sake.
Uncle Mike even told me he’d never been a big fan of the era and was more than happy when German reunited.
The last item I found stored away below the rest was an old map. When I checked the print date, it was from the late years of the Weimar Republic. This made even less sense.
I took everything out of the box and searched for a note that would explain the weird collection. I found nothing.
When I opened the map, I saw that it was a map of his old home area or better the electoral district it used to belong to. I scanned it halfheartedly and found a few marks on it. They were all located on an empty patch of land. The longer I stared at it, the more frustrated I became. This was silly. I shook my head and put everything back in the box.
I kept the box nonetheless. Not because I thought any of the contests were particularly interesting, but as a sort of memorabilia of my late uncle. For years the box was merely stowed away on my shelf collecting dust.
I’d all but forgotten about its content when I got to know professor Neumann years later. By the time I was studying physics at university. Professor Neumann was a brilliant man who wasn’t shy of interacting with his students. Countless times he and a small group of students, including me sat together at our cafeteria.
Professor Neumann used to work as a researcher for the GDR and only started teaching after the reunion. Most of us laughed a bit when he mentioned the period, and a few asked what he’d been doing at the time. Not like the GDR made any bound breaking discoveries or developments.
The old man only smiled at that.
“We weren’t as useless as you might think, Markus,” he said to me. “If we put our minds together, we were still able to do astonishing feats. The problem was that we never got enough funding. We were always stuck working with second or third-grade equipment. Everything else the Russians took for themselves.”
“All for the motherland,” he said grimacing.
It was on another evening that I got together with the old man. He’d finished his last lecture for the day, and I’d approached him about one of the problems he’d discussed. While we walked to his office, he carefully reiterated things to me. Soon enough, he trailed off and started talking about other things. As we sat in his office, we soon got to talk about the GDR again. It seemed to be one of his favorite topics.
He’d just told me a story about Berlin and the World Clock when I suddenly remembered the odd box my uncle had left me.
Half joking I told him about the weird metal box on my shelf and the assortment of strange GDR things inside. The man laughed at first, but when I mentioned the items, he looked up, a serious look on his face.
“Wait, hold on a second, what items did you say your uncle had left in there?”
“It’s been so long. I’m not sure, there was a postcard, a portable radio a few metal badges oh and of course a freaking egg whisk. No clue what’s up with that.”
“An egg whisk?”
“Now, it might be nothing, but would you mind bringing those and showing them to me?”
“Well, sure, no problem. It’s only collecting dust anyways, but why do you want to see them?”
The man shook his head.
“It’s probably nothing, I’ve just got this stupid idea on my mind that’s all.”
I looked at him a bit confused, but then I shrugged and let it slide. Who knows, maybe he collects odd things as well. After all, he really seems to be into the GDR era and all that.
It was a few days later that I paid the professor another visit to his office. He looked up, surprised to see me, but welcomed me inside.
“So, what brings you here? Is it about that assignment for theoretical physics?”
“I brought the box. You said you wanted to see the stuff my uncle collected, right?”
In an instant, the man changed from half asleep to excited.
“Well, then don’t let me wait, let me see, let me see!”
I was yet again a bit confused by his reaction and handed him the box.
He opened the lid and then scanned the assortment of things inside. He opened up the map scanning the area and the marks curiously before he put it back down. After a while, his eyes grew wide.
“It can’t be,” he mumbled as he took out the postcard.
“My god.” He inhaled sharply, put his hand to his mouth and shook his head again and again.
“Struganow,” he whispered.
“What is it, professor?”
The man slowly looked up, almost as if he’d forgotten that I was even in the room. For a moment he looked at me but didn’t say a word.
“Hold on, I’ve got to look something up. Maybe he’s still…” The rest was inaudible as the man mumbled again. He seemed to be all over the place in his excitement because of… something.
I waited in my chair as the professor started to go through his notebooks. He picked up the phone in his office and quickly dialed a number. It was only moments later that he put it back down, cursing under his breath.
“Professor? What’s going on?”
Finally, the man seemed to have calmed down a bit and took a seat in his chair again. The postcard was still laying in front of him.
“Back in the day, when I worked as a researcher, we did a few, well, strange experiments you could say. It might sound like science-fiction to you, but during the Cold War Russia was interested in all sorts of weird things. One of them was time travel.”
I looked up and couldn’t help but laugh a bit.
“See, that’s exactly the reaction I’d expected. Now don’t get me wrong, I’d react exactly like you if I hadn’t worked on that project back then.”
“Alright, hold on, are you telling me you worked on a freaking time machine for the Soviets back in the day?”
A smile showed on the professor’s face.
“Exactly. But as you can imagine, it never worked. Well, at least that’s what everyone believed, but this here, these objects, I think it’s the ones we used in the later experiments.”
What the hell was he talking about? This had to be a joke. I’d never heard the man pull one before, but there was no other way. I started laughing.
“You almost got me there, professor, almost.”
“No,” he started shaking his head, “don’t you get it? If these things are really… then we have proof! I’ve got to tell Ivan I’ve got to show him. My god, if it really…”
I stared at the man. This was both the lamest and the most drawn-out attempt of a joke I’d ever seen.
The professor started to search through his many notebooks and documents again. Finally, he seemed to have found what he was looking for.
“I knew I had it written down somewhere,” he said grinning.
“What’s that now?”
“Say, Markus, do you want to find out where those items in your box came from?”
It was a few days later that I found myself in a car with Professor Neumann. We were on the way to his old research laboratory, the last address of his colleague Ivan Nikolayev.”
“I’m really not sure if we’re going to find anything there, I’m sure he’s returned to Russia by now, but still,” the professor said.
I couldn’t believe that I went through with this whole thing. I’d planned to spend the weekend with friends, and now I found myself on a road trip with my university professor. Worse even, it was to figure out if his freaking time machine had worked of all things. It was ridiculous.
During the four-hour long car ride, Professor Neumann explained a lot of things to me. He almost talked the entire time. He went on about politics during the time of his and Ivan’s experiments. Moscow back then tried to desperately get ahead of America.
“Our project wasn’t the only one of its kind. They had a lot of these weird, secret projects, but I guess none of them ever brought them any results. Well, maybe one of them did after all. Too bad it’s a bit too late for these old Soviets.”
At other times he talked about the project. He tried to explain the theoretical background to me, but most of it went way over my head. By the time I was in my third semester of physics. I knew most of the terms he referred to but didn’t understand a thing about the principles he and Ivan employed. I just drove my car, dumbfounded, yet fascinated. Of course, I wasn’t convinced any of this was real.
When we finally arrived at the town, I could tell that the reunion hadn’t been kind to it. Sure there were some modern buildings, but most were the typical, old Soviet ones. Many looked neglected and most likely hadn’t been renovated in decades. Sure there was a new shopping mall in the center of town, but the rest felt like a relic of old times.
The address the old man had written down led us to a huge, old building complex. The professor’s eyes lit up when he saw the place.
“My god, it’s still standing,” he said in a low voice.
After I’d parked the car, we made our way towards the front entrance. The place really was huge, almost gigantic. By now though, it looked almost completely abandoned. Back in the day, the property seemed to have been protected by a metal fence, but now it stood wide open.
While I looked in awe at the size of the building, the professor hurried along towards the front entrance. I almost had to run to keep up with the old man.
“Can’t believe they left it like that, I was sure they’d torn it all down by now,” he said as he stepped to the front door.
I didn’t feel too happy about stepping inside with all the ‘No Trespassing’ signs around.
As soon as the professor pushed the door open some sort of alarm started to ring. I cursed out loud and was about to run off when it stopped as soon as it had begun.
A minute later a man as old as the professor came towards the door.
“Who the hell are you? Are you blind? Can’t you read the signs?” the man cursed at us in a heavy Russian accent. He broke up when his eyes focused on the professor.
“As good made him, old friend. What are you still doing here? I’d have thought you’d run back to Mother Russia a long time ago.”
Both of them started to laugh and went forward to hug each other. I felt a bit awkward standing next to them.
“Well, what brings you here? I’m sure you’re not just here to say hello, right?”
“My god, you’re right Ivan! I’m here because of the machine. It might have worked after all!”
“What are you… wait you mean, THAT machine? What the hell are you talking about? We tried all the time, I tried, but it never-”
“There might be prove! Markus, you did bring the box like I told you, didn’t you?”
I nodded. Yet again I felt a bit awkward as both of them stared at me with wide eyes.
“Hold on, yes, here it is.” The moment I’d taken it out of my backpack the professor almost ripped it from my hands.
He opened it quickly and took out the postcard handing it to his friend.
His reaction was exactly the same as the professor’s had been a few days ago. His eyes grew wide, his mouth opened and he looked from the professor to me and back to the professor.
“Struganow,” Ivan said. His hands were shaking as he looked down at the postcard once more. His shock lasted for only a few moments though, before it was replaced by excitement.
He put the postcard back and took a look at each of the other items individually. At last, he took hold of the old portable radio.
“Come on Sebastian, come on, we’ve got to see if it’s true, you too young man, come on!”
Without waiting for an answer, the man rushed off into the complex. We followed him down a long corridor, then another one and then through a vast empty warehouse.
“We are we going, professor?” I asked in a low voice.
“To my office, of course! That’s where I’ve got all my notes!” Ivan yelled back at us.
I wondered if it was a good idea to follow this strange guy along. God knows, he was acting weird. Who knows, maybe he’d snapped long ago and tried to lure us god knows where. When I looked over at the professor though, his face showed no doubt at all. He followed Ivan along with a bright smile on his face.
Soon enough Ivan announced that we’d made it. He pushed open the door we stepped into a barren looking office room. There was an old computer on a desk, a bookshelf and countless others filled with files and old data mediums.
“I can’t believe it, it’s still all here.” the professor reminisced.
“Well of course it is. After you left, someone had to take care of the place, you know.”
The professor laughed at that. “Well, I guess some things never change.”
Ivan put down the radio on his desk and started to search through the shelves.
“Well now, where did I put it… it should be..,. wait no, is it over there?”
I stood at the doorframe and watched the strange spectacle. Minutes passed as the strange Russian man searched through his office.
“Here it is!” he finally exclaimed. “Look at this Sebastian!”
“It can’t be, is this-?”
“It’s the same! The same radio!”
“What’s so great about those radios? I bet there are hundreds of thousands of them out there,” I mumbled.
“No, young man! You don’t know what I’m… just come over here! See that?” he asked as he pointed at a couple of Russian letters carved into the plastic of his radio.
“Now look at that!”
With that, he picked up the one from my uncle’s box. He turned it around a few times before he found what he’d been looking for. It was the exact same carvings at the exact same place.
The professor next to me inhaled sharply. “So it really did work after all.”
While the professor stared in awe at the two radios, I stood there dumbfounded. What the hell was going on? Anyone could’ve carved the same letters into two freaking radios. What the hell’s the-
“My god, this is it! This proves it!”
I stared at Ivan who’d opened up the old man that was at the bottom of the box.
“Do you see this, young man!?” he asked, holding up the map, almost pushing it into my face. I had to shove it aside to even be able to answer the man.
“Yes, I see it, it’s a freaking map, I’ve seen it before it was in my-”
“No, pah, that’s not what I’m talking about,” he started to fidget around with it, turning a bit, “what I mean is,” again he turned it, this time to the left, “right here!”
It took me a bit to see it, but I finally saw that there were a few notes that covered the map below the legend. They were in old German handwriting and most likely by my uncle. The professor was right next to me in an instant and almost shoved me aside to read them.
“Marked all the spots in which the strange items appeared. So far they only turned up on the meadow near town.”
Don’t tell me…
“Our machine actually worked, Ivan. I can’t believe it. This is…”
The professor broke up, and I could see a hint of tears in his eyes.
“All those years, I thought it was all…” he broke up again.
“Okay, you know what I’ve got no clue what the hell you’re talking about. Mr. Nikolayev, Professor, could you tell me what’s going on? Don’t tell me it’s all about this time machine thing.”
“Exactly, young man!”
How the hell had I ended up right in the middle of this lousy excuse of a science-fiction movie.
“Now look at this Sebastian,” I heard Ivan say as he brought out another handful of items.
The two of them went through my uncle’s box, comparing them to the ones inside. They were oohing and awing at the contents, laughing in excitement.
“Come here, young man. You see this?”
With that, Ivan pulled me aside and opened up one of the various files stored away on his shelves. Each page showed detailed information about the items that, as Ivan called it, had been ‘sent back in time.’ There was an entry about everything inside of the box except for the photograph.
I turned page after page, reading a bit here and there, but it was all so outlandish. There was even an entry about a freaking cat.
“Okay,” I turned to Ivan, “so you’re telling me that all those items my uncle collected and left to me in this box were sent back in time by you? Seriously?”
Ivan grinned. “You want to see it?”
“The machine of course!”
“It’s still operational, Ivan?” the professor called out.
“Of course! Come along, come along!” With that, he led us out into the complex again. This time on a path that went from one hallway to the next, until we descended into a huge basement area.
Countless gigantic computers lined the walls. There was a terminal in the center of the room and in front of it was a metal platform. The platform was about two meters in diameter and surrounded by bizarre machinery.
“I can’t believe it, Ivan! After all those years, but, but those are…”
“Well old friend, you think I’ve been doing nothing all those years?”
The professor was out of it and rushed into the room to check out the machinery and the many computers.
“So that’s your ‘time machine?” I asked with not just a bit of sarcasm. The whole thing looked like a freaking prop from a movie.
Ivan though nodded.
“And you’re telling me this thing here can send things back in time? Yeah right, I bite, how is this thing even supposed to work?”
Ivan started telling me that the whole project began back in the seventies. Researching in time travel had been going on for some time, he said, but the first practical test site was constructed right here. At least the first one that was bigger than some basement.
The idea, the professor, chimed in, was much more complicated than sending items back in time. The initial test though never showed any success. The project was cut from funding and Moscow abandoned the idea.
“And those initial tests were what?” I asked in a half-serious voice.
They explained that it was a simple manipulation of space and time. They tried to send items to a different place at first, teleportation so to say. Other tests included sending them a few minutes into the future, but nothing ever happened. The items were left on the platform and didn’t disappear or anything.
“What we didn’t know, what we didn’t even take into consideration,” Ivan mumbled on as he walked through the room, “was that instead of actually sending the item itself, the machine would create an exact copy of it at a certain point in time. And that point, young man, was exactly when your uncle stumbled upon them and marked his findings on the very map you brought with you.”
“What about the cat? There was a file about a cat.”
“Struganow,” the professor said in a sad voice.
“It was a cat,” he began, “that had lingered around the complex. Soon some of the personnel adopted the little guy. During the experiments, we also tried organic material and eventually… live samples. I don’t know what must’ve ridden us, but we were desperate, so someday, someone suggested we should use Struganow. The result was… The poor thing was turned inside out. We tried with mice and other rodents we found, but the result was always the same: Excruciating death.”
“There was a fundamental mistake in our calculations,” Ivan elaborated. “Once we’d discovered it, it was clear that our process wouldn’t work with a living organism. It was not possible, never could be.”
Once the man had finished, I couldn’t help but smile.
“Alright, that’s a fine story, really, quite fine. Did you ever think of becoming a writer Mr. Nikolayev?”
For the first time, Ivan’s face showed clear signs of anger and frustration.
“You still don’t believe me? With all this here?”
“This machine could be anything! God knows it might not even do anything at all! For all I know those are just props from some old movie.”
“You want to try it?” the man suddenly asked, with a big grin on his face.
“Wait, Ivan, it’s still working? The funding was cut, and the project wasn’t abandoned, so how?” the professor cut in.
“Abandoned by everyone but me! Everyone walked away, even you, old friend, but I stayed. I continued this research for the past three decades. There still people who know about this project, people interested in. People with more than enough money.”
“Well then, turn it on,” I said. “But tell me one thing, if the machine just sends back a copy in time, how the hell are we supposed to know if it really works?”
“What about this?” Ivan said and took out a ballpoint pen made of metal and placed it in the middle of the platform.
I didn’t get it. How the hell would he be even able to prove that anything happened at all? Then it hit me. I understood what he was trying to do. All the other items had supposedly been found by my uncle. So if he’d actually sent back this pen, it had to be found too, right?
While I thought about this, Ivan was already tinkering with the computer terminal.
“Just have to make a few slight adjustments here… change this setting… input a few things… change that as well and… Start!”
The machinery around the platform began to buzz with activity. They all started to glow before light engulfed the platform. The pen began to shine more and more intensely before the room was flooded by a flash of light. After that, the room fell into darkness. It took a minute before the lights came back on.
The pan was still there on the platform. All that had changed was that it was still slightly glowing. Ivan went forward to pick it up.
“Well then, let’s see if it worked,” Ivan said to the professor and me before he rushed from the room to get back to his office.
On the way there I looked at my phone and sighed at myself for wasting my weekend out here. What the hell was I even doing? Why was I here? There was no way any of this was real. This crazy Russian must’ve lost his mind, being holed up here for the past thirty years. What about Professor Neumann though, did he actually believe Ivan? Shit, this was all way too weird.
Once we’d made it back to the office, the three of us took a look at the box.
I froze. Right there between all the other items was now a ballpoint pen. As I looked at it, I felt a slight pain in my head, and I was suddenly very unsure about it. I couldn’t tell anymore if this thing had been there all along.
Ivan next to me burst out in jubilation. He screamed up in excitement and actually jumped into the air.
“This hasn’t been here before. There’s no way! I’m positive about it! See, Sebastian, see the pen,” he turned to the professor. “I bought it back in the eighties, had it made specifically for me, remember?”
The professor nodded.
“Well, young man,” he turned to me, “tell me, how could your uncle have found this pen back in the day if it was made right before the fall of the Berlin Wall?”
I said nothing. Ivan though stepped closer to me and showed me another thing. On the pen was a beautiful engraving of Russian letters.
“For Ivan Nikolayev,” the professor read.
I didn’t know what to say. I stared at the box and at Ivan.
“We’ve got no time to lose, Sebastian,” he urged on the professor.
With that, the two of them carefully placed the content of box on the office desk to catalog them. When Ivan found the old photograph though, he eyed it for a moment, before he handed it to me.
“A personal item?”
“Yeah, a picture of my great uncle and a relative,” I blurted out before I took it.
For a few minutes, I watched the two of them, before I spoke up and told them I had enough. This whole thing had been going on for way too long.
“I get it, Mr. Nikolayev, you tricked me, didn’t you? You snuck a second pen into the box while I wasn’t watching, right? There’s no other way, your delusions-”
“And of course the common mind can’t grasp it,” the man scoffed at me.
At this remark, I started laughing. “You’re insane. Being holed up here has driven you mad. Time travel, unbelievable,” with that I walked out of the office.
“Can’t believe I came here,” I said out loud.
I’d barely taken a few steps out into the corridor when Professor Neumann came after me.
“Markus, don’t be rash, don’t you see what we’re doing here? You saw it, didn’t you?”
“All I can see is a crazy Russian who’s made up stories about time travel, nothing else. I’m going to be in the car professor, but I really just want to drive off and forget about this whole thing.”
“Well, then go, I’ve got things to discuss with Ivan. I’m going to get back later by train. But thank you, you’ve got no idea, this box, those items,” he broke up shaking his head.
Instead, he gave me a quick hug before he told me to have a safe trip back.
When I finally drove off, I couldn’t believe the day I’d had. I cursed for letting myself being shoehorned into this whole damned trip.
This whole thing happened more than ten years ago. By now the story is nothing more than a funny anecdote that I tell friends and colleagues. It’s nothing but a ‘hey this weird little thing happened to me back in the day.’
After that day Professor Neumann never returned to the university though. After our visit with Ivan Nikolayev, the man quit his teaching job. We were told he started working elsewhere. It was never mentioned where exactly, but I was sure I knew.
My guess was confirmed a few months ago when a letter arrived. Professor Neumann wrote to me to tell me that he was still working on the same project. By now though, Ivan had died, and the professor himself was much too old to keep up with it. He mentioned that he was starting a new research team and wanted me to be part of it. You see, by now I’ve got my masters in theoretical physics and made a bit of a name for myself as a researcher.
I never answered his letter that is until today.
I recently moved into a new apartment. It was by sheer accident that I stumbled upon the old photograph of Uncle Mike his supposed relative.
When I looked at it today though, I couldn’t help but shiver.
People can change a lot in a decade. A lot of things can happen. I’ve put on a bit of weight, and I now have much shorter hair than I used to. There’s one particular thing though. A few years ago, I got into a car accident. It was quite severe and left me with a permanent scar on my face. On the left side of my face.
When I stared at the old photograph today and the man by my Uncles’ side, my head started to spin.
The man in the picture has the same scar as me, but the more I look at him, the more things I notice. He has the same short hair as me and the same puffy face. I was sweating by now. This man in the picture… it couldn’t be, could it?
I quickly went through all my paperwork and found the letter by Professor Neumann. I’d never thrown it away yet for some reason. I reread it, this time more carefully. The same project he said. Was he still working on that damned teleportation device, no that ‘time machine’? What if the thing had actually been working all along?
For hours I told myself to forget about it and to get rid of both the letter and the photograph. Yet, I can’t seem to do so.
It’s as if something is stopping me from doing so. It’s almost as if a mysterious power is making decisions for me and I can’t do anything about it. The more I look at the photograph and its many implications, I feel that my path is already predestined. There never was a different one, was there?
I guess the passing of time is indeed a very strange thing.
Now that I’m finished typing this all out, it’s time to go through with it. It’s time to give old Professor Neumann a call.