“The Beck Conjecture” by David Barber


A quiet evening in the Chronos Tavern.

“You know this James Beck?” asked the Networker, raising the scope to his good eye. He came from the failing end of the Anglophone Empire – what the future called our centuries – and even spoke a blurred kind of English that needed no box of tricks to translate.

I tried scoping once. Mathematical drugs that overload the brain’s reality routines, a brief nirvana whiteout.

A slow evening, but there’s always busy-work behind a bar. I was back just as the Networker surfaced again, blinking.

“Don’t know the name, no.”

It was the reason the Networker was here. “You never wonder who invented time travel?”

“Some faceless team of engineers,” I supposed. Anonymous as the masons who built medieval cathedrals.

“Not the wormhole.” He dismissed the whole Canaveral Timeport with a wave of his hand. “Mean the Beck Conjecture.”

His left eye was the camera. I could end up as background color in some travelogue. Gods, mating rites, democracy, that sort of thing.

“James Beck. One of your floor-wipers.”

As I understood his story, some mathematical theologian unearthed a document from our time called the Beck Conjecture, which was crucial for temporal theory. But the whole edifice now rested like a pencil on its end, because it was a time traveler that mentioned it to this Beck fellow in the first place. A causal anomaly no one cared to explain.

“And you’re here to record that?”

“Off-limits,” he said. “But permission to record when he comes in to celebrate.”

He gave me a keen glance. “History only mentions Beck twice,” he mused. “And you’re there both times.”

This is the annoying hierarchy amongst time travelers, based on knowledge of the other’s future. Knowledge is power. Knowledge is smugness.

The Networker’s attention swiveled like a turret. A young man in white-and-orange coveralls settled into the booth near the door. Yes, one of the Timeport workers who drank coffee at end of shift. This time he wanted a pitcher of beer.

“Don’t expect you’ll remember,” he explained. “But it all started here.” He was blessed with a slight stammer and an earnest gaze.

“Sure I remember. You and that Angel used up all my napkins.”

He grinned. “Acta Mathematica are going to publish the Beck Conjecture.”

He tried to explain, and I nodded a lot. It was late when he left and he shook hands with everybody.

“Nice fellow. Does he get the Nobel prize or something?”

“Dies in a traffic accident tonight,” the Networker shrugged. “Humans shouldn’t be allowed to drive.”

James Beck didn’t understand why I dragged him out of his old Beetle and made him sit at the bar while I called a cab. After I saw him off safely, I went looking for the Networker.

“You’re a cold bastard. You sat there filming him. You let me serve him drinks. What happens now? Have I messed up history?”

I’ve learned since that events are fixed, though we must still conspire to make them so. This was the night a truck hit James Beck’s cab somewhere out along the Space Coast.


In 1969, the Canaveral Timeport was still a novelty, and so was the Chronos Tavern; our primitive rocketry had gone the way of zeppelins, but it was an age when everything seemed possible.

The Chronos opened early for Timeport workers changing shift. This bunch were janitors in their white-with-orange-trim coveralls, letting coffee go cold as they argued Calabi-Yau manifolds; our brightest and best mopping floors for a glimpse of the future.

Only two time travelers sat at the bar. The one with a blue tattoo across his brow held his beer to the light.

“Excreted by micro-organisms you say?” He had a queasy fascination with the drinks on offer. “But they are dead now? The ethanol kills them?”

He puzzled over a sheet of lined paper torn from a pad. The overweight barman polishing a glass said it looked like a phone number.

The Angel at the bar had to interfere. Its kind ran the Timeport. It explained at great length about unique identities in communication systems, how this age used low-level numerical codes to identify individuals. It was rumored that where Angels come from, uptime, they’d geneered out emotions to enhance data processing.

“Also a prime,” it added as an afterthought.

A gaggle of orange-and-whites were just leaving, one of them returning mugs to the bar. They were regulars and the barman liked them. He was smiling as he went to the register.

Waiting for his change, the young man speculated how anyone could know it was a prime. His slight stammer disappeared when he talked maths. “After all, a random ten digit number.”

“You would not understand,” the Angel announced.

The serious young man was a theoretical physicist and bright even compared with his colleagues. Understanding had always come easily to him. And across the ages it seems clever people cannot resist explaining things. Soon they were covering napkins with gibberish.

The other traveler was about to leave, going back uptime.

“I should not have asked about the numbers,” he said, his tattoo a dull green. “An hour ago a girl gave me this. It was a mysterious and strange gift. Now it is just the numbers of a telephone, and I wish I had remained innocent.”

The barman looked at him sadly. The traveler’s face was making him sad. “Sometimes the truth is just disillusioning.”

“Is that what this age believes?” The tattoo took on a serious blue of concern. “History insisted I met the girl. But what did we say that could have mattered so much?”

He shook his head. “Is this what your disillusionment feels like?”


So this is the past, the traveler thinks, as he exits the Canaveral Timeport, on schedule.

This is the past, and the sun still shines and the air continues to support the flight of birds, and here is the bench where the girl will be sitting, in the moment of raising a water bottle to her lips. A small adjustment to his box of tricks and he will be heard speaking English – it is only technology.

Sure he can sit down.

He has been warned not to judge. They are numerous and ill-formed, their lives brief and ignorant. What you talk about is what you always talked about, they insisted uptime. There is no script.

“Cool tattoo,” she says.

He chooses his words with care. “Where I come from, such tattoos are an honest attempt to overcome the deceits of previous generations.”

She wants to know where he got it. She peers closely at his brow.

“It changes color!” she cries as the marbling switches from earnest lilac to an embarrassed pink.

A face lacking chromophores should be deceptive as a mask, except hers is not. These ancients did not deceive by concealing their emotions. Longing marks her face, though she does not understand what she longs for. Perhaps she thinks it is love, though it is something else.

He feels the urge to comfort her, but has been cautioned that in this era touching was governed by complex rules and was best avoided.

Instead, he mentions a reassuring idea about free will. “Even though the future is fixed, we must conspire to make it so. Do you not learn this at school?”

She shrugs. “Who knows what the future holds.”

It is obvious how the life of this young woman will turn out, how her unique potential will be squandered. He tries not to dwell on this. He cannot save her. It is how it was in the olden days.


Soon their eleven minutes will be up.

“I have to go,” he tells her. He wonders what important thing was done here.

“I like sci-fi too,” she confides, certain she will never meet anybody like him again, and on impulse, scribbles something on a sheet torn from her school notebook and hands it to him.

He studies what is written in her face, then glances down at the piece of paper—the pressed flesh of trees, a trick forgotten in his own age—puzzling over the meaning of the ten numbers scrawled upon it.

David Barber lives anonymously in the UK. His ambition is to continue doing all of these things.