When Rhoda Crowley designed her time machine, she only had one objective: she wanted to see pterosaurs. As a little girl, she had been obsessed with dragons until she tragically learned that they weren’t real. After that, she consoled herself with dinosaurs. They were all dead, but at least they were real. It wasn’t long before she discovered pterosaurs and decided that they were the closest real thing to dragons.
Rhoda designed the machine, but she was incapable of building it. She didn’t know anything about welding or wiring electrical systems. That’s where Rhoda’s best friend, Hailey Addison, came in. She installed the time travel mechanism into an old VW camper and then made extensive modifications to the vehicle. It could now float, fly, and transform into a large boulder as camouflage. And because gasoline would not be available in the past, the vehicle had been converted to steam power.
Since Hailey was the one who actually built the time machine, it only made sense that she would come along. The only problem was that she didn’t care about pterosaurs or dinosaurs. For reasons Rhoda couldn’t comprehend, Hailey was fascinated with the Salem Witch Trials. Rhoda had conceded that they would stop in 1693 Salem on their way back to the present.
In preparation for departure, Rhoda checked their supplies again. They had all the clothes they’d need, including their outfits for Salem. Rhoda had brought enough food to eat well for weeks. Hailey had brought a crate of MREs that they could theoretically eat for months. Rhoda didn’t intend to get desperate enough to need them. Satisfied with the provisions, she took her place in the driver’s seat.
“You sure you’re up for this?” Hailey asked. She was sitting in what she called the fire seat. There was a pressure gauge mounted in front of it and several valves. Hailey had explained that it was modeled after an old locomotive. She was able to make most of the systems self-regulating, but there was still a degree of user control required.
“Yeah,” Rhoda said. “It’s totally irresponsible to test this with live subjects, but you’re right; once the government knows this exists, they’re going to put all sorts of regulations on it. We need to have an adventure while we have the chance.”
“That’s my girl,” Hailey said. “I’m glad you’re finally getting over this whole ‘responsibility’ thing. It’s been forever since I’ve convinced you to do anything stupid.”
“OK then, let’s be stupid!” Rhoda said, smirking. “And let’s do it 120 million years ago!”
She reached for the ignition, before remembering that the time machine didn’t have one of those. So instead, she released the brake and pulled the throttle. Not the throttle on the right that would have propelled them forward in space, but the throttle mounted to a panel that extended down from the ceiling. This panel controlled their movement in time.
They started moving slowly into the past. At first, seconds ticked back at a speed equivalent to the speed they normally ticked forward. As Rhoda familiarized herself with the controls and began to feel more comfortable, she opened the throttle farther. Soon, they were traveling at a minute per second, then an hour per second. Rhoda monitored this on a meter on the ceiling panel. They hadn’t named it yet, but it was kind of a speedometer for time. They continued to accelerate through time and Rhoda watched the scene change. Houses disappeared. Trees sprang into existence, then shrank to nothing. Sometime, things passed through them, but they were intangible while moving through time. She checked the meter again. It appeared to have topped out at around a year per second.
“I thought we would move faster than this,” Rhoda complained. “At this rate, it will take us years in relative time to reach the Early Cretaceous. I’m pretty excited to see pterosaurs, but I don’t think I’m that committed.”
Hailey sat contemplating something. Rhoda recognized the look on her face. There was something she hadn’t shared. After a minute, she spoke.
“Remember that switch I told you to leave alone?” Hailey asked.
“If you flip that, it will put us into a higher gear.”
“Why do I feel like that might not be the best idea?” Rhoda asked
“It will burn fuel faster, but I wasn’t able to figure out how much faster. Don’t worry, we’ve got enough uranium to last us for ten years under normal usage.”
“Uranium?” Rhoda exclaimed. “I thought you were burning coal!”
“You thought I was running a time machine on coal?” Hailey smirked. “This is enriched uranium all the way.”
“Where did you even get that?”
“I know a guy who knows a guy. It’s best not to ask questions,” Hailey explained. “Look, do you want to see the pterosaurs or not?”
Rhoda flipped the switch and felt a strange lurching that had nothing to do with physical movement, and the numbers on her meter increased rapidly. They shot past a century per second before Rhoda could even note it. Before long, it was over a thousand. It eventually topped out at around 2,500 years per second.
“That’s more like it,” Rhoda said. “At this rate, it’ll take us around thirteen hours, relative time to get there.
Hailey didn’t answer. She was staring at one of the meters on her dashboard and running the stopwatch on her cell phone. She stopped it after a minute, wrote down some numbers, then repeated the process. After doing this five times, she did some math. Finally, she nodded.
“I was just checking the rate of fuel consumption. We’re good. With what we have, we can go to the Cretaceous, home, and then half-way back again.”
“Sweet,” Rhoda said. “Hailey, I think we can officially call ourselves time travelers now!”
Thirteen relative hours passed in quiet fascination. They watched in awe as their time machine rose and fell with the formation and collapsing of mountains. Even with the theoretical data that suggested this would happen, Rhoda couldn’t really explain how it worked. Whatever the cause, it meant that they wouldn’t merge into a mountain when they returned to tangibility. Rhoda thought she would have gotten bored of it after a while, but somehow, she never did.
Near the end, the two turned their attention to a meter on the dashboard which showed the date. It was deep in the negatives and the small numbers moved faster than they could track. The large numbers, however, were more stubborn. They were waiting for it to tick over to negative 120 million. Currently, it sat at negative 119 followed by a row of nines all the way into the blurry numbers. Finally, the blurriest nine turned into a zero. Like a row of dominoes, all the nines up the row followed suit. Rhoda slammed the throttle shut… They didn’t stop.
“What’s happening?” Hailey said as she checked her valves and gauges.
“Time must be frictionless!” Rhoda realized. “We’ve stopped pushing, but we’re still gliding backwards.”
“Push the other way, then!” Hailey shouted.
Rhoda quickly oriented them forwards in time and throttled up to full power. She felt the strange jolt again. Rhoda lacked the terminology to describe it, but thought “wrenching her soul” came close. Soon the meter, which they had finally named the “chrono-speedometer,” started moving down. It took about an hour to get it near zero. By then, they had overshot by roughly six million years. Rhoda tried to carefully maneuver back to zero, but accidently overshot and sent the time machine forward in time again. In a panic, she closed the throttle and prepared to turn around again when she noticed the chrono-speedometer slowing down. It tapered off at one second per second.
“I guess there is some friction,” Rhoda observed. “At least enough to return us to the normal flow of time when we’re near it. We were just going so fast that our momentum kept us going.”
“We can’t do that again,” Hailey said. “If we do, I’m not sure we’ll have enough fuel to make our way home.”
Rhoda barely heard what Hailey was saying. She was staring at something in the sky.
“Pterosaurs!” she exclaimed.
They were uglier than she imagined, but somehow more beautiful for it. She was trying to figure out how that made sense when she heard a low rumble that sounded like a rockslide under water. The whole camper vibrated with the sound.
“Sounds like there are dinosaurs too. Can you show me how to activate the camouflage?”