There's nothing I hate more than having dinner with Richard and Maureen Bridges. His endless talk about his job at the experimental government think tank bores me dreadfully, and his wife keeps punching me good-naturedly in the face. Try as I might, however, there's just no way to get out of it. They see through every lame excuse I make, and on the occasion I faked my own death they hired a private investigator to track me down to my new address.

Which is why, for the umpteenth time, I found myself eating over-boiled carrots and roast beef with the texture of used condoms in the company of the pair, sitting around the horrible wooden dining table which Richard had built himself, acquiring splinters wherever I touched it. The room was lit only by a couple of candles on the dining table, which gave the place the air of a last meal in a death cell. Even with the low lighting I could see the hideous decor of this rather squalid room; the flying porcelain ducks, the nasty green wallpaper, the little stuffed pig on the bookshelf which kept looking at me as if it knew where I hid my mother's corpse.

Such is the way with these gatherings, I had been making small talk all through the meal without actually applying any conscious thought.

"So, did you see Crime Traveller last night?" asked Richard at one point.

"What, that stupid programme about the woman from Red Dwarf who uses a time machine to solve crimes?"

At this point, Maureen did the thing she always does; laugh at the most inappropriate moments. I wouldn't mind so much if it was a nice laugh, but Maureen always laughed in the same way Ming the Merciless would on the day Flash Gordon is executed. And it was always followed by that high-pitched gasp for air, like a drowning walrus with something lodged in its throat.

"Nyahahahahahaha - HUUUURRHHH," went Maureen.

"That's the one," said Richard. "Don't you think it's entertaining?"

"No, not particularly."

"Oh come on, Mikey, where's your sense of humour?" said Maureen, punching me in the face. She always called me Mikey, which I found extremely annoying, as my name is Travis.

"I just don't like that sort of thing."

"Maybe, but it raises interesting questions, doesn't it?" said Richard. "What would you do if you had a time machine?"

"You might as well ask me what I'd do if I had a magical flying unicorn who breathed winning lottery tickets," I said, regretting the words instantly, as it brought a fresh storm of guffaws from Maureen. "Time travel's impossible."

"Oh, you don't know that for sure," said Richard.

At this point, the fourth guest at the gathering (as yet unmentioned as he had spent the above discourse occupied by a particularly resilient roast potato) looked up. He was wearing a tweed suit with leather patches on the elbows and a rather irritating bow tie, and his white hair stuck out on all sides like a dandelion. He was clearly a learned type, if the round spectacles didn't give enough of a clue.

"Actually," he said, "It is possible to know for sure. Or rather, to prove that time travel is impossible, with simple logic."

"Oh yes, Earnshaw?" I asked, glad to have an ally against the Bridges couple. "How's that, then?"

"With hypothesis," he explained genially, leaning back in his chair and steepling his fingers. "Let's say that I go back to the university now and devote the rest of my life to the discovery of time travel. To all my descendants and heirs I will give the same task, who will do the same for all their descendants and heirs, until finally a working time machine is made. At that point, the discoverer is told to construct a second model, and send it back in time to this very date, this very time, and this very place. Say, in the hallway, just beyond that door." Earnshaw stood and went over to the door. "So, if time travel is ever discovered at any point in the future, the time machine will now be behind this door."

He swung the door open, and we all tensed. I don't recall ever having been so relieved to see an empty room. Earnshaw grinned, shut the door, and sat back down. "QED," he said.

"Hold on a minute," said Richard, thinking hard. "That's no way of knowing. You're just going to forget you ever said that. Why don't you write it down, make a pledge or something. Then we'll know for sure."

"Is this necessary?" I asked as Richard got up and went over to the cupboard where the stationery was kept. He didn't reply. I should have known; Richard hated being outsmarted, especially by someone like Professor Earnshaw. He found a piece of paper and a pencil, and passed them to the Professor, who seemed to be quite enjoying the game.

"Very well," he said, then began to write, reading it out as he did so. "I, Professor Martin Earnshaw, do solemnly swear to devote the rest of my life to the discovery of time travel, and when it is discovered, I will construct a second time machine and send it back in time to Richard Bridges' hallway at precisely," he checked his watch, "7:15pm on the 13th of February 2003. I also pledge that everyone who follows in my footsteps will be given the same instructions until a working device is created. Sincerely, Professor Earnshaw." He signed it elaborately, and handed the paper back to Richard.

"Right," said Richard. "Now, go open the door."

Earnshaw shook his head, smiled, and did so.

The time machine looked kind of like a motorbike with no wheels, covered in black plate armour and winking lights. Something that looked kind of like a lightning rod was mounted just behind the seat, and there was a control panel between the handlebars.

No-one said anything for quite some time.

"Bloody hell," said Earnshaw.

"I don't understand any of this," said Maureen.

"It's simple, love," said Richard. "The Prof took this paper home and kept it, and at some point some future Earnshaw invented the time machine, and then sent it back here! You must've passed that paper down for generations, prof."

(In fact, the letter was filed away by Earnshaw and forgotten about. It was discovered in an archaeological dig many thousands of years later, in a world ruled by the Japanese, who had long since discovered time travel and felt that sending a device back to the specified date and time would be a laugh.)

"Blimey," said the Professor, sitting back down and mopping his brow with a large red handkerchief. "Blimey," he repeated.

Richard was now wearing that awful I'm-always-right smile of his. "QED," he said.

"Well then," I said, "now we've got a time machine, what are we going to do with it? Change history?"

"Absolutely not," said Earnshaw flatly. "The timeline is too fragile to mindlessly tinker with."

"Oh, come on, Prof," said Maureen. "Where's your sense of adventure?"

"There are unlimited theological problems with changing history," said Earnshaw, scowling. "If we intend to go back and change things from within our own timeline, then since the event happens in the past, all we have to do is intend to do something and it's already been done. What's more, from our point of view it will have always been like this. We won't even know if we'd done anything."

Richard apparently didn't understand what the professor was saying, as he ignored it completely. "Just imagine what we could do with it!" he said. "We could use it to make ourselves the richest men in the world."

I blinked.

The room was now much bigger, decorated with tasteful Regency wallpaper and with a crystal chandelier illuminating the expensive mahogany dining table. For a few seconds, it seemed to me that there was something wrong with the room, but the feeling faded quickly. After all, the dining room had always been like this. I adjusted my expensive tuxedo and put down the crystal wine glass.

"Why would we want to do that?" I said. "Aren't we already the richest men in the world?"

"Well, yeah, but I'm just giving an example," said Richard, putting down his caviare.

"Only a fool would use something as wonderful as the time machine for personal gain," said the Professor, scowling through his gold-rimmed spectacles. "This could be used for the good of all mankind. We could go back and stop Sir Walter Raleigh discovering tobacco, save the lives of millions of people."

I looked at him oddly. "What the hell's tobacco?"

He seemed confused. "Sorry, I'm not sure why I said that."

"Nyahahahahaha-HUUUURRH," commented Maureen. "I see what you mean. Like, we could go back and kill Adolf Hitler as a baby."

"There's no telling what that would do," said Earnshaw. "Maybe the Nazi Party would just have a different leader. Maybe this leader would be much better at the job. He might even win the Second World War."

I glanced around at the Swastika symbols that decorated most of the drapes. When I turned back, Richard was wiping cranberry sauce from the sleeve of his SS uniform.

"[Sorry, have I lost the plot here?]" said Richard, in German. "[Who was Adolf Hitler?]"

Earnshaw opened his mouth to speak, then frowned. "[Funny, I knew a second ago, then I just forgot.]"

Maureen laughed again.

"[I was just thinking,]" I said. "[What right have we to try and change the course of the Second World War, anyway? What if the Allies had won? Nah, I think we should stick to personal gain. Maybe we could go back and murder your wife as a baby, Richard.]"

A titter of laughter went around the table, and Richard took his gorgeous blonde wife's hand. "[Now, why would I want to kill Tiffany?]" he said. "[When she's just won the Nobel Prize for Literature?]"

I shrugged. "[Forget it.]"

Earnshaw looked around. "[I guess none of us have any use for the time machine, then.]"

We exchanged glances. "[Guess not,]" said Richard.

"[Who's for pudding?]"

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