Doctors Keep Good Time

What I found most fascinating about the collapse of Communism and the destruction of the Berlin Wall was how little impact it seemed to make on writers of spy-thriller novels. It was still possible to pick up a thick paper-back and read of this man or that woman and how they saved the world from nuclear war or worse. The fact that no-one seriously considered the new, weak C.I.S. an aggressive threat to world peace seemed not to faze the writers in the least.
I'd just jumped onto the bandwagon of spy-thrillers myself when it all came down. Dutifully, I went through everything I'd written (of course, I still couldn't get a publisher), and changed all the names and places to Chinese ones. There was still countries which could break the general world peace, I considered, and China was one. So I wrote my stories based in China. And they didn't sell. No-one would even look at them. "I'm sorry, Mr. Bransted, I don't think it has an appeal to a wide readership. This publishing house can't afford to cater to the whims of a few."
Meanwhile, everyone else was writing about the (now very defunct) USSR. Well, some writers needed the USSR for their characters. If all your life you've written about the CIA's top spy who was born into a family of Swiss Russian-speakers (explaining how he can speak so many languages so fluently), it would be very hard for your spy to cope in mainland China. And it'd be even harder to explain how he knew all the local geography if his mother hadn't always reminisced about it when he was a child.
Well, perhaps there was a little pent-up frustration over all this on my part, but I felt I was taking rather well. (There were at least two walls which weren't damaged, possibly three if you weren't too picky.) I was reading the newspaper (anything but that letter which I knew was a rejection slip) when I noticed an ad in the "Miscellaneous" section:

Writers! Don't forget your subscription to the Fund.
Payment is due by the end of this month. If you are
late, your particular historical change might not ever
be done. Potential members, write to this address for
more information :
Dr Theodore Thosselthwait III, c/o I.A.R.D.,
Hate Road, Burning Point.

What was the I.A.R.D.? I consulted the phone book, to find that there was an I.A.R.D. in Burning Point, but it seemed to be some sort of research institute. Maybe research into the psychology of readers? That could be handy. I wrote a nice little letter to them, breaking the "L" key on my typewriter. It's amazing how many words use "L" in them, and even more amazing how hard it is to write a meaningful sentence without using any of them.
I'd just got as far as "Yours faithfurry" when the space bar broke. I don't mean it stopped working, I mean BROKE. It split into two very sharp pieces of metal under my thumb. It hurt.
Wondering what Dr Thosselthwait III would think of me signing my letter with a mark of blood, I popped the single page into an envelope, and hurried off to a different doctor. A cut on the thumb isn't normally very significant, but it becomes very worrisome when it's a gash on a rusty sharp typewriter....
Dr Wolff is my favourite doctor. He was not an old man, but he had enough grey hair to deserve an expensive surgery, and was always wearing a white lab coat with a stethoscope around his neck. Even at parties, supposedly, but I can't imagine him at one. His waiting-room was almost empty and I barely had time to look through the December 1949 issue of the women's magazine that was the most modern thing there. How do doctors manage to accumulate such inspiringly out-of-date magazines? Dr Wolff couldn't have been out of medical school in 1949, so where did he get it from? Is there a trading post in the back pages of the Lancet where doctors find these things?
He ushered me into his office, and looked at my thumb.
"Ooo, yes," he murmured. "How did you do this?"
"It's my typewriter. It hates me. And it bites."
Dr Wolff stepped back, a little shocked, and pushed his glasses back up his nose. "I suppose," he said, as a grin spread across his face and as he started to examine my thumb again, "that that is the agony of writing, then isn't it?"
"Ouch!" I said.
"Surely my jokes aren't that bad?" he asked.
"No, it's just that you squeezed my thumb as you said that, and it hurt."
"Oh." He looked downcast. "Did you know," he said after a pause, "that that is the four hundred and twenty-fifth joke I have tried to tell since I started general practice."
"No," I said, "is that so?"
"Indeed. And what is more, I'm yet to tell one which has made anyone laugh."
"That's understandable," I said. "Doctors do tend to have quite a distinct sense of humour all of their own." I stopped then I added, "which no-one else finds funny."
"Perhaps that's because we're a horde of hungry aliens and your collective subconciousnesses realise this and are trying to keep you wary." (Strangest sounding "joke" I ever heard. He couldn't be serious, could he?)
"I rest my case," I said. "Tell me, when doctors get together at conventions and such like, and they tell jokes, do the other doctors laugh?"
"Yes, but it's a much more civilised sense of humour - funny without any nastiness. I guess doctors can't afford to tell jokes that offend patients, it's not good for the practice."
We stayed silent for a while. Dr Wolff finished torturing my thumb and went over to the sink to wash his hands of blood. Suddenly, a thought occurred to me.
"You doctors are actually way ahead of your time."
"I know that," said Dr Wolff with a genial smile, "but how do you mean?"
"Well, humour evolves in much the same way as biology, only faster. What was funny generations ago seems now very coarse and violent - not in the least bit funny."
"For example?"
"In Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's characters seem outrightly malicious to each other - branding each other, making people kiss their backsides, and so on. Just for a joke. It was funny then, but not now."
"And?" Dr Wolff seemed genuinely interested.
"So in the future, we can expect a much more dilute humour. If somebody from the future came back, he'd tell jokes, but nobody would find them particularly funny - there wouldn't be enough nastiness in them."
Dr Wolff chuckled, a light little laugh - a polite laugh. A dilute laugh? "I never thought of that," he said.
He finished washing his hands, and went over to a small refrigerator sitting in the corner of the room. He opened the door and pulled out a little bottle of something. He fiddled around carefully with a syringe, poking it through the stretched-rubber top.
Why is it that nowadays, if a man (or woman) in a white coat prepares to stab you with a long sharp piece of metal, that we all sit patiently? Why does the repressed caveman in us not run us out of the room? Why does the gladiator in us not stand us up and return the challenge?
"You'll probably need a tetanus shot," Dr Wolff said as explanation. He followed my eyes to the fridge. "It's an old bar fridge," he said, "I use it to keep vaccines and things like that."
"Oh," I said.
"I bought it when a hotel was closing down."
"I was just wondering," I said, "how bar fridges got invented. Why anyone bothered."
"I imagine it was the only thing that would fit those tiny little bottles, you know, the Cinzano bottles or the Smirnoff ones."
"I don't think they would have been around before the invention of the bar fridge," I countered. "Nobody would have bought them. They're more expensive than the normal-sized bottles. Their only use is that they fit inside a bar fridge."
Dr Wolff seemed to pay no attention. Suddenly he was deeply absorbed in preparing the syringe.
"Perhaps," I said, trying to sound paranoid, just to see what he would do, "perhaps bar fridges have some other use that no-one knows about, and there's a cover-up to try to get us not to notice. They pretend that bar fridges just keep things cold, when really they do something far more."
Dr Wolff paid no attention - it was as if he was in another time and place.
"After all, there aren't that many people who really understand how a refrigerator works," I said.
Still no response.
"If I went back in time, and I showed someone a multimeter, they'd have no idea what it was really for. Perhaps I would be able to make up an imaginary purpose for it - if the points were really sharp it could be a weapon, or maybe a pen."
"Hmm..." said Dr Wolff.
"So if someone came back from the future, they could probably convince us all that a bar fridge was designed to keep things cold, when actually it was some amazing futuristic device."
"There's one thing that has always worried me about time travel," said Dr Wolff, probably only catching a little of what I had said. "If it's possible to travel back in time, why don't we have hundreds of tourists from the future coming back to see what life is like now?"
"Lots of reasons," I said. "Perhaps there needs to be a receiver as well as a transmitter. Perhaps people in the future are frightened of altering their own history to much, and don't let anyone go back."
"But," said Dr Wolff, syringe in hand, menacing over me like some futuristic vigilante-robocop, "technology grows. Eventually technology will get to the stage where building a time machine is as easy as building a radio. How would they stop joy-riders going back into history then?"
"Perhaps there's a time police force, scattered throughout history, that stop things like that."
"Could be," he said, but then he gave me the injection, and after that I wasn't in any mood to think about such abstract matters.

I didn't think about time travel at all until the I.A.R.D. wrote back to me. The Institute for Abnormal Research and Development was working on time-travel. They had discovered that it was possible to send something (or someone) back in time, even without a receiver at the other end. Sure, it was safer, and more accurate if there was a receiver, but it wasn't essential.
How were they financing this? Writers would send in their money, and when the I.A.R.D. had invented time-travel, they were going to go back in time, and alter history so that the writers could stay in business. Maybe spy-thriller writers would make sure that the Berlin Wall never fell.
If you sent enough money to the I.A.R.D., you could alter history, have it your way. Maybe. Won't there be anyone else who would rather history changed somehow else?
Dr Wollf's words kept echoing: As technology improves, time machines would get easier to make. Some bright somebody would build one, and send receivers back into the past. Now it's easy to change whatever you like. But, I began to think, where would you send it?
Somewhere with a lot of people; not a small village where the presence of "someone new" would be noticed. Somewhere where hardly anyone knew anyone else. A hotel maybe, a cocktail party, a bar?
And as you could convince the "primitives" that it was almost anything, wouldn't you convince them that it was something appropriate for a hotel, a party, or a bar?
Maybe part of the principle behind Time-machines is a strong temperature gradient - maybe as strong as the difference between the inside and the outside of a refrigerator. Maybe there's some other presently-unknown limitations that sets a maximum size on the thing - maybe a time machine can't be bigger than so big.
Just a little thing could change so much history. If you went back in time and shot Hitler's father, vast tracts of history would be changed - no Hitler, no WWII; the men in power in a century's time might be the peasants, and no-one will let that be done to them. So why not a force of Time Police? Time Police to protect history from being changed; protect us "primitives" from being exploited, controlled, or killed by wanderers from the reaches of Time.
The Time Police protect everyone - you could change the course of history be killing a famous person's great-great-great-great-grandmother. So... there must be Time Police living among us NOW. Time police that blend in with society - but who could pry into your private life without you suspecting a thing.
And Time Police must have lived among us in every age that we can possibly imagine - throughout all imaginable history, examining us, making sure that we are from the time that we say were from. Who always asks you your age? What sort of people would have been able to ask that question all throughout history - even when it was taboo normally to say?
There couldn't be enough Time Policeman to really provide saturation protection - maybe one person per thousand population is all that could be done. So they need to make it as obvious as possible (to another Time-traveller) that they are From Another Time. Make it obvious to Time-travellers alone that this is a Time Policeman - he can travel through time - but don't make it so obvious that all the population knows. Perhaps a Time Policeman would be a professional, and would just leave some subtle clues in their waiting-room. Impossibly out-of-date magazines?
And wouldn't a Time Policeman need a receiver, just to be on the safe side, to call up re-inforcements?
And isn't the best way to tell from When someone comes, is to know what diseases they have? A doctor in the 16th century sees a patient with vaccination scars - no-one else would notice, but a doctor would see the anachronism. A patient has AIDS or CFS - when are they most likely to be born?
And wouldn't a Time Policeman need to be accepted everywhere? Welcomed? Outside of cities, as well?
And have you noticed how impossible it is to get into Medical Schools these days? It's as if you need a genetically-engineered hyper-intelligence, and somehow an almost-perfect memory... and that's not possible just yet.
And G.P.'s don't seem to need to know much medicine - prescribe antibiotics, or send you to a specialist - and we all know the horror stories where a doctor diagnosed something, when he really should have known better.
What's the Time, Dr Wolff?