Ten years had passed since that unforgettable date when, in a single day, humanity had gone through a series of unique circumstances.
The Earth was saved at the last moment from a devastating invasion by the Rowanian race, one of the most aggressive of the Milky Way, whose mission was the subjugation and progressive extinction of the human race in addition to plundering the planet's natural resources.
But not only that, with the discovery of the equations of time displacement to constant space, in other words, time travel, and travel at speeds faster than light in continuous time, the Earth had made its triumphal entry into the Alliance -a millennia-old group made up of four other peaceful and cooperative extraterrestrial races-, having reached the technological threshold of access to the type of interstellar civilization.
That year, 2042, had become an "Annus Mirabilis," identical to that of 1666 when Isaac Newton laid the foundations of gravitational theory and classical mechanics, or the year 1905 when Albert Einstein gave birth to the General Theory of Relativity.
Effectively, the progressive refinement of the Patel-Quaglia equations had made it possible to increase the precision, efficiency, and effectiveness of superluminal propulsion and with this, the human race had been able to make a footprint throughout the Solar System, following the directives to preserve the forms of native life that existed and were thriving in the explored sites. There were already many colonies of humans that had increased not only on the Moon but also on Mars -which had six active colonies and approximately 2,000 Martian citizens by birth- and scientific settlements on the asteroid Ceres and other asteroids. And recently, an orbital colony on Venus, a planet that had become a specific target to release it from its greenhouse effect and try to restore benign conditions for the flourishing of biology, a process that -it was estimated- would take about 250 to 300 years.
Beyond the Solar System, diplomatic and scientific delegations had visited the Proxima Centauri system and the star systems of the Alliance civilizations: Pleiades, Tau Ceti, Gliese, and Virginis.
As had been foreseen, on joining the Alliance, Humanity had advanced at double or triple speeds in its spiritual and technological progress compared to previous decades.
Of course, social differences, ancestral hatreds, misgivings, and mixed feelings within the human races or nationalities persisted. Still, the new Human Agenda was so widespread that it had reduced all these domestic problems in size and importance. The Universe was out there to prosper and expand.
Beyond these advances and new stages of humanity, what had a profound impact was the refinement of the equation of time displacement, i.e., time travel.
From the initial proposal of Dr Patel -one of its discoverers and currently a citizen of the Copernicus Colony located on the Martian Patera Plateau- to assemble an interplanetary commission to refine the preliminary version of the discovered equation, the commission achieved a functional equation in the year 2045.
From then on, human leaders worked together with the Alliance to establish the ethical code for using the equation.
Firstly, and beyond all scientific doubt, they discovered that, indeed, the Universe is not unique, and the theory of parallel and multidimensional universes seemed to be the one that gave the best answer to all the pieces of evidence.
This circumstance implied that regardless of whether someone wanted to go back in time to profoundly and noticeably change some aspect of history or evolution, that would not impact the current Alliance Universe and Earth but would create another timeline. And that timeline and the associated Universe, breaking off like a branch, would run in a different direction. Therefore the number of timelines was infinite.
This discovery created an exciting array of possibilities. There were so many possibilities that the interplanetary commission set to establish the inviolable rules for time travel.
The good news was that the technology and energy required to create time travel portals were not available to everyone. In reality, it was within reach of a few. That partly alleviated the risk of covert and indiscriminate travel to the past.
And while the technology would become generally available for smaller companies within a few decades, the energies put into play could only be achieved with special, costly facilities to such an extent that only a few governments and a handful of private corporations could generate these energies.
Therefore, at the end of five years of work, countless meetings, and discussions with several scientists, experts, and notable individuals of various origins, the Commission established the first directives on time travel. These directives set the limits for all related activity and laid the foundations for this formidable tool to be used positively.
A compendium of these directives was issued for the planet Earth and its Colonies. A similar summary was also published for all the original civilizations of the Galactic Alliance:
The races that form the Alliance will do everything possible to preserve the current timeline of the Universe and will progressively employ more sophisticated mechanisms for detecting opening portals in the current timeline to ward off any attempt to alter the natural evolution of all races, life forms and individuals of the Alliance. This timeline is called the Mother Timeline and is the main asset to care for and maintain unchanged.
During the first phase of these directives, no direct or indirect action, even in its simplest form, representing any alteration of the original terms of the course of history is permitted.
All time travel activity requested by any Institute, government, or corporation must be based on the guidelines specified in point 4).
Any omission or clandestine activity will be prosecuted and punished civilly and criminally.
Temporal displacements towards the future are strictly prohibited, and any project presented in that sense, even if its objective is entirely laudable, will be rejected outright.
The academic committees of each race and each science are permitted to present projects to study in situ specific events of each race's history in past times, to definitively understand the history of each . Projects must be based on the following premises:
○ The travel group comprises a minimum of 2 people and a maximum of four, one of whom must always be a doctor.
○ The duration of the investigation at the destination site will be a maximum of 12 hours, without exception.
○ The entire visit must be videotaped and audio recorded of the highest quality.
○ Interaction with individuals, living beings, or evolving organisms of any type during the visiting period is prohibited, under penalty of losing the license for future projects.
○ The use of translucent camouflage suits is mandatory. The travel group must not be seen or its presence detected by any means.
○ The travel must be to a time before December 31, 1950. Any project involving travel after that year will be rejected outright. This limit will be modified every five years.
○ Each committee will be responsible for interpreting the trip results in terms of what happened historically and for its open and ecumenical publication, regardless of whether the verified facts contradict the traditional version of the same.
○ The on-site investigation of the following events is exclusively reserved to the UN, and it will be the responsibility of the UNs Security Council, with the participation of all terrestrial nations, to present projects to study events in the past related to War actions, acts of terrorism, authoritarian governments or oppressive regimes.
These directives prompted the first wave of research travel project presentations. All sciences, from Zoology to Astronomy, from Psychology to Chemistry, presented travel projects to fully understand their origins, successes, and failures in a healthy exercise of self-knowledge.
The second step was more controversial and was the subject of much debate until the majority of the Committee members agreed: Intervene in the past and create alternative timelines.
This intervention was the final step. The evolution of this practice was already beyond the committee's predictions since the possibilities for intervention were as infinite as Universes to break away from the Mother Timeline.
The initiative of alternative timelines was supported by a group of academic anthropologists, sociologists, and historians, who proposed that the work promote three evolutionary lines of human civilization from some point in the past.
That is, various specific interventions on individuals and their environment, or in social processes, events, or trends. These interventions would never be violent, cruel, or insidious, that only the fair and just intervention to ensure the initiative's success.
The proposed evolutionary lines were:
Spirituality. Evolution towards a more spiritual civilization.
Ecology. Evolution towards a civilization intertwined with the planet.
No nations. Evolution towards a single and united civilization.
This debate was only in the beginning, and it promised to last for years because the objective was specifically to receive volunteers who would go back and stay for months, years, or even permanently in those evolutionary lines, either to promote some of those issues actively or to leave the Mother Timeline forever, perhaps due to the disgust of living in a world of increasing technological progress.
The Committee of the Alliance knew it was only a matter of time before they started receiving concerns, requests, and ideas for a more commercial angle to travel in time without intervention.
The first step was to authorize some companies to submit plans to travel to the past, with the same premises of detectability, so those wealthy individuals able to afford the cost could witness their own birth or important moments in their family history. Since this represented a significant risk of emotional interaction, the journey would have only two professional travelers to videotape these memorable moments.
Licensed companies offering these trips started to make significant gains as the market was virtually endless.
Raymond Sprague sat in a waiting room located on the 237th floor of a corporate office building in suburban Batavia, Illinois.
While waiting to be greeted, he absentmindedly flipped through a yearbook of the company he was visiting:
"Ucronia Corporation. The past, without mysteries."
Said a line in attractive letters on the cover, along with a collage of photos of historical events.
The magazine itself was a rarity: print publications were almost non-existent, and whenever Sprague found one, he delighted in turning the pages with his fingers.
He continued reading : "Ucronia is one of the few private corporations licensed by the UN to travel back in time for investigative purposes." "We specialize in ancestral Mesoamerican and South American civilizations."
At that time, the receptionist, a blonde with a somewhat metallic voice -"Is she an android?", he thought- informed Sprague that his meeting with Edgar Martinez, the director of operations the corporation, had been delayed 30 minutes for unexpected reasons.
With due apologies for the situation, the receptionist offered him the possibility of an interview on another day and time that Sprague would like if he could not wait for Mr. Martinez.
Sprague thought for a moment to show that he hadn't all the time in the world to wait. Still, the meeting could mean an employment contract, which he really needed because he hadn't had too much work lately. On the other hand, his house was about 1,200 miles away. He could reach it in a few minutes using the generalized superluminal travel -the teleporter, as it was known commonly-, it was pretty expensive and would cost him a good number of credits from his sagging savings.
"Miss" - said Sprague - "I can wait. It is not ideal for me, but I can arrange my schedule for the rest of the day to wait for Mr. Martínez ".
He still had those 30 minutes, and he began to think again about why he had been summoned. He could not figure it out, especially since he considered himself an individual from another era or somewhat a mismatch for a high-tech company like Ucronia. His current profession was as a security consultant, and he worked independently. But that had been a consequence of circumstances and not by choice. Already with 45 years on his back, the field researcher's profession was practically extinct.
He began to recall his work history as if to have it fresh in his mind if the interview was going to include questions that led in that direction.
After leaving university with a degree in criminology, his first job was as an intern at Interpol. He ended up working there for more than 20 years and experienced many kinds of situations. He was progressively forging himself as a practical, experienced and decisive individual, gaining his superiors' trust. He was characterized as being a person who attended to details, who could understand the environment, the physical information, and the psychological knowledge of the people involved in a particular case. Therefore it always allowed him to be one step ahead.
As the investigative processes and the security and prevention technologies were increasingly supported by information technology and cybernetics, human talent, as in many other activities, gave way to automation and Big Data.
Therefore, Sprague's expertise was increasingly undervalued until the work had become routine and unpleasant.
Five years ago, he decided to resign from Interpol and work as a private investigator and adviser on security issues. Thanks to the contacts that he had cultivated throughout his career, he managed to obtain many freelance contracts, some very important. But in recent times, the flow of work had dropped. He only received orders or jobs that were far below his capabilities… until this invitation to be interviewed in Ucronia, something that was very strange to him. As he usually did, he conducted a preliminary investigation of the company, and this was one of the licensees of scientific travel in time. There were only five of them in the world.
Was Ucronia facing a problem of sabotage or industrial espionage?
He couldn't think of any other reason for his being there. Perhaps advanced security systems and encryption algorithms had been insufficient to prevent or avoid problems or information leaks, and they were turning to him to evaluate the human element that would be involved.
Anyway, that would be something he would find out in the next few minutes. The most important thing for him now was to present the image of a very busy person, show strong self-assurance, and "sell" his entire career as an impressive background. This wouldn't be easy due to the general feeling of discouragement that he had about his current situation, but he tried to shake off that feeling of regret and told himself that he had to put his best face forward.
He was practicing some phrases to break the ice in his interview with Edgar Martinez when the receptionist came to him and said, "Please, come with me."
They walked down corridors where Sprague could see on both sides many meeting rooms with real people and holographic images of people in remote places holding discussions and analyzing graphics and projections. It was a typical office environment ... from the second half of the 21st century.
They kept walking until Sprague was ushered into an office with large windows on one side of the building that showed much of the city of Batavia. You could spot the Fermilab facilities, home of the Tevatron, the legendary Hadron Collider in the distance.
"Good afternoon, Raymond. I am Edgar Martinez, and I sincerely apologize for this unexpected delay."
"No problem. I was able to fix things, and I preferred to wait since you were kind enough to call me and were interested in meeting me," Sprague replied.
"Excellent!", Martinez replied. "I had the opportunity to learn a little about your work and your Interpol career thanks to Commander Merryweather. Now I have bothered you with the delay, and so I will get straight to the point: When can you start working?"
Sprague was stunned. It was the only question of the dozens he had thought about for which he was not prepared. But he quickly recovered -such was his way- and, looking at his watch, he said, "I need a few minutes to hit the head. After that, I can start."
Martinez laughed heartily, and commented, "I love that enthusiasm! Jokes aside, surely my question took you by surprise," he said as he watched Sprague nod without saying a word, "but the fact is that we have been awarded several investigative projects, and we urgently need to hire suitable personnel to start executing these projects."
"Raymond, if I can call you that ...", Martinez continued.
"Yes, of course," interrupted Sprague.
"I am going to tell you everything to the point where I can. If there is any question too specific, we should sign a confidentiality agreement. But I trust that we can move the conversation without reaching those limits, and you'll get a pretty good idea of what we need. Sound good?"
"Understood. I'm all ears," Sprague said.
Edgar started with his explanation.
"Let me explain a little about our work. Ucronia is one of the UN's contractors to carry out trips back in time for scientific and research purposes. We are one of the five companies certified as those that can provide security and have the necessary infrastructure to make reliable time jumps. We also have the financial capacity to continue operating over time."
"The process begins at the UN, which receives proposals and projects from various institutes and academies worldwide, many of which are identical and therefore are consolidated into one. When projects are approved after extensive review by all the UN's relevant areas, they are assigned one at a time to each of the five providers. Although each has a specialization, any of the five can receive projects from any scientific specialty."
"Here at Ucronia, our specialization is historical events related to prehistoric American civilizations, but we will also be assigned projects that have to do with literature and music."