The Canister By James Rumpel

Desperate scientists risk the Earth to send a message of warning back through time; by James Rumpel.

The canister sat in the middle of the elaborate mechanism. Its metallic surface sparkled as it reflected the device's myriad of lights which constantly flickered on and off. Two individuals, each dressed in a lab coat, stood silently staring at a control panel.

Eventually, one of the men broke the silence. "You are sure there is no one else out there?"

"I am," replied his cohort. "Since the last round of mega-storms, every known base and individual contact has been silent. It has been two weeks. If there was anyone out there, they would have answered our transmissions."

"Are we absolutely certain we want to do this?" asked the first. "Creating a wormhole on the planet's surface will destroy it. It will rip the Earth to pieces."

"The Earth is already dead. If there's any chance of us getting a warning back far enough to stop this, we have to take it."

Both men heard a thunderous roar. A klaxon began to blare, sounding a warning.

"That's another super-sized tornado. We can't wait any longer."

"But what will happen at the other end of the wormhole? We have no idea where or when the other end will open. It could cause the same damage there that it will here. Could we be destroying history?"

"Our ancestors have already lived their lives, and look where that got us. I'm initiating the program. Maybe someone will get the message and we can avoid all of this." He entered a code into a keypad adjacent to the monstrous machine. He shrugged his shoulders and hit ENTER. "Here goes nothing."

1407: Ottucke crouched to examine the dew-covered grass. The Wampanoag tribe's most experienced hunter easily located two small drops of blood. The deer, an arrow stuck in its left flank, had passed this way. It would have made its way into the deep woods in search of a hiding place. Many of his tribe were fishermen. They harvested the gifts of the great water. Ottucke preferred the woods. He enjoyed every aspect of a hunt.

Ottucke slowly rose to his feet and silently walked towards the edge of the forest. His eyes searched the ground for any other indicators of his prey's trail. As he moved gracefully through the clearing, he noticed a strange flash of color in the deep grass and flowers to his left. He carefully approached the area from which the glimmer had appeared. Resisting the urge to notch an arrow, he parted the grass with his hand. What he found was something that he could not begin to understand. An object, the size of a small wolf, lay amongst the yellow goldenrods. It was the shape of a tree trunk, round at both ends.

He found the courage to reach out and feel the mysterious item; it was cool to his touch. Ottucke could not identify the material of which it was made. It was hard as stone but smooth like the pebbles found by the shore of the great water. He noticed strange, unfamiliar, symbols on the surface of the object.

Ottucke was happy with the simple life he lived. He considered the many questions he would be asked if he returned to the tribe carrying this strange thing. Others would be curious and want to know more about its origin. He did not need or want to know. Instead, he left his discovery right where he found it. He had a deer to track. He quickly relocated the trail and continued his pursuit. The canister remained mostly hidden in the weeds and flowers. There it stayed for a long long time.

1695: George Masters and his son, John, had made great progress in clearing the underbrush and stumps from what was soon to be their new field. This particular piece of land was a significant distance from the settlement and their home, but was not as overgrown with large trees as most of the woods. George steered the oxen and plow along the left side of the cleared area. John swung his ax downward into a large stump.

The dark soil, along with many roots and stones, folded away from the blade of the plow in waves of brown and green. As George neared completion of the third furrow an unusual clanging sound drew his attention. On top of the upturned soil was a cylindrical shaped object. Its silver hue gave the appearance of a valuable item. George stopped the oxen and moved to examine his discovery. He bent down to pick up the item but stopped, frozen by fear. There, etched into the side of the object was a message.

"John, come see this," he shouted.

George's teenage son immediately obeyed. He rushed to the side of his father. "What is it, Father?"

"Look at what has been turned up by the plow. Do you have any idea what it is or how it got there?"

"It looks like a small barrel, but made of iron or some other metal. Maybe someone from the town was storing something in it." The young man was just as confused by the appearance of the object as his father.

"But, look at the writing on its side."

John bent down to inspect the canister. He read the words engraved on the silver surface.


The message was followed by a list of names.


"Some of those words do not mean anything to me," proclaimed John. "And I do not recognize any of the men listed."

"It is some form of witchcraft," decided George.

"What should we do with it, Father?"

"We cannot take it to the village. We would be accused of sorcery. Go back to the cabin and get a quilt. Do not tell anyone why you need it. Do not tell anyone about what we have found. We will wrap the quilt around it and add rocks for weight. We will then throw this aberration into the river."

"Yes, Father," The younger man took off running towards the family home.

George knelt and began to pray.

1891: Finally, one of the nets seemed to be offering a tiny bit more resistance. The morning had not been productive for Aaron Keefer. His first three attempts at catching fish off the New England shore had only produced a few undersized cod. This cast, however, seemed to promise more success.

Sure enough, as Aaron pulled the net into his fishing boat, he spied a fairly large number of the brown and white colored fish. The fisherman dumped the contents of the net into the hold and was surprised to hear a distinct metallic clunking sound. Upon closer inspection, he noticed the glint of silver amongst the flapping fish. He pushed the fish aside and scooped a cylindrical canister from the hold. The object was about two feet long and less than a foot across. It was much lighter than he expected it to be.

Aaron placed the strange item on the deck. It was tightly sealed. Whatever its contents were, they appeared to have been protected from the ocean for however long they had been hidden in the water. He was about to begin to attempt to open the container when he noticed some writing on the side. After pushing some mud and scum aside, Aaron read the message.

"Now, that is very strange," Aaron announced to no one. He had a habit of talking to himself: an understandable consequence of many long hours alone on the boat. "I should take this home and see if it is worth anything."

For about a week, the mysterious canister was worth a couple of drinks and a few hours of conversation. No one in the small fishing village knew anything about it or cared much beyond initial curiosity. The trip to Washington DC would have been too time consuming and expensive. Eventually, Aaron went on with his life, forgetting about the strange object. The canister found its way into a crate in a crowded corner of the basement of Aaron's cottage.

1954: Thomas Keefer dropped another load of junk onto the tiny lawn of his great-grandfather's home. How had the old man collected so much garbage? It was bad enough that Thomas had been forced to attend the amazingly boring funeral and wake of his great-grandfather, but the fact that he had been coerced into helping clean out the musty old house was torturous to the nine-year-old boy. He had never been that close to Grandpa Aaron. In fact, Thomas had always been a bit spooked by the old man. He always smelled weird.

"Can I be done now, Dad?" asked Thomas. He hoped there was just enough whininess to his tone that his father might feel sorry for him.

"Go get one more crate, then you can take a break," responded his father as he sorted through the previous load of junk. Nearly everything that had been brought up from the basement of the dilapidated old cottage had gone directly into the waiting dumpster.

Thomas sighed heavily and slowly began descending the stairs into the hell that was the old man's basement. He glanced around, looking for the lightest remaining box.

"What's that?" he asked himself as he noticed a shiny silver canister tucked behind a pile of rotted and decayed fishing nets. The boy pushed the useless equipment to the side and grabbed the container. Using the dim light that seeped through the warped glass of the lone window located high on the wall, Thomas examined his discovery. He was amazed at how light the large cylinder was. He was even more interested in the strange message carved into it.

"This could be really important," he thought. "I better keep this and give it to the president in 1960. I'll be a hero."

Thomas grabbed a small box of jars and proceeded to take them to his father. After being granted a short rest period, the boy quickly snuck back into the basement and grabbed his discovery. He raced back to his own home which was only a few blocks distant and found a hiding place for the canister in the storage room above the garage. Thomas had no desire to share his find with anyone else. He alone was going to deliver the cylinder to the president when the time came.

1963: Thomas Keefer had the canister concealed inside of a large burlap sack as he approached the White House security guard. He had completely forgotten about the mysterious object until he rediscovered it while packing for college earlier that fall. When he had found it and once again read the first name of the list engraved on its side, he knew he had to deliver it to Washington. He still wanted to be the sole person credited with the discovery. He had been waiting for the first opportunity to take a road trip and make the delivery. With fall break and Thanksgiving coming the following week, he had found a way to get out of Friday classes and made the trek from Boston that morning.

The guard looked confused as he examined the canister Thomas showed him. "I'm not sure what I am supposed to do with something like this," said the guard when he finally spoke. "Let me go get someone who might know how to handle this. You just stay here."

A second guard remained with Thomas as the first walked away. The canister remained in Thomas' bag.

It was nearly an hour later when Thomas finally took a seat across a desk from a chief security officer.

"You know," said the middle-aged, balding man. "We get all sorts of things delivered here, most of it we just toss or put into storage somewhere. What you brought, however, is very strange. It is so odd that we're pretty curious about it. We're going to have some experts from the Smithsonian have a look at it. If they think it's worth it and safe, they'll give it to the president." He clipped a tag onto the cylinder.

"Where did you say you got it?

"I found it in my great-grandfather's house about nine years ago. I noticed..."

The phone rang, interrupting Thomas' answer.

"Just one minute," the security officer raised his hand toward Thomas as he answered the phone. "What?" The officer uttered only a single word but the horror and shock it portrayed were unmistakable.

The man was already rising from his chair as he hung up the telephone. "I'm sorry, you're going to have to leave. We have a much bigger emergency to deal with. The President has just been shot."

The guard took the canister from Thomas, haphazardly tossed it into a bin with some other packages and immediately escorted Thomas out the door.

Thomas, shocked by the announcement and his hasty removal, did not put up any resistance. He had done his duty. He had delivered the canister. Maybe when it was opened, if it contained anything important, he would be contacted.

2048: President Susan Cheung was sitting in the main office of the temporary capital in Springfield, Illinois when her chief assistant entered the room with a stack of papers and an odd-looking canister of some sort.

"Do you have the death tolls from the Colorado flooding?" asked the President without any pleasantries. This was not the time and the President was not in the mood for pleasantries.

"Yes, Madam, the destruction is far worse than we thought." The aid handed over a packet of papers. "I've also got estimates on the food shortage in the upper Midwest and the latest on the three hurricanes approaching Florida."

"There aren't still people living down there, are there?"

"A few stragglers, but most were permanently evacuated last year."

The President took a deep breath. She noticed the silver canister that the assistant had set down near the desk. "What is that thing?"

"The people at the science institute asked me to show it to you. It was found by one of the divers exploring the remnants of DC after the most recent tidal wave. As near as we can figure it was found in the 1960s and was supposed to be investigated by the Smithsonian but it appears to have never gotten there for some reason. It was found in an old warehouse..."

"You still haven't told me what it is," interrupted the President, a slight hint of frustration made its way into her voice.

"Sorry, Madam President. Here's the interesting thing, they think it was sent from the future. It contained all sorts of warnings about the greenhouse effect and climate change. It even had blueprints and computer files on how to produce clean renewable energy. You know, stuff that was discovered in the late 2030s."

"Well, a lot of good that does us," scoffed the President. "If it was too late to reverse the damage fifteen years ago, it is clearly too late to help us now."

"The scientists are guessing that they used a wormhole to send it back in time, hoping to get the message to the past early enough to prevent the global damage. If someone would have opened the canister in the 60s maybe everything could have been prevented."

The President paused, biting her pinky fingertip. "Well, it doesn't do us much good now. Send it off to one of the research bases. Maybe they can find something useful, something that might help delay the inevitable."

The aide nodded his head. "Yes, Madam." The aide quickly left the office.

President Cheung glanced out the window. A black wall of clouds approached from the west. Multiple bolts of lightning flashed in the sky and thunder shook the building.


  1. A good story. The story fears a gloomy picture, which one prays should not come true in the years 2048 and 2063, of a recollection of a bad past. It should spur us into action. Otherwise, the dark foreboding threatens to come true.
    But, I felt, the story could have done without the name of a future president, in the year 2048. Otherwise, gripping and well written.

  2. A cautionary tale for sure. Definitely a long shot hoping that the information would make it into the right hands, and even if so that it would be acted upon and not ignored. But that lends itself nicely to the tale's sense of desperation.

  3. Beyond the warning of climatic catastrophes, the story also suggests that the past cannot be changed and that no matter what attempts are made, they are doomed to fail. It reminded me of Stephen King’s 11/22/63 where he plays with the notion that the past is stubborn and that it does not want to be changed. Great read, James! I started reading and it propelled me forward! Perfect for a “time” story.

  4. I like the human side, how each person views the capsule as the environment changes to the modern world. The randomness is fun to read. The future scientists tried to reorder time, but indeed the past is stubborn, and the attempt to change it, and human nature and destiny, is a forlorn hope. The story absorbed my attention, well paced.

  5. Completely engaging from the start. I so wanted the message to arrive in time, but alas... excellent pacing, great imagery.