Edition 23: Where Time Travellers Go by David Barber
The old man barely has time to get off before the young man takes the bike. Adrift in his own time stream, making his own mistakes, the man only ever seeks to return home. A wonderful take on losing what we don’t appreciate and the perils of science we don’t understand. SY
His parents being away, the youth was lounging in his father’s den, flicking through the dirty magazines hidden in the desk, when there came a crash from the basement, like a drawer full of cutlery upended onto tiles.
Gleaming under the harsh strip-lights, in the middle of the concrete floor was a machine sleek as a space-cycle from Captain Video, something built for heroes.
The old man, who looked like the youth’s grandfather of memory, was struggling to dismount. He pressed a trembling hand to his chest.
Who could he trust with the time-engine now but himself?
Enrico Fermi, on his lunch break from building the atom bomb, was struck by the oddness of finding us alone in the universe.
Where is everybody? he wondered.
In 2012, Stephen Hawking announced a party for time travellers, but nobody came.
Shouldn’t there be time tourists thronging the decks of the Titanic, queuing up to shoot Hitler, and gawping at the immolation of New York? Wouldn’t they give themselves away, snapping shots of the Crucifixion, their phones ringing during the first Hamlet, crowds intently watching the grassy knoll?
Hawking thought time travel impossible, but I know where the time travellers go.
This is the Pleistocene, before the Clovis folk shiver down through Canada to make a point, far south of the Laurentide ice sheet, in the milder airs of the Gulf of Mexico.
A row of time engines are parked on the shore, like a ’58 Chevy owner’s rally, all with the same careful driver. Not mass-produced so they look identical, these are nevertheless the same machine. Each has the same switch with home scribbled next to it in felt-tip, that we all remember trying when everything else has failed.
As it gets dark, roaring driftwood fires get lit on the beach, competing with the impatient rumble of surf. Groups gather in the firelight, conforming to the hierarchy amongst time travellers, based on knowing the other’s future. Like being surrounded by mirrors, catching endless reflections of ourselves, reminders of everything we’ve ever done wrong.
When the youth walks out of the dark for the first time, he looks stricken and brave, though mostly we feel no sympathy. It was a rite of passage for us all.
I catch his attention, and before he can speak, I say, “You were in the house on your own when you heard the time engine arrive. And there was an old guy who looked like your granddad, except he’s dead.”
Isn’t that how it was, give or take? It’s been a few years now. Or 20967 years uptime, looked at another way. Try to remember that number.
“How do you know that?” the kid demands of this poor impersonation of himself, his voice beginning to tremble.
There is a brief torrent of sparks from logs collapsing into the fire. The answer is already forming. I was a bright kid.
You took it well, the time travel story, a dying man not wanting his invention to fall into the wrong hands.
He watched the old man’s trembling hands, trying to nudge one of the levers the tiniest of divisions. Eight point two six hours. Increments of pi, he explains, not explaining at all. Stays in the same place unless you change the settings. He slumps down on a box, hand pressed to his chest. His heart feels like it’s trying to escape.
The youth can’t wait to try it out. Half astride the seat, he says, “Will you be alright?”
When he bounces back from tomorrow the basement has a pool table and a battered sofa and a big TV, like he wanted as a kid. Upstairs, the kitchen is all different. Feeling like a burglar in his own house, he creeps back down and stares helplessly at the levers on the time engine.
Like turning the wheel too much when you first start driving. No, his father snapped, you’re overcompensating. That’s a positive feedback loop. Small adjustments, he shouts.
Sometimes the basement is dark and dusty; sometimes it’s his father’s obsessively tidy workshop. Once he hears voices raised in alarm and footsteps on the stairs. But the old man has tricked him; there is no way back. Alternates are spawned by time-travelling itself. In the end, he tries the switch on the controls, the one with the sticky plaster labelled home in felt-tip. And it brings him here.
Timelines as different as snowflakes. But there’s this place, and this day. Our histories still cohere this long ago.
This is when the kid storms off. Why him? It’s not fair. He wants answers; he wants to go home. Out in the dark there is the dull whump of a departing time engine.
I recall it was a difficult couple of months, discovering what was possible. Anybody with access to the future can coin money, but he keeps on trying to go home. There are timelines so close you can’t tell the difference, except for the copy of yourself living there, complaining about school or moping over Jenny Chen.
Right on cue, he stalks out of the dark, looking older, wearing that stupid leather jacket. We bear the marks of fads and bad decisions made long ago.
Every trip creates a new alternate. If the kid knew how it all turned out he might upset things, so we did it the way we remembered.
“Make sure you get the gun,” someone round the fire insists. Identical personalities, we reinforce our faults with every meeting.
The last time he had no idea what was going on, now he’s here to sort things out.
So you’re all older versions of me.
He thinks he sees something move, some creature of possibility sniffing at the edges of the firelight, but when he looks again it’s gone.
Are there more like us?
We’ve all hoped temponauts from the 42nd century will step through shining time portals and save us, but it looks like ours is the only engine to rattle down the timelines.
His hand will be on the gun in his pocket now. “That old man,” he says. “The one like my grandfather, the one who was ill?”
I don’t recall having much of a plan, just to make the old man undo what he had done.
The Old Man is the last of us. There’s a notion that we’re harmed by time travel, that each trip damages our cells. And our souls, if the eyes of the oldest tell us anything. We listen to each other and realise it’s all been said before, by ourselves, stranger and older, or younger and more foolish.
The kid glances up and down the beach at the bonfires. “I’ve a couple of questions to ask him.”
“We don’t think he comes here.”
And he finds it hard to believe he could have invented a time engine. “My father said if I could fix up his old Triumph, I could have it. Got about as far as taking the engine out.”
Then he remembers who he’s talking to. “But you knew that.”
As we understand it, the dying man jumps back to some innocent version of his youth and tempts him into jaunting into tomorrow. The old guy is left in an alternate there’s no returning to. But the time engine goes on. None of us know where it comes from.
Almost shyly, he asks what we do with them, with our time engines.
Only the Teens travel millennia to spy on peoples we don’t understand and whose fate doesn’t concern us. It’s the Twenties who begin tinkering; they keep on shooting Hitlers until they realise they’re only branching off alternates.
Besides, you might stop a friend taking that fateful car trip, but it’s harder to convince a cousin not to enlist because the Vietcong blow his legs off. Eventually you start thinking differently. In one timeline, someone gets shot, and in another they don’t. Pulling the trigger is like switching the points on rail tracks. It’s not a moral act.
“Give me the gun,” I insist.
It’s us Thirties that stalk ourselves across the timelines, obsessed with how it might have been had we not been so weak or unlucky, or we’d made better choices. In some alternates we even get to marry Jenny Chen, though it never turns out well. Things repeat themselves. Like finding it hard to settle on a career, or how often we end up on our own. But always a disappointment to our father.
In the timelines that work out best, we settle down with Elsie Trent, that plain girl from high school who had a thing for us, though they never have kids, no matter how many alternates you try.
Later, someone steps into the firelight and tells me I handled the youth well.
Only a few Forties come here. We think they choose a good timeline, put a tarp over the time engine and settle down. The problem is the fellow whose life it already was.
This older self has a nervous habit of touching his chest, as if checking he’s still alive. He’s overweight and his hair is sparse. Difficult to see how I could become him in just a few years.
“Ask Elsie Trent,” he says.
The older you get, the more difficult it is to remember whether you said something or heard it spoken by another self.
An old man is leaning against his time engine, waiting.
“Elsie left you,” he begins bluntly. You’re here because you’ve got nowhere to go.
If he’s unsympathetic, it’s because this one is the killer. This is the one mad enough to hide the body and impersonate himself. Simmering with plans. A better life, a bigger house, a shinier car. Just win the lottery, play the market, bet the horses. Ten years after, Elsie would say, you aren’t the man I married.
You get over it, the old man adds. And stay off the engine, its killing us.
This younger self isn’t listening. He keeps touching the gun in his pocket.
“I suppose you remember this conversation,” he begins, with a calculating look.
Someone watching would judge they were related, an old man and his grown-up son perhaps, the one made gaunt by illness, the other still overweight, still a disappointment.
He takes the gun from his pocket and stares at it. “You give the kid your time engine. That starts it all off. It’ll go round forever. Unless I stop it.”
“You don’t pull that trigger. I’m living proof. ”
“In another timeline. This is the alternate where it ends…” He staggers and collapses.
Behind him in the dark, an old man holds a taser in his hand. He shakes his head. “I don’t remember being that stupid.”
“Are you the Old Man?”
“I think so.”
He recalls they had nothing much to say after that. With hands that tremble he adjusts the levers on the time engine.
The time engine crashes onto bare concrete beneath strip lights, into a basement he remembers. And a terrible wave of weakness engulfs him.
Soon his young self clatters downstairs, wide-eyed and gawping. There is so much to explain, but he hardly seems to listen, stroking the gleaming machine like the skin of a girl.
I’ll only be a minute, the youth says, impatient to vanish forever.
This is why the last of them come here. He is very weary and wants it all to end. It takes him a long time to climb the stairs, and he rests on the front doorstep, thinking this is what it is to be free. Even the voices seem familiar.
Jesus, thought it was my dad sitting there for a second.
A big shining machine in the drive. The temponauts have finally come to save him.
David Barber lives anonymously in the UK. He used to be a scientist, though he is retired now and writing. His stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Shock Totem, New Myths & Electric Spec. He is a puzzle to his friends.