SF Time Traveler

Editor’s Foreword

At least Sam Beckett recovered his thoughts within a few minutes.

Where’s the paper, honey?”

She looks at me with those world-weary hooded eyes she’s had of late–what happened to the mischievous lively pupils I fell in love with? “You’re holding it.” She takes a sip of tea.

So I am. I read a paragraph or two about the evacuations from the Philippines. Turning the page, I read the headline on the top: DC DAM WILL NOT HOLD. And I catch the date.

“This is Sunday’s paper.” I put it down, allowing the tabletop to whisk it away. “Where’s today’s news?”

“It is Sunday.” My wife sighs–I think she’s my wife. I can’t recall the ceremony, but I know she had been planning it with her mother for months. Flowers, tablecloth patterns, the works. Come to think of it, this woman looks more like her mother than my Mary.

“Today is Tuesday,” I assert with more confidence than I feel. “Where’s today’s paper, Mary?”

The woman, wife or mother-in-law, does not answer. She rises, tipping the cup over. The autoclean whirs into overdrive, but the woman pays no attention. “I’m taking a shower.” She pulls herself up the stairs, putting careful concentration into each step like an old woman. How could I have confused her for the girl I love? I stand to watch her laborious ascent. Finally, she turns at the landing towards my master bedroom.

“Bring down the paper,” I call after her. “Today’s.”

* * * * * * *

“I’m leaving the program.” I sit on the bench in front of my scuffed locker and start to dry off.

“Whatsa matter?” Steve snaps his own towel at me. “Lose your cookies in the fugue one too many times?”

It used to be funny to call it the fugue, when the machine gleamed with just-manufactured perfection. Back when we all knew we were on the verge of becoming heroes. Now, six years later, the centrifuge was still kept clean–even after one of the newer recruits did lose control of his stomach in the simulated weightlessness it didn’t stay dirty long–but the walls no longer sparkled. It was older, less immaculate, worn down by the passage of time. “There’s not much point to staying around anymore.” I pull up my standard-issue spaceman’s trousers without rising more than a few inches from the scratched wood surface of the bench. “I didn’t join the astronauts to punch a time clock.”

“Don’t give up on the dream, man.” Steve motions out beyond the windowless walls of the room. “This is your ticket, Roger. You’ll be a genuine hero.”

Only Mary sees a hero in me anymore. “You know it, Steve. The flitship’s never going to go anywhere.”

Steve plunks down on the bench next to me. The bench groans under the force of his descent. It wouldn’t have six years ago. “They spent too much on those damn ships not to send ’er up.”

As I pull my shirt over my head I don’t disagree. There’s no need. We both know the Mars mission’s not coming back. No politician in the world would let another forty martyrs go into space towards Saturn. Not on their watch. Not while sending the ship out would remind everyone that we spent trillions on the flit ship program while a fraction of that investment might have slowed the warming. The poor people of the Netherlands and the Philippines could have been saved.

I adjust the temperature control on my collar. These new clime-controlled garments are really nice, especially as the outside temperature climbs well into the triple digits. “I’m not supposed to say anything, Steve, but I’m talking with the hush-hush government folks tomorrow about a new program. You should come along, Captain. I’m sure they’d have you.”

“No, sir.” Steve salutes me, his eyes glinting with mischief. “I’ll go down with my ship, thank you.”

I slap his back. “Always a hero.” We continue to dress in silence. I don’t tell him that Mary’s pregnant, that I plan to name my son “Steve.” Why should I tell him now? There’s all the time in the world.

* * * * * * *

After awhile, I get tired of waiting. I have never in my life been very patient, which is why time travel has been the perfect occupation for me. Not that there were many other choices for a suddenly obsolete flit ship pilot. I wasn’t a physicist, a geologist, or an engineer like the rest of the crew. I was just a flyboy, displaced by the full automation of the major airliners, lucky to land the only flying gig remaining. Then Mars crashed, and until I found the time project, I thought I’d be out of a job once again.

I go to my room. The bed’s disheveled, which means the autoclean’s got a glitch again. Damn thing. Makes one wish for simpler times, when a human maid would make the bed. Or it wouldn’t be a surprise if it stayed unmade all day.

“Phone call,” I announce. “Maintenance.”

“Hello.” The visual’s down, but I can make out the voice through the static.

“Our home system needs to be fixed. 67301 Trifecta Way.”

“Sir, your contract with us expired three years ago.”

Impossible. I just signed over a big chunk of my time bonus to these bozos. “Check your records again.” I keep my voice barely civil.

“No need, Mr. Truskin. Nothing’s changed since you called last month. I’m sorry. You have no maintenance arrangement with us.”

“I’ll get this straightened out later. Meanwhile, Mrs. Truskin can’t tolerate a messy house. Send someone out.”

“I can have a technician to you on Friday. Cash on the barrelhead.”

“Friday? My contract is for 24 hour service.”

“I’m sorry sir, you have no–”

“Fine,” I cut him off. “Be here Friday.” I don’t like to wait two days, but Mary can survive that. I intend to switch maintenance contracts as soon as this problem is fixed.

Cursing under my breath, I tuck the sheets in as best I can. I’m out of practice, but Mary will appreciate the effort. The shower keeps going, the monotonous rat-tat-tat of the massage mode. Mary loves her showers.

* * * * * * *

“They said it was an accident,” Mary insists. Though there is a limit to how insistent a woman can be while breastfeeding.

I shake my head. “That’s for public consumption, dear.” I worked under government secrecy for too long to be taken in. “Steve was too good a space pilot to let that happen by accident.”

“Anyone can have an accident.” She points with her free hand to the paper. Just below the photos of the evacuation of New York City is a small headline: “Flitship crashes in Nevada Desert.” Well, Steve, you managed to get the space program back on page one. It’s more of an obit than we old spacers had any right to hope for.

“Anyone can.” I point to the third paragraph, which describes the mysterious disappearance of all of our lucky animals. All incinerated with the flitship crash, I’m sure. “Steve didn’t.”

“You think he took all of your silly stuffed animals, and deliberately crashed a trillion dollar spaceship? You’re nuts.”

“The flitship was to be dismantled, the parts that didn’t go to museums were going to be repurposed for defense. Steve didn’t have an accident.”

Mary shifts little Stevie to the other breast. She looks back at me, disbelieving, but knows better than to continue the conversation. I get very inflexible when I’m right. “Didn’t you try to recruit him to your time project?”

“Several times. I called him after they sent the cockroach back a month, and again when the mouse went back almost a week. I told him the future was in the past. He wouldn’t buy it.”

She smiles, and her eyes light up our kitchen. “Stubborn pilots. You can’t convince them of anything.”

I take her hand, blocking the servomech from clearing our plates. Let the machine wait. “Yes, I suppose Steve was stubborn.”

Damn romantic Captain. Had to go down with his ship.

* * * * * * *

Mary tucks in her wings, gossamer strands of lights bathing her entire body in a warm greenish glow. In her finery she makes quite the contrast to me slouched on the couch in my t-shirt and pantaloons. “Did you forget?”

I ignore her exasperation. She’s been increasingly cross with me lately. When I ask her why, her anger turns to sorrow. So I don’t ask anymore. I prefer the anger.

“Did you?”

“No.” My response doesn’t fool her, but I think she appreciates the effort. Her expression softens anyway. “I’m going to get dressed right now.”

“Good.” She turns away. “Steve doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

Wise man, Steve. Whoever he is.

I scuttle up the stairs and push past the unmade bed. The closet door opens at my approach. At least that mechanism still works.

The blue lightsuit awaits. It will make a sturdy match to Mary’s outfit. Reaching for it, my hand brushes against a starched wool sleeve sticking forward. I caress the itchy fabric.

This was my time pilot outfit. There was more to it, of course–protective plastics and ultra sheer titanium-algae alloy. But this was the costume for the press conferences and the holo-shots. The uniform for public consumption. When I was on the front covers of Time and World Week I was wearing this deep blue star field with the bold white swoosh on the chest.

The white is dingy now, more of a light gray, and the star field is pilling. No matter. It was the first suit of clothes to travel backwards in time. I wipe at a nonexistent tear.

* * * * * * *

They let me use the phone in quarantine. The voices coming through the wires can’t contaminate me. “Let me speak to him, Mary.”

“Steve,” she calls. “Steve. It’s your daddy.” There’s a long pause, then faint crying in the background. “C’mon Steve.”

I choke back a laugh. “It’s okay, Mary. He doesn’t have to talk to me.”

“You know five-year-olds.” She sighs. “He’s mad at you for abandoning him like this. He doesn’t understand.”

I don’t either. They’ve explained to me they don’t want any viruses or bacteria in my body crossing with their past twins, creating some form of super time-enhanced killer bug. Highly implausible–like the concept of time travel itself. It’s more likely the epidemiologists just want a piece of the publicity.

“Tell Stevie I love him.” Will I never see him again, just like his namesake? The nausea I feel has nothing to do with the stringent internal cleansing regimen I’ve endured. “I’ll be home soon.”

“It will be fine, Roger.” Mary talks and I can imagine the sparkle in her eyes. “He’ll be so happy when you come home.”

When I come home.

* * * * * * *

The reporter walks in just as I come down the stairs, resplendent in my uniform. “Hi,” I stick out my hand forcefully for a shake. “I’m Roger Truskin. Glad you could make it.”

The reporter doesn’t take my proffered hand. He turns to Mary. “I thought you said this was one of his good days.”

Mary meets his gaze. She slumps but her expression is still a force to be reckoned with. “It is.”

I laugh genially to cover the uncomfortable silence that ensues. What have I forgotten? The reporter’s name. “Steve. I’ve heard so much about you. You are with...” Looking at him, I see no sign of which media outlet he represents. He carries no notebook or vidcoder. Steve doesn’t fill in the blank, so I blunder on, “Shall I tell you about the years of preparation or the jump itself?”

Then through the door, the reporter’s wife and kids emerge. A cute little boy and girl, if a touch sullen. The girl grabs for her mother’s leg. The boy is more courageous. He steps tentatively forward and touches the rough fabric of my suit. “Grandpa, whatcha wearing?”

I pull back my arm as if stung, then quickly smile to keep the little fellow’s trembling lip from exploding into a full cry. “Why I’m hardly old enough to be your father. Don’t cry little man.”

The reporter hurries to pick up the boy. “Mom, you promised me this wouldn’t happen again.” Steve and his family walk out the door.

I turn to Mary. “Did you have a son before we met?”

* * * * * * *

Nothing changed. I jump out of my time capsule. “What the hell happened here!“ Too late, I hear the cameras whirring and I remember I’m supposed to keep smiling. For Nike and Coke.

The head scientist clears his throat. “You went back, Roger. Almost a thousandth of a second.”

That’s not what I signed up for. I’ve endured the scientists’ caution, years of caution beyond what even the space program required me to put up with. Today was supposed to be different. “Turn up the juice, and let’s go back a noticeable interval.”

“We tried, Rog.” The head guy shakes his head. “You should have gone back an hour, at least. We’ll try again later. Congratulations on being the first human to travel backwards in time.”

I swallow hard, feeling the discomfort of my sparkling clean trachea. There’s no way I’m willing to come out of isolation, not while success is in my sterile grasp. Not until I’ve done something that will impress Stevie for all time. “Pretend I’m a cockroach. C’mon, let’s do this thing.” I slap the side of the pod, and duck back inside.

The scientists confer. Through the Plexiglas walls of the pod, I can’t hear what they say but I can follow the flow of their arguments, like a tennis match. The chief insists that protocol requires us to stop now, and analyze what happened–or rather what didn’t. The young turks, allowed onto the project only because their breakthroughs made it possible, get quite animated in response. “This is the chance to do this,” they seem to be saying. “If we don’t seize this moment, we may not be granted another.” The other scientists, mid-career bureaucrats most of them, sway one way with the force of the arguments, then the other.

“Come on!” I yell, even though I know they can’t hear me. Time travel, now that it’s been discovered, is technically simple. The formulas leaking to the WorldNet–or being independently discovered–is a much greater risk than there being any fundamental error. Something didn’t work, so we have to try again. Don’t abandon everything. Not now, when we’re on the verge of something big.

Finally, the young turks win. They give me a thumb’s up, and power up for another go.

Nothing happens. Through tries three and four, nothing happens at all. That’s not technically true. The scientists tell me how many thousandths of a second backwards I venture. The machine is set for much more–but it seems to have hit an impenetrable wall. They can’t seem to push me beyond a temporal displacement that I cannot perceive. It’s a new corollary to the uncertainty principle. Science marches ever forward. Meanwhile, I’m stuck in neutral.

The chief scientist shoos me out of the machine. He looks surprised when I don’t argue.

“All systems look good,” I say. “When do we start?”

* * * * * * *

I close the holo-album. Mary’s hand squeezes mine. I squeeze gently back.

“I don’t remember.”

Mary looks at me with a face that’s twenty years older than I expect. “I know, honey. It’s like you were back right after you made the jump.” She speaks with compassion but also by rote, as though repeating a well-rehearsed script. “At first your mistakes seemed like jokes. You were quick to make it seem that way when I caught you in an inconsistency. But it got worse. After a few years, I insisted on some tests. Your basal ganglia looks like no one else’s. It was distorted by the repeated efforts to send you back in time.”

“This has happened before? Will it pass?”

“Yes, and yes.” She turns away.

I hear the unspoken, “this time.”

“I’m going to take a shower.” She starts to peel off her beautiful lightsuit.

“Wait.” I reach for her arm. “May I have this dance?”

She hesitates, but at last she nods.

Her shoulder trembles against mine. Our bodies move against each other with a practiced ease. We follow a long dance without a single misstep. We need no music to keep time.

 

About the Author

Jonathan Laden has been writing for many years. He is a proud member emeritus of the writing group to be named later, a graduate of Clarion 2003, a winner, published in Writers of the Future Vol. XX, and a published author in Neo-Opsis, Hadrosaur Tales, and other magazines, online and in-print. He and wife Michele Barasso have started “Fictitious Force” magazine because, with their toddler daughter, jobs, cats, dogs, and extended family, they found they had far too much time on their hands. Visit them at fictitiousforce.com and jonathanladen.com. Or don’t. Time is the most valuable asset any of us has. Use yours as you would like.

 

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