Time is On My Side
Time for my weekly short story post! I presented this at the Not-So-Silent Planet open mic last night. The requirement was for a story that is 5-7 minutes long and this is actually a bit on the long side. I actually think it needs to be longer.
The basic inspiration for the story was “what if time travel was super easy and there were no consequences?”
There are consequences, though. There are always consequences.
I’ve written some serious stories the last few weeks. This one is a lot more comedic. As always, if you read, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Who knew time travel would end up being so darn easy?
Einstein was right about most things but when it came to time travel, he got it totally wrong. As soon as someone discovered he’d forgotten to carry a 2, people started traveling through time with the kind of thoughtlessness that had formerly been reserved for buying apples and masturbation.
Why travel to the grand canyon when you could take a trip back in time to see what it looked like when it was just the grand plain with a river in the middle of it? Why worry about extinction when you could bring back a flock of Dodos and repopulate the species? Why worry about making a bad choice in a life partner when you could travel back in time and end the relationship before it began?
Worried about creating a paradox? Not a problem. Turns out you can mess with the past all you want and the consequences are negligible.
Sure, changes in the past do cause ripples like tossing a rock into a pond. That old analogy is actually a good one.
But imagine your pond is the size of the atlantic ocean and your rock is the size of a grain of sand. You can throw a handful of sand into the ocean and the long-term effects won’t even last a few seconds.
Same with doing something seemingly huge like killing Hitler (someone did that). The result, six million jews died by inhaling poisonous gas fumes from a particularly cheap brand of Hanukkah candles. Put the candle manufacturer out of business (someone did that too) and six million Jews starve to death when a shortage of Hanukkah candles results in a disastrous global recession.
It doesn’t matter what anyone does. Six million Jews are still going to die.
The result is a consequence free lifestyle where anyone can do anything and if it all goes wrong, they can fix it and try again.
The problem with the creation of a consequence free society, of course, is the consequences.
Henry understood the consequences. They weren’t as dramatic as a complete rearrangement of the fabric of time.
That happened, yes. However, the fabric of time was a lot like spandex. You could shove just about any shape into it and it held up just fine.
The shape might be really unattractive in spandex. But that wasn’t the fault of the spandex.
The problems were a lot more subtle. Millions of time travelers were changing history so rapidly, it was nearly impossible to keep up. The mental strain of a constantly shifting history would become too much for some of them. And they would break.
When someone broke, they were called comets. With good reason.
If a comet travelled back in time and changed literally anything – the consequences were catastrophic and unchangeable. About ten years ago, a comet had decided that Duran Duran needed a better lead singer than Simon Le Bon.
A completely reasonable conclusion.
He travelled back in time and replaced Le Bon with David Lee Roth. Don’t ask how. It’s complicated.
The result? Moscow exploded. It just blew up as if Wile E. Coyote was in Moscow and had planted a bunch of TNT under Paris but when he pushed the plunger, Moscow exploded.
Even worse, Michael Bolton became the lead singer of Van Halen.
Comets had to be stopped.
Finding comets was about as hard as it comes. Timelines shifted so fast, it was a huge challenge to separate the people who were just normal every day “I can’t keep all this shit straight” crazy from the people who were “I could potentially destroy the world or at least an awesome band” crazy.
That’s where Henry came in. He could spot a comet in a crowd. Along with the other Gravitational Redirectors (a name he thought was embarrassingly stupid), he was the guy they sent out divert the comets. You had to keep comets away from the time stream at all costs.
Usually that didn’t mean killing them. Usually.
Comets looked just like everyone else. Except they were more engaged. They were more focused. The worst thing someone could do was lock out the changes. As soon as you stopped being aware of the time fluctuations, you were capable of recognizing those points that were the most vulnerable.
Points where you could put your greasy fingerprint on the shifting surface of history. And when you became a comet, you wanted to get history dirty.
Henry could spot that look better than any of his colleagues. He could find a comet in a stadium filled with people who were all planning on going back in time to ensure their team actually won this game. He could spot that one person who wasn’t worried about the outcome of the game. They were going to burn the stadium to the ground so the game couldn’t even happen.
Today, though, he was at the mall and he wasn’t looking for comets. He was shopping with his girlfriend.
Shopping was frustrating. If you spotted something you really liked, you needed to make sure nobody else noticed it or they would just jump back an hour and buy it before you’d even seen it. Redundancy was key. If you had only one of something, there was a good chance nobody would buy it because the risk was too high.
Beth was looking at rings. They’d been talking about finding a ring for a few months now. She slid a simple gold band with an understated diamond onto her ring finger and held it out to get a better look.
“What do you think, Henry? Is this the right one?”
Henry thought it looked fine. He’d buy her whatever ring she wanted. He didn’t care about the ring – he just cared about her.
“Is there time insurance on this,” he asked the sales clerk.
Time insurance was an absolute must. Otherwise you couldn’t get your money back for a ring someone else bought first.
“Of course, sir. We guarantee to put a ten-year retroactive hold on any product. If anyone should go further back than ten years, our system will ensure we keep at least two on hand at all times.”
“This is definitely the one you want, Beth?”
“Oh yes,” she replied brightly, “I love this one!”
“OK, I’ll take the ring and the insurance,” Henry said, handing over his card.
“Very good sir.”
As the clerk took his card, he saw them. A couple passed the door of the store and looked at the ring on Beth’s hand. The girl leaned over and said something to her boyfriend.
“Hurry up with that card,” Henry insisted. Then he felt the change.
“Shit!” Beth yelled.
“Shit.” Henry repeated.
“I’m sorry sir, that ring was sold yesterday,” the clerk told him, handing back the card.
“I’m really getting tired of this, Henry.”
“I know, honey. We’ll find something else.”
“I don’t want something else,” Beth insisted, “I wanted that one.”
Henry’s phone rang. He looked at the screen. It was his boss. Bad timing.
“Hold on a minute. I have to get this. Just stay calm, OK?”
“I am calm.”
Henry answered the phone. “Yeah boss? What can I do for you?”
“Sorry to bother you on your day off but the computer tells us there is someone going comet very close to you. I’m hoping you can spot them. We have a team on the way.”
“Sure boss, I’m happy to help.”
“I want that ring, Henry.”
Beth’s voice was calm. Almost placid. She didn’t sound even a little bit angry.
“Oh shit. I think I found her.”
“I want that ring and I’m going to get it.”
“I gotta go! Beth – listen to me – you don’t need a ring. A ring is just a thing. I thought you didn’t care about things.”
“This isn’t about things, Henry. It’s the principle of the matter. You don’t just get to take something from someone on a whim. At some point, this all has to stop. Don’t you see that Henry?”
“Beth, just calm down and it’ll be OK.”
Henry was good at this. He’d spent most of his life talking comets away from the edge. He just had to keep her away from a warp dock.
“I am calm. And you’re right. It is going to be OK.”
She pulled a temporal warp disc from her pocket. He’d given her one for Christmas to make visiting him at work a little bit easier. In retrospect, it had been a really bad gift.
“I’ll be right back.”
“No, Beth! You can’t! I have to stop you!”
There was a flash and she was gone. Henry pulled out his own warp disc and he pressed the button that would allow him to follow her temporal trajectory automatically.
Oh no! Had he forgotten to charge it?
He pushed the button again several times. Nothing was happening.
A familiar voice came from behind him.
“Well,” Beth said with satisfaction, “that was easy.”
He turned around to face her. She wore a triumphant smile that might have been the most horrifying expression he’d ever witnessed.
“What did you do, Beth?”
He could feel time shift in his memories. Whatever she’d done, it was as big as anything he’d ever felt. Hitler had no longer died in a tragic beer hall accident. Dodos were still extinct. David Lee Roth had always been the lead singer of Van Halen. There wasn’t even a Sammy Hagar period.
“What did you do?”
“Not much,” Beth said, “I just killed Einstein.”
“I felt bad about it. He was a very nice man. When I explained it to him, though, we both agreed it was the only practical solution.”
“Time travel was messed up, Henry. Our reality was messed up. We both knew it. I fixed that. There’s no more time travel. Ever.”
He could tell she was right. Killing Einstein had somehow made time travel completely impossible.
“Good news though,” she said brightly, “faster than light travel is cheap, easy, and completely possible.”
He knew that already. In fact, he was an interstellar navigator. He’d always been an interstellar navigator. Which was a way cooler job title.
“Come on, Henry. Let’s buy that ring.”
She took his hand and pulled him back towards the counter.
“Oh! Before you buy the ring, I have to tell you one more thing.”
“Cher is the lead singer of Queen.”