Twenty Years Ago

Today I noticed this tweet by way of a blog post by SJ O’Hart that gave me pause.

Could it really be that 1997 was twenty years ago? By the bountiful bowels of Bacchus… I feel so old. In spring of that year, I was a scrawny beanpole of a high school freshman, shy around others yet a little too blathery within my circle of friends. How can part of my life simultaneously seem so recent, yet feel a whole lifetime distant?

Mise-en-scène: a suburban brick house in North Carolina. Temperature is a mild 74° Fahrenheit. Humidity is low, and the winds are pushing an unbroken layer of clouds out of the WNW. (Thank you, WUnderground.) Outside, a mockingbird sings.

Inside, a family is cleaning up after dinner. Perhaps they just finished watching Jeopardy on the tiny black-and-white TV in the kitchen. And while the parents intend to continue their CBS experience with an all-new episode of Diagnosis: Murder (spoiler: Dick Van Dyke solves the case), the teenager retires to his room.

There I find him, the eo-ego, my twenty-years-younger self. His thoughts are on… what? School? I struggle to remember what classes I might have been enrolled in for spring semester. Girls? Everything this kid knows about girls couldn’t even fill an awkward lull in the conversation. He has no plans for college, nor any particular ambition: I doubt he can seriously think farther into the future than next week.

No personal computer and no internet in 1997. Our first dial-up connection came a year later. What does he do? He seems as alien to me as I must seem to him.

If I wanted to blow his mind, I could just hand him my smartphone. If I wanted to live a life of luxury, I could tell him to invest in Apple stock. If I wanted to be a hero, I could tell him what happens on a September morning four years from now.

I do none of those things: he and I have both read enough science fiction to imagine a butterfly effect of negative consequences that any such revelation might bring. Still, I must say something.

“Y’know… The college you eventually go to has a motto: Think and Do.” No spoilers here. My 1997 self accepts college as a foregone conclusion, but it would be several more years before he recognizes that motto.

“Both are important. But if you have to choose one… choose to do.”

In the bedroom of the suburban brick home, the time traveler from 2017 vanishes in a puff of smoke, leaving a clueless, socially awkward sci-fi junkie student to wonder what to make of this cryptic message.

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A Time To Embrace

Our prophets foretold that my people would find a homeland, in the fullness of time. But now we are scattered to the beginnings and ends of the Earth, and my ragtag band of refugees constantly asks when we’ll find this promised land.

Wind whips my hair as I stand atop a hill overlooking a grassy plain. The threescore of us that haven’t been killed by the hunters, or lost to the diaspora, scrounge for supplies. Our last temporal leap dropped us into a land once known as Persia: a land rich in pre-digital history and mythology. Epic battles between armies of good and evil.

My engineer approaches from the timeship. “I’ve found the problem.” Yet he appears puzzled. “An anachronism lodged in the chronoton inductors.”

Anachronism. A bit of matter sucked into our path as we bridged countless centuries of history. Typically unrecognizable fragments or debris. This one, though, was an apple. Taking the fruit, I turn it over in my hand, examining its golden skin, single green leaf, and neatly snipped stem.

“Never have I seen such a pristine anachronism,” he says. “What could it mean?” I study the anachronism: a fruit out of place in this treeless grassland. Just like me. Just like all of us.

“In this time, but not of it,” I whisper. “I think it’s a sign.” My titanium survival blade cuts through the apple. I offer a slice to the engineer. Then, with loving care, I gather some soil, and gently plant the seeds.

Written for Flash! Friday vol 3-33. Photo prompt: Sinbad the Sailor. Illustration by Frances Brundage, published 1898 in The Arabian Nights, edited by George Fyler Townsend.

Reading at the Event of my Death

Day 18 of the A-to-Z Challenge. R is for Retrocausality, or reverse-causality; the idea that an effect can precede its cause. Though some physicists, including Hawking, speculate that the laws of nature will conspire to prevent time travel, many physical laws, such as particle interactions, can be interpreted to include backward-in-time travel.

To be opened on the event of my death.
On the morning of April 20th, 2095

Dearest Mari, Kenneth, and Dahlia,

I cannot imagine how the three of you must feel at this moment. No doubt you are grief-stricken, as I was on the day that I lost your mother. Soon you will also be very confused, for the sealed envelope that I handed to Mari just minutes before my passing contained this letter. And though the date is 80 years in the past, and the paper is yellowed with age, this letter contains specific details of the day and hour of my death.

Let me first say how grateful I am for my time with the three of you, and especially for the chance to see all the grandchildren one last time this morning. Contrary to what my doctor has been telling you for the past several years, I do not suffer from a degenerative neurological condition. My mind was as sharp and focused on the day of my death as it on the date that I write this letter: April 20th, 2020.

Thirty-eight years before you, Dahlia, went crying to your mother when your first boyfriend broke up with you.

Twenty-three years before you, Kenneth, scored your first point in the Little Lacrosse league.

Nine years before you, Mari, were born.

Dahlia, as the only one who followed in my prestigious footsteps to become a physicist, you will need to explain this to your siblings. For my entire life, I lived with my arrow of time reversed. I will not explain the technical aspects: all of the mathematics are derived in my papers on time-symmetry.

(I omitted the nature of my personal arrow of time from my published works. After all, I was known to my colleagues as Dr. Wynters, the innovative theoretical physicist, not Dr. Wynters the raving crackpot.)

My first memories are of the day of my death; the day that I gave Mari this letter. Since that time, I have aged backwards through time, growing younger and younger.

Those first (last) years of my life were filled with confusion. You had known me as your father for your entire lives: I had just met you as my adult children. As I heard you tell and re-tell your childhood stories (and learned to fake what I did not know), it became more natural for me to be your father.

On the day of your mother’s funeral, I was overjoyed: I knew I would soon meet the woman of whom you all had spoken so lovingly. I still remember the first time I heard my name roll off her tongue. “Edgar,” she whispered as I stroked her delicate silver hair.

Together we lived a good life, growing younger but always constant in our happiness. I watched your careers with great pride, then your college years, then your childhoods. Each stage brought me new understanding of how the three of you came to be the wonderful people that you are.

But time waits for no man, even when it travels in reverse.

From happy retirement, I moved on to become a celebrated physicist… then an obscure PhD student. My heart shattered into subatomic pieces on that day I met your mother, in the quad on the university campus. I suddenly realized that this was the last time I would ever see her. The pain of her unexpected loss stayed with me throughout my graduate and undergraduate studies; it lingers still.

Now at fifteen, I have only my childhood ahead of me. I dare not wait any longer to write this letter: already my memories of old age are fading, just as most people’s childhood memories fade. As my mind passes through puberty, then into childhood, I will undoubtedly start to lose the capacity to write a cogent letter to you all. From there, little time will remain until the inevitable conclusion of my life: birth.

Thank you all for being part of my memorable though temporally unusual life. Though I know you will grieve, please remember: for me, this day is not an end, but a beginning.

Yours Sincerely,

Dr. Ernest Wynters

Albert Einstein’s Brain is Stolen!

A story written for day 1 of the A-to-Z challenge. A is for Albert Einstein, celebrated Nobel prize-winning physicist (for his explanation of the photoelectric effect), one of the founders of modern physics, and renowned hater of socks.

“Put down the brain and let’s talk.” Xav squinted at the thief, gamma pistol aimed squarely at his chest, body armor illuminated in bold blue to identify him as a law enforcement officer.

“No!” The masked thief took a step backwards, to the very edge of the 3108th story balcony. “Stay where you are! I’ll pitch this brain right over the railing!”

“Ok, citizen.” Xav lowered his pistol. Between the heavy traffic of the hover-expressway, and the twelve-kilometer plummet to ground level, the brain would never survive. He didn’t want the loss of Einstein’s brain on his head. “Can we discuss this calmly? Why did you do it?”

The thief’s eyes bulged. “He ruined everything!”

“Einstein? Citizen, you’re aware that Albert einstein-645461_1280Einstein died two hundred years before you were born?”

“This is the brain that birthed the Theory of Relativity,” ranted the thief. “Have you ever read the speculative fiction from his time period? That was the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Amazing Stories. Astounding Tales. The great founding fathers of the genre wrote tall tales about atomic starships cruising the galaxy. Terrifying aliens. Grand adventure.”

Behind his protective facemask, Xav frowned. “So?”

“So look around, cop!” The brain flopped around in its preservative-filled bottle as the thief spread his arms wide. “No atomic spaceships. No superluminal etheric communications. No green-skinned alien women. But if I destroy the brain that created Relativity, then all the dreams of those pre-Einsteinian writers can come true.”

Xav shook his head. “Citizen,” he lectured. “Einstein didn’t make the rules; he discovered them. Why, blaming Einstein for the lack of FTL is like blaming Isaac Newton for the existence of gravity.”

The thief withdrew the brain from the ledge, holding it close to his body. “Yeah?”

“Of course! Destroying the brain won’t help anything.” As Xav took a tentative step forward, the thief did not withdraw, so the police officer joined him on the balcony. He looked the thief in his masked face. “Look at everything we gained from Relativity. E=mc^2. A deeper understanding of the universe. Without Einstein, there’d be no fusion reactors, no laser communications, no time travel, no GPS.”

With his free hand, the thief removed his black mask, revealing himself to be a youth of perhaps college-age. “You’re right,” he admitted. “Besides, Einstein’s brain was already stolen once, and dissected. What good did that do?”

In a quick motion, the thief hurled the bottled brain over his shoulder. To Xav’s horror, the bottle followed a ballistic arc through the air, until a passing hover-truck crashed into it. The bottle shattered, spilling formaldehyde across the windshield. The massive hover-truck loosed a massive honk of its air horn.

“Why did you do that?” Xav shouted, horrified as he watched the cubes of Einstein’s dissected brain tumble chaotically to the distant groud.

The thief shrugged. “What does it matter? We have time travel, remember? You can go back and stop me before I even steal the brain.”

“Oh, of course,” Xav nodded. “I guess you’re free to go.”

“I’d better hurry back to Tau Ceti, then!” The thief shook Xav’s hand. “My fraternity is throwing a barbecue this evening. Who needs FTL when you have time travel?”

Xav pulled out his tablet to make an official report on the brain theft that was soon to be never happened. If there was a lesson to be learned from this, Xav couldn’t figure it out.

5 Things to Do with a Time Machine

5. Battle Soviets and Ancient Aliens

The Time Traders“The Time Traders” cover art from ISFDB.

Even though the Cold War ended over a quarter of a century ago, westerners of ahem a certain age will clearly remember the constant threat of nuclear annihilation at the hands of the Communists. What could be more frightening, then, than a Soviet project to travel back in time 4000 years, to alter the course of history?

In Andre Norton’s The Time Traders (and its follow-on novels), members of Operation Retrograde face exactly this prospect. Over the course of the novel, protagonists Ross and Ashe must befriend the locals, discover the truth about the destruction of a US base in prehistoric Britain, escape a team of Soviets, and ultimately evade bald aliens who are also involved in events of the period.

As if Soviet troops or hostile aliens alone wouldn’t be enough to deal with…

4. Go Dinosaur Hunting

dino-reticle

In Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder, a company called Time Safari Inc. offers a once-in-a-lifetime safari expedition. Travel back in time for a chance to hunt a T. Rex. Don’t worry… they’ve already traced its history to make sure you’re shooting it just before it would’ve died anyway, and a floating walkway prevents you from stepping on anything and changing the course of history.

No, you can’t have the Tyrannosaur head mounted for your wall, but this outdoor safari will make your trek into the Cretaceous unforgettable.

Just don’t panic and step off of the walkway, or you’ll learn the true meaning of butterfly effect

3. Kill Hitler

Kill Hitler

If there is one thing most time travel stories seem to agree upon, it’s that if you can travel back in time and kill one person, it should be Hitler.

But as with all things temporal, the big question is when? Too late, as in the XKCD comic above, and your assassination is ineffective. Too early, as was once seen in an episode of the (new) Outer Limits, and some other monster will simply fill his place.

WikiHistory, by Desmond Warzel, has another take on this time travel cliché. Time travel in this story is so commonplace that edits are tracked Wikipedia-style. The one rule that each editor breaks (to the annoyance of one of the WikiHistory editors) is that no one is allowed to kill Hitler.

In the words of WikiHistory editor SilverFox316: “Permit me to sum it up and save you the trouble: no Hitler means no Third Reich, no World War II, no rocketry programs, no electronics, no computers, no time travel. Get the picture?”

2. Build an Oracle Machine

book-pnpThis possibility comes from an unlikely source: a spoof/homage named Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. In chapter 17, Harry Potter decides to use time travel for a purpose that could excite only a computer scientist: solving NP-problems in constant time.

His plan? Harry Potter is given the number 181,429 and told that it is the product of two three-digit prime numbers. He will loop through all possible pairs of prime factors, sending the result back in time to the start of the experiment, until he factorizes that number and the time loop stabilizes.

Harry expects that this will result in him receiving the two prime factors of 181,429 in zero perceived time. If this sounds like a dull application, keep in mind that Harry has effectively invented an oracle machine, and broken asymmetric keypair cryptography.

The actual results are a little more frightening:

Harry took Paper-2 in his trembling hand, and unfolded it.

Paper-2 said in slightly shaky handwriting:

DO NOT MESS WITH TIME

Harry wrote down “DO NOT MESS WITH TIME” on Paper-1 in slightly shaky handwriting, folded it neatly, and resolved not to do any more truly brilliant experiments on Time until he was at least fifteen years old.

To the best of Harry’s knowledge, that had been the scariest experimental result in the entire history of science.

I wonder if it was actually a dog-latin curse? NON MOLESTERE TEMPUS

Honorable Mention: Fail at Everything and Die

Usually we expect someone with modern technology and know-how will fare pretty well in the past. A modern soldier armed with an automatic rifle should make quick work of a Roman infantry unit. A chemist should impress medieval alchemists with his knowledge of chemical reactions and metallurgy.

In Poul Anderson’s The Man Who Came Early, the protagonist thinks much the same… but quickly learns otherwise. A Cold War-era American soldier stationed in Iceland falls back through time to the 10th century.

With his engineering knowledge, and knowledge of the Icelandic language, he expects to make sweeping and impressive changes. However, he learns a quick lesson in logistics, finding that the period lacks the infrastructure and industry needed for modern manufacturing. Nor are the locals impressed by his civil engineering knowledge, dismissing his plans as impractical, and ultimately coming to regard him as useless.

He likewise has trouble integrating into a society where jobs come through apprenticeship from a young age, where there is no concept of central government, and wrongs are settled by revenge killings. When he runs out of ammunition for his service weapon, he loses his only leverage against a clan whom he has offended.

If it’s any consolation, he dies a heroic death and finds honor posthumously.

1. Leave your Mark on History

What fun is time travel if you can’t brag about it? That’s what researcher George Kilroy thought in Isaac Asimov’s The Message. An academic from the 30th century sent to study World War II, George finds himself caught up in “an intense kind of life forever gone from the world of the thirtieth century”.

Though he is supposed to be merely an observer, George cannot resist leaving a sign of his presence. If you know Asimov’s writing and noticed George’s last name, you’ve likely already guessed the titular message.

Kilroy was here.

What would you do with a time machine? Let me know in the comments.

Sagitta Struck

Another Flash! Friday two-fer. The prompt is still a parking lot, along with this CC2.0 photo by Tanakawho.

I stood my ground upon the fresh asphalt. Here I would make my stand, bold as the white paint that striped this parking lot.

My journey had taken me across the known universe. I had trod barren planets beneath the million suns of a globular cluster, felt vertigo in the darkest intergalactic voids, and seen supernovae of unsurpassed brilliance.

In that time, I had learned everything except how to escape her.

She emerged from the metal sphere and immediately assumed human form to mock me. “You cannot beat me,” she taunted.

I shrugged. “Then I will not fight you.”

Now I had come full circle, falling backward through aeons of time, to Earth, to a hospital parking lot, on the very night of my birth.

“Pathetic.” She drew an ethereal weapon that transformed into a bow, then took aim with a strangelet arrow. With the merest flick of her fingers, the assassin in the Coalsack dress loosed the lethal projectile.

It struck me square in the chest. I collapsed, embracing the smooth pavement as strangelet matter consumed every atom of my human body from within. As she stood victorious over me, I laughed defiantly. Somehow, deep in my soul, I knew I was only going home.

Hailee Eddinger Loves Errant Nights

An entry for Flash! Friday vol. 2-21. The photo prompt this week was beautiful — I couldn’t come up with an idea to do it justice.

As nightfall approached, music from lyre and aulos filled the citadel. Their long war was over; the besieging army driven away.

A captive of the city-state’s king, Hailee wept into her anachronistic Guinevere dress. Sir Aodhán had failed her. Soon Hailee’s camouflaged chronocar would automatically return to her far future home — without her. Her dad would be furious.

Sir Aodhán had been so charming. A backseat mishap landed them nearly three millennia on the wrong side of medieval Britain. Fascinated by his steel armor and tales of chivalry, these Bronze Age warriors had hailed Aodhán as a hero.

Outside, celebration instantly became panic. Swordplay? A familiar face appeared at her window. “Aodhán?!”

“Fairest maiden! Your magical steed awaits. Let us be off!”

Greek soldiers poured through the city gates, chanting their hero’s name. “Ajax! Ajax! Ajax!”

“So they mangled your name, too.” She embraced her knight. Together they mounted the wooden horse and vanished into misty legend.

Hailee Eddinger Laughs Last in Stiletto Heels

An entry for Flash Friday vol. 2-15.

A ruddy leviathan of a sun beat its oppressive light upon the ragged landscape. Through the tinted windshield, Hailee saw sunspots on its enormous surface that were bigger than the full moon. She exited the vehicle in full protective gear.

“It’s an oven out here!”

“Minimal carbon dioxide atmosphere,” her Tattler told. “Surface temperature 627 Kelvin.”

“Hot enough to melt lead. Chroniton detection?”

“Positive, southwest.”

“He’s here!” Hailee debated her options. Shadowed by a rocky outcrop, her vehicle — a VW Acerbus mini-bus — was safe from the hellish heat. Her silver thermal suit, though…

“Cooling system failure within two hours,” warned the Tattler. “Recommend immediate mission abort.”

“Negative!” With dogged determination, Hailee set off. Barren dirt crunched beneath her heavy boots. “I’ve followed him to the end of the Earth. I won’t rest until I get back what he stole from me.”

“A pair of shoes is not worth the risk.”

Hailee ignored the Tattler and marched on.

Life in Flux

For Flash Friday vol. 2-12.

When the judge sentenced me, I laughed. Life in prison, for a retiree?

Hard time changes even an old man. I fell in the shower too often, so the warden put me in solitary — “protective confinement”.

After ten years behind those steel bars, I learned to cry. I mourned the numerous victims of my messed-up life. I read Scripture. I prayed forgiveness.

Parole denied.

Maybe I prayed to the wrong god. The talisman Bokor Gris gave me worked!

Here was that grungy welding shop from my childhood. My own blessed mother, a true Rosie the Riveter, unaware inside, welding steel to make ends meet.

That pinup calendar on the wall. January 1946!

I ran as fast as a septuagenarian can, up the road toward the brown wood-framed house. Inside, my gin-soaked stepfather’s torment of a certain little boy was just beginning.

The parole board said if I ever got out of prison, I’d kill again.

They were right.