This short story was originally published in ‘Plan 559 from Outer Space’, a SF anthology, way back in 2015. Find more stories like this one, including another written under the A.Alexander psudonym here
Doctor James Proffosor had given this lecture a hundred times; DOES HISTORY REPEAT ITSELF 20092. He was beginning to think that the irony wasn’t going to be enough much longer. How long can an enormous cosmic joke keep someone motivated to play it out for eternity? He wasn’t sure if this was the meaning of life, as he had always suspected, but if an answer either way eluded him much longer he was going to go mad. His mentor David Schultz had disappeared eleven years ago while at the height of his research. James had always called him old man despite only being five years his junior. Had Schultz gone mad of the same irony and wandered off never to be seen again?
The lecture was excellent, and James enjoyed giving it as much as he had enjoyed writing it, but enough was enough. Sometimes, despite the genius, despite the longing, some questions cannot be answered. Some questions only lead to more questions.
“Wait, so now you’re saying that time isn’t a circle either? I thought it wasn’t a straight line…” The girl in the red jumper broke through the professor’s auto pilot and he stopped to address her distressed question.
“Well, that’s because it’s neither.” He smiled, “And its both… Does that answer your question?” James grinned inwardly as her confusion turned to outright dumbfoundedness. He let it linger for a moment more. “I’m sure you all remember Schrodinger’s Cat?”
A student in the middle of the class raised a confident hand, “That’s the one where the guy chucked a cat in a cardboard box with poison food, right? And it was alive and dead at the same time? No… That can’t be right.” He trailed off as he realised the paradox implied by his words.
“That’s pretty close. And yes I know it’s confusing. For starters, its a thought experiment, so he never actually put a cat in a box. And the mechanism that Schrodinger came up with was a machine that looked at a single quark, which had a completely random chance of spinning clockwise fifty percent of the time, and counter clockwise the other fifty. Every time the quark spins clockwise, nothing happens and the imaginary cat lives. If it spins counterclockwise then a hammer smashes a vial of cyanide and the cat dies…
“Which is pretty complex. Probably part of the reason it’s so hard to remember how it works. I think your version was better, the cat is in the box with poison food. Its simple, its elegant.” James paused, seeing the faces reengaged, “So the imaginary cat is in the imaginary box with some very real poison cat food but the box is opaque. As long as the lid is closed we cannot know if the cat has eaten the poison or not. So the cat exists in a quantum state where it is both alive and dead at the same time. As soon as you open the box, and observe the quantum state, the atoms coalesce into one of the two choices and you either get a face full of fur and fangs and anger, or a very sad little sister.” That garnered a few chuckles. Most of the faces were still deep in thought.
Dr Proffosor pointed at the young woman in the red jumper, “Schrodinger’s Cat is an example of a logic paradox. Time is not a straight line, nor is it a circle. But, at the same time, it is also both a straight line, and a circle,” he shrugged, “Paradox…”
“Over a short period of time, say five or ten years, time is, essentially, a straight line. But over a longer period it turns out that that straight line was just a very small segment of an imperceptibly curving arc of a circle. It only seemed like a straight line because of the perspective, you see. And so time is actually a circle and a straight line. But the straight line is really curved and the circle is actually leminscate.”
Another hand shot up, “A what?”
“Leminscate. A figure-eight. The infinity symbol.” He drew an eight in the air with his finger. “A circle, with a twist.
“There are points in time that overlap you see. Powerful moments in time where the multiverse shows it’s limitations and the grand events, the moments that changed history have multiple analogs in history. Multiple US Presidents have died on the fourth of July. Some on the same fourth of July while commenting how good it would be that the other was still alive to continue to oversee the union.
“During the First World War the British Navy commandeered the cruiseliner RMS Carmania, armed it and disguised it as the German cruise ship SMS Cap Trafalgar. At the same time the German Navy decided to take the SMS Cap Trafalgar and secretly arm it and convert it to look like the RMS Carmania so it could travel unmolested though english waters. On September 14, 1914 off the coast of Brazil, literally the opposite side of the world, the two ships came across one another, engaged and sank one other.”
The Schrodinger Kid raised his hand again, “Isn’t that just coincidence?”
“Sure. Absolutely. But coincidence is a simple way to ward off what people don’t understand. Look at the word. Co-incidence,” he sounded it out, “ Incidence… Incident… Moment… Co-Moment.
“So, yes, that’s exactly what it is. A coincidence. But like communist or terrorist or love, the word has been politicized over time and it no longer means what it really means. Consider that Napoleon and Hitler were born one hundred and twenty nine years apart, came to political power one hundred and twenty nine years apart, invaded Russia one hundred and twenty nine years apart and were both finally defeated one hundred and twenty nine years apart. Coincidence or convergence? Either way it is proof that time is closer to a figure eight than a circle or a straight line.”
The red jumper raised a tentative hand and Proffosor nodded, “So then, couldn’t it be something… more…? Like, I don’t know, a three or four or ten sided figure eight? I don’t know the word for that. I mean you said that there was a multiverse. So, why just two?”
Dr. James Proffosor stood dumbfounded for several long moments and the class grew restless as the silence extended. A full minute passed. Then without further warning, with a full half hour left of the lecture, he turned, collected his leather bag and left the auditorium as the class turned to chaos.
Six months had passed and he hadn’t attended a single lecture or tutorial since that day, his mind clouded in complex equations and his hands busy with technical drawings. The girl in the red jumper had answered his most sought after question, and perhaps she had given insight into the disappearance of Dr Schultz a decade earlier. Had he had the same insight and disappeared to make time travel work? Where was his legacy? Where was his research?
It took another year before James was ready but he completed all of the equations he required and had completed a dossier to show his prospective backers in words they would understand. His first instinct was to go to the private sector for funding and attain the backing of some billionaire who was funding the research that governments cannot find political benefit in. But that seemed too risky. If he was successful he would want to know that one person wasn’t deciding how to influence time. Such power would be absolutely corrupting.
So he approached the office of the President of the United States of America. After spending weeks in waiting rooms and being intentionally vague about his actual reason for wanting to speak to officials he was finally allowed in to see the Chief of Staff.
He was a tall man, with a strong back and a greying moustache. His eyes seemed to take in everything at once. James shook his hand and lowered himself into the proffered seat.
“Why is it you want to see the President, Mr…” he looked down at his desk, “Dr. Professor?” The main raised an eyebrow.
“No Sir, my name is Dr. James Proffosor. I have come to speak to the President with regard to a matter of extreme significance. I am a Lecturer at Columbia University and I believe I have solved one of the most important questions in mankind’s history.”
The Chief looked like he heard statements like this every day. Given his job, James supposed that he probably did, “And what is the question?” he asked after a long pause.
“Can we manipulate time?”
“Time travel? Thats what you’ve been harassing my staff over for the past month? Time travel?” He looked incredulous. With that he stood, wearing an odd little smile, and beckoned for James to follow.
After a few twists and turns, along long corridors replete with beautiful artworks and priceless furniture and carpets, they came to a door. It was slightly curved and despite this being his first visit to the White House, James realised had seen this door many times before. On the other side was the Oval Office. On the other side was the President. He immediately began to straighten his tie and smooth his hair and check his belt and a million other small subconscious adjustments. He was instantly nervous.
The Chief of Staff opened the door without breaking stride and moved into the Oval Office. James hesitated only a moment before he gathered his courage and stepped through.
It was empty.
The Chief of Staff walked across the room to the desk in front of the great curved windows and opened one of the President’s desk drawers. He removed an envelope and held it out for James to take. He hesitated for some time. Entering the oval office unannounced was one thing. This room belonged to the people. He was constitutionally allowed to look around if not necessarily welcome. But reading documents from the President’s desk? Surely that was treason.
The Chief said, “It’s ok. I promise. The president asked me to show this to you. Well, not you, per se. I suppose you will understand better if you read it.”
After another few moments he took the letter and removed the contents from the already opened envelope. Inside there were four handwritten pages in a script that was familiar to him. A handwriting he hadn’t seen in over ten years.
To any prospective time traveller,
The first thing I should tell you about time travel is that there is one undeniable rule I have found to be irrefutable and causally immune. I have read every theory that exists on time travel, every idea, every novel or short story. I scoured human history for, if not proof of time travel being manipulated by humans, then, at least a glance into the best minds humanity has ever thrown at the subject. I translated ancient treatises describing gods who appeared to be made of human flesh but never aged, disappearing for hundreds of years only to reemerge as if not a day had passed. I read between the lines in the novels of some of the greatest minds in the last century. Eventually I found one single, discernable truth. The one single infallible rule.
Don’t time travel.
If you decide to ignore the one rule that every single document describing time manipulation stresses then you are truly lost. I began my quest to attempt time travel with one simple goal. No doubt you, having scoured the globe for some last remnant of my works, began with one goal as well. Unfortunately for the both of us, that is the fatal flaw in our plan.
Time is not a straight line. It is not a river. It isn’t a circle or any other flimsy metaphor thrown about by half informed, half drunken college dropouts. Time is time. It is strange and malleable and anyone who can remember the six weeks of summer just after their tenth birthday knows an afternoon can last forever and a month can pass in an instant, all at the same time. Time is not a straight line, but it does naturally move forward from one instant to another. And that is why time travel can never work as planned.
I assume your story is similar to mine. There’s a girl, or a boy, or a dog… or a robot. And something negative is happening to your relationship to the Girlboydogrobot and you are a smart person. You’ve managed not only to find that time travel can be achieved, but that it has been done before, many times, through many methods. There are countless ways to manipulate time and you think you’ve found the most reliable yet. Something none of the others had found, an idea that simply makes the rest look like fools. You are going to stand on the shoulders of the giants that have come before and finally achieve the one thing that every document you have read said could not be achieved; you are going to change the past for the better.
The first theories on time travel only deal with the idea of time a straight line. If you were to time travel you would need a machine to ‘jump back’ in time to an earlier point. The first paradox these theories encountered was causality. No doubt you understand the term having made it this far but I will be thorough. After all you cannot stand on my shoulders if my ideas are incomplete.
Let’s say you had decided to build such a machine to go back and change something. The death of a loved one, your dog being run over in the street or something to do with a robot (I don’t understand your machine overlords but I can assure you that time travel won’t make them go away). The moment you saverescuekill the Girlboydogrobot your reason for inventing the time machine ceases to exist. So then, does the time machine. Causally the Girlboydogrobot is never saverescuekilled.
Theory then branched out to include both an ‘A’ track and a ‘B’ track where the time machine was built and not built and then built again ad infinitum. The main detractors of these theories suggested that time, malleable though it was, was not infinite enough to absorb the countless doubling that such a machine would cause. How then had the ancients harnessed the power of time so reliably? How had the learned men of one hundred years of science managed the feat, that now, once again seemed so impossible, even with the aid of supercomputers and government black budgets?
It was the realisation that to change the past, there needed to be a minimum of four jumps, a lucky clover rather than a leminscate, all the changes calculated and realised, with the effects fully mapped out. Seemingly impossible but not unattainable to the smartest minds humanity has to offer. And, having come to this realisation yourself you are now attempting to attain the means to create a device to facilitate such jumps. And so I must reiterate my first and only rule; DON’T TIME TRAVEL!
There is no way to take any period of time and significantly change the past in a meaningful way. I have now completed my forty year journey through time and all I got for my efforts was an attack on the World Trade Centre, another war in the Middle East and a bum ticker. I am now eighty four years old and I can honestly tell you that any attempt to time travel will only bring death, destruction and ruin. The secrets that the ancients used in their travels through time are secret no longer. Any attempt to change the past will lead to ruination. Any attempt to travel forward will lead to death. The ancients harnessed the power of time and have been lost to it. I harnessed the power of time and killed millions.
I go now, to a quiet place in the mountains to live my few remaining years and weep for the chaos I have caused. Don’t end up like me. Don’t time travel.
Dr. David Schultz
Dr. James Proffosor read the letter again. And then a third time. He had always wondered if Shultz had solved the problem and it seemed that it had taken half his life away. Was he truly responsible for 9/11? For the the second invasion of Iraq?
He replaced the contents of the letter and handed it back to the Chief of Staff. After another moment James thanked the man and turned and left. A secret servicewoman joined him, as he left the white house, presumably to guard the valuables, and soon he found himself on a plane back to Columbia and back to his long neglected lectures.
It lasted about three weeks. He gave a total of seven lectures before he once again quit Columbia, albeit much more officially this time. They offered him an extended leave of absence but he knew he had a long journey ahead of him and he did not accept. It was the letter. The letter had shocked him to his core. His car weighed down with his belongings, Dr James Proffosor soon had the mountains in front of him and lectures far behind.
He had resolved to find Schultz and talk directly with him. He would solve the problem with the old man’s help. Then he realised that the old man was really that these days. He would be ninety five years old if he were still living and some parts of that letter had seemed quite insane. Perhaps the mind that had first solved time travel was gone, lost to him and the world forever.
Only time would tell.
If you enjoyed this story please support the author with a small donation at Patreon. Thank you.