A strapping spaceman, greased black hair visible through his fishbowl helmet, was climbing through some twisted wreckage. Maybe it was alien plants. Who can say but the artist? Behind him a spaceship that looked an awful lot like a cruise ship with three bumps on top hovered in perfect profile. The cover story was titled Secret Weapon, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the astronaut was the eponymous weapon. Doubtful. Still, something like that would make a nice souvenir. The art was nice enough. They let us take little things like this with us, as long as we don’t go overboard and we don’t try to sell them. I counted out the extra dimes, handed them to the kid behind the counter, and walked out with my brand new April 1968 copy of Analog, as well as the day’s newspapers.
With lunch over I had little else to do but head back to my dingy hotel room. The day had been like most: eat breakfast at the diner, ride the bus uptown during rush hour, walk around aimlessly – never the same route two days in a row – until lunch in the park, then ride the bus back to the hotel. I’d taken to getting the newspapers at the shop by the bus stop closest to the hotel, whether or not that was the stop I got off at. Walking around was a great way to bump into people and overhear what they were talking about, a tried and true method.
Timmy spotted me crossing the road to the hotel and ran over from the apartment complex across the street. He had his baseball glove and ball in hand, as usual.
“Howdy, Mr. Smith! Got your papers again?”
“Boy, you sure are predictable.”
I mocked surprise, “Am I?”
Timmy fell in step and we walked together toward the hotel entrance. “So, what’s going on around the neighborhood?” I asked.
“Same old boring nothing. Ain’t nothing ever happening around here.”
“I wouldn’t say that. In my experience there’s always something happening everywhere. After all, if nothing happened anywhere then where would anything ever happen?”
Timmy curled his upper lip. “Huh?”
I couldn’t help but laugh and give him a poke with my elbow.
“Hey, what’s that?” Timmy had the copy of Analog pulled out from the middle of my newspaper stack before I knew what had happened. It must have slipped out when I nudged him.
“That’s just some light reading material. I thought it might help me fall asleep tonight.”
He eyed the dashing spaceman with jealousy. I held my hand out to reclaim my souvenir and he reluctantly relinquished it. “Do you think men will walk on other planets? Like after we go to the moon and set up moon bases and stuff?”
How could I tell him? How do you tell a kid in the 1960s that no, mankind will never walk on other planets. That we’ll stop after sending a dozen men to prance across the surface of the moon. That the dreamers of a generation will see their hopes dashed against the rocks, obliterated by cynical politicians and a disinterested public.
I tussled his hair with my free hand. “How would I know that, silly?”
Timmy scrambled to straighten his hair, “I don’t know. You seem pretty smart. Like Mr. Donovan. He tells me a lot of cool stuff.”
“Oh, and who is Mr. Donovan?” I thought for a second, “Oh, is he the new guy that showed up a few days ago? The guy that took the room at the end of the hall?”
“No, he’s at the top of the stairs,” which, I should point out, are at the end of the hall. “He’s from the future!”
I blinked for several seconds at that. “Come again?”
“Mr. Donovan is a time traveler sent here from the future! He’s told me stuff about space ships and something he calls microcomputers and how I’ll live to see them change the world!” Just then Timmy’s mother called after him and he ran off waving goodbye before I could say another word.
As I crested the stairs to the second floor I paused. I should knock, I thought. No, it’s silly. By force of will I continued down the hall to my own room. Once inside I dropped the papers in the arm chair before checking my recorder. I’ve never had a problem with one of these, nor has anyone I’ve ever known, but it doesn’t hurt to check. There was several hours of new footage on its drive. I flipped through a few clips idly, checking sound and tracking – again, needlessly. That’s when I realized I was still holding the magazine. The worrying part was that my hand was shaking. Throwing the magazine on the table I dropped down into the armchair, removing the stack of newspapers unceremoniously from my underside. The stained ceiling lay before me, the same stain that kept me silent company whenever I was frustrated. A genuine concern overcame me as I reflexively groped at my stomach. I could feel the small disc a half centimeter under my skin.
Don’t do it, I thought. It’s stupid and a waste of your time. How’s it going to look if you’re wrong and, let’s face it, you can’t be right.
Before I could talk myself out of it, I was standing before Mr. Donovan’s door, my fist prepared to knock. Well, I thought, it’d look doubly ridiculous if I didn’t knock at this point. So I did.
There was an immediate muffled reply. I couldn’t make it out so I responded in a generic way. “It’s Mr. Smith, I’m your neighbor from down the hall.” It suddenly occurred to me that “hotel neighbor” was a ridiculous concept, but maybe he would take it in good spirit.
There was the distinct sound of the door unlocking and before me stood a short plump balding man in a cheap suit. He would fit in anywhere in the city just as well as me in my tweed jacket and slacks. “What can I do for you, Mr. Smith?”
What the heck was I planning on saying? Hi, I’m wondering if you’re actually a time traveler because the nine year old I talk to said you were?
His questioning face told me I had to say something. “Do you know Timmy next door?”
The man stuck his head out in the hallway, looking away from the stairs.
“Sorry,” I injected, “not in the next hotel room. He lives in the apartment building across the street. About so tall, usually carries a baseball mitt?”
“Oh, yes. The energetic young lad. Yes, I’ve spoken to him a few times. Quite chatty, that one. Boy after my own heart.” His eyes were jovial. “Would you be the father?”
“No, nothing like that. I guess you could say I’m a friend of his.” Then it came to me. I’m looking out for the boy. Seems you told him you’re a future man. You shouldn’t fill his head with such nonsense or something like that. “Well, I’m just wondering… he told me you were from the future.”
“He said you told him you were.”
“But you’re not his father?”
“Then why do you care what I said to him?”
This was going nowhere. I may as well go for broke and maybe the guy would just think I was crazy and would leave me alone. Hopefully forget about me. “Well, he said you used the word microcomputer.”
The small man gave me a sideways glance. “Do you know much about microcomputers?”
“Yes. Quite a bit actually.” May as well go all in. “Microcomputers and wireless networks.”
His eyes grew wide. Next thing I knew he’d grabbed my arm and yanked me inside his room; he was pretty strong for a little guy.
He just stood there staring at me, like I was supposed to do something. I reached into my chest pocket and removed my cigarette case. I slid my thumb from end to end to release the latch, my DNA unlocking the security mechanism. Instead of cancer facilitators the open case revealed a full color, three dimensional projection in all its illuminated glory.
The man was clapping and squealing like a toddler at the zoo. He recomposed himself before presenting me with a hand, which I shook. “John Donovan.”
“I assume that is –”
“Not my real name, no.”
“Same here, but it will suffice. Really, what are the odds?”
The relief was too much. I started laughing like a child. “Astronomical! To encounter another Traveler, and one staying in the same hotel!”
“I know! It’s unbelievable!”
“Hence my concern!”
He clapped me on the back and invited me to have a seat at his modest desk. In turn he sat on the edge of the bed.
“So when are you from?” I asked.
“Well now, I don’t think I’m supposed to tell you.”
“Please, I have to know.”
“Really, I couldn’t –”
“Here, I’ll make it easy. I’m from 2118. There, now you know.”
His face changed subtly. “Well now, that is interesting.”
I waited for him to reciprocate. My face prodding him. “Well,” he finally began, “let’s just say I’m upstream of you a ways.”
There was the slightest clench in my stomach. “How far?”
“Far enough. That’s as much as I’m prepared to say.”
“Of course,” was all I could respond, though I think it came out little more than a mutter. Then, after clearing my throat, “I’m sure you understand that I’m very surprised to encounter another Traveler here. It makes me believe my mission was a failure, that perhaps my life is in danger.”
What kind of a question was that? “Well, my chip, of course,” and my hand automatically went to my stomach. “I’ve been syncing it every day. Even if there was data loss I would still make an oral report. I can’t believe they sent you back here to the same place and time as another Traveler.”
My eyes must have been questing for answers because he waved me away. “I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about your mission, and I’m just as surprised to encounter you as you are to meet me.”
“Then can I ask your purpose here?”
“The standard; to study the reactions of the native population to recent events, to get the man on the street’s opinion, so to speak.”
“That’s much the same as my objective. What is your specialty?”
“I’m a sociologist. I’m studying how a culture deals with an unending conflict in the shape of the Vietnam War. My dissertation was on the Forever War of the twenty-first century. Yourself?”
“Mass psychology. I’m studying the contemporary public’s perception of the war and the cultural tumult surrounding it.”
Donovan waved his hand again, “See? Entirely different specialties. That explains why we’re both here.”
“Well, not entirely different…”
“Say, how long have you been here?”
“I’m two weeks into a four week stay.”
“Four weeks! Well, I’m only here for one week and I’m already three days into that. Say, how about you and I pool resources?”
Such a thing was unheard of. Two Travelers from different presents engaging in any appreciable interaction was unprecedented. As it was our interaction was likely the longest known about in my present.
“Are you serious?”
“Absolutely! Your participation would be extremely beneficial to my work. What do you say? I take it you have a recorder capturing all the local television and radio stations? Yes, of course you do. We could add your recordings to my data. Three weeks worth for the price of one!”
“But those should already be in the Time Vault…”
“Redundancy never hurts.”
My brain was yelling at me to get up. Get up and walk out of the room. This is a bad idea. You shouldn’t be here. You should never have come here. Go to your room, gather your things, trigger your bungee and report back. That’s all that matters. Report back.
“Yes. Yes, I think we should work together,” was what I said instead.
Most of the cars in the parking lot across the street were from the mid to late 1940s. Granted they made them to last back then, but it mostly served as an indication of the poverty that gripped the neighborhood. From what Timmy had told me there were a good number of single moms living in the apartment complex, along with a lot of immigrant families just starting out in America. I smirked at the thought of calling this country America. Goes to show you how effective infiltration training is in altering one’s thought processes. “The Former United States” was what I’d have to write in my official report. I remember thinking it would probably just be easier to write “America” and do a find and replace search later.
Of course, that’s if I ever wrote my report. That ball came back in the pit of my stomach, the same one that for two hours had been forcing away my appetite to the point that I’d all but decided to skip dinner. Why didn’t Donovan know I’d be here? I’d spent a half hour considering the idea that he was lying about his origin, that he was actually from my past. In the end I couldn’t work out a reason why he’d lie about that. He’d have to know I’d figure it out when we started working together. He undoubtedly would have a computer of a make and model that I’d recognize. Besides all that, if he was from my past then I’d know he was going to be here – my mission would never have been approved otherwise.
It was time to think it through from the beginning. Time travel does not allow us to move to the future, that’s the first law of time travel, “the inclined plane of temporal mechanics,” my professor had called it. The metaphor is apt because although it is possible to shift mass backwards in time – with a massive expenditure of energy – to shift it forwards in time requires an astronomical expenditure. Something like the entire energy output of the Sun for a week to move the mass of one human being forward one year. The consequence is that no Traveler has ever gone to the future.
That begs the question, how am I getting home? That’s where the tachyon bungee comes in. The physics is way beyond me, but it is (evidently) possible to tether an object to its point of origin in both time and space through the use of tachyon particles, some sort of weird matter that I’ve been told won’t give me cancer even though they are streaming through me all the time. That’s where the disc in my belly comes in. It functions as the anchor for my tachyon bungee. I trigger it and it snaps my whole body back to the very instant I departed. I’d spend four weeks in 1968 and not even a nanosecond would pass in 2118 for my whole trip. The bungee technology has been in use for decades, with every time traveling researcher using one. The early models could be a problem – some folks came back missing some extremities – but the worst that had happened in years was a woman that came back needing a skin graft. To outright die is a near impossibility – or so I’d been told.
But it’s worse than that. Though its a near impossibility, no agency wants to take the chance of not getting the data from an endeavor like this, so along with the tachyon bungee each disc contains a wireless data storage device that houses the records from the mission. Synced nightly with my cigarette case hand computer, the onboard micro-storage is radiation shielded and encased in titanium. The disc constantly monitors my vital signs. Any significant problems and it snaps the bungee so no local coroner finds the advanced tech. My hand computer has its own bungee remotely synced to the disc. The whole kit and kabootle will go to 2118, taking my corpse with it. No fuss, no muss. Even if nothing but a smoking mass makes it back to 2118 my report would still be filed in the Time Vault.
Which brings me to the Time Vault. Built to withstand anything short of a direct hit from a nuclear warhead it houses the records of every time traveler since the program began. The data storage technology has been tested to last at least 10,000 years – that’s right, they sent one back to 8,000 BCE, but don’t ask me where it’s buried. When I get back my recordings will immediately go into the Vault to be followed a few days later by my official report and video debrief. Even if my records were destroyed there should at least be a mention of my trip in the Vault. “Sent Agent to March 1968 etcetera, all records lost for unknown reason.” That would have to send up a red flag for anyone wanting to go to 1968. Anyone like Donovan.
Could Donovan be from an unregistered time travel outfit? What would be the purpose in that? Could he be a time criminal? No, that’s ridiculous. The energy cost alone would eliminate any gain. The past can’t be changed, that’s a physical fact. Call it time travel law number two. The past is the past. Any Traveler sent back was always sent back and will always be sent back; they’re part of the timeline and always have been. Besides, Time Crime just doesn’t pay. The resources needed to construct and utilize a time machine are so immense that any time criminal would already be one of the richest people alive.
I was left with one set of facts: Donovan was from my future and he was a time traveling researcher like myself. That’s it. Maybe I did file my report. Maybe Donovan knew I was here. Maybe he didn’t. He was undoubtedly lying to me, but I had no clue what about or why. My only option was to get close to him and try to find out. My life was at stake, because either I don’t make it back to file my report, or Donovan came here to intercept me for some unknown purpose. Either way, I’m in a lot of trouble.
Donovan easily established his credentials as a sociologist. His read of the public’s perception of the war was spot on, though he seemed to lack familiarity with some of the references I’d used in my own preparation. In our conversations it became clear he had never read Mark Bowden’s award winning Hue 1968, which I found invaluable for an understanding of the Tet Offensive. In general he felt well read on some nuance, and less so on others. I don’t purport to be all knowing or all remembering, but the gaps in his knowledge continued to trouble me. When I would prod him about these gaps he would give me that jovial smile and wave of his hand and dismiss it as evidence of his poor memory.
One evening we decided to get take-out and go over the day’s newspapers together. A few hours in I handed him a page six story concerning the Pueblo.
“What’s this about?” he asked.
“It’s an update on the Pueblo Incident. Not really any new information, but it’s interesting in that the reporter’s professionally neutral tone carries an undercurrent of questioning the official story of how the Pueblo was captured in the first place.” I rubbed my bloodshot eyes as I spoke. “Actually, it’s a very nice example of the Credibility Gap. After all, this is the decade that birthed not only the term, but the concept.”
Donovan’s eyes skimmed the article twice. “This has nothing to do with Vietnam.”
“Not directly, no, but it speaks to the overall feeling at the time. Like I said, it reflects the Credibility Gap.” Confusion was plain on his face, so I elaborated. “It’s the idea that the White House has a lack of credibility, that they can’t be trusted concerning exactly where the Pueblo was when it was captured, and similarly can’t be trusted about the Vietnam War. Had the boat crossed into North Korean waters before it was intercepted, or was it actually in international waters like the White House claims? Was it a legal seizure for trespass or wasn’t it? The public doesn’t know who to trust, and the reporter’s tone carries that – it’s subtle, but it’s there. I think that’s a large reason President Johnson is about to announce that he won’t seek reelection.”
Donovan was nodding slowly as I spoke and continued after I’d finished. Eventually he placed the newspaper back on my pile and muttered a barely perceptible “interesting” before going back to his own stack.
I watched him for a minute before checking my wrist watch. “Sorry to do this, but I’m feeling pretty tired. Do you think we could call it a night? It’s almost 10:30.”
He responded with his usual jovial smile. “Not at all. I would like to scan this material before I leave, if that’s all right.”
There had to be a dozen Sunday editions laid out on my meager table, not to mention the various news magazines we’d picked up. “I’m probably going to crash as soon as you walk out the door. If you like I can help you carry these to your room.” I really hoped he didn’t want that. I wasn’t even sure I was going to make it the meter and a half to bed.
“No need, I’ll just be a moment.” From his jacket pocket he removed a small cylindrical cigarette lighter. After a rapid gesture my tired eyes couldn’t follow he’d extended the cylinder to triple its original length and broke it in half along its axis. The two halves were connected by a translucent screen, on which were characters I recognized as some variant of Chinese, though I couldn’t place the dialect. I could make out Latin characters interspersed with the logograms. My recognition was made all the harder since I was looking at the characters from an angle behind the translucent screen.
“Donovan, what language is that?”
He feigned ignorance of my question with a distracted “Hmm?”
“The language. Is that a Chinese variant?”
He snapped the hand computer closed and with a swift gesture it was a normal sized cigarette lighter. “Oh, that’s just my horrible handwriting. Good evening, Mr. Smith.” He made for the door.
“But you didn’t scan any of the papers!” My exclamation was unintentional. After seeing his hand computer I had pressing questions.
“Yes I did. I told you, it would only take a moment.”
I was on my feet, arms waving impotently at the stack of folded papers. “But you could only have imaged what’s on top…”
Donovan waved his hand dismissively. “Ah, I see your confusion. My scanner images holographically on a molecular level. I’ve copied every page, inside and out. It will take some processing power to reconstruct the image, but I’ll do that when I get back to my own time. Good night, my friend.” Donovan bowed slightly and let himself out.
The lunch talk at the diner was largely concerning Johnson’s announcement the day before that he was officially out of the presidential race before it even began. Apart from the private minutiae of daily life I overheard people speaking of little else. I knew my cigarette case was recording more than I could hear from its position on the counter in front of me. Back in my room I could order it to reconstruct the conversation from any point in the room with near-perfect acoustics.
But imaging an entire stack of upside down newspapers… I’d never seen a device that could do that.
I’d drifted off to sleep that night telling myself that advancements in technology were to be expected. Who knows, there could be scientists in my present working on just such a piece of equipment. Another decade or two and it could maybe be miniaturized, depending on what principles it worked on. I’d seen kids play with something like that transparent screen of his. Current technological vogue put them out of style for serious work, but maybe they’ll come back.
I rolled my coffee cup between my hands, letting my eyes skim the morning paper. Sometimes I read it, sometimes I used it as something to stare at while concentrating on the conversations of the people around me. It all depended on what the topic of conversation was. That morning I kept falling back into the printed page. The local paper had chosen to reprint Martin Luther King Jr.’s complete speech at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. the day before. My eyes fell on one paragraph in particular. It read,
“First, we are challenged to develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution. The world in which we live is geographically one. The challenge that we face today is to make it one in terms of brotherhood.”
This was my third trip through time, and I’d always been able to maintain the air of the observer that they drill into us in training, but there was something about reading the words of such a great man and knowing they had been spoken only yesterday. That if I ran out of this diner, I could possibly find him and shake his hand. I wondered what he’d be like. I mean really like. In person. Just to speak to him alone. It’s silly, but I wondered what it would feel like to shake his hand. Would it feel special? I’d shaken a President’s hand once, I mean my President, the one I voted for in 2108. She came on a tour of the training facility my third year of classes. I wish I could say it was exciting or even interesting, but when one is training to travel through time little else holds interest. I hadn’t even dated these last few years. Everything took a back seat to my training.
The preceding two weeks I’d really come to enjoy reading the daily newspaper and the connection to the world it gave me. My first assignment had been as a medic in the American Civil War. I was there recording the history that few survived to record. I remember thinking, “Nobody back home can imagine what I’ve seen here.” Not that we don’t have wars, but there’s a minimum number of casualties where I’m from, and wholesale suffering during war has been alleviated to a large extent. That’s one thing globalism did right: we’re all so economically and culturally interconnected that large scale global conflict is inconceivable. Anyway, I didn’t have much opportunity to read the newspaper from the battlefront in 1863. Ditto my second assignment to observe the tumultuous 2016 presidential election in Florida – not a lot of relevant information was consumed from newspapers that year. I resolved to try and read the newspaper more when I got home. Presumably a few still exist…
My contemplation was broken by a tap on the shoulder.
“Hello, my friend.” Donovan wore his usual smile. “You mentioned this particular haunt the other night and I thought I’d join you for lunch. Do you mind?”
“Not at all. In fact, I’m happy to see you. I stopped by your room several times yesterday but you didn’t answer. Is everything all right?”
Donovan took a seat on the vacant stool beside me, which necessitated a short hop to raise him up to its level. “Oh yes, quite all right. I spent the day at the library scanning documents.”
“I imagine you could scan the whole library in just a few minutes after what you showed me the other night.”
He pulled a menu from the holder between us. “Sadly, no. It takes some time to save the data between imagings and the field of view is relatively small. Plus a level of discretion is of course required.”
“Of course,” was my noncommittal reply.
“Speaking of archival data, I was hoping to stop by tonight and copy your audiovisual recordings as we discussed. Adding a further two weeks to my report would – how do you say – shine my resume.”
Any opportunity to see his computer in action could only shed light on my mystery. “Of course. We can do it after lunch if you’d like.”
“Splendid.” He swiveled on the stool to gaze around the room. “I see the lunch rush is still ongoing. Might be worth hanging around a bit.” He pulled his hand from his trouser pocket and gingerly placed his lighter on the table. I wondered if it was recording visual as well as audio with some sort of omnidirectional lens. I turned away from it, suddenly uncomfortable with the thought that I would be the subject of observation and scrutiny by a team of future historians. “Visible here,” the most senior would begin, “is the Unknown Traveler. A man who claimed to be from the year 2118 though no record of his transit exists in the Time Vault.”
I downed the last half cup of my coffee and stood up. “Actually, Donovan, I’d like to get going. You’re welcome to stay for lunch or come with me, whatever your schedule requires.”
I busied my eyes with counting the change for my tab, but there was detectable pain in his voice. “No worries. I’ll come with you if you’re still willing to let me copy those files.”
“Yes, of course.” I collected my cigarette holder and he his lighter.
Donovan and I walked in silence for several blocks until I asked, “How many trips have you been on?”
“This is my fifth,” was his reverent reply. “It has been a true honor.”
“Do you expect this to be your last trip?”
“Who can say? If there is one constant across time, it is the enigmatic logic of bureaucrats.”
I found his jocular tone insulting, given my uncertain future.
“You say my records will impress those bureaucrats, maybe even help secure yourself another trip?”
“I certainly hope so.”
“Yet you still won’t tell me when you are from.”
Donovan shook his head. “I sympathize, but you know I can’t divulge information about the future.”
“You divulged information to Timmy. You told him about computers and space flight.”
“I told the boy nothing that he couldn’t have read in a science fiction story and provided even less to back up my claims. Knowledge of the future won’t help you, same as it can’t help prevent what’s going to happen in less than a week. I saw what you were reading when I approached you at the diner; his picture accompanied the speech. You and I – separate or together – are incapable of altering what is to come.”
“I’m not talking about a fixed historical event. I’m talking about my life.”
“How are they different? How do you know that your death isn’t historical fact for me? You suspect I was sent back here knowing you would be here. I tell you I knew no such thing.”
“So my report wasn’t in the Time Vault.”
Donovan once again shook his head. “I have no answers for you, my friend.”
“Then perhaps I have no records to share with you.” We had stopped walking at some point, but now my trek resumed. Donovan scrambled to catch up.
“Let’s say for arguments sake that your report doesn’t make it to the Time Vault. Don’t you feel some obligation to complete as much of your mission as possible? To preserve some record of your accomplishment?”
“So I die tonight, is that it? I don’t make it back but you’re leaving tomorrow. My disc malfunctions or something and you’ve come to get a record, to solve a mystery that’s – what – fifty, a hundred years old?”
“Smith, I can’t provide you with any answers. If you believe nothing else, please believe that.”
“I don’t know what to believe, but you can stop calling me your friend.”
Donovan’s pace slowed and he fell in behind me. I could just hear his concessionary reply.
We turned onto the street that lead to the hotel. I could hear Donovan’s heavy footsteps following me several feet behind. Timmy was playing in the parking lot with a few of the other boys from the apartment complex. I watched them play in a focused effort to not think about Donovan or my uncertain fate. If today was to be my last day then I would live it in the present. If not my present, then the present of the people I find myself meeting.
The boys were playing catch, throwing the ball clear across the vacant parking lot. I realized that all the boys should be in school, and I resolved to ask them why they were not.
Then it occurred to me. Let them skip school. They were having fun, and really what does it matter? Either they go to school or they don’t, it won’t change the future – it can’t change my past. If the past is immutable then so is the future.
“Donovan,” I called over my shoulder, my tone blithe, “I do believe you are making me a nihilist.”
“I believe this job does that after a while.” His tone was uncharacteristically somber.
I was startled by the loud crack of a ball on bat. One of the boys had nailed what would have been a home run on any field, far outpacing the parking lot. Timmy ran headlong straight at me to catch it, just as I heard a truck round the corner Donovan and I had come down minutes earlier. I turned to face the truck. It was one of those big box trucks, the cab bright red in color – I don’t know why I remember that part so clearly, but I do. It was a candy apple red, all shiny. I knew the driver couldn’t stop in time; he’d taken the corner faster than he should have, probably running late in his deliveries. My head jerked back to Timmy. The boy was already in the street, running backwards, eyes at the sky to track the ball. His gloved hand was stretched out in anticipation of the catch. His friends were screaming, not in panic but in joy – they believed he would catch it.
I threw up my arms, waving them wildly. I should have screamed, but in the moment I couldn’t. My legs weren’t as frozen as my throat, and I lunged into the road to grab him, not daring to look at the oncoming truck. The horn blared – my God, it sounded like it was right on top of me. I willed my arms to reach for Timmy, only to find myself thrown to the ground. I hit hard, a shock radiating from my elbow into my shoulder. A moment later I heard an impact and then a scream. I looked down at my prone body to see what had dropped me and found Donovan’s arms wrapped around my waist, his face buried in the back of my knees. I looked up and saw Timmy’s body laid out in the road, motionless. Children were yelling and from somewhere a woman appeared, screaming frantically. Some time later Donovan tried to help me up but I shoved him away.
“Why did you do that? I could have saved him!” My fists were balls of rage, but Donovan’s voice was as calm as ever.
“There was nothing you could have done.”
“What are you talking about? I was right there! I could have reached him in time!”
“But you couldn’t have saved him.”
“Yes, I could have!”
Donovan shook his head, “No, you couldn’t have. We can’t change the past.”
I took a deep breath. I wanted to strangle him, exchange his life for Timmy’s, but I couldn’t make such a scene. “Donovan, we’re part of the past. We can’t change anything big, we can’t kill Hitler or save Lincoln, but nobody would have noticed this one boy.” The last word choked in my throat and I realized my eyes were filling with tears.
“Nobody would have noticed him?”
“Then nobody will miss him.” Donovan walked on toward our apartment complex. I turned back to the scene and saw Timmy’s playmates crying on the curb, hugging one another. I was witnessing the birth of a mass of regret and blame that would carry forward through time. I saw his mother running from the apartment complex – screaming and crying – past Donovan as he continued his nonchalant march across the street.
I spent a long time in my room after that. Crying, punching the wall, kicking the furniture, productive stuff like that. Eventually after, I don’t know, a few hours? I went over to Donovan’s room. I was honestly surprised he opened the door for me. In retrospect I think it was his generally jovial nature. That and I now believe he really was a nihilist.
He was packing his meager possessions into a period appropriate suitcase. On the bed was a single newspaper, painstakingly folded just so. I picked it up and noted it was the latest edition.
“Yes. Maybe it’s a bit unimaginative.” His tone was somber.
A small smile crossed my lips, I’m not sure why. “I got myself one of those old pulp science fiction magazines. Seeing it is what prompted Timmy to tell me about you.”
“My, life is full of coincidences.” His tone was almost mocking.
The slightest trace of the smile melted from me. “Timmy is dead now.”
“Yes. An historical fact.”
“It didn’t have to be.”
He pushed a folded shirt into the suitcase with more force than was necessary. “Please. Leave it be.”
“No!” I was enraged again, ready to punch the wall but considering substituting Donovan’s arrogant face. “It did not have to be. We could have saved him – I could have saved him, but you stopped me. Why?”
“Do they teach you nothing where you are from?” There was a harshness, a raw hate on Donovan’s face that I’d not believed possible. I stepped back instinctively, as if a friendly dog had just bared its teeth at me.
“The past can not be changed. Stop being such a baby and accept your role in this. We are observers, nothing more and nothing less. We are not participants in this time. We can not alter any events.”
“But we’re here. I’ve eaten their food, I’ve talked to –” my voice caught. “I’ve talked to them. They’re good people.”
“So what?” He spit the words. “Their being good doesn’t affect the chronometric equations. There is no `good person’ factor in the equations that lets you alter the timeline.”
“But I’m here. I could have saved him without altering the timeline. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. I could have saved him because I’m here.”
“Then go save Martin Luther King.” Donovan’s tone was mocking, his hand jabbing toward the door. “Go on, then. You’re here, after all.”
“You know I can’t.”
“Because I’ll fail.”
And that was it. I’d fail because I’d have to. Because Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. That single event was part of a chain of dominoes that fell forward through time, triggering other events in an immense tapestry that was mathematically unalterable. I couldn’t save him because it would unquestionably alter the past.
“You don’t know that saving Timmy would have altered the past.” My tone was little more than a whisper. It was all I could muster.
“I do now. Because I stopped you. Something would have stopped you. If I hadn’t jumped you then maybe the bus would have killed you along with him. Then you’d disappear in front of all those people. Wouldn’t that have violated a non-contamination rule where you come from? We can’t tell people about the future and we can’t show them our technology. We may not be able to alter the past, but don’t forget what happened in Roswell.”
“Don’t lecture me on temporal accidents. I know how to handle myself.”
He straightened himself, his face one of questioning disbelief. “Do you?”
Once again I found myself backing away from this short rotund man. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I know what you’re afraid of. Believe me, I know. But you have no idea why I’m so mad at you.” He took two steps toward me and I steadied myself against the desk. “You couldn’t save that dumb kid just like I can’t save your sorry life.”
“So I do die here.” The resignation in my voice surprised me.
“I have no idea.”
“How is that possible?” I found my vigor had returned. Indignation rejuvenating me. “You say you can’t save me then claim you don’t know what happens to me? Why is my report not in the Time Vault?” I screamed that last bit.
“I have no idea what’s in the Time Vault!” As soon as he said it he regretted it. That much was plain on his face.
I think I just stood there for several minutes. Could have been seconds, could have been hours. Finally I gasped out a question along the lines of “When are you from?”
Donovan slumped onto the bed. His head was cradled in his hands like a child who just awoke from a nightmare. His voice barely escaped.
“You would call it 2457.”
I knelt down beside him. “But the Time Vault… it can last for 10,000 years. Donovan, I don’t understand. Why didn’t you access it?”
“It was destroyed.”
My heart was trying to escape my chest. Between breaths I gasped, “How?”
Donovan raised his head from his hands, his face white as the sheets. “The War.”
His face hardened. He swallowed hard. “You’ll see.”
I don’t have clear recollection of what happened next. I remember grabbing Donovan. I was shouting questions, demands. I don’t think he said anything. He may have wept, but that could have been me. I think I punched him a few times. I must have, because I recall I was on top of him one second, then he was gone and I punched the floor.
After I calmed down I realized that his suitcase was gone as well. It must have had its own bungee. His souvenir newspaper never made it inside.