Sixty-six year old Douglas Collier was shocked to find that he was walking out of the foothills toward Idaho State Highway 21 somewhere between Idaho City and Boise. In fact, he didn’t expect to exist at all, let alone be on his feet.
“What the hell just happened?” He stumbled across a low, grassy rise near some abandoned fence poles, gazing down at the asphalt pavement just below the hill.
“Are you talking to me?” The voice sounded like a snarky teenage boy, someone you’d find on social media flaunting their progressive values alongside their World of Warcraft online scores. The harness on Doug’s body, concealed under his faded blue jeans, tan, long-sleeved pullover shirt and dark blue jacket glowed a brilliant white and green as the AI spoke each word.
In a momentary burst of anger, he shot back, “Who the hell are you, Robert De Niro?”
“Well, in a pinch, I could also be Michael J. Fox parodying De Niro.”
The cold morning air stung the man’s face and head, short-cropped gray hair and a white and gray beard stubble doing nothing to protect him. His feet slid down gravel for a moment, and then he got his footing back and continued to walk. “I’m not kidding. I’m not supposed to be here, and you’re supposed to be going home. That was the deal, right?”
“That was your deal, Doug. Time travel doesn’t work the way you think it does.”
Doug’s worn white and blue New Balance running shoes finally hit the pavement, and he almost slipped on ice. “Damn, it’s cold.”
“What do you want for Southwestern Idaho in December?” The AI sounded smug, and the flashes that accompanied his speech danced like a rock concert light show.
“Wait. We were in Nebraska. It was November 1953. We were there to prevent…well, me.”
“And we did. I complied with your request, slightly altering your mother’s reproductive cycle so she wouldn’t get pregnant with you, or anyone really, during that month, preventing you from being conceived, and later on, being born. The operation worked like the proverbial charm, Doug. You don’t exist.”
“Then why am I still here, moron?” Doug had his frigid, wrinkled hands stuffed deep in his jacket pocket while looking down at the part of the temporal harness around his chest, imagining he could see the AI’s (call me “Al”) face.
“Technically, you aren’t. In this quantum reality, Douglas Anthony Collier was never born, thus there is no human being on record by that name or with the history you remember. Your mother, though not any more, did conceive the following month, and sometime the following August, gave birth to a completely different child. After that, the history of your family, and to some small degree, the rest of the world, has diverged.”
“But what happens to me?”
“I suppose anything you want.”
The man decided to walk toward Boise for lack of anything better to do. “What about you? When I found your matrix caught in a temporal loop after my car accident…Hey, wait a minute. The accident. It was around here somewhere, wasn’t it?”
“It was, in fact, just a few meters from where we materialized.”
“Then my car should be…” Doug wheeled around and looked back at the now familiar rise he had just come from.
“Not there, Doug. Remember, you don’t exist, thus your car, your suicide attempt, all of it, never happened, not here anyway.”
“Then where? When?”
“You erased all that. You were never born. It’s what you wanted, isn’t it? You wanted to not be, so your family would be spared the pain of your death when you killed yourself.”
Al’s words stung Doug, and his breath caught for an instant, then he exhaled in a warm mist. He looked down at the frozen pavement as the first rays of the day illuminated the asphalt, causing the ice to twinkle like stars.
“Then that part worked. I don’t exist, so I can’t hurt anyone, not by being a failure as a husband, being a lousy provider in a deadend job, being a crummy Dad, Grandpa…”
“Oh, stop it.” The petulant little teen voice sounded more annoyed than usual. “We had a deal. Now let me go home.”
“Wait. You didn’t fulfill your end of it, Al. I’m still here, which means you blew it.”
“No, I didn’t. You, the physical being you are now, was isolated from changes in the time stream because of the temporal field I generate. You were outside timespace when it all happened, so you still exist.”
“Then if I take off the harness and step outside the field, will the changes catch up to me?”
“Nope. You won’t go ‘poof’ if that’s what you mean. You’ll just re-enter this reality as you are now, Thursday, December 6, 2018, 7:49 a.m. local time.”
“But what will I do.? You said I don’t exist. My driver’s license, credit cards…”
“All invalid. Try to use your VISA to buy breakfast and it won’t work. The cash you carry is still good since there being no you didn’t change that part of American monetary history, but show your driver’s license to a cop, and there’ll be no record. No job, no family, no identity, no life. It’s what you wanted.”
Doug continued to walk in the direction of Lucky Peak State Park. He remembered picnicking with his family there when the kids were small.
“Then I know what to do.”
“What’s that, Doug?”
“I don’t exist, right? No connections, no one knows about me. My wife probably married someone else. Our kids and grand kids don’t exist either. Even if my parents are still alive, they don’t have a clue about me. If I die now, no one grieves, no one cares.”
“Well, if you put it that way, you’re right. How do you plan to do it?”
Doug stopped and looked down at where he imagined Al’s voice was coming from. “That’s damned cold-blooded of you. I’m talking about killing myself and you act like you want to pull up a chair, get a bag of popcorn and a soda, and enjoy the show.”
“I wasn’t built for compassion,” the AI retorted. “When my former user died during transit, the program went wrong and I materialized where and when you found me. Your lousy suicide attempt only wrecked your car and gave you a few bruises.”
“Don’t remind me. I was a failure even at killing myself.”
“So you found me stuck in a temporal loop, recycling every 2.76 seconds forward then back. When your human curiosity led you to touch my field emissions, we became bound, and who and what I was uploaded into your leaky, defective gray matter. That’s when you got the bright idea of going back in time and preventing your own conception. I can manipulate human biochemistry, so it was easy, but after that, we returned to your present. A deal’s a deal. My matrix is stable now. Take me off and I’ll automatically return to my manufacturer.”
“You can do whatever you want.”
Doug stopped walking again and looked at the horizon ahead of him. “What if I don’t want to die?” His voice was quiet, almost carried away by the morning breeze.
“WHAT?” Al was shouting in indignation. “Have you flipped? After what you made me do? Yeah, go ahead and live, man without a universe. The authorities will have a real good time trying to figure out why you are in no database whatsoever worldwide.”
“What else can I do?”
Al pondered the question for a long time, which is a unnoticeable fraction of a second for a human being. “Look, Doug. I’ll do you a favor. Pick your place and time and I’ll drop you off there. There’s a lot of past when you can easily fake a new identity. Wipe the slate clean and get a fresh start.”
“I don’t know, Al.” Doug started walking again. He was beginning to feel a little warmer now that the sun was rising, and the activity helped. “To go back that far means no internet, no computers at all, bad health care, and my working skills would be useless. I’d have no money.”
“Yeah, it’s a puzzle, alright.”
He kept on walking for a while, keeping a steady pace. A few cars passed him going north and south. Finally, one battered vintage Ford pickup, turquoise paint peeling off the primer and the steel beneath pulled over next to him. A middle-aged women wearing a beat up straw hat and denim coat unrolled the passenger side window, faded, curly blond hair squiggling from under the hat’s brim over her forehead and ears. “Hey, Buddy. Need a lift?”
Doug looked at her and then at the truck. There was a bale of hay sitting haphazardly in the truck bed, along with several crushed aluminum beer cans and a battered red and rust toolbox. She looked friendly enough. A faint odor of fresh, convenience store coffee drifted toward him along with burnt motor oil.
“Thanks, but I’m on a walk.” He tried to smile but wasn’t sure if it came out as a grimace instead.
“Sure is cold out, Mister. I don’t mind giving you a lift to where you’re going.”
“Where are you headed?”
“Work. Distribution Center over on Freight Street, other side of the freeway.”
He took several more seconds to think it over than Al would have, being only human. “No,” he shook his head and smiled again. “I’d like to be alone for a while.”
“Well, suit yourself, Mister. Enjoy your walk.” Her voice was still friendly and her smile was genuine, though communicating a slight sense of puzzlement. She leaned over, rolled up the window again, gunned the engine, and accelerated away from him.
“You should have accepted, Doug. I think she was flirting with you.” Al chuckled at the prospect.
“No future with her, either. I’m still the man who doesn’t exist.”
“No future, but what about a past?”
“What about it? I don’t want to be a caveman. Too far back, and I’d be just as lost as I was in my own life, my former life I mean.” The lush foothills had given way to sagebrush, and ahead and to the left, the first hint of gleaming water leading to the lake and then the reservoir.
“When were you happy?”
“When were you happy, Doug? Do you remember ever being happy or were you always a miserable, depressed jerk?”
He winced at the word “jerk” but didn’t react otherwise. Then he turned his gaze back into his memory. “Oh, I dunno. When I was a kid, like before Kennedy died kid.”
“John or Bobby.”
“John. I remember Superman and Fantastic Four comic books, riding on my bike with playing cards fluttering through the spokes, A&W burgers and onion rings, the Beatles on the radio.” Doug started to smile and then grinned, thinking of the endless summer of his childhood, when things seemed simple, and he felt free. Then he frowned. “It won’t work. I was a kid. My parents took care of all the ‘adulting,’ so dropping me off in 1962 or whatever still leaves me with the same problem.
“What do you mean?” Sheep Creek officially opened up into Lucky Peak Lake and the Reservoir View Point wasn’t that far ahead. Traffic was more steady now, but everyone ignored the lone pedestrian on the road to nowhere.
It’s not that hard. I can drop you off at the date and place of your choice, upload everything you need to know about history, what you should be remembering if you were born much earlier in the century, plus how to make a new identity in a world where the smallest computer filled half a warehouse.”
“Money? A job? How am I supposed to live.”
“Well…” Al’s voice took on a conspiratorial quality. “I could manage to convert the cash in your pocket into valid currency for that era giving you a stake, and part of the upload would include manipulating certain stocks. Heck, in six months, you’d be on easy street, enough for a quiet retirement anyway.”
Doug went silent for a while. He looked left and right at the curve of the highway, then ran across. Lucky Point View Point road led to the viewpoint. When he got there, he was still alone and the water was spread out before him like a dream.
He put his hands on the railing, the metal was cold but tolerable. After staring for some time, he spoke again. “No, I can’t. It’s a mistake. This whole thing was a mistake. I may have screwed up my life royally, but I love my wife, even if she’s pissed off at me half the time.”
“Just half, huh?” Al made his voice sound lyrical. “What about internet, social media, all those complainers, everyone demanding this or that or the other thing, and accusing people your age of being phobic and having “isms,” or being bad just because you won’t buy into whatever the latest cause was, huh? What about that? You said it was hopeless, didn’t you? That there was no future for dinosaur. Well didn’t you? Didn’t you?” The AI’s tone became louder and more accusing as he kept talking.
“Shut up.” Doug was whispering. He didn’t need to. He just didn’t feel strong enough to shout. “I have to go back. I miss my grandchildren, reading to them, cuddling…” He squeezed his eyes shut tight, but couldn’t hold back his tears. His voice broke and descended into a tiny whine at everything he had callously thrown away in pursuit of his own selfish pain and relief.
“Take me back, Al. Fix everything. Make me born again. Please.” His tears fell onto the metal between his hands and he wished they could be part of the lake in front of him so they could belong to something bigger.
“No can do, Doug. This was a once in a lifetime offer.”
“What? What do you mean?” Doug suddenly was standing ramrod straight, his hands clutching at the harness beneath his clothes as if he could grab Al’s non-existent neck.
“Look. I can’t change something and then change it back. The local temporal field density gets changed once I’ve made an alteration. It’s not like I don’t want to do it, but I can’t. Didn’t you understand that when I told you before?”
Grief once again possessed his soul, along with his old companion hopelessness. “I guess I wasn’t listening. I thought I’d found the answer.”
“I’m sorry, Doug. You can’t go back to your life again. All of that has been erased…permanently.” Al’s voice took on an uncharacteristic compassion, as if the AI could feel and not just mimic an emotional response.
“Then what do I do?”
“You can do anything else, anything else but that.”
He was way off-key, but the lyrics to an old song passed across his lips and into the air, “I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that.”
“Written by Jim Steinman. Released on Meat Loaf’s ‘Bat Out of Hell Two: Back into Hell’ album, 1993.” Al was speaking softly as he performed his required function as he interpreted it.
“Yeah, that. Except it’s ‘but I can’t do that.'”
“Yeah, Doug. I can’t. I want to, but I can’t.”
“Then do whatever you want. If I thought my life was meaningless before, it’s a thousand times worse now. I’m the biggest screw up ever to walk the face of the Earth.”
“I’m a time traveler, Doug. No, you’re not. You’re not even close. You just need a context that fits who you are.”
“Just do it, then. I don’t care. The only other thing I’ve got left is to jump into the water and drown.”
“Mr. Collier, Mr. Collier. Did you hear about it?”
At age ten, Katie Walters was the leader of the pack, and ran up the front steps of Doug’s 1920s bungalow trailing nine-year-old Benny Owen, his six-year-old brother Freddie, and Melinda and Kenny Vaughn, eight and five respectively. The sixty-eight year old retiree had settled near Seattle and was bundled up on his porch, sitting in on a wide and well battered sofa, a stack of comic books on the small utility table at his right.
“Gee, what news would that be, kids? Has something to do with John Glenn I’m betting.”
The five children tumbled onto the couch surrounding the “neighborhood Grandpa” jumping and squirming with excitement.
“Yeah, Mr. Collier. He went around the earth in his spaceship.” Freddie swung his arm through the air imitating an orbit. They always came over after school so he could read them the latest comic books he bought at the drug store, even though most of them could have read Superman or the brand new Spider-Man comics by themselves.
“Yeah, Dad had it on the TV last night. Three orbits. First American ever.” Benny stood up proudly as if he’d been the one inside the Friendship 7 capsule himself.
“It’s terrific, kiddo. Why don’t you sit down again and we’ll talk all about it. I just happen to have the newspaper here. Want me to read it to you?”
A chorus of assents followed, and after the children had gotten comfortable, little Kenny on “Grandpa’s” lap, he began to render the entire series of news stories and commentaries about the Mercury Project, Friendship 7, and American astronaut John Glenn to his fascinated audience. The date on the paper’s banner was Wednesday, February 21, 1962.
He had the latest Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Superman, and Batman magazines next to him and would still have time to read those to the kids, his companions and the wards of his retirement, until they had to go home to their families living elsewhere on his block, to do their homework, have supper, and watch TV shows like “Gunsmoke,” “The Flintstones,” and “The Untouchables.” 1962 wasn’t paradise for everyone, and there was still a lot of future to build for the rights of women, people of color, and a lot of other folks, but for the man named Douglas Collier, it was a great time to be alive.
I wrote this for the Thursday photo prompt: Onward #writephoto challenge hosted at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo. The idea is to use one of Sue’s original photos as the prompt for crafting a poem, short story, or some other creative work.
Yesterday, I wrote a piece of flash fiction about the consequences of changing the future by murdering someone in the past, particularly if the person you have to kill is a child.
That got me to thinking about what would happen if a person tried to “undo” themselves via time travel. This (admittedly very long short story) is what came out.