“I can’t do it, Erickson. I’m no killer.” Rafael Isaiah Johnson had traveled back in time 172 years to stop a global extinction event and save the human race, but the man he hoped to enlist as an ally, Austin Randolph Erickson had another idea, a murderous one.
The two men, one a Hispanic-African-American who wouldn’t be born for another 135 years was standing in the other man’s kitchen between the refrigerator and the stove, the exit to his back, while the opposing person, a white American man of Scandinavian ancestry was facing him and holding out the butt of a loaded semi-automatic Glock 20. The drawer to his left and second from the top was still pulled open.
“You’ve got to do it, Johnson. I believe you. I believe all of the holographic evidence you brought with you, that my unborn son is the key in time, the critical element in preventing the reversal of the effects of climate change. Take the gun. If I don’t exist, then he won’t be born.”
Rafe felt his stomach knotting with sweat dripping from his forehead and soaking his armpits. This wasn’t going at all how he’d planned when he stepped into the temporal accelerator and found himself on Erickson’s doorstep in suburban Orange County on Saturday, January 5th, 2019. He thought he could reason with the young corporate vice-president of what the time traveler thought of as an ancient software company, convince him to delay his marriage by a month or more, or if he couldn’t, after his first child was born, change how he was raised and educated so that he would value the environment more than corporate profits.
“No, there’s got to be another way.” Dressed in what he considered early 21st century casual attire, but what to Austin looked like that 1980 movie “Urban Cowboy” starring John Travolta (minus the hat), Rafael deliberately held both arms loose at his sides and took a step backward. He stared in horror at the proffered weapon. He’d only seen them displayed in museums inside locked, transparent cases, and the “holovids” demonstrating how they were used, the horribly loud noise, putting holes in objects at distances of tens of meters, have given him nightmares for weeks after he’d seen them.
“I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.” Austin smirked at his own attempt to be clever while suggesting suicide by proxy.
“Sorry. It’s a line from an old movie.”
“An old…listen, we don’t have time for this. Put that damn thing away. Why do you even keep it in the kitchen anyway? I mean, people eat here.”
“I keep another one in my bedroom, but this one’s just in case I’m nearer the kitchen if there’s been a break-in. We’ve had a bunch of home invasions lately.”
“I don’t know what all of that means, and I don’t care. Put the firearm back where you found it and we’ll figure out another solution.”
“There is no other solution. It’s too late to convince Kaandra to put off the wedding. All of the invitations have been sent, the hall’s been rented. For fuck’s sake, the wedding is in three months. Why didn’t you come back earlier, like a year earlier?”
“Hey! 172 years is a long time. I could only approximate when you’d get married. I knew this date was prior to, okay?” The young scientist, who was married and expecting his first child soon, suddenly realized getting into a heated argument with a person holding an armed weapon probably wasn’t a good idea, but his anxiety was rising almost to the point of panic. He only had so much time before the retrieval program pulled him home, and if he couldn’t complete his mission before then, everyone in the world, his world, would die.
“Alright, alright, but look at it from my point of view.” Austin reached to his right and set the Glock on the counter next to a small spice rack. “I can’t delay the wedding without a really good reason, and saying I was visited by a scientist from the future is unbelievable.”
“That’s only one way. I told you. Your son grows up in your footsteps, a corporate leader, and in this case, one who becomes President and CEO of a major company in energy production. He uses his social and political influence to block the passing of laws, the development of green industries, real solutions to global climate change, because they’d cut into his profits. You taught him that, taught him that profits are the bottom line.”
Austin opened his mouth to argue, but stopped because he already believed. It was a reflex. The Board expected him to make and keep the company successful. It was his lifeblood, the lifeblood of the corporation and the industry. He never expected that his legacy would be universal Armageddon.
“Even if I make a conscious effort to change how he learns and thinks, there’s no guarantee that he won’t grow up and make decisions that fulfill what you know as history. How can I promise that?”
“You can’t. I know that. All I’m asking for is a chance to go back to a world where I can expect to see my children grow up, a world where people might, just might have learned to live in harmony with the environment. In spite of your son, subsequent generations managed to slow down the heating of the global climate, but it was too late to halt it. The tipping point is in just a few decades. You stop it here, or it’s too late.
“I can’t believe it.” The corporate leader staggered into the closed door of the pantry on the right and just a little behind him. “I can’t believe I’m responsible, that it comes down to just one man, me.” He started shaking, his skin feeling cold and clammy.
“I know this is all a shock.” Rafe took a couple of steps closer thinking to comfort the other man, but then the close proximity of the gun stopped him. “I’m not asking for promises. I know you can’t control the future. Like I said, all I want is a chance.”
“Can’t you go back earlier into my history? Do something to change me? Five or ten years should be enough.” The young executive looked down at the floor, his eyes unfocused as if staring into an uncertain history.
“It doesn’t work like that. The accelerator, its power systems are experimental. I can only use it once before it burns out, and I can only stay here for so long. It’s a one-of-a-kind technology and can never be built again.”
The 21st century native looked up and saw desperation into the eyes of the man from the future. “So you blew it all on this one shot.”
“My wife is pregnant. If this doesn’t work, my son won’t grow up. The world is that close to the brink.” For the first time, Rafe took his eyes off of Austin and saw a framed photo on the raised counter to the other man’s left. It was a portrait of Austin and a young black woman. “Is that your wife?”
“Fiancée. Remember Kaandra and I won’t get married for another three months.”
“She’s very beautiful. Reminds me is Aurelia a little.”
“Yes, that’s right. Look. Let’s go into the other room. Sit down. We can talk this over some more. I don’t know how much time I’ve got left.” Rafael jumped at a strange sound that came from a flat device sitting on the elevated counter top right next to Austin. He watched the man look down at the surface of the device, saw him reading something, and heard him mutter the words, “The rabbit died. Be over in thirty.”
“The rabbit died. What does that mean?” Rafael had studied early to mid-21st century English and idioms for months, knowing that the common speech of late 22nd century would make him incomprehensible to Austin, but there was obviously a lot he still didn’t understand.
He’d studied other things, though he would likely never use them, such as how to establish a valid 21st century identity in the off-chance something went wrong with the retrieval. He even wore gold jewelry, rings, a necklace, and such, in the event he needed to exchange them for local currency. None of that mattered, but it didn’t hurt to be prepared.
Austin moved suddenly, grabbing the Glock on his right, and this time, pointing the barrel at Rafael’s chest. “It means the game has changed. Back up slowly into the hallway, and then to your right, down the hall toward the front door.”
The time traveler did as he was told, trying not to imagine what would happen to his body if Austin fired his handgun.
“Raise your hands.”
“Raise your hands over your head so I can see them.”
Baffled and terrified, Rafe lifted his arms. His heavy western boots made a clumping sound with each step he took.
“Now turn to your right again. Back up to the front door.”
Rafe took several steps until he was stopped by the door. He didn’t want to die. He was trembling. What had the message meant and why was this the result?
“Please. Killing me won’t change anything. If I die here and now, I don’t know what the effect will be, what the accelerator will do in my time or yours. Besides, won’t your authorities punish you for murdering someone?”
As Rafael was talking, Austin was also slowly backing up, walking into the living room behind him. His feet transitioned from hard wood floor to carpet. He was about three-and-a-half meters away from the other man when he stopped, the backs of his legs against a coffee table and the gun still pointed directly at the African-American’s chest.
“It means that you came too late. Kaandra is already pregnant. We’re going to have a baby, and if history is correct, it will be my son, the person responsible for all the problems you describe in the future.”
Tears streamed down Rafael’s checks and he could feel his heart rapidly beating in his chest. It was hard to keep his hands up by his head and the muscles in his arms were burning. “Look. Look, terminating pregnancies is legal by now, isn’t it? You could, well, convince her that you should wait sometime after your wedding before having children. It might even be the solution to our problem. If your son is never born…”
“Shut up!” Austin’s yell made Rafael jump. He involuntarily closed his eyes expecting to hear a horribly loud booming sound and then feel hideous pain in his chest. When it didn’t happen, he opened his eyes.
“Kaandra isn’t getting an abortion. She thinks it’s immoral, and I’m not going to tell her to kill our baby.”
“But I thought, I mean, in my time, human life is precious because so many of us have already died. But here overpopulation…”
“Would you quit it?” The gun wielding man yelled again, but this time Rafe kept his eyes open. He saw a grim look of determination on the other man’s face but the hand holding the gun was shaking.
“Please put the gun down.” Rafe tried to make his voice as soft as possible.
“It’s too late for any of that. You said it yourself. The problem isn’t my son, it’s me. If I raise him, there’s no promise that he’s grow up any differently. But if I’m not here…Kaandra is a better person than I am, gentler, more compassionate. I know she’ll do the right thing, even if she doesn’t realize it.”
“What are you going to do?”
“She’ll be here in less than thirty minutes. You can’t be here when she arrives, but neither can I.”
“Wait. Don’t do that.”
Rafael took a step forward
In response, the other man yelled, “Stop right there. Not another move.” Austin took a step forward and raised the barrel of the gun so it pointed at Rafe’s head. He jumped backward, slamming against the front door.
“Now stay the fuck there and don’t move a muscle.”
“Austin, you don’t have to do this.”
“Yes I do, for my child and for yours.”
It happened fast. Austin reversed the gun, put the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger as Rafael screamed. He tried to run forward to stop him, but a lifetime of revulsion of violence, and especially any weaponry of violence made him freeze in position. He watched in horror as the back of the white man’s head exploded, spraying the carpet, furniture, and windows behind him with brains, blood, and bone.
He was still standing at the door trembling and sobbing when he heard the sounds of an automobile approach and then stop in front of the house. He wanted to turn and look out the blinds, but he couldn’t move, couldn’t look at Austin’s corpse on the floor or at the imminent approach of Kaandra.
Footsteps were coming up the walk behind Rafael when the world became indistinct and unfocused. He thought that shock and grief had affected his vision, then remembered the effects of the accelerator when it sent him here nearly two hours ago. The scenery became bleached out, just as it did before, but this time he was light-headed, and felt his legs give out from under him just before he passed out.
“Mommy, is the man dead?”
“Hush, Daniel and get away from him. I’ll have a look.”
Rafael heard the little boy’s voice and then the woman’s as if they were coming from out of a long, hollow tube. The headache in the back of his skull was magnificent, and when he opened his eyes, the light was too bright causing him to blink and tear up.
“Excuse me. Are you okay? Do you need help?”
“What?” Rafe’s vision started to clear and he could see her face. She was leaning over him. “Aurelia?”
“Who? Are you sick or hurt? Do you want me to call 911?”
He tried to sit up and the woman backed off. She was still crouching, dressed in what they called blue jeans and some sort of light-colored top. There was a little boy about five years old peeking out from behind her to his left.
“I…I think I’m okay.” Having heard her speak, he knew something went wrong. He wasn’t home. He was still in the past, so he remembered to talk the way she probably expected him to.
“What happened?” She was holding a flat device in her hand. Now, he remembered they were communication devices.
He looked around. A park. He was near a tree. Everything looked so lush and alive compared to what he was used to. There was the sound of children’s voices far behind the pair. They were crawling all over some sort of construction, apparently enjoying themselves.
“Are you sure you’re alright? Can I call someone for you?”
He looked back at the woman. No, it wasn’t his wife, but he knew her face. She looked a little older but it was her, it was Kaandra, the woman Austin Erickson was supposed to marry. The child behind her had to be their son, Daniel.
“I’m fine. I had a headache and decided to lay down. Must have fallen asleep or something. Thank you for being concerned.” The headache was subsiding as he became more oriented, but something had gone horribly wrong with the retrieval program. The accelerator was designed to only work once, one trip back, one trip forward. If he wasn’t home now, he would never get there.
As he stood up, so did she. Rafael recalled the common social customs of the time. “My name is Rafael Johnson.” He smiled and held out his hand.
She put her cell phone back in her hip pocket and let him shake her hand. “Kaandra Hill.”
“Hi, I’m Danny. This is my Mommy.” The little boy popped out from behind his Mom and grabbed Rafe’s hand to shake.
The man leaned down still smiling, stifling confusion that carried a hint of despair. “Hi, Danny. Glad to meet you.”
Kaandra put her hand on her son’s shoulder and subtly pulled her child toward her. Then a look of puzzlement crossed her eyes as she regarded the man’s odd apparel. “You planning on going to a rodeo, Mr. Johnson?”
“What?” He didn’t know what a rodeo was, but he did recall that Austin had told him he was dressed a little out of step with the times. “Oh. My clothing. Yes, I suppose I was careless when I dressed this morning.”
“Well, if you’re all right. I guess we’ll be going.” She looked at him askance, but he could also see some mild interest as well, much like how his wife looked at him when they first met.
“I appreciate your concern…” he had to pause to recall the proper form of address, “…Ms Hill. Perhaps we’ll meet again under better circumstances.”
She half smiled as she replied, “Well, you never know what the future will bring. Be seeing you around, Mr. Johnson.”
“Rafael,” she repeated.
“Bye, Rafael. See you later,” Danny cried out with a grin as his Mom took his hand and started walking toward where the other children were playing.
As he watched them retreat into the distance, Rafael Johnson considered his options. The retrieval program didn’t work. Maybe Austin’s death did change something in the future, but that meant he was permanently trapped in the past. If he intended to survive, he had to leverage the gold jewelry, the necklace and rings he wore, plus what he carried in his pockets and in the hollow heals of his boots. He knew how to establish an identity in the past, but there was still the question of Daniel Erickson. His father assumed that Kaandra would raise their son to value life, the environment, to not impede legitimate efforts to reverse climate change, but as he also said, their was no guarantee.
But since Rafe was here and since he could never go home, and maybe home as he knew it, even his wife and unborn child, no longer existed in the future, perhaps he could give history a push.
Nearly two months ago, I read an article titled Nine Sci-Fi Subgenres to Help You Understand the Future. It
commandedrecommended themes for writing socially just and relevant science fiction, including climate change and Afrofuturism.
Highly successful African-American author and screenwriter Steven Barnes often writes on Afrofuturism themes on his blog and addressed it in his recent film review Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018). He is often critical about films, both currently and historically produced, for “killing off” black people for the sake of making white people more heroic, and especially if a black man is among a group of white men in a dystopian setting, when the only woman available is white. That’s a sure formula for making the black man die.
To quote from his blog post:
Black audiences notice, though. I remember being about Jason age, about 14, just forming my self-image, and going to see such movies. Maybe it was “The Dirty Dozen.” When I got back home, raving about it, the other black kids in my neighborhood asked me a terrible question: “how did they kill the brother this time?”
My being white means, by definition, I have no black lived experience to draw upon, so I have no idea how to write Afrofuturism. But one of the things Barnes had mentioned is that there is no film where, at the end, all the white people die for the sake of black people.
So I thought I’m create my own rather crude attempt at having a white man sacrifice himself, not just for a black man, but for the future of all humanity.
I thought about just sending Rafe back home to the future, but if Austin’s suicide really did change things, maybe that would be impossible. Or maybe something in the nature of time made it necessary for Rafael to stay in the (relative) present. Perhaps the only promise that Daniel Erickson wouldn’t be the key to preventing the reversal of climate change would be if the time traveler remained there to help guide him.
I know I’m risking making a lot of people mad at me by writing this, and like I said, my attempt to address these issues is crude and incomplete, but I’ve got to start somewhere. Call this an experiment.
Oh, Rafael isn’t a coward, but he was raised in a culture where violence and especially firearms are severely frowned upon, so he was totally unprepared for Austin’s use of a gun.