Iterations, by Josh English
The man from the future offered me the large manila envelope. I refused to take it, knowing if I accepted it, I accepted his story that the world was stuck in a three-day time loop. I accepted the idea that nine days had passed, and while the Earth kept moving every living thing in it grew older, Kronos5722, the only name he gave me, claimed our memories reset every time he went back in time. I would accept all of this as my fault because I would build the time machine over the next three days, and it would go wrong.”I don’t believe you,” I said. He didn’t look trustworthy in his leather overcoat and wide-brimmed hat that hid his face.”I know. Luckily, I figured this out last time.” He placed the envelope on my desk and the computer screen zigged. This distracted me, and he used the opportunity to grab my hand. A tingling sensation danced up my arm and down my spine.
“I feel that all the time I’m stuck here,” he said. He tapped the envelope. “Everything I can offer you for help is in here. I volunteered on the Usenet group. You built it alone, but gave me these documents in case something went wrong. You have to build it again, and you have to do it right, otherwise we’ll fail again. I’ll return to now, you’ll forget you’ve tried to build the time machine twice already. Please, the future of the world is at stake. I’ll be back Monday at noon. If everything goes well, we can put history back on track.” He nodded like there was nothing more he could say and left. I followed him to the front door and watched him go down the street and around a corner.
I wanted to believe him. I wanted to think that the time machine I started two years ago would eventually work. Thinking about the time machine inevitably led to the price I paid for the project: my wife, Natalya.
She left six months ago. She didn’t need to say anything when she left. We both knew why: I spent too much time at work and when I was home, I was in the basement’s ad-hoc lab, working on projects, trying to solve puzzles by building machines that never worked, assuming my wife accepted the platonic direction our relationship had gone.
She left. I hated my puzzles instead of myself. I swore them off. I had packed up my basement, sold all but the essential parts of my library, and dismantled the machines. After three months, I tried to convince her to come back. Three more months of pleading and she agreed to see me. Our second first date was hours away, and I wasn’t going to let the time machine ruin the same relationship twice.
I hefted the envelope with no ill affect. I reasoned that if this came from the future, as Kronos5722 claimed, then I should feel whatever I felt when he touched me again. I decided it was a joke and dropped the envelope in the trash by my desk on my way to the shower.
We ate at a Cuban restaurant near her house and fell into happier habits. We finished each other sentences and laughed at the private jokes I forgot during our separation. I avoided mentioning the man from the future, and she avoiding something by the way she let her sentences trickle off into a change of subject. She claimed she hadn’t seen anyone else during the separation, and I left it for another day. I didn’t want to spoil the reunion.
She had taken up astronomy and set up an observation platform on her house’s widow’s walk. We climbed the stairs to the roof, pausing to grab her laptop. The telescope stood at the end of the walk in the shadow of an oak tree.
“Name a star. Any star in the northern hemisphere.”
“Deneb,” I said.
She typed it into the laptop with a flourish. The telescope pivoted into position.
“Voici!” She motioned me to the eyepiece. I looked through it, being careful not to nudge the telescope. “What do you think?” she asked when I didn’t say anything.
“I think there’s something wrong. There’s nothing there.”
She shoved me aside. “I knew you weren’t good with machines.” She laughed, but swallowed it and left silence in its wake. Machines were the precipice of an evening-killing disaster. She peered through the eyepiece and hummed with concern. She double-checked the laptop and the telescope. Then she got quiet. Concentration quiet. Any sound I’d make could start an argument loud enough to wake her neighbors.
The telescope retracted and extended. She changed the laptop setting. The telescope’s motor whined but I didn’t see it move.
“There. Found it.”
I looked, and the star sat in the middle of the lens. “Not bad. What went wrong?”
“I don’t know. The laptop gets the time from NASA’s atomic clock, as well as the star data. There must be a glitch in the telescope’s computer.”
Kronos5277’s claim burned in my head like a comet. Every three days as he went back in time, everyone’s memories turned back three days, but the universe’s clockwork kept turning, aging everything.
“Silly question: what time does the star say it is?”
“You mean, when will the star be in that position according to the NASA data?” she asked. I nodded. “Then ask the right question. Don’t go all mystic anthropomorphizing stars.” She ran a few calculations. “It’s nine days ahead.”
The lone comet passed, leaving a meteor shower in its wake. Three iterations of the time-error. I didn’t feel a week older, but how easy is it to notice one week go by? “I have to go,” I said.
“Do you love me?” The question came automatically, a habit from a decade together. I didn’t take the time to regret it.
“Of course.” Her response wasn’t thought through either; she flinched after saying it.
“Then please don’t ask. Not now.” I kissed her on the cheek, gently, resisting the urge to forget everything and hold her and love her again like nothing had happened. But something had happened between us, and now there was a time traveler from my future getting in the way of our reunion. My hands quivered when I thought about it. The iteration of these three days made life look hopeless. The star proved Kronos5277’s story. Now I had to fix it.
I drove home. My cell phone rang with her special ring-tone. I shut it off. Hearing it now made the pain worse. At home, my email waited with a message from her. I responded, explaining that I had a wonderful time and needed to leave to take care of something that would only upset her. “I don’t want to do this. It’s being forced on me and I hope we can go out again in a few days, after I clean this up. Please forgive me, I still love you.” I sent the message.
I had two choices: continue to look for proof, or build the damn machine. Despite everything I had told Natalya, I had to try. I retrieved the envelope from the trash.
It contained handwritten notes in a tight scrawl that I used when I worked on programming challenges. It also had printouts from the rec.sci.rubber.time-travel threads, which had “SMA” stamped in red letters on them. It didn’t mean anything to me, but the stamps were only part of the puzzle. Their contents gave me something to work on.
I knew the mathematics, since they started with my work on differential manifolds in a four-dimensional vector space. I represented the three spatial dimensions as functions of time. The greatest hurdle was the engineering, which other people had worked out in better detail. Kronos5722 had a few posts encouraging others, but he contributed nothing interesting.
One message to Kronos5277 read, “Since you know him so well,”–a reference to me according to another message–“can you talk to him? He has a prototype but hasn’t posted an update in months. He just disappeared.” I didn’t know why Kronos claimed to know me. I wanted to believe he was a fraud, but was tempted to think that he was right.
My first pass through the notes focused on proof of the lie. I couldn’t find any. I delved into schematics and theories on how the machine could work.
Shortly before sunrise, I was hooked. This was the puzzle that beat me. This was the puzzle that pushed Natalya out of my life, but it was the puzzle that would win her back. I had to give it one final attempt, and destroy it if it failed. No mothballing this time around. I had fifty-four hours to finish.
A central staircase divided the basement into four sections: an alcove held the washer and dryer, a small room was packed with boxes, a large area with a workbench next to the garage, and the corner where I had built the time machine prototype. There were two paths in the maze of boxes and trunks of memories: one to the washing machine, and the other to the garage.
As I cleared out more boxes, I realized that I wasn’t ready to start things with Natalya again. I needed to get this out of my system. One last purge and I’d be done. The prototype sat next to an old dresser that stored the parts and tools. I cleared enough space to pull it away from the corner and used a can of compressed air to clear off what little dust had settled on it.
I set up a whiteboard near the machine so I could design parts and see the plans while I worked. I erased the plans as I finished them. There was no need to keep the plans; I could come back and watch myself work, take notes when I had more sleep and more time to prepare. Maybe. Nobody on the RSRTT board could predict the same rules of time travel twice, since nobody was able to go back in time, or forward in time any faster than the tick of the clock. That didn’t stop me from lecturing to an unseen visitor from the future, or looking around for signs of myself.
I made a note to ask Kronos5277 what he learned on his journey through time, remembered that he’d been only once, and it had been the wrong way, or a mistake, but something had gone wrong. After fixing the initial errors of the iteration, I would go back and fix my life. Give myself warnings about Natalya; plan my life around her. My marriage was a puzzle. I should have seen it earlier. All I had to do was put the right clues in place, and I could have solved our problems.
After lunch, I took a shower and followed it with a nap. The doorbell rang four minutes before the alarm. Throwing on a pair of jeans and a shirt, I almost slid down the stairs to the front room. I recognized the silhouette of short, dark hair through the mottled glass of the front door. Natalya.
She was courteous enough not to walk in until I opened the door. She still had a house key, but had never used it after she left. Once the door opened, she walked to the middle of the room. She turned a full circle, looking at everything. Her absence defined the room. I had replaced her furniture with second-hand stuff, but they failed to work together like our old furniture did.
“I want to ask you a question,” she said. “And I don’t want a damned Pavlovian response. I want you shut up and think about it.”
“Do you still love me?”
Of course I did, but I wanted to give her an answer with the appearance of serious thought behind it. She deserved that much, even though it was a well-prepared answer. I spent six months changing everything in my life to get her back. I would sacrifice anything to have her again.
“Yes, I do.”
She let go of a breath that I hadn’t seen her holding. She stepped closer, took my head in her hands, and kissed me. It was a luxurious kiss. My hands found their familiar places around her waist. It would have been worth it to let the time machine go, so I could experience this kiss over and over again. Maybe I already had. I laughed at the idea.
“What’s so funny?” she asked.
“Just an odd thought. Memories of better times.”
“But you have a project that you have to finish.”
She stepped away from me. I could see her hesitate, something she never did before. “Do you want my help?” she asked.
My turn to balk. I wanted her help, but maybe I’d already tried that and failed. Maybe I’d rejected her help and lost her. Maybe the price of the kiss was endless iterations of a small pleasure. There was a future of pleasures waiting for us and I had to secure it. “I think I need to work this out on my own. It will take a few days, and I’m done with it. Done with all the stupid projects that kept me away from you. One last fling with my old life, then I’m yours.”
She smiled. It reminded me of the day I proposed to her. I felt light seeing it. Then, unlike the proposal, her smile descended to a frown. “You’d give it all up?”
“If I have to lose everything for you, I will. I want a new life with you, not a life of regrets and gewgaws.”
Her smile returned to somewhere more than acceptance and less than rapture. “I’ll go, then. Come by Monday night…” The Monday that would never arrive unless I finished the time machine. “…and we’ll start over.” She kissed me again, and left.
I didn’t notice as Saturday rolled into Sunday. I had dismissed the idea of a countdown timer, and scavenged the other clocks in the house for their mechanical and electronic parts. Whenever my thoughts muddled I took a quick shower and shaved. I didn’t want my own stubble reminding me that time was passing, and it seemed fitting to detach myself from time while building the machine that would conquer it. Not knowing the time helped free me from linear thinking.
At dawn, I panicked that I had lost track of the day. The machine was close, but it wasn’t going to make a Monday deadline if Monday passed. I found the Sunday Edition of the newspaper on my front porch. I covered the few windows in the basement and loaded a cooler with food. I wanted to lose track of the time again before I ate lunch.
By the time I felt hungry again, the machine was almost finished. I wanted a nap and a shave. An old forgotten cot and a spare disposable razor in some camping equipment solved both problems.
When I woke up, a single apple sat in the time machine. The machine was built around a frame of three hoops welded together to outline a sphere about a meter in diameter. I had built a small platform where a person could crouch on into the machine. The apple sat in the middle of the platform.
I had brought three apples into the basement to eat, not for testing. Seeing them there opened the possibilities. I could start my test.
Alternately, someone could have entered the house. I accessed my security system through the mainframe in the basement. The door hadn’t been opened since Natalya came over yesterday. I couldn’t escape seeing the system’s clock. I was again cursed with a measurement of time, and it was ten o’clock Sunday night. Fourteen hours to go. That’s just a long day at work, I told myself. I’d have time to send Kronos5277 off to whatever his next adventure was, get a nap, and be ready for my next adventure with Natalya. I wanted this one to last longer than ten years.
The apple was a new problem to solve, then. It felt lighter than any of the apples I had packed into the cooler, and it had a large bruise on one side. I checked the cooler. All three apples were still there. Now I had four. Seeing them came as a shock and my fist clenched around the mysterious apple. The skin cracked and the apple’s rotten gray applesauce insides oozed over my fingers. It smelled like sauerkraut left in the sun too long.
I cleaned it up, but the smell didn’t go away. It lived in my brain and everything in the basement stank of it. I had to light a match, blow it out, and inhale the smoke through my nose to get rid of it.
Relieved, I checked the apples. One of them had a small bruise on the side and looked like the apple that had died such an ugly death, as much as I could tell one apple from another. I squeezed it. Still firm. I found a knife and cut a slice from the apple. The flesh was firm, juicy, and pale. Perfect.
The memory of the smell and finding the apple in the machine must have been from a dream.
I realized that playing with apples was stupid; I had to fix the machine.
“But why was I worried about the apple?” I asked the room in general in case any students from the future were listening and taking notes. I fancied the idea that the invention of the first time machine would be a rather popular course of study for future physicists, and why not watch in real-time?
“Because I don’t remember anything about an apple in the time machine, but I know that this apple, after I cut a slice of it, couldn’t be the apple that I found in the time machine that I don’t remember finding.” I erased the whiteboard and wrote out a syllogism. “If I had sent the apple back in time as a test, and now changed the apple that would eventually be used in the test so it couldn’t be used in the test, then I never sent the apple from the future. Ergo, the apple I sent into the past never made the trip, and my brain erased the experience from my memory, because the memory didn’t happen. I conclude that the time machine works but is wonky, and needs some fine tuning.”
I double-checked everything I had put together. Knowing it would work–thanks to the logic on the whiteboard–I had more confidence as I finished the machine. Following the plan didn’t need as much concentration, and I found myself thinking about Natalya. Finishing this project would be a great way to end my “career” as a high-tech tinkerer, but would it impress Natalya? I didn’t know. It didn’t matter. The machines would be out of my life. Natalya would fill every void.
I listed the other hobbies I could take up. Cooking, for example. Neither one of us had been great cooks. I could focus on feeding us well, eating better than dinner-in-a-box. This made me feel better about the future, and before I knew it, I finished the machine.
Before I could test it, I realized it missed one vital component: a clock. Not being time-aware took away the pressure of a deadline, but the lack of one made testing logically impossible. I rummaged through the storage boxes and found an old palmtop. It knew a simple script language that matched some of the notes Kronos5277 gave me. I entered the functions and reset it to the security system clock: four a.m., Monday.
With the clock in the time machine, the whole thing seemed to come alive. I picked up a scrap of metal. I announced the time, four-oh-two, and looked down. A piece of metal identical to the one in my hand appeared in the machine. It crumbled into ash in my hand. I put the original on the platform and set the clock to minus three minutes. I waited until four-oh-five and turned the machine on. The scrap of metal disappeared.
“And that,” I lectured to my invisible classroom from the future, “is the first near successful test of the time machine. It needs some tuning, but it works. Observe that the clock has reset itself to the proper time.”
A hammer almost survived the next test. The metal head softened to the consistency of hard clay, and the wooden handle fell apart into a myriad of splinters. A cookie tasted just as good at six-fifteen as another cookie in the same package that I ate at six-seventeen, just after a minus-two minute test. By ten, the time machine worked. I sent an uncooked frozen burrito forward five minutes. It reappeared on time. It tasted good after I cooked it. I considered testing the apples, but it didn’t seem like a good idea.
I removed the window coverings and tidied up what little space there was. I wanted the place to look better for the formal opening. I carried the food back upstairs, and at eleven-thirty, I took another shower. I didn’t realize noon had arrived until I heard Natalya calling me from the basement.
I ran downstairs. Natalya and a tall man stood next to the time machine. I didn’t see his face three days ago, but I knew the man was Kronos5722.
I asked the closest thing to a pertinent questions that came to mind. “What are you doing here? With him?”
“Saving history. At least, we’re saving our history. Your machine was destroyed in a fire, and the Switzerland Museum of Antiquities hired us to replace it with the original.” She sounded different. Her hair was tinted with gray. “I think you’ve met Timothy, my husband.” She gestured to Kronos–Timothy.
“Husband? How long have you been married?”
“About five years in PC.”
I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.
“Don’t confuse him, Natty,” Timothy said. “He invented the thing, but never traveled himself.” He turned to me and smiled. I had never hit another human being in my life, but I wanted to break at least one tooth out of his smug and condescending grin. “PC stands for Personal Chronology. We can’t use calendars in our line of work, so we measure our real age with computer implants.” He tapped his chest, presumably to point out the implant.
“Natalya, who did I have dinner with on Friday? You or the one that left me six months ago?”
“Current Me. Previous Me is in the Yukon, camping with friends. In four years, I’ll meet Timothy, and in your future we’ll get stuck six months ago when this machine was destroyed in the fire. We’ve been waiting for time to catch up to this moment.”
My hand found a screwdriver and gripped it until I couldn’t feel my fingers.
“Robert, we don’t want to upset you any more. We’ll go.” She hugged me. I didn’t hug back. I dropped the screwdriver. “Thank you for ten years. I’ll come back to say goodbye.”
They grabbed the machine. Natalya pushed a button on something that resembled a wrist-watch. They glowed with an ultra-violet aura and vanished. The machine was gone. Natalya was gone.
An envelope appeared on the table next to where the machine had been. My name on the front in Natalya’s handwriting. I carried it to the utility sink, lit a match, and burned it.
Josh English lives in the Great Metropolitan Rainforest with his wife and ghost of a cat. He writes about math, religion, writing, code, education, and lifting heavy things at JoshEnglish.livejournal.com.
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