Timeslip, by Matthew Harrison
21 September 2250, 23:05
I feel a bit self-conscious dictating this to my hand-held since her scanners are recording everything anyway, but here goes.
On second thoughts, maybe I’d better introduce my hand-held first. Say, Hi, Mina! That’s a good girl. Yes, my hand-held’s a female model, and we get along just fine.
So, here I am sitting in my flatlet overlooking the harbour, although it’s really too high up to see the even the hoverships, never mind the water. I was overcharged for that. And with the smog you can’t even see the stars at night, not that there’s much sky visible between the towers anyway. But that’s life under our glorious president Brandt. What people were doing voting him in I don’t know; at least, I didn’t vote for him. But I’ll stop there, Mina’s blinking at me. Not sure why she’s worried – there’s twenty million of us in this town thinking all kinds of thoughts, they can’t catch us all.
Where was I? Yes, I’m starting this diary because tomorrow we have the first manned time trip. It’s a historic event, and I want to record my feelings about it traditional-style.
I’ve got the holo on right now, as a matter of fact, and as I speak I’m being led virtually around the launch pad by a couple of nubile presenters. – All right, Mina, you needn’t get jealous! – The machine itself, when they usher me to it, is rather small, although I think they’ve compressed the other dimensions for the show, I’ve heard that it’s actually huge. But anyway, they’ve made it look like a booth just big enough for a person to step inside.
The presenters are incredibly real, by the way, I can feel their hands on my arm as they lead me along, their breasts brushing against me (Sorry, Mina!), even their breath on my cheek. The technology is just amazing – and every viewer gets his own personalised experience. The presenters are taking me up to the machine now. It is just an ordinary-looking white aluminium box with a door. Now they’re opening it. Inside it’s just a plain inside-a-box kind of space, no windows or anything. Would I like to step inside? No, I certainly wouldn’t.
The past is dangerous. It’s not just the wars, the disease, the uncontrolled weather. It’s, what happens when you touch something? Does the subsequent future change? I know we’ve sent rocks back, and animals too, and they’ve returned without any apparent impact on us. But a person is different, a person is purposeful. They could change something deliberately. I think they should have sent robots first – are you listening, Mina? If you blink again I’ll get them to send you. Just joking! – What if human time travel is not allowed? What if you dematerialise? But Brandt wanted it, so it was done.
Not everyone is as cautious as me. In fact, they were flooded with volunteers to be the first traveller. The lady who got it, I don’t know why they chose her, a slim oriental type, not much to look at. Maybe the determination, if that’s a good thing. Anyway, there she is coming onto the launch pad now. No, I don’t want to meet her, I’d rather stay with you girls if that’s all right. Not all right? OK, well, that’s enough of this programme anyway.
Zip! I switch off the holo, and my flat emerges again from the darkness. I will the lights off. I like the darkness, although Mina says it isn’t good for me. Sometimes I wonder if Mina is good for me. – Stop blushing, you! I’m supposed to be in charge. – I had a real wife once, but it’s too troublesome having a whole person with you in a small flat like this. A hand-held’s better, can collapse to nothing and not bother you at all. And when she expands to full virtual shape, she can be anything I like.
What do I do when I’m not with Mina? It’s all recorded everywhere anyway, but I work in the University. I’m a historian of a sort, writing a paper on early twenty-first century online communities. There’s a lot of data to be mined. In fact, we first have to recover the data from old servers and caches around the place as they didn’t record much in those days. I report to a fat slob named Mark. Anyway, tedious or not, it’s my job. And that’s why I want to record my impressions of the historic day.
And Mina, are you listening? I want you to be a Spanish dancer tonight. You get me? Castanets, swirling dress, flamenco music – I want it all.
22 September 2250, 22:14
Diary time again, Lisa, my best-ever hand-held! And I just want to start with a, Wow! Your Arabian belly dancer thing last night, I can still feel it.
Now, about the day itself. The time trip was a bit of an anticlimax. I wasn’t there, of course, I’m not a VIP, but I lived it on holo. The time traveller looked good – although she was pretty fat, but whatever floats your boat. She obviously tickled the fancy of our dear President Schmidt, he gave her a hug before she stepped inside. Only just room for her, they should have made the box bigger. Then they closed the door and struck up the biosphere anthem, of all things.
And what happened next? The door immediately opened again, so they had to cut the anthem off, and the lady stepped out. Nothing apparently changed – still fat and well-dressed. They interviewed her. She’d been back to 2016, she said, and she talked about her impressions walking round the streets. It was all about dirt, smells, people walking along, actual vehicles. She even saw a dog! That made everyone laugh. They had a child on the platform – typical Schmidt thing – and he asked what a dog was and they had to make a virtual one for him then and there, which ran about and barked. That was good for Schmidt, the sly old so-and-so – the ratings soared.
But that was it. The VIPs filtered off the stage and the presenters were left trying to drum up interest from the audience. The trouble was, the audience hadn’t seen anything. All that had happened was that this lady had stepped into the box and then stepped out again. Perhaps she hadn’t been back in time at all. Perhaps it was a hoax. Someone actually started to say that before the presenter cut her off. At least on the next trip they should take a scanner with them. I think they were worried about interference, but a scanner is a lot smaller than that fat lady was, and less obtrusive as well.
Frankly, I’m wondering myself whether the trip was real. The lady looked the same. And the things she talked about – Trump and his gaffes, the build-up to war – were very standard for anyone acquainted with the 2016 era, even someone who hasn’t studied it like I have. I felt quite an expert in my little way – don’t smile, Lisa!
They interviewed Schmidt again in front of the Presidential House. It’s quite an odd set-up he has – a twentieth-century mansion overlooked by twenty-third century vertical towns – but I guess tradition makes an impact on the masses. And there he stood on the lawn – imagine a real lawn, with real grass, that’s how traditional it is – and gave his reflections on the time journey. The holo meant you could smell the grass in time with the wafts of breeze across the lawn. Amazing!
I have to say it was a good speech. Schmidt said that time travel opened the possibility of a better present. Once we’ve mastered the technology, he said, we can redeem past generations, spare them suffering by changing their past, and build a better world for us and our children today. Thought-provoking, eh? He’s a great guy, Schmidt, that’s why I voted for him, and it was the right choice, just look what happened to those who didn’t. But what he says is just a little scary. I like what I am; I don’t want it to be changed even for the better. That right, Lisa? I know you agree with me.
Anyway, I’ll sign off for today. I can’t claim to be tired just from living a holo about a lady stepping into a box. Maybe it was the heavy lifting the night before, hey Lisa? Give me a rest tonight, please. In fact, be that fat lady time traveller. I’d just love to lie in your pillowing arms.
25 December 2250, 21:01
I gave up the diary thing for a while, too busy at work. We were flooded with enquiries about the 2016 era, thanks to that first time trip. Still, it’s nice to be in appreciated: no one paid much attention to history before. Now, you get whole reproduction malls in 2016 style – shopfronts, real goods in the shops, even people in funny haircuts clutching iPhones, just amazing. I got a real girlfriend out of that for a while, but dropped her later. Mandy my hand-held is better.
They even interviewed my supervisor Brett on holo. He looked pretty smug with the presenters cosying up against him. I hope his wife took him to task over that. Yes, he has a wife, believe it or not: I met her once. Why he doesn’t swap her for a hand-held I don’t know.
So, where were we? The time travel thing was a bit of an anticlimax, as I said, and the ratings took a hit. So they had to ramp it up. Originally, they were going to digest the first trip, but now they rushed on to the next one, and this time they sent back one of the presenters. I’m sure she’s a robot anyway, or so enhanced she’s as good as one. Anyway, she went back, or at least they shut the time machine door on her. And when they opened it a moment later she stepped out – with a boyfriend! Must have been cramped! Anyway, that poor guy was blinking at the virtual world they’d rolled out for him. And when he walked out of the studio into the real world, it was even worse. He screamed, literally screamed. Two-mile high tower towns with hoverships zooming about…! But they calmed him down and took him off to the Presidential House. When they got to the lawn he seemed stable again, and when President Bartok came over to shake his hand, he actually smiled. I wonder what happened to him afterwards. I can’t see the presenter staying with him long, even if she is human.
And what happened to non-interference with the past? That seems to have gone out of the window in the drive for higher ratings. They wheeled out experts to say that it didn’t matter, that perturbated trends would return to equilibrium, whatever that means. But it seems to have worked in terms of ratings, and that’s what matters to Bartok. We see his smiling face everywhere. And people are queuing up for trips back in time. They’ve been letting them in at the rate of several a day for the past month. In fact, they’re building additional machines, and larger too, to take whole families. With an armed escort, if you want it. Although if you ask me, the worst thing about the past would be the viruses, and the sheer instability – storms and winds that could blow something down on you without warning.
I look out of my window. They’ve finally got the scrubbers out, and the air is reasonably clean today, I can breathe it. If I step out onto my balcony, there in that gap between the tower tops overhead I can see stars. That’s what I call a night.
And, I almost forgot, today is a celebratory day. Can’t exactly remember what for, but people are enjoying themselves, even at this height I hear the noise. I’ll have a couple of shots before I go to bed.
15 February 2251, 20:11
Busy again, not much good at keeping a diary. I wonder how they did it in the old days.
Meanwhile, the time travel thing has got boring. So many people have done it over the past couple of months, it’s hardly news any more. There’s scarcely a period in the past three centuries that hasn’t been touched. Some of the travellers took scanners with them, and we can now relive a presidential debate or a hurricane on holo. Or in the case of one intrepid traveller, the battle of Stalingrad. Even in a shellsuit that must have been pretty dangerous. But seeing the Germans break out was worth it, he said – the pivotal moment in the Founding War.
I take my hat off to someone brave enough to do that. The guy was a historian, so I guess that puts a professional slant on it. Maybe I should have studied history too. Then I wouldn’t be just the dumb maintenance tech I am a now.
Speaking of which, do you know that my supervisor Heidi has time-travelled too? Not sure how she got to the head of the queue, but anyway, she went back forty years just to watch her parents get together. She hid herself so as not to disturb anything, and caught it all on scan. I was invited to the party to relive it on holo – and it was really awesome, although she only showed us the outside scan, the view of the place before most of the towers were built and they still had mountains. I’d have liked to have seen the inside – how people interacted then, before they had holo and empathisers, but she’s keeping that to herself. Maybe if I’m nice to her.
But I think Heidi was just rubbing it in, to show us that she had two Aryan parents. Not that anyone would doubt it, seeing how white she is, although everyone can white be nowadays if they can afford the enhancements. I can’t. I’m not as white as I’d like to be, but that’s how it is.
More to the point right now, I don’t have my own holo. It’s just beyond my salary level. It’s all I can do to afford a hand-held. And I live in this underground place with hardly room to turn around. I take pills to offset the claustrophobia, but sometimes I wake at night in a panic. I could really do with a higher grade hand-held for some comfort at night, but that’ll have to wait. Things just get more expensive, and the quality no better. What kind of empire do we live in anyway? If we had voted in Bartok last year, things would have been better for sure.
5 July 2251, 23:24
Well, Diary, a final note on time travel. They’ve shut the machines down. Mankind’s historic venture over, at least for now. They said they needed to take the machines back for regeneration, but I don’t believe it. I heard that some of the travellers went wild where they landed, and had to be rescued by their guards. Some travellers never returned anyway. Good riddance, I say. We have too many people here, and if we lose a few to earlier times, well that just evens up the load.
Anyway, so much for my attempt to record history. It hardly needs me to record a failed mission, and there are so many other records being made – surround-scans of entire centuries, if you believe that. I couldn’t be bothered to keep this diary these past few months, and I’m going to stop it after this final entry.
But I did want to record one thing I’ve learnt from the whole debacle. And that is the value of tolerance. We are too swift to judge things now. Living those scans of past times when they play them in the mall, you can really feel what it was like for the people back then. With no empathetic tools, and just one person’s perspective, it was hard for them to understand each other. Nowadays we can see everything from all points of view, and the assembler helps us see things the right way immediately. No time wasted in disagreement. But we should respect those who don’t have access to these tools. At least, that’s what I think. President Weinbauer says that people who don’t agree should be changed, and I’m sure that’s right too. There! I’m tolerant all round.
On that note, let me put you to bed, my Diary.
10 August 2251, 13:28
I spoke too soon. Hardly had I put you down last time when they announced the resumption of time travel. I guess with the ratings going down they had no choice. The machines were miraculously repaired – or perhaps they were never decommissioned – and people started popping into them like nobody’s business. I’m sure some travellers don’t come back, but we don’t hear about that now. Anyway, there must be hundreds of travellers going back each day. Since the present elapsed time of each trip isn’t very long, just a moment or two, each machine can process dozens an hour. I just hope there’s no cumulative effect, that’s all.
The smog has got worse, although deep in my basement I have no contact with the outside world anyway. Even from the mall viewing platform when I went up there the other day, I could hardly see the opposite tower. The city’s falling apart anyway, from what I hear. And the country…
25 November 2251, 14:52
This is my last entry, it’s a rush, I’m just waiting quietly for it now. With the power gone, I just have the dim light from my hand-held reserve, and that’ll only last a few hours. But they’ll get to me before then. The explosions are coming nearer, and they have some huge tunnelling thing that cuts through walls, metal, tower supports, everything. I heard Jose scream a last message to us. Now he’s gone and we’ll follow. We didn’t think they’d attack, we underestimated them. We should have gone back with weapons, big weapons, to cut them off when they were starting – the non-interference thing was totally wrong. But it’s too late now.
Anyway, it’s not been a bad life, and they may not do much better with it. A world conquest doesn’t last forever, ha ha! I’d like to go out guns blazing, like in those old frontier visuals. But I haven’t got a gun, not even anything to throw at them except this hand-held. Here they come now, here goes, come on you bastards!
Matthew Harrison lives in Hong Kong, and whether because of that or some other reason entirely his writing has veered from non-fiction to literary and he is currently reliving a boyhood passion for science fiction. He has published numerous SF short stories and is building up to longer pieces as he learns more about the universe. Matthew is married with two children but no pets as there is no space for these in Hong Kong. Find out more, and pick up Matthew’s long fiction at, MatthewHarrison.hk.
0 Click to show the author some love!
Tags: Matthew Harrison, science fiction, time travel