The Time Traveler's Tale

To press or not press, that is the question



TUCSON (A-P) — I suppose it could happen to anyone. I became unstuck in time. I was minding my own business one day when an alien appeared. Alien as evidenced by having three leg-like appendages, two heads with one eye each, and speaking with an American English accent. The tuft of hair on each head gave me the impression of "female" but I'm not privy to details. I'm assuming she is a biological being. She made me an offer I decided not to refuse.

The deal: implant a time machine or not, my choice. Included are three small buttons under the scalp such that pressing them in a certain combination activated the time machine. The rest of the machine, fist sized, goes in my thoracic cavity. Time travel would be severely limited, however, to reappearing somewhere on planet Earth somewhen, and an algorithm was included to exclude appearing over water or molten lava. The time that could be traveled was also stunningly limited to what we fondly regard as history, the past seven thousand years or so. I was also informed that as I could only travel the recent human timeline, that I would only reappear in the proximity of other humans.

Of course I asked what I could take with me. Anything, I was told, provided it fit in a body orifice. It could be worse, I could be a male. Still, to the obvious inference, I was informed that clothing would not accompany me. A possible, perhaps likely, issue, but there are always issues. I suppose I could take a thin plastic poncho.

To my question, "Only three buttons?" I learned that the time machine could only be activated, that no other control was possible. Somewhere, somewhen, with noted limitations. The future? Well not forward from my present time (would be too disorienting I was told), but only to some past when. But once then, my next journey could be forward. In fact, there was a special code for "return to 'present'." So I said, "So I could go back in time and kill my grandmother?" "Certainly, if you happen to reappear in her time," said the alien slowly as if speaking to a child. "But what about the paradox thing?," I intoned. The alien laughed, "I knew you'd bring that up."

We humans are apparently so backward that we only recently conceived of "multiverse." We can barely entertain the idea, and little know that it is multiverses all the way down. I could kill my grandmother as I would be "real" at the time and if I return to what I regard as "present" it would be in a different world, one of many countless as the sand grains of the Pacific. I can and will change the timeline. If I kill my grandmother and return, it would be a world with no family, merely a record somewhere, perhaps, of another unsolved murder. If I happen to find my self in 1865, I could travel to American, if need be, and kill John Wilkes Booth. I could go back and merely pick a flower. The timeline will change for better or worse. Such, as the alien noted, "is life."

One more rather inconvenient limitation. After using the time machine it would require one year to recharge using a modest amount of energy from the food I ate, assuming I managed to keep on eating for a year. If I agreed to the implant, I was under no obligation to use it. So I almost said, "Yes," but found myself saying, "So what's the catch?" She seemed to expect that and volunteered that all that happened to me would be monitored, but that as everything we humans did already was, that there would be no change in condition. I was to be an experimental subject. I was having doubts, so she offered me the secret of life, the universe, and everything if I agreed (and that the answer was not 42). I figured one-more-option, could be useful, so why the fuck not?

So I have an implant. It could happen to you. Assuming you agreed too, would you enter the code? Surely a maybe is to be considered. If I'm about to be gang raped and killed for sport, why not? Well, the reason I decided to write this is that I used it, and after a year, decided to return. Nothing noticeable had changed. It was the devil I knew. I have decided that when the current year is up, I probably won't be pressing any buttons again.

As it turned out I wasn't about to be raped. It was just an incredibly boring day, one too many assholes in it, and I entered the code. I was then in a palm grove, or what remained of one, as there were quite a few stumps. I could hear chipping sounds. I hadn't really thought through what I was doing and had nothing more than an IUD in me. I picked a number of broad leafs and tied them together by the stems to fashion a covering. I felt really stupid when I got to the chipping sounds and found I was the only one clothed, or leafed. There were maybe two dozen men chipping on a giant carving that was emerging from the lava stone. There were women and children too, but it looked more like a make-work project for men, perhaps as they could be doing worse things. Several wore only weapons, but none threatened me. They simply couldn't believe their eyes.

For maybe a month I was the island (as it turned out) novelty, but then they got used to me and as I didn't speak the language and wasn't considered attractive, they soon came to merely stare. A few more months passed and I figured out more or less where and when I was. I wished I had learned more about our collective history. I was on that island that had all the statues on it, some pushed over, that hadn't a tree on it. I thought about starting a "Stand for Palms" movement, but I wasn't a priestess, elder, orator, scientist (there were none), rapper, or anyone important.

I picked up some of the language, but a year wasn't time enough (for me) to get fluent. I didn't know how to make canoes, chip statues, or anything useful. I had only my novelty status to sell and the island elites competed to see who could add me to their court. Apparently there was a shortage of jesters. There were several clans who seemed to hate each other, but they were too busy extracting the wealth of their island for the taking and the sea about them. They had many fishing canoes. By clearing the palms they opened up more cropland for a time. They, about a dozen, had landed on the island eight hundred year ago to prosper exceedingly. It took three hundred years to spread over the island. Another three hundred years passed as chieftainships with warrior minions arose to commit empire. There was spear rattling and some throwing, but relatively few ended up speared. They mostly contested, at least had so far.

I had arrived at the height of the monument building. There were over 20,000 prosperous people on the island and they needed something to do to serve elite interests. The island wealth of resources was so great that much of the population could be directed to building statues and walking them to various places on the island to adorn clan territory. There were several clans, but they came to be ruled by the smooth talking priests who could enthrall the people and rule an island-wide empire of belief. Those who could threaten force ruled too, but those who could control minds stood behind and above them.

The people seemed to be doing, well, what people do and perhaps always do. About all I knew of their history was that it had a bad outcome, that they ended up eating each other, with a couple thousand left scraping stuff off the tidal rocks and maybe catching a rat now and then. In their rage for being letdown by failed religious and political promises, they had pushed some statues over and likely killed some elites, even some priests, but that took too much effort and they soon had better things to do with their limited resources.

Life was good in my when. It had been for seven hundred years. Things just kept getting better and better. All believed in progress. Well, all except this white-headed dude who lived alone, who looked Japanese to me, that all dismissed as a crank. I came to spend more and more time with him, sitting at his feet, listening. He was prone to asking, "So when the last palm is cut down, then what?" He wasn't a time traveler, didn't really know, but I recall muttering something about "eating each other" and he didn't seemed surprised.

So could I change things, turn things around? It was my last month. There could have been more, but I wanted to press the buttons. I had elite connections. I thought of trying to clue them in, but it became increasingly clear that they wanted to believe and not know. The old man living in the shack on the beach wanted to know. He was the only one I met who did. We talked about the situation. We came to conclude that the only hope was that during descent the people might have a teachable moment when it became undeniable that elite promises were delusional. When he could say, "I told you so," perhaps some would listen. I suspected that the people's ability to deny was being underestimated, but I said nothing to crush his hopes. We talked mostly about what changes the people would have to make to their business-as-usual lives, those that remained to tell the tale and tell a new one to live by.

The old man had personally seen most of the palms that had been cut, cut down just in his lifetime, and had noted the ever increasing rate of cutting. He knew no math, but could see that in maybe a decade the last one would be cut down and that he might well be dead by then. Still, he had grandchildren to consider, and he really didn't want them to be eaten. His family hadn't totally shunned him, and he was still allowed to spend time with his grandchildren so long as he didn't "talk stupid shit." He didn't, but he did plant seeds. He asked them inconvenient questions without giving an authoritative answer. They looked up to him, and lording over them would be abuse of power. He taught them how to think better.

I got so involved in "saving the world," this one anyway, that I stayed past my minimum year. I tried to use my celebrity status and elite ties to effect change, but I ended up living in a shack on the beach. I was in good company, but there was nothing more to do. The waves just keep rolling on; the Birdman cult thing was getting old. I could go to somewhere else somewhen else, but as I probably had done nothing to change the time-line I knew, I just entered the return code. I left the old man to do the best he could. I returned to my time to do the best I could.

Oh, and the promised secret? The alien had, as promised, shared it. This universe is a Higher School science project. I added to the data. What the students make of it, I have no idea. My dog doesn't know calculus.


And then there is the old man's tale.


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