This story came about as part of a writing contest. I wanted to write a short, self-contained time-travel story that nevertheless left some puzzles for the reader to work out. In the end, it was my unhappiness with this story that led me to write The End of Civilization instead, which is a starkly different kind of story.
I don’t have a whole lot to say about this one. It’s just one of my more obscure, short pieces. With some revision it would be a good addition to a short story anthology, which I’ll get around to one of these days.
OVER AND OUT
“I tried again last night,” Harv whispered across the table, his breath sending the steam above his coffee spiraling toward his companion.
“Any luck?” Mitt probed, taking a second to brush a danging hair from over his eyes.
Harv sighed. “No. Not yet. I’m starting to wonder if I should give up.”
“Nobody ever got anywhere by giving up, man.” Mitt took a sip of his red tea, leaned back in his seat, and let out a relaxed sigh. “You gotta stick with it.”
Harv stared into his cup, glaring at his face’s reflection. “I’m running out of time, not to mention funding. If I don’t have a successful run by the end of the month, they’re going to pull the plug. And then I’ll never get another shot.”
Mitt smiled. “There’s always my basement, if you get kicked out of yours.”
Harv rolled his eyes. “I’ve spent millions building this prototype. I couldn’t even move it across the room, much less across town. And I seriously doubt the agencies financing this project will just let me pick up and run off with it.”
“Unless it works.”
“Unless it works. Which is the heart of the problem.”
“Don’t you think about why you built it?”
“Then that should be enough to motivate you.”
Harv bit his lip. “Motivation isn’t the problem, Mitt. It’s expertise. Timing. I know guidance systems. I know EM spectranalysis. But this…”
“I have the utmost faith in you, man. If you can build a guidance system to nail a dust mite from orbit, you can do this.”
“They’re totally different.”
“No!” Mitt slammed his hand on the table. “They’re the same, Harv. The same. It’s all physics, man. It’s all physics.”
“Then why don’t you help me?”
Mitt frowned. “I have my reasons, man. You know that.”
“No, you never told me what those reasons are.”
“And I can’t. Just deal with it.”
Harv sighed and stood up. “I need to get back to work. Same time tomorrow?”
Mitt looked past him, seemingly lost in thought. Harv snapped his fingers to bring him back. “Oh, right. Sorry, man. Shit, I might be too fucked up tomorrow. Just call me if I’m not in.”
“Okay, but you’re buying if I have to wake your ass up.”
Harv sat at his desk, shook the ads out of the newspaper, and put his focus to the World section. He did this every day, scanning the articles, usually fixating on the ones about military conflicts. Or paramilitary, guerilla. He tried to err on the side of caution. If an air strike wiped out a family of 12 in Kenya, he put it on his whiteboard. If an article mentioned an explosion of unspecified origin, the high end of the estimated body count got added to his total. At the end of this morning’s count, he found himself culpable for three billion, one hundred fifty-six million, four hundred eighty-eight thousand, two hundred and fifteen deaths, give or take.
He considered the elaborate device on the other side of his workshop, six years of hard work, bruises, sprains, stubbed fingers and toes, cuts, abrasions, sweat, and aggravation. He’d spent ten years building the theory, six years testing it by hand. He was close. He knew it. But he also knew he was in the midst of the hardest work. He could afford no assistance–both due to the expense, and the secrecy required by his project.
Each night, he stepped into its central chamber, switched it on, and waited. The first time, he was gone for a few seconds. The next time, a minute. The next, twenty. He was up to five-hour journeys now, a feat which had taken weeks to work up to. He needed to go longer. Much longer.
“It’ll never work, Harv,” a voice taunted from the shadows.
Harv nearly tipped his chair over. “Show yourself, whoever you are! I’ll call the police!”
“You won’t want to in a moment,” the voice called, stepping out of a dark corner of the workshop. He wore a sleek, black jumpsuit, fitted firmly to his form, sporting a buzzcut and a stone face. “You’ll want to hear what I have to say.”
“Then you’d better say it quickly.” Harv kept his eyes on the intruder, his hand fumbling around in the bottom right drawer of his desk.
“You won’t find your gun there. We need to talk.” The man grabbed a loose chair and sat in front of the engineer.
Harv folded his arms. “Go on.”
“You’re wasting your time with this.”
He tilted his head toward the great machine. “You’ll never change anything with it.”
Harv narrowed his eyes. “Are you going to stop me from trying?”
“We already have. We were informed some time ago that you were working on such a project. We altered certain components. It doesn’t send you anywhere–except dreamland.”
Harv scoffed. “Bullshit. It’s getting there. You don’t know a damn thing about it.”
“Actually, I do. Did you think you were the first person to ever build a time machine, Harv?” He stood up, strolled toward it, ran his hand along one of the many power conduits. “Your version is crude, but you were on the right track. We have much nicer ones. More compact ones.”
“Try not to think of it as a government conspiracy. It’s much deeper than that. I don’t want you to think of us as a small collection of rogues, twisting history to our own ends. This spans generations, centuries. It transcends culture. In some ways, it transcends our species. Do you think we’d let you upset what we’ve worked so hard to create?”
“And what did you ‘create’? Are you responsible for these horrors?” He pointed to his whiteboard.
“No,” the man said, curling his lip into a smirk. “You are.”
Harv took a deep breath, as if the anger boiling within could be expelled as air. “Get out.”
“Not yet, Harv. Not yet.”
A spark of recognition. “…Mitt?”
The man smiled. “That’s not a name I’ve used lately. But if it makes you more comfortable, you can use it.”
“I don’t understand. Are you from the future?”
“In a manner of speaking. I came to warn you, as a friend. Some will not tolerate your attempts at tinkering with time. We have strict rules about these things. We modified your device as a passive attempt at thwarting you.”
“Now that I know it’s there, I can just remove it, though.”
“And before you even finished, we’d have it put back.”
“I see your point.”
“Good. Then I hope I won’t need to visit you again.”
“Just one question, Mitt.”
“Who was the ‘informant’ that told ‘them’ about my work? Was it you?”
“I thought so.”
“I had my reasons.”
“I’m sure you did.”
Harv worked furiously through the following days and nights. He ignored Mitt’s calls. He had no further visitors. While his original machine stood, he worked on various extensions and enhancements, some of them running throughout his house. He knew his effort might be futile, but he had to try. If nothing else, he didn’t want to be a quitter.
Without so much as a test cycle, he grabbed a manila folder from his desk, notes he’d scrawled across dozens of pages as he’d worked, and stepped into an upstairs closet. He pulled the string that would normally turn on the light. This time, he felt something much, much different. The disorientation that had accompanied his previous attempts was gone. The closet dissolved into darkness, then light, and he found himself surrounded by the clothing of a teenaged boy.
Stepping out of the closet, he startled the young man sleeping in the bed against the far wall. “Holy shit! Holy shit! Who the fuck are you?”
Harv put his hands up, folder in one of them, trying to calm the boy. “Relax, Harvey. I’m your friend.”
“The hell you are, perv! Get the fuck out of my room!”
“Look at my face, Harvey. See who I am?”
The boy peered at him. “You kinda look like my dad. And kinda like… me?”
Harv nodded. “Remember how you always thought about building a time machine? Among all the other things you thought about.”
“Rockets. I want to build rockets.” He raised his hands as if holding a rifle. “Nail a dust mite from orbit. BOOM!” He simulated the recoil with his hands. “It’ll be sweet.”
“Two things. First, you might want to think twice about that sort of thing. Second, you’ll need this.” He handed the folder to his younger self.
Harvey opened it, glanced through the pages, looked confused. “What the hell is this shit?”
“You’ll find out in about 30 years. You’ll be watched. Don’t take shortcuts. Make longcuts. Obfuscate your work. And whatever you do, don’t tell Mitt about it.”
“Just remember the name. Don’t tell him about what’s in that folder.”
Harv didn’t catch the rest of the sentence, as the world shimmered again, and he was back in his closet. He stumbled out to find the jumpsuited version of Mitt glowering at him. “What the hell did you do, Harv? Tell me, what the hell did you do?!”
“You’ll never find out.” Harv pushed past him, headed down the stairs, back toward his basement.
Mitt chased him all the way. “Goddammit, Harv! We need to know! You changed the past! I don’t know how you did it! That’s what we have to find out!”
Harv halted halfway down the stairs, Mitt’s face coming within inches of his own. “Then go back and stop me, if that’s what you need to do.”
“We can’t! You’ve already changed something! We have to know how you did it to undo it, otherwise you’ll just do it again.”
Harv ignored him, kept on down the stairs. He swung open the basement door and made for his desk. He found the manila folder, empty except for a note stuck to the edge in his own handwriting: “DID WHAT YOU SAID. GOOD LUCK. -YOU” He smiled to himself and went for the main chamber at the center of the device. This time, it wouldn’t simply knock him out. Mitt called to him as he put one foot into it.
“Goddammit, Harvey! Do you have any idea what this will do? We’ve worked on this for millennia! Thousands of trips! You’re fucking it up!”
“How’re you going to stop me?”
Mitt stopped right in front of him. “I’ll kill your fucking mother if I have to. I’ll do it myself, I swear. Get away from that machine and start explaining!”
“Make me.” Harv typed commands into the control panel inside the chamber, ignoring Mitt.
“We’ll get rid of you completely. You’ll never exist.”
Harv made eye contact with Mitt once again. “Do it. I can’t hurt anyone if I never existed, can I?”
Mitt sighed, a glimmer of compassion showing through his eyes. “Nothing you do is going to change anything, Harv.”
“I know. But I have to try.” He switched on the machine and took his chances.
“Good luck, man. Good luck.”