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Time’s Arrow

by Geoff Hart

10 AM, 29 March 2001

I’m sitting in the wooden chair, surrounded by enough densely wrapped superconducting wire to network Manhattan and having serious second thoughts about the wisdom of what I’m doing, when the lab door opens and a garishly helmeted bicycle courier strides in, a ringlet of sweat-dampened hair fallen across her forehead. Her hair’s an electric green that hurts my eyes, and her nose ring flashes in the subdued light as she takes in the scene, blinks, and recovers her poise.

“Professor Wiley?”

She looks enough like Dany that pain clutches at my heart. Of course, every young woman has looked like Dany since the accident, even if the physical resemblance is slight from any reasonably objective standpoint. But my objectivity’s clearly shot, and hesitating long enough for her eyes to narrow isn’t helping. I give myself a good, hard mental shake.

“That’s me.”

“Parcel for you.” She eyes the flickering bank of lights from the instrument panel beside the door and prudently refuses to come any closer. Youthful cool evaporating somewhat, she actually takes a step back.

Sighing, I pry myself up from the chair, the coolness of the air conditioning wicking away the sweat that’s pooled in the small of my back, and I shiver. Outside the wire cage, I look as normal as any other physics professor, and she relaxes somewhat.

“Sign here, please.”

I take the stylus, sign the touch screen with an illegible scrawl she could’ve forged just as easily, and feel my arm shaking as she thrusts the thin cardboard box into my hand and leaves, casting a single wary glance back over her shoulder. Absently, I push the door shut at her back, contemplate locking it, decide not to.

The address label has the look of a napkin used to blot up weak tea—slightly yellowed, and grown fragile from its soaking. I’m not particularly surprised to recognize my own handwriting on the label; I’m certain I didn’t send myself any mail recently, but then again, I have plans to do so in the near future—or near past, I suppose. On the scale of what I’m about to attempt, it can’t be all that important, so I try to toss it onto the lab bench with deliberate calm—and miss, the tremor in my arm thwarting my aim. The package lands on the faded linoleum with a quiet click. Curiosity gets the better of me, aided and abetted by the cold feet it makes no sense to keep denying. The cage calls to me, and in a moment, I’ll heed that call, but I’m feeling enough trepidation to delay the inevitable a moment or two longer. I pick the envelope off the floor.

The cardboard tears, reluctantly at first, then suddenly, as if it’s grown rotten. Inside, there’s a single sheet of bond paper, folded precisely in half. Crease lines suggest it’s been folded at least twice more at some point in the past. The paper’s better preserved than the address label. I unfold it carefully, not wanting to tear it. Even though the date is just over five years ago, the signature on the age-blemished paper is unquestionably mine. And the message is as simple and to the point as anything I’d write: “Don’t go!”

The paper falls from my hand and glides under the lab bench. I reflexively pat my breast pocket, as I’ve done roughly every fifteen minutes for most of the day, to reassure myself that the paper and Bic pen are still where I’ve left them. I pull the paper from my pocket, careful not to drop the ten-year-old banknotes folded into it, and bend to retrieve the fallen message. Placed beside the paper freshly retrieved from my pocket, it’s clearly identical, mutatis mutandis. I shiver again, then reflexively tuck the newer paper and its contents back into my pocket.

I’d expected something very much like this to happen a couple hours from now, once I’m safely back from the past, but my timing’s evidently wrong. Not an auspicious omen.

Frowning, I reconsider what I’m about to do. On the one hand, the letter in my hand proves that I’ve gone back ten years—that I’m about to go back ten years?—and lived to tell the tale. Hardly surprising, as the rabbit that went wherever—whenever?—my time machine sent her returned and lived, seemingly as compos mentis as any rabbit. Left unproven until today’s experiment was whether anything as complex as a physicist could accomplish the same trick. So I evidently survived the trip into the past, yet still felt the need to warn myself not to go.

In theory, if I heed my inner voice and don’t go back, the trip will never have happened and the letter will never be sent. But clearly, it was sent, for the evidence in my hands can’t be denied. Paradox! Unless Dany was right, and I’ve merely written another episode onto an old, many-times-used VHS tape, leaving that new past to propagate forward along the tape until it eventually catches up with my present. A few hours ahead of me, the blank future tape will be written for the first time by the me that returns from the past; the gap between now and then will be filled by the rest of humanity without my assistance, until my new, slowly propagating past catches up and overwrites it.

I don’t believe it for an instant. Dany was a damn fine experimental physicist, but her math was always weak. I’ve no reason to assume that she’s—that she was—right. Worse, if I’m right... Paradox! I’ve come up with a few potentially tautologous mathematical speculations about what might happen if I do cause that paradox, but no experimental evidence to back them up, and no desire to find some. Even God doesn’t play dice with the universe, and that’s a good enough warning for me.

The wooden chair’s still cold when I seat myself in it, as if it were inanimate metal rather than something once warm and alive. I take a deep breath, glance hopelessly at the door, and when it doesn’t open, I throw the switch.

11:23 PM, 28 March 2001

I’m so tired I can barely see straight, and without the automated circuit tester, I’d be scared to trust myself to complete this final check of the wiring. I’ll run the diagnostics again overnight to confirm that everything’s working right, and if the lights are still green in the morning, then I’ll leave. I will!

The emotion that resolution evokes doesn’t fully penetrate the numbness that’s been my constant companion this past half year. At the back of my mind, the quiet voice of self-preservation whispers that I need help, but the me who’s in the driver’s seat ignores it. What’s the worst that could happen? I could die, and then I’d be with Dany. Or I could simply disappear and not have to face that cold bed and empty apartment. Shakily, I unclench my fists.

Then something does pierce through to the heart of me, and it’s not pain: it’s deja vu. Clear as day, I see myself standing in this same lab tomorrow as if it’s just happened, taking a package from a young woman, opening it, then sitting down in my time machine. But that’s absurd, Michaelsen’s theory notwithstanding; the future hasn’t happened yet, and won’t for another dozen hours or so, so I can’t be seeing any such thing.

I’m more tired than I thought, and reluctantly I take one last look to ensure the panel’s still green—part of me hoping for at least an amber light, if not some red. But everything shines cheerily green, and I head home to the researchers’ quarters, trying to muster some enthusiasm for the morrow.

It takes more than the usual three fingers of icy akvavit to numb me enough that I can sleep, and it’s a ghost-haunted sleep as usual.

2 AM, 1 January 2001

The old joke is that the rabbit didn’t die in vain, and that not only the moment was pregnant; my corollary is that if rabbits are sufficiently like plants, this one won’t die at all. Still, in this pregnant moment, theory and the proof of having successfully sent a plant somewhere—or some when—don’t completely ease my conscience, and I let the poor bunny finish eating the banana, her favorite snack, before I tighten her harness and affix her leash to the tether at the center of the gleaming wire hemisphere.

My head aches. Clearer than I’ve seen anything for some time now, I have a sudden image of myself standing before a much larger cage, tightening a last bolt and running the diagnostics. I’ve dreamed of this moment often enough in the past year that I’m sure it’s nothing more than wish fulfillment, fatigue, and whatever has me in my lab on New Year’s morning while the rest of the department is getting silly two floors below me, drinking near-absolute ethanol from Pyrex beakers, polluted with just enough fruit juice that they can swallow it without choking. (This year, it’s the chemistry department’s turn to supply the consumables, and they’ve fallen into old, familiar habits.)

I’m over-tired, overly depressed, and not quite over wishing I were downstairs instead of here—wishing I had the courage to be downstairs, or that I’d left someone sufficiently unalienated that they’d come take me by the hand and drag me down to join them.

The rabbit’s looking at me trustingly, furry little nose wiggling a mile a minute, whiskers still bearing a slight smear of banana, so I take my dwindling resources in hand, and press the switch. Pearly gray light swells within the cage of wire, concealing the rabbit, and enough electrical energy surges through those tight coils to raise my hair. When the light fades and my hair settles back against my scalp, the rabbit’s gone, along with her tether. A quick glance at the readouts confirms they’re still green, and the timer starts its slow countdown from 60. In an hour, I’ll know whether animals can survive whatever temporal shocks the flesh is heir to, or whether I’ll have to return to the drawing board before trying this myself.

When the timer chimes, I realize that I’ve fallen asleep, slumped over my journal on the lab bench, and I grind away at my eyes with my fists until I see sparks. That same uncanny light begins to grow within the cage. My hair rises, though only from static electricity, and in a moment, there’s a small, puzzled bunny tethered within the cage, for all the world the same bunny I sent five years into our mutual past an hour ago—but some indeterminate amount older now. I lack anything other than self-consistent math, supplemented by the evidence of a few digital timers, with which to predict the duration of the effects of chronal radiation on living tissue.

But both theory and practice have proven it works: suffused with that radiation, the rabbit went somewhere, and when the radiation seeped away into time’s stream, she returned. She seems fine to me—someone who has little experience with rabbits—and if she’s still alive in the morning, and still capable of performing various tricks I’ve taught her, I can safely conclude that chronal radiation has no immediately fatal side-effects. I’m not sure whether that’s the result I really want, and guilt makes me hand the rabbit another banana. As she chews away happily, I bundle her gently back into her cage.

10 PM, 3 June 2000

Dany and I have just had our tenth—or our hundredth; I’ve lost count—in a long series of fights over what I’ve proposed doing, and she’s slammed the door and fled out into the night, gone to drive our little Japanese subcompact in circles round the campus until she’s spent her anger on inanimate pavement and rubber tires and can safely return. It sucks, but it’s better than abusing each other, and there’s always makeup sex afterwards.

I smile fondly at the thought, anger now gone, and head for the kitchen to gather the fixings for her favorite nightcap. I’ve got the akvavit halfway out from the freezer when a flash of precognition hits me: in a moment, the door’s going to open, and Campus Security will be standing there, hangdog faces about as awkward as human expressions can be. They’re going to tell me—my fingers go numb and the bottle crashes to the floor, shards flying under the table, under the stove, licorice scent filling the air.

There’s a frat mixer, a drunk driver, Dany misses a light, and...

The doorbell chimes, and I mechanically make my way to the door, mechanically unbolt the lock without looking to see who it is, and feel my knees trying to buckle even before the older of the two men begins to speak. Their awkward expressions strike me right in the heart. I brace myself for the half-remembered impact as the floor comes up to meet me, wondering how I knew to do that.

Light flares before my eyes as my head hits the wall—hard—and I slump onto my face, staring at one scuffed, erratically polished black leather shoe. There’s a voice above me, but I can’t hear what it’s saying, and it doesn’t matter; I already know that Dany’s dead—has been dead for nearly 9 months now, and the rabbit’s still alive 9 months into the future, and there’s no way in heaven or hell that I should know either fact.

Unconsciousness seems the safer of several alternatives, and I embrace it.

10:45 PM, 31 December 1999

Dany’s sitting patiently, watching me, as I gently set the poinsettia she’s given me as a lab-warming present inside the metal cage. I give her the thumbs-up, and cross over to the console to hit the switch.

But then, finger on the switch, I pause. I’m on the brink of a scientific triumph, the validation of all my theories, yet I can’t move an inch without pausing to memorize her face, feeling a sudden sense of loss. She smiles back at me, lips garish with the lipstick she insists on wearing at this time of year, no matter how poorly it suits her, sapphire eyes smiling as they do at all times of the year. I swallow the lump in my throat, press the switch, and tear my eyes away from her to watch the cage.

I’ve long since stopped expecting pyrotechnics, Twilight Zone sound effects, and other spectacular indications that I’m cheating the fundamental laws of physics. But the pearly grey light is satisfying, and the disappeared plant is awfully gratifying.

Dany’s unimpressed. “Nicely conjured, Mandrake.” She sips at her akvavit, lipstick staining the glass, but her smile takes the sting from her words.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology...” I reply, and her smile widens. She rises from the metal lab stool she’s perched on, and setting her drink on the console, takes me in her arms, and bends to kiss my forehead.

“Do we have time to create any magic of our own, Tim?”

I glance past her encircling arms, awkwardly craning my neck to watch the timer. Then I lean forward to bite her gently on the neck. “The magician is now in.”

There are no pyrotechnics either when the plant returns from wherever I’ve sent it, but somehow neither of us notices—nor cares.

Afterwards, when she’s in the bathroom down the hall, fixing her skirt and her lipstick, I’m lying atop the lab bench, and suddenly it hits me: courier, rabbit, plant, coffee mug and—

“Dany!” I scream at the top of my lungs, and again, even as I throw myself off the lab bench. We collide as I run through the door, and though she’s taller, I still outweigh her, and she grunts as my momentum throws her back against the wall on the opposite side of the corridor.

“Tim?” she says softly, when she’s recovered her breath. Those sapphire eyes are wide and alarmed, and she’s holding me tightly enough to hurt.

I shake my head, not daring to meet her eyes. I don’t understand what’s just happened, but I do understand that I’ve got to reassure her, even if I can’t reassure myself. “Sorry. I must’ve dozed off and had a nightmare.”

She snorts, abruptly relaxing. “And they say women are the weaker sex. As if!”

I hug her once, fiercely, then turn my back on her, buying time to compose my face. “I’ll just shut down here, then we can head downstairs to the party. Eyebrows will be raised if we’re not back soon.”

She snorts again, amused and relieved. “They’ll be more than raised if you don’t do up your pants.”

The poinsettia politely averts its eyes as I zip up, then gives me the cold shoulder as I pull it from the cage and shut down the console. It’ll be dead in less than 6 months, though not from any side effects of its brief journey; no, I’ll just kill it as I kill so many things that I love. Plants are different, though; they only take a little neglect to kill.

It’s bothering me so much I can barely put on my game face as we head downstairs, arm in arm, just in time to see the ball come down on Times Square on the small TV in the staffroom.

11 PM, 31 December 1998

I’m standing under the mistletoe, staring down at my worn sneakers, nursing a rum and coke, and feeling sorry for myself, when I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn around and find myself face to face with a pair of breasts. Blushing, I look up, and she’s there: Danielle Friesen, every nerd’s dream woman—someone who can talk spacetime convolutions convincingly even while I’m coaching her through Eigen math, yet who would turn heads even outside the physics faculty. Before I can apologize for the inadvertent ogling, she tilts my chin upward and kisses me full on the lips. She’s wearing horrible red lipstick, and its plasticky chemical scent rises into my nostrils mixed with the licorice of whatever she’s been drinking and her own warm, thoroughly feminine perfume.

I come back to my senses amidst wolf whistles from the rest of the senior physics seminar, and find myself reflexively wiping the lipstick off on my sleeve. It’s about then that I notice the chill where I’ve poured my drink down my pant leg. Danielle smiles down at me, and I smile back somewhat dazedly, and before I can think the better of it, I kiss her back, to another chorus of wolf whistles.

She pulls away, licks her lips, and smiles rather smugly. “I’ve wanted to do that for a long time, Tim. Glad I didn’t wait any longer.”

I’m uncomfortably aware of just how much I wanted to do the same thing and how painfully obvious that will be to anyone who looks my way. I turn my back on the rest of the students and fold my hands awkwardly in front of my belt for what scant cover that provides. “I’m glad too.”

“Obviously,” she replied, her grin growing warmer. She kisses me once more, then places a proprietary arm around my shoulders and steers me out the door.

Someone calls out behind us, but I’m too bemused to put a face on the voice. “Hey, aren’t you going to stay to celebrate New Year’s?”

We’re going to celebrate all right, and we’ll be married in 6 months, and fighting in about 2 years, and there’ll be plants, rabbits, couriers, and me in a wooden chair, and I know all these images are true. But right then I simply don’t care about any of it. Dany is warm in my arms, and we’re going to spend the next few hours exploring the kind of time travel lovers have repeatedly proven to exist over the millennia. Nothing else matters. Tomorrow is time and plenty to dwell on the future, and the past’s the past, over and done with and immutable.

In theory.

10 AM, 1 April 1996

Doctor Winston frowns at me. “Your math is certainly elegant, Wiley, and I’ve put the best minds in the math departments of several top schools to work poking holes in it without so much as a glimmer of success.”

I’m uncomfortably aware of the sweat pooling in my armpits, but I’ve survived the worst of my defence and the rest should be smooth sailing. I smile triumphantly at him, and bow my head in acknowledgment.

“I’m not finished,” he continues, and my smile fades slightly. “The math works just fine, and it builds nicely on the existing body of knowledge. But self-consistency does not a theory make. What you need now is hard experimental evidence to support the equations.” Seeing my alarm, he smiles that familiar, wintery smile, and holds up a finger, forestalling me. “That’s not a rejection of your thesis, just a caution. It’s brilliant work, Tim, but now the hard part begins. Take it from a plumber who’s been toiling in the latrines for far too long: now you’re going to have to prove it, and...”

His voice fades in my sudden realization that I am the proof. The events of the next four years overwhelm me in a flood of images and memories, and all at once I know that time’s arrow can be reversed. What I don’t know is why the chronal energies are continuing to drive me backwards in time, or how long they’ll continue doing so. Presumably everything must end at the moment of my conception, but I’m not eager to go that far back and discover whether the equations are truly asymptotic at that point or whether some of the finest mathematicians on the planet have missed something. Somehow, I’ll have to figure out some way to repeat five years worth of research and development with nobody the wiser so I can attempt to drain that chronal energy and stop my—

“Wiley? Are you all right?”

Winston’s hand grips my arm tightly, and all at once, I’m back to the present—or is it the past? English is so hopelessly inadequate for expressing these concepts and now, disoriented, I’m unable to bring the equations to mind that would express the truth more eloquently.

“I’m fine, Sir. Too much adrenaline and not enough sleep.” I meet his concerned gaze, and it’s obvious he believes me, perhaps remembering his own defence many years back. We both relax, and I’m already thinking ahead, smiling reassuringly at the rest of my committee.

I have all the knowledge I’ll need to create the technology, and the equations are once again coming clear in my head from the defence I’ve just survived. I can return, though the corollaries in Appendix 7 remind me it might be wisest to warn my future self not to try coming back until I’ve accounted for all these new facts. The math that describes what will happen if I try to exist in two places simultaneously is intimidatingly complex, certainly nothing I want to try to solve in my head, but I’ve got a gut feeling that the last thing I want to do now is create a paradox. No, best by far if I never come back at all until the past me jumps beyond the future me and cleans up all those ambiguities.

Now that I know what’s happening, and have proven my theories, it should be possible to start testing their applications. Pain flares in me at a remembered future just past, and it occurs to me that maybe I can even figure a way to save Dany. It scares the bejesus out of me thinking of the paradox that might create.

But the theory’s solved, and the rest is just engineering. Tomorrow I’ll find a lawyer and pay him to send me the letter in five years, timed to arrive just before I try the time machine on myself. Maybe I’ll even listen this time.

I smile and begin shaking hands with my thesis committee, gratefully accepting their wishes for a bright future.

Author's notes

Everyone has their own take on how a time travel story should flow, and this one's mine. I'm sure someone else has done something similar, but I don't recall coming across the same description of the mechanics of timelines. Mammalogy trivia note: I can't speak for rabbits in general, but northern Ontario cottontails dearly love their bananas, not that I have any idea where they'd encounter one in their natural environment. The world is not only curiouser than we imagine...

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