I lifted a forkful of scrambled egg to my mouth. Just as I liked them. Firm, rich, a hint of salt and parmesan. I looked across at my wife.
“Not bad, eight out of ten.”
She feigned hurt. “What’s wrong, no serenade or silver service?”
“Can’t leave you with nowhere to go, that’s what it says here.” tapping an old New Idea flimsy she had placed before me.
“Have you finished it?”
“Yes, but —”
“You want to see my score? It’s supposed to be private!” hugging the flimsy child–like to my chest. I clearly didn’t protect it too well, it took Julie all of two seconds to snatch it. She and Sara sat there, a pair of clones poring over my answers to Mrs Wonder’s ‘How Wonderful is Your Marriage?’ questionnaire. I sat quietly with my breakfast, entertained by the display across the table.
“So you gave me an eight too? I’m as good as scrambled eggs?” Sara laughed mockingly. “I’m a, what is it, a ‘Drew Barrymore’ kid? What’s that? Better be good.”
“It is, it is, she was tough and smart, no trouble at all.” drawing a disapproving scowl from Julie. “Anyway, what do you expect with your last Father’s Day present? Do you know when Old Spice went out of fashion?”
“From what I was told for you it never did. Anyway,” grinning wickedly, standing up “mum told me if it wasn’t for Old Spice I mightn’t be here!” with which she headed out the door.
We sat in silence for about ten seconds then exploded into peals of laughter.
“You didn’t?” I managed to squeeze out.
“Why not? She asked and anyway you weren’t exactly the best looker. If the barn door needs painting — ”
“Yeah, yeah. She’s your side of the family you know.”
She reached for the flimsy. “Anyway John,” in her best school teacher tone “shall we talk about your overall family rating? A nine, just nine. And don’t tell me it’s leaving room for improvement.”
“Well actually —”
I stood, taking my jacket from the back of the chair. “It’s just to make sure you stay on your game.” She stood in front of me and tightened my tie. Without her I would’ve roamed the streets looking like a sack of potatoes. I snuck my arms around her waist and pulled her closer.
She looked at me, bent down and gave me a bell ringer of a kiss. “You’re sure I’d be interested?”
“Uhhuh.” I reluctantly moved away, taking the housekeys from my pocket. “Besides, I looked at your score. You only gave me an eight. Eight! At least I scored you higher.”
She laughed. “I knew you’d cheat. I thought you’d like a challenge so an eight it remains,” turning coquettishly away “unless you can convince me otherwise.”
* * *
It’s a thirty-minute drive into work from Geelong, enough time to sit back and catch up on emails. Today I just sat back, locked in my own thoughts. Stupid questions, I remembered mum and dad playing out the same scene. Although just a game I had tackled it honestly, as if it mattered. Nine out of ten, just nine. Was that right? Everything was good at home, no, actually it was great and my work was just the same. It could’ve easily been a hell of a lot worse, ruinously so, and there wasn’t much between the two. I thought back many years and could still pick the day, the choice. Go the easy way, do what’s in my abilities. Or take the challenge, the hard way, reach out to win or fail and don’t curse the choice. I had made a deal with myself to go the hard, challenging way each time I was faced with that choice. I’d stuck with it since and it had worked, I’d won more often than not and my life showed it. Happy, fulfilled, confident, positive, driven. Nine. Only nine. I knew why, just one thing, the reason, a week before the deal.
The car pulled me out of my reverie with the opening stanza of the Angel’s Run to the Shelter, touch screen and HUD springing to life. An uneventful five minutes later I stepped into the tiled foyer. I loved the early mornings, the best part of the day. I’d moved out of the field to a more managerial role but each week, for just a few hours, it was me and my team and I could at least pretend. Then back to stakeholder management and political gamesmanship. I was mature enough to know it mattered, honest enough to realize this was where my skills lay, passionate enough to believe in what I was doing.
I passed the retina scan into the lift just as the doors closed.
“Morning Dr. J.” I turned to see Kell in one corner. “Looks like you’re on another planet.”
“Isn’t it a bit early to caffeine load?” looking at the eight jumbo-cup tray she held.
“Late more like it, been a long weekend. You might want to come to the lab, we finished it Friday and have been testing all weekend.”
“The McInsey project?”
“No, the other one.”
“Oh.” It’s how I kept her team with me. Whatever the research budget on official projects, once successfully delivered they kept any left over for self-directed research. It kept us lean, competitive and critically kept my guys engaged. “Sounds good, I wondered what you’d come up with.”
“Great, I could use a second pair of hands.” She nodded to the small pile of pizza boxes at her feet as the lift doors opened.
They’d redecorated the lab’s common room. It now resembled a frat house media room, floor to ceiling jumbo plasma screen taking up one wall, bean bags and bodies scattered in front, the detritus of a weekend’s viewing covering the floor. I handed out the pizzas, dropping into a vacant bag.
The screen was playing the chariot race from Ben Hur. The picture was closer, sharper than I recalled, I could count the hairs on Charlton Heston’s back. The scene shifted, the camera following closely, slightly above and behind. The roar of the crowd was deafening. “Since when have you guys picked up a taste for old movies?”
“You like it?”
I realised it wasn’t Ben Hur, but far grittier, more realistic. “I’ve never seen this one. What’s it called?”
“Maximus. Circus Maximus.” Trevor looked at me from the front row. A small wave of laughter was stifled by coffee and food.
“The producer got the cinematography wrong, too much shadow and light, too harsh.”
“Too real maybe?” More laughter.
“Ok, yes, maybe, now what’s the joke?”
“Its’ the other project Dr. J.” Kell turned to face me. “We’ve been running it all weekend, it’s quite addictive. What d’you think?”
“All the effort for a new screen? You guys want to take over TCL?” The laughter was raucous, black bagged eyes staring at me above huge cola grins. “Come on, level with me, I’m an old man so have some pity.”
“It’s not the screen Dr. J, it’s real, it’s the real thing. We cracked it last month, only got it running Friday morning.”
“What do you mean ‘real’?”
“Real as in the real thing.” Kell pointed to the screen, the scene shifting above the throng of seated people to an ornately decorated marble enclosure in the third tier. A small man in period costume sporting a Beatles haircut stared at me with soft brown eyes set in a hardened, impassive face. “Dr. J meet Emperor Trajan, Circus Maximus, 109AD. The Emperor Trajan.” The picture flickered, replaced by a stark grey and black moonscape, two spacesuit clad figures in an open buggy. “Apollo 17, 1972, astronauts Cernan and Schmitt.” The scene flickered again, replaced by the roar of shells and bullets, the crash of waves on an early morning shore. “Omaha Beach, June 6 1944. All real Dr. J, all real.”
My turn to laugh, long and loud. “Ok, ok, good one. But seriously, what is it?”
Kell tossed the remote to me. “Cynical as always. Give it a try, just keep it PG.”
The remote had only one button. Doubtless they’d programmed the net for every possibility.
“And nothing more recent than thirty years ago, Heisenberg still rules.”
I tapped the button, the remote changing to a calendar. I sat thinking then hit on what would really fix them. I selected the date, then location.
My blood ran cold, the room receding into the distance as the screen leapt at me. A non-descript two storey cream brick house with neat gardens and a green roof sat under a clear blue sky, a puke yellow Toyota being washed by a bare-chested man sporting a large straw hat. Leaning on the upper floor balcony railing a black haired Italian woman sipped an espresso. A kid snuck up behind the car, a bucket of suds in his hands. Just before he could toss the bucket the man whirled, grabbed him across the chest, pushed the hose down the back of the kid’s shirt then upended the bucket over his head. Squeals and laughter exploded through the screen’s speakers, accompanied by a stream of Italian from the balcony. My parents, dead these twenty years, playing out a domestic scene from forty years ago. And in the middle of it all my five-year-old self, puppy fat and stupidity, naivete and happiness.
I sat slack jawed as my mother came out the front door and joined the water fight. I didn’t notice the silenced room, each face watching me revisiting the ghosts of my past. Kell gently took the remote from my hands, flicking the scene away.
“We’ve all tried something to trip it but no dice, it works. But you’re the only one old enough to see their own past.” She grabbed the cola just before it slipped from my hand. “Pretty good yeah?”
I nodded. Weakly. I had nearly regained my senses. “How?”
“Its all drafted up, the papers are on your drive. McInsey gave us the final hint so here it is, a window on the past.”
“Portal.” Retorted Trev, drawing sighs and half-hearted catcalls.
“We’ve been through this, it’s a window.”
“And I tell you it’s not, I’ve shown —”
“Nothing, you’ve no evidence!”
“And absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” drawing rolled eyes and a badly aimed pizza crust. “Ok, ok, I give in. Again.”
“Anyway,” giving Trev a withering gaze “there it is in beta, a few bugs to go but otherwise fine. And except for one or two special parts she’s all off the shelf.”
I was now grinning like an idiot. I flipped my handset to busy. “More test running?”
Kell handed over the remote.
* * *
Over the next six hours I ran the screen through its paces much like I figured they had over the weekend. Being older and with a different take on things I didn’t tread too much over old ground, which kept them there with me. Interest aside the weekend started to catch up and the team slowly filtered out until by late afternoon there was just Kell, Trevor and myself. The view over Hitler’s head to 700,000 people in the Luitpold arena was something else.
Kell stretched lazily. “Ok, the crew’s gone so let’s get it out in the open Trev. Dr. J’s got to know all viewpoints.”
I hit pause. “The window or portal thing?”
“Yeah, there’s two camps and I’m the dissenter.” Trevor smiled wanly.
“You see the front of the screen Dr. J? Its carrying a bolt on clear cover because the screen itself packs a particularly nasty charge. The boundary layer between us and what we’re viewing generates it. Unlike a normal screen this one’s pure electromagnetic rather than physical.” Kell went to the side of the screen, flipped three latches and swung the cover away. My wool vest crackled in the static. “It’s easily felt five meters away, it’s right at the interface it breaks down.” resuming her seat. Hitler didn’t seem disturbed by the static, remaining frozen, the cover hanging limply to one side.
“When you run the numbers one variant indicates an actual barrier carrying enough power to eliminate anything that touches it. Try to touch it, pfftttt!” Trevor wiggled his fingers for emphasis. “On the other hand the numbers also admit the possibility it’s a portal, and that what appears as energy discharge from an object’s destruction is simply a balancing as the object translates across.”
“But it’s a marginal, very marginal possibility.”
“No, if you relax some of the minor assumptions it fits better than the window hypothesis.”
“In the same way that faster than light travel is possible.”
“Well if you rely on the grandfather paradox rather than analysis —”
“That you can’t prove experimentally —”
“Because by definition it can’t be proven —”
I held up my hands. “Hold on, take it easy here, I’m losing the point of it all.” I looked at Kell. “So the maths can swing either way, in theory?”
“Yes, a bit, but not as much as —”
“Ok, I understand, but two possibilities no matter how remote. Window on the past or portal to the past.”
They both nodded. I looked at Trevor. “And you have no data to support you?”
“No, but —”
“No buts. No data. You say it can’t be proven by definition?”
“It’s grandfather paradox against grandfather dialetheia. Choose one, choose a window or portal.”
“Care to explain?”
“Ok, they’re Greek terms, dialetheia means two-way truth and paradox means beyond belief. You know the time travel grandfather paradox, why it’s essentially impossible to travel backwards, you know, go back kill granddad, no dad, no you, so you can’t go back and you don’t kill him so you exist so you do go back and kill him etc etc.”
I nodded. It was an old, old concept.
“Well, the grandfather dialetheia gets around it by changing one underlying assumption. The paradox assumes only one universe, one timeline. But if you relax the assumption, allow a separate timeline to exist then it’s possible. You go back in time to meet and kill granddad. The instant you go back two timelines exist, two truths – the original one and a new one. In the original timeline you simply pop out of the timeline, you can’t make changes to it, you cease to exist in it and you can’t go back. Granddad lives, dad lives, and so do you until you leave. You create a new timeline as you pop in on your target date then kill grandad. Granddad’s dead, dad is never born and you live out your life in the new timeline. It works because your existence in the new timeline doesn’t depend on the new timeline but the original one. Simple.”
“Except there’s no proof, no way of proving it. As a hard barrier the energy discharge is consistent with theory.” Kell rejoined.
“As it is for a portal.”
“And then you get to Occam’s razor. What’s simpler, eliminating an object or re-creating a universe? Ex nihlo might be fine at the big bang but for each time a bug flies into the screen?”
“The evidence and theory can be taken two ways.”
“But the key is it’s not verifiable, not testable. You can’t take a round trip can you?”
“No, of course not, once you hop to the new timeline you can’t get back to the original one, you’d just create a fresh timeline each time you jumped. And going forwards, well, its just live on where you are. But the same applies for a window, you can’t stand on the other side of the screen and watch someone try to come through. So it’s back to consequences and as a portal it’s damn frightening —”
“But it’s not because it isn’t —”
Interesting as it was watching them replay an argument they’d probably had for weeks I needed to break the impasse. I coughed loudly, which got their attention, then smiled in what I hoped was a conciliatory manner. “I get the point, but it’s practicalities that I’m concerned with.”
I picked up a can of cola and nonchalantly lobbed it at the back of Der Fuhrer’s head. It disappeared with a satisfying ‘bzzztttt’. Trevor and Kell both gave me disapproving scowls. Hitler just stood there.
“Now as I understand it I’ve done one of two things. I’ve either wasted a good can of drink or I’ve just screwed Hitler’s Nuremburg experience and spawned a new timeline. In practical terms for this timeline,” looking at Trevor “all I’ve done is lose a can of soda, right?”
“Well yeah, but —”
“No buts. You do know that the future’s watching us now, just as we’re watching him?” The looks they gave me made it plain they didn’t. “Oh yeah, believe it. Someone somewhen is going to, and when this catches on – as it will – then it’s end of reality tv and the start of reality me. So we can test it, at least what it means for us.”
I leant back as far as I could, looking straight at the ceiling. “Someone will find this irresistible.” I coughed, cleared my throat and continued in my best stentorian manner. “To those watching us, please now help to clarify this issue by tossing a soft object, a tissue, wrapper or paper, at any one of my esteemed colleagues’ heads now, thank you.” Nothing happened.
“Oh come on!” Trevor scowled “That proves nothing and you know it, it just means —”
“It just means that for us, and this timeline, its none of our concern. It’s one avenue of potential damage and liability I can ignore.” I softened my tone slightly. “I’ve yet to review your positions and maybe there’s no way to draw a conclusion. But from the practical perspective to produce this screen we need it safe, and as the threat of being pelted by bricks from the future seems nil I’m just left with the energy discharge.”
He was clearly still unhappy but for once Trevor kept quiet. I turned to Kell.
“The next step for you, after some rest, is to work out a screening device and failsafe shut off.”
“Good, and one other thing, window or portal, dangerous or just risky, this can’t be put back in the bottle. So,” and I looked directly at Trevor “we’ve got to get it right, ok?”
“Yeah, alright, you’re the boss.”
“For now anyway. Both of you go home, get some rest and I’ll clean and lock up. And,” I called after their retreating backs “make sure you do ‘cause thirty years from now I’m going to check and if you don’t I’ll kick your butts.”
I sighed. The room was a mess, I was drained and over-stimulated. I unfroze the screen and let the sound of 700,000 rabid Germans wash through the room as I shovelled garbage into one corner. I was about to switch the screen off when I noticed the time. I still had half an hour to go of my normal day, why not a little more? But the question was what. An idea formed, having lain dormant since breakfast. Maybe. Perhaps. I was alone.
Picking up the remote I hunted around the day until I was looking my fourteen-year-old self in the eye, an uncertain, grey uniform clad school kid. Even with the day’s indoctrination it was still a little unsettling, seeing my real not stylised self. If only I’d known then … I shook myself out of my developing reverie and scanned the surrounding schoolyard.
It didn’t take long, hers was a face I’d never managed to erase, a vision of unrequited love or more correctly love I’d never tried for. My young self hesitated that day, didn’t speak, approach or try even after weeks of play acting, self-talk and cajoling, waiting for a ‘better’ chance. Would I have acted if I knew that one week later she would lie crushed and broken under that car outside the school gates? If I had acted would I have made the same promise I made at her grave, to reach and try for the prize regardless of risk, regardless of cost? Who knows, I didn’t, and all I knew as that in some way she was alive to me again here, now, that long black hair that had captured me as the first light of her womanhood pierced through the cracks of puberty.
I was beside myself. Part of me was amazed that a ghost from my past could still hold me; part of me disgusted at a middle-aged man attracted by a fourteen-year-old girl; but most of me was fourteen again, yearning for the possibility, the chance to do what I should have done more than half a lifetime ago. Unconsciously my hand reached out to the screen, to that hair just a few scant feet away, just within my grasp.
When my fingertips touched I was pulled instantly forwards. No chance to flinch or call out, a thousand burning razor blades scoured me from finger to toe as I fell though the screen, down a blazing tunnel of fire to fall heavily onto grass winded, limp, face first.
The smell of charred flesh, urine and fear assaulted me, my hoarse rasping breath swamped by childish screams and cries. I pushed myself up on my elbows, blistered skin where my watch and wedding ring had been, my arms blackened, skin crackling and shedding. I stood unsteadily, facing her eyes wide with terror, hand over her mouth as she rapidly backed away.
“Cherie!” I tried to call, but my lips were fused, the words emerging as a guttural abomination of her name. I turned my head to raised voices coming from behind me, the shouts of teachers and security guards rushing through a widening circle of scared children. I noticed my clothes had burned away leaving me naked, a dark, blistering, suppurating apparition. I was hit from behind, rough violent hands and knees pinning me down, arms behind my back, face in the dirt. The pain was blinding, excruciating.
“What do you want pervert?” a harsh voice bellowed. “How the fuck d’you get here?”
From where I lay I could see Cherie crying and shaking. I must have appeared less than a foot from her as I ploughed into the ground, scared the hell out of her. I could hear the wail of sirens, running feet, more voices, voices of authority, command. I was being kneed, punched, held hard against the ground, awakening the city’s vigilante spirit. I knew that regardless, no matter what I did or what was done to me Cherie would die next week, die twice to me. Twice I’d fail to ask, be twice the failure.
I had only this one chance, I would not miss it, I had to warn her. “Cherie! Cherie! You’ll die Cherie, watch out, next week you’ll die, I love you!” I forced the words through loud and clear, tearing apart my lips, a faint mist of blood sailing with the words towards her as she screamed, turned and ran.
They hauled me to my feet. A fist to my stomach doubled me over, grabbed by my neck I was brutally pulled upright to face a ring of uniforms. One face, livid red and sneering, pushed itself close, swinging its nightstick.
“Wrong school, wrong place asshole. We know how to deal with paedophiles here.”
The ring closed.
Thanks for reading my story. I’m really keen to get your feedback and to know if you liked what you read. Please leave a quick comment if you could.