As I have been playing with the idea of writing a time travel story, several ideas have occurred to me. Some of these ‘ideas’ I don’t remember anymore. I should have written them all down, but I always imagine any idea worth developing will be memorable. As a result, I am left with the first idea that occurred to me at my favorite local pub, scribbled on a cocktail napkin. An inventor or scientist, a younger version of myself, tall, handsome, dark-haired—call him Stanley—will have already created the kind of time sled grown out of traditions of H.G. Wells’ Time Machine.
Thus, the time sledge appears previous to our entry into the story. Not only does this get to the action quickly, it dispenses with matters about which I have no clue; any real attempt at time travel would require unlocking the secrets of the universe. The scientist would have to have come upon knowledge of how time might be treated as geography, invented a machine to travel through dimensions as yet unexplored, and have it made by engineers with an understanding of how to manipulate matter.
Of course, it stands to reason that if time travel will have been invented in a future time, we would certainly have known by now.
Assuming the handsome younger scientist—perhaps late thirties, early forties, though even as old as forty-five would be suitable, as such men retain their mental acuity as late as, say, fifty—has paid his debt to science, accomplishing astounding feats of mind and actually building the damned thing, we arrive at a moment of departure, of bidding adieu to the stodgy companion in science and the beautiful woman of exceptional intellectual gifts who hopes one day to be his bride; who, I might add, admires his inventiveness and nerve though she would never, in a million years, travel to any time but her own, particularly not alone.
It is beyond her comprehension how he could climb in this sledge and ride off to another era without appreciating they will no longer inhabit the same time-space co-ordinates; neither would exist to the other for as long as he is gone. While some part of her holds his bravado in high admiration, some other part is plainly miffed.
Nota bene: when I noticed they were dressed in modified Edwardian style in my mind, I reimagined clothing along slightly more modern lines for the sake of present-day readers.
Our forty-year old scientist, a touch of gray at the temples, settles in the seat developed particularly for the sledge, with some sort of enclosure that will not only hold him in place but protect him somewhat from any object that might attempt to inhabit the same point in the time-space continuum. It has occurred to him it might be possible to find himself lodged inside some larger object, building, tree, train, etcetera, that existed in a previous time, since disappeared or removed, from which he would have trouble extricating himself. Because he might find himself surrounded by hostile denizens of another period, he has also taken certain precautions: blasters, shooters, fire breathers, and so on, as he could imagine the need.
There he is in his studio or laboratory, with a kind of loading dock, settling himself in this sledge as he prepares to explore far reaches of time. The process of locking-in requires fifteen minutes, overseen by Clemson, dear companion in science, and Margaret, whose point of view we have already discussed. He does not allow either to touch the machine, for he is keenly aware they will not be there to help on his arrival at another time, or, possibly, on his return.
Here, I add a note of menace in the phrase if he returns.
“Now, Clemson, as a precautionary trial, I am going to set the time at five minutes in the past, to automatically return at the moment I leave. To you and Margaret, it will appear nothing has transpired. I assure you the world will never be the same.”
Clemson covers his mouth to hide profound emotion: he must not complicate matters by introducing personal feeling on an occasion of such moment. Margaret watches with incredulity, her mouth slightly open, one hand at her breast. “Time set: five minutes in the past,” he shouts. Then he adds a phrase he has committed to memory: “Into the past, and into the future!”
With this he throws the switch, the craft hums and vibrates, and after a blurring of reality, Stanley finds himself in the moment preceding departure by five minutes. Recognizing the subtle changes himself, he observes that five minutes in the past Clemson and Margaret do not appear to realize he left their present at all; they are all apprehension. But the automatically set return journey ahead through the past five minutes proves fateful for the explorer.
He planned to unlock from his seat and step out to assess the success of his trial before venturing any further travel; what he has not taken into account, aside from the fifteen minutes required to extricate himself from his seat, is that having arrived at the moment of departure, his reality blurs once more into the past. Back he goes, five minutes into a past already explored.
While he understands that for the waiting Clemson and Margaret time seems to stand still, he has failed to take into account that they will soon become nothing more than images. After thousands of repeat journeys, all pointless and successful, he understands he will never return from the past to be congratulated by Clemson or marry his beloved Margie.
He now comprehends instead of traveling through time, he has managed to effectively stop it; and yet, the same rule does not apply to Clemson or Margaret, both of whom—in spite of the fact he sees them at each arrival and return—will move on in the progression of time. Even if one or the other should perish, he will continue to see both in the five minutes which has become an eternal rocking back and forth in time that will never stop until time itself unhinges.
He cannot hope for a fortuitous breakdown of the machinery, as it has never broken down and will never break down in the five minutes in which it now exists.
At some moment on his pointless journey he discovers that even if the world should end, he will continue rocking this fulcrum, incapable of hunger, thirst, or death, for only five minutes has or will ever pass again. He longs for a drug to obliterate consciousness altogether, but he has a private eternity in which to think. At some point in the future of this stasis he experiences relief in the knowledge that because of his ultimate failure, no past times will be invaded by the present or the future.
Yet he imagines warning citizens of the twentieth century, from which he came, to be on guard against time travelers, adventurers from the future, declaring they should be shot on sight to preserve what good remains in the earth. He is a traveler who goes nowhere he has not already been, and always and only in Stanley’s time.
Robert Pope has published a novel, Jack’s Universe, as well as a collection of stories, Private Acts. He has also published many stories and personal essays in journals, including The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Fiction International, and anthologies, including Pushcart Prize and Dark Lane Anthology.