Time Travel Story

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Alvin Gavel just graduated from high school. (He’s the son of Aard regular Kai who keeps the bilingual Pointless Anecdotes blog.) This young man has to my knowledge grown up entirely in Sweden. But I would be impressed by his recent time travel story even if English had been his first language. Check it out!

Update 12 June: Mr. Gavel informs me that he wrote the story already two years ago. It is the work of a high school freshman. In reply I have told Mr. Gavel that, in my opinion, it is his duty to contribute generously to the gene pool.

Thanks to Alvin for permission to publish his work. His equally brilliant sister doesn’t need my help to get her stuff on-line: she’s got a blog of her own.

I Tried to Get a Grip On Myself

By Alvin Gavel

What actually happened was this:

Several people were gathered in a large hall in a building marked IRTT on the outside. The people were mainly a mix of scientists from various disciplines physicists, mathematicians and computer scientists, although there were a few journalists there as well. Most of the scientists were involved in discussions with the journalists or each other, but many seemed to be lost in contemplation of the huge contraption that filled half of the hall. It looked like an elevator cab which had been linked to an enormous steel doughnut, several bookcase-sized computers and a thick cable that passed out through a wall. Although it would be easy to picture the hall as being coloured in surgical white, it was actually decorated with a mix of newspaper-excerpts, mascots and similar things.

Although there was no easy way to tell just from looking, the contraption was in fact a – hopefully – functioning time-machine. It was called the Penguin, and was the pride of the IRTT. It was to be used to send a volunteer, who was not currently in the hall, back in time. It was only an early, experimental machine, and as such was unable to send anyone back in time any distance shorter than forty years. It was also unable to return anyone that it had sent back, forcing them to return by the inconvenient but simple method of waiting until they got back to their time of departure again. Therefore the plan was to send the young volunteer back to the sixties with a fake identity card and bagful of money, and then let him return to the current time naturally. Despite the fact that this event was truly something on the scale of the moon landing, only a few outsiders were present. This was for various political reasons, namely that the president had spent lots of money on this project and did not want more reporters than necessary witnessing it it if did not work. Even if a later attempt would succeed he did wish people’s first impression of time-travel to be that of an embarrassing failure.

Soon it would be time, and the conversations gradually died out. People began to glance with increasing frequency at the mickey-mouse clock that some joker had glued to the time-machine. Then, suddenly, a man burst into the hall, slamming the doors open. He had an an expression of borderline insanity, his hair was greyish and unkempt and his clothes were dirty. More than that the onlookers did not notice, as their attention was captured by the flame thrower the man held in his arms. He shouted “Get out!” in a voice that did not encourage disagreement, and then began hosing the time-machine with burning gasoline. A few bold people who looked through the doors saw the different parts of the machine beginning to burn, melt or explode, depending on their nature. The man stood and looked at the machine for a few minutes, then he shouted “Damn!” and began shooting flames wildly about him. This made his hidden watchers decide to leave, so what happened next is unknown.

The police soon arrived, but by then the entire IRTT-building was burning so fiercely that they decided that attempting to arrest anybody in it was suicidal. The firemen who arrived soon after made no serious attempt to extinguish it either, preferring to let it burn itself out. Later, forensics searched the ruins, finding the molten remains of the flame thrower but no trace of the man himself. The identity of the mysterious arsonist became the subject of uncountable tabloid headlines, and even serious newspapers, but no real answers were found. Speculations were also repeated so many times that the public eventually became bored with it, and forgot the whole thing.

What did not happen was this:

Several people were gathered in a large hall in a building marked IRTT on the outside. The people were mainly a mix of scientists from various disciplines physicists, mathematicians and computer scientists, although there were a few journalists there as well. Most of the scientists were involved in discussions with the journalists or each other, but many seemed to be lost in contemplation of the huge contraption that filled half of the hall. It looked like an elevator cab which had been linked to an enormous steel doughnut, several bookcase-sized computers and a thick cable that passed out through a wall. Although it would be easy to picture the hall as being coloured in surgical white, it was actually decorated with a mix of newspaper-excerpts, mascots and similar things.

Although there was no easy way to tell just from looking, the contraption was in fact a – hopefully – functioning time-machine. It was called the Penguin, and was the pride of the IRTT. It was to be used to send a volunteer, who was not currently in the hall, back in time. It was only an early, experimental machine, and as such was unable to send anyone back in time any distance shorter than forty years. It was also unable to return anyone that it had sent back, forcing them to return by the inconvenient but simple method of waiting until they got back to their time of departure again. Therefore the plan was to send the young volunteer back to the sixties with a fake identity card and bagful of money, and then let him return to the current time naturally. Despite the fact that this event was truly something on the scale of the moon landing, only a few outsiders were present. This was for various political reasons, namely that the president had spent lots of money on this project and did not want more reporters than necessary witnessing it it if did not work. Even if a later attempt would succeed he did wish people’s first impression of time-travel to be that of an embarrassing failure.

Soon it would be time, and the conversations gradually died out. People began to glance with increasing frequency at the mickey-mouse clock that some joker had glued to the time-machine. The volunteer was waiting in a room near the hall, trying to keep his nerves under control. His name was William, although he had became known as “Bootstrap Bill” after some of the project-members had spent an evening drinking beer and watching Pirates of the Caribbean. He had brownish hair, blue eyes and was of average height. He was athletically built, as he had to have a physique capable of surviving in an active state until the age of sixty-seven. At the moment he was dressed in clothes that would be fashionable in the sixties, although not hippie ones.

Eventually he rose, and entered the hall. There he said some last goodbyes to the various people he had worked with for the last five years. Even though he would, from their point of view, probably turn up relatively soon after leaving, he would not see them for four decades. Then he entered the cab-like part of the time-machine, heard the count-down, and then he was sent back forty years in time.

Bill found himself falling a few centimetres down to the ground and heard his ears pop from the slight change in air-pressure. Looking around, he found himself on a mountain which, if things had gone according to plans, should be somewhere outside the city of Laramie, Illinois. Since he had not found himself buried up to the neck, or worse, in the ground or in mid-air meters above the ground, he assumed that things had gone according to plans. Therefore he started walking towards where Laramie should be, there to find himself a job and a place to live for the next four decades.

Things had indeed gone according to plans, he quickly got to Laramie. They also continued that way, he got a job as bus driver, earning enough to survive but not enough to attract attention. Things could had continued following plans indefinitely, if not for the events in the year 1969, when he finally succumbed to the irresistible temptation inherent in time-travel.

Bill was, naturally enough, good at history. Therefore he knew that within six years the Khmer Rouge would rise to power in Cambodia. Led by Saloth Sar, also known as Pol Pot, they would commit a genocide on their own people that would kill about one in six Cambodians. If only Saloth died before that, all those unnecessary deaths could be averted. If, for example, a time-traveller turned up at the right moment with a sniper-rifle or something similar, more than a million lives could be saved.

Sitting at his kitchen table and nursing a cup of tea, Bill remembered a conversation he’d had with a journalist six years earlier (or twenty-eight years in the future, depending on your point of view).

“But aren’t you afraid that you will cause some kind of paradox? Couldn’t you accidentally set off some chain of events in the past which keeps you from ever travelling back, causing a paradox?”, the journalist had asked “Do you know what effect a paradox like that would have? Couldn’t it destroy the universe even?!”

Although he was mildly irked by the journalist’s failure to simply find the answers out in any of a thousand scientific papers reporting about IRTT’s research, Bill answered politely enough “No. You see, time has a way of healing itself. Generally, if I change something in the past, it will lead to a small, localised change, but history will return back on track again. For example, if I steal Oswald’s gun, JFK won’t be saved, because Lee Harvey will simply get himself another gun.”

“Uh… how does that work exactly?”, the journalist asked, hesitating slightly since he knew that asking physicists to give detailed explanations was often a bad idea.

“Well, it’s simple. History doesn’t want to change more than it has to – of course ‘want’ should not be interpreted literally, it just tends not to. This means that things will very quickly return on track even if we change something. The mechanisms making this happen are a bit complex, uh… how much do you know about quantum physics?”

“I’ve read a little about it, but only a little.”

“Then this will take a while, but no matter. Do you know what the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is? No? Very well, it’s a principle of quantum physics that says you cannot say for certain both what position and momentum a particle has at a given moment. There has been a lot of debates among physicists whether this is just because we cannot measure both position and momentum at the same time or if it is because particles really do not have any exact positions and momentum but it seems as though the latter is true. Instead of having exact positions particles seem to exist in a state of uncertainty, you can imagine them as tiny clouds of maybe-hereness if it helps. Now, whenever to particles interact, their uncertainty clouds collapse, and the particles briefly get more or less exact positions. This collapse is, as far as we can tell, totally random. This means that the outcome of an interaction between two particles is somewhat random since it depends on the random collapse of their uncertainty clouds. Although, of course, some outcomes are more likely that others, the choice still seems random.

It is this randomness that allows time to heal itself after time travellers have tinkered with it because it makes it possible for things to return on track without extra energy being added to the universe from nowhere. You see, when we change things in the past quantum level interactions get rewritten in a way that lets things change to return on track.”

“Oh, uh…”, the journalist looked a bit stunned for a while, then recovered “Eh… earlier you said that things ‘generally’ lead to small localised changes. What are the exceptions, exactly?”

“It’s a bit complicated. Like I said earlier, the outcome of quantum-level events is not entirely random, some outcomes are more likely than other. That means that if I change things in the right way, the only way for the universe to heal itself will be through changing some outcomes to incredibly unlikely ones. This is especially true if we change things in a way which seems likely to cause paradoxes. Like, if I go back in time and kill my grandfather, the odds of me being born become infinitesimal. It could happen if somebody takes his place as my grandmother’s husband and has a very similar DNA to his and then combines that DNA with my grandmother’s to create a person with my father’s DNA, but it is astronomically unlikely. Since there probably is no one anywhere whose genes can be combined with my grandmother’s to create father’s his genes would have to mutate extremely much in highly unlikely ways to create my father.

And for some reason – we are not really clear about what – if the changes required to avoid creating a paradox become sufficiently unlikely – and we would really like to know how unlikely ‘sufficiently unlikely’ is – we get what we call a wizard-event. What happens then is that the thing which caused the paradox turns up, essentially from nowhere, back in time and then disappears as soon as it has caused the paradox. So, if I tried to go back in time and kill my grandfather I would probably succeed, even though I would not get born afterwards. We would just have me turning up back in time, killing my grandpa and then disappearing, without ever being born. We are, as I said, not entirely sure why this happens. One possible explanation is that it takes energy of some sort or other to change events, proportional to the increased unlikelihood of the changes, and that at a certain level less energy is needed to simply conjure up the paradox-changer from nothing and then letting him uncreate himself.”

Bill thought back on the conversation and then thought about what would happen if he killed Saloth. If he could pull it off he probably would change things enough to cause a wizard event, meaning that he would effectively be committing suicide. He agonized about it for a while, but since a mild heroism was a job qualification for the first time-traveller ever, he finally made up his mind. Pol Pot would die. So would Bill too, sadly, but a million Cambodians might not.

He formulated his plans for assassination, prepared carefully, and then joined the army. He got about half a years quick training as a foot soldier, then he was sent to Vietnam. He was flown by Stratolifter to a South Vietnamese base with an unpronounceable name. There his plans were severely disturbed by him being transported into action after just a day, much faster than he had expected.

He was assigned to a squad of twelve other people, all of them veterans. They need not be introduced, as they will all die within a few sentences. His squad was sent to another unpronounceable place, where they were supposed to defend a village against Viet Cong. This failed, since everyone in the squad except for Bill was killed. Bill himself was transported to Saigon, where he was treated for a bullet-wound in the thigh and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In Saigon, he seemed to recover relatively well, but it was still decided that he should be sent back to America. When Bill heard that, he realized that it would undo all his plans and make his recent suffering wasted. Therefore he quit the hospital in the night and made for the nearby military airport. There he sneaked past guards and succeeded in getting into a military aircraft, a Skyraider. In it he prayed to anyone that might listen that what he had learnt of flying earlier would be enough to get him into the air alive. Then he took off, ignoring protests from the control tower, and disappeared in the night.

He flew low, below the reach of radar, as he headed towards Cambodia. He hoped that he would be able to find his way to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, and that he would be able to find Saloth Sar in it. Suddenly his plane shook violently, and a loud booming hurt Bill’s eardrums. It took him a few seconds to realise what was happening, then he made a wild turn which apparently took him out of his unseen attackers fire. He looked desperately around to find whoever had been shooting at him. Following a stream of tracers that flew past his cockpit he saw a dark silhouette that was flying at three o’clock slightly above Bill’s plane. Bill banked, turned and did his best to down his attacker before he did the same to him. Since Bill’s training in dogfighting was limited to playing ancient flight-simulators, his story could easily have ended there. Luckily, his opponent seemed to be only marginally better at flying than him, so the fight was relatively fair. Also, Bill seemed to have slightly better reflexes than his enemy, and eventually that showed, as his enemy disappeared in a tail of smoke.

Bill’s plane was badly damaged from the fight too, and when the outer ¼ of the left wing parted company with the inner ¾ he decided that it was best to leave. He pulled the lever marked “Eject” and closed his eyes. When things had quietened down and stopped shaking, he was hanging in a parachute some hundred meters above the ground. He gently floated down through the air. Gently that is, until he reached the ground, which approached him much faster than he would have liked.

He untangled himself from the parachute, stood for a while being disoriented, and then started walking towards the wreck of the other air plane. There was no real reason for this choice of direction, he just had to go somewhere. When he reached the enemy plane he discovered that it was not as wrecked as he had thought. While it was badly damaged by his cannon, it had executed a decent belly-landing and avoided the total destruction which usually happens to a downed air plane. He was surprised to discover that the plane was not Cambodian, but American. Was the USAF ready to kill one of their own to stop him? Well, he could not really blame them, since he could easily have started a war by his actions.

When he got closer to the plane, he saw that the cockpit was open. This implied that the pilot was still alive, or at least had been so immediately after the landing, and had gotten out. He crept nearer, to see if he could find the pilot, and perhaps help him or form a temporary alliance to get out of Cambodia. He found the pilot sitting on the far side of the plane, resting against it’s side. He was looking away from Bill at the moment, and Bill could see that he had a deep wound in his side, staining his clothes red. He was about the same height as Bill, and had greyish hair. Bill cleared his throat, and the pilot turned his head.

Bill experienced a feeling. There is no word for it, since he is the only human who has ever felt it, but it was not pleasant. The face was older and more lined, but still unmistakeably his own. The older Bill breathed deeply for a few moments. Then he began to speak in a rapid voice.

“Shut up and listen! I may disappear at any moment, so just listen. I did what you just tried to do. I landed outside of Phnom Penh, snuck into the city, and blew Pol Pot’s head off. Then I got almost killed more times than Wladyslaw Szpilman as I fled across this country to India, from which I somehow got to England. Then I sat there feeling real smug and happy at having stopped the Cambodian autogenocide. But do you know what happened? Nothing was different! Instead of Saloth the Khmer Rouge where lead by some guy named Nuon Chea, but he did exactly the same thing as Pot. Killing Pol Pot just removed a symptom of the whole problem, but it couldn’t solve anything any more than you can treat AIDS by putting make-up over it’s sufferers paleness. And it led to Cambodia strengthening it’s armies extra much, so the war where Vietnam invaded Cambodia and stopped the Khmers Rouge became extra long and extra deadly. So when I came back to the time of my leaving I broke into the IRTT, took the time machine back to now. Then I stole a plane and flew here to shoot me down before I had time to go though with that stupid plan!”

The younger Bill just stood there with his mouth gaping, so his older self shouted to him. “Since I stopped myself from killing Pol Pot I’m guaranteed to have made myself highly unlikely, thus creating a wizard-event. So get away from here before I disappear and leave a me-shaped vacuum to implode in your face! RUN!”

The young Bill spent a second being stunned, and then started running as fast as he could. While a vacuum the size of a man would hardly be dangerous above about twenty metres, he still could not stop running. He wanted to get away from the older himself and the various unpleasant emotions that he’d had the honour of being the first sane human to experience ever. When he heard the implosion he kept running.

Since it was obviously possible to do, Bill did his best to flee to India. It did not go without incident, and he would never forget the sensation of Cambodian bullets missing his head by inches, but he survived. He succeeded in getting a ticket to England, where he settled down and swore to never meddle with history again.

Although he held this promise for a long time, things still began to go badly for him. This time it was not directly the result of time-travel, instead it was just the natural effects of his brief time in the Vietnam war. Every time he heard a sufficiently gunfire-like sound he would re-experience, vividly, his memories of Vietnamese machine guns mowing down his whole squad. Every time something, even if it was just a bird or a gesticulating hand, flew past his head from behind he would remember the burst of Cambodian gunfire that had been centimetres from shattering his skull like an egg. Also, he could never forget the bone-chilling feeling of meeting yourself, and hearing yourself die.

He did his best to remedy this, he took therapy and consulted numerous psychologists, but no one could help him. Finally, he did like so many others in similar situations have done, he sought help and forgetfulness in the bottle. The next three decades were something of a blur, he managed to find money somehow, and typically ended up drunk in a gutter sometime around nightfall. He did not like it, but it deadened the memories of Vietnam somewhat, along with most other memories and the rest of his mental faculties.

So the time passed, but one day he realised, looking at the date on a newspaper lying beside him, that his leaving on this mission would be soon. Soon a much younger him would step into the Penguin and disappear, just to become almost killed uncountable times and finally going alcoholic. Using what remained of the strength of will that he had once had, he succeeded in staying sober for the day, thinking over what he should do. He thought over his life, and realised that he would gladly change it if he could. He also realised that he could indeed change it, and how. So he used what remained of his money to get himself semi-decent clothes and a one-way ticket to America. Well there, he bought a flame-thrower, inexplicably legal in many states, and then went to the IRTT institute.

Well there, he got in easily, using his old access-card. Then he rushed in the hall where the cursed time-machine stood. He shouted “Get out!” at the people present, to get them out before anyone recognized him. While he did not exactly know what legal and reputational effects that would have on his younger self, they would probably be bad. Then he started flaming the time-machine, whose parts begun burning, melting or exploding, depending on their nature. Soon the machine was totally ablaze, and definitively useless, but he was still alive. Hadn’t he done enough to cause a wizard event?!

“Damn!” he shouted, and began flaming wildly. He hoped that the total destruction of the IRTT building would be enough to make his travelling utterly unlikely. Soon the entire room around him was an incandescent inferno, and he began to hope that he would disappear really soon, before he was immolated. His wish was granted, although he did not notice this, death being instantaneous.

Comments

  1. #1 HP
    June 10, 2008

    That’s a fine example of storytelling, especially for one so young. As an American anglophone, there are a few false notes, but I wonder if that isn’t attributable to a) his youth, and b) not being American.

    I wonder what would happen if he wrote the story in Swedish, and then entrusted to it to a native anglophone Swedish-English translator? (I know that’s a huge thing, but it’s the subtle little differences that loom large to an American, and there’s no reason in the modern world not to write in Swedish.) It might make the language stronger to someone like me. Also, his verisimilitude would be helped by a little further study of north-central US geography and 20th c. Indochinese history. But still, really impressive for a writer his age.

    On the other hand, Joseph Conrad wrote in English as a non-native speaker, and totally transformed English literature, so I may be completely off-base (cough, cough, Nabakov). In fact, his prose reminds me of a rough, young Conrad, so if you share this comment with him, he should know that I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. (Also, I’ve always harbored a dream of being to Hispanic literature what Conrad was to English literature, and I’ve never managed in Spanish a tenth what your friend’s managed in English, so I’m probably just insanely jealous.)

  2. #2 ArchAsa
    June 11, 2008

    Scarily talented brood Kai has.
    For those who read Swedish I recommend you check out his daughter’s short story “Mannen som angav Fryderyk Buczko”.
    Terse and fierce.