Dr. Joshua Grant stood quietly as the lab’s sensors scanned him. To him, the elaborate scheme of security devices seemed only a token effort. His facility’s greatest defense was the veil of secrecy that unobtrusively enveloped it. Its construction modest and measured, its operation quiet and simple. Still, the possibility of intrusion and espionage could not be ignored. The potential contained within was now too great.
His small, nondescript lab had unlocked the secret of time travel.
Time travel. The fancy of countless dreamers and scientists before him now a scientific reality, complete with its wretched flaw. He knew the proliferation of his technology at this stage would be beyond catastrophic. And it could only be kept a secret for so long. Despite his care, the noisome tendrils of bureaucracy would eventually wind their way to his sanctum.
As the final access door peeled away, Joshua valued the measures taken to protect his time travel project. He also appreciated how simple they were for him alone to circumvent.
Arnold Slattery, hunched over a circuit-laden counter, was startled by his sudden entrance. "Dr. Grant! I expected you hours earlier…" He paused a moment as he regarded him in the doorway. A worried expression grew on his face. "Josh… Are you okay? You look like shit…"
Dr. Grant was barely able to muster a smile as he passed through the doorway into the lab proper. His wonderfully tactless colleague had succinctly captured the essence of the moment. He did feel like shit. He had spent the last forty hours contemplating arcane formula, maddening calculations… and more.
"I’ll live. Just tell me you’ve charged the Planck converters." The gravelly nature of his voice surprised even him. He walked to a nearby pitcher and served himself a drink. After a hefty quaff, he realized it was the same pitcher used in the first paradox experiment. The water had grown stale.
"Of course," Arnold responded in an indignant tone, "and I’ve run every diagnostic test. Just as you’ve asked. Everything is nominal."
"Good." Dr. Grant casually thrust his left hand into his lab coat pocket, only to brush up against the item he had smuggled in. His hand recoiled violently as Arnold watched. It wasn’t time. Yet. He nonchalantly asked, "What about the data harness? Is it ready?"
Arnold was becoming visibly disturbed by Dr. Grant’s behavior, but dutifully responded, "Yes. I waited as long as I dared before I calibrated it. The Life Science monitors remain active and cultured."
As Arnold spoke, Dr. Grant strolled over and regarded the data harness, one of Arnold’s marvelous contraptions. Over three hundred separate types of experiments, from atomic decay to mitotic activity, each synchronized to a master bank that contained identical sister processes. The data harness traveled in time with the subject. Earlier, this device revealed the disturbing potential of even the most innocuous journey. Tonight, its results would yield the solution to safe and unfettered time travel. Or so he hoped.
"You know, I’m more than a little bothered about this experiment, Doctor."
"Oh," Dr. Grant replied almost glibly, "What makes you think this is an experiment?"
"That’s what I mean. I know that I am not much help on the computational side, but we’ve always had a chance to discuss each test… plan them out. You haven’t shared anything with me about this experiment… If that’s what it is… And then suddenly to spring it on me like this…"
Hearing the tension in Arnold’s voice, Dr. Grant said in a reassuring tone, "Arnold. I’m sorry I’ve kept you in the dark on this one. But I’ve been struggling with the implications of what we have done here… What I have done here. And that isn’t a stab to lessen your contribution…"
"You know how I feel, Josh. This has been your project. All the way. I’m… well… honored to have had a chance to work with you…"
"And don’t worry, you will share in what we have accomplished here… but I want to know…" He paused to study the young man’s reaction. "How do you feel about what we have done here?"
The question caught Arnold off guard. He blurted out. "Wonderful! I’m here. At the beginning of a whole new field of science, a whole new age! So much will become possible, I’ve only started to dream–"
Dr. Grant cut him off. "Arnold, what kind of kid were you?"
"Normal, I guess. Probably a little too much science fiction for my mom’s liking, but look where that’s gotten me. Maybe I should go back and visit myself… lend some friendly advice?"
"My childhood was not so normal. My mother was frail… despondent. My father mostly distant… I doubt even a time traveling psychologist could change that…" He moved closer to the machine’s main energy units. Their glow added a strange unnerving aura about him as he continued. "This machine was never truly a dream of mine. It was more of a goal that taunted me. My father had gone so far with his own time travel research and reached a dead end. His obsession had taken him away for so much time… away from me and my mother… I just needed to validate it. To make it worth the sacrifice. That’s all. I never really thought about what I would do with this power."
"Well, I’ve got that covered! Haven’t you ever wondered about Oswald and Kennedy? Roswell? Our Lady of Fatima? And heaven help us when we’re finally able to travel to biblical times–"
Dr. Grant interrupted, "At first I felt that same… exhilaration. We had created the ultimate tool for exploration. What secrets could be hidden from us? The whole of spacetime under human scrutiny. That was the machine’s promise. But our experiments soon revealed the machine’s true nature."
And it was this unexpected characteristic that endangered human existence: the time machine could effortlessly generate paradoxes.
A paradox. An event that should be incapable of taking place simply because it would prevent a future event or series of events from occurring, at least from the time traveler’s point of view. Traveling back in time created a competing timeline, not an isolated segment of spacetime, as Dr. Grant had originally theorized. The time segment visited appeared to have a dangerous tendency to merge with the traveler’s timeline of origin, sometimes with unpredictable results.
Dr. Grant stared coldly at Arnold. "Man’s natural inclination is not to observe, but to tamper. You joked about it yourself."
Arnold moved between Dr. Grant and the machine’s delicate electronics as if to defend it. "We’re still not sure to what extent our timeline can be affected. It may be manageable."
"Manageable? From the dissolution of our entire civilization to the elimination of all life itself? Tell me, how manageable is that! Isn’t the possibility of that enough?"
"Enough for what? Look, Josh, we’re not philosophers. We’re scientists. And every important scientific achievement carries the same dilemma. The greater the potential gain, the greater the possible harm."
"Yet nothing so destructive been ever been placed in man’s hands before." Dr. Grant turned away. "I’m disturbed… damn it, I’m terrified!"
"Oppenheimer delivered the damn atomic bomb to the very people eager to use it. And man survived. We’ve even prospered."
"Look at the horror the A-bomb caused. Is this the kind of legacy you want to leave? Oppenheimer might be screaming right now in a special corner of hell. I am not so eager to join to him. Are you?"
"But that’s my point! It wouldn’t be the same. We can control how the technology is introduced. And we have a chance to contain our demon. Even tame it."
Watching Arnold deliver his response with such youthful vigor and confidence almost gave Dr. Grant hope. Hope that he wouldn’t have to go through with his plan. But the moment faded as his resolve again grew steely.
"That’s what I am going to make sure of tonight, before a single life is lost." A vision of the task before him filled him with a loathing for his own hypocrisy. He continued undeterred, "There is only one course of action left to us. We have to test a Q Paradox."
Arnold said, confused, "But we’ve already done that. "
Dr. Grant responded coolly, "I want to explore a true Q Paradox. The ultimate paradox."
"Just wait. Let me show you a failsafe mechanism I’ve been working on." The slight desperation in Arnold’s voice was easy to hear. "Please, I think you’ll find this of interest." Arnold walked to the main control console and motioned for Dr. Grant to follow. Dr. Grant moved warily toward the counter, again hoping that whatever Arnold showed him would change the course of the next few minutes.
"Here," Arnold called up a computerized schematic on a console monitor, "we can place a modification on the Weyl interface… An interlock that limits the amount of displacement that can occur in spacetime."
As the light of virtual circuits and diagrams danced upon the screen, the genius of his young colleague’s work was immediately apparent. But it was not enough. Not tonight. Trying to hide his disappointment, Dr. Grant remarked, "This is good. But it is only part of the solution…"
"Josh, we know that the General Paradox Effect exists. We’ve proven it conclusively! Why risk the machine…"
"I’m not going to go back in some time jaunt and damage the machine, if that’s what you’re thinking. It will not have the desired effect," Dr. Grant said.
After a moment of trying to rifle through the possibilities, Arnold relented. "I know this isn’t the first time I’ve said this, Doctor, but… I don’t understand."
"Neither did I. At first. But I just spent the nearly two days going over the equations and I have reached an answer… of sorts." Dr. Grant stridently walked over to a digital whiteboard and started jotting equations, if only for effect. He would make Arnold see his point. It was the only way.
After softening up Arnold with a barrage of formulae that covered the board, Dr. Grant began in earnest, "Remember when we attempted the first Q Paradox test? I traveled back in time to prevent myself from mounting the time platform."
"And you succeeded." Arnold was still unnerved by the memory of the second Dr. Grant appearing from the future, but even more disturbed by his disappearance into… nothingness? Arnold continued, "A fantastic example of the paradox effect, but we know now not a Q Paradox effect."
"Exactly, because the existence of the machine itself provides the traveler’s timeline with enough temporal inertia–enough potential for the event to occur–that it does not negate it. In fact, it actually favored the change over the time traveler’s timeline."
"I understand that…" Arnold said as he grew impatient, "The only way to test a true Q Paradox would be to precipitate the destruction of the Time Machine itself by the traveler."
"No. Not the destruction. My calculations have determined that the Time Machine’s potentiality is too great. To succeed, we must strike at the machine’s very existence."
Arnold knees grew wobbly at the coming realization. He nervously replied, "I think I have an idea of what you’re planning and you just can’t do it." Arnold approached Dr. Grant. "A Q Paradox on that scale will literally change everything. Why jeopardize all that we’ve worked for?"
Dr. Grant understood the fear in Arnold’s voice, but wasn’t sure what drove it. Was the young scientist worried about the method he would choose to test the Q Paradox or the fact that testing it could eliminate the project from existence? They had both accomplished so much. It almost seemed unfair to his industrious protege. It was unlikely that in an alternate future he would find a position that could offer anywhere near this challenge.
For Dr. Grant, the chance to test his theory offered one of two options: the first, a sort of damnable sacrifice to christen the Temporal Age. The other, a consignment to oblivion. It was the odds of which one would occur that was in question.
He answered Arnold, "We have to test it precisely to preserve what we’ve worked for. To test my theory we must eliminate the first cause. The prime mover. I have the coordinates." Dr. Grant pulled a data card from his coat pocket and held it high. "When the true Q Paradox occurs, I will return with the data we need to make time travel safe." He said it with such supreme authority that he almost convinced himself.
"Why not give us some time–" Arnold pleaded.
"No! Don’t you understand?! We don’t have anymore time! I can’t live with the thought of this… thing, sitting here, affecting untold realities, events… Even when it’s idle, the thought of what could happen…" Dr. Grant hesitantly stroked the machine’s accumulators, brimming with the energy he needed to perform his dreaded task. His senses were electric. The old axiom haunted him. A new discovery or invention always seemed accompanied by a cluster of also-rans or near misses by other inventors or scientists. He hoped he would be the first and, if unsuccessful, the last.
Arnold broke in as Dr. Grant seemed to drift off, "This machine is your creation. I helped build it and still only know a fraction of its workings–"
"More than enough to help me do this." He handed Arnold the data card and beckoned him to move to the control console. Dr. Grant spoke in almost fatherly tone, "Please, Arnold. I know I’m right. Reality will never be safe with this technology in human hands… unless we solve this problem. This is the only course we can take."
Wordlessly, Arnold inserted the data disk and began preparing the time machine.
Dr. Grant removed his lab coat and snugly fit the data harness about him, which strengthened his resolve. The data harness would record the difference between the new timeline and the previous one. This difference could be quantified, revealing a "wobble" or disruption in true sixth dimensional spacetime. A true Q Paradox would generate a disruption so great that it could not reconcile itself with the traveler’s original timeline, rendering the time travel event inert. The trip would in effect never have really happened, of consequence only to the time traveler. Once measured, this disruption could be artificially reproduced and included in the operation of every time machine thereafter, eliminating any possibility of affecting the traveler’s timeline, even in minute ways.
As he toggled the harness to life, he beamed at the possibilities. The data retrieved could be applied to the technology to create a temporal pocket, a separate dimension where a "time patrol" could monitor spacetime, preventing any attempt to circumvent these new safety measures and the petty crimes of rogue time travelers. It was a grand and exciting scheme saddled with an ironic twist. To gather the data needed would require the commission of a crime any such time patrol would surely attempt to prevent.
"We’re ready," Arnold said in a solemn tone.
As the machine’s whirring crescendo threatened, Dr. Grant almost mounted the time platform without his lab coat or the special item he would need for this trip. He calmly retrieved his coat and slipped it on, unsure whether the guilt he felt would register enough for Arnold to notice. As he took his position, he slowly reached for the decidedly unscientific instrument in his pocket. He gritted his teeth as he held it in his grip, still hidden from view.
"Goodbye, Arnold." It was said with an air of finality he did not wish to convey, but now too late to take back.
Obviously fighting back a flurry of emotions, the younger scientist managed a more optimistic turn as the time machine thrummed to climax. "See you, Josh."
And in a blinding flash, he was home.
He stumbled a slight bit as he dropped a half-inch to the sidewalk beneath him and the rush of displaced air popped his eardrums. He appeared in a narrow alley, protected from general view by a lavish tree and a low wooden fence. He was slightly disoriented by the journey, a small consequence considering he had just instantaneously traveled thirty-five years in the past and six hundred miles to July 2nd, 1963 under a clear and fresh Ohio sky. It was the most ambitious trip yet attempted and near the time machine’s current limits.
He squatted low and allowed his head to clear as he carefully surveyed a nestle of well-groomed row houses and neatly kept streets stretched out before him. His study of the plots and surveyors marks provided by a local investigator, coupled with the time machine’s safety features, helped choose a neutral and nearly secluded spot. His arrival went unnoticed. Checking the chronometer at his wrist, he saw he had only five minutes before this time segment expired. Five minutes to seal his fate.
He turned and regarded the house before him. It was definitely his home once, but it invoked no nostalgia, no long-lost memories. His parents never talked about his early childhood and moved from this house well before his second birthday, too early to leave any impression upon him. And they were oddly loath to reminisce about that time. The lone photo he was able to uncover from that period was of the house itself, where it appeared cold and prosaic, as if it taken by an uninspired realtor. As it stood before him, it seemed comfortable. Even charming.
He cautiously crouched along the fence and made his way towards the back of the house. Somewhere within his mind, beneath his scientific certainty, he hoped this trip would end up as merely an uneventful visit. That he would be unable to complete the experiment and his resolve would shatter. But the sound of a playful child’s laughter only made his heart sink with anguish. The experiment had to run its course.
He carefully peered over the fence’s edge and spied an almost picturesque scene. On the finely kept grass of a suburban backyard, a young woman played happily with a toddler. Despite all he knew, it actually took a few seconds to realize that he was looking upon his own mother and infant self. A sort of hypnotic state fell upon him as he beheld these two people in a private moment, reveling in the special bond that existed between them. The laughter that came from his mother’s lips, the color in her cheeks, the carefree way she moved and attended her child… Drawing on his memories made it difficult to see any resemblance to the woman who raised him. How could he remember so little of her warmth? How could she have changed so much?
Her abrupt movement, cautioning the child to stay as she walked into the house, broke him free of his trance. Glancing at his chronometer showed that a mere sixty seconds remained before he automatically returned. The shock over how much time he had senselessly allowed to elapse spurred him into action. He leapt over the fence with little difficulty and made his way to the child, avoiding the plentiful toys and baby tricycles strewn across the lawn.
At ten feet, he was stopped solidly in his tracks as the infant’s eyes met his. There was a connection made that froze the core of his being. He felt an undeniable recognition. Was this the mental ploy of an overwrought conscience?
If he returned this instant, the master timeline would exhibit no noticeable change. But the theory had to be proven. There was only one way.
As he reached into his pocket, his body began to tremble. He wanted to move quickly, but his body responded slowly as his hand grasped the weapon and pulled it forth. His mind frantically droned all of the reasons why this was necessary. His calculations showed the odds were well in his favor. He was certain he would survive and bring back the crucial data. But this was no dispassionate laboratory experiment. Whatever the outcome, it amounted to murder.
And if he didn’t return? Time would unfold much like before. His unsuspecting parents would be forced to endure a great personal tragedy. But it was his own life he was risking and it was his choice. If it were truly murder, wouldn’t he in effect be administering the punishment in the commission of the crime? If this event erased him from reality, would man ever discover the secret and damnable power of time travel? At least he would not have to bear the terrifying responsibility of unleashing it.
Under the innocent’s wondering gaze, he raised the automatic handgun and leveled it at the child. Nausea struck as he dropped the safety and readied the action, the prospects of the next few seconds growing heavy. The trembling his body felt grew to a fitful panic as he fingered the trigger, making it hard to even keep his aim, which needed to be true. As he began to sob, feeling his very presence an abomination, the infant let out a frightened cry.
And Dr. Grant fired. He fired three times, instantly silencing the child and spreading a blanket of blood and gore on the verdant expanse. The gun’s hollow reports echoed in his mind as the horror rose up within him. Yet the echoes were shattered by a soul-piercing scream. He reflexively turned, in a state of shock and near frenzy, the gun still raised and deadly.
It was the child’s mother–his mother–standing at the back doorway, her face contorted in a mask of absolute terror. She screamed again, her manic eyes ablaze with fear. As if following some baser instinct, he leveled the gun at her, causing her to cower and collapse to the ground. But before he could even utter a tortured gasp, there was a blinding flash.
And he found himself on the time platform.
"Oh my God!" Arnold cried in disbelief.
The jarring return had robbed Dr. Grant of all strength and will. The gun fell from his outstretched hand as he spilled to the ground in a gibbering mound. As he righted himself, tears streamed from his eyes, falling into his open hands. "What have I done? What am I?" he thought.
As Arnold rushed to his side, Dr. Grant scrambled for the fallen weapon and quickly thrust it back into his coat pocket. "I’m alive! I did it! Damn you! I did it!" A nervous laugh began to break through his intermittent sobs.
"Josh! Josh, what did you do?!" Arnold implored.
And he had an answer. "We no longer… have to be afraid!" Arnold watched in amazement as Dr. Grant went from near manic hysteria to a modicum of his usual composure in the space of a few heartbeats. "Prepare the data harness for analysis." He stood tall and deftly unstrapped the device from his body, handing it to Arnold. "It will give us what we need."
Arnold stood with the data harness and stared at the man before him, looking confused and uncertain.
Dr. Grant placed his hands on his face and held them there, as if holding back some great force. As they slid away, Arnold saw a strange calm come about him. As he spoke he looked deeply into the eyes of his colleague. "Everything will be all right," he said in an ethereal voice. "Now we’ll both be able to dream again."
Twelve hours after his trip through time, despite his earlier pronouncement, he had given himself little chance to sleep, much less dream. Arnold had suggested that Dr. Grant go home and rest while he undertook the laborious task of processing the data. Worn and overcome, he had conceded. But his modest apartment gave him no comfort. It was empty and cold. He had given himself few diversions outside of his work. Each time he tried to sleep, his mind’s eye replayed the brutal deed.
He hoped he was close to intellectually divorcing himself from the incident. He had entered the past as a cold-blooded assassin, but the incident had been rendered a non-event by that very action. No matter how real it felt, no matter what transpired, it was his own and perhaps God’s charge to bear. The execution–no, he didn’t like the word–the culmination of the experiment assured his absolution. This is what he had counted on. Yet he now realized that he had overlooked or underemphasized the psychological effects.
A pernicious guilt gnawed away at his psyche. To block the path to madness, to truly heal and forget, he needed to address his own unique human equation.
With only the barest rest in the last twenty-four hours, he started on the long drive to his parent’s home in Connecticut. Not the same home he had visited on his time trip, but the home of his late adolescence. He needed to see his parents. It had been over a year since he last saw them, even though no more than a six-hour drive away. Now, he pictured his mother–the last time he saw her–in a state of total terror. It made no difference that the woman was not truly his mother, only a quantum fragment, a ghost image from an extinguished reality. The only way to dispel his growing demons would be to see her again.
As the roads became familiar, he began to feel at ease. He had reached a plateau beyond exhaustion. As the shafts of morning light gave the airy fog its glow, he felt the anxiety begin to fade. Soon, he would be home and have a chance to talk with his father. The prospect of finally telling him about the past few months thrilled him. No more secrets. He had fulfilled his father’s abandoned quest.
The bleeps from his cell phone called him out of contemplation. The tone signaled it was from the lab. "Hello," he cautiously responded.
"It’s Arnold. I had to call you. There’s something strange about the data…"
He quickly checked the phone to see if the encryption light was on before he responded. "What? What’s wrong with the data?"
He could hear Arnold’s distress even over the heavy decoder scheme, "There isn’t any perturbation. I can’t find any deviation from the master timeline."
"Impossible. You should have a reading and specific waveform that is off the scale."
"I know, I know, but it’s not there."
There was an instant where doubt almost claimed him, but Dr. Grant quickly recovered. "Arnold, this happened before, remember. Our first experiment didn’t register any change because it was too small, until we widened the statistical aperture."
"But I compensated for that…"
"Obviously not enough! Now widen the aperture and run the data through it! We need that reading!"
"It’s going to take a while."
"That’s all right. Time is on our side now, remember?"
"Sorry to trouble you, Doctor. I should have taken care of it myself."
"We’re in this together, okay Arnold? Just let me know when the results come in."
"Yes, sir."
If he weren’t so sure of his own existence, he thought, he would find this unexpected twist disturbing. He had gone over the statistical filter himself. It should have been sufficient to reveal the data change, no matter what the range. There had to be a measurable disruption. When it can be recorded, every paradox generates one. He dared to ask if only by happenstance:
When is a paradox not a paradox?
A question at odds with itself, he reflected. He needn’t pay it any mind. Arnold would have the results before the end of the day.
The car began to glide along the slope of the well-worn hill that gently led to his parent’s house. A simple, elegant two-story home, very much in style with the rest of the affluent, yet understated neighborhood. It was the only place he ever truly called home.
As he parked the car, a wave of tiredness threatened to leave him asleep in the driver’s seat. He was already drifting off, half-dreaming that he had exited the car and made his way to the front door. A few knocks and the door sprung open to reveal his mother, the same woman he saw thirty-five years ago. And she started to scream.
The dream shriek abruptly startled him to full mental wakefulness, but he was still saddled with a weary body in need of rest. He staggered to the entrance and rang the bell. As he readied himself, he noticed the light shuffle of sandaled feet approach the door.
"Yes. Who is it?" The almost feeble voice replied.
"It’s me. Josh."
His aged father swung the door open and held a startled expression for all of two seconds before hugging and ushering him in.
"Josh, my boy! This is such a surprise! Why didn’t you call?"
He lied. "I wasn’t sure I was coming. Is Mom home?"
"Why, where else would she be? She’s still sleeping. But she’s feeling much better lately. Much better."
As he closed the door, he gave his son a quick once over with a look of concern. "Is anything the matter, Josh? I almost didn’t recognize you. And that look… doesn’t suit you…"
Before he could reply, Joshua caught a glimpse of himself in a hallway mirror. He looked awful and barely recognized himself. His face was gaunt and pale, covered in scruffy salt and pepper stubble, with his eyes pronounced and wild. His hair was disheveled, overly long and thinning. When had he grown gray? Obviously hygiene had not been a high priority in the last few days, but the trauma of the past few hours had claimed an unsettling physical toll. From a nearby mantle, a cheerful image of himself with his parents mocked him with its vitality. And it was taken only two years ago.
His father took him by the shoulder, "Why don’t you rest and freshen up before mother sees you? Your room is just as it always is."
It was excellent advice, but he couldn’t wait to tell his father. He thought it best to tell him first. Instead of going to his room, he had his father follow him into the kitchen, away from the stairwell as not to disturb the rest of the house.
It was difficult to hold back his enthusiasm. "Dad, I have something to tell you," he said in an excited whisper.
"Sure, son. What is it?"
"I did it, Dad. I traveled backwards in spacetime."
"How!? When!?"
"Just a few hours ago. But we’ve been testing the device for the past two weeks."
"This is… fantastic!" A vital energy entered his father’s worn frame. He rushed forward and grabbed Joshua by the arms in a vibrant, almost youthful grip. "Oh, Joshua. Joshua, you really did it?"
This is the reaction he had hoped for. His father had seemed locked in a stagnant resignation for so many years. "Yes. It works. You don’t know how close you were to the answer."
His father’s face began to light up and his mind clearly began to calculate. "What about the Q Paradox? Did you test it? Is it a factor?"
"I did… test it. It can be eliminated." He didn’t think to bother his father with the specifics of the incomplete results. His presence was more than enough proof for him. "We’re working on the failsafes now." Joshua started to imagine his father as he saw him now–active, alive–at his side in the laboratory, putting the final touches on the device.
"And to think I had given up!" his father shouted with a start, but he immediately gave way to a pensive gaze at his son, "But it did give us a chance to be together…"
Joshua didn’t want to think about the past now, he wanted to move forward. He quickly exclaimed, "I based it all on your work, Dad. You’ll share in the credit, too…"
His father was already moving, looking about the room for something. "Oh, yes. Yes, there’ll be time for that. But I’ve got to think, it’s been so long and I stopped making notes so long ago…" As his father began energetically filing through the kitchen’s bookshelves and cabinets, Joshua almost thought to laugh. It was the most he’d seen his father move in years. But there was an almost frantic nature to his movements that started to disturb him. He barely avoided being hit by the books his father dusted off and discarded during his impromptu search. Finally, his father stood still for a moment, stared deeply into his eyes, and proclaimed, "I’ll have to think of a way to make it work… But everything will be all right. Everything! Joshua, wait a moment…"
He quickly darted out of the room.
Of course, everything will be all right, Joshua assured himself. He wasn’t certain what his father was looking for, but the comfort in his reaction helped push back the ugly imagery his mind still managed to conjure. Perhaps here, in the company of his parents, he could bear to sleep. Maybe the nightmares he so gravely feared would never come.
His father briskly returned to the room cradling a thickly bound journal. "I never told you why I was so hell-bent on conquering the time barrier. I couldn’t bring myself to tell you. Neither could your mother. We needed so to forget. I thought I could make it right. Soon, there will be no need to even think about it again…"
He carefully placed the aged tome on the table. Joshua remembered how he hated the thing and how it sapped his father’s precious time. His every waking moment spent hovering over that book.
"I made a meticulous recording of every event from that accursed date so long ago…"
As he opened the cover, the worn handwritten date struck Joshua’s attention.
"July 2nd, 1963… We nearly lost everything that day. Your mother…" The pain he reflected was terrible to see and set Joshua’s heart to race. His father recovered quickly with a bright expression and there was promise in his voice. "I can change that now…"
But Joshua was unsettled. How could this date have any significance to his father? To anyone but himself? His chest tightened and his throat ached as he spoke in the barest of whispers.
"That was the date I traveled to when I tested the Q Paradox."
His father began to torturously straighten as he spoke. "What do you mean?"
Joshua was unsure why the space around him seem to grow heavier with each passing moment. There was also something happening in his mind. Could it be a delayed reaction from his time travel or the flashes of conscience?
"I had to be certain that the time machine would not come into existence to test the theory. It was the only way. You of all people should know that!" He looked at his father for some sort of reassurance, but instead began to feel the tremendous weight of remorse upon him.
His father stood as if to strike him, but feebly grabbed at his shoulders instead. His newfound strength faded away from his limbs and he grew limp. "No. Joshua. No… What did you do?"
The images started to slowly strobe back into his mind, in pounding flashbacks. His inner voice droned on: It wasn’t real. It never happened. It was no longer significant.
All he wanted to do was bury his face, shut out everything, but he continued.
When is a paradox not a paradox? The question echoed.
"If I eliminated myself… If I killed myself as a child… There could be no machine." Tears began to well in his eyes as he saw the vivid murder in his mind’s eye. He couldn’t distance himself from it. "But I am here. Today!" He began to shout as if to rouse his father from his lassitude. "The experiment was a success! What I did never happened!"
His father soberly steadied himself and sat at the table, staring blankly at the book in front of him. Neither noticed the soft patter of footsteps that approached.
When is a paradox not a paradox?
And he knew the maddening answer: When it is the singular event that brings all other events in the timeline into being…
"This date…" his father pointed and pressed upon that damnable scrawl, "This is the date that destroyed our lives. We never told you… You were one of twins…"
His father spoke in words of stone, "This is the day someone murdered your twin brother."
Joshua’s hand softly cradled the murder weapon in his pocket as a pitiful, uncontrolled wail escaped his lips. He brought it forth for his father to see, held as if a bloodied swatch from its innocent victim. And in that maddening moment, a haunted moan came from the kitchen doorway. Joshua turned in a startled panic as he saw his mother, her eyes riveted in horror, eyes that would never again see the light of sanity. Eyes that once again beheld the sight of her infant son’s murderer.
Check out the next piece in this release, The Gift by Derrick McCluskey!