From a concept developed by Patrick Staight...
Stephen Hawking is supposed to have said, “If time travel were possible, we would have been overrun by tourists from the future by now.”
Even if he had, he would have been inaccurate. I know because I’ve done it myself. My name is Ajax, and my life was ruined by time travel. Let me explain.
When I was a girl, all I ever wanted to do was follow in the footsteps of my father, the scientist. I never saw him. From the moment I learned what he did, I became hopelessly fascinated. I wanted to know what he knew. And when I learned his specialty was physics, and that his focus was time travel…suddenly the whole world opened up to me.
The whole world, and its whole history.
One day he disappeared, and I dedicated my life to finding him. Worst mistake I ever made? I learned a terrible secret. After learning how it was done, and making a few innocent test runs, I learned that something out there doesn’t like people traveling through time.
My entire body was disintegrated in a moment. The monster called itself Tempos, and it was a monster that considered itself a god. Whatever it was, it used a neutron bomb to do it.
But I came back. I was rebuilt, piece by piece, with a new body. I had become a robot. When I woke up, I became aware of the switching post Times Past for the first time. Sitting in front of me was another time traveler I’d met on one of the test runs, a man who called himself the Buccaneer.
You’ll excuse me if I admit here that I was madly in love with him.
“Takes some getting used to,” he said. I might have imagined one or more of us looking soulfully into the other’s eyes at this point, perhaps a romantic glint in his. “Don’t worry. It happens to all of us. I’ve made a living looting the past. I never thought I’d become a collector’s item myself. Where I come from, they don’t have robots yet. The future never seems to show up, does it?”
“At least we have time travel, right?” I said awkwardly.
“Yeah,” he said. “They call me the Buccaneer. We all have nicknames. Here at Times Past, it’s a way to get by, forget about our troubles. Exactly how Father Time wants it.”
“The proprietor,” the Buccaneer said. “We call him that because he’s the oldest time traveler any of us has ever met. This place is kind of like his retirement. Guess he couldn’t get sentimental about anywhere he’d gone, had to create something new.”
“Who else is here?”
“The Duchess and Shooter, currently,” the Buccaneer said. “You won’t like the Duchess. You’ll think Shooter is crazy, just like everyone else. He’s one of those nuts who tried to figure out how Kennedy died. Ask him about it. Heh.”
“And we’re all…”
“Robots? Yeah,” the Buccaneer said. “Sooner or later, everyone gets swept up in whatever game Tempos is playing, that cold, indifferent bastard, reorganizing the universe, or something. The worst part is, if anyone ever managed to have a conversation with him, the consensus is all he’d say is, ‘Nothing personal.’ The rest of us take it pretty personally. You can forgive an attention to an original body. Nothing tastes right anymore.”
“Speaking of which…”
“Father Time has a great menu,” the Buccaneer said. “You can count on that. He knows how tough we time travelers have it. I bet you’re hungry. But you’ll see what I mean.”
After we’d made our way to the common area, passing portraits in the halls of every conceivable era, with Father Time at various ages in all of them, I saw the other guests for the first time. The Duchess was beautiful in a way that could really make a girl feel inadequate. The truth was, because of my intense devotion to the cause, I’d let other things slip my attention. I was always one of the proverbial never been kissed types. Maybe that was another reason why I fell so hard for the Buccaneer…
I figured she’d never had to work a day in her life, a real story of royalty in all its comfort. Couldn’t wait to learn her story. Shooter, on the other hand, was far less impressive. He looked every bit the snot-nosed kid, all wild red hair and crazy eyes. I could imagine a lifetime of never being taken seriously. Having learned what his goal had been already, I didn’t have much trouble reaching such conclusions…
“Darling, please do take a seat,” the Duchess said, or possibly cooed in the Buccaneer’s direction. Fortunately, he didn’t seem to notice. “The view is exquisite.”
I confess I hadn’t even noticed, but decided to take her word for it until I glanced through one of the many expansive windows that lined the lounge in Times Past. What I saw was breathtaking, as if all of time was streaking past us in golden sparks of memory more blinding that a million suns. Fortunately, Father Time seems to have conceived of some dimming technology. All time travelers know the importance of eyewear.
“Hey kid,” I couldn’t resist, looking over at Shooter, who sat at the far end of the empty bar, “tell us who did it.”
“Ah,” Shooter stammered, “y-you wouldn’t believe it!”
“Fine then,” the Buccaneer offered cordially, “at least tell us what you used to believe. What set you on your mad quest?”
“Don’t be offended, boy,” the Duchess said. “We were all on mad quests. It’s the nature of our little hobby.”
“And yours?” I asked.
“If you believe it, I’m the only one who knew about the robotic bodies,” the Duchess said.
“She was an old woman when she set out,” the Buccaneer whispered to me.
The Duchess seemed to have heard him. “Yes, my dashing friend. I was old. You go to the past to grow younger, darling. Isn’t it obvious?”
“Does Father Time ever show up?” I asked.
“No one’s ever tending the bar,” Shooter said, “if that’s what you mean.”
“Are you even old enough to drink?” I asked.
“I’m plenty old! No one takes me seriously,” Shooter said. “Usually you get to choose your nickname. I didn’t get to.”
“Word is, you logged the fewest hours in time before ending up here,” the Buccaneer said.
“You’re still…just a pup,” the Duchess said.
You could tell, coming from her, Shooter took that remark as a slap across the face. He was probably what she was used to, another fawning male, hopelessly in love with her. I found myself relating, actually.
“You’ll find a lot of petty jealousies in our line of work,” someone said behind me. It was Father Time. I recognized him immediately from the portraits. There seemed to have been an obvious gap from the last one to his current state. He looked frail, but confident. His voice was as strong as ever, but his eyes were sunken. No doubt about it, though: among a group of eccentrics, our host was the most eccentric of us all. I couldn’t tell where any of the fashions he’d cobbled together had come from.
“Welcome, my dear,” he continued, taking my hand like a gentleman. I was embarrassed. Mostly, though, I wondered why the Buccaneer hadn’t already done something similar. Different times.
“You’ll excuse our host,” the Buccaneer said. I heard a note of jealousy in his voice. “He’s always taking liberties.”
“As is my right,” Father Time said. “At any rate, make yourself at home. You’ll find the bar will present whatever you like to you.
“Shooter here was just telling us who killed Kennedy,” the Duchess said.
“That old story,” Father Time said.
“Is there any other kind?” the Buccaneer said.
“Some of us have other ideas,” I said.
“Good for you,” the Duchess said.
“Why does everyone keep asking me that?” Shooter said.
“You’ll forgive natural curiosity,” the Duchess said.
“Said the cat,” the Buccaneer said.
“I prefer lynx,” the Duchess said.
“You really want to know?” Shooter said.
“Like murder,” the Duchess said.
“Surely we have better topics in mind,” Father Time said. “Have you had a tour yet?”
“I was just about to do that,” the Buccaneer said.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Besides stealing things, rescuing damsels in distress is what I do,” the Buccaneer said.
“Honey, we’re all in distress,” the Duchess said. At some point she had conjured a cocktail for herself, and it was obvious that Shooter was trying to figure out how. Father Time stood off to the side looking innocent.
“If you’ll follow me,” the Buccaneer said.
“Of course,” I said. I wasn’t sorry to leave that room.
“I’m sorry,” the Buccaneer said as soon as we were alone, down another corridor with more of Father Time’s portraits.
“You don’t have to apologize. It’s not your fault.”
“We’re all judged by the company we keep,” the Buccaneer said. “Or at least, that’s what my mother used to say.”
“Do you ever miss her?”
“That was a long time ago,” the Buccaneer said. “I prefer to look forward.”
“But you loot the past, don’t you?”
“Technicalities,” the Buccaneer said. Everything valuable is eventually lost in time anyway. You should see the Colossus of Rhodes. And who I got it for. That was an adventure. In some ways, it was all downhill from there.”
“I’m sure you’ve kept yourself busy.”
“Always,” the Buccaneer said. “So to speak. You’ll like this room.”
He maneuvered me into a space filled with…well, I didn’t really know what I was looking at.
“Father Time lets me store things I haven’t managed to fence yet,” the Buccaneer said.
“You have been busy.”
“Odd,” the Buccaneer said.
“Oh? This I’ve got to see.”
“I know the exact contents of this room. Or, I should. I mean, who else puts things in here?”
“If we assume correctly…”
“Exactly,” the Buccaneer said. He was looking at a cabinet, and when he’d opened it, even though his back was to me, I knew he’d registered a shock.
“You…you shouldn’t see this,” the Buccaneer said.
“What is it?”
“I’m telling you, you don’t want to know,” the Buccaneer said. After a moment, he seemed to have rethought. “It’s a body.”
He stood paralyzed, at any rate. He wasn’t about to stop me. I went to have a look for myself. He was right. And what was more, I recognized it. I started to cry immediately.
“You know who it is,” the Buccaneer said. He placed an arm around me. Such was my state that I didn’t register it at first.
“It’s my father,” I said in a small voice.
I could smell the Duchess before either of us saw her. The Buccaneer turned around first. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Same as you…after a manner,” the Duchess said. “You weren’t supposed to find it so quickly. After all the trouble we went to find a distraction for you.”
“Nothing happens by accident,” the Buccaneer said, beginning to realize what was going on. He threw something at the Duchess, a powdery substance. It blinded her long enough for us to escape.
We went running down corridors. Now the portraits seemed to be taunting us, a new sneer on Father Time’s faces.
We nearly collided with Shooter, who was sniveling in a corner. “You found out, didn’t you?” he said.
“Come on!” the Buccaneer said, grabbing Shooter by the arm as we continued on our way. Now the corridors began to take on a disorienting effect. I could swear the portraits were repeating themselves. Of course we ended up back in the lobby.
The Duchess was somehow right behind us. “It never makes sense to run,” she said. “Why does anyone ever do that?”
“Instinct,” Shooter said.
“Humor us, will you boy?” the Duchess said. “Who killed Kennedy?”
Shooter looked so nervous, I felt sorry for him. He looked all around him wildly, and when he couldn’t take it any longer, he threw up his arms and shouted, “It was Oswald!”
“Obviously,” the Duchess said.
“Leave him alone,” the Buccaneer said.
“This is insane,” I said.
“Insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different outcome,” the Duchess said. “This is semantics. You didn’t think a place like this could exist innocently, did you?”
“Father Time’s in on it,” I said.
“We have to get out of here,” the Buccaneer said. “All of us.”
Shooter was sobbing now. Even the Duchess started to look uncomfortable. “Oh, grow up,” she said.
“That’s all I ever wanted,” Shooter said.
“Then you shouldn’t have accepted the job,” the Duchess said. “What? You didn’t know? Our boy is the one who did it. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? A time traveler shot John Fitzgerald Kennedy.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“It was a setup all along,” the Buccaneer said.
“Pick up your gun and shoot,” the Duchess said.
I didn’t want to believe she was addressing Shooter until the composition of his face changed, and he reached for the gun I had only just realized was strapped to his thigh the whole time, like some long-ago gunslinger. He shot the Buccaneer pointblank.
“Excellent,” the voice of Father Time sounded from behind me once again. “It’s time we all reveal ourselves, isn’t it?
He looked different, somehow, than he had previously. Not younger, but certainly more confident. It was the most startling transformation yet.
“You killed him…” I said.
“You saw Shooter…” Father Time said.
“My father,” I said. “You’re behind everything. In fact, let’s call you by a different name, shall we? Tempos. I knew I’d seen you before. We all did, just before you killed us.”
“Congratulations,” Father Time said. He had grown larger.
“All this time,” I said, “I’ve been grappling with doubt. I wondered if I was really still me, in this new body, the one you made for me. Maybe that explains the Duchess, Shooter. Maybe it doesn’t. But whatever it is you want, you’re not getting me too.”
“My dear, that is entirely out of your control,” Father Time said. The walls of Times Past fell away from us. We were now in the middle of the multiverse. Just as I had always found it, it felt exactly like a barren wasteland. I had been a fool all along.
“You forgot one thing, though,” I said.
“Oh? What’s that?” Father Time said.
“We’re time travelers,” I said.
I escaped into thin air.
I could barely hold myself together. I knew the Buccaneer’s body remained within that treacherous hive, but there was no chance of bringing it with me. Where could I go? I had no idea where Father Time had come from, if he had ever been human at all. As Tempos, he was some kind of god. At any rate, he was more experienced than me, than any of us.
I wanted desperately to go home, but I knew from past experience that time travel doesn’t allow that. You can never go back to the same place twice, not even home. It’s the curse all time travelers think they can live with.
Then I remembered a way around that. I could go into my own past, or more specifically, my father’s…
I felt myself materialize at the front door of the house where I had grown up. I pushed open a squeaky gate, one my mother said my father had always intended to fix. He never did, of course. Apparently the gate was another thing that had a long, frustrated history in my family.
I was able to walk right inside. We’d always left the door unlocked. No one seemed to be home, but I knew better. I crept down the stairs to the basement, where the laboratory was. He was standing there with his back to me, completely oblivious, lost in his work, as always.
“Dad,” I whispered.
He turned around immediately. He was younger than I’d ever seen him.
“Do I know…?” he said, but then reconsidered. “Ajax. Somehow I knew you’d always come.”
“You’ll have to tell me sometime how you chose my name,” I said. I was crying again, but the hairs on his wooly beard were sopping up the tears as he embraced me.
“There’s no, ah, time at the moment,” he said.
“There’s always time,” I said.
“That’s my girl,” he said. “Now, tell me why you’ve come.”
“Isn’t it obvious?” I said, taking a step back. “I’ve made a real mess of things.”
“I think we both know that I started it,” he said.
When I didn’t reply right away he added, “I see. I suppose I never get around to telling you how dangerous our little game really is.
“No, you don’t,” I said. “But I forgive you. It doesn’t matter. We have another chance.”
“There’s always another chance,” we said in unison, and then for another moment nothing’s said.
“Tell me how it happens,” he said.
“I don’t know how, but I know who,” I said.
“I think I do, too,” he said.
“How could you…?” I said. “But you know everything, don’t you?”
“Of course I do,” he said. “What kind of a father would I be if I didn’t? No, my problem is that I didn’t get around to telling you. Sooner or later, all time travelers meet him, in one form or another. I met him almost immediately, which he told me at the time was rare. I took that as an honor. Now I suspect that he was jealous. He’d never met someone who mastered it sooner than he did.”
“Arrogant prick,” I said.
“I don’t get around to explain language to you either, I see,” he said. “But it’s okay. Doesn’t matter. You’re here because you want to know if there’s any possible way to prevent it. What happens.”
“If anyone knew…” I said.
“I appreciate your faith in me,” he said. “Lord knows I couldn’t have made it easy.”
“What matters now is that we still have a chance to set things right,” I said.
“I’m glad we have this opportunity to talk shop,” he said. “A time traveler’s life can be lonely. But you understand that now, don’t you?”
“I met someone,” I said.
“A boy,” he said.
“A man,” I said, blushing.
“You will have to tell me all about him,” he said. “Although, I think I know who. I hope it works out.”
“That’s one of the things that needs fixing,” I said.
“I see,” he said. “Time consumes everything, in the end.”
“But not before we get to see it,” I said.
“There’s no other reason to do what we do, is there?” he said.
“I’m glad I got to see you today,” I said.
“Me too,” he said. “Let’s get to work.”
We talked strategy throughout the night, but neither of us grew tired, as if, yeah, we didn’t even notice the passage of time. Finally, we both agreed on the most…ironic way to solve our problems.
We clutched hands and shimmered into the multiverse, and before we knew it we were standing in a different laboratory entirely, Father Time’s. He looked decades younger, far younger than in any of the portraits in the halls of Times Past.
“Hey Tempos,” my father said.
“What? How did you find me?” Father Time said, looking around in alarm. It struck me that he looked much like Shooter.
“It’s not hard to figure out,” my father said.
“Once you master it, it’s not really so difficult,” I said. “But you never do master it, do you?”
“I have no idea what you’re…” Father Time said. “Of course. So it’s come to this. A paradox. I should have known.”
“You’re the one who first called it the multiverse,” my father said.
In the blink of an eye, the Duchess and Shooter were at Father Time’s side, the ones I’d left behind at Times Past, probably from the exact moment I’d left, when the shift first occurred to him.
Shooter looked more confident. “Now we’ll see who’s pathetic,” he said.
I didn’t know what he was talking about until something in my head clicked, though not in a good way. I could feel Father Time’s programming begin to set in.
“You wondered who killed your father,” the Duchess said. She walked brazenly toward my father and planted a sultry kiss on his lips. It was a disgusting display.
“I know all about you,” my father said. “Sycophant.”
“In your dreams,” the Duchess said.
I heard them speaking through a fog. I felt my hand reaching out for the gun Shooter was offering me.
“Bastard!” I said. “Don’t make me do this!”
“It seems I already have,” Father Time said. “No time like the present.”
“Honey, it’s okay,” my father said.
I was crying, shaking, but my hands remained steady. The gun was pointed straight at his head.
“I don’t understand,” my father said. “She hasn’t even been born yet. She has to know who I am.”
“You change things, I change things,” Father Time said. “Or aren’t you a master of time?”
“You never change time,” Shooter said, but rather where you are in time. Different realities. It took me a long time to appreciate that.”
“But somewhere you’re still responsible for the assassination,” the Duchess said. “Perhaps everywhere. We’ll never know, will we?”
“Let’s be nice,” Father Time said.
“I can’t decide which of you is more contemptible,” another voice said. I realized that it was the Buccaneer. “The funny thing about all this is that none of you even remembered I was still out there. I’m kind of offended, actually.”
I was still crying, but now I found myself smiling, too. I felt horribly awkward, worse than ever before. Of course, I was still pointing a gun at my father.
“Who…?” Father Time said.
“The man who first gave you the idea,” the Buccaneer said. “I’m not the only thief here. You stole this whole idea from me.”
“Stole…?” Shooter said.
“Before you get any ideas…” the Buccaneer said. “It seems I’m addressing more than one problem with that statement. Let me help.”
I felt the gun being taken away from me. I wanted to kiss him, but I still wasn’t in control of my body.
“To be clear, our friend Tempos here corrupted the gift I gave him,” the Buccaneer said.
Before he could continue, suddenly the room exploded in blinding light. When it cleared, there were dozens of Father Times in the lab, all of them recognizable from the portraits I’d seen in Times Past. But each of them was equally impotent, as the Buccaneer was about to explain.
“Tempos here is unique,” he said. “He can’t time travel at the moment, and all of his…duplicates know that, because if he did, he would destroy all of us, including himself. The great Father Time comes from the past. He truly is the oldest of us all. It’s a shameful little secret of his. He never would have known about time travel at all if I hadn’t made the mistake of visiting him. You see, I have the misfortune of calling him my grandfather. Growing up, I’d heard all these stories about him, but as time went on, I began to forget them. And I didn’t want to ask again. After a while, storytellers do get tired of repeating themselves. So I decided to see for myself. You see, like the rest of you I had figured out the secret of time travel for myself. The rest of us, I should say, besides Tempos. He was just a writer, as it turned out, the first of the storytellers in our family, but one who never had the fortune of anyone outside the family hearing his stories. I suppose it drove him crazy. I felt sorry for him. I gave him a souvenir. I warned him what would happen if he tried to use it.”
“And at the moment, that’s all he has, isn’t it?” the Duchess said. For the first time, she seemed almost respectable, one of the good guys. Almost.
“It bothers you,” my father said to Father Time. “You spent a lot of time trying to make your own. And none of your…friends can help you.”
“And you’re here before I succeed!” Father Time said.
“That’s the general idea,” the Buccaneer said. “But how did you know?”
“My father is a master of time travel,” I said. I could feel my body beginning to return control to me. “He figured it all out first.”
“Damn you,” Father Time said.
“That’s the idea,” the Buccaneer said.
You can imagine for yourself how the rest of the scene plays out. Except there’s no happy ending. I’m still in this robotic body, after all. I will forever have to remain…vigilant. Father Time may be gone, but his legacy remains.
Fortunately for me, I have a little help these days.