Science fiction from author Xauri’EL Zwaan.
When I first found myself stuck out of time, I spent 7 months and 19 days in the Paris of Louis XVI as civil unrest deepened and the Revolution approached. I lived every day in fear that my extensive factual knowledge of the period would be insufficient to the task of keeping me from death on the barricades or beneath Madame Guillotine. I spent every night in passionate coupling, trying desperately to exhaust myself to the point where I could not dream.
Just about anyone who Travels has been stuck out of time. Traveling is dangerous, and some people never come back; and of course it doesn’t stop any of us from going, fools that we are, or from going back when we’ve had a close call. But not much is worse than being stuck out of time. Faced with a worthless Machine missing one critical component that can’t be jury-rigged from obsolete technology, there is simply nothing one can do but wait. We all try the same old tricks – sending clever messages to friends and loved ones, hidden for centuries in decaying houses or handed down from parent to child through the centuries, and of course it never works; Tempus Frangit. The only thing to do is live one’s life; spend the money you brought with you until it runs out, create an identity and a livelihood of some kind, and try not to draw so much attention to yourself as to be considered more than passably eccentric; live under the strictures of obsolete moralities and economics until you just happen to bump into someone else with that wise-beyond-their-years look in their eyes. It almost always happens sooner or later; Travelers tend to cluster around the same times and places, for our own safety as much as because anything more than usually interesting is going on. They’ll always recognize that same faraway look in you, with a telltale tinge of quiet desperation, and nip back for a spare flux capacitor or quantum battery; and just like that you’re home again.
For a while after one has been stuck out of time, there is nothing but gratitude, and a desperate throwing of oneself back into modern life; enjoying all the fruits of one’s native era, and working feverishly to remove the habits and thought pattern engraved into the psyche by historical society, as if trying to wash off the stink of antiquity in the running water of life. But once equilibrium has been reasonably regained, another question begins inevitably to nag, to obsess, to consume. One begins to wonder, why cannot another Traveler now go back and have rescued me before I had to waste all of that time living in the past? And of course you know the answer, because everyone you ask gives you back the same answer, because you give the same answer yourself when asked the same question, because there can only be one answer: Paradox. It’s taught to every one of us from childhood – the story of the Traveler who went back and killed his own grandfather; of the one who gunned down Adolph Hitler, and stopped Time Machines from ever being invented; of the billiard ball, shot through a wormhole, that flies out the other end and knocks itself off course. It’s ground into us over and over, in a hundred ways, that if we choose to Travel we must do everything in our power to avoid creating a Paradox; never disseminate future knowledge, never interact with significant switch-points, and never, ever try to alter a Traveler’s personal history. Because the universe abhors a Paradox, and those who become the subject of one will not be coming home. Perhaps they live on, in some alternate universe; there is not, for us, any possible way of knowing. They simply don’t come back.
And of course if one wishes to Travel one respects this, both as a matter of law and as a matter of course. Reckless behaviour with a Machine is simply not tolerated; neither by society, nor by reality. Things could be worse. Things could, conceivably, be otherwise in some way. So in time you accept this answer, though you never quite completely believe it. It continues to smart, like a wound that never quite heals — the idea that all of that hardship could be somehow erased if only someone, anyone, cared enough to stop it from happening.
I went through all of the classic stages — the frantic joie de vivre, then the bitterness and blame; the angry withdrawal from friends and social circles; the morbid fear of museums and history books; then, the tentative seeking out of other veterans to tell and retell our stuck-out-of-time stories, and the eventual realization that there is nothing in the world one wants to do more than Travel again, for we have as yet found no other experience quite as thrilling or intense. So I went back again, of course; we almost always do, for the sterile predictability of our lives can’t hold a candle to the rough and terrible vitality, to the sheer importance of theirs. Once again I sampled times and places like fine wines: Berlin, 1989; London, 1851; Boston, 1773; Ares, 2097; Karlstad, 1905. And when I was in Dallas in 1963, I met a woman with a far-away look in her eyes.
All I had to do was touch her; she took one look at me and began to tremble as if, starving, she had turned a corner to find a full banquet laid out in front of her. In a shaky voice she asked me if I had a working Machine, and when instead of “What kind of machine?” I simply replied “Yes”, she burst into tears. She fell on her knees and began to kiss my hand; I very nearly had to slap her, but satisfied myself with pointing out that we were attracting attention from the passersby.
We retired to her house; her husband, she explained, was away on business. She was a tall, statuesque woman, with a face that fit a native of the era in her early 40’s; mousy and restrained as proper ladies of the era were expected to make themselves, but with the marks of the future clear on her face for anyone who knew what they were looking for. Her features were of course considerably more attractive than the average for the time, and her eyes betrayed a deep knowledge that could only be achieved by hypnogogic education – that, or a dozen Master’s degrees. She had been in New York in 1945, she told me, hoping to snatch a quick kiss from a returning serviceman. She had been bumped against a wall and her Machine had fallen to the ground and been stepped on, and the delicate crystal spindles of the tachyon antennae had all cracked, the ones in the Machine and the spares she kept sewn in her belt both. It was a not uncommon occurrence, but she had panicked and tried so frantically to find another Traveler that she had been placed into a mental asylum. She had been stuck out of time for almost two decades, and had despaired of ever seeing home again. She practically fawned over me, in a way that was terribly embarrassing; and soon I began to suspect that she had in fact lost her sanity. She begged me again and again just to go back and make it not have happened to her. “Paradox,” I said, and she began to scream at me; things that barely made sense, about closed spirals and wheels within wheels, made that much less comprehensible by her infuriated weeping. I did my best to remain firm, to avoid engaging in a meaningless argument, and simply repeated that I couldn’t do it and she knew exactly why. I put my arms around her, in an attempt to comfort her, and she kissed me with the hunger of decades spent dreaming of home. We made love with an intensity I had never before experienced, not even in Paris when I feared any night might be my last. I spent the night in her arms, sleeping the sleep of the just. The next day, I gave her a pair of spare antennae for the Machine she still carried with her everywhere she went, and returned home without even bothering to stay and see what I had come to see.
I felt as if I had been set free. It’s also a well-documented phenomenon; the euphoria, the sense of invulnerability, that comes with rescuing a fellow Traveler stuck out of time – particularly if one has once had to be rescued oneself. If I had been sampling fine wines, I started draining bottles and drinking myself into a stupor. Athens, at the height of the Peloponnesian War; Aksum, during the conquest of Kush; Chengzhou, in the Spring and Autumn Period; Armstrong, through the food riots and the Revolt – I began Traveling more and more often, to more and more dangerous times and places, staying longer and longer, waiting less and less before leaving again. Friends became concerned for my well-being; my networks decayed from lack of maintenance, and the less kind of my erstwhile acquaintances whispered slyly behind my back of ‘warlust’ and ‘history-book fever’. I paid them little mind. I knew perfectly well how many people failed to return from Traveling every year – just Failed to Return, spirited off to another universe or become part of the historical record or just plain dead. I didn’t care. I felt as if nothing could touch me.
And, of course, someone touched me. A burly G.I. touched me, in New York City, in August, 1945. He touched me hard enough to throw me into a wall, to knock my Machine off of my belt, to break the delicate tachyon antennae – the ones in the Machine, and the spares in my belt both.
Stupidly, when I saw the shattered crystals my first thought was of the other woman — the poor lonely Traveler who had been at this same time and place, the woman I once had helped. Then, of all the dozens of Travelers who must inevitably be right here, right now, lost in the ancient crowds. And then, of the prospect of spending months or even years in this half-formed technocracy, one foot still planted in the Capitalist Era and one hand grasping at things its people barely understood. My stomach lurched, as if I had fallen from a great height. I started rushing up to people – anyone tall, handsome, and filled with lust for life, which, as the square was filled with members of the armed forces reuniting with their wives and lovers, were present in abundance – begging them incoherently to help me fix my Machine. At this point, my memory becomes spotty. The last thing I recall before losing consciousness is being restrained by police, screaming wildly about recursive equations and Paradox.
The rest of the story is easy enough to predict, and how very much time I have spent kicking myself for not seeing it, the beautiful simplicity of it. I spent the next several years in what the people of the time laughably labeled a ‘mental asylum’, heavily drugged, pushed around by uncaring orderlies and doctors determined to interpret my every word and act as an expression of my schizophrenic delusions. I had apparently seriously injured several people in my panicked rage, and was not to be released until they were satisfied that I was no longer a danger to myself or others. Of course, my lack of emotional balance was not the product of a fantasy that I was a traveler from the future stuck in a bygone age, but of actually being one; the witch doctors of the period had no possible help to offer me. I was forced to regain my sanity entirely through my own efforts, and in spite of rather than because of their treatment regimen – a circumstance that seemed depressingly common among my fellow inmates. Fortunately, I had the advantage of a genetically enhanced intellect and encyclopedic knowledge of the psychological theories of the time. I played cat-and-mouse with them, managing to manipulate them into believing they had cured me; I became the very model of a psychiatric success story, and after a hellish four years, seven months and twenty-three days I was given a clean bill of health and released.
Even then, I couldn’t quite make the connection. On the one hand was a vast blank wall of denial, erected against a thousand childhood horrors. On the other, I was too absorbed in the minutiae of surviving being stuck out of time in the 20th century: concocting tales and anecdotes of a fictional prior life – my childhood games, my family home, my first kiss; manufacturing evidence and documentation of my purported identity; training myself in employable skills appropriate for a female of the time and place; cultivating a circle of acquaintances who would tolerate my occasional faux pas or moment of inexplicable eccentricity; and balancing the continual need to conform, especially for a person with my history of ‘mental problems’, against the burning desire to seek out other Travelers who could help me on my way home.
I still had my Machine, of course – its clever shell had yielded nothing to the authorities’ inspection but the outward form of a common ladies’ makeup case, and so it had been returned to me intact; and it was in perfect working order, save for that one common part that I would have had to reinvent entire branches of physics and chemistry to even begin the process of designing a plant that could synthesize the materials necessary to manufacture. The major problem was that, of the events of the time that Travelers might be interested in experiencing, most were inaccessible to me — at least, without considerable efforts that would put me in immense jeopardy and ruin the public persona I had carefully constructed — and many of the rest were readily available for anyone to experience on broadcast television. I did my level best — sat in the gallery at the Rosenberg trial, rode the bus with Rosa Parks. If there were Travelers there, I couldn’t see them. I attended the first reading of “Howl”; it was impossible to tell if the people I talked to there were real Travelers so thoroughly drugged as to have become incoherent, or normal people so completely drug-addled as to believe they were travelers from the future.
Over time, caution ground down hope. I kept my head down. I found, and married, a man who was willing to overlook my troubled history, my strange moods and alien humours, my distressing habit of speaking my mind and making my own decisions. I established a new life for myself, not different in many particulars from the lives of the vast majority of the women of that time and place. I considered waiting for the Woodstock Festival — a running joke had it that there had always been more Travelers there than locals. But in the back of my mind, a plan was forming. I still knew of one time, one place, where was absolutely certain to find a Traveler.
I manipulated the course of events in such a way that my husband and I would be living in Dallas, Texas by November of 1963.
Right up to the moment I saw her, I somehow honestly believed that I would come on her as she helped some other poor woman who had gone through the exact same sequence of events that I had, whose face the one I saw in the mirror every day was coming more and more to resemble, but whom I had never dared try to find. I was so stupidly sure of it that I almost missed her, because I was looking out for two women, not one. It was not until she touched my arm and I looked up into her face — into my face, as it had been before the ravages of 18 years and 3 months without access to rejuvenation therapy — that the final layer of desperate self-deception peeled away and I had to face the truth full-on. Paradox. I was living it. I had been since that day, since this day, when I had met myself while Traveling and changed the course of my life.
The universe started to press in on me, to twist and twirl around me like a carnival ride. Here I was in the eye of the storm, the perfect center of Paradox; and the universe hadn’t opened up and swallowed me into some nether-hell reserved for those who Broke the Rules. I was just living life. There was no escape, nowhere to turn; and as I led her back to the humble house I had visited so many years ago, I realized that there was nothing there to escape. I tried so hard to get her to see it; to understand that Paradox was not the demon, the bogey-man she had been taught of in creche. It was not something to fear. It was something to embrace.
I’m not sure why I bothered. I knew exactly how things would turn out. She wasn’t me; she didn’t know. I could have told her, but I held it back; she wouldn’t have believed me anyway. I knew that I wouldn’t have believed it — couldn’t have believed it, not and kept my sanity. I would have left — ran away to safety and predictability, taking my Machine with me, and left the poor old madwoman to her home and husband and life.
Instead, I fucked her. I’m not even sure why. Curiosity, I suppose, and simple mean-spirited spite. Then, while she was sleeping, I took my husband’s gun upstairs and shot her in the head.