On Time Travel

By J. M. F. Stokes

"Yes? Oh, hello! It is good to finally meet you. Come in! Come in! Have a seat."

The old man was bent and haggard. His cheeks were patched with gray stubble and wrinkles spun around his eyes. But the eyes themselves burned with a brightness that merited the faraway looks my professors gave when they spoke of him.

He led me to a large sitting room. The wood paneled floor was covered with an oriental rug, and several plush armchairs sat around a roaring fire, each different from the others. He sat in a small chair to one side. I took the one nearest him, a massive chair directly in front of the fire.

"What's that? Oh, yes. That was my father's chair. He was a big man. It seems large when I sit in it, too.

"I'm sorry if the fire is too warm. I like a big fire on a chill night like this. Something about the way the flames dance warms the soul. Would you like some tea? Cocoa?"

"Now... you want to hear about my experiences traveling in time, is that it?"

The old man chuckled, doubling the wrinkles on his face. The fire playing across those wrinkles reminded me of the mountains at sunset. I sat poised, pen in hand.

"All right, I'll tell you.

"As you have heard, I have been many times. Visited, that is. I have visited many times. I have seen a Tyrannosaur stalking prey, Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Jesus Christ performing His miracles, the French revolution, and more. I have seen the first plasma drive activated with disastrous results, and I have seen the dawning on men's comprehension of the true nature of Space/Time and how she can be bent to our will. You've learned of all these things in your history lessons, I'm sure. "Time - is an interesting beast. It's not as most people imagine it. Oh, I'm sure you know stories of some fanciful explorer going to the past and interfering some way that radically alters his own future. Ah - it makes a good story, I suppose - but true time travel is nothing of the kind. The time line, she is not so fragile as that.

"Most of these stories overlook a fundamental quality of time, and it affects all of time travel. There is a present. Yes, right now. This tale that I'm sharing with you is occurring just as we experience it. Observers from the future could come and watch us, but it would happen "again" - I say again loosely, of course - it would happen "again" exactly as it happens now. We would never realize they were here."

I had read many of those stories, and knew his theories of time. Studying his work in my classes had led me to this meeting, but something still eluded me. And that something drove me.

"What's that?"

"Well, because of the present. You see, there is a focal point to the time line - a true present. All behind that focal point is truly the past, and all ahead of it is truly the future. Many have imagined that the present is only what you are experiencing at a given moment, so if you were to travel to the past, for example, you would experience a new "present" in the past. But it simply doesn't happen that way. If you travel to the past, the present carries on quite merrily without you, just as the mercury in a thermometer keeps rising on a hot day even if you hide yourself in a cooler. And it can be rather a chore to catch up with the present if you dally too long in the past - or the future, for that matter."

The old man creaked forward in his chair and leaned toward me. He fixed me with those coal-hot eyes and his face splintered into an excited smile as he went on.

"The past is truly interesting to visit. I suppose some may find it dull, those who don't have an interest in history, but to see events as they actually happened is nothing if not enlightening. You see, since the present is truly the present, the past is fixed. That's right! It cannot be changed. You can stand directly in front of a man and shout at him, but he will not remember, because it did not happen in the true present. His neural pathways have already been fixed, if he is even still alive to remember. Try and stop a marching column of Roman soldiers, and they will bowl you over and never notice you were in their way. Actually, I tried that once. The fellow I blocked scraped me up rather badly with that armor of his. See this scar along my forearm here? Yes! That's where it came from. And he never even flinched.

"The danger, of course, is that you can spend too much time in the past. Days pass in the present just as they do in the past. The hours you spend there are hours you lose in the true present. It is something always to be wary of. That is why I consistently recommend educational trips to the past restrict themselves to events of significant import..."

He was an old man sitting by his fireside with a listening ear. I couldn't blame him for gushing over me with his love of history, but I had my burning something, and the night was slipping away.

I asked my question, and the smile faded from his face. He looked down, and the rust red of his rug climbed up his rosewood cane into those fire lit eyes. He did not seem angry. Rather, his look spoke caution borne out of hurt and sadness. Now he spoke with his head down, staring into the dancing shadows cast by the fire.

"The future? Yes, of course. I didn't intend to neglect it. It differs some from popular speculation, too. Just as with the past, you must know of stories in which time is split and the character finds himself in an alternate future. Every choice, so the thinking goes, could result in a different possible future, and so there must be an infinite number of different futures since the choices available to mankind are theoretically infinite."

His head snapped up such that I feared he might break the frail thing off, and the excitement was again in his face.

"But there is only one future, you see! Well, these thinkers were correct that there is a potentially infinite number of choices available to mankind, but those choices only affect the one future rather than splintering it into many.

"It's quite disconcerting, really. The future is bafflingly changeable. Let me give you an example: an investor chooses to sell his investment on a given day, and uses those funds to build an edifice. Immediately, that edifice pops into existence in the future you are visiting! Perhaps, though, he changes his mind, or misreads the market and fails to sell on that day and lacks the funds for such a grand building. Just as quickly, the building shrinks to his smaller vision, or vanishes altogether if he decides against building it a few hours later. You see? The future changes endlessly and radically depending on the choices made in the true present, but there is only the one future that is changing, rather than one that splinters into many. It is as a weaver gathers many strands, all loose and disordered, into a tight weave that produces the fabric. So, with time, the past is the fabric, the present the weave being worked upon, and the future the myriad tangle of threads yet to be ordered. It actually can be quite dangerous to visit the future, since a building could materialize on top of you. I actually experienced something like that, as well. On one trip, an airport materialized around me, and I found myself nose to nose with the landing gear of a 747. Thankfully, I lost nothing but the soles of my shoes, which were embedded in the tarmac that had materialized around them, but it awakened me to the dangers of visiting the future. As you might expect, this problem becomes worse the further into the future one travels."

"I'm sorry? No, no! It doesn't affect the people of the future, because they change just as the world does.

"In truth, it can be dangerous to visit the past, too. If you die there, you truly die, for you are linked to the true present. That is another caution I must always give.

"Let me give you a better example of the strangeness of the future. I hope it does not offend. Perhaps there is a young woman who chooses to become involved with a young man. Perhaps they get married, and she becomes pregnant. In the future, suddenly the entire lineage of that tiny life leaps into existence. Grandchildren and extended family all blink into being, with their histories and accomplishments in place.

"Now, perhaps that girl loses the child, perhaps to miscarriage or abortion. The entire lineage blinks out of existence, and the impact they had upon the world of the future vanishes without a trace. I have spoken to future people about such an occurrence, and they have no memory of the person who may have been standing right next to them the moment before. You see, that person never existed."

I looked up from my notes, startled and squeamish.

"Why, yes. You are correct. Unlike people in the past, it is possible to interact with people in the future. They are strange, though. There is a certain unreal quality to them that I cannot put my finger on.

"I once met a man - a brilliant doctor and geneticist. He cured many genetic diseases and deformations. The extent of this one man's impact boggled the mind! I was speaking to him at length one day in his office, and suddenly he wasn't there and his office had completely changed. It had immediately become the office of another doctor who, at the time, was involved with a nurse in a manner... Well, never mind that. Suffice to say, I was no longer welcome in that office.

"At any rate, since I knew this man well I was able to trace his former lineage back through the timeline, and discovered the reason for his sudden non-existence. His great-great-great-great grandfather was a teenager in the present - the true present. He was rock climbing with some friends, and opted not to wear a harness for one last climb. As you can probably guess, he was killed in a climbing accident. As soon as he died in the true present, my friend ceased to exist.

"It broke my heart. I had visited that doctor on several of my trips to the future, and considered him a friend. Without warning, all he was and all he had given to humanity was undone because an ancestor had made an irresponsible decision when he was seventeen years old.

"On subsequent trips, I saw that humanity still benefited from the discoveries he had made, as they were made by other persons. But the time that was lost and the people who were not cured because of it! And no one could remember this but myself.

"Ultimately, the weight of knowing what could have been is what put an end to my time travel, more than even the danger to my person..."

Again I could see him drifting into nostalgia, but this time I did not react with impatience. I sensed that something had changed within me. Somewhere, my burning question had been answered, and I was left to search within myself for the words. I needed time.

"What's that? Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to ignore you. At my age, I tend to get lost in thought often. Did you have any other questions?"

"Yes, I suppose it is a great deal to think on, isn't it? And it is getting late."

"No, no. The pleasure has been mine. Let me get the door."

"Yes, yes, of course. You are welcome again at any time! Good night."

Copyright 2002, J. M. F. Stokes. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this work is prohibited without written consent from the author.