The Selfish Time Traveller

I planted the tree on the day I was born. I say tree, but it was just an acorn then. I knew it would grow. I carved my name on the tree on the day that I died, and added to the other carvings from over the years. That oak tree is the only constant in my life. It adds a tree ring every year, marking the steady passage of linear time.

What would you do if you were given the ability to travel through time? I have asked many people this question over the years. There are two main types of people; observers and meddlers. The observers would go back and watch events unfold. The meddlers would go back and try to change them. An observer would watch JFK’s assassination; a meddler would be on the grassy knoll trying to prevent it. An observer would study the Third Reich to better understand Hitler; a meddler would try to kill Hitler while he was still a child. Which are you?

Of course, two types is overly simplistic. If you are a psychopath, you would behave like some demonic Time Lord trying to control all of Time to meet your perceived destiny, but you’d still be a meddler. If you are a zealot, you would try to find your faith object and observe him, funny how it’s always a male, perhaps interacting with him, always trying to learn and build on your faith, but you’d essentially be an observer. If you were a psychopathic zealot, you would kill your faith object when you realised he didn’t meet your expectations, or yourself when you realised he never existed.

Perhaps it is for the best that time travel is limited to a very few of us who have the correct genetic make-up. Otherwise, Time would be a Spaghetti Junction of ever-changing timelines, manipulated by time travellers for their own ends, and Time itself would end in absolute Chaos.

Many meddlers would begin with the best of intentions. Killing Hitler would prevent the deaths of millions of people, they think. It’s unlikely. Time is very resilient. I don’t want you to think that we are all just subject to fate and have no control over our destiny, but the fundamentals of a timeline are fixed. If Hitler had not lived, some other catastrophe would have befallen the world. The Balance has to be maintained. Many would have been saved. But many others who survived would have died. Who can say which outcome would be better?

The farther back you go, the more impact you can have. You will have heard of the theory that if you go back far enough and accidently kill a single insect or animal then the whole of evolution might unravel and humankind never exist. Poppycock! How about killing Adam or Eve? What about preventing Noah building his Ark? More fictional poppycock! However, if you were to eliminate a single person who lived 40 generations ago, they might have tens of thousands of descendants alive today who could no longer exist. One or two of them might have made enormous contributions to humankind that would not have occurred. You might even be a descendent yourself; how would you know? That would be the 38 times-great grandfather paradox.  Isn’t it just as well that Time protects itself; well almost all of the time?

I was 35, when I carved my name on my tree, exactly 100 years after my death. Was that carving already on the tree, 100 years earlier, on the day that I died? Does that question give you a headache? Time travel has a way of making your head ache.

My oak tree is fixed point in space. It can’t grow legs and move. Until it died, it always occupied that point in space. I planted the acorn it grew from. I cut it down 900 years later and I cried as I burned the leaves. I was 50 when I cut it down. I was 70 when I made the last carving. Was that last carving on the tree when I cut it down 20 years earlier? Do you feel the need for an aspirin?

Everyone has a unique timeline. I have; you have; my oak tree had. Sometimes our timelines meet or cross. We inhabit the same place in space at the same moment in time. The present is just a point on a straight line between the past and the future.

My oak tree had a long but simple timeline. It existed for 900 years. Each year it got bigger as it added a ring of growth. You could track its timeline from those rings. You could work out when I carved the tree from the rings that I damaged. The tree had a simple, fixed timeline. The carvings that it received when it was younger must have been present when I cut it down.

My own timeline is much more complicated, but it is continuous. I cannot go back along my own timeline, even though I can be in the same place multiple times. Putting aside arguments about conception for the moment, I was aged 25 when I was present at my birth. My timeline began at my birth and 25 years later that line arrived back at the same point in space and time. The time traveller’s timeline is not straight, but curved, rather like spacetime itself. There is always a danger when an individual meets himself. Time does not like paradoxes. You have to be careful. I could, for example, at age 35 have gone back to observe my 25 year-old self, observing my birth. That would have been tempting fate.

Even though I was older in age when I last carved my name on the tree than when I chopped the tree down, that carving was present then. I read it and knew that in 20 years’ time in my future, I would revisit my tree’s past and honour its life once again.

Forgive me for lecturing you. I felt the need for you to understand the fundamentals of time, before I tell you my story. I had a great teacher and mentor. He had many names; Jhamed al Suraqi and Jamie Surak were the ones he used most often. He was a funny looking chap; short and squat with uncontrollable black curly hair that he always tried to stuff into a broad-brimmed hat with a white feather. His nose was so beaky that it made him look like an eagle. His haughty and arrogant appearance belied the kindest human being that I have ever met.

Jamie taught me that a timeline’s history is set in stone, just like an individual’s is. You cannot change the past. The best you can achieve, by delivering Time a paradox that it can’t accept, is to create a new dimension of the multiverse where the altered state now exists. Your own timeline and the original dimension’s timeline continue unchanged. Whether you exist in the new timeline with an altered future depends on the paradox you unleashed. If you did kill your grandfather then you won’t exist in that new dimension.

If thousands of people have travelled back in time and killed Hitler, then there will be thousands of new dimensions where Hitler didn’t come to power. Each of those dimensions will have slightly different futures, depending on when and how the murder was done. Sadly, Hitler’s evil can never be undone in our timeline.

So, when the opportunity to travel in time was given to me, I had no illusions of fixing history and saving the world from evil. I became both an observer and a meddler, but only in my own life. I am a selfish time traveller and this is my story.

****

“If I were to give you the opportunity to go back in time, where would you go?” Jamie asked.

It was a question I had thought long and hard about. I was worried that Jamie would think it too selfish. “I am an orphan. My mother died giving birth to me. My father had already disappeared from the scene. I would like to go back about a year before my birth and live quietly nearby. I would like to find out about my parents, understand why my father left, perhaps get to know them…” My words tailed off; they sounded so self-serving. I was sure Jamie would laugh at them.

I was shocked. Jamie had tears in his eyes. I knew he wasn’t crying about my story. I was sure it wasn’t about his own past either.

“Such a reason has been the basis for a cosmic event before. One never knows the implications that time travel might have. Even the most innocent reasons can sometimes turn out to have unforeseen outcomes. Time travel is a risky business. I will be responsible for whatever happens. Yet you have the genetic gift; that cannot be gainsaid. Your reason sounds appropriate to me. I approve.”

****

“You are as pale as a ghost,” Jamie said, “What’s happened?”

“How long have I been gone?” I asked, gasping for breath.

“No more than a few minutes,” Jamie said, “How long did you stay?”

“Jamie, something terrible has happened. I should never have gone back. You must tell me what to do.”

Jamie stood up. “I will make us a strong cup of tea,” he said, “And then you will tell me exactly what happened.”

Jamie was calm and patient. The strong, sweet tea had a calming effect too and I began to regain my composure. Hesitantly, at first, and with great trepidation I told Jamie what had happened in the past.

“My plan to enrol in the same class at university as my mother worked perfectly. We met on the first day of classes.” I felt myself flushing at the memory. Jamie sat perfectly still, an ambivalent expression on his face, and said nothing. “I don’t know how to put this. It’s all very embarrassing.” I paused again, but Jamie was unmoved. “I knew she was my mother. I knew she would be my mother. I know she is my mother. I don’t know whether I’m coming or going, but you understand what I mean. She is my mother. She is half of me.” I was almost pleading. Jamie may have nodded, but it was barely perceptible.

I closed my eyes. “I knew she was my mother, but I couldn’t help myself. She felt the same way. It was like the greatest love ever; love at first sight. Before either of us knew it we were in bed together. It wasn’t her fault. How could she have known? It’s all my fault.” I partly opened one eye. I was waiting for Jamie’s rant. Instead he was smiling.

“It’s not at all unusual between close relatives who meet for the first time as adults. It’s called genetic sexual attraction and is well-documented. Don’t worry about it.”

“But there’s more. It gets much worse.” The tears were streaming down my face. I felt that I deserved to die. I wanted to kill myself at that moment. Or better, Jamie to put me out of my misery.

Jamie jumped up and clapped his hands. He was laughing. He put his stubby arms around me and gave me a long hug. “You are priceless. I knew that you were special, but I never realised how special. You must have an important role to play. By The Balance, you have surprised me and it’s a long time since I have been surprised.” He laughed long and loud.

I was nonplussed. This was the last response I had expected. I had never heard the expression, ‘By The Balance,’ before but I sensed that it held some importance to me. “But, I haven’t told you the rest of the story,” I mumbled.

“You don’t need to,” Jamie said. “You got your mother pregnant. When she told you, you panicked and came back here. You are worried because you are your own father.”

I hung my head in shame.

“I love it. This is a wonderful paradox. It explains your unique genetics. Time itselves must be laughing,” Jamie said.

Despite my self-loathing, I picked up on Jamie’s strange use of the reflexive pronoun. “What do you mean, itselves?”

“That’s a long story, for another day. Today, we need to work out what to do with you.”

“But, I have disrupted history,” I said plaintively.

“Not at all. You have fulfilled history. This was always going to happen. It was meant to happen. Why do you think there is no record of your father? You have just played the part you were always meant to.”

Jamie’s words began to console me. Eventually, it all began to make sense. That, in itself, should have made me worry.

****

My oak tree produced a single acorn in its twenty-fifth year. It was the first of very many over its lifetime. I collected that acorn and took it back with me to witness my birth. Yes, I knew that the acorn would grow. My tree was inexorably linked to me. It was as paradoxical as I am. It will be as paradoxical as I was. It is as paradoxical as I will be.

My oak tree produced a single acorn in its nine-hundredth year. It was the last of very many over its lifetime. I collected that acorn and took it back with me to witness my killing myself. I planted the acorn and killed my younger self before I could impregnate my mother. I should have ceased to be. Time dislikes paradoxes; Jamie taught me that. Time created another dimension where I didn’t exist but my oak tree did. Time held me captive in that place until the older me met my mother and fate had run its course.

“Is it murder or suicide?” Jamie wondered when I finally told him what I’d done. “You could keep doing it; an endless loop of killing and procreation until you are too old to create yourself. What do you think Time would do then?”

“I wouldn’t want to tempt fate,” I replied.

“Very wise,” Jamie said. “It’s remarkable that you haven’t changed. I think that’s very significant.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, after you killed your younger self, you fathered yourself again. A different sperm created you. There’s no way that you could be identical to your original self.”

“Unless Time intervened,” I said.

“Exactly,” Jamie said. “It’s time you forgot about where you came from and start focussing on the next important job.”

“Which is what?” I was bemused.

“To look after your young-self. Get him through the ordeals of childhood and adolescence so that he can get to the point where he can father himself. It’s clear to me that Time requires you to do that.”

Nothing was clear to me, least of all Time. “You talk about Time as if it’s a person,” I said.

Jamie nodded but said nothing.

****

So began a period of my life that I describe as my guardian angel period. I met with Jamie on a regular basis and reported on events. He rarely said anything of substance, but always sent me on my next trip. It was uncanny, in fact impossible under the laws of probability. Each time I showed up, I was able to contribute something to keeping my young-self alive, well, and on the straight and narrow. Each time, the event would crystallise in my own memory, although I never knew who the stranger was who helped me. I stopped myself being run over by a bus. I avoided a robbery that turned violent and everyone present died. I stopped myself being tempted to shop-lift. And on it went.

One day, I attended my own funeral. I carved on my tree.

“Is the date of my death fixed?” I asked Jamie.

“Under the normal course of events, no,” Jamie said. “But in your case, I suspect that it is. You must have heard of the theory that some events are fixed points in time and space?”

I had vaguely heard about it and nodded.

“I believe your birth and death are two of those points,” Jamie said.

Fixed points in time and space were for important events, like the Sundering. How could my birth and death be so important?

“There were very few people at my funeral. It was like I had no family and friends. You weren’t even there. My life meant nothing.”

“I visited the parallel dimension you created. I went to see your tree,” Jamie said.

That broke my self-pity. “What did you find?”

“A blackened stump,” Jamie said. “The Earth has wiped itself out in an horrendous nuclear conflict.”

“How? Why?” I was shocked.

“There are very few differences between that dimension and this one. The key difference is that you don’t exist there.”

“You mean…?”

“I mean that you are important. This dimension is important. Do you understand?”

I nodded, although I understood nothing.

“It’s time that we moved on to the next stage of your adventure,” Jamie said with a grin. “I have been getting bored. Now it’s time for some fun. You and I are going to travel together.”

“Where are we going?”

“I have no idea, but I know a man who does.” Jamie laughed and there was a twinkle in his eye I had not seen before.

“Who ‘s that?”

“He is one of the Fifty-Two. His given name is Destiny. He’s my father and I call him Fate.”

“Do you always talk in riddles?” I asked.

“Do you always ask questions?” Jamie responded.

I shook my head and said nothing. Jamie muttered something. I didn’t quite catch it and I could be wrong, but it sounded very much like, ‘My Hero!’

****

I know that you might be wondering and it was remiss of me not to tell you before. My name is Alexander Redhead.

This story is set in FirstWorld multiverse. Find out more and get lots of free downloads here.