10.12.2009

Sisyphus

And now, for something completely different... A shockingly bad short story idea, but I was in another of my moods... Proof positive that Pliny is a sappy romantic. I was short of good ideas so this will have to do for now. Yes I know that it plays fast and loose with time conventions but hey - it's a story!

Dr Brandon Ames watched a younger, and far softer version of himself kiss his wife and daughter goodbye just before they entered that TSA security zone at the airport. This earlier version looked immersed in all manner of the trivia of everyday life, not yet having anything truly of consequence with which to compare it. He watched as the girl and her mother navigated the maze shedding various clothing bits in a ritual of compliance with authority and a safety charade. The two people he loved most in all the world waved and blew his young echo kisses as they rounded the corner on their way to the gate. Off on that grand adventure that awaited. He saw himself hesitate for a few more moments lest he miss another glimpse of them. He saw the reddening in those young eyes at the thought of being apart from his family for even a short time as he headed off to exit the terminal. His old eyes blurred at the thought of that young man’s future and his own past. They always did.

The 18 minutes they spent in that security line turned out to be time very poorly spent. Five hours and 17 minutes into their flight, the well dressed young woman just ahead of Ames would detonate a bomb and kill all 271 people aboard. It would take 13 minutes and 17 seconds for the plane to hit the water from the time of that first desperate message from the cockpit. This moment, and his family's last fearful minutes alone had monopolized his nightmares and daydreams for 31 years. During the last 11 years of his life he had physically witnessed this ritual 19 times. He wasn't aware of that fact, of course. The physics didn't permit it.

This time would be different. This time the roster of souls bound for this flight held 272 names.

Ames didn't just relive this incident in his mind but in actual fact. This unlikely turn of events came about because Brandon Ames had been and was a time traveler.

He’d been working in theoretical physics at the time of his family’s death. The three of them were supposed to check out a new place to live and a career opportunity that lead in an exciting new direction. A last minute snag at the lab had meant that he’d had to reschedule his flight and had intended to meet them in 3 days. Instead he’d spent the last 42 years trying to live with that decision. Or rather in changing the history of that particular moment in time. He spent several fortunes building a team of experts and developing the technology that allowed him to fail over and again.

This time the plan was perfect. Of that he was certain. That thick manila envelope, as critical to success as what he was about to do, had been mailed. The recipient would know exactly what to do with it. He was confident of that.

Calm and patience, two attributes most would not have associated with him usually, were all that he felt waiting his turn at security. The little sealed 3 ounce toothpaste tube in his carry on didn’t warrant a second glance from the screeners. They might have reacted differently had they known that it contained enough DMSO and sedative to incapacitate dozens of adults. He didn't know it of course but his wasn’t the first time he had smuggled this concoction through security. But he had finally worked out the damning kinks in his previous attempts so that this time, it would be properly employed.

Near the gate, he could see Evelyn Gross staring off into space as she sat waiting to board the plane so she could murder 270 innocents. Thinking her life's journey was somehow more important than all these people's lives. He couldn’t seem to recall the revolutionary name she had adopted after seeing the light in the service of a god with an insatiable appetite for blood. Nor did he bother thinking about the perversely brilliant method used to conceal her explosives. It really didn't matter. It was irrelevant to the plan. Knowing what he knew of a probable shared history of which she was unaware, he managed a slightly ironic smile at seeing her in all her resurrected glory. He didn't care why she did it and never had. He was just determined to stop her from terrorizing his family.

If an observer could have witnessed all this outside of time they would have seen that this was to be his twentieth attempt at uncooking this particular egg. Each time he had attempted to alter the timeline before, the cascade of events evaporated in his hands. The timeline reverted to the same agony of loss as all that preceded it. In a perverse cycle of failure and loss he had preempted their boarding of the plane 7 times. He had gotten his earlier manifestation to alter their plans on 4 occasions. He had even killed Gross 3 times, thwarted her actions on the ground 3 times and twice in the air. Each triumph was reversed by cruel causality and the inescapable fact that absent the pain of his family’s loss, he would never have completed his work on time travel and thus would never come back to prevent the tragedy. He was not aware of the truth of this but understood the theory well enough.

He had no real way of knowing how many times he had tried and failed to alter the past. Just the building sense that this indeed was the case. Success always just beyond his grasp. This sense of recurring failure began to eat away at him almost as much as his original loss. He wondered if they suffered anew each time he tried and failed. Was his own obsession and grief dooming those he loved to an eternal hell. Imagining their demise once was more than he could bear. Imagining a recurrent loop of it was his own personal hell particularly if he were the cause.

There remained only one possible solution. If, as he came to suspect, the event itself could not be preempted then he would have to save his family on the plane without anyone knowing. The last few years of this particular loop had been devoted to the extraordinary task of synchronizing a time jump with extra passengers while the targets of the jump were in motion. Their existing technology, amazing as it was, allowed only jumps from fixed locations with identical mass. The only way to break the causality loop would be to rescue his loved ones just before the tragedy and catapult them to the future where they could live out their lives. A future where he had suffered and worked to perfect the time machine. They had to be on the plane and appear to die or else his young avatar would never complete the work that would allow them to be rescued in the first place. It was all rather convoluted.

A devoted team struggled along side him for years without success. Though it wasn’t a word that this group readily embraced it appeared that such a feat really was impossible. All but Ames gave up hope. None was present when Ames finally happened upon the solution that would break the cycle. He wondered how he had missed this for so many years. It wasn't a solution that his team would have considered. But their pasts were far different from his. All it took was to redefine the problem. And to redefine success.

He'd come to the lab a changed man that fateful morning. Gone was that guilt and infinite sorrow. Gone was the hope tightly bound by caution that had been with him on every previous attempt. His face beamed with the same radiance his family’s had when rounding that corner 42 years ago. He shook the hands of each of his team members and activated his new program that would finally break the chain.

By no accident, he was seated on the plane in the aisle seat next to them and had to fight to not stare. He noticed that his wife was losing a similar fight. He turned to her and she apologized, telling him how she was struck by his resemblance to her husband.

Ames smiled and told her that surely she wasn’t married to someone who looked as old and broken down as he. Angel that she was she was mortified that she might have offended him. He assured her that she had not. The sound of her beautiful voice after so long. No longer just an echo in his mind or an imperfect ort captured on some video or voice mail. His daughter's laugh and that impish twinkle in her eyes. All the years made worth it.

They talked for hours. It wasn’t something that either did readily with strangers. But it came easily this night. Her daughter chimed in from time to time and ended up telling him all about their coming trip and how she couldn’t wait for her father to join them. Both opened up about husband and father and Ames saw himself through the eyes of the two loves of his life. He was reminded once more why he had been unable to let go.

His watch chimed and he took leave to go to the lavatory ostensibly to take some medications. He walked past the murderer knowing that she would not terrorize his family this night. Not this time.

The ultimate plan was in motion. The baton had already been passed. This timeline would be preserved by a hall of mirrors army if need be. Any who might follow would have an easier road than he. At least part of their sorrow would be displaced by what was about to happen. He was sure of that as only one can know. They would never fail in the end. This timeline would be stable. Only one thing left to do.

When he got back to his seat he noticed that the little girl had something on her chin and handed her a tissue. He acted mortified when it was realized that the tissue had toothpaste all over it. He apologized again when the child’s mother wiped it away with her hands and told him it was no problem. He told them he would let them get some rest now since they both seemed to be very tired after their long day.

Five hours and 12 minutes into the flight, mother and daughter were at peace in each other's arms. Maybe they had dreamed of an adventure that would start tomorrow. He laid a blanket over them and had just enough time to take each of their hands before he drifted away to join them in this their last great adventure to a different and as yet undiscovered destination than the one planned. None of the three heard the explosion or felt the violence of the descent to the ocean below that came moments later. None felt fear or pain or longed for absent loved ones. The chain was broken.

10 comments:

Michael Lockridge said...

A nice little tale. I have generally avoided time travel tales, at least writing them. Most authors get wrapped up with the paradoxes and the interesting things that happen in our heads when we wrestle with them. It seems clever, but always overshadows the tale.

Yours focuses on the obsessive grief of the protagonist and how it drives him to succeed in overcoming time as an obstacle between himself and those he loves. The "how" does not overshadow the "why."

Nicely told.

Mike

mac said...

I wonder how the girls will adjust to their future environment. Will they accept all the worlds modernty, or will they pine for a simpler time. Good story. Like Mike, I feel you touched more on the emotional than the technological- to good effect.

mac said...

I wonder how the girls will adjust to their future environment. Will they accept all the worlds modernty, or will they pine for a simpler time. Good story. Like Mike, I feel you touched more on the emotional than the technological- to good effect.

mac said...

sorry for the double. I'm reading this from my phone....sometimes, it takes, sometimes no?

Stacy S. said...

Ooooohh!! I like it! But what happens next?? You've got to keep going!

GearHedEd said...

Sounds reminiscent of the opening sequence and the resultant drive of the protagonist in Frank Herbert's "The White Plague". Is a good book. I recommend it.

Jared said...

Well, assuming the older version of him dies after discovering time travel (in the past), wouldn't he have seen his future self in one of the previous ventures back to the same point and known he would be getting on the plane? Ending the loop does not mean that it actually ends since his younger self still has to age to the point in which he goes back and flies on the plane (at which point, his younger self is there to observe it).

Ever see "12 Monkeys"?

Additionally, something that's always interested me is this thought: "That which we do to prevent one possible future is exactly what is required to make that future happen."

GearHedEd said...

There's a short story by Robert Heinlein called "By His Bootstraps..." about time loops and the screwy things they can do.

oneblood said...

Besides an obvious 'Lost' theme, It actually reminded me of Harlan Ellison.

Thanks for posting that Pliny.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Interesting takes you all had on this story. Since this is now safely buried I will share my quite
different take on the story.

The protagonist realized that the causality loop could not be broken. There was no way to transport his family at a later time. His plan was to send his earlier self the information he needed to complete the plan. (the manila envelop.) He saved his family by being with them and poisoning them so they wouldn't suffer. And they would be together.

A downer, yes.