Not a time machine, but the. At this point in space-time (a disturbing notion) the only time machine. There need only be one. Time itself is uniquely disturbing and so is its logic. Maybe there is just room for one TM.
It is four-thirty a.m. On a perfectly cold day in autumn. The TM is sitting in its steel-and-marble berth. A further description of the TM is not possible. Not for a temporal observer anyway, since it has no fixed physical form.
It is continuously turned inside out.
It is always in motion.
His name is Ted. Schopenhauer. Distant relation of. Distant, that's only an approximation. He's the man who invented the principle of time travel. Or not really. The principle was invented long before by people like Einstein and others. Ted merely built the machine.
Ted can be situated in—as Dante proposed in one of his more famous verses—nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita. Which means he is thirty-five, since in Dante's days the Bible allowed sane people a full life of seventy years.
The TM is waiting, although it is impatiently falling out of time-space and re-entering it. Even Ted does not understand its working. He supposes he designed and built the machine, but maybe possibly it was a future version of himself who designed and built it.
The Hebrew Cabbalists believed there is only one Creator, who created both the world and writing. For each mortal soul He created the world and the word. And for each mortal soul he created them ever so slightly different. So slightly different hardly anybody notices. That's how Ted feels about reality.
There is no coincidence, Borges wrote. What we call coincidence is our lack of knowledge about the complex machinery of causality. Nothing is lost; the Divine Intelligence contains all things at the same time. The past is contained in the present, as is the future.
Ted is ready now. He is ready to try the time machine. Until now time travel was theory. In an instant it will become past, present and future. The phantom machine is still theoretically residing in its berth, filled with shadows and light. Ted presses a red knob on a console next to the machine. An immaterial door opens between him and the TM, where no door was. Ted goes dressed in a sort of jumpsuit of partly reflecting material. He steps through the door/opening, feels the cold of space, feels the cold of frozen time, and suddenly finds himself in the seat of the machine.
The operation of the TM is deceptively simple. There's a grid which allows Ted to set the destination. There are three levers. There's a dial for the energy-level. The machine can only move backward in time. And then return to its point of origin.
His youth. His childhood. Schooldays, parents, Uncle Willy from the old country, Stephen in third grade, a teacher named Mrs. Marple, a car on fire, a book with blue letters, a favourite movie. Visits to the church and to the movies, the awful smell of dried roses and ginger. The cracked tile on the kitchen floor. He fears to lose his way in this void, which is eternity, the archetype of Time. In Timaeus, Plato assures us that time is but the moveable image of eternity. Since he is about to conquer time he is prepared to live in a world where God is absent.
"One day you will step out of my life and never return." Diane throws the towel on the kitchen table. There's much anger in her, anger which he recognises and fears. "That's the sort of man you are. You don't care about the state I'm in. You don't care about what my parents think. You lead your own life. That's what you do, you just do your own thing."
It is raining. Big drops travel down the window pane. Early autumn. Depression-time for Diane. The world outside has ceased to exist. She's afraid to be left alone. She cares too much about what her parents think.
He has broken that chain long ago.
"And what is that life? Is it a job? Not really. You're a high-school math teacher who, in his spare time, tinkers with machines. Your pupils are suffering from your lack of comprehension. They're not bright enough, and you should know that. You make them feel they're not bright enough. And all the time, while you're not at school, you've got your head buried in these books. You live in that shed you call a lab. What is this? Your belated science project?"
The rain intensifies.
He knows he only will be a witness. He can leave the TM, he can walk around in the past world, but he will not be able to intervene. He will be a ghost. He will have no physical presence. No rules of temporal logic will be broken. A ghost in the world. An immaterial observer. His temporal frequency ever so slightly out of joint with that world.
Many questions remain however.
Nothing of this has been done before. Except for those hypothetical time travellers who live in his future. But he will be the first, in strictly temporal-logical sense.
Still many questions remain.
Questions that don't really bother him, since he is incapable of answering them.
He pushes the red lever forward.
Inside the TM there's a quantum computer that decides about his fate. Now.
After that, nothing much happens. There's energy all around him, and a sparkling fog in which the outside world disappears. Then the fog lifts, the grid mentions a date, and outside the machine a world has become evidence.
Matter is like a mirror: it reflects our knowledge about the universe. There are the things we know. There are the things we don't know.
His father leaves the gazebo. "There's not much about you that I can change." They have had an argument. About what, he does not remember. The story becomes trite. The story becomes many stories. His father steps out of the gazebo, angry, as always. "There's nothing about you that I can change. Just go ahead and do whatever it is you want to do. It's out of my hands!" On the grass is a strangely formed imprint, as if a heavy object rested there during the night. His father stops, looks around, frowns, shrugs, walks on.
Ted follows him towards the house. Later, over dinner, there will be another discussion. Perhaps the last they ever have. Perhaps final and bitter words will be spoken.
Except for those hypothetical time travellers that live in his future. Who will observe, probably, his first experiments and learn from them. They too will be ghosts. They too have been ghosts.
Late Victorian London. Early spring. Many things are different, but only slightly. Clothing and transportation and stores are different. The language is almost the same. Perhaps a bit more civilized, certainly among the crowd in Piccadilly.
He is a ghost. Although the world around him looks almost tangible, and all his other senses are involved, he remains unseen. At least, so much he hopes. He walks across Piccadilly, hears and smells the world while people pass along. There are the familiar landmarks. He has been to London twice in his life, in his own realtime. There's Hatchards, there's Fortnum & Mason. Omnibuses, and horses. Women in long, elaborate but dark dresses. Men in top hats.
He turns into a side-street. Some things are instantly recognisable. The yellow cornerstones, the flat, uneven flagstones that lead towards the church, the black iron of the gate, the black leather shoes of people.
Even the sounds are familiar. Closing his eyes for a moment he imagines himself in his native town again, during the weekend. Only the smells of manure and horses tell him this is another place.
The number of elementary particles in the universe is very large but limited. Therefore certain combinations of particles and of events will repeat themselves. Given enough time, everything will repeat itself.
"You go, then! Go, what the hell! Go wherever you want to go! If someone else is involved, another woman, then go to her. Is it that machine of yours, then occupy yourself with that machine. You want to go back to your parents? You want to go back to your childhood?"
There is no discussion. There is no reaction from him, which makes things only worse for her. In the end she leaves and slams the door.
He goes to the lab. He has the only key. The machine is waiting for him. The equations are waiting for him. The large room is cold, it is engulfed by brilliant light, there is an antiseptic smell in the air. He tumbles a few switches and a number of instruments come to life. The time machine lies in its steel-and-marble berth, almost invisible. There's an occasional crackle in the air. He undresses and pulls on the jumpsuit. He goes to a corner of the lab and consults an historic encyclopaedia.
Victorian London is smelly. Coal, tar, manure, sewers, the Thames. His own time has its own smells, but all in all seems more antiseptic. Some people pass him by. Some people pass through him. He reaches Green Park where he expects to see the tour busses, but of course there are no busses.
A woman passes by, hesitates, turns around. She opens her mouth to speak, she reaches out at him with one hand. She says: "Who are you?" There's fear but also anticipation in her voice.
He steps back, turns towards the park, in the direction of Buckingham Palace. The woman cannot possibly have seen or sensed him. He is out of reach. A different temporal frequency.
The woman follows him, but only for a short while. Beyond the first trees she seems to lose touch. What has happened is impossible. Time travel would not be possible if the past or the future become tangible for the traveller.
He visits Buckingham Palace, then goes back to where the TM is waiting for him.
The first two trips are a success. The TM does work. He has gone to the past and returned. He does not know if this really is his past. But it seems close enough.
Time travel is a game with shifting mirrors. Who is behind those mirrors, and who is behind the game? In the real world life continues. A lone Hindu is killed by a Muslim. A student crosses a railway track, into a shantytown, where he will live the rest of his short life. He now climbs a fence and disappears. An insubstantial shadow passes over a crumbling wall. A gunshot echoes through a dusky, empty alley. A torn poster on a wall displays half a face.
The laboratory is untouched by human hands. The TM is again in its berth, feeding on energy. Ted closes the insubstantial door, strips off the suit, takes a long shower in the adjacent bathroom. The smell of the soap is familiar. Everything is familiar. His greatest fear is that things will not be familiar anymore.
Diane is preparing dinner.
He plays with the food, not hungry. Diane does not care. She is going out, with some friends. She's wearing a coat he has not seen before. A red and white coat. He realises he doesn't know much about her at all. He knows nothing of the books and movies she likes. He knows nothing about her friends. He has her life at his fingertips, and still he remains ignorant about it.
What will be the next fearful thing? That's the only question which should concern us.
The TM is extinguished now, a dark cloud in the middle of the laboratory. Around it is a structure of steel tubes. Ted strokes this steel, which feels skinwarm and soft. Upon leaving the room he clicks off all the lights. He walks around the garden, which is chilly and damp. Winter is coming, from the east.
The second trip takes him to Poland in the late twelfth century. He emerges on the slope of a hill. It's dusk. In front of him a cold field, where a battle has been fought. That must have been recently, because the corpses of the soldiers have not yet decomposed, probably on account of the cold.
In the distance there are half a dozen figures, stooped, dark against the equally distant fog, picking up things here and there.
He's sure they can't see him.
Still he keeps an eye on them.
He descends the hill. There's a certain smell in the air, musty, of decayed things, like in a humid cellar. He notices pieces of clothing, armour, broken weapons. Grey is the only colour.
Two horsemen appear over the hill on his right side. They steer their steeds towards the figures. They're grey as well. Ted steps back. He wanted to see. He had wanted to see the battle, but history seems to have played a joke on him. Perhaps the history books had it wrong by a week or so.
He goes back to the machine.
The laboratory is cold and brightly lit. He switches off the instruments.
Diane watches him change his clothes. "There's not much in you that I can change," she says.
"That's exactly what my father used to say," he says. "And he never had much influence on me anyway."
Diane holds her chin up. "Your what?"
"My . . ."
He gets a strange look from her, as if he said something indecent.
Later they eat. The lasagne leaves a musty aftertaste in his mouth. Perhaps it's the meat she used. He makes no remarks however.
The newsreader has not much interesting to tell. The usual political errors and natural disasters. At some point he mentions the visit of the Argentine prime minister to Britain.
The Argentine prime minister looks like any politician. He wears a dark blue suit. He smiles benevolently. He has a talk with local politicians.
Later he prepares for another journey. He finds a number of texts on the internet about a Gnostic order in Sixth century Milan. Maybe he is going to have a look. But he prefers events of real historical meaning. Maybe he'll avoid battle scenes. Since he is about to extricate time he is ready to live in a sphere where God is absent. He will avoid coronations, and certainly the crucifixion of Christ. That would be the place where all time travellers would gather.
He chooses tenth century Palestine, and observes the local warlords. They're efficient and careful in their government. Two small girls, almost nude, pass him by in the dusty street, their legs red from the fine sand that seems to cover everything. They strongly smell of animals. They start to giggle. One points in his direction. They turn a corner, giggling. He continues and sees half a dozen camels. The men guarding them wear long robes and have most of their head covered. They carry long curved swords. Their language seems to consist almost entirely of monosyllables.
This is the Holy Land, as yet untouched by the Western world. This will soon change.
He has been here before. But things are different now. They have changed. Which is impossible. At least for him to be the cause of these changes. He has no physical presence here. He cannot intervene. He cannot cause changes. Before he is about to extricate time he is empowered to float in a sphere where Allah is absent.
1918. The flue is making millions of victims. A world-wide disaster. A natural genocide. There will, finally, be more casualties than during the Great War. The world's population will be decimated. Europe's population will be decimated.
He is standing in a broad but empty street in a medium-sized European town. Most people wear masks. They avoid each other. They wear gloves too. It won't help. The virus is fully airborne.
Two middle-aged women pass him by. One of them, skinny, sickly, crosses herself. The other one looks back, although she sees nothing. He will move to another city, and then another, but the sight will be the same. Civilisation seems at its end. Preachers roam the streets, trying to save souls if not children. Doctors have given up all hope. The hospitals are full, the churches empty. Ted sees three children, pale, frightened, at a street corner, begging. He can't help. It's all in his past, they are long dead, even if they survived this hell.
A house is burning.
Half a dozen soldiers, in dirty uniforms, cross the street. They carry rifles and grenades, as if the war has not yet ended. It would have been otherwise, after the horrors of the trenches. God has forgotten man, just like man has forgotten God.
He is quick to return. Why is he attracted by the horrors of the past? Why not seek out the happy moments? Even if they are so few and far-between. Are they really? Few and far-between?
Diane watches him change his clothes. "There's not much in you that I can halflife," she says.
He frowns. Halflife? "That's exactly what my father used to say," he says. "And he never had much influence on me anyway."
Diane holds her chin up. "Your what?" She is wearing this charming make-up, which allows her to smile perfectly. A semi-divine creature.
"My . . ." He hesitates. Déja-vu. "Father."
He gets a strange look from her, as if he said something indecent. "You are becoming hinged," she says. "You are becoming flabbers. I can't even understand what you're blitthing about."
He stares at her. Surely she is joking. Surely she must be joking. There is, however, no reason for her to be jolly. There's a tension between them, and no room for jokes.
Later they eat. The lasagne leaves a bitter aftertaste in his mouth. Perhaps it's the meat she used. Or the vegetables. He makes no remarks however. He feels that any remark concerning the food will upset her. Anything he says will upset her.
"Had a uppering day," she says, later.
He retreats in the living-room and switches on the tv-set. There's something odd about the machine, but he can't figure out what it is.
The newsreader has not much interesting to tell. The usual political errors and natural disasters. He too talks funny. There are words Ted does not understand, although they are perfectly clear in the context. At some point the newsreader mentions the visit of the Argentine prime minister to Britainland. Comes to Londonium, walks out of his stratoplane. It's just another airliner as far as Ted is concerned.
The Argentine prime minister looks like any politician. He wears a dark blue suit. He smiles benevolently. He has a talk with local politicians. He has a carnation in his lapel. There's nothing funny or weird about him.
Ted switches off the set and goes to bed.
He has lost count of the number of trips he has taken. A dozen, he guesses. About a dozen. Mostly to wars, disasters, places of unrest and turmoil. . . . Arriving at the lonely Paradise, when Dante is abandoned by Virgilius. A strange thought, not fully his own. Maybe some day he will be able to construct another kind of TM, one with which he really can change the past. Dangerous idea. He knows far too little about the nature of time to try his hand at that.
Another place, deep into the past. A giant pyramid in the background, not yet fully finished. Thousands of people, like ants, at its base. Long slopes along which huge blocks of stone are towed. There's a distant noise in the air, and the sharp smell of hot sand. He's on a hilltop overlooking the grandiose scene. No flying saucers, no alien Gods, only people. Thousands of people building this magnificent and insane edifice.
Shouts. Close by. He turns and sees more men coming from the other side of the hill. These people are not slaves, they're free craftsmen from around the country. They are here, he assumes, because they believe their God is alive and human. Within a few centuries—perhaps more like a few thousand years—this belief will have to make room for a really godlike and supernatural deity. For now, however, the pharaoh is their god. And when he dies, he must be granted an eternal afterlife through this edifice.
Two dozen men pass him by. They argue in guttural speech. Suddenly they fall silent. They warn each other. Perhaps a wild animal is nearby. Perhaps a lion. There must have been lions this far north. Beyond the men there's a semi-dense growth of trees. Within a few hundred years this will become desert.
The man are watching. They look around, their hands on their primitive tools, in lieu of weapons. Nothing, however, happens. The lion has gone. They continue on their way.
But again, Ted is unsure if it was him they sensed. He is a ghost, but time and again some people seem to feel he's around.
Nothing is lost; the Divine Intelligence contains all things at the same time. The past is contained in the present, as is the future. He has forgotten who wrote these words. They apply to any situation in man's history. He should keep that in mind. Divine Intelligence.
Diane has left the house. She has taken some clothes, her diary, some money, her check-book. There's no note of farewell. No explanation, but he doesn't need one. He thinks about phoning some of her friends, but he doesn't have their numbers. Doesn't even know their names. Diane's world was a enigma to him.
There have been other people in her life. Friends of her own age, all too eager to visit her, disturbing his thoughts, disturbing his work. Sometimes they left empty bottles of beer for him to clean up. Sometimes they left books that they had read (Broken spines! He hates people who break spines.) Sometimes they left notes with their phone numbers. Sometimes they left a faint smell of aftershave or perfumed soap. Sometimes they left whispers and dreams. Whatever they left, they did not leave any of it for him.
She has left the house, he assumes she went back to her parents. It's a cliché, they always leave for their parents. There's not much he can do. Not travel back in time and undo this thing between them that went wrong. This afterthought of spent love, this accident en route to old age. He can't travel back in time and undo things. He wouldn't want to. He prefers to be a ghost. Non-substantial entity, unseen and unknown. He likes it that way. He likes his life that way.
Why does he not make this trip his last? A record: six hundred years before the common era. The first grand paradigm in human thought, the first onset of civilisation. Greece and India and places in between, suddenly filled with the light of reason. He stands on a rocky slope, watches a town, all off-white buildings glittering in the afternoon sun. The air tastes like blood. Off to his left there are orchards, crooked shortlimbed trees, a few score of men working, harvesting. The town is build around another hill, on top of which stands a large edifice. Temple, he assumes. Some large birds circle around the town. Another group of people approaches from the valley between the two hills. Donkeys, and a few horses. Dust. Three men in white-and-yellow robes step out from between the buildings and approach the caravan. There's a hearty welcome. Somewhere lives a great philosopher, who will never write down his thoughts. Somewhere else another great thinker waits to be born, who will spread the first man's fame.
He descends the hill. Out of touch with reality he offers no evidence of his presence to the world. No dust accompanies his descent. Nevertheless he does not approach the men in white and yellow. They may be priests. He distrusts them. Even here, even now. This is their world, and he will be lost in it.
The newcomers approach the town. Some women appear, chattering happily. This is a happy homecoming. Twenty-five centuries, and he is still able to understand the motives of these people. How far in the past will he have to wander to find creatures that are no longer human?
He turns and walks up the hill again. The TM awaits him. Between two worlds his thoughts evaporate in the immense cold.
Diane watches him change his clothes. "There's not much in you that I can halflife," she says.
He frowns. Halflife? Some new lingo he hasn't picked up yet? But he knows what she means anyway. But didn't he hear that word before? "That's exactly what my father used to say," he says. "And he never had much influence on me anyway."
Diane holds her chin up. "Your what?" She is wearing this charming make-up, which allows her to smile perfectly, precious stones set in her navel, and around the curve of her mouth. A semi-divine creature. Weird, but divine.
"My . . ." He hesitates. Words will be used again and again. Unmistakeably déja-vu. "Father."
He gets a strange look from her, as if he said something indecent. "You are arrowing to get unhinged," she says. "You are becoming flabbers. I can't even geek what you're blitthering about."
He stares at her. Surely she is joking. Surely she must be joking. There is, however, no reason for her to be jolly. There's a tension between them, and no room for jokes. Not at this point. Not after she has warned him that she will leave him.
Later they eat. The lasagne leaves an aftertaste of almonds in his mouth. Perhaps it's the vegetables she used. Or the meat. He makes no remarks however. He feels that any remark concerning the food will upset her. Anything he says will upset her.
"Had a uppering revolution," she says, later.
All he can do is nod.
He retreats in the living-room and switches on the tv-set. There's something odd about the machine, but he can't figure out what it is. It's the knobs, it's the remote he can't find.
The yellow-skinned newsreader has not much interesting to tell. The usual inflated political errors and natural disasters. He too talks funny. There are words Ted does not understand, although they are perfectly clear in the context. At some point the newsreader mentions the visit of the Argentine prime minister to Brittannia. Comes to Londonium, walks out of his stratoplane. It is just like any old airplane to Ted, although he wonders about the short wings.
The Argentine prime minister looks like any politician. He wears a dark blue sharkskin suit. He smiles benevolently, all teeth. He has a talk with local politicians. He has a butterfly in his lapel. There's nothing funny or weird about him.
Ted switches off the set and goes to bed. Tomorrow there's another trip into the past. There is no coincidence, Borges wrote. What we call coincidence is our lack of knowledge about the complex machinery of causality.
Guido Eekhaut has published a dozen books in Belgium and Holland, including the three Orsenna books:
Orsenna (1994), Vacuumeiland (1996) and De Vivisectie
(2003). An SF-like thriller, Zombieworld, was also
published by Babel in early 2005. His stories have
been anthologised many times, and
several of them have appeared in translations in
Germany, Poland, Romania and Denmark. He has worked as a freelance journalist
for a number of newspapers and magazines
and still writes for the Belgian management magazine
Bizz. He has also published a number of
essays on literature, geopolitics, history
and philosophy. His story "Just Words" appeared in Issue 19 of The Cafe Irreal.
Back to the Top