“Because stopping time isn’t convincing.”
“I believe you have a time machine. Prove you’re me.” I tried again to straighten my head. “If you’re me, you know how.”
He smiled, sort of, anxious lines softening around his mouth. Would I become this sour-faced man? “And I know you’ve thought this through. Three secrets nobody knows.”
“Now, only things I’d never tell any—”
“In the treefort with D’Arcy. What you threw in the library window. And that red-haired girl from choir.”
“Ouch,” I said. I wasn’t talking, not exactly, but he could hear me. “Okay, I wish I’d forgotten those.”
“Never did.” He rubbed the purple scar across his forehead. Since I couldn’t look out the windscreen of the van, I kept looking at him. At myself. I should smile more, or my two happy twins would grow up to be worried children. Smile more…parents have strange responsibilities.
“So,” he said, “do you believe me now, or should I mention the red sports bag you hid—”
“You’re me,” I said, too loud, and he stopped. “So—huh. So we did it. We invented time travel—well then, listen, about the friction battery…”
“You stop working on that today,” he said. “Just time travel, from now on. And it takes you ten more years.”
“Wait,” I said. “Should you tell me details like that? What about paradox? If I stop trying because I can’t fail—if I do that, would I fail?”
He reached to touch the scar again, then lowered his hand with a jerk. “You won’t fail, and you won’t stop trying. As long as you believe me, you will keep trying.” He glanced into the back seat, where the twins were safely buckled into their little seats.
“Believe you what?”
“It’s complicated,” he said, and took a deep breath. “Look, this is very bad news—”
“Oh, no,” I said. Something went cold inside my belly, and I tried to close my eyes. They didn’t move; I kept staring at his ugly, sad face. “Bad news from the future. What could possibly…?”
“You’re having a car accident,” he said, “The girls both die.”
“No,” I said. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t have to breathe, in a frozen, unmoving moment stuck out of time, but I still needed air. “You can’t let—we have a time machine.”
“I know we do. That’s why I built it. Will build it.”
“Ok,” I said. “Got it. I’ll stop the van. Switch off the—let me move—”
“It’s too late,” he said, and leaned back. “That bus there, behind me, it doesn’t stop.”
“No, look—” The bus’ turn light was on. The driver’s eyes were wide open. Wide, wide open. He looked helpless. Like he had just realized what was going to happen and couldn’t do anything about it. “It’s signalling.”
“But it’s not stopping. The front of this van shears right off, and I survive.” He looked into the back seat. “But the girls don’t.”
“So pull them out—” I started, then stopped. “Time machine. You could have come ten minutes ago, in the driveway.”
“No, I couldn’t. I can’t change what seems to happen. The girls don’t survive in this time. They don’t.”
“I’m turning the wheel,” I said, and my voice was high—or whatever was making my voice in this timeless helpless moment. My arms didn’t move, of course.
“Listen,” he said. “This is what happens: they won’t really die, because I’m taking them with me to the future.”
My heart was still working. I heard it in my ears. Everything else was quiet and faded. “No,” I said. “That won’t work. Will it work?”
“It does work,” he said. “And yes, I can prove it.” He reached into his jacket for a picture, printed on a silver polymer, and he held it in front of my face. Ruthie and Jessie, maybe eight years old, longer in the face but so easy to recognize, so easy to love. They were running across a new backyard, laughing. A blurred adult figure after them, a dog. And the twins were happy. Alive.
The feeling—once I tried old-fashioned bungee jumping, and it was the same feeling: free-fall terror, then a sudden jerk and twist and you’re flying. Now I was still helpless, but flying free, not falling. All the the terror and the weight of the world, gone, and all I wanted—knowing my children will survive.
I could die now.
No—I couldn’t die. I had to invent a time machine, so I could come back, to here and now, with a scar on my face, and save them.
I stared out at the street, the stop sign I’d rolled through, the double-length bus unmoving on Fairfield Road. My mind started working. “Wait. The girls are three years old right now. If you do save them, they’re still three. But how old are they in this picture? How did you even get this?”
“In the picture,” he said, “they’re eight. It’s from us. From five years in my future, fifteen years in yours. Of course I need to know that the rescue will work, or what’s the point of building the machine? My future self came back to my lab, where I was, and he brought me this.”
I looked at the silver family picture again, and his grimy, split-nail fingers, holding it in front of my face, obscuring the bus that was about to destroy everything in my life. “Just the one picture? Nothing else at all?”
“A message, I guess. Information, really—for me mostly but also for you.” He shifted to look at me more directly, and I noticed the deep lines around his eyes. “We’re gonna die of a stroke.”
“That’s awful,” I said. “No. Wait. How could he know, if he’s still alive—”
“He, and you, and I, have all known since just this second,” said my future self. “Time travel causes brutal compression waves in the blood. Even one trip is dangerous. More trips are like Russian roulette, adding bullets every time.”
“I don’t—” I said. “I don’t quite get it.” The shape of the rest of my life was just there, in front of me, and I could nearly understand it.
Then I did, the whole cascade, just as future self explained it to me, just when he didn’t need to. “Future-future self,” he said, “dies—died—in the lab, on the day you become me. The moment I invent the time machine, he appears in the lab, with blood coming out his ear. Holding this picture, for me to bring back to you today. He knows he’ll die and he comes anyway.”
“God,” I said. “There’s no choice in all this. He comes anyway, and he dies?”
“He was still warm when I left,” said the world’s first time traveller, to the man who would become him.
My future self was bumping around in the back, spreading some metallic net over the matching purple carseats. I was alone in the front, unmoving as ever, staring helplessly at the frozen bus. My nose was running and I couldn’t wipe it. “I want to talk to them.”
“You will,” he said from behind me. “In ten years. You’ll get them back, self.” A pause. “It’s worth it.” His voice cracked. “Ready?”
“Wait,” I said. I sniffed to clear my nose. It didn’t do a thing. “Okay.”
A deep violet light flared in the mirror, and I pressed backward in my seat, straight through the stop sign, ahead of the bus, which wasn’t stopping, coming into the side passenger door, tires really do screech, the driver’s mouth wide open now, squeezing his eyes—”No,” I said. I hadn’t caught up with the process of what would happen—with the implications.
From the back seat, a tiny thunderclap. I started to turn my head.
The sound of the crash was deep and surprisingly hollow, like kicking a cardboard box.
Then I was spinning away, still strapped in, the front of the van ripped off. In flashes as I whirled: the fuel-cell ruptured and a cloud of gas ballooning like a toy into the air, then trees, then the bus again, then a broad whumph and flames and a spinning fragment of—
I woke up with a heavy fireman kneeling on me, silhouetted against a pyramid of flame and black billowing smoke. “No,” he was saying. “Stay the hell down, mister.”
“My girls,” I said. My forehead was numb, and wet. “In the van. Two children. Let me go,” I said. “Please. Children, two carseats—”. Then I stopped, and thought carefully. “Did you get my children out of the van?”
The fireman blinked twice, and his jaw tightened. “I don’t know,” he lied. “But stay down.”
Ten years, the man said.