Editor’s Note: In light of current events, our timing is strange with this release. A warning for content involving suicide (and metaphorical Hitlers).
Dr. Francis Waxmann invented time travel in the summer of 2075. It broke the universe some sixty years earlier.
…rubber bands tied to rubber bands tied to rubber bands tied to rubber bands tied to…
Sitting in my room, at my desk, a fortress of textbooks in a semicircle around me, depleted paper coffee cups scattered like dead soldiers. I think it was nighttime. Jake’s stuff was in piles across the floor, but only on his side of the room. His was a methodical sort of disorganization; he always knew where everything was. My side of the room was fastidiously neat, but I could never find a damned thing. Yin and yang. I don’t think these things are accidental.
The portal opened behind me with a little gasp and I turned, nerves honed lancet-sharp by caffeine. The portal floated there, a sucking lamprey-mouth in reality, swirls of color licking the edges. Waxmann stood on the other side, a squat little man with interestingly parted hair. One hand held a smartphone-sized square of electronics, the other a gleaming silver pistol.
That hole in the universe in the foreground, the black O of a gun muzzle in the midground, Waxmann’s flat gray eyes in the distance. Portals nested in portals.
The third edition of Principles of Piezoelectrics was sailing through the air before I even knew I’d snatched it up and flung it, and Waxmann stumbled towards the portal, through it, hand first. An alligator snap of noise and there was a severed hand on the floor, still clutching the smartphone.
From somewhere in the house, Jake shouted: Hey, is everything cool back there?
When you discover time travel, the first thing you do is kill Hitler.
Hitler isn’t a person, though. Hitler is an idea. Hitler is the worst thing that ever existed, the evilest of all evils. In the first century, Hitler was the Roman emperor Nero. Four hundred years later, Hitler was Attila the Hun. Another millennium down the road and Hitler was Tomás de Torquemada.
In the year 2075, Hitler was a man named Clancy Rosemont. I don’t know what he did, exactly how many lives he destroyed; the doctor’s notes were vague and it’s hard to Google someone who won’t be born for seven years. What I know is that Rosemont was, at one point, the evilest of all evils. Right before a portal opened up in his bathroom and Waxmann put a bullet in his skull.
And then what? Hitler is dead, what do you do next?
You go down the list of history’s greatest monsters. Man by man, execution by execution.
Actual Hitler was number five on the list. I was number four.
The bullet slammed through the portal, shimmering as it passed, wisps of another reality leaching through in its wake. It struck the belt this time. Bullseye. Jake dropped to the floor, gasping, clutching at his throat. The hole in space collapsed, but I thought I saw him look up for one moment. Maybe he saw me. Maybe he understood. Or maybe he just chalked it up as a near-death hallucination.
Imagine you draw a dot on a top, then set it spinning. Put it on carousel. Put the top and the carousel on a bigger carousel. Now fire the whole mess out of cannon and try to map the motion of that original dot. What you have is a simplified version of what you’re doing right now as you fly through space, whizzing about the Earth, around the sun, around the galaxy, cutting through a space that’s been expanding at near the speed of light for fourteen billion years. Now try mapping it through time, down to the nanometer, down to the picosecond. You’ll need a computer more powerful than anything on modern-day Earth by a couple orders of magnitudes.
Or you can make do with Doc Waxmann’s smartphone.
It also plays Tetris.
My own personal Hitler was Jake’s suicide. We were inseparable growing up, sharing a room even when Mom’s financial situation improved enough that we could’ve each had our own. We spent long summers blasting cans with our BB guns, learning to read lips so we could hold silent conversations during church. Wrestling in the living room until Mom told us to knock it off already, then waiting until she left so we could do it some more, only quiet and sneaky-like.
I followed Jake to college, but something had happened after he left. In those two years between his high-school graduation and mine, we never really saw one another. We talked on the phone less and less frequently. He went from darkly sarcastic and coolly cynical to just dark, and just cynical, never laughing anymore, never smiling. After I arrived at the university, I lived with him for another eighteen months, sharing a room again. I thought he’d just lost his sense of humor, as though laughter was something you outgrew, like afternoon cartoons, or accidental erections during homeroom.
I came home one day and found him hanging by his neck in the doorway of our shared walk-in closet, my tidy piles on his left, his clutter on the right, and the exclamation mark of his body driving right between the two. He’d used a belt. The body was still warm.
I don’t know what my Number Two Hitler would’ve been. You can really only fathom one Hitler at a time. Maybe Dad walking out on us when we were still little. Maybe Queensrÿche breaking up.
Time travel wasn’t so much time travel as alternate-reality generation. Think Back to the Future. Think Biff Tannen and sports almanacs. Making new timelines spontaneously, everything a copy of a copy of a copy. Hitler’s there one moment, and then he never existed, and suddenly the universe has to patch the hole.
There was something about wormholes, too, something about quantum, something about Many Worlds. Doc Waxmann’s digital logbook wasn’t annotated, but I doubt I could have deciphered the references even if it had been.
The smartphone actually was a smartphone. A modified one, little patches of electronics soldered to it, a few custom apps in its inventory. The app for generating a stable, localized wormhole connecting our universe to a spontaneously-generated alternate universe was called Timehole v2.71. I thought it was a pretty good name.
The logbook started with technobabble about how the whole thing worked. Musings on the schematics of the room-sized machine that would generate the portals, musings on how the construction was proceeding.
Eventually, Waxmann ran his first trial. It involved a sandwich. The sandwich did not fare well. There would be many more trials.
I opened the first portal accidentally. Flopped in the chair in my room, the side Jake had once occupied still empty. The fourth edition of Introduction to Kinematics that I’d hurled at Waxmann was still splayed on the floor. I poked at the icons on the touchscreen just to see what they did; the classic arcade games were largely intact, but most buttons did nothing but flash dejected Network Not Found messages.
A tap on the Timehole icon, though, a few half-read screens of text and a hiss of air—and I was staring at the back of my head through a fist-sized hole in reality.
A portal can stay open for a maximum of twelve seconds. A portal collapses if an object of excessive momentum passes through it. There were rules—of course there were rules, there are always rules. Some made sense, others were arcane declarations like MAXDIAM_100 and MINDIST_25 and PORTFIX_3 that I understood somewhere between very little and not at all.
When Waxmann successfully murdered his Number One Hitler, he took a lot of notes and drank a lot of alcohol. The first secret, he wrote, was finding that perfect point in spacetime and placing a portal right there, right at some pivotal moment in history. Say, in a certain bathroom in a certain hotel. Say, three months and two days and five hours and seventeen minutes and 53.1823 seconds before your target is going to initiate a sequence of events that kills twenty million people. The smartphone did most of the heavy lifting as far as that went; the magic box in Waxmann’s lab did the rest.
The second secret was probably very important, but it had been typed by someone very drunk. I refuse to judge, though. I got drunk, too, the first time I killed my own Number One personal Hitler. And the second time, and the third time.
Some Hitlers just won’t stay dead.
On my inaugural mission, I opened a portal six inches away from Jake’s face, three seconds after he’d kicked out the chair. Bulging eyes, fat tongue swelling in his mouth, yellow snot bubbling from his nostril. He saw me, but I don’t know if he saw me. I don’t know if anyone in that position sees much of anything.
Twelve seconds later, the portal snapped shut, and I didn’t touch the smartphone for a few hours. I just sat there in the pre-dawn light in my half-cluttered room, a bunch of books and some leftover pizza on my desk, a bottle of Smirnoff in one sweaty fist, Waxmann’s severed hand rotting in the corner.
My next attempt landed the portal two minutes pre-death, a few feet off to the side, and I screamed the full twelve seconds before realizing that sound didn’t travel through the portal. After the portal closed I screamed at the room, screamed at Jake, screamed at Waxmann’s stupid, rancid fist.
That didn’t accomplish much, either.
Doc Waxmann’s second assassination went down more easily, and he was ostensibly sober during the post-game. A major change in the timeline, the untimely death of a genocidal mass murderer—it slams into you pretty hard. Black-out hard. When he woke up, he had new memories. He had all the old ones too, but the old ones were like a movie you’d watched a million times. You can recite all the lines and visualize all the plot points, but it’s just this story you heard. It’s just make-believe.
Once upon a time, a very bad man killed a lot of people, and everyone lived unhappily ever after. Roll credits.
Jake’s gun was stashed in our closet, three feet away from where he killed himself. I was a pretty good shot; I split the belt just as he kicked out the chair. As the bullet sucked the portal closed behind it, I could see him tumble to the floor, and I knew past-me would get to him in time, no way could he rig up the belt again before past-me showed up.
I waited for the sledgehammer crash of my reality being overwritten, but it was really more of a flyswatter.
Once upon a time, a very sad man tried to hang himself with a belt. It didn’t work out very well. So he used his gun.
How bad do things have to get before non-existence is the best possible solution?
After you’ve sat in a room for couple of days, not eating, not bathing, trying to reverse a suicide that happened six months ago, you ask yourself all kinds of questions.
How long is the battery life on this smart-phone thing, anyway?
How does this gadget still work when the actual time machine doesn’t even occupy the same universe?
Is that really Jake I hear talking in the next room, or is it a phantom, or a memory, or something else entirely?
Eventually it came down to timing. Wait until he’s already hanging-dangling-strangling and then BLAM, sever the belt, and now he’s stunned. Can’t get to the gun, can’t get to the pills, just enough time for past-me to arrive and call 911, get Jake to a hospital where they can patch him up, good as new.
And they all lived happily ever after, roll credits.
For certain definitions of ever.
For certain definitions of after.
By the time he knocked off Hitler Number Three, Waxmann was a pro. One trip back, bang, wait for the shockwave of alternate history, off to the pub for a rum-and-Rogers, whatever that was.
He’d been wrong about the true nature of spacetime, he wrote. It wasn’t copies of copies of copies, there was no spontaneous generation of alternate realities, and how monstrously silly of him to suppose otherwise.
Everything was already there, see, every possible timeline weaving through the multiverse in an infinity of infinitely-long strands. The magic box just created a link from one possible universe to another. Shoelaces tied to shoelaces tied to shoelaces.
Also, he wrote: Very important! Utmost and paramount! The links are permanent. The wormholes close, but they never close-close. They persist, like scars. Too close together and they get tangled. They choke the life out of reality, making kinks, tears. Travel back to the same time twice, and who knows what might happen?
I didn’t know this at the outset. I didn’t read this bit until after.
For certain definitions of after.
Never gaze into the abyss, for the abyss might also gaze into you. And it might be wearing your face. And it might be aiming a pistol.
The hardest part was visualizing how the smartphone had come into my hands. When Waxmann will/would/had Rube-Goldberged his device into my lap, what would that look like, from the outside? A remote control stretching back through the hole it had just opened in the cosmos, connected to the magic box across space and time, reality twining around itself. Like someone trying to pull themselves through their own belly button.
Waxmann never realized that the portals were less like shoelaces and more like rubber bands.
I only know this because I heard it from future-me, but then future-me told me a lot of things. Things I couldn’t hear, but I could read on future-me’s lips. I could see future-me pleading with me from some other when.
Future-me was the one who suggested one final portal, right in the temporal center of the whole mess. Throw up one last portal right in the middle of when-where and watch it snap all the other portals, make it like it had never happened, and everything springs back to normal. Put it up right in between Jake kicking out the chair and Jake’s heart pumping out its final beat.
Jake was sitting across the room when future-me mouthed this plan to me from inside the portal. Jake in his chair, cramming for some final. Or Jake wasn’t there and never had been. There and not there, done and undone, everything shimmery and feather-edged.
The Jake who survived sometimes smiled, sometimes joked. We sometimes had fun. And sometimes he told me I should never have saved him at all, that he wished it had all stopped fast at the end of a leather belt. Maybe these were all the same Jake, but maybe some were different. With an infinity of Jakes, at least some of them must be happy.
Do this, future-me had said, or it all falls apart. The multiverse collapses on itself. Reality will not just cease to exist, it will never have been at all.
Somewhere, somewhen, there will still be a Jake, and we will be together, and we will be happy. We’ll get married, have families, have barbecues and family get-togethers, laughing over beers or wine coolers or rums-and-Rogers.
Even if I never see any of that, it doesn’t mean it’s not out there.
The bullet tore through my jaw. If I look closely, I can see a tooth embedded in the sheetrock on the far wall, a fleck of white in a mess of strawberry jam.
This final-me appeared just as I was about to key in one last portal, fingers hovering over a screen that was dimmer than it had been three/five/seventy days ago. Waxmann’s hand was black with ants.
I stared at future-me through the portal, barely visible in some preternatural dimness. I stared at the gun future-me was pointing, black or maybe chrome or maybe slate gray.
You can’t do this, he mouthed from across time.
I have to, I mouthed back. Just this one last portal. If I don’t, everything ends. Everything ceases to exist. If I don’t do this, there won’t be anything left.
I know, he said.
As he spoke, I noticed that something was very wrong on his side of the hole. Angles were off. Things seeped and shifted. I could see both his face and the back of his head at the same time, like a Mercator projection.
He fired, and half my face disappeared in a crimson spray.
My finger still floats above an Enter key specked with dots of gore.
How bad do things have to get before non-existence becomes the best possible solution?
I guess I’ll find out.
By day, Jeff Hemenway analyzes data for the state of California. By night, he still analyzes data, but he doesn’t get paid for it and people ask him to please stop. Somewhere in there, he finds the time to write. His work has appeared previously in such venues as Daily Science Fiction and in the award-nominated horror anthology, Dark Visions.
Browse the Personals:
The One They Took Before, by Kelly Sandoval – Rift opened in my backyard. About six feet tall and one foot wide. Appears to open onto a world of endless twilight and impossible beauty. Makes a ringing noise like a thousand tiny bells. Call (206) 555-9780 to identify.
Ellie and Jim vs. Tony “The Nose,” by Eden Robins – The afterlife resembles nothing so much as an old-fashioned automat. Just this long, narrow, possibly endless room. One wall is lined with shining chrome drawers and those tiny, cloudy windows where you can catch glimpses of sandwiches with wilted lettuce and sometimes more grotesque things, like gall bladders. A big oaf dressed like a 1920s mobster looms over the cash register and is forever giving you the stink-eye, like you might try to jimmy your way into the drawers and steal his gall bladders. The automat only takes quarters and wouldn’t you know it, I forgot my purse.
Methods of Divination, by Tara Isabella Burton – But visions are not prophecies, he told me. Prophecies come true. I sat him down and told him to tell me everything, and promised I would tell him what it meant. “There is a place,” I told him, “where time runs back on itself, where parallel lines converge, and where visions become prophecies. Where you will be not alone. There is a place where everything is reconciled, and the great mountains that cover you in shadow will be made flat before you. The valleys that make you dizzy when you teeter on their edges will be brought to your feet when you walk. There, you will understand your visions.”