I have decided to do a few short stories as a break from wading through some longer writing projects. So here is A Fool’s Errand. If you feel like it, let me know what you think.
I told Zac that he should be careful. You can’t be too careful where time travel is concerned. There is always a price to pay.
I had met Zac in about 2012, we worked together. He was a career public servant in his early fifties, as far as I knew. He was bored with his job, bored with his hobbies, in fact, bored with life. As the years went by I thought he would get over it. Most people get over their mid-life crisis. However, Zac didn’t, and I became concerned. I felt that I needed to help him, so I am at least partially to blame. I sent him back in time.
I’ve been back plenty of times myself. The trick is not to do anything that impacts too much. You don’t want to disrupt other people’s lives, and you want to be careful about what impact you might have on your own life. You’ll still be able to come back, but whatever you do back in time has the potential to change where you’re at now. This is a fixed point in time – whatever happens you’ll always have been here to start your journey back in time, at least other than in exceptional circumstances, but how you got here may well change.
The thing about the echoes of time that is no longer real is that it takes a bit of time for your brain to reorganise itself into the new timeline. And you need to remember to take the return unit, enter in the code when you want to return. You’ll arrive back a few minutes after you left, usually about 10 in my experience.
When I’d told Zac I had a time-machine, he’d laughed, until he realised I was serious.
‘Do you go back in time?’ he’d asked.
I’d nodded, ‘Yeah. Usually just to relive my moments of glory or contentment.’
‘Has it changed your life?’
I’d considered my answer carefully. ‘Not so that you’d notice.’
‘I want to change mine. I don’t want to be here anymore. I want a better life.’
‘Be very careful,’ I’d cautioned him. ‘Be really careful. I’d advise you go back and find some nice moments to relive. Nothing more.’
He’d nodded, but said no more. Perhaps I should have pushed him further on this, emphasised once more the potential for problems, but I didn’t.
We met on a Sunday afternoon and I showed him my machine. It didn’t look like much, just a slightly under-sized photobooth made of stainless steel. I’d again asked Zac whether he really wanted to go through with this. He’d said that he did, but I had a feeling he’d come along to take the mickey, get a story for work about me, start some gossip about the eccentric policy officer who claimed he had a time machine. So there we were in my garage looking at it.
‘How’d you get it,’ he’d asked me. ‘Did you make it?’
‘No way. I got it off a bloke.’
‘Oh yeah? Did you meet him in bar?’
I’d smiled and said no. Then I told him about man who had arrived in my back yard some years ago. He was from the future, in fact a colony out near Proxima Centauri and had wanted to get away from a bad situation. Apparently late 20th and early 21st Century Earth was considered a fine place to live, a golden age of history. We’d talked for a while before he simply said he was starting life all over again and had walked away, but not before he’d disabled the machine’s own time-travel system. It would be forever stuck in this time only able to send its occupants but not itself through time.
‘Where did he go?’
‘I have no idea.’
‘Why did he come here?’
‘He didn’t say. He just walked away and I haven’t seen him since. That would have been about four years ago.’
‘Haven’t you gone forward in time to find him? Find out what happened to him? Find out what happens to you?’
‘How could I? I don’t know where or when he came from. Or where he’s gone.’
‘So you haven’t had the urge to go to the future?’
‘No. Knowing what life is going to bring is taking all the joy and excitement away.’
‘But you could find out how things panned out! Play the share market, get the lottery numbers, make your life so much better!
I’d shaken my head. ‘There’s more to life than that.’
He’d looked at me as though I was mad. ‘But it would make life so much easier. You haven’t even been once, just to have a look?’
‘I decided not to jump forward in time, and I won’t send anybody else forward either!’
Zac had shrugged. I think he was still thinking I was some nutjob and he was baiting me. ‘Okay then. Let’s get this show on the road,’ he’d laughed. ‘If it’s real, that is.’
‘I wondered when you were going to doubt me,’ I’d said to him. ‘But don’t worry, I’d expect nothing less. The proof will come soon. Take a seat.’ I pointed to the machine. ‘When do you want to go to?’
‘I’ve thought about that a bit and I’ve settled on 1980. That was an interesting time.’
I punched in the year. It would take him there on this day. Then I showed him the return unit and how to get himself back here.
‘Remember you’ll be in a 19 year-old body, and you’ve only got one month. After that you’ll be stuck there. So don’t wait too long to come back. And remember that your actions can have consequences for you and other people. I’ve written the return code on your business card here with instructions. You’ll come across it if you forget. Don’t lose the return unit, and don’t have too much fun, okay?’
Zac had nodded at me. ‘Right-ho, let’s go.’
Perhaps I should have reminded him once more about being careful, but I didn’t. I pulled the lever for the power and punched in an activation code. Then he disappeared. I went off to make a cup of tea. It would be about 10 minutes before he came back, so I sipped my tea and read the paper.
He arrived back almost bang on 10 minutes with a smile on his face.
‘Did it go well?’ I’d asked.
He’d grinned. ‘Sure did, I had such a great time.’
‘What did you do?’
‘I caught up with Sarah McKenzie. She was so hot! We had a great time for a month. I might have neglected my studies a bit at university, though, but wow! She was so hot.’
I’d nodded and smiled.
He’d said, ‘You know, I thought you were some sort of crackpot. I only came because I’d nothing better to do, but…’ He’d left the sentence unfinished.
Then he’d talked about his month in 1980 before I’d eventually had to plead another engagement to get rid of him.
The next day, a Friday, I’d seen him at work. He was wearing a frown.
‘Not really,’ he’d said. ‘I have different memories.’
‘Come round tonight and we’ll discuss it,’ I’d said. It was clear that he’d done something that had changed his life, but how seriously I didn’t know.
He’d arrived at my house in a bit of a state, his clothing dishevelled, his eyes wide. I’d offered him a drink and he’d asked for a rum. As he’d sat sipping it he’d looked me directly in the eye.
‘I’m still married, but I have been three times. It’s all coming back to me. Before I went back, I’d only ever been married to Kaylene.’ Hestopped for a moment and stared at me. ‘What’s happened?’
I’d sighed. ‘I told you to be careful. Tell me what you did’
‘Nothing much. And did I tell you that I’m paying child support for three children and supporting two ex-wives? It’s a nightmare.’
I’d nodded patiently. ‘But what did you do that might have changed things?’
‘Well, Sarah McKenzie is my first ex-wife, and we had a kid really young. It only lasted a few years and then I had met Kaylene, but that didn’t last either, and now I’m married to Ruby. Although judging from last night’s conversion that might not last either. I feel depressed, my job’s still the same – life sucks!’
He’d looked at me with desperation, ‘I need to go back and fix it.’
‘Hold on. I did warn you.’ I’d reminded him.
He’d nodded mutely.
‘If I agree to send you back, and only if, what exactly are you going to do?’
‘I’m not sure, but what I do know is that I’m not going to shag Sarah McKenzie. No way! I’m not having three wives again. I’ve fucked up my life.’
I’d looked closely at him. I hadn’t been convinced, but he’d pleaded with me to let him go and I’m ashamed to say that I again weakened and agreed. His total desperation had been too much to resist, but I had made him promise on his mother’s life that he’d stay away from the McKenzie girl.
He’d arrived back 10 minutes later all smiles.
‘I never even went to her house,’ was the first thing he’d said.
I’d been relieved. ‘What did you do?’
‘I put all my energy into football. You know I’d forgotten how much I used to enjoy it. And this time I took it seriously, trained properly. It was great, I even got selected for representative honours.’
‘Fantastic. Sounds like you really had fun this time. Trying to relive your youth can be a fool’s errand if you’re not careful,’ I’d said, relieved that he’d probably solved his marital problems. He had left with a spring in his step, or was it a limp. Some injury I presumed.
He was back two days later, hobbling and with a stoop.
‘You’ve got to send me back again,’ he’d moaned.
‘Why? What’s happened this time?’
Zac collapsed into a chair with a groan. ‘I took my football so seriously that I became a professional. Twenty years of running and hard knocks and a crippling career ending knee injury have left me a physical wreck. It’s painful just to walk sometimes. Kaylene has to work full-time to support us and she’s so worn down that she’s become depressed.’
The man had shrunk before my eyes. He was in obvious pain, both mental and physical, and was probably as depressed as his wife. I caved in and agreed to send him back yet again. What else could I do? But this time I’d told him that this was definitely the last time. He’d told me that he was going to do nothing different than when he was young. I believed him. His experience of time travel so far had shaken him to the core and by now he’d realise that his life had not been that bad. So I’d sent him back for the last time.
I must admit that I had a rather nervous wait and a beer while I awaited his return. He’d returned looking pale and exhausted, but content. I couldn’t blame him after his last two trips.
‘Did it all go well?’ I’d asked him.
He’d nodded. ‘Yes it did. I just did what I had to do. It was quit tedious, but I didn’t have a problem with that. I simply put in place a system to remind myself to invest wisely in companies in the future. Hopefully Kaylene and I should be comfortable now and able to retire.’
‘You look a bit unwell.’
‘Yeah, I caught a cold or flu just before I left to come back. I’m still a bit out of it.’
‘Well, at least it sounds like you were sensible. Let me know how you go.’
‘I will,’ he’d promised, but I never saw him again. At first his absence from work hadn’t bothered me, after all he’d probably be retired. Eventually, however, curiosity got the better of me. I searched for Zac Freeman on the internet, and found him. My heart sank.
Zac had lost all of his money at age 25 after some reckless investing in the stock market. He became destitute and died from a drug overdose soon after. There was no going back from that. He’d never even got here in the first place. This was no fixed point in time if you died before you got there. I probably should have told him that although I doubt he would have listened.
It was then that I realised that he’d only been alive when he’d returned because of the time transition field. It wouldn’t have taken long to reality to catch up. All of a sudden he’d simply cease to exist and nobody would notice, because he’d already have been dead for years. It probably happened minutes after he’d left my house. I’d as good as killed him by letting him use my machine. But, then again, he wouldn’t have had many years left anyway. I’d not robbed him of much. So, as I sit here writing this story, I don’t feel a huge amount of responsibility, and I will tell you why.
Today is 3 November 2015 and I am going to program the machine to take me back to 1982, because tomorrow the world will end. An asteroid is going to come out of a blind spot and strike in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I know this because when the man with the time machine arrived he told me not to try and go forward into the future. I tried once, but saw only chunks of the planet, and I almost suffocated. I pressed the return button just in time, before the time transition field wore off. So I know that tomorrow the world will end.
I’m going back to 1982 – again. This will be my fifth time, but after living for three hundred years I am tired. I don’t forget anymore, either; there are just more memories. I see the people that I love die again, and I’m getting immune to that now – that worries me. I think this will be the last trip back. You can only live the same life so many times.