Harry sat in the time machine and cried. Not the usual tear leaking from a reluctant eye; this time the dam burst into great heart-wrenching sobs, his shirt front wet from tears streaming down his cheeks and dripping off his chin. He pitched forward onto the control panel and buried his face in his arms.
"This... (gasp) is prob'ly..." he blubbered, "jus' what I need." Yes, he thought, good old catharsis -- discharge those stress batteries. But when you're all cried out and the endorphins kick in, Lora's still gone and the job's still lost and the house is still foreclosed and the repo man is still coming today. All because of this stupid obsession that everyone but you knows will never work.
Control regained, he sat back up in the "driver's seat" and began fiddling with the dials and switches. Today, like every day, Harry had started his morning by running the machine through a checklist as if he were really going to make that first trip into what he called "no-time". The PBR was up, providing all the power he could need. (Of course, when they found out about that he was going to do some hard time, if they didn't just blow him away when they arrived. The fact that it used thorium instead of weapons-grade fissionables wasn't going to cut any ice; private citizens just didn't get to build their own reactors.) The atomic-scale cavities of the microlinacs were ready to be resonated by the laser, generating colliding TeV beams in the space of a few meters -- that would certainly draw some attention if the time machine stuck around. But the whole idea was to generate microscopic black holes in orbit about each other, producing a naked singularity through which one could pass into what amounted to a different universe, one with "time" on a different axis from this one, in which case no one in this universe was going to notice. The really tricky part was getting the orbits to expand until the singularity was big enough to contain the whole time machine, which was, except for a few bushes, some grass and slabs of sidewalk outside, just his house.
"Repossess that, assholes!" he thought as he wiped his eyes and blew his nose.
Naturally, Harry had to cut a few corners here and there to get this built without any help. In particular, it would have been nice to test a few of the components before they all had to work at once. As it was, he was almost certainly going to die spectacularly if he pushed the STOP button today, which was why he had not pushed it any of the preceding days.
Now, however, there was nothing left to lose. And he had better get on with it, since the repo man would be here any minute.
"Oh well," he thought with a grim smile, "in for a dime, in for a dollar." And he pushed STOP.
"Shit," he thought, "I'm not even dead." He checked all the instruments. Everything looked fine, and the gravity gradiometer even registered a field consistent with successful formation of the singularity, but nothing else seemed changed.
Harry got up and went to the window to look out. At least he tried to look out. Somehow his eyes wouldn't work in that direction. He swept his focus across the window frame and it just jumped from one edge to the other without any in between. His heart leaped.
"It's working," he thought. "It works!" he shouted.
So this was what no-time was like from the inside. Pretty much indistinguishable from normal time, except his location in normal spacetime couldn't even be defined.
Well, well, so now what? Harry had to choose a reentry point. It wasn't too clear whether his spatial return coordinates could be selected arbitrarily, but they had better be, because otherwise the only safe time to return to would be exactly -- and he meant truly exactly -- when he had left. Otherwise he would most likely arrive in the middle of interplanetary space, since (any way you look at it) the Earth would not be where it was when he left. He would have to select a new time and calculate the new position to go with it. Moreover, his calculations had better be extremely precise, because if he returned to the right place at a different time of day, his house might be upside down. This was going to be tricky. He had always known that, but since he never really expected to survive the initial test, he hadn't worried about it too much. Now he was starting to break into a sweat.
There were other worries too. What would the people left behind see while he was gone? Was the house -- and the time machine! -- still there back on Earth? That would complicate matters considerably, especially if he returned to find the space occupied. Ouch!
Well, he had expected to die today, so nothing had really changed yet. "The experiment must continue," he muttered; it was a phrase he had heard somewhere, and it stuck with him. Still, the basic idea worked, by god. That was something. That was a lot.
"Okay," Harry said out loud, "time to pick a time. Time to get back in time. Time for time." This was a cute playground for semantics. Anyway, he had to select a time for his reentry before he could calculate the place. It had to be an even number of sidereal days, exactly. It had to be in the future, because of the potential for unpleasant paradoxes like accidentally preventing his parents from meeting. It had to be not too far in the future, so that he wouldn't be easily identified as anachronistic -- a certain amount of geeky disregard for fashion and ignorance of current events would escape notice, but there were limits. Also he'd like to understand what was going on, how science had developed, stuff like that. He decided to jump forward five years.
He refined this to an exact integer number of sidereal days, got up, stretched extravagantly and went to the kitchen to make himself a sandwich. "No need to hurry," he thought, "I've got all the no-time in the world." But he was beginning to feel a tad isolated. It was a little unnerving to know that you're the only human being in the universe you currently inhabit.
After his snack he carefully calculated spatial coordinates for his return. He had to adjust his velocity too, but not too much, since he had also chosen an integer number of solar years. He sat back in the driver's seat, dialed in the spacetime coordinates, triple-checked all the settings, crossed his fingers and pressed the GO button.
As he pressed GO, Harry's heart leaped into his throat. This time he really was expecting to die, and probably a pretty ugly death at that. But except for a faint clunk, again nothing happened.
Wincing, he stole a peek out the window. His neighbor's house had reappeared.
Harry leaped from his seat and ran to the front door, which he swung wide on a sunny day. Except for a faint crack in the sidewalk and a slight change of color in the grass demarking the boundary of the time machine's capsule, nothing was changed.
"Well, this answers a whole lot of questions," thought Harry, "but it raises even more. Like, what did George see over here for the last five years?" He looked over at his neighbor's house, and there George was, mowing his lawn with the same old push mower. Always the traditionalist, that George.
George waved. Harry waved back. "What the hell?" thought Harry. Hesitantly, he stepped out and strolled over to Harry's fresh-mowed lawn. It smelled good. Everything smelled good. It was great to be alive.
"Hey George," Harry called, "how you been?"
"No change since yesterday," George answered, a quizzical look on his face. "How about you?"
Okay, this is weird, thought Harry. I was here yesterday, apparently, but when I came back from no-time I didn't run into myself. Luckily. But... better answer George before he thinks I'm even weirder.
"About the same, I guess. What, uh, what were we talking about yesterday?"
George chuckled. "What we always talk about, dummy. Your stupid time machine."
Uh oh, thought Harry. "Yeah, of course. Hey, remember when the repo man was coming to take away all my stuff?"
"Sure," said George, looking up curiously, "that was five years ago today, wasn't it?"
"Yeah, about.... I forget the details...."
"Don't give me that bullshit," said George, "you still talk about it all the time, gloating about how you cashed in some of your secret stash of Google stocks just before he arrived, and shoved a suitcase full of money in his face."
What the hell? thought Harry again. He smiled nervously to show he had just been kidding around. "Guilty. Just wanted to see if you remembered."
"Yeah, well, I still want to know how you managed to buy up so much Google stock when it first went public. Ask me, I bet that damn time machine actually works. I don't care what you say."
Harry thought fast. "Yeah, and tomorrow I'm gonna go visit your great-great grandmother," he said with a leer. George waved him away in disgust, as he'd hoped, and he wandered casually back to his front door, waving over his shoulder on his way.
Inside the house, Harry closed the door and leaned against the wall in disbelief. What the hell! he thought. Paradoxes are bad enough; this is impossible. My house has been here all along, while it was in no-time, and someone has been pretending to be me, talking about the damn time machine, for crying out loud.
Wait a minute. George knew him too well to be fooled by a fake. That meant it had actually been him talking to George for the last five years. So there were two of him? That's got to be wrong. What if he ran into himself next? If it really was him, Harry, he'd know better than to risk that. He'd also know how crazy this was making him now, and he'd leave a note or something. Where?
Harry ran into his office and checked his desk. Nothing. He looked in all the drawers. Nothing. He started to turn on the computer and realized abruptly that this was pointless; the inside of this house had been in no-time with him for the last five years. There couldn't be any notes in here.
Then he remembered something that had caught his eye as he walked out and in the front door: a big white manila envelope on the grass just outside the boundary of the singularity. He rushed back to open the door and sure enough, there it was. Must be it, he thought. Grabbing the envelope, he rushed back inside, tore it open and read the first page, written in his own handwriting.
"You've got it about right," the note said, "but it's a lot more complicated than you think. Read the enclosed, and don't skip over anything, you lazy bastard. Your life depends on it. And a hell of a lot more."
When the sun went down, Harry was still re-reading the notes he had written to himself. More like an instruction manual for the world's most complex home electronics, actually -- and in fact that was pretty much what it was. And the person who wrote it was not exactly him... well, it was him, in the sense of "person", but not in the sense of physical body, although that wouldn't be obvious.... Oh boy, he thought, time to recap again, for the tenth time.
Starting from "here, now" he was going to make a series of hops forward in time, gathering up advanced technology for human cloning and then for memory storage and retrieval. He couldn't go back in time because, for one thing, it invited causal paradoxes, and for another thing, his time machine lacked the ability. So his last stop in the future would be to grab that necessary technology out of a heavily guarded lab where it would be developed and then suppressed by paranoid agents.
Well, actually it wasn't fair to call them paranoid. Who would feel comfortable if anyone else could zip back in time and make it so you never were born? And there's the unanswered question of what would happen to the universe if a self-contradictory causal loop came into being. Hmm, "came into" is certainly the wrong term, but it got even worse when you mixed in quantum mechanics and general relativity. Never mind, there lies madness.
Anyway, why would he want to mess around with something that crazy and probably rather dangerous? That's where it got interesting. See, most of these paradoxes have to do with creating contradictions in this spacetime continuum, like when you went back and shot your own grandfather or something -- even a much more innocuous change would very likely mean that you would never be born, or at least that you would never get around to building that time machine, so you would never go back and do whatever it was that screwed things up... Never mind, again.
However, what happens in no-time stays in no-time. It is out of the causal loop in this spacetime. Too bad he wasn't born in no-time. But he would be. That was the gimmick! Using cloning equipment brought "aboard" the time machine, he would make a new copy of his body while in no-time. Using the memory storage and retrieval technology, he would download (or upload -- which would this be?) his own memories into the cloned body, still in no-time, and the new him would literally not be of this world. When the original Harry eventually died of old age, the clone Harry could then go back in time without fear of creating physically meaningful causal paradoxes.
The logic of this sounded rather suspicious to this Harry, but since his no-time alter ego had returned the house-cum-time machine at the instant he left and stayed until the instant he returned (thus allowing the 5-year masquerade with George and god knows who else) it was obviously working.
Apparently there were lots of other tracks to be covered, in all those dips into the future and past that no-Harry had described, but this Harry presumed they were being handled at this very no-moment by no-Harry, since there were no detailed instructions for him in the notes. Or maybe he would find additional notes later.
Harry's head hurt. He opened a beer from the refrigerator, downed several aspirin tablets with it, warmed up a frozen pizza and ate it (along with several more beers) for dinner, and went to bed without turning on the TV.
Harry woke with a start, sweaty from a bad dream in which he was pursued by indistinct alien creatures from no-time. "Got to cut back on pizza and beer," he thought. Stupid dream. No aliens in no-time. Probably. Damn, what if there were? Now he was awake, thinking....
He hadn't given much thought to the details of time travel when he was working on the machine. If the truth be told, he never really expected it to work. But work it did, by god! He was going to be famous!
No, wait. He was going to be completely unknown. People could never suspect what he was up to, or half of them would be after his machine and the other half would be after him, with pitchforks! So why the hell had no-Harry told George about the time machine? That was crazy. Unless it wasn't. Method in his madness? Ouch, head starting to hurt again.
Sitting up, Harry wondered again what the aliens were all about. Dreams were usually worth analyzing, he had found, as long as you don't get too serious about it. What had been rattling around in his subconscious? Let's see, free association: aliens, space aliens, time travel, spacetime... Hey, space travel!
The time machine was also a spaceship, or else he would not have gotten "home" to his current location on the Earth five years in the future. He hadn't really expected to succeed in controlling the full range of spacetime coordinates and velocity, but it worked! And he could do a lot more with that than just move back and forth in time. He could go exploring! Oh boy, this was like being a kid in a candy store.
He got up and brushed his teeth and washed his face, then went to the kitchen for a cup of instant cappuccino and a bowl of cereal. His mind was sharp now, rested and alert, but it reeled from the realization of how much power was now in his hands.
He could grab people who were about to be killed, like in those movies, and take them to distant planets to start new human colonies. Hmm, that might not be very kind to the distant planets. He could search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Hmm, that could prove dangerous to the terrestrial variety. He could bring back technology from the future... no, that would certainly create paradoxes. What the hell could he do?
What was no-Harry doing?
Maybe the only safe thing would be to follow no-Harry's instructions meticulously, swap himself into a no-clone which would be no-Harry, and then just hop around making little improvements here and there in the spacetime continuum. See how things turn out if Kennedy weren't killed in Dallas. Put a bug in the ear of Truman, get him to demo the A-bomb out in front of Tokyo instead of just dropping it on Hiroshima. Tip off gate security people about the box cutters on 9/11. Get Hitler a good job as a SF writer before he got into politics. Who knows, maybe some of these would just make things worse; but then he could re-tweak. There was all the no-time in the world.
Maybe the best idea would be to just make tiny little changes, make good coincidences more common and bad ones less, arrange for missed opportunities not to be. A pat here, a nudge there, maybe if he kept re-cloning himself indefinitely he could make a better world for everyone...
And then it hit him: what do you call someone who has the power to retroactively adjust the universe?
Harry wasn't sure he was up to the job, but he'd sure as hell give it a try.