Like so many of us, in this bizarre time of isolation, I’ve been trying to use my energy towards something creative. A few days ago, I had an idea for a short story that I realized I could tie into an older story of mine, one I’d never really done anything with. I’m presenting the short story, “Senior Trip,” right here. If you like it, I invite you to check out Tempus Fugitives in my QuaranTidbits folder, where I’ve been giving out different pieces of writing for weeks now, totally free, to help everyone out there pass the time. And as always, if you like the story, I would LOVE to hear from you on my Facebook Page.
Felicia arrived to find Douglas sitting at his workbench, almost vibrating with excitement. A small control screen was on the bench, next to an empty metal plate. A piece of old-fashioned writing paper, a pencil, and an envelope were on the other side of the bench, nearer to where she walked in. There were wires connecting the plate to a contraption about the size of a suitcase — wires and tubes, and something that looked a little like a copper slinky. The smile on his face could have split his head in half.
“You look pleased with yourself,” she said.
“I usually am,” he said. He pointed to the metal plate. “Watch this.”
Tapping the control screen, he looked down at the bench. The empty plate was no longer empty. There was another envelope there, identical to the first. At the same time, a timer on the control screen began counting down from 120 seconds.
“How did you do that?”
“You’ll see.” He pushed the new envelope aside and handed her the piece of paper. “Write something. Anything. Then put it in the envelope and seal it.”
She frowned at him, skeptical, but did as he asked. Then, he pointed at the plate where the other envelope had appeared. “Put it there and wait.”
“Wait for what?”
The timer was down to 93 seconds. “Just trust me. And hurry.”
And because she did, she did. She started at the envelope intently, skeptically. Until, exactly two minutes after the first envelope materialized, the second one vanished.
“Okay, how did you do that?”
He smiled. “Open the envelope.”
She picked it up and broke the seal, pulling out a piece of paper and reading it. When she looked back up at him, the grin on his face said it all. “Well? Is it what you wrote?”
She turned the paper towards him. Scrawled in her pristine handwriting were the words, “You’re a putz.”
“It is,” she said. “What are you doing?”
* * *
Douglas gripped the wrench as hard as he could and gave it one last twist to the right. The seal was the most important thing here. If there was any break in it whatsoever, when the machine started up he and Felicia could be sucked out and get completely lost in space and time.
“Are you done yet?”
“Almost, Fel.” He dropped the wrench and hit the seal on the bubble with a blast from the spray can of epoxy. It would harden in seconds, finishing off the airproofing he needed to make the journey through time safe, and then he could take a test run. He counted to ten and ran his fingers down the seam. It felt perfectly smooth, perfectly secure.
“Okay.” He pulled himself out from under the sphere and stood up. The bubble was a little larger than his car, filling up most of his father’s garage. It was tinted blue — a bit of a polarizing effect because he wasn’t sure what the visuals of the timestream would be and he thought a little protection was called for. The hatch was opened and closed by the remote control Felicity was holding. There was nothing left but to run the test.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
“I’ve been ready since ninth grade.” The project had taken up the last four years of Douglas’s life, two and a half longer than he and Felicia had been together. It was one of the graduation requirements at Salk Magnet High School: students had to map out a four-year course of study culminating in a senior project that corresponded with their chosen scientific concentration. Douglas was by no means the first person to choose the timestream as his course of study, but most senior projects had involved viewers into the past, most of which were ineffective for looking back further than a few days. If he could pull this off, Douglas Green III would be the first student in history to create a working, functional time machine. And if that didn’t get him an A in old man Lynch’s quantum physics lab, nothing would.
“I still think you’re crazy,” Felicity said. “What if this disintegrates us or something?”
“You’ve been watching too many old movies,” he said. “I showed you the prototype.”
“You showed me a magic trick. I’m still not totally convinced.”
“It was perfect!” he said. The trick with the envelope had been the start. A few more experiments convinced her that he wasn’t totally crazy, and from there it hadn’t been hard to persuade her to help him in the final construction of his device, with the understanding that next year he’d help her in any way she needed when she completed the oxygen replenishment system she was working on for her own senior project. Now though, with the time bubble finished, looking at it in all its splendor… she was starting to get nervous.
“You don’t have to get in,” Douglas said. “I can test it myself.”
“And let you get stranded in the Renaissance with all those nude models literally lying around? No way. Let’s go.” She hit the button on the sphere and one side of it slid open. Taking her hand, they climbed in together and she shut the hatch.
“So where are we going? What’s the maiden voyage of the S.S. Terrible Idea?”
“I thought hard about that. I wanted it to be something personally significant to me, not like going back to see dinosaurs or throwing a tomato at Hitler or anything. And my grandpa…” his voice trailed. Douglas’s grandfather had been his biggest supporter, his biggest fan. Nobody had believed in his project more. The fact that he was no longer there to see its completion, she knew, was a dagger in his spirit.
“Okay, then, let’s go visit him when you first told him about your project. We can show him that your machine works.”
He shook his head. “No, I can’t do that. Too great a risk of running into myself. If I’m right about how all this works, you can’t actually change the past, but your younger self seeing your older self still probably isn’t the best idea.”
“I’ve got just the thing, then,” she said. “Let’s go back to the day he was born. We can see him in his little hospital bassinet and nobody will ever know what’s going on.”
The smile broke his face. “That’s perfect,” he said. “Okay, setting a course for April 10, 2020.”
If pressed, Felicia would have to admit there was a thrill in watching Douglas work. Granted, the whole point of Salk Magnet was to shape students into creating things that could change the course of human history, but it was really only about twenty-five percent of them who actually succeded with their inventions, and even fewer tried something as ambitious as Douglas did. Being inside the bubble with him would be an even bigger mark on her record — even if her oxygen system failed (she did not anticipate failure, mind you, she was very confident about her work) she was still going down in the history books as being one of the first time-travelers. It was the main thing on her mind as he tapped his commands on the control screen, set course for their destination, and activated the device.
When she observed his experiments from the outside, the time transition had been surprisingly subtle. Something either was gone or simply appeared, with no fanfare, although Douglas told her that a large enough object would probably cause a popping sound as air rushed in to replace its mass when it was gone. From inside the bubble, taking the trip, it was very different. When he tapped the button, the clear plastic of the sphere sparked and their view of the garage workshop was replaced instantly with a swirl of blue light. Tendrils of energy clawed at the surface, and she watched as bolts of electricity in the distance raced towards them, glancing off the plastic and dissipating in their wake.
“It’s working,” he said. Although his voice grew no louder or faster, the excitement underlying what he said was clear. “It’s working. We’re going back in time.”
“It’s like we’re… rolling into the past.”
“Something like that,” Douglas said. “I think it’s more likely our brains can’t quite comprehend the four-dimensional structure we’re moving through, so they’re interpreting it in a way that’s more familiar to us. It doesn’t really look like this.”
“Well whatever it is, it’s something else,” she said.
“I think we’re accelerating,” Douglas said. He pointed to a box on the control screen that showed their current date. When he’d hit the button it showed their date of departure. Now it was scrolling backwards, and he was right, it was speeding up. They were in the 2050s now. Now the 40s. Now the 30s.
As they rolled further backwards, the electricity dancing around them intensified. It became louder, brighter, more violent. Bolt after bolt lanced into their screen, and more than once Felicia was afraid it would rupture the plastic, but Douglas’s design held. Still, as they crept past 2033, the bubble began to quake. She grabbed the sides of her seat, then grabbed Douglas’s arm. He was already holding hers.
“Is this supposed to happen?” she asked.
“I’ve never done this before,” he said. “But I don’t think so.”
2029, and the shaking became worse. 2024 and Felicia could feel her teeth rattling inside her skull. 2022 and she finally began to question the value of being the answer to a trivia question one day.
When they hit the spring of 2021, the shaking stopped.
So did the bubble.
“We’re caught,” he said. “Something has frozen us, we can’t go any farther.”
“Is it the lightning?”
“I don’t know how it could be, it’s just a random manifestation of the timestream.”
“Random?” she said. She pointed out the screen. “Are you sure about that?”
“That I am sure of. Why?”
“Because that wave of electricity ahead of us looks like a fence.”
The bolts crisscrossed each other, forming a perfect lattice, and stretching out in all directions, wrapping around something in front of them. Douglas look at her, the shock in his eyes unnerving her. She’d never known Douglas to be shocked by anything. “This doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “There shouldn’t be any… any thing floating around in the timestream. This looks artificial. Manmade.”
If not for the seat restraints they were wearing, they both would have leapt from their chairs and crashed into the control panel. As it was, the voice speaking from behind them startled Felicia enough that the straps dug into her shoulders and chest, and she was pretty certain there would be a bruise tomorrow.
They turned around to see the woman who had joined them in their bubble. She was only a few years older than them, with a smile that was knowing, but not unkind. “Hey there Felicia. Douglas. I’m Diane. Big fan.”
“How did you get here?” Douglas said, his voice hushed. “Where did you come from?”
“I got here more or less the way you did, Douglas. I used a time machine based on the principles you invented. Good for you.” She pointed out into the timestream, behind them, towards a cluster of electrical bolts. “You might not be able to see it, but it’s out there, waiting to bring me back.”
“My designs?” he said. “What are you saying?”
“That ship was made in your future,” she said. “And it works great. You’re in the books, just like you wanted. You too, Felicia. Your oxygen system is what keeps us alive inside that thing. You guys are like the Curies a couple hundred years from now. I mean, minus the slow and painful death brought about by radiation poisoning.”
“That’s a relief,” Felicia said.
“How do I know you’re telling the truth?”
“I guess you don’t, but I promise you I’ve got no reason to lie. I’m just here to give you a heads-up. What you’re about to try to do? Don’t do it.”
“Don’t do what?”
“Go to 2020.”
“Why not? If I’m right about the timestream, it can’t actually be altered. Whatever happened always happened. Any time travel would simply cause the original events to happen in the first place.”
“You’re almost right,” she said. “Time is pretty resilient. It’s hard to change, and almost impossible to change the big stuff. But the little details can be changed. That’s why the electrical net is there to prevent anyone from going to 2020. No researchers, no chrono-tourism, nobody is allowed to travel to 2020 for any reason.”
“But why? What’s so special about 2020?”
“I know you guys are all sciencey and whatnot, but didn’t you pay attention in history class? Do you have any idea what happened in 2020?”
“I remember some stuff,” Felicia said. “Australian wildfires, a viral pandemic, then there was the–”
“Well so what?” Douglas said. “There were worse disasters. Pompeii, anybody? There were worse pandemics. You mean I could go back to the Black Plague, but not to 2020? Why not?”
“All that crap that happened in 2020 — none of it was the first time, you’re right. But it was the first time anything like that happened in the information age. People spent weeks, sometimes months at home, locked away with their families, barely seeing anybody else.”
“It must have been awful,” Felicia said.
“For some people, sure. But for the first time, even stuck at home you could still talk to people. Phone calls, text messages, video chats. Musicians played concerts online, filmmakers streamed their work and talked to the viewers, writers gave away books and artists taught tutorials. It sucked being stuck at home, but what people did with it… that was something else.”
“So what? I can’t see my grandfather’s birth because some guy locked in a basement was watching a boy band do a livestream?”
Diane shook her head. “You’re missing the big picture, Douglas. That’s okay, it wasn’t until we started using your design to map the timestream that we figured out how important this was.”
“What difference does it make?” he snapped. “You said yourself we can’t change the big things!”
“Douglas, listen to what she’s saying. She’s not talking about the big things. She’s talking about the little things.”
Diane pointed at Felicia. “You see, I knew you would be the smart one. The stuff that people did to keep themselves sane during the 2020 madness? All of it was little, but–”
“But the little things make up the big things.”
“You’ve got it again, Felicia.”
Douglas shook his head. “I still don’t understand this.”
“The things people are doing inside that giant electric fence in the timestream form the foundation of culture for the future. Stories that are written, songs that are composed, friendships and partnerships that are forged on the net that later branch out into the real world… they’re important.”
“You’re still talking about art. So what? Science is what matters.”
“Science is how the universe works, Doug. Art? The things that bring us joy? For a lot of people, that’s why the universe matters.”
He looked at her, stammering, still trying to argue his point, but Felicia glared at him, making it clear that she wasn’t going to take his side on this one. “Well,” he sputtered, “I guess I’m outnumbered.”
“Anywhere else in the timestream,” Diane said. “Any other point in the entire continuum is yours. But stay out of 2020, for everybody’s sake. Nobody breaks that rule, not even the most ruthless time pirates.”
“Time pirates?” Felicia said. “There are time pirates?”
“Oh yeah. Bounce into 2255 some time, there’s a great movie about us.”
She smiled. “See ya.”
Before Douglas could voice another objection, Diane was gone. She’d simply ceased to be, just like the envelope he showed Felicia the day he first explained his experiment. And, as anticipated with a larger mass, her disappearance was accompanied by a small “pop.” Before Douglas could say anything else, there was a flash in the distance. The blue lightning glanced across a huge mass, something green and metallic that had huge fins protruding from the side. It pulled away and retracted into the timestream, finally vanishing completely.
“Are we going to be able to get out of this?” Felicia asked, looking at the electric barrier.
“Yes,” he grumbled. “It’s not restraining us, just preventing us from entering. I can go back or go around, but not through.”
“What are we going to do, then?” she asked.
He shrugged. “I don’t even care,” he said. “You pick.”
She smiled and put her hand over his. “Why don’t you set a course for the future?” she asked. “You can take a girl to the movies.”