He stood at the edge of the precipice and looked downward. The pit was as deep as it was wide. The late-day sun cast a shadow into the pit, obscuring its full depths, save for a small piece of rock jutting from the base. He thought it was beautiful.
Peter Izof came here to think sometimes. It was the quietest place he knew. Animals generally avoided the site of the meteor impact, despite the fact it had happened millions of years prior. Perhaps they knew something he didn’t.
He wondered what it would be like if he jumped. Would it hurt when he hit the bottom, or would he not even feel it? Pushing away the thought, he pulled back from the drop and carefully sat himself down, dangling his legs from the rock face. In his hand was the tattered notebook that had kept him sane and working throughout the project, filled page after page with his chicken scratch. Unlike his colleagues, he preferred working in pen and paper before transferring the information to the computer systems; it gave him a connection to what he was writing. The ink and the formation of the words were uniquely his, impossible to replicate and generally impossible to read. He removed the pen from the metal spiral and flipped open to the handful of blank pages that remained.
He clicked the top of the pen and wrote at the top of the page, “What about the curl?” He quickly positioned the pen beneath the words to write further, but hesitated, making circles in the air.
At that moment, his pocket vibrated and he jumped a bit, nearly dropping the notebook into the massive hole. He sighed and set it aside before pulling out his cell phone. They must have put in new towers if he was getting a call all the way out here. Dammit.
“Izof,” he answered.
“Doctor, hi.” His female grad student, Tiffany. He pictured her in his head. She was attractive, in that immature way that most college girls are, with a voice that was a bit too scratchy for her young years.
“Yes, Tiffany, what is it?”
“Dr. Charles is here, wondering where you are. He said that there was a test scheduled for today?” She spoke like a child waiting for her father to slap her, which she only did around Dr. Izof. He was always so terse with people, especially her. Although working with one of the greatest minds of his generation made her nervous, which no doubt contributed to her timidity, she was convinced that his 50-odd years on this planet had hardened him somehow, though she didn’t know why.
He sighed. “Tell him I will be there soon,” and then, “and for God’s sake keep him away from my formulas!” With that he closed the phone and reluctantly pushed himself to a standing position. He grabbed the frayed notebook and walked back the way he came.
The lab was housed in a special section of the Department of Defense’s Utah-based facility called “Overdub,” which Peter found amusing in a way no one else did.
After passing through the myriad security checks the military had put in place, he was greeted by his colleagues: Dr. Phil Charles and Dr. Akira Sato. Charles was a brilliant engineer, if somewhat dense when it came to particle physics, and Sato was a glorified lab tech, at least in Peter’s eyes. They had both been assigned to “oversee” the project, and thus were government lackeys that happened to have gone to school for a quarter of their lives. Peter was more than happy to work on the project himself, with the able assistance of his graduate student. (Tiffany was the rare type that could keep his head together, and could pass government screenings to receive access to classified information.) But no, they insisted, and who was he to argue? He was receiving millions of dollars in financing.
“Hi, Doctor -” Tiffany said.
“Is the test chamber ready?” Peter asked, hurrying past them all and entering the test room. It was a sizable room with a large metal wall splitting it in half. A Plexiglas screen provided a view into the experiment chamber, wherein a wooden bedside table was sitting. On the narrow table was a simple metal box, inside of which sat a fresh red rose, delivered by Tiffany herself that morning. Above and below the table were wide metal discs embedded into the ceiling and floor. They looked somewhat ominous.
“Yes, we’re absolutely ready,” Charles stammered, following Peter into the test room with Sato and Tiffany in tow.
“Good, then let’s begin.” Peter turned on the control panel and began reading out the results. The three were somewhat dumbstruck at this flurry of activity, but managed to snap themselves into action and get to their positions. Peter brought up a screen of formulas and calculations on one of the monitors, double-checking it for errors.
“Sato, what’s the power output?” Sato quickly moved to the readouts and gave him the numbers he wanted. “Excellent. Ready alpha station. Beta?”
“Ready beta,” Charles said.
“Gamma ready,” Sato answered.
“The experiment is a go.” Peter flicked on a row of switches and helmed the activation button, deciding he wanted to do a manual count for this auspicious occasion. An increasingly loud humming noise began to emanate from inside the chamber.
“Five … four …” Louder and louder.
“Three … two …” Louder still, nearly deafening them all. Everyone covered their ears except for Peter, who was so absorbed in the monitors that nothing could distract him.
“One … active!” He depressed the red button under his thumb, and there was a brief flash of light. The wall-rattling hum quickly petered out.
Peter spun around and nearly ran to the chamber door. Charles and Sato were surprised at his speed and barely had time to remind him of potential radiation effects, as he turned the seal and swung open the metal barrier. He hurried to the platform and opened the box expectantly. What he saw amazed him.
He reached in and pulled out the rose. It had rotted in a matter of seconds, or so it seemed. The once lush, green stem had bent inward, drooping in his hand, and the red petals had mostly fallen off, save for a few that looked almost the color of dried blood. Peter’s eyes stung with its beauty.
Charles and Sato, after taking a moment to verify the radiation was at safe levels, entered the chamber and crowded him.
“Extraordinary. Our test, it appears, was successful,” Charles said, a healthy dollop of pride in his voice. “Were our calculations -“
“My calculations,” Peter interrupted.
“Yes, of course. Were Dr. Izof’s calculations correct?”
“Hmmm,” began Sato, examining the wilted flower, “it appears this is about a week old. I would say it is absolutely successful.”
Peter smiled to himself.
“Gentlemen, we have made history,” he said with an air of wonder and triumph. “We have built a time machine.”
It had taken several months of testing, each time with a different flower or object, including several watches, a hamburger and three gerbils; only two of which survived, thanks to Sato forgetting that gerbils couldn’t live two weeks without food and water of some kind. At last, after he had worked out the precise power output required, he was ready.
He looked down at his desk. Staring back at him was the smiling face of his wife, Vivian. She was standing in front of what had been their summer home, her face caught in laughter at some forgotten joke, frozen forever in time.
Time, he thought to himself. He reached out and ran his fingers over her face, leaving small smudges on the surface of the glass. He turned and opened the lower right drawer of his desk, spotting the item inside. Next to his magic 8-ball and two empty pill bottles sat a worn purple box, tied with a faded gold ribbon. He eyed the empty bottles. How many times had he considered taking all of the medication at once? How many times had he wanted it to just be over? And how many times had he pulled himself back from the edge, driven by one chorus, singing out his purpose to him over and over again.
His eyes drifted to the box, and he considered taking it out, but was interrupted by Tiffany’s footsteps. By the time she entered, he had already closed the drawer and purged his mind of unpleasant thoughts.
“They’re ready, Doctor,” she said quietly, averting her eyes as she often did in his presence. He nodded solemnly and stood up, readying himself for the final test.
“Is it prepped?” were Peter’s first words as he entered the room, his bifocals glimmering in the strong lights from the experiment chamber. Sato walked up, clipboard in hand, and nodded.
“Hamster this time, yes?” he asked. Peter nodded distractedly. Sato smiled in his usual way and went off to check on the rodent. Peter had considered the next series of events carefully.
“Gentlemen,” he began, “I think we should have a toast.” Charles, Sato and Tiffany looked at him.
“A toast? But we had one after the first test,” Charles answered, obviously not one for frivolous celebrations.
“Yes, yes, yes,” Peter said, “but this is our final protocol before compiling and publishing our results. We need champagne, which I’ve prepared. Would you all please join me in the conference room?”
The three shared skeptical looks, but who were they to pass up free champagne? They set their work aside and exited the room, filing two doors down to the conference room. Peter followed up the rear, but stopped himself at the threshold of the room.
Tiffany stared at him, puzzled. “Doctor?”
“I’m sorry, I have to do this,” he said. At that, he unceremoniously slammed the door and pulled out his keys, locking it from the outside. A moment later, the banging began.
“Izof? Izof!” It was Charles. “This is absurd, open this door immediately.” But Peter paid no mind to him and returned to the experiment room.
He scanned the control panel and typed in a series of commands, overriding several safety protocols and boosting the device’s power output by several magnitudes. He activated the countdown, quickly ran into the chamber and closed the lead-lined door behind him, sealing it from the inside. The metal discs at the top and bottom of the room began humming, the power inside building up. Peter quickly moved the table holding the box out of the way and stood directly on the floor plate.
He looked through the glass, seeing Charles, Sato and Tiffany enter the room. They were shouting something that he couldn’t hear through the glass and noise. Sato busily punched buttons on the control panel, but was unable to stop the process. Helplessly, they watched as the energy climaxed and released, sending out a pulse of blinding white light that absorbed Peter and spirited him away.
When his vision cleared, he realized he was standing in the middle of the desert, no one around for miles. High in the sky, the sun was at its noonday position. Peter reached into his pocket and removed a compass. After taking a moment to find his direction, he began to walk.
Aside from the project itself, the most taxing part of the whole mess was collecting a few hundred dollars in 30-year-old money. It was an inexact process and had taken him weeks. Still, he had managed and was now exiting the bus he had paid for with that very money.
He had inquired about the date: July 13. It was the right date; his calculations had been perfect, he thought with pride. Now all that was left was to use the other object he had brought back with him and finish what he had started. He took off at a slight jog, very sure of his destination in the fading light.
When he reached the old house, he had forgotten how dilapidated it looked from the outside, at least before it had been refurbished. He went to the door, carefully unlocking and opening it. He listened for footsteps discovering his entry; hearing none, he entered the house and closed the door softly behind him. He crept through the front hall and rounded a corner into a carpeted room. From the nearby kitchen he could hear a television.
He stopped himself and looked around the room. It was a small living room, but Vivian had loved it so much. The portraits of their wedding and various pieces of art she collected had not been hung, as they had not yet met one another. In the corner was the television that would later be the end of her, at least indirectly. Its plug ran to the wall socket nearby, sitting all by its lonesome.
His memories flashed briefly back to the Christmas when it happened. He remembered being at the store, buying the box with the plastic tree inside and considering, for a moment, getting a plug strip to house all the lights and keep them away from the wall. But no, he figured it would be fine. The wiring wasn’t that old, after all, and they had smoke detectors. So he went home, tree in hand, and set up the entire works, wrapping the lighting around the tree with Vivian as the snow fell outside. She was so proud of it, having never put up a tree before. That night they made love on the warm comforter in their bedroom, leaving the window open just a crack to feel the chill on their skin.
He had woken up at about 3:00 a.m. with the sudden realization that he had forgotten to get the present he had stashed at the university. He quietly got out of bed and hustled to the Jeep outside, driving to the school and retrieving the gift he had taken such care in picking out. It was a small, purple, oblong box with a gold ribbon holding it closed. He drove back quickly, thinking about some early morning lovemaking. Then he saw the fire trucks.
Two of them had pulled in front of their house, firemen crowding around and shooting high-pressure water onto the building. The flames consumed most everything, barely leaving the impression that there was a house under all the red-orange fire. He slammed on his brakes, put it into park and raced from the Jeep, forgetting to even turn the car off. A fireman saw him running toward the house and caught him, holding him back.
“Sir, please!” he shouted over the commotion.
“No! My wife! She’s -” was all he managed before he realized it was all over. His legs gave way and he collapsed onto the asphalt, tears running down his cheeks. He tried to scream, but his voice caught in his throat. Not even 30 and he had already lost the love of his life.
Peter shook his head, clearing the terrible memories. Despite this, he needed to wipe at his eyes. He mustn’t allow his feelings to affect the outcome. After a moment’s composure, he began to walk into the kitchen, reaching back into his pants and pulling out the gun he brought.
His younger self stared back, the forkful of pasta in his hand held halfway to his gaping mouth. There were no words exchanged between them, and the room was quiet except for the sound of a late night talk show host rattling off lame one-liners. He cocked the gun.
Tiffany poked her head into the office. “Five minutes, sir.”
“Thank you, Tiffany,” Peter said. Then, as she was just leaving, “Wait, could you come here and sit down?” She slowly skittered back in and sat down at his desk. A Collins glass with a double-shot of bourbon and half-melted ice cubes sat in front of him. She eyeballed it with concern.
“Can I ask you something?” he said, holding the 8-ball in his hand.
“Sure, anything,” she said nervously, her hands settling in her lap.
“What would you do to correct a mistake?”
“I, um … what do you mean?” Her leg was bobbing unconsciously.
“Say you lived your whole life for one person, one reason,” he explained. “Then, one terrible day, that reason disappeared. Like smoke in a strong wind. What would you do to let them live again? Would you go so far as to lose yourself to save them?”
“I wouldn’t know about those kinds of things,” she said, trying to parse out the best answer. “Maybe if I had more info -“
“You know, I’ve never been afraid of dying,” he said plaintively.
“Doctor, maybe I’m not the right person to -“
“The reason is that oblivion is preferable sometimes, isn’t it?” He flipped the bottom of the ball up, but turned it over before reading the fortune. “You can pump yourself full of all the anti-depressants you want, but it doesn’t make a difference in the end. She’ll still be gone.”
“Dr. Izof,” Tiffany said, standing up, “I think maybe you should talk to someone else, someone more qualified.” She began to back out of the room. “I … I’m sorry.” And she was gone. She never told his colleagues about their conversation.
Peter closed his eyes and held a question in his mind. He concentrated, like it meant something, and when he opened it, the plastic ball held his answer: It is certain.
Despite all his genius in creating the device, he was unable to find any other way to change what he truly wanted to change. Vivian was going to die, it was going to be his fault and there was nothing he could do about that, at least not directly.
He worked through it for years as he invented the prototype, and came to one conclusion: He could not save her. If he saved her, he would not be motivated to go into temporal physics and create the time machine that sent him back, thereby negating his entire purpose. He had discovered that such a paradox would not work in the timeline. However, there was another kind that would. If he couldn’t save Vivian from the fire his stupidity started, he would have to prevent her from ever meeting him. He would have to kill his past self.
Through several experiments and math that would baffle most men in his field, he determined that traveling back and destroying his past self was not only possible, but would wipe both of them from the timeline entirely, as if they never existed. He was willing to end his existence to preserve hers.
“Wait, who are -“
“You know who I am,” Peter replied. The younger man nodded slowly, though Peter could not tell if he was being sincere or just humoring him.
“What are you going to do?” the frightened man inquired, his mind racing with how to escape this situation.
“Proving a hypothesis,” Peter said, squaring the gun with his head. This was the moment, the moment he had planned for so many years, so many millions of dollars, so much effort and willpower. In that moment, time ceased to be, and it was just him in the darkness, breathing the pain of his life. He welcomed the end with open arms.
Before his younger self could respond, Peter squeezed his finger and the gun fired. The bullet left the weapon and connected with its target, entering through the front of his skull and forcing out a splash of blood.
He was distracted as he pushed his way through the trees. The project was merely a few hours from launch, and he had little time to waste. Still, if he wanted the calculations to be perfect, he needed to have downtime at his favorite place. He was concerned about what he had privately dubbed “the curl,” wherein the resolution of his hypothesis resulted in time “curling” back in on itself, like a burning strip of paper, forever trapping the participant in a loop that would repeat the same events over and over again. The possibility was so minimal as to be inconsequential; still, it bothered him. Moving through the last of the foliage, he came out onto the dirt ground and walked to the drop.
He stood at the edge of the precipice and looked downward.
Tom Rhodes is a writer currently finishing his first novel. He available through Tom [dot] Rhod [at] gmail [dot] com. Right now he’s reading The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.