Monday, May 3, 2010

Time Present & Time Past

Ephraim was a bounty hunter—a bounty hunter from the future. Not that he was a full-time bounty hunter, by any means. By profession, he was a government clerk. In the 23rd Century, everyone worked for the government, in one capacity or another.

The greatest threat to the 23rd Century was the past. That might seem odd. Wasn’t the past over and done with?

No, because time travel technology made the past as open as the future. Time travel was illegal in the 23rd Century. A capital offense.

On rare occasion the government would authorize a trip to the past. The 23rd Century had exhausted certain natural resources, and so the government sometimes needed something from the past. These incursions were rare, but necessary, and strictly monitored.

The greatest threat came from rogue time-travelers. Some of these were simply curiosity seekers. But some were fugitives from justice. In the 23rd Century, it was impossible to escape the long reach of the law. Official surveillance was too pervasive. The only way to evade capture was to take refuge in the past.

The technology was unstable, due to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. On occasion, a time machine would accidentally transport someone or something from the past into the future.

That’s how Ephraim got there. He was a senior in high school, in 1978, when he was accidentally transported to the late 22nd Century.

And he wasn’t the only one. Once that happened, you could never be sent back. That would be too dangerous.

Some temporal transplants—or T-plants, as they were called—couldn’t cope with their new surroundings. The abrupt separation from their own place in history, along with future shock, was too much to take. Some committed suicide. Others became addicted to virtual reality.

On the other hand, for some T-plants, the 23rd Century was a great improvement over their original situation. After they made the adjustment, they thrived in the future.

Ephraim’s leap into the future was both exciting and depressing. As a high school senior, he had a plan for his future, but this wasn’t the future he had in mind. And least initially, it was far more exciting than anything he had planned for, but the sense of isolation was also hard to take—especially in the beginning.

Unlike people who traveled back into the past, people accidentally catapulted into the future posed no threat to the 23rd Century. As long as they could assimilate, they were integrated into society. Indeed, 23rd Century historians coveted the opportunity to take oral histories from T-plants.

It’s because Ephraim was from the mid-20th Century that he was recruited—indeed, conscripted—to be a bounty hunter. On special assignment.

A fugitive had traveled back to 1968, in Seattle, or thereabouts. So Ephraim was assigned to go back, find him, and assassinate him as discreetly as possible. The authorities figured that Ephraim would be able to blend in more easily since he was originally from that period. Indeed, was a native of the Greater Seattle area.

Ordinarily, a 23rd Century bounty hunter received extensive historical training to equip him for his assignment. But there were many things you could only pick up by osmosis. However hard they tried, bounty hunters from the future had a way of sticking out and slipping up.

Moreover, knowledge of 20th Century Seattle was quite spotty in the 23rd Century because Seattle had been destroyed in 2163 by a massive subduction quake, which also triggered an eruption by Mt. Rainer. Since most of the information about Seattle was located in Seattle, the catastrophe led to many historical lacunae. That’s probably why the fugitive chose Seattle in the first place.

Ephraim was nearly ideal for the job, which is how he got the job. Of course, he had to take certain precautions. He was under strict orders to avoid contact with anyone he knew from childhood. And he was under strict orders to return to the 23rd Century as soon as he completed his mission. A subdermal tracking device would monitor his whereabouts. And he had to log daily progress reports.

But, as it turned out, he was, in many ways, quite unprepared for his reentry into the past. For one thing, his command of 20th Century American English was quite rusty. In the 23rd Century, English was the lingua franca, but it was a patois, with many Chinese, Arabic, and Hindi load words. The syntax was different. Different pronunciation. With its own colloquialisms.

After 20 years in the future, he became very fluent. But jumping back to the 1960s, it took a while to remember the idioms. Nothing dates you quicker than out-of-date slang.

But that was the least of it. Even living in the 23rd Century, he still dreamt in the 20th Century. Yet, because Seattle was long gone, there was nothing to reinforce his memories.

He had no idea how much he missed the past until returned to his own time. With the visual reinforcement, all the old associations flooded his mind.

He enjoyed the detective work. He was closing in on the fugitive, but the fun part was going to places he hadn’t seen for 30 years. Going to places that went out of existence over a 100 years ago.

At first he tried to be dutiful and just do his job. But the seduction of rediscovery was overtaking him. He would go to places just to see them again. Places having nothing to do with his investigation.

When he had lunch, he’d eat at a place he used to go to as a kid. Sometimes it was the Jewish deli in Lake City. Sometimes it was a hamburger joint in Lake Forrest Park.

The fare at the hamburger joint was undistinguished. But that wasn’t the point. This is where his dad sometimes took him to lunch. When you’re that age, you’re easy to please. When you’re that age, your dad is a godlike figure. Nostalgia made the nondescript cheeseburger and milkshake taste like gourmet food.

And it was more than mere nostalgia. One time, when he was having lunch there, he saw himself come inside. His younger self, with his parents.

To them, he was a perfect stranger. After all, this was ten years before he was inducted into the future. And he had aged 20 years in the future. It was uncanny experience to see them. Uncanny to see himself.

In his progress reports, he would exaggerate the difficulty of pursuing leads to buy himself more time. To remain in the past as long as possible. To reacquaint himself with everything he lost as a T-plant.

He finally caught up with the fugitive. There was a tense moment. Would he carry out his mission? But he couldn’t bring himself to kill the guy. What had that man ever done to him? Ephraim didn’t ask to be a hit-man. It wasn’t in him.

He didn’t care about the mission any more. He understood the threat to the future, but it wasn’t his future. Not really. That was accidental.

For him, the mission was just a pretext to renew his life in the past. To string it out as long as possible.

He crudely extracted the subdermal tracking device and destroyed it. In so doing, he might now make himself a target. Would another bounty hunter be dispatched from the 23rd Century to track down a rogue bounty hunter? Perhaps. But that was an added risk. Every time they sent someone back in time, that was more likely to trigger the very change they were attempting to avert.

The bounty hunter was now the fugitive. But he made the most of his opportunities. Sometimes it was just a case of seeing everything for one more time before it was bulldozed. Before that fateful day in high school when he left it all behind him.

With the benefit of retroactive hindsight, he made some very lucrative investments in the stock market. His intention was not to buy the Breakers or the Getty Villa. His intentions were more domestic and wistful than that.

When he was a kid his grandmother lived in town. He loved his grandmother. But, like kids that age, he tended to take people for granted. They would always be there. And, of course, he could only see her when his parents happened to pay her a visit.

Now, however, he was in a position to deepen his acquaintance. He bought the house next door and befriended her. She was a sociable woman who liked to garden and tell stories. He’d take her to the nursery to buy flowers. Listen to her stories. Ask her all the questions he thought about asking her after she died, and it was too late to question her.

Then there was his own home, where he grew up. Once again, he bought the house next door. He divided his time between both homes.

No one knew who he really was. Well, almost no one. His dog knew him. The moment she saw him, it was instant recognition.

He loved his dog when he was a kid. But she grew aged and suffered a stroke. He took her to the vet. The vet said there was nothing they could do. They’d have to put her to sleep. It was a snap decision. He walked out of the veterinary office alone and grief-stricken.

He’d always regretted the fact that he had her put down on the spot. If only he had known, he would have taken her home for a few days to prepare himself for losing her. Cradle her. Stroke her. Make her feel loved. Ease the pain of parting with her.

Now he had a chance to rectify the past. Of course, as far as his family was concerned, he was just the next-door-neighbor. But he made himself a very good neighbor. He went out of his way to befriend his younger self. As the years wore on and his dog became enfeebled with old age, he talked to his younger self about what his younger self might like to do if his dog suffered a stroke.

It was a funny feeling to talk to his parents over the fence. He knew who they were, but they never suspected who he was.

And it was a funnier feeling to talk to his younger self. He was tempted to reveal his true identity to his younger self. But knowing the future can spoil the future. Better to give him a bit of guidance now and then.

Ephraim took a job as a public school teacher. He didn’t need the money. But it was nostalgic to teach at the same junior high and high school he had attended. Even more nostalgic because he was now a teacher at the very time he used to be a student there. There he was, teaching his younger self, as well as all of his old classmates.

He taught math and science. Not that math and science was ever his strong suit. But a man from the 23rd Century didn’t have to be a genius to teach 20th Century math and science. That gave new meaning to dumbing down the curriculum. It was difficult to remember what you were not supposed to remember.

As the fateful day of his senior year approached, he was in a quandary. Should he try to prevent his younger self from being inducted into the future?

How could he prevent that? If he prevented his younger self from attending school that day, would that avert the event from happening?

But what would happen to him if he could successfully prevent that incident? If his younger self wasn’t transported to the future, then his older self couldn’t return to the past. So his older self wouldn’t…because he couldn’t…continue to coexist with his younger self after the day his younger self was transported into the future if that event was preempted.

And if his younger self was—once again—transported into the future, then—presumably—his younger and older selves would merge. Indeed, for all he knew, he had repeated this cycle hundreds or thousands of times before.

But would he want to prevent it, even if he could? Living in the 23rd Century, he always regretted what he left behind. But he only felt that way because he left it all behind. It’s one thing to leave and come back, quite another never to leave in the first place. He valued it more because he missed it. But if, this time around, it didn’t occur, then his younger self would never appreciate what his older self had learned to appreciate by losing it—only to regain it.

So was he better off letting it occur—assuming it was within his power to stop it? For all he knew, he’d had this same conversation with himself many times the same time over—if you know what I mean.

And he remembered the exact time when he was inducted into the future. He was eating lunch outside on the bleachers, when he glanced at his watch, then, all of a sudden, he found himself in the late 22nd Century.

Ephraim decided to prevent his younger self from going to school that day. It was easy to arrange. A simple diversion would suffice.

Ephraim looked at his watch. When the second hand reached the same moment in time...