Because he’s a mid-term transfer student to the Sagan School for the Gifted and has the fewest course credits, Joyjeet picks last from the science fair project list. He selects Time Travel. It sounds exotic. It’s still unclaimed. He ignores the murmurs of classmates. Some mock him so often, their voices have become white noise.
After class, Wade and Chen stop at Joyjeet’s locker, words with points on their lips.
“Everything in time travel’s been done, stupid,” Wade declares. “That’s why only losers and retards pick it.”
Chen grabs the temporal field generator from Joyjeet’s locker, turns the steel disc in his hand. “There’s a limiter on this thing, required by the Temporal Protection Agency. So many rules, it’s useless for good projects.”
“And if you try to override the limiter, the TPA sends a temporanaut to erase your timeline. Not much of a loss there.”
Joyjeet snatches back the field generator. Wade and Chen are like every other pair of adolescent thugs. He wonders if a lab somewhere grows them for school districts, something to keep good kids on their toes. “Why do you even care what I do?”
Wade smirks. Mocks his accent. “We don’t. We just want to watch you crash and burn.”
Joyjeet has three more grueling classes with them after lunch. The rest of the day features spitballs and songs about time sung at his back, under their breath.
It’s a month-old routine with Mom when she gets home from the hospital.
“Is there another school I can go to?”
“Sagan is a great match for your abilities. Are you having trouble with the classes? Teachers?”
No quarter for a lie. She sees his grades, reads his instructors’ comments. “No.”
“Joy, you have to understand your classmates are all highly intelligent. Sometimes, that makes people awkward and insecure. As a result, they act out.”
He’d debate their intelligence if it wouldn’t come across as acting out. He flips his well-worn guilt card to solace himself. “I miss my old school and my friends.”
“And I miss my old hospital, and my friends and colleagues. This is a much better opportunity for both of us.” She tousles his straight black hair. “Let’s make the most of it, okay?”
Joyjeet knows she’s right. The knowledge stings worse than one of Wade’s Indian burns.
After dinner, Mom buries herself in journals. Joyjeet proceeds to the basement to sort through time and space.
The temporal field generator can open a five-inch diameter vortex to the past and display what’s on the other side. The restrictions around time-travel experiments fill a small book. No willful alteration of events, historical or mundane. No material left behind. No weapons. No biological agents. No immoral uses. On and on, until “no” is a ghost-word in Joyjeet’s vision.
The school’s catalog of past fairs suggests every possible time travel experiment has been done: history imaged, mysteries investigated, disputes resolved. One project debunked 77 Kennedy Assassination myths. B-plus. Another captured all 18 1/2 missing minutes of Nixon’s Watergate conversation. B-minus, and it did nothing to improve Nixon’s reputation. The last ‘A’ grade is 17 years past. That student inserted a doll halfway through the portal, timing the plastic torso’s appearance with the shutter-snaps of historical photographs. Legend has it Photo-Bomb Barbie also earned the students an assembly concerning ‘temporal graffiti’ with a mirthless, black-suited TPA official.
Joyjeet computes statistics. The glass ceiling for temporal projects is a low B. Part of being smart is knowing when to cut bait.
Mrs. Barrow is gentle, but firm. “I asked you twice if you were sure you wanted it.”
“I was. But everything in time travel has been done.”
“Well, many things have, but part of the challenge is finding a way to give us a new perspective. Two months is plenty of time to execute an interesting project.”
Joyjeet leaves with the temporal field generator still in his pocket. When he passes them in the hall, Wade and Chen serenade him with the sounds of airplanes crashing.
Joyjeet reads Wells. Bradbury. Einstein. Hawking. A couple dozen others, science and fiction, theory and fancy.
He discovers the Novikov self-consistency principle. It spins him to Schachner’s treatment of the Grandfather Paradox. The question is both simple and compelling: What happens if you kill your grandfather before your father is conceived?
He finds no mention of the paradox in the science fair past projects catalog.
He outlines the steps for the experiment, a torrent of activity on his old tablet. Designs an enclosure for testing the paradox. Buys male and female mice, three each, from a pet store. Each male spends a few hours in the enclosure, dates and times noted for calibrating the generator, before Joyjeet starts mating them. He breeds three generations. He feels like he’s manufacturing his own dynamite.
Here, holograms depict the gravitational influence of a rogue moon on planetary orbits. There, localized field generators simulate plate tectonics, ready to form volcanoes before the judges’ eyes. An AI challenges the Turing test. A bio-printer assembles a living human hand.
Joyjeet’s booth is bare compared to others: the temporal field generator, several small cages of mice, and a stack of inkjet-printed data sheets on an eight-foot skirted table. The entire setup could have been plucked from 50 years in the past.
When the judges arrive, Joyjeet barely finishes saying “Grandfather Paradox” when one of them, a science teacher named Holcomb, jumps like Pavlov’s dog. “Experiments that may result in erasing someone’s timeline are forbidden by the TPA.”
Other judges stare at Joyjeet, expectant. His mouth goes dry, all the moisture retreated to his palms.
“I bred these mice in a controlled environment, Mister Holcomb. Novikov postulates that because they’ve never interacted with anything outside their habitat, their timeline microcosm is all that can be affected by this test.” He shrugs. “Besides, mice aren’t people.”
Holcomb’s response is stifled by the other judges’ chuckles. He studies the mice in the cages as if they might contradict Joyjeet. “Very well. Proceed. With caution.”
“Each cage holds third-generation pups from a specific grandfather mouse. In this experiment, a pup from the litter will be sent through the vortex, arriving here.” Joyjeet activates the generator.
The time vortex opens above it, a swirling disc of blue luminescence. To the side, the generator projects a three-dimensional view of the past to which it has opened.
Everyone sees Joyjeet’s enclosure, sitting on the ping-pong table in his basement. It has two compartments. The left compartment is connected to a gas canister the size of a pill bottle. The right has a pressure switch on the floor and an LED light on top. A piece of plexiglass separates them. A white mouse meanders around the left compartment, bored with science.
“You’re seeing two months ago. The mouse on the left is the grandfather of the pup I will send into the past. The grandfather has not yet sired the pup’s father. The pup will enter the right-side compartment by way of the vortex. When it steps on the switch in the floor, the LED will light and gas will be released in the left-side compartment, painlessly killing the grandfather.”
A crowd gathers behind the judges. Their silence is uncomfortable. Joyjeet continues. “The Grandfather Paradox suggests the pup will disappear when the grandfather dies; however, then the pup will then never have existed to kill its grandfather in the first place. We will observe the result of introducing such a paradox.”
Joyjeet snaps the mouse pup into a harness attached to a cord so he can retrieve it when done. He guides it into the vortex with gentle hands.
The pup emerges three weeks earlier, in the right-side enclosure. Its pink nose sniffs. It steps forward. Trips the switch. The LED glows red, an angry eye. Fog fills the left-side enclosure. The grandfather slows. Lays down. Closes its eyes and dies.
The pup that traveled time vanishes. The two remaining pups from the litter, still in the present, vanish. All the mice vanish. Then the cages. Then Mister Holcomb, the judges, the AI in the next booth, the temporal field generator, the gym, the school, the earth below, the sun overhead, stars begin winking out, and Joyjeet is in his basement, watching a man scoop the brown bag of newly-purchased pet store mice from the ping-pong table.
Joyjeet shouts. “Hey! Those are mine!”
“Not anymore.” The man slips the mice into a shoulder bag.
The man is tall. Dark haired with a silver streak on the right side. Gray uniform. Black boots. Gadget vest. Larger version of the temporal field generator on his belt. Joyjeet realizes the man is a temporanaut. His voice is teacher-stern. “Because you almost destroyed space-time with them.”
Joyjeet scans the basement for evidence of chaos. “When?”
“Two months from now. Science fair.”
Joyjeet frowns. He hasn’t even started breeding the mice and already he’s failed. “The experiment doesn’t work.”
“Oh, it worked like gangbusters, kid. The problem is, space-time can’t handle paradoxes. Even when you breed the subject in a closed environment, time’s eggshell isn’t that strong. Fortunately, if you catch these things quickly, the universe doesn’t go belly up.”
“So much for Novikov.” Joyjeet stares at the man. “What am I supposed to do now? Everything in time travel has been done.”
“Okay. What’s left?”
“I don’t know. And even if I did, that’s not for me to tell you.” The temporanaut reaches for the field generator on his belt.
Wade’s taunts resound in Joyjeet’s head. “Are you going to erase me?”
“Erase you? Do I look like the back end of a pencil?” The man clicks a control and vanishes in a ripple of blue light.
Joyjeet sighs. He’s going to need to charge his tablet.
On science fair day, Joyjeet asks each of the judges to sign the program for the fair. He shows them an empty yellow envelope laying on his table. “I will pass this program through the vortex. Once it’s in the past, I will place the signed program in this envelope and seal it, at which time it will appear here.”
He slips the program over the portal threshold. Mister Holcomb disappears in mid-comment. The gym fades away. Joyjeet reaches for a yellow envelope that’s no longer there, then his hand is disappearing, the world turns to fog and Joyjeet watches the temporanaut snatch something from a whirling vortex that hovers in midair in his basement. It looks like a printed sheet of paper, but the temporanaut slips it into his vest before Joyjeet can be sure.
“What now?” It’s taken a day to work out the gyrations of the new experiment, a series of demonstrations of temporal malleability in the face of space-time alteration. All innocuous. All done with inanimate objects. He’d just set aside the envelope for the program he’ll get signed the day of the fair.
“It’s been one day, kid. Have you already forgotten our talk about time and paradoxes?”
It was more of a temporal magic trick than anything else. “I wasn’t testing a paradox.”
“That’s the Bootstrap paradox. Try again.”
“You’re killing me.”
“No.” The temporanaut is annoyed. “You’re killing everything. Knock it off.” Blue light swallows him.
A temporal causality loop. Self-visitation. Duplex-alteration theory. Gaidaszian recursive pluralities. Joyjeet plots each experiment with precise timings and innocent expectations. With every attempt, he’s no sooner finalized his project plan when the temporanaut appears from thin air, cuts him to the quick, barks at him.
“Do you like old movies? Because that’s the kind of thing that locks the whole world on a single day forever.”
“I’m not your crossing guard. Next time, I’ll let you liquify yourself.”
“For an arguably bright kid, you should know stacking changes like dirty plates is a bad, bad idea.”
Joyjeet begins to think he’s never going to get past the science fair, let alone freshman year. He writes a terse note to himself in block letters, telling himself under no circumstance to select time travel from the science fair list. He opens the vortex to the night before his poor choice. He’s about to slip the note across the threshold and into his own pocket when the temporanaut appears beside him and snatches it from his hand.
Joyjeet jumps. “Don’t you ever knock?”
“Not when some knucklehead is setting off a cataclysm by crossing his own timeline. Why, kid? Why are you so determined to wipe out the universe?”
“I’m not! Jeez, I just want to get an ‘A!’”
“Is an ‘A’ worth all this trouble? Couldn’t you just peek in on the Roanoke settlement, shoot video of Columbus discovering America, follow D.B. Cooper’s fatal jump? Something simple?”
“If I want to settle for a ‘C.’ I need an ‘A.’” He’d like to slug the temporanaut. “Why even let students play with time travel? It’s like giving someone a ball and telling him he can only ever bounce it against the floor.”
The temporanaut says nothing, but something catches on his expression like silk on a nail. The man rights himself, but the glimpse is telling enough for Joyjeet to understand.
“You don’t let students play with time at all, do you?” he asks. Puzzle pieces tumble into place. “It’s all simulation. A simulacrum the generator creates. Built out of numbers and theories and projections.” He cuts the man with his glare. “That’s how you’re always there, right on time to save the universe. Theoretically, space-time should unravel before you can even put your pants on.”
The temporanaut might be a butterfly with a pin in each end. He lifts the temporal field generator from the table, stares at it, through it, into a past Joyjeet can’t see. “You’ve got smarts, kid. No one’s ever hit even half of the stops you did.” He tosses the disc to Joyjeet. “You’re right. This thing isn’t a time portal. That would be lunacy. It generates a static temporal bubble. It lets us observe what you do. If you stumble off the path, so to speak, we pick you up and brush you off when the simulation collapses so you can start again.”
Joyjeet turns the disc in his hand. Gapes at the man. “Why even bother? What’s the point?”
The uniformed man answers with an amused grin and his own question. “Haven’t you wondered how the TPA identifies new temporanaut candidates?”
Joyjeet’s project, ‘Jesus and Mohammed: Observation versus Tradition,’ scores a lowly B-minus. The biggest criticism is Mister Holcomb’s: “Too much religion, not enough science.” Joyjeet doesn’t care. He wonders if his instructors are in-the-know regarding the field generator and the TPA. If they are, any grade lower than B for science fair time travel projects is simple meanness.
Wade stops by Joyjeet’s booth and shows off a gold medal for his simulation of silicon-based lifeforms. He parts with a boisterous “Suck it, loser!” Joyjeet says nothing. There’s no point. In two months, he’ll pass through the doors of the Sagan School for the final time. He’ll spend the summer enjoying his break, turning 13, and burying his head in catch-up reading for his new school. Come autumn, his life will be brand new. The TPA’s temporanaut training facility is a boarding school; a hard sell for Mom, but in the end, she couldn’t ignore the opportunity.
Joyjeet gathers his project, stuffs it in his book bag, turns in the temporal field generator to Mrs. Barrow, and climbs aboard the bus. He wonders if some future student will use the science fair to investigate his disappearance from Sagan, fueled by rumors that Joyjeet did something with time travel that shouldn’t have been done, that he was erased by the TPA as a result.
He hopes not. That sort of project never scores well.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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