Impossible, you say. A contradiction.
I can resolve it. Let me take you to the beginning and explain it through my son’s eyes, for he has told me the whole affair in great detail.
Well, naturally enough, the temptation was too great to resist. Nathan pushed the door open and stepped inside. His eyes enlarged in amazement at the object which took up most of the floor.
It was the biggest egg you’ve ever seen – six feet tall and constructed of dull grey metal. I say constructed because it was obviously a man-made thing, held together with rows of protruding rivets, and standing upright on three small metal legs. Perhaps the biggest give-away was the rectangular hatch hanging open on the side.
What is it? Nathan wondered in awe. He knew what it resembled most – he’d seen drawings and photos of this kind of thing in The Unexplained. Was Dad trying to produce some elaborate UFO hoax? Somehow that wasn’t Dad.
He moved closer, peered through the hatch, and got his next shock. This was more than just a metalwork project; the thing had controls! The interior of the object was cramped, containing just enough space for the padded seat, and in front of it Dad’s old 286 PC and monitor.
Nathan felt a tingle of excitement as he touched the egg’s exterior and ran his hand along the metal. Is this some kind of joke, he wondered, or does it do something?
There was one way to find out. He swung his legs through the hatch and slid into the seat, facing the computer. His own reflection stared back at him in the dull grey glass of the monitor.
There’s no power, Nathan observed, and I didn’t see any wires leading in here, but I wonder… He reached around the back of the PC and flicked the switch.
Immediately there was the familiar clicking noise of the computer’s hard drive booting up. When the screen had warmed, a simple menu presented itself.
F1 OPEN/CLOSE HATCH
F2 SET DESTINATION
Oh my God, this is a craft! Nathan realised, his insides swelling in excitement. And all these years Dad has been making it in secret. I wonder where it goes.
The topmost option seemed the safest. He pressed the first function key.
The words PLEASE WAIT appeared. Simultaneously there was a low hum, and the hatch began to move inwards. Darkness crept over his surroundings as the natural light was forced back outside.
Panic gripped Nathan at the thought of being trapped in here, and he jabbed F1 again. PLEASE WAIT the computer was still saying, and the hatch was still closing.
There was a soft clunk, and the cockpit – if you could call it that – was bathed in darkness, except for the sinister green glow from the letters on the screen.
Nathan had used enough computer programs to understand what the letters meant: date, month and year. He’d seen this kind of thing before. Obviously the PC was requesting today’s date before it would let him proceed. He fumbled with the keypad in the dim glow, and typed 230745. He had already pressed the return key before he realised he had botched up the year; it should have been 95. No matter.
The monitor went dark for a moment, then returned to the original menu options.
What? He pressed return again, and again. Nothing was happening. Nathan’s heart sank. This was no craft; it was some sophisticated playhouse. He giggled at his own silly imagination. Still, this was good. He pressed the third and final function key.
The screen went dark, and the “playhouse” started to hum. Then it started to quiver. Then it started to shake violently.
Then Nathan started to get really scared.
There was a sharp, deafening bang, followed by a stillness and silence.
Nathan felt claustrophobic and terrified in the cramped darkness. A sob escaped his throat. The seconds passed. Next he would scream.
One green word cut through the thick darkness: ARRIVED. A moment later the computer returned to the original menu.
Nathan punched F1 and prayed.
There was a fine line of light which grew into a large rectangle, and the darkness was banished. Odd smells permeated his nostrils, smells which reminded him of camping in the woods.
Nathan squinted at the brightness, and clambered outside. “Ah!” He winced at the temperature of the exterior metal; you could fry an egg on it.
His feet landed on, not carpet, but grass. He took in his surroundings, eyes wide, mouth agape in amazement. This was a secluded field surrounded by a row of trees. Some cows were staring at him fifty metres away.
He swung around and glared at the egg which brought him here. Smoke was rising all around it.
It’s on fire! he deduced, but no, the smoke came merely from a patch of burnt grass underneath the craft.
Dad, what is this? he wondered. What have you made? And where has it brought me?
Nathan trudged off, not intending to go far, just to those trees over there.
Beyond the big oaks was a tall stone wall. He found suitable branches and climbed up far enough to peer over.
On the other side was a familiar street – Princess Way, close to where he lived. However, there was also a certain unfamiliarity about it. The houses were a different colour; the porches and gardens were all wrong; the Tarmac was a lighter shade of grey; there were very few cars, and they were all vintage.
The answer clicked in Nathan’s wild imagination. 230745; this was the twenty-third of July, nineteen forty-five.
“This is real,” he whispered, feeling a strange mix of joy and fear. “I’m back in time.”
Observing the geography of the area, Nathan knew that there should be a road leading into Abercorn Park right about where he was situated. There was no such road, of course, because Abercorn Park hadn’t been built yet. No doubt the egg’s present position in the field was – or will be – the exact location of Dad’s study.
Nathan’s friend Paul lived in number fifty-one Princess Way, which he could see from here. Presently a figure emerged, going about his daily business – a middle-aged man, a stranger.
The unrecognition sparked a new emotion in Nathan – an acute fear never being able to return home, of never seeing anyone he ever knew again.
Get out of here.
Adrenaline flowing, Nathan punched F1 and prayed a second time.
The door got halfway open before a shower of sparks spewed out of the PC like bees from a nest, and the computer died. The hatch was stuck fast, but there was just enough room to escape.
Breathing rapidly, covered in sweat, Nathan crawled through the gap, ignoring the egg’s hot exterior, and fell to the ground. He slid out of the way fast, anticipating an explosion, but none came.
“Oh God, no. NO!”
It was the same field, with the same trees, with the same… No, there were no cows. And the western edge of the field seemed closer than before. And he hadn’t noticed the roofs of those houses beyond the west wall in 1945 either, nor in 1995.
I’ve travelled, but where, to what time?
Desperation clawing at him, Nathan sprinted for the trees and clambered up to view Princess Way again.
A lump stuck in his throat as he saw that the street wasn’t quite right. The cars were modern enough, but the colour of the houses and the layout of the gardens were slightly different than those he knew.
He glanced back at the time-travelling device, and felt a touch of despair. Smoke was pouring out through the hatch in a thick black cloud. It was ruined.
He felt like crying out for Dad like he used to when he was younger and frightened, but a glimmer of hope held him back. Maybe this time is just slightly into the future, 1998 or 2000. That’s why things are different.
That wouldn’t be so bad.
He climbed out along a branch and jumped down onto Princess Way. The first thing that caught his attention was the red car across the road. It held his gaze because he didn’t recognise the model. He approached the vehicle and read the silver label on the rear. It said: “FORD NEXUS”.
There was no such car as a Ford Nexus, at least not in 1995.
It fits! Nathan reasoned. I’m just a little bit into the future.
He walked briskly up to number fifty-one and rang the bell – a new bell, he observed.
A woman answered the door; she was not Paul’s mother nor anyone else Nathan had seen before.
“Is Paul in?” he asked.
The woman shook her head. “There’s no Paul living here. You must be at the wrong house.”
Nathan began walking along the street, worried. Then he resolved the present mystery, and felt a bit better. Paul had moved, that was all. A lot could happen in a few years.
Find out exactly what date it is.
Easy. Buy a newspaper.
Crawford’s newsagents store was nearby, but when Nathan turned the corner, he discovered the shop was gone. There wasn’t even a building where the shop should have been.
Did Crawford’s move too?
Maybe. He hoped so.
But the larger, more important question, which he didn’t even let himself think about yet, was, where had Abercorn Park gone? In other words, where had home gone, and where had Dad gone?
There has to be a newsagent somewhere.
He jogged along the pavement, out of Princess Way onto Killicomaine Road and further. Nothing was quite the way it should have been, especially the cars. There wasn’t a single model he could place; they were all slightly unfamiliar shapes with unknown names – a Ford Feldspar, a Volkswagon Nebula, even a Bradbury Sovereign – whoever Bradbury was. He also noticed that the field opposite the post office had been turned into a new housing estate called Sinclair Manor.
Nathan reached Carrickblacker Avenue and spotted the old building of Carville’s newsagents. At last, something he recognised – though he didn’t recognise the woman behind the counter. He had no money, but a glance at the cover of the Portadown Times was all he required. He couldn’t help noticing that the logo was different.
The date read 23rd July 1995. Today’s date.
The full force of it sunk in at once. I’m home, but it’s not home. I’m home, but it’s not home.
A horrible sense of loneliness overcame him. He broke down into uncontrollable sobs, calling out for his father, until the bewildered shop assistant came and put her arm around him, and tried to comfort him.
The police suspected mental disorder, so they put his picture on the news to try and find the real parents.
No one responded.
Three days went by, when there was nothing to do but wait and watch TV or read. Then the breakthrough happened. Nathan spotted his father’s photograph in the local newspaper; he was the winner of a national science competition. The police located the man’s address, and an officer took the boy there. It was Stewart Avenue, a place well known to Nathan, but he had never lived there.
There stood a police officer with his hand on the shoulder of a boy who didn’t look much over twelve.
“Mr Jack Goodwin?”
“Yes.” There was a painful look in the officer’s eyes, like he had to say something he really didn’t want to say.
I detected the hand was there to hold the child back from rushing at me for whatever reason.
The cop sighed. “Mr Goodwin, I’m sorry, but this boy claims to be a Nathan Goodwin; he claims to be your son.” He gave an I-know-it’s-crazy shrug.
I smiled at the absurdity of it, then the grin was wiped off my face as the boy broke free and hugged me tightly around the waist sobbing and muttering.
It took some effort for the officer to pull him loose, and the cop began apologising profusely.
I would have thought the youngster had lost his marbles, if it wasn’t for what he said next.
“It’s me, Dad!” he cried hysterically. “Your time machine! I came back, and it’s not home any more!”
My breathing stopped. How could anyone know that I had been researching time travel. Especially this child. I gazed into his face, and I could see truth in his eyes. Whether he was crazy or not, he really believed that I was his father.
I got down on my haunches to face him squarely. “A time machine,” I said flatly, hoping he would explain further.
He could tell I didn’t recognise him, and he burst into a fresh load of tears.
“I’m sorry about all this,” said the cop. “We’ll be on our way.”
“No!” cried Nathan, struggling. “I won’t go! I won’t go!”
“Boy,” I said, not realising how harsh that word must have sounded to him, “this time machine. Do you know where it is?”
He nodded, rubbing his red eyes.
“Will you show it to me?”
He nodded vigourously this time.
I stood up and winked at the police officer. “Will that be all right?” I asked.
“I get it,” he said. “Exorcise the demons, right? Sure, I’d be glad of your help.”
The officer and I peered through the open hatchway.
A short laugh escaped his throat. “What kind of a joke is this?”
I could see the burnt remains of computer keyboard, monitor and seat. It did seem kind of absurd. But the egg shape…
The officer turned to the boy, who stood nearby. “Do you know who made this?”
Nathan pointed at me.
“What will happen to the boy?” I inquired quietly.
We’ll keep looking for his folks. He has to come from somewhere.”
“And if you don’t find them?”
“Bocombra Children’s Centre, I guess. Why?”
“This is Dad’s time machine,” Nathan piped up, “but it blew up.”
The police officer turned to him and spoke softly. “Nathan, this isn’t a time machine, and this man isn’t your father.”
Nathan looked frightened and angry.
“We have to go now.”
He started to cry again.
“I knew you were telling the truth when you said you travelled through time,” I told him.
A wonderful hope filled his face.
“You see, for years I’ve been trying to crack the secret of it. I’ve never actually built anything though. I’ve never come close to that stage.”
“But it was your machine I used,” he explained.
“Yes, I believe it.”
He looked at me, puzzled.
I shrugged. “Beats me too.”
Eventually I pieced together what had happened to Nathan, and I explained it to him, as I will now explain it to you.
The first important thing I deduced was that the only things which Nathan found familiar were things that originated before 1945. Myself, for instance, born 3rd September 1943; his Aunt Compton and Uncle Hewlett, my own kin, both older than I; Carville’s newsagents, standing as long as I remember. But why was everything which was younger than 1945 unknown to him?
Imagine that it’s 23rd July 1945. Cows are grazing in that field beside Princess Way. They don’t stop and stare, because nothing out of the ordinary is happening. No egg-shaped time machine appears; there’s no traces of burnt grass, because 1995 hasn’t happened yet, and the time machine hasn’t been built. The years pass; life goes on; people are born; people die; things are built; other things are destroyed.
Now it 23rd July 1995. Nathan Goodwin travels back in time to 1945. This time the cows stop and stare at him; this time there’s a patch of scorched grass in the field. Things are slightly different now; reality has been altered by a tiny fraction. A few minutes later Nathan travels home again to 1995, but let’s stay in 1945 for a while.
It’s two hours later. Suppose a group of youngsters are playing in the field, chatting about soccer. One of them spots the black circle of grass where the time machine had sat. “Hey, somebody’s had a campfire,” he says. “You ever go camping, guys?” But in that other reality no one mentioned camping, because there was no scorched grass. Now the course of their lives has been very slightly altered.
Later that evening the boys depart to their respective homes, except this time they’re two minutes later than they would have been had they not been distracted by the burn. In one such home Mum starts talking, but she says something other than what she would have said had her son been two minutes earlier, because now her thoughts have moved on to another subject. And so the mother’s life has been slightly altered from what it would have been if there had been no patch of burnt grass. Because of this, the mother is thinking about something different as she goes to bed, and something different when she wakes up the next morning.
The following day all of the boys’ families go about their business, working, meeting people, talking; touching other peoples’ lives, altering their lives ever so slightly from the original line they were supposed to follow. Then all those people they conversed with touch the lives of still other people, and so on, and so on, until the interaction spreads across the whole world like a chain reaction, and the entire planet becomes very slightly deviated from its original path.
Perhaps it seems unbelievable that such an insignificant event as a group of kids observing burnt grass could have such a vast effect on the world. Just remember that nothing dramatic is happening. History has only been changed from following one ordinary course to another slightly different but still perfectly ordinary course. However, remember that this slight change could mean the different between somebody escaping a fatal accident by a hairs-breadth when they were destined to be killed, or somebody else being killed in an accident they were supposed to miss by the skin of their teeth. These people who shouldn’t be alive will then interact with the world, changing it again from what it would have been.
What about the strange cars? Just follow the logic. Let’s say its 1970 and somebody wants to start a new car company. He needs a catchy name. The word “Bradbury” comes to mind. However, in that previous reality where no time machine appeared in 1945 and where all events followed their original course, the same man picked a different name for his company. Why? Because his life had followed a slightly different course, therefore different things came to mind that day in 1970. Similarly with the Ford Nexus and Feldspar, titles which are familiar to you and I. Nathan knows the name Ford because it’s pre-1945, but the models he remembers have strange names like Escort, Fiesta and Sierra.
The most frightening aspect of Nathan’s experience I have yet to tell you. Why is it that for Nathan 1995 is a world populated by strangers?
Again follow the logic. It’s 1945, it’s bed-time, and men are making love with their wives. But remember their lives have been slightly altered. One man might have orgasmed in five minutes when it should have been six; another decides not to have sex that particular night, but does it the following morning. Eventually everyone in the world would be following a slightly different lovemaking course than what they would have been doing had there been no time machine that fateful 23rd July. So men plant their seed in women; out of thousands of sperm that are swimming along like tadpoles, one fertilizes the egg, but in every case it’s a different sperm than it should have been. And nine months later it’s a different child that emerges from the womb. And so, throughout the following years, an unrecognisable population is born.
What about me then? Nathan claims I’m his father. And so I am. You see, in the world Nathan knows, I was married to a woman called Emily, who died in a car crash when he was four, and I ended up becoming the scientific genius who discovered the secret of travelling through time. In this altered reality – the world I know – my life’s experience turned me into a lonely bachelor who only got halfway in cracking time travel. Perhaps it was Emily’s death that gave me – or him – the vigour to complete the time travel project with greater speed – the hope that maybe he could stop the accident ever happening.
It’s all purely hypothetical, you say. It all hangs on a group of kids being in that field on that particular day.
Whether it was a few kids, a farmer, or an old man out for a walk, sooner or later someone was going to interact with that patch of burnt grass, and change everything.
Never see again? What if I continue my research and build a new time machine? Still Jack Goodwin would never be able to see Nathan again. Just follow the logic, and you’ll understand why.
And if you happen to be the one who builds the first time machine, and if you decide to go backwards, be sure you don’t plan on coming home, because when you travel back in time, the laws of the universe only sell a one-way ticket.
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