Dropping a Pebble in a Dry Well

Hello. My name is Demetri Thornwick. I’m a graduate student in physics at Hawking University, but in your century you probably know it as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I just left Professor Mendalin’s Temporal Physics class, where I just received a D- on my term paper. The paper was on Dr. Franklin’s theory of Negative Timeline Distortions. I won’t bore you with the physics, but it involves the effects of changes made when traveling back in time (aka, Timeline distortions). Now, nobody disputes that the timeline will be irrevocably disrupted if a time traveler makes a major change, like detonating a 100 terawatt EMF pulse bomb in Hollywood. In addition, nobody disputes that a minimal change, like dropping a pebble in a dry well, will not disrupt the future one iota. The arguments always center on the Maximum Disruption with Zero Consequences (MDZC). You know, what’s the most I can change without screwing up the primary timeline.

That’s why I’m overwriting this web page, to prove to Professor Mendalin that my grade should be increased. You see, my term paper predicted that changing an obscure twenty first century web site will produce zero consequences. However, Professor Mendalin argued that 2d/(c2-ga )1/2 is not valid when DT>200 years. And, based on that, my successive derivations were worthless. Frankly, he’s an idiot. And, when I prove him wrong, he’ll have to change my grade to an A.

It’s relatively simple to infiltrate your twenty first century internet using a Tachyon carrier beam. I can do it from here, and you see the results real time. Now, clearly, I cannot make a drastic change, like take ebay off-line for a few hours. That would absolutely collapse my timeline, and my century would cease to exist. So, I decided to go back to April 13, 2006 and delete a story from 365 Tomorrows, and replace it with this dialog. FYI, I chose 365 Tomorrows because it only has a modest following; certainly below the MDZC threshold. In addition, twenty-first century critics all agreed that fewer people read the stories of Kathy Kachelries than any of the other writers, which I why I chose today, because it lowers the MDZC threshold even more. Surely, a few thousand lonely sci-fi geeks can miss one apocalyptic story without the world coming to an end. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure you’re all good people, but come on, you’re not a major thread in the tapestry of time. If my calculations are correct, the loss of that one boring story (less than two minutes of your life) will be equivalent to dro-ping a p-bble in a d-y we-l. Wh-t th- he-l is h-pen–g. -h, s-it…

The Education of Legs McGee

“Swimming’s easy,” Aaron said as he tightened the foam ring beneath her shoulders. “There’s only one rule: keep breathing. If you can’t find a way to breathe, that’s when you’re in trouble.”

Leah nodded as her brother gathered her into his arms, lifted her from the chair, and placed her carefully at the edge of the porch. She didn’t feel her feet dip into the water, but she saw the gray of the ocean swirl across her tan skin. “Mom says not to,” she said, for the fifth time in the last ten minutes.

“Mom doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” he said with a smile.

Leah watched the water, partially opaque with flecks of dust. The setting sun behind them soaked the light from the sky, and on the opposite horizon, the sky and the water seemed to merge into a thick band of black.

Her classmates called her a cripple: Legs McGee, to be precise. Sometimes, she thought of herself that way. Leah watched them swim to the edge of the schoolyard, hanging onto the edge of the net and daring each other to jump past it. She’d long since gotten over envy. In recent years, she simply watched them glide through the water with the ease of a native being. They were like fish, their shimmering skin glazed with saltwater.

“You can’t live on the ocean and never go swimming,” Aaron continued as he lowered her into the nearly opaque mass. Small circles of bubbles moved outwards from her skin and she clung to her brother’s arms as the sudden coldness wrapped around her waist.

“I can’t-”

“Don’t listen to them,” he said. The water was now splashing around the edge of the foam floater, and she felt it dip with her weight. Leah’s throat closed in silent panic. “Calm down,” Aaron told her. “Like I said, the secret is to keep breathing.”

He pried her fingers from his arm and jumped into the water, his black hair disappearing beneath the gray. “Aaron?” she called. There was no response.

The house was a silhouette now, cast against the watercolor sky. The ocean was completely silent. “Aaron!” she yelled. Leah slapped the water with her arms, trying to push herself to the point where her brother had disappeared. A loud sound erupted behind her, and beads of water met her shoulders.

“Boo!” he said, and she screamed. As her voice met her ears, Leah realized it was only partially terrified. She wiped the ocean with her palm, throwing water in his direction.

“You scared me.”

“I don’t know how to drown,” he said as he blocked some of the splash with his arm. Aaron wiped his eyes, then squinted. “Hey, how’d you get all the way over there?”

“I pushed,” she said.

“We call that swimming,” her brother told her with a deep smile. “Welcome to the club.”

A Lighthouse Through Time

No one knew how long Catherine Malone had been missing. Her absence was reported to the police after three weeks of unpaid rent, but neighbors admitted they hadn’t known that the apartment was occupied. “She kept to herself,” said the landlord.

The universe does not think in hours, days. There is no measure of universal time. Humans count one moment after the other. Consecutive time. But a vibrating cesium atom doesn’t know how many times it’s shuddered. A sun doesn’t know how long its burned. Time is dependent on the consciousness of the observer, and without someone to draw demarcations between the seconds, time becomes an unlabeled, unmeasured stream.

So what clock must a time machine be set by?

The landlord unlocked the apartment himself, but found no sign of his tenant. Half-read books and half-filled notebooks rested open upon every table, and a mostly-empty pizza box had attracted a halo of flies. The bed was unmade, and the dishes were filthy. The wooden floor was littered with crumpled clothing.

Does time attach itself to an object and move with that object? Specifically, would a time machine set for three days prior return the traveler to the room she departed from, or to the naked void of space left in the wake of the moving Earth? Can there be universal latitude and longitude in an expanding universe, or is that another human construction? In the latter scenario, how could a machine be set to return a traveler to the Earth?

The police could find no next of kin, and although a brief investigation suggested abduction, that theory was ultimately disregarded. “She probably just picked up and left,” said an officer in an off-the-record conversation. “People do that sometimes. Move to a different state to start over.”

Assuming that the problems of the initial leap could be easily solved, the biggest problem becomes the return journey. A person’s presence out of their own time would certainly change their future, so how could they return to the world they’d left? If an oddity like time travel were to spark the creation of an alternate timeline, how could the machine be set to return to the timeline of origin? Could a chronological beacon be constructed, like a lighthouse through time?

The case remained open, long after the apartment had been cleared and rented to another tenant. No next of kin appeared, and the woman’s belongings were donated to a nearby shelter. After a decade, the files on open but unsolved cases were moved to the basement of the precinct, where they rested for almost half a century before a flood turned the papers soggy and rusted the ancient hard drives. “We’re working to restore the old documents,” a representative said during a press conference, shortly before ordering the boxes to be returned to the basement. “These things are sixty years old,” he said to a coworker. “No one remembers them anyways.”

We Commit their Bodies to the Deep

Captain Ariella Claymore floated in the center of the cargo bay as Chief Bill Roberts manipulated the tractor beams to guide the lifeless spacecraft through the bay doors. “She’s an antique,” the captain’s voice crackled over the intercom. “There’s an American flag on the port nacelle. It’s got 54 stars. That puts her in the twenty third century. What’s a 500 year old ship doing way out here?”

The chief smiled at the needless complexity of the old design. “She must be an early experimental model. It definitely pre-dates the modern warp configuration. I guess it got out here using some form of hyper-light drive, but couldn’t get home. Was she manned?”

The captain maneuvered herself to look into the cockpit. “Yes. A crew of two. They’re not in too bad of shape, considering they’ve been dead for five centuries. I’m going in.”

“What we going to do with them, captain? Bring them back to Earth for burial?”

The captain passed through the ship’s escape hatch carrying a small case. “Can’t, Chief. Protocol is very specific. If a ship and her crew have been adrift for more than 100 years, it’s considered a reliquary. You know, like a shrine. We are permitted to download the logs for the historians, and to take tissue samples for the Med-Techs incase they carry antibodies we might find useful. Other than that, we are required to set them adrift again. Land is too valuable nowadays. Besides, they’ve been dead for 15 generations. Nobody on Earth knows these people.”

Clearly dissatisfied with that option, the chief said. “So their sacrifice was for nothing. They deserve to have their ashes dispersed on Earth. So their molecules can be used by other life. It’s like immortality. It’s my desire to die during a fiery reentry accident.”

As Captain Claymore exited the old ship she made a mental note to not use the same Earth-bound shuttlecraft as the Chief on her next visit to the homeworld. She shut the hatch and rested her hand on the hull for a few moments and said a silent prayer. “It’s not up for debate, Chief. I got what we need. Set her adrift.”

The captain moved toward the bulkhead and waited for the chief to nudge the old ship out the bay doors. The ship didn’t move. It was taking too long. Just when she was about to question the chief, she noticed the star field rotating through the open bay doors. Seconds after the stars stopped moving, the old ship was thrust out of the cargo bay at a velocity that captain Claymore thought was impossible. “Chief, what just happened?”

“Sorry, Captain. I guess I just accidentally launched the ancient ship toward a large red dwarf. It will collide with it in about 2,000 years. In about a million years, the star will go super nova. Their atoms will be spread throughout this quadrant. In a few billion years, some of them may be incorporated into alien life. I know it’s what I would have wanted if it were me that died on that craft.”

Ariella contemplated going after the ship, but decided to let it go. Maybe he was right. “Chief, you are the only engineer that I know who has a soul of a poet.”

“I’d appreciate it if you’d keep it to yourself, Captain. I have a reputation to maintain.”

Snakes On A Spaceship

The cryocrate rested unobtrusively in the corner of Sanitation Engineer Edward Holmes’s broom closet. It was metal, like most cryocrates, and marked only by the blinking temperature meter and a yellow sticker declaring CAUTION: MAN-EATING SNAKES to those who cared to read it.

Most of the flight staff did not care to read it. Their cargo was often covered with such warnings: CYANIDE, EBOLA, KRYPTONITE. In reality, the boxes usually contained smuggled Terran cigarettes or other things best kept from prying eyes. Not in this case, however. This box actually contained man-eating snakes.

The first three months of the journey were uneventful. The navigator navigated, the communications manager communicated, and the captain capted. Edward cleaned, as he’d been hired to do, until he ran out of the blue-colored stuff that smelled like mothballs. Edward had never been terribly bright.

“What in space are you doing, Holmes?” the captain exclaimed as he poured a bucket of used bathwater down the stairs.

“Washing, sir!”

“Why aren’t you using that blue-colored stuff that smells like mothballs?” she demanded. The captain had never been terribly bright, either.

“We’re all out of it, sir!”

“Well, get some from the storage closet!”

The captain stormed back towards the command chamber, leaving Edward Holmes to stare at the small bubbles and gray soapy liquid that coated the stairway. He prodded the liquid with his mop, to no avail. “What a mess,” he said. He propped his mop against the wall and headed off to the broom closet.

“Blue-colored stuff,” Edward said to himself as he stared at the boxes before him. He tried several, most of which were filled with test tubes, though he did find what he assumed was a human heart. Although all of the boxes contained stuff, none of them contained stuff that was blue. “The captain’s gonna be mad,” he said as he opened the lid of the final box.

The last thing Sanitation Engineer Edward Holmes heard was the bony click of an unhinging jaw.

Meanwhile, back in the command chamber, the captain was doing what captains do with remarkable efficiency. She’d long since mastered the art of making thoughtful grunts and sipping powdered coffee, and she’d almost perfected simultaneously casting condescending glances towards the other members of her crew.

“Captain!” exclaimed the exclamations officer. “I’m receiving a danger report from level 13!”

The captain sighed. “What’s wrong now?” she asked.

“I’m not sure!” he said. “It seems that some of the cargo has escaped!”


“I advise we secure the command chamber! And set course to the nearest station!”

“What cargo do we have that could escape?” the captain wondered aloud. Ever since the sentient fetus incident in the Alaran system, she’d refused to transport live cargo.

“Maintain course, Chief Exclamations Officer Jones. I’ll look into it.”

“As you wish, sir!”

The captain stood up and strode to the door, which she opened with a tap against a glowing panel. No sooner had the metal panel opened, however, than a slithering scaly mass made its way into the chamber. “Snake!” she screamed as the large form wrapped itself around her leg. “Jones, do something!”

The Exclamations Officer, however, had problems of his own. The keyboard of his station exploded forward in a spray of plastic, immediately followed by a dozen ringed reptiles. He screamed as one creature’s fangs pierced his neck.

The security officer, who’d never had excellent aim and neglected to consider the logic of using a heat-seeking weapon on a reptile, managed only to stun three members of the crew while trying to target his legless adversaries. “Snake, I kill you filthy!” he screamed as a cobra slapped the gun from his hand with its tail.

The chamber was alive with serpents. The violent hissing was a battle cry unequaled by the sounds of any Terran revolution. Valiantly, the officers and engineers tried to defend their ship, but it was in vain. The snakes, those cruel, cold-blooded bringers of despair and death, had won in a matter of minutes.

“Nooo!” was the final human cry to penetrate the tumultuous sibilance. Then, the Exclamations Officer too was devoured.