The yard sale was one of those haphazard affairs, full of the kind of junk that no one in their right mind would actually take, damaged or torn or merely out of the realms of taste altogether. This is a powerful camouflage for the good stuff, and any experienced bargain hunter will tell you that the larger a morass of hand-me-downs and chipped Formica, the better a prize underneath.
I once found an a James Deakin and Sons egg timer amongst some horribly tarnished flatware; it clocked in at three minutes and forty five seconds, which says something about how long it took to boil an egg in 1903. Another such garage sale earned me a Railroad-approved BW Rageon pocket watch, which only took a bit of polish to look the same way it did in 1927. So when I unearthed the device from under a seriously disturbing collection of polyester sweaters, I knew it was something to treasure. I just didn’t know what.
“It’s a time machine.” A portly fellow in dark socks and sandals noticed me handling the thing, careful not to nudge the knobs. “It requires six ‘D’ batteries.”
“Pull the other one,” I said. It didn’t look like a time machine, but it didn’t look like anything else, either.
“No, seriously. It’s a time machine. I built it. Used it, even.”
“Oh? Whatâ€™s the future like?”
The man laughed and regarded me like a retarded child. “You can’t go into the future! It hasn’t happened yet! Just the past. But you can go in the past all you want.”
“Hold up. You can go in the past with this? Change what’s happened? Isn’t that, I dunno, dangerous? Kill a butterfly, change the world, that sort of thing?”
The man huffed. “Nonsense. The universe is not so poorly designed. If you go back in time with the intention of changing things, one of two things is going to happen. One, you’ll be totally ineffectual, and people won’t notice you or heed you, and it won’t make a damn bit of difference whether you were there or not.”
“What’s the other?”
The man’s eyes and voice suddenly went cold. “People do notice you. And you end up being the cause of the very thing you were trying to prevent. You end up destroying the one you meant to save.” He was quiet, and reached out to touch the device in my hand, but thought better of it. “I’ve failed too many times. It doesn’t make any difference. This cost me thousands of dollars and years of my life, but I’ll give it to you for five bucks if you if you just take it away and never bring it back.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
He looked up at me, his face flushed. He motioned blindly to his yard, strewn with trivial remnants from a life, someone’s life, priced at a bargain. “I’m selling everything else that reminds me of her. They never belonged to me, anyway. I shouldn’t keep what isn’t mine. The universe won’t let me. Five dollars on that there time machine, my final offer.”
I took it, as well as 1951 “Cort” model Seth Thomas with an alarm that still worked. On the drive home, I thought about the man’s words when I asked him one more time whether or not you could use his machine to change events.
“The present is unavoidable,” he said. “It’s best not to think about it.”
There was nothing special about Ming, nothing unique. She had no exceptional talents, no carefully-kept secrets, no inventive thoughts, no special intelligence. She liked to go to parties and shop for clothes and wanted to be a good mother someday. Her face was pretty, her hair and skin smooth and well-kept. She was generic, shaped just like a high school girl was supposed to be, completely normal.
The other kids sneered at her in the hallways, looking down their noses at the girl who was so average she didnâ€™t even have a zit. They whispered about her behind her back, how her parents were Old World, backwards, people who didnâ€™t believe in gene-picking and liked to let nature take its course. It was like theyâ€™d never left planetside. Ming hid her face behind her books, burying herself in her carefully-done hair and manicured nails, shrinking away from the crowds of unique faces, people who didnâ€™t look like the perfect model of a human being.
At night Ming would kneel by the side of her bed and clasp her palms together, eyes squeezed tight shut, praying that God would break her nose so that it would be bent like Terriâ€™s; or give her birthmark like Shelindaâ€™s, that looked like a crescent moon; or stunt the growth of her arm like Bellineâ€™s; or even just make her eyes glow in the dark like Marieâ€™s. She knew better than to ask for a lisp or to shrink her height overnight or for her fingers to suddenly start bending the wrong way on command. God didnâ€™t like people who were greedy.
Ming prayed with all her might, but every morning she would wake up to a perfectly symmetrical face in her mirror and cry. She would always be normal, always look just like the generic pictures in the history books, the perfect human standard of beauty. She would never be different like everyone else.
In the lunchroom Ming hid in a corner, eating silently off of her tray, afraid to get up and throw her trash away because the other girls liked to trip her and make her spill. She didnâ€™t notice Eleanor until she heard a whispered â€œheyâ€ and looked up, to find the most popular girl in school sitting across from her. Eleanorâ€™s left cheek was sunken in, the skin over it smooth and taut like a scar, never tanning or moving. Ming looked down at her plate, knowing she would never have something beautiful like that. She didnâ€™t speak.
â€œHey,â€ Eleanor repeated, â€œhey, look at me.â€ Eleanor was looking at her with fascination, almost reverence, entirely different from the rest of the girls in school. Ming frowned.
â€œI heard youâ€™re normal.â€
Ming swallowed and nodded, feeling lower than dirt. She felt her heart sink into the pit of her stomach.
Eleanor didnâ€™t sneer, though, or scoff like the rest of the girls. She just looked at Ming, wide-eyed, her half-smile unable to reach the sunken side of her face, but trying. â€œThatâ€™s so cool.â€ The smooth, beautiful skin of Eleanorâ€™s left side pulled against one eye, making it seem sad even though it was shining with wonder. â€œI wish I was normal,â€ Eleanor whispered. â€œIâ€™m so tired of being just like everyone else.â€
Talia looked out over the cacophonous melee of engineers in the warehouse. Each of them bustled about; porcupines of fused wiring and welding tools. It made her so proud. A rapid metallic pounding announced the arrival of a messenger.
“Take it easy, Dobs. What ya got for me?” Talia brushed her fingers back through curly white hair, curiously awaiting his news.
“Tex says thereâ€™s been another breach. Some knucklehead dropped an X33 flyer on the Italy. Accounts say it was witnessed by a whole village.” Dobs made no effort to conceal his stare. It wasnâ€™t necessary. Taliaâ€™s eyes became unfocused and eventually closed. Dobs had heard of this before but had never actually seen the progenitor at work.
Slowly one hand made its way to her abdomen. After a few seconds her body snapped to attention. Her eyes opened and Dobs noticed for the first time that they were the precise green of new leaves in springtime.
“I got an idea.â€ She said, incandescent with excitement. â€œHave Fells and Watson make up an architect mold, have this one be a genius, draw with one hand, write with the other at the same time sort-of-thing.â€ Dobs turned to carry out her order. â€œBut we need to have him be subtle.” She turned and watched the engineers working, piecing together life-like models of individuals from all manner of places and times.
“Call it DaVinci. He’ll be a jack-of-all-trades. But for God’s sake make sure his work is programmed to invent the X33 flier. Some crude form of it.” Dobsâ€™ face showed his amazement. Standing up he wiped off his greasy hands and regained his professional composure. “I don’t know how you do it, Tal. Government asks us to fix problems left and right and you just keep coming up with ideas. Ancient Rome, Middle Ages, hell, even 20th century. How?”
Her glance up at the dome roof, the way it curved and rounded out, gave her away. “We’re Patchers, Dobs. When they make a mistake, no matter what time or era, it’s my job to ensure we don’t mess it all up. Now, get the message to Tex.” Dobs nodded and began to trek back down to the main floor.
“Oh, and Dobs? Give it to Leon for inspection before we ship it out. Have him give it a first name.”
“You got it, Tal.” Dobs saluted and went on his way.
“Yesterday,” Jason said, “I killed Marilyn Monroe.”
“No, I mean it. I really did.”
“I believe you,” Thomas said, in a noncommittal tone. It worked like this: Jason was lying, or Jason was not lying. Lying /= not lying. He hadn’t been in the complex for long enough to understand the inadequacy of the equation.
“She’s better than in pictures,” he continued. “â€Not like you’d think, though. She has roots, dark brown ones. And she’s a little chunky. There was something about her, though. Something right.”
Something right, two things wrong. One minus two equals negative one thing right. Regardless, Thomas nodded. There was inadequate information. Jason = sane or insane. Until the first equation could be solved, its postulates were irrelevant.
Thomas had been born on a math farm. In some way, he understood this. His brain didn’t work in the same way that Jason’s brain worked. But Jason’s brain must have been altered, since he was in the complex. If he was randomly, uselessly broken, he would have been euthanized at birth.
“I didn’t want to do it,” Jason said. “but somebody had to.”
Thomas said nothing. Jason sat down on his foam mattress and began rocking.
“Do you ever wake up and know that something has to be a certain way? Like, if it’s not that way, the universe is out of order? History’s like that, for me. Someone has to make it right.”
“Chaos equals unpredictability. All things are predictable with numbers.”
Jason smiled thinly. “You’re a strange one, aren’t you?” He stood up and slipped his feet into the government issue blue slippers before heading to the door.
“Where are you going?”
“Seclusion. Oswald needs a little prodding.”
“Oswald?” Thomas asked. “Who’s Oswald?”
“We’ve had a problem with the cursing, haven’t we, dear?” Mr. Olivestone said, handing an iced tea to his wife. Helen Olivestone took it with a slight smile, but didn’t drink from it until she meticulously removed every drop of condensation from the glass with a paper napkin.
“Well, naturally. Thankfully, it’s mostly been in French, or German. What did the Bookmans say she said? In Chinese? It was darling!”
“It was “˜Tyen-sah duh UH-muo,’ I believe,” said her husband. He handed iced teas to Jennie and Edward Mandrake, the Olivestones’ guests for the afternoon.
“That’s adorable!” said Mrs. Mandrake. “I suppose it’s just a consequence of implanting.”
“Not really surprising,” chimed in Mr. Mandrake. “Curse words are base reactions to base emotions. Not really surprising at all that aâ€”how old is Rachel?”
“Seven months,” said Mrs. Olivestone.
“But she had a mouth on her out of the womb! Swearing up a storm right in the delivery room!” Mr. Olivestone wiped his forehead as he spoke.
“Not surprising at all,” Mr. Mandrake continued. “She’s just expressing herself in the most direct way possible.”
“I am so impressed that you chose languages, Helen,” Mrs. Mandrake said. Mrs. Olivestone flashed a tight smile at her guest before turning her attention back to her iced tea glass, which had once again gotten covered with little water droplets. Mrs. Mandrake massaged her swollen belly. “I wanted something artistic like that, but Eddie insisted on mathematics.”
“Got to give them an edge, don’t we? I hear even Quincy’s daycare won’t let you in without a scholastic implant anymore,” Mr. Mandrake said.
“We’re on the waiting list for Dalton’s.” Mrs. Olivestone said, not looking up. “If she doesn’t get into Dalton’s, she can forget about Harvard.”
“You care so much for Rachel,” Mrs. Mandrake said. “She’s so blessed. You give her so much.”
“Yes, well,” Mrs. Olivestone said, getting out of her lawn chair. “This heat has certainly gotten the best of me. I believe I shall have to go inside before I faint.” She left the garden party and hurried inside the house, wiping what appeared to be perspiration off her face.
“Probably going to check on the baby,” Mr. Mandrake said.
“Oh, no,” said Mr. Olivestone. “It wouldn’t be good for her. We only know two languages apiece. We can’t be in the same room as Rachel for at least another year.”
“You can’t have a ray gun,” Jolie said as she dragged her pen across Jake’s sheet. “They didn’t even exist back then.”
“My character invented the ray gun,” Jake clarified, and Tim snickered. “What? Somebody had to invent them.”
Above the terradome in Jolie’s mother’s living quarters, thousands of LCD crystals shimmered to give the illusion of a cloud passing over a digital sun. Jolie, newly sixteen, had moved to Io with her mother because the exchange rate inflated child support to nearly three times what her father paid. She hated the terradome, she hated Io, and she hated the circumstances that brought her there, but above all else, at this moment, she hated Jake. On Earth, people knew how to make character sheets.
“Besides, how do you know they didn’t exist? Were you there?”
Jolie sighed deeply. “On Earth they taught us something called history, Jake.”
“History is for pussies.”
Tim, ever the level-headed one, removed the pen from Jolie’s hand before she forced it through Jake’s cranium. “Why don’t you buy a revolver?” he asked his younger brother.
“He can’t have a revolver either. His character’s a Network Administrator, for Christ’s sake.”
“I’m a rogue Network Administrator.”
“Look,” Jolie said, “I’m not going to run a Microsoft game filled with ray guns and rogues. Either you learn the system or you find someone who wants to run Apple.”
“All I’m saying is that someone had to invent the ray gun, and I don’t see why it can’t be me.”
Jolie retrieved her pen and underscored the word NO several times.
“I thought you said this game was about imagining stuff.”
“It is. Imagine a world without ray guns.”
“That world sucks,” Jake said. He pushed his chair back and leaped up, heading for the door. Tim lifted his hand to stop him.
“Jake, just give it a chance. There was plenty of cool stuff back then, right?” he asked, looking to Jolie for verification. Jolie nodded enthusiastically, then considered the late twentieth century, then nodded again with slightly less force. “Like cars,” Tim continued. “Everyone had their own personal spaceship for the road.”
Jake hesitated before the door. “Can I have a car?” he asked.
“Cars ran on fossil fuels. They practically raped the environment. Plus, according to the sourcebook, traffic in Silicon Valley was…” her voice trailed off. “You’d know better, if you were from Earth,” she finished.
Jake smiled broadly and folded his arms across his puffed chest. “Well, I’m not from Earth,” he said proudly. “I’m imagining it.”