By Chet Gottfried
JOHN SLAMMED HIS SUITCASE shut and began filling another when the doorbell rang. He paused, and the bell rang again.
Is Claire here already? Why didn’t she call?
They had bet whoever finished packing first would telephone and then drive to the other’s home. The loser would have the aisle seat on their three-week honeymoon cruise to the moons of Saturn. He hated aisle seats.
John raced out the bedroom, down the too-long hallway, through the living room, and to the front door. He opened it and groaned. It wasn’t Claire. The woman outside wore the black and green livery of FTS.
“Message from the future, Mr. Mason, courtesy of Future Transport Service.” She slipped on a pair of plastic gloves. “Open your mouth and say, Ah. ”
The procedure was annoying, but FTS held the monopoly on communications from the future and set all the rules.
The messenger deftly stuck a slender rod under his tongue, withdrew the rod, examined the readout, and dropped it, as well as the plastic gloves, into her biohazard satchel. She gave him a large plastic envelope.
“Recipient confirmed, receipt confirmed, and we debited your FTS account five hundred and fifteen dollars.”
Messages from the future didn’t come cheap.
Back inside his home, John cut open the envelope and read:
Don’t xxxx on honeymoon cruise.
xxxxx xxxx it.
xxxx xxx xxxxxx.
He recognized his DNA code and thumbprint at the bottom.
John angrily crumpled the message, but because it was on the unique FTS plastic, it immediately straightened out.
“What a stupid message! Is that the best I can do?” He knew, however, that he couldn’t blame his future self too much. The real culprit was the FTS censor who decided which data wouldn’t seriously affect the future. “I wish I had better info, like the date of the crash. I mean, what if we delay our honeymoon for a month and then go to Saturn? Is that the cruise which crashes? Or is it some other trip we select instead of the Saturn one? I wanted to see Titan. Claire was looking forward to the cruise too.”
Then reality struck.
“The flight is today. I’ll lose my deposit if we don’t go. Shit! Why didn’t the future me warn me earlier?”
He didn’t think he could afford to ignore the message. John anticipated having a long life and didn’t intend dying on his honeymoon. Then an idea occurred to him: There might be standbys who could take their places. It was a popular tour, and maybe he’d recover the deposit if he acted fast. He rushed downstairs to his den, where he kept his Omega 5001 Web Elite computer system, and yelled, “Get me the GoRight Travel Agency.”
“Get it yourself,” his Omega replied. “I’m busy.”
Before John had a chance to answer his computer, he had a shock. A stranger was sitting at his Omega, and anger overcame any caution.
“What are you’re doing in my house!” he shouted.
The stranger turned around and faced John.
“Don’t you recognize me?”
That puzzled John. The person appeared familiar, but John couldn’t place him: twenty something, black hair, a trifle out of shape, and chewed fingernails. The stranger could have been John, except for the fingernails.
“No, I don’t.”
“I’m you, John Mason. I’ve decided to visit for a while—from the future, of course.”
“That’s impossible! FTS has an exclusive with anything involving time travel and that only includes dumb messages, not people.”
“Time passes, Johnny boy. New inventions and all that. I thought I’d visit my old self and get a handle on things.”
“If you’re truly me, you’d know how much the nickname Johnny annoys me.”
“Claire prefers calling you Johnny. Or is that calling me Johnny? Anyway, to keep us straight, you can remain John, and I’ll be Johnny. Okay?” He smiled.
John immediately disliked his “guest,” whoever he was.
“I broke her of that habit.”
“You changed your mind—after the divorce.”
The news stopped John cold. “What divorce?”
“You’ll decide she’s been unfaithful.”
“We only got married this morning.”
Johnny nodded. “Yes, in the registry office. That’s when you made the packing bet with her.”
John staggered against a chair and held onto its back to keep his balance. The creep was telling the truth. Johnny was the future him.
“But why are you the same age as me?”
Johnny seemed surprised and then laughed. “That must be odd, meeting a future you who hasn’t aged. No wonder you didn’t recognize me, but I’m way older than you. Well, here’s the scoop: A terrific company will pop onto the scene, Rejuv Corporation. The Rejuv people can bring you back to any age you want. I chose twenty-three.”
That’s a company worth investing in, John thought. Then he remembered the FTS message and gave it to Johnny. “Did you send me this? Would you care to fill in the blanks?”
“Oh yeah, I remember. I sent that twenty years ago, when life was different.” He folded the plastic paper and shoved it into a pocket. “Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but our own daughter will be the scientist who develops personal time travel. That’s why I’m here, because I’m on the inside track. The machinery is experimental, and I volunteered to give it a spin.”
A twinge of pride ran through John. His daughter would be on the forefront of technology.
“I’m going to have a brilliant daughter. What’s her name?”
“Why would I name her Shirley? There aren’t any Shirleys in my family.”
“From Claire’s. She named our daughter after an aunt.”
“I agreed to that?” John asked.
“Shirley was born after your divorce.”
“Well, thanks for nothing,” John said disgustedly. “Is that the only reason you came here? To make me feel bad about everything?”
“Not at all. I was on a trip down memory lane. I wanted to experience the web like it was in the old days, before government interference led to a total breakdown. The web isn’t worldwide anymore. Each country has its own.”
John collapsed onto the chair. “Not the web. What a bummer.”
“Yeah, so you see I want to use my time wisely. At this point, I can only stay a few hours, so I’d like to surf as much as possible. Sometimes the good old days are really good.”
“Is that it? Is that all you’re willing to tell me?” John asked.
“Yeah, you’re too stubborn to appreciate common sense, but if you’re willing to do a favor, do you know what I’d appreciate? At present, there’s a ban on beer. I’d love a pale ale. Do you have any Bass in the fridge? What about real food? Soy beans can take a person only so far, and a ham and Swiss cheese sandwich would do wonders for me.”
“I don’t have any beer. Only a couple of bottles of champagne.”
“Champagne will do.”
“That’s for Claire and me,” John snarled. “I owe her that much, especially if our marriage doesn’t last.”
“What about the sandwich?”
John sighed and got to his feet. “I’ll fix one up. And maybe I do have a bottle or two of beer.” Alcohol might loosen Johnny’s tongue, especially if he hadn’t been drinking.
“Thanks, and if you want any advice from the future, it’s buy beer. The more you have now, the happier you’ll be later.”
“I’ll remember that.”
John slowly walked up the steps to the main floor but stopped when his ear phone rang. He tapped his ear and said hello.
Claire’s cheerful voice burst out: “I’ve finished packing, and I’m on my way over.”
“Anything wrong? You don’t sound yourself.”
His information wasn’t the sort to pass over the phone: their honeymoon delayed or canceled and their looming divorce.
“I’m fine, just distracted with packing. I’m looking forward to seeing you.”
“A half-hour,” she said and rang off.
John had another unpleasant surprise in the living room. A young boy was lying on the sofa and staring at a tablet.
“Hello,” John said. “I bet you’re from the future.”
The boy looked up and nodded.
“Yeah. I needed a quiet place to study, and according to time records no one was living here.”
The implication, John figured out, was that he went on the honeymoon cruise after all, even if the brat had the wrong date.
“Hey mister, I can’t get a wireless connection, and I have to finish my homework. What’s the integral of secant cubed?”
Before John could answer, the boy faded away.
Was time travel unstable? Did different timelines come and go as future life changed because of past actions? Perhaps the boy would never be born. John hoped something like that would happen to his future self: disappear. But he didn’t feel like checking downstairs. Far easier to fix a sandwich. If Johnny wasn’t around, John would eat it himself.
Nail biting. What a dumb habit to pick up. How did that happen? John shook his head, wandered into the kitchen, and saw a dozen or so people standing behind a line of brightly colored rope.
A man wearing a suit and tie was addressing them.
“Here is the kitchen in which Cynthia toiled with her mother, Claire Mason. Note the primitive devices, such as a microwave. Back then, no one anticipated the heights Cynthia would achieve in her field of time travel.” Then the speaker noticed John. “Please stay behind the line.”
“I live here,” John said. “Who are you?”
“How lucky, ladies and gentleman, an actual man from the past will speak to us.”
Cameras clicked and flashes flashed as the tour members recorded the encounter.
The stranger held out his hand. “I’m Claude Reynolds, the leader of this AYSI tour. We conduct As You See It tours into the past for various events, such as the historic moment when Cynthia wrote her first equation, scratched in flour, on the table. She should be here any moment. And you are?”
“I’m John Mason.” John extended his hand, but their hands passed through each other.
“There you have it, ladies and gentlemen, the superiority of AYSI tours. We visit the past but do not change it.” Reynolds beamed at everyone, who politely applauded.
“Excuse me,” John said, “the very fact that you’re here at all means you’re changing the past.”
“Allow me to demonstrate.” Reynolds turned to an older gentleman. “Mr. Thomas, who won the Super Planet last year?”
“The Super Planet was won by—” and a horrendous siren filled the room, drowning out the remainder of the answer. John covered his ears and stumbled into the table.
“All AYSI tours feature the latest technology,” Reynolds said, “to ensure nothing untold will occur.”
John released his ears and hoped the ringing in them would stop. “That’s great. Now would you mind getting the hell out of my kitchen?”
“We’re waiting to see Cynthia. Until then, please ignore us. We won’t get in your way. Think of us as ghosts. Incidentally, would you tell us your relationship with her, Mr. Mason.”
“I’m her dad.”
“Cynthia’s father?” Reynolds asked. His group gasped with excitement. He checked a small device. “Strange, I don’t have any notation of her father living here.”
“Cynthia hasn’t been born yet.” John wondered what happened to Shirley.
“What year is this?”
“How silly of me! We should be in 2065. Well, if you’ll excuse us.” Reynolds turned a dial, the group faded away, but several flashes still went off.
John surveyed the empty kitchen with satisfaction.
But he wished he had asked them about the Shirley-Cynthia discrepancy. How many daughters did he have? Did an alternative timeline produce a different daughter, who was also a scientist? Was she responsible for the repeated invasions into his home? And how many types of time travel did his daughter invent? Some included a physical presence, and others, like the tour group, weren’t actually there.
He no longer felt like preparing a snack for his future self and left the kitchen. “I might as well unpack.”
In the bedroom, he began emptying a suitcase, taking out his favorite sweater, a green turtleneck.
“Probably too warm for a flight.”
Someone grabbed him from behind and put hands across his eyes.
From the pressure against his back and the voice, John knew the person was a woman.
John twisted around in the embrace and saw the woman wasn’t his wife. He broke free and took a step backward.
“Who the hell are you?”
The woman was the same height as John but wearing a stylish gown slit open high up her thigh.
“I’m Joan Mason.”
She winked at him.
Her features, although feminine, were depressingly familiar. Another visitation.
“You’re a future me,” he said. “And I’ve had a sex change? Whatever for?”
“At first, I, or you, wanted to make it up to Betty. I decided being the same sex would make bonding easier. Betty never forgave how you treated her mother, our wife.”
From Shirley and Cynthia to Betty? How many timelines were there? The common factor for each was falling out with his wife, Claire, and becoming estranged from his daughter, whatever her name.
“Wait a moment,” John said. “You said the first reason. Is there another?”
Joan nodded, embraced John, and kissed him passionately.
John broke free. “What are you doing?”
“Get ready for a night of fantastic sex, lover boy!”
He retreated from her, stumbled against the bed, and sat heavily on it.
“I can’t sleep with you. That would be like—Well, that would be like—”
Joan sat next to him, crossed her legs, and touched his arm.
“Trust me, there’s no comparison. You’ll never have enough. I know exactly what you desire.”
John bounded off the bed. Shaking, he pointed a finger at her.
“Never, absolutely not! There’s no way that I’ll ever get into bed with you, so get out of here!”
Joan stood up and pouted.
“Is that what you think happened? I’ve researched the timelines, and in fourteen out of twenty possible futures, we were wild about each other.”
She snapped her fingers, and a floor-to-ceiling screen appeared on the far wall, showing a holographic video of twenty-four young boys.
“Our descendants, over fifteen generations, John. Every Christmas they get together from their different time periods across the centuries to celebrate our joining. I recorded them last year.”
The boys sang:
Si puer cum puellula
moraretur in cellula,
Could she be telling the truth? That he fathered generations of children with himself?
“That’s horrible,” John declared.
“Do you think so?” Joan snapped her fingers again and video vanished. “I’ve told Jason and Sidney to learn the piano. Carmina Burana isn’t the same without, as a minimum, the four-hand piano accompaniment.”
John wasn’t paying attention to her. Running through his mind was that everything began going wrong as soon as he and Claire got married. Not the marriage precisely, but their daughter. If they had no daughter, time travel would be limited to FTS. Just messages. Nothing else. John owed it to the world not to have the child whose brilliance allowed monstrosities to occur. He staggered out of the bedroom. What to do?
John ran into the bathroom, opened the cabinet, and grabbed his bottle of birth control pills.
“Am I up to date?” he asked.
“Yes,” the bottle replied.
Good. Claire couldn’t get pregnant, but was that sufficient? Then John knew what he had to do. He’d leave Claire and never see her again. He wouldn’t do that for himself but for all humanity. That woman’s womb was a disaster. With that realization, he felt able to return to the bedroom. Happily, Joan had vanished.
Was Joan’s time line obliterated, or did she go searching for another man? Not that John cared, he wasn’t the least bit jealous, but he was a little curious. John grabbed the one packed suitcase. It would do.
By the front door, he met Claire, whom he glared at with hatred.
“Out of the way, bitch!”
John ran down to the street. Seeing a taxi, he waved his arms until the vehicle stopped next to him. He opened the door, flopped into the back seat, and closed his eyes.
The driver asked, “Where to, bud?”
“The Harrisburg Spaceport.”
“Are you kidding me? That’s over an hour away, even in good traffic. Tonight’s ain’t so good.”
The voice sounded somewhat like his own, and John dreaded opening his eyes, but he did. Maybe a future John Mason had taken too many Rejuv treatments. The driver looked like a teenage version of himself.
“I’ll pay anything. Take a big tip too. I’m good for the fare, but I have to get to the spaceport as soon as possible.”
The driver stared at John.
It had to be.
“You’re me from the future,” John said. “You’ve taken one Rejuv treatment too many.”
“I’m not you. Look at the license. I’m Rodney Atherton.”
John sighed in relief as Rodney threw the taxi into gear and got onto Route 322. His relief changed to worry when the taxi skidded around a turn.
“Maybe don’t drive so fast,” John said.
“Relax, I know these roads. Besides, we’ll be going at a crawl once we hit the traffic outside Harrisburg. But I am from the future.”
John began chewing on a thumbnail. He wondered whether Rodney had a driver’s license.
“Congress outlawed Rejuv ten years ago,” Rodney said. “You know the present population of the planet? Thirty billion, and there’s no room. We’ve sent them to planets, colonized the ocean bottom, and whatever. None of it worked. So then we thought time travel. We go back into the past and try to fit into whatever year feels reasonable.”
“As a taxi driver?”
“I majored in it during college. I’ve a master’s, but as soon as I save enough, I’m returning to my own time. Maybe start a company or something. No offense, but you primitives can get on a guy’s nerves, even if you happen to be my grandpa.”
“You’re my grandson?”
“One of them.” Rodney turned around to face him. “Grandma said the resemblance between us was uncanny. That is, before the accident. After the crash you needed lots of reconstructive surgery to make you look human again.”
The taxi skidded off the road, flipped over, and John lost consciousness.
* * *
Claire dropped her two suitcases when John pushed past her. Her lower lip trembled on his getting into the taxi. What possibly could have happened to John? They were only married a few hours ago.
Someone tapped her shoulder, and she turned around. John! She leaned against him in relief.
“Who was that strange person?” Claire asked. “He looked so much like you, John, and he was so angry.”
“Now that we’re married, why don’t you call me Johnny. You always liked that name better.”
She gazed into his eyes and smiled.
“But who was that person?”
“An old college chum who wanted to rent my house while we were away, but I declined. Harry is hard up right now and couldn’t handle disappointment.”
“That doesn’t explain his poor behavior, but why wouldn’t you let him stay here the three weeks?”
Johnny escorted Claire into the living room.
“Have a seat, dear.”
Sitting on the sofa, she tucked her legs beneath her.
“What’s wrong?” Claire asked.
“I’ve some bad news. I received this note from FTS.” He gave her the message. “Given the circumstances, I think it’s best to postpone our honeymoon.” He smiled. “I’ve prepared something special for you. I’ll be right back.”
Claire read the note over and over again and felt increasingly frustrated. When Johnny returned, she waved the message at him.
“It isn’t fair. I do wish the future you wouldn’t interfere with our lives.”
Johnny shrugged. “The future me has the two of us at heart. It means I’ll be caring for you now and forever. To begin, here’s a treat to cheer you up.”
He held out a tray, containing two ham-and-cheese sandwiches, glasses, and a bottle of chilled champagne.
“We’ll have our own private celebration, with the best yet to come.”
“Johnny, you’re so sweet. Silly too. Sandwiches on our wedding night? But you remembered the champagne.”
“Of course!” Johnny put the tray on an end table, uncorked the bottle, and poured the champagne. He enjoyed her look of anticipation as he handed her the drink. This life pleased him all too well. Pity he had to go back.
Then the thought occurred to him. Why return to the future? Why obey the “time rules?” Here he had real food and real ale, not to mention a beautiful woman.
Johnny clinked his tall-stemmed glass with hers. “Full drinks ahead, darling.” And damn the time bureaucrats! Satisfied with his decision, he laughed aloud.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I’m so happy.”
She took his free hand in hers. “I hope you never change.”
Chet Gottfried is an active member of SFWA. He has recently published two novels with ReAnimus Press. His stories have appeared in “Space and Time Magazine,” “Jim Baen’s Universe,” and elsewhere. He is a frequent contributor to “Perihelion.”