Carrie blinked as Frank opened the door. He looked just as he had two days ago. She smiled triumphantly. “I did it,” she declared. “I changed the past.”
“Ah! You’re the Carrie back from Friday?”
Carrie frowned. “Who else would I be?”
Frank shook his head. “Never mind. Come in, we need to discuss this history changing that you claim to have accomplished.”
Carrie was barely able to contain herself until they’d arrived downstairs. “All right,” she stated, putting down the time machine. “Sorry for not saying more on Friday, but time travel is confusing enough without me possibly explaining stuff to you before I leave to do it. But now… well, okay, first tell me about the weirdness you remember from Friday’s chemistry class.”
Frank nodded. “The fire alarm went off and the school was cleared out. Upon returning to class, we discovered that some of the chemicals in class had been spilled or mixed up during our absence. Vandalism was suspected.”
Carrie clapped her hands. “That’s what I changed,” she said. “The first time around, Julie had a plan to switch up the chemicals, to make you look stupid.” She fished the small recording device out of her pocket and tossed it onto the table. “And I have the proof of that original history right there.”
Frank blinked. “Julie planned–” He cut himself off, passing a hand over his forehead. “Never mind. Listen, Carrie, I suspected you’d been trying for something like this when you were here after school on Friday. The thing is, whatever you were setting out to change… whatever Julie’s original plans were… they never happened.”
“I know. Because I changed them,” Carrie stated matter-of-factly.
“No! That is, you affected things, but in the end you simply fulfilled what had already taken place,” Frank countered. “And if you’ll finally LISTEN to me, I think I can explain this in a way you’ll understand. But Carrie… you’ve got to give me a chance here. At least one, please!”
Carrie stared. Frank was actually getting upset here. So much so that Carrie was finally forced to admit to a certain curiosity as to why he was so adamant about what he was saying. Add to that the fact that she would need his help with the time machine, as had been demonstrated by the fact that she hadn’t been able to adjust it for her return…
“Okay, fine, throw your theory at me,” Carrie allowed, crossing her arms. “I’m sure I can point out the flaws.”
Frank sighed in relief. “Great! Now, the best scenario I’ve come up with to illustrate the fixed nature of time is the grandfather paradox. Simply put, I go back in time and kill my grandfather before my father is conceived. So, can you explain who killed my grandfather?”
Carrie shrugged. “You just said you did it.”
“But now my Dad hasn’t been born so obviously I don’t exist and hence couldn’t have done it.”
“Oh. Good point… um, someone else did it then. A time traveling stowaway.”
“Assume no stowaways,” Frank clarified. “If I’m the only time traveller, how do you explain it?”
“No other time traveler? Well, then you shot the wrong person by mistake. Or you were adopted without realizing it. Or it was your grandpa, but you were conceived by the milkman.”
“What? Er, no.” Frank frowned, and Carrie got the impression that he was becoming troubled by her responses. “See, the whole point is that it’s an unresolvable paradox. There is no real answer. The only way out of it is to declare that I cannot kill my grandfather in the first place! From this, we can extrapolate an unchangeable past as–”
“No, Frank, we’ve established that your grandfather got killed. Someone must have done it,” Carrie interrupted, unintentionally finding herself being pulled deeper into the conversation. “So after you fire your gun, things will change such that – if it’s not possible for anyone else to have done killed him – the person you killed is no longer in your family tree.”
“Carrie, stop,” Frank protested. “The whole point is that I’ve gone back to kill my grandfather. Not someone else!”
“MY point is he WAS your grandfather until you changed history. The fact that your genes are now different, with that guy being unrelated? Your own damn fault.”
Frank rubbed the side of his head, mulling that over. “This isn’t working out like I’d hoped,” he finally said.
“No kidding,” Carrie retorted.
“Okay, give me a second here,” Frank requested. “I think the trouble is that you’re trying to latch onto the multiple time tracks theory, while there’s better arguments for the principle of self-consistency.”
Carrie peered. “Is that so?” she asked warily. “What’s so wrong with this ‘multiple time tracks’ theory then?”
“It doesn’t flow as well,” Frank stated, starting to snap his fingers. “How can I put this… aha, wait, diagrams!”
He went over to his chalkboard and started erasing some old formulas. “I think you mentioned ‘Back to the Future’ once… ever see the sequels?”
“Yes,” Carrie admitted. “I don’t know that they were as good, but I hit an especially boring weekend and the first one had piqued my curiosity.”
“Okay, then you might recognize this argument, it’s connected to the second movie.” Frank drew a straight horizontal line across the blackboard. “Imagine that this line represents time. Here’s the present.” He wrote a large P in the centre of the line. “This delimits the past and the future.” He wrote ‘PAST’ to the left and a large ‘F’ to the right.
“Now, by your theory if I travel from this point in time…” (Frank indicated the P) “…to somewhere in the past…” (He moved to put an ‘x’ above the line in the past) “…and kill my grandfather, the timeline will be skewed into an alternate present.”
Frank proceeded to draw another line from the ‘x’ traveling diagonally downwards towards the bottom of the blackboard. He eventually levelled this line off at the centre and wrote ‘P-prime’ over it. “Results in multiple time tracks. Follow?”
Carrie nodded slowly. “So far.”
“Right then.” Frank dropped the chalk and dusted his hands. “The problem is that the me who traveled back in time came from this original timeline,” he stated, pointing at the first ‘P’ he had drawn. “Yet if I were to return from Past to Present, it would now be this alternate primed present,” he continued, indicating the second track. “In which I discover that there is now an ALTERNATE version of me with a different grandfather. A nasty time paradox that we wouldn’t get with my self-consistency theory.”
Carrie shook her head. “You misunderstood me. There’s no paradox if the timeline’s smart enough to fix things such that you don’t notice this alternate present,” she pointed out. “I mean, your alternate self could had a reason to leave that timeline for the past too. Perhaps becoming you in the process. So when you return to the present, you simply pick up where that alternate life left off, as if there was no change.”
Frank paused, looking back at the board. “Yeeeeees, I suppose,” he agreed. “But that results in a lot more temporal details to take care of. That’s… chaotic, confusing and hard to sort out.”
“Hence you prefer your less chaotic theory,” Carrie said dryly.
“Well, yes. With self-consistency, we get what I was saying before. Any changes made were fated to happen anyway!” He proceeded to erase part of his initially drawn line, the part lying to the right of the ‘x’ in the past. Then he erased the ‘prime’ next to his second P. “There is only ONE present. It’s not an alternate. Any kinks that exist in the timeline have always been there, as a result of us fulfilling our individual destinies.”
Carrie frowned, shaking her head slowly. “But the way you’re making things look now… the future itself is already mapped out too. You’re eliminating free will.”
Frank scratched his head. “Well, yeah, kinda. That’s the one little sticking point. But this IS the most sensible theory out of all the ones I’ve come across. Remember, I’ve had two years to look into this, Carrie. More than that, it explains what’s been happening with our time incursions thus far. For example, that crystal swan of yours.”
Frank pointed to the past ‘x’ again. “Let’s say that this is when it broke for you two years ago. From then on, we’ve been living the rest of this timeline.” Frank gestured at the skewed line on the board. “Now, when we finally reached Thursday, you traveled back to break it. You didn’t change anything. It had already happened; you were only fulfilling a destiny of sorts.”
Carrie folded her arms back across her chest and stared at the blackboard for an extended period of time before speaking again. “I disagree. It’s just as likely that, as soon as the swan broke, my brain changed to remember the new past. As opposed to the way things originally took place. Right? What’s wrong with that?”
“Well…” Frank began to fidget. “Well, nothing on the surface, I guess,” he admitted. “But if that really is the case, then the time traveler themselves is not immune to the effects of changed time. Meaning after you change something, you’ll remember only one timeline anyway. Beneath the surface, what’s the difference?”
“The difference is that I could get my mother back – and remember growing up with her around,” Carrie fired back triumphantly.
Frank gaped. He looked from the chalkboard to her and back again. “No, but… but no! You wouldn’t remember making that change,” he objected. “And what if, after making the alteration, you end up in a present you find even more unbearable? You might then want to change things again – creating whatever situation you had in the first place! You’re now in an endless time loop, so again, what would be the point in saving her?”
Frank turned back to Carrie, to see her glaring at him with pursed lips. This was the only warning he had before her fist came flying at his face.
“Sorry about that,” Carrie mumbled.
“Yes. Well. I guess I was arguing without considering the implications,” Frank responded, dabbing at his face with the ice filled handkerchief. He’d just come back downstairs after spending fifteen minutes getting his nose to stop bleeding.
“Damn right,” Carrie fired back. “You not only suggested that I could be behind my mother’s disappearance, but that having her around would be worse for me than how things are now. That’s horrible!”
There was a brief pause, after which Frank saw her start to twirl some hair in her fingers. “Though, ah, I do hope my overreaction won’t affect your decision on whether to help me time travel? I… I’m realizing that I may have, um, impulse control issues where my mother is concerned.”
She still wanted his help. Frank prodded his nose experimentally. Truth be known? He still wanted to help her. He wondered what that said about his psyche.
“Yes, well, I have always been willing to do more with this time travel stuff. I wouldn’t have spent two years coin collecting if I didn’t,” Frank said. “But Carrie, please tell me that you understand that there ARE issues to consider before going into the past? I mean, we’ve been stranded once already. We don’t want that to happen again, do we?”
Carrie shuddered visibly. “True, we don’t want that.” She frowned in thought. “All right then. How about this. If YOU agree to keep an open mind about fixing things with my mother… I’LL agree to back off until we know more about what could be going on here. Since my theory implies that I might not remember waiting a few extra weeks anyway.”
“I guess that’s reasonable,” Frank consented, sinking into a chair and tossing the handkerchief aside. “Thank you. I’m glad we’ve got that of the way.” He looked over at the lab counter. “Which brings us to the question of the time machine itself.
“I think it’s safe to assume that this technology comes from the future. Which either means it was sent back here for some reason, or… well, or there’s a person from the future running around in our present looking for their time machine. Now, I never saw anyone suspicious lurking around the ravine this last week, when it supposedly turned up. I don’t suppose you ever ran across anyone other than me down in there, did you Carrie?” She wasn’t paying attention. Frank cleared his throat. “Carrie?”
“What? Oh, sorry.” The blonde shook her head. “You’ve reminded me of something from when we were trapped in the woods. That nickel I used in the machine? It was given to me by a weird man. And the guy seemed to know that it was exactly what we’d need, like he knew why we were stranded out there.”
Frank sat bolt upright in his chair. “What? Did this person mention the time machine?”
Carrie shook her head. “Not as such. Not directly. All he said was…” She paused, brow furrowing as she tried to recall. “He gave me the nickel, then said, ‘It’s yours now. Do what you will with it. Just guard it. Don’t let anyone take it away from you.'”
“Don’t let anyone take the nickel away from you?” Frank wondered.
“The guy might not have had all his marbles,” Carrie admitted. “The two he was with didn’t seem to think highly of him… though again, they didn’t seem to know him either. Maybe this ‘Shady’ guy thought they’d take the money away from me?”
Frank frowned. “Guard it. Don’t let anyone take it away from you,” he repeated. He found his eyes being drawn back towards the table. “Could your ‘Shady’ have been referring to the time machine itself?”
Carrie followed Frank’s gaze to the enigmatic black box. “Don’t know.” She snorted. “But hey, I’m not someone who’ll lock a time machine up somewhere safe and forget about it. If Shady wanted a person to ‘guard’ the thing, no way was I tops on his list.”
Frank rubbed his forehead. “We’re also speaking of events that happened two years ago. Yet you only found the machine this past week. The only way this makes sense is if he knew back then that he’d be leaving the device somewhere for you to find in the future.”
“If Shady wanted me to have it two years ago, why not give it to me then?” Carrie pointed out, apparently irritated.
The two teenagers stared at each other in puzzlement. “I’m getting the impression that there’s something bigger than we realize going on here,” Frank remarked.
“You could be right,” Carrie admitted uneasily. “Frank, have you told anyone else about the time machine yet?”
“No. I figured no one would believe me until the proof turned up. Or that if they did believe me, that they would want to get involved. I didn’t want to deal with that either.”
Carrie nodded. “Then let’s keep it a secret. At least for now.”
Frank nodded. “I’ll go along with that.”
“Good.” There was a moment of silence. “Then I guess I’ll leave it with you for testing. Except before that, I gotta try one last thing.”
“Keep myself from traveling back to Friday.”
Frank blinked, standing back up. “Pardon?”
Carrie passed a hand in front of her eyes. “Frank, on Friday I got so caught up in my need for changing things that I yanked down on the school fire alarm and messed with your chemistry lab. Even though no one was hurt, that was WAY out of line. Even for me. I have to try to undo it, at least once, or I’ll never be able to live with myself.”
She took in a deep breath. “And the easiest fix is to keep myself from going back in time this morning. After all, if you’d been a little more convincing, I might not be in this situation at all,” she pointed out.
Frank ignored her attempt to shift blame. Instead, he considered a couple of different replies, based on what he already knew from that morning. He settled for saying, “Carrie, you must realize that you won’t succeed.”
“I admit that after our talk, it’s a bit of a moot point, in that if works, we may not know that it did. But damn it, I still have to try. I mean, the machine is set for today, I still have one current coin with me… all I can hope is that I’ll randomly travel back to a lot earlier in the morning.” She half smiled. “Hey, maybe it will erase me hitting you.”
“Carrie,” Frank began again, before stopping himself. Would he invoke a time paradox by telling her that he’d already witnessed her failure? “Be careful,” he concluded.
Carrie nodded. “Actually, I haven’t ended up anywhere weird when traveling by myself. I’ve been near the ravine out back of my house every single time.” Carrie dropped her coin into the time machine. “Though on the off chance something loopy happens, I’ll take your apple to eat, okay?” She grabbed the piece of fruit off the lab table.
“Talk to you later then?” Frank remarked.
“No, hopefully earlier,” Carrie retorted. One pull of the lever later, and in a flash of light, she’d vanished yet again.
Frank shook his head as he went to get the hidden time machine – the one left behind when Carrie had arrived from the trip for which she’d only now departed. Some aspects of this time travel stuff really would take some getting used to… but hopefully there would be some answers in the device. He now had all evening with which to examine it.
For instance, it was curious that all of Carrie’s solo time jumps were taking place in town. That had to be more than coincidence. Could it have been his presence that caused the greater distance? In fact, Carrie had said she’d always been ending up near her house… except for that last trip.
So she had departed from his house twice today, yet it had led to two different arrival points. Had there been any difference between the two trips? He’d noticed both had been with quarters, so it wasn’t that. Something she was carrying, perhaps? No difference came to mind there either, except for that apple.
Frank leaned against the table. The apple. Where exactly had it come from? He didn’t keep fruit down here. No, Carrie had dropped it off in the morning, after time traveling, then picked it up before leaving on that very same trip. … What?
Had she switched it for another apple somewhere outside the house in between? MUST be. The alternative was spontaneous creation from thin air! Yet by Carrie’s perspective, she’d had only minutes between when she picked up the apple, sprinted back here, and dropped it off. But then… what was its origin?
On second thought, maybe he could use a break before examining the machine. His head was starting to hurt.
(Carrie Time Tracker: To Carrie-9)
Frank was still puzzling over the problem some time later when the home phone rang. Being closest to a receiver, he picked up. “Hello?”
A male-sounding, yet strangely flat voice spoke to him. “Frank home?” it inquired.
“Speaking. Who is this?”
There was a pause before the emotionless response. “Julie suspects.”
Frank froze. “Pardon?”
Another pause. “Julie suspects. About your time machine.”
Frank gripped the phone a little harder. “Who is this? Carrie, is that you?”
Again a pause, until at last the monotone male voice concluded, “Take precautions. Watch your back.”
“But who are you? What precautions? What’s going on?” Frank asked.
The caller had already hung up.
ASIDE: Commentary 5, about my interest in time travel