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The paradox maker
Jack ripped the envelope. “Dear Mr. Harroway,” it began, “we are happy to inform you that your application for a study of the local effects of the 2030 Tehran terrorist attacks has been accepted.”
“Yes!” he shouted. “Yes, yes, yes!” His work at cultivating important officials had finally paid off. The bribes didn’t hurt either.
Jack was a brilliant physicist. Almost forty-five years old – his birthday just last month – he had everything a scientist could want: a great career, the admiration of his peers, even a great family. He did have one obsession though: he wanted to go back in time and kill himself.
Why? He probably couldn’t answer, at least not without a great deal of thought, but it was mostly because he had been fascinated by the idea the first time he encountered it, in some long-forgotten book on paradoxes. It was just a “thing” – some people collected stamps, some women, he wanted a clear-cut paradox. He didn’t trust the grandfather version, because there was always the risk that someone else was his real father; he wanted to be absolutely certain that he had a genuine paradox. A science-fiction story he had read long ago claimed that the Universe rejected paradoxes and would actively fight against them. Good. Jack was up to it. Man versus the Universe, what could possibly be more awesome?
Getting here had taken a lot of work. Time travel was a heavily regulated business, and time travel in the close past was almost never granted. The politicians were too afraid of someone changing the result of the last election. Jack soon realized that he couldn’t come up with any plausible excuse for his trip, so he focused on solving the problem through the most direct means: bribery and old-boys networking. Of course, that meant cultivating important city officials, but academia was good for that. There were fund-raising events, and alumni who had the necessary connections. As time passed, he had become more and more obsessed with the idea, sacrificing everything to it.
His wife was his unknowing accomplice. High society parties were her idea of heaven, and the young enthusiastic idealist who had married a poor scientist was long gone. She had grown more sophisticated – and, he would have to admit, more elegant – raising to the occasion as a graceful hostess. They didn’t have any children, something they were both happy about, so she would fully focus on their social advancement. It was a marriage made in heaven… well, it would have been, if not for his hidden goal.
Well, this was it. His had all the approvals he needed to go back in time 20 years. That was normally something historians would do, but he claimed he intended to write a book on the subject, and that coupled with a heavy bribe was a good enough excuse. He was absolutely forbidden from interfering or warning anyone, of course – and, in fact, had absolutely no intention of doing that. He was implanted with a full immersion recording device which was supposed to serve as evidence of his being a good boy and doing exactly what he was supposed to do – research only, no actions that would change the timeline. He was fine with that – in fact, a recording of his accomplishing a genuine paradox was a bonus.
Two minutes till the deadline. Jack went back over the plan once more. He would have been 15 at the time, living in the same city and already intrigued by the idea of time-travel paradoxes. Time-travel had started being practical not long before, in 2025, but it was still mostly used only by the US government. The foreign governments were making a lot of noise about it, at the same time sinking huge amounts in trying to reproduce – or steal – the invention; in fact, the Tehran attacks were supposed to be related to that. Time travel was in the news all over the world – and young Jack Harroway, 15 years old prodigy student, was completely fascinated by it. It had ultimately led to him becoming a physicist… and to this day.
Five more seconds… four… three… two… one… flash. There was no reason for any effects to occur when someone moved through time, but most people reported some sensation – flashes, blackouts, short-term dizziness. He was here, close to his old home – he chose that spot beforehand, with nobody questioning it. This was it. The high he was on was incredible – adrenalin was pumping through his body, giving him a sensation of invincibility. He was going to create a real paradox.
First things first: confirm arrival. No accident has ever been reported, but his experiment was too important to trust others. Trust, but verify, wasn’t there a president who said that? If something wrong did happen, he had an emergency return button he could use, but he was worried more about failing his attempt than about being stuck in the wrong time or place. In any case, that was quickly solved; he put a quarter in a nearby newspaper box and verified that this was indeed June 12, 2030. The attacks would occur at 9pm EST, and he was supposed to have arrived at 4pm. The Sun was still pretty high on the sky, so he assumed the time was accurate. Satisfied, he looked around and started walking to his destiny. That sounded so important – his destiny. He almost felt like shouting to the people on the street – the attacks are nothing, the economy is nothing: you’re witnessing destiny in the making! Eh, what did they know?
There – the house was just as he remembered it. His father would still be alive – he had died of cancer when Jack was 38 – and his younger version would probably be playing some online RPG. He was quite a fan in his youth; he didn’t much like the fantasy RPGs, but the sci-fi-themed ones was something else altogether. What could be cooler than having your own spaceship and travelling among the stars, fighting pirates and rescuing civilians? Wait – creating a genuine paradox and fighting the Universe would surely qualify.
He rang the bell. After a few seconds, his mother opened the door. “Yes?” she said.
“Hello, is Jack home? I’m his physics professor.”
“Oh,” she said, flustered. “Is there anything wrong? Has something happened?”
“No, no,” said Jack. “This is not school related. We’re both playing the same online game, we’re in the same clan actually, and I wanted to discuss something with him.”
“Oh,” she replied, a bit colder. He remembered that – his parents were never supportive of his infatuation with online games. He couldn’t object too much, really, since he now pretty much agreed with them that they were a waste of time, but back then it had been a problem.
“Please take a seat,” his mother said. “I’m Melanie, Jack’s mother; just a moment until I get him here. He’s probably playing right now.”
“Nice to meet you, Melanie; I’m Robert,” said Jack.
“Nice to meet you, Robert; it will only be a second.”
The young Jack appeared shortly. “Yes?” he asked, not recognizing the stranger.
“Hi, Jack, “ the future Jack said. “Sorry to bother you at home… there is a problem with the Paradox Engine and we need to solve it before the next clan fight.”
Young Jack’s eyes became larger. “The Paradox Engine” was his idea of a password to recognize his older self; in fact, he only came up with it two days before. His breath quickened. He suddenly realized what this meant.
“Oh, yes, please come to my room to discuss it,” he said, turning back without waiting for a reply. “Mom, we’ll be in my room, please don’t disturb us,” he continued.
“Ok, honey. Professor Robert, would you like something to drink? A coffee?” she asked.
“No thanks, ma’am, I’m fine. I won’t be long, please don’t bother on my account,” Jack replied. He quickly followed his younger self to his room.
Once there, the young version closed the door carefully and then sat down. “So… we did it. Well, you did. You came back in time.”
“Yeah,” future Jack replied. “It took some doing, as you can see, but we’re finally here.”
“Oh, wow. I can’t believe it. I mean, I only came up with the password two days ago. In fact, I don’t think I read about paradoxes more than six months ago.”
“Yes, I know,” said future Jack. “That’s why I chose this day; I wanted to make sure everything is still fresh in your mind. So, are you ok with it?”
“I’d prefer it. I’m worried that something might happen to stop us. That story I read, about the Universe actively preventing paradoxes from happening, really did a number on me. The closer we get to it, the more worried I am.”
“I don’t think I remember that story,” said young Jack.
“Hmm… I don’t remember exactly when I read it, but I guess it was after your time.”
“Ok. Let’s do it. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”
“Do you want to close your eyes?”
“Ok. You’ll make it quick, right?” asked young Jack.
“Of course. You’re me, remember? I have no intention of causing myself any unnecessary pain.”
Taking a deep breath, future Jack removed a ceramic knife from his pocket. A metal one could have been detected by the time travel office and he didn’t want that to happen. Folding it open, Jack steeled himself and with a sudden move, plunged the knife into his younger version’s throat.
Young Jack’s eyes flew open and he tried to put his hands on his neck. He tried to say something, but old Jack pulled the knife out and hit a few more times, finally managing to hit the heart. Killing someone is difficult, he thought, even when they’re cooperating. He was quite nauseated – he was not a psychopath, at least he didn’t think so, and seeing a young man die, and blood everywhere, was having an effect. The smell wasn’t helping either; he felt very dizzy… the room started spinning… everything was splashed with red blood… or was it black?
When he came out of it, Jack was back in his home… just before he had left for the local branch of the Federal Bureau of Time Travel. He was worried that he dreamt the whole thing, but he could still smell the blood, and in fact his clothes and face were still dripping red. Puzzled, he went to take a shower and change his clothes, hoping that his wife wasn’t home. This doesn’t make any sense, he thought.
“Jack?” he heard his mother calling. “What?” he replied, before realizing that this was impossible. He didn’t live with his mother anymore – she was back in the old house. Looking around him and seeing nobody, he decided that he must have imagined the voice. It didn’t last long.
“Jack, dear, I’m going out to buy some food. If your father comes home before me, tell him I won’t be long.”
Suddenly, he was back in the old room. Looking down at his hands, he realized he was in his 15-years old body. What was going on here?!
Over the next few days, he switched back and forth between his old and new selves. He had no control over the change, and he was starting to worry about getting out of the house – if the switch caught him while crossing the street, he had no idea what might happen. Unfortunately, that was not really a problem – causality seemed to have lost its power as far as he was concerned. Impossible things started happening – he would pour water into a glass, only to find it still empty, strong winds would start inside his room, he would hear or see things that nobody else did… worse of all, he started getting seizures.
He tried asking for help, explaining what he did to other physicists. Nobody believed him, mainly because there was no record of him ever going back in time, but also because his frequent body switches made the whole explanation incoherent. Jack tried going to a psychiatrist, but the medication did nothing but make him even dizzier. His apparent mental health worsened at an incredible speed, so in a couple of weeks his wife had no choice but commit him to an asylum.
Jack is happy now. All the inmates know that he’s the sole paradox maker in the Universe.