%/%/%/%/ THE TIME MACHINE \%\%\%\%
By Mike Meginnis and William VanDenBerg
m: You are in your laboratory. The world's first time machine, your greatest invention, is at the lab's center. It looks like a phone booth, with its glass walls, and the bank of dials on the green control panel inside. There is a wooden stool in the time machine. The door is closed. You know that it is time to test the machine -- to see if it is safe. The time machine's external controller is on the table; it looks like a Mead composition notebook, but it is not a Mead composition notebook. Your assistant, who was killed in yesterday's experiment, stands frozen in time beside you: divided lengthwise in two, the halves several inches apart. Your assistant's body will remain this way forever. There are various tools also on the table. There is your assistant's laptop computer. There is a flickering light, and there are healthy lights with young bulbs. West, a door to your office. North, a door that leads to a hallway. The time machine hums.
w: What tools are on the table?
m: There is a ball point pen, black. There is a power drill. There is a Science Gun. There are several packs of chewing gum. There is a scale. There is a ruler. There is a Test Watermelon.
w: I stash the pen, the gum, and the science gun in my lab coat. I turn to face the assistant frozen in time. I place my hand in the gap between his halves.
m: It is warm here, between his halves.
w: Write "Take me to the past, 5000 years ago. Please don't cleave me," on the not-Mead composition notebook.
m: The Mead notebook crosses out what you have written. You understand this as an acknowledgment of what you have asked.
w: Open the door of the time machine. Throw up before getting in; close the door behind me. Try not to look at the assistant.
m: Inside the time machine the air is still, and cool, and smells of wasted time -- of movies that you never should have sat through, of people who touched your arms and made you listen to them speaking, of sleeping in too late on a Monday, of waiting for the microwave to finish cooking something that you never should have eaten. When you sit down on the stool, the machine will do its work -- or it will kill you trying.
w: Try to believe this isn't an act of forgetting, of abandonment. Then sit.
m: The machine disappears. You are alone on the stool. There is nothing, and then there is mud. Muck and vegetation, bushes like piles of brightly colored flowers. Thorns on thorns. Trees leaning on other trees. You are alone and the stool is here but the machine is not. It's quiet here.
w: Try to climb the nearest tree. Try to get my bearings, see what's around me. Curse under my breath while doing so. Realize there is no one around, curse louder.
m: Birds take off from the tree and float upward -- half-formed birds from long ago, with bodies like balloons and stubby wings that barely seem to help. From up in the tree all you can see is more trees, and other birds, and the strands of swamp gas that rise here and there between them.
w: Climb down, grab the stool, start off in a random direction. Take the Science Gun out of my lab coat and hold it at ready. Try not to walk too fast. Try not to run.
m: Running would be difficult, in the swamp -- it's hard enough to keep from sinking ankle-deep into the muck. (The stool is heavier than it looks, also.) The trees thin as you walk, though the ground stays muddy. You come to a clearing, where strands of water and dirt mingle, and there is the smell of something rotting, and you can see the sun is small. Very small: like when it was a baby sun.
w: What is rotting?
m: At first you think the ground itself. And then you see that there are small fruits, here and there, like peaches, fallen on the ground, and these are what is rotting. They look like the sun will look when it is a dead corpse sun.
w: Put some of the less rotted fruit in my coat pockets. Exits?
m: You might follow the slow, trickling flow of the water where it is headed, to the west, where the clearing opens wider. Or you might walk east, searching for the water's source. Or you might walk south, to return the way you came. Or north, toward a mountain. (There is, somewhere not far from here, a sound like a very heavy footfall.) Or you might try the stool.
w: Follow the sound.
m: This leads you east, toward the source of the water. You find a tyrannosaurus rex licking moisture from the mud, the weight of its massive head seeming to bend its body in half (it rests on its nose, letting its mouth hang open to lick the water up). Its mouth is smeared with muck. Its body is an angry red. It doesn't see you yet.
w: Keep the fear down, don't breathe too loud. Aim the Science Gun at the tyrannosaurus. Fire.
m: The Science Gun gathers terrific amounts of information about the t-rex in the blink of an eye: its measurements, its weight, its age, its diet, its atomic composition, its distance from the sun, its capacities for misery and joy, its likely lifespan. You can, if you so choose, later import these measurements from the Science Gun into the Science Computer in the lab, thus allowing you to run various simulations on a computer-generated version of the dinosaur. The dinosaur might have felt you doing science on it with the Science Gun -- its visible eye wanders, slowly, in your direction.
w: What is its capacity for joy?
m: It is fifty. Fifty is not very high. Right now, lapping up mingled mud and water, it registers at 40 joy points. This is nearly as happy as it gets.
w: Slowly back away from the t-rex. Head north toward the mountain.
m: You reach the foot of the mountain. Here there is a very young boy sitting alone on a pile of soft grass, sucking his thumb. He is brown-skinned, naked, thin. His black hair has never been cut -- it is slicked back with mud. He looks up at you with frightened eyes. The mountain is not a very large mountain. (And it is strange, that there should be a mountain here, now, where there was not one in your time.) You may go north to climb the mountain, south to return to the muddy clearing, east to enter another swampy wilderness, or west, to follow the very small sun.
w: Shoot the science gun at the very small sun.
m: After waiting a long time for the Science Ray to traverse the distance and return, you learn about the chemical composition of the sun, about its size and weight, about its heat, its age, its capacities for misery and joy, its hunger and its thirst. You learn that it is very slowly growing.
w: What is the sun's capacity for misery?
m: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,001.
w: Climb the mountain.
m: You climb the mountain. When you reach the peak it is night; the sun is setting, nearly gone, just a sliver on the horizon. The moon is coming out. It is a small, young moon. The stars are coming out, as well. They are bright and sharp and clear. You don't know these constellations.
w: Put the stool down and sit on it. Get the science gun out. Shoot it at yourself.
m: You see your measurements, your age, your weight, your chemical makeup, your loneliness, your diet, your hunger, how cold you are up here, how many years you have left to produce children, your capacities for joy and misery.
w: Think about checking your capacity for joy. Decide not to out of fear that the t-rex is happier than you. Get off the stool. Try to find a comfortable place to sleep.
m: You find a niche in the side of the mountain, and a rock with sufficient moss to peel and use for a blanket. What do you dream, inside the niche, beneath the moss?
w: Dream about how my hand felt between my assistant's halves. Dream about the child by the mountainside. Dream that I sleep for thousands of years, erode the mountainside into nothing with my sleeping. Wake up screaming, staring at the sun.
m: The sun screams back. (You've startled it.) The mountain is not gone. If it has been thousands of years then these have not been enough. The sun may be larger. The swamp jungle may be thicker, taller, or it may not be. The mud below may be more mud than what there was before. As the sun drifts west to escape your gaze, you see a meteor shaped like a star. It is growing quickly or it is falling toward the Earth.
w: Run down the mountain toward the meteor. Forget the stool. Remember how long its been since I've had anything to eat or drink.
m: Too long. The stool looks lonely on the mountainside. The Science Gun would report its capacity for misery as a 5. Not so high in absolute terms, but high for a stool. The meteor is running toward you too. What will you do when your body and the meteor's converge?
w: At first I hope it doesn't kill me outright, but then I think about slowly dying on the mountainside, lying half-crushed under the angry small sun. I change my mind, hope that if it does kill me, it kills me quick.
m: Will your sacrifice save the dinosaurs? Will it save the t-rex bent in half, drinking mud water? Will it save anything at all?
w: Nothing will be saved. The meteor is too large. If there were time I'd go north, east, south, west. I would point the science gun at everything, graph their size to joy ratio in the mud. I'd sleep in the niche, tell it about my assistant, yell all my secrets into it. I'd pay attention to the stool, chew the gum, eat the fruit and bear the visions that it gave me. But no, nothing will be saved.
m: Describe, in 1,000,000 words or less, the total impact of your presence in this past on world history. Do not neglect to mention any and all changes in the fields of politics, economics, architecture, music, food, navigation, dance, medicine, or philosophy caused by the obliteration of your body here and now.
w: Total Impact: A thin layer of carbon amongst other thin layers of carbon.
Bio: William VanDenBerg is from Denver, Colorado. His work has appeared in Caketrain, LIES/ISLE, elimae, and others.