Allan Myrtle was typing at his computer, inputting code into a large machine sitting beside him. After years of work, his time machine was finally almost ready for real testing, he just had to prepare the machine’s instructions for longer time jumps.
Then, a device on the table behind him started to beep. His mother needed him. He got up from the computer desk, and checked the device.
He ran upstairs to check on his mother. She had fallen in the living room, and needed help getting up.
“Hold on, Mom,” Allan said, walking over to her, and he bent down to help her get up. He scooped his mother up in his arms and put her on the couch.
“Thank you,” his mother replied.
“Just sit here and rest,” Allan said, “don’t exert yourself.”
When Allan was just a child, his mother was seriously injured in a car accident with a drunk driver just outside their home. She never fully recovered from it, and hadn’t gotten around well since. After his father died, Allan moved back in to help take care of his mother, when he was not working on his time machine in his basement workshop.
With his mother taken care of, Allan ran down to continue his work programming the machine. He had previously tested it with short jumps, but nothing beyond a few minutes back or forward in time. He’d not tested it with a long-term time jump yet.
He knew he’d have to be careful with this test. He had read a lot of science fiction, and knew all the things that could theoretically go wrong with the time machine, and took measures to prevent each of them. He had programmed the time machine to automatically jump him back to the present after one hour in the past to ensure that he would not be stranded because the time machine could not come with him. He also carefully selected a time in the middle of the day in the middle of the week, when his younger self and his sister would be at school, and his parents would be at work. Most importantly, he swore to himself that he would take no action while in the past other than observe. He was very meticulous, and checked over his code three times before he decided that it was time for the test.
He pulled a lever on the side of the machine, and it hummed to life. The lights on the side of the machine started to glow a pale blue, indicating that the machine was fully charged and functional. Then, he entered his security code, 1-9-6-2, on a keypad on the side of the machine, and the machine’s door opened to reveal an ethereal portal. He stepped through.
On the other side of the portal, he arrived in a past version of his basement. Allan’s machinery and inventions were not there. Instead, the basement was filled with shelves, and lots of old crates. He had arrived safely. He walked upstairs.
As Allan expected, nobody was home. Allan looked around the house for a few minutes. As he saw the old furniture, he had a strong feeling of nostalgia. He observed that the walls were green, his dad had since repainted them brown. He checked the dining room, and saw the Elm County Tribune sitting on the table, dated over twenty years ago, its front page giving news about the plans to renovate the local library, something Allan knew would be a spectacular failure.
Allan then stepped outside, and looked at the front yard, the grass as green as it used to be before the lawn had become unmanageable. He looked in the back yard, and saw some of his old toys lying around, and his dad’s favorite bench, before it was sold to an antiques’ dealer. Then, he heard screeching brakes, followed by a large crashing noise coming from the street.
He looked to the street, and saw that there had just been a car accident. Two cars had crashed into each other, head-on, right in front of his house. Both of the cars were totaled, but Allan recognized one of them immediately. It was his mother’s old car. He immediately realized this was the accident that disabled her.
“Mom,” he screamed, as he rushed to the site to get a closer look.
He saw his mother was lying in the front seat of the car. The air bag had kept her from being killed by the impact, but the impact was strong enough to knock her unconscious. Allan realized that he could pull her from the car, and save her. He might even be able to prevent her from becoming disabled. He almost rushed over to the car, but then, he stopped himself. By rescuing his mother, he’d be tampering with time. Tampering with time is not a good thing. This one action may seem harmless enough, but could put into motion a series of events which could lead to drastic and unexpected consequences. In stories he had read, smaller changes had huge effects.
However, this was his mother; he couldn’t just leave her knowing what happens. He had to help. He was about to rush forward and pull her out of the wreck, but stopped himself again. He’d be creating a paradox, altering his train of thought leading up to the rescue. This could cause the universe to implode.
Just as he finally decided that it was much too dangerous for him to tamper with time, and it was better to let events play out as they happened, his hour in the past ended, and he disappeared, back into the present.
When he returned his basement workshop was pitch black. He couldn’t see anything.
“I must have blown a fuse,” he said.
He fumbled around in the darkness, searching for a flashlight, a lantern, or something else he could use to illuminate the workshop. As he fumbled, he tripped on something. Though he managed to maintain his balance, he inadvertently knocked something over, creating a very loud crashing noise.
“What was that?” he heard a voice from upstairs.
Now, Allan was confused. The voice he heard was obviously a man’s voice, but he lived alone with his mother, and there were no visitors in the house when he left. He made sure the time machine would return him to the exact moment he left, but it was becoming increasingly clearer that something had gone wrong. His suspicions were further confirmed when he heard at least four distinct sets of footsteps scrambling around upstairs, reacting to his noise.
Then, he heard the basement door creak open, and the light went on. He saw standing in the doorway a middle-aged man. The man was tall and bald, with a short brown beard.
“Laura,” he screamed, “we got a prowler! Call the police! Hide the kids!”
“You,” Allan said, “what are you doing in my house?”
But before the man answered, he shut the door and left the basement. There was a clicking noise as the man locked the door behind him.
Allan looked around the now illuminated room, and saw his lab had completely disappeared. The basement was now a storage area, filled with boxes of odds and ends, old children’s toys, and some food items. He saw a large pile of pots and pans on the ground, which is apparently what he had knocked over to alert the people upstairs to his presence.
He was confused. What went wrong? He was extra careful not to tamper with the timeline. Did he just set the time period he was returning to wrong, and somehow end up in the past or the future? Did he somehow enter a parallel universe? He ultimately realized both of these theories were not possible, so he had to get outside and figure out what happened. He rushed up the stairs to the basement door, and tried to open it, but it indeed had been locked.
“Let me out,” he cried, “let me out!”
He pounded on the door, hoping to get some attention, but it was futile. All he had done was make himself appear insane to the family, and make them less likely to help him. Then, the door opened.
He was about to run outside, when he saw a police officer was standing in front of the door. The police officer was looking at him sternly, and Allan froze. The man Allan saw earlier was standing right beside the officer.
“That’s him,” the man said, “I don’t know how he got in, but…”
“I got in because I live here!” Allan argued, “I don’t know who you are or what you’re doing here?”
“He’s some kind of crazy person,” the man said, “he’s been doing nothing but pounding on that door since I left him alone down there.”
“Then thanks, Mr. Grossman,” the officer replied, “we’ll send you the report. Let’s go, buddy.”
The officer escorted Allan out of the house.
“But I live here,” Allan cried, “this house belongs to my mother, Felicia Myrtle! Look it up!”
A second police officer, an Officer Parker, was standing by the police car. He looked older than his partner.
“Felicia Myrtle,” Officer Parker said, “She was Felicia Baker. I went to school with her.”
“Is that right, Parker?” the first officer asked.
“Yes, Warren,” Parker continued, “She was in a horrible car crash right out here! A drunk driver hit her head on. Quite a tragedy; she died shortly after. Really upset the family. The father and the kids moved out soon after, I guess the grief was just too much for them. You know, if only we’d gotten here five minutes sooner, and were able to pull her from the car, she might have survived. This guy must be her son.”
“I guess he just went crazy from the grief,” Officer Warren replied, “and after all this time too…”
Author’s Notes (may contain spoilers):
“The Time Machine” is a story I originally came up with as part of a story arc I was writing for Swogprille: Call of the Guardians. So many time travel stories follow a set formula of somebody going back in time and trying to change a past tragedy but ultimately ending up replacing that tragedy with an even worse one or causing the tragedy that they were trying to stop. I decided to subvert that with one simple question: what if it was not the time traveler’s action that changes the past, but rather, his inaction. I therefore made Allan a genre-savvy time traveler, who refuses to tamper with time, after all the unfortunate results of such meddling in various science fiction stories. Therefore, he acts only as an observer, and this leads to the present changing.
I first explored this concept in a COTG story called “Divergence”, and the story arc that follows it. In the COTG story, the entire trip to the past is accidental, but when the travelers return to the present, they learn there is something they need to do in the past first.
“The Time Machine” was stuck in the idea stage for over a year. I originally wanted Allan to play a role in some well-known historical event, or save a child who would grow up to be President, or some other prominent person, but ultimately could not decide on a single event. I eventually decided that I could tell the very same story in a small family setting, with the very same implications, so that is what I did.