Issue 43: Time Travel

"My name is Frances Baxter, and my story begins with the words 'Issue 43'. Well, it doesn't begin exactly with those words, but they are around the start of the story, so it’s just easier to say it began with them . . . "

So, my world was turned upside down when I first met Zakhary Hyde. You see, Zak is a genius, and he . . . well, let's just say he put that mind to good use. He made a time machine, and we travelled to future. We saw amazing things. But now, Zak's in jail, his time machine confiscated. And that leaves me, just Frances, to get him out.

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1. Frances

My name is Frances Baxter, and my story begins with the words “Issue 43”. Well, it doesn’t begin exactly with those words, but they are around the start of the story, so it’s just easier to say it began with them.

This would make a lot more sense with the story, wouldn’t it?

Anyway, let me continue. I’ll explain where I am at the moment. Don’t worry, most of the story will be told along the way.

At the moment, I am in a grey room. It’s a waiting room, to be exact. Not a doctor’s waiting room. Nothing like that.

As soon as I stepped through the door, I could taste something funny in the air. I looked around, frowning. The walls were grey, the trim a dull blue. The seats were black with metal arms and lumpy looking leather cushions. Comfy. There was a low table in the middle of the room piled high with raggedy magazines.

A desk sat impractically close to the door. I didn’t know what it looked like past the massive piles of what I assumed to be paperwork. A lady sat in a swivel chair behind the desk, chewing on a pencil.

“Um,” I said to her. “Frances Baxter?”

The lady whipped out a little notebook from nowhere and tapped her pencil against her teeth. “Sure thing, sweetie. 4:15 appointment. Take a seat.”

She smiled at me and I nodded, moving to sit in one of the chairs. There were three other people in the room. A stern looking lady dressed in a white three piece suit. She sat ramrod straight on her chair, glaring at the wall. An elderly man slumped beside her, his head resting on his chest, gentle snores coming from his nose. Another man sat across from me. He was young, with dark hair. He had his legs crossed and his jeans looked like they needed to be a size smaller.

I smoothed my blonde locks self-consciously and straightened my skirt. I was kind of nervous. You see, I’m here for a hearing. Not a court-hearing-you’ve-done-something-wrong kind of thing. More like scary-man-sits-at-big-podium-and-listens-to-you-talk-and-asks-questions kind of hearing. I think is should be called a ‘listening’, personally.

A door set into the far wall opened. A huge man stuck his head out and bellowed “Issue 43!”

I jumped. That was me. I got up, my hands shaking, and walked over to the door. The young man with dark hair watched me. I could feel the weight of his gaze. I ducked past the guard into a room that was ridiculously big compared to the building that housed it. It was also really echo-y. My footsteps sounded like elephant stomps as I walked towards the chair in the centre of the room.

I sat down, smoothing my skirt again. I looked over my shoulder. The guard had moved to block the doorway. Probably for the benefit of the more unwilling people.

I faced the enormous stage in front of me. It had two levels, a high one and two lower ones on either side. On the top level sat an old man. His mouth was severely turned down at the corners and his slate-grey eyes bored holes in my face. On the lower two levels sat two more equally severe men. The only difference was their age and the colour of the hair. They had dark hair instead of white hair. I heard the shuffling of papers and the old man took a wheezing breath.

I knew from the research that I did the night before, that the old man was called the Primer and the other two were called Secondary and Tertiary Listeners. The Primer’s job was to ask the questions and the other two wrote down everything I said and anything else they noticed about me.

I sighed and the scratching of pens against paper started. It grated on my nerves but I didn’t think it would stop until the end of the hearing.

The Primer opened his mouth, and the interrogation began.

“Frances Eloise Baxter?” The old man had a surprisingly strong voice. It contrasted starkly with his looks.

“Yes sir.”

“Born on the 17th of April, 2082. Currently eighteen years old. Parents are Maxwell Callum Baxter and Lauren Baxter-Wills. Brother, Archer Baxter. At the moment you are working at Sweet Tooth Lolly Shop and living with your friend Zakhary Hyde?” The old man looked down his nose at me. I was kind of shocked they knew so much. “Are all of those details correct?”

I blinked. “Yes, sir.”

“Anything else we should know?”

“I’m studying Biology at Oxforde University, sir.”

The Primer frowned. “Eighteen and at university?”

“Yes, sir. I decided to start as soon as I finished high school.”

“Hmph.” He huffed. “With those details out of the way, let us continue. I would like you to tell me about the incident that happened on the 5th. Last Monday.”

I took a deep breath.

“Please bear with me, sir. I might have to do a bit of explaining about how I got in my current living situation before I get to the actual ‘incident’.”

The Primer nodded. “Please continue.”

I drew in another deep breath. Here comes the story.

“As you know, I’m studying Bio at Oxforde. That’s how Zakhary and I first met. Zak’s only twenty, but already giving lectures at the university. He’s a genius, most of the time off living in his own world.” I smiled to myself. “That day, I was putting the finishing touches on an essay I had to hand in that afternoon. I just slipped quietly into one of the lecture halls to fix it up. I work better with a bit of background noise, you know? I finished the essay, and with nothing to do, I listened to the lecture. It was Zak, and he was lecturing about the plausibility of time travel. He was raving a bit, and you could see that most of the people weren’t even listening.

“At lunch that day, I talked to my friend Mai about Zak’s lecture. Mai’s studying quantum mechanics, and she said that she’s sat in on one too many of his lectures. ‘He may be a genius, but he has serious trouble forming a coherent thought’. That’s what she said.

“Zak was sitting at a table by himself, so I went over to talk to him. I told him that his lecture interested me, and we had a lovely conversation about time and travelling through it. After that, we became good friends, talking every day. I listened to his lectures and theories, voicing my opinions. Mai also sat with us, but she and Zak didn’t really get along.

“A few weeks later, I told Zak about my housing predicament. I was living with Archer, my brother. He and his partner were expecting a baby soon, and Archer had given me a deadline of two weeks to move out. My plan was to sleep at Mai’s place, but Zak offered me one of his rooms, saying his apartment was big enough for the two of us. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, so said yes. That weekend, Zak, Mai and Archer helped me move.

“Zak’s apartment was a mess. There were machine parts everywhere, and I mean everywhere. I was forever standing on screws and nails, and pulling spanners out from cupboards. Zak would always put something down, and then forget about it. And Zak was always up at ridiculous hours in the night, working on his latest experiment or raving to himself, or something like that. It was hard living with a person when their mind was somewhere else. Some people even called him crazy.

“One day I just snapped. I’d just stood on what felt like the millionth bit of wire, and it had cut me and made me bleed. Zak was sitting at the table, scribbling out equations for God-knows-what. I yelled at him. Loudly. I told him that he needed to get his act together and clean his place up, because no self-respecting human being would want to live there. I told him to get his head out of the clouds and focus on what was in front of him. Then I left. I came back a few hours later because I felt so bad. I had shouted at Zak, in his own home. But when I got back, everything was tidy. Spotless. Nothing lying on the floor, Zak’s desk was tidy as well. He was at the table, tinkering. I apologised, but he was happy I had told him off, because he had cleaned up, and in the process, found so many things he thought he’d lost. I couldn’t help but laugh.”

“Miss Baxter,” interrupted the Primer. “Does this story have anything to do with the incident?”

I winced at the word ‘incident’. It was enough to shake me out of my little reverie. “No, sir.”

“Right. Well, could you kindly get on with it.”

I nodded. “Of course. On Sunday, the 4th, Zak stayed up all night, working on a new invention. He said it was going to be the breakthrough of a lifetime in science. I didn’t pay any attention to him, because he said that sort of thing all the time, and I thought it wouldn’t be any different.” I looked down at my lap, suddenly feeling foolish. Would I be in this situation if I had listened to Zak?

“The Monday morning, Zak showed me his new invention. He said it was a time machine.” I blinked back tears. Zak.

“How exactly does this ‘time machine’ work?” asked the Primer. The skepticism was evident on his face.

“The whole machine was based on Zak’s theory of time travel. He believes that time is not a river, only flowing forward, but it is a pathway that you can move backwards and forwards on. It’s true that our actions determine the future, and there can be many different possible futures because of our many different actions, but, in the end, there is only one probable . . . no, possible future, and Zak’s time machine was programmed to take you there.

“That morning, Zak explained to me how his invention worked. You would place two electrode pads on your temples. The electrode pads would be connected to an automated calendar. You know; the programmable ones that came out last year? All you had to do was select a year, date and time. The electrodes would then deliver a shock that would be absorbed by your body. This shock would vibrate the particles of your body, pulling them apart. You would then travel through time, and arrive at your selected time and date in the future.”

 “How exactly can you travel through time?” The Primer’s eyes were bulging out of his sockets. He looked like he wanted to say ‘what a ridiculous proposition!’ but he held his tongue. “I don’t quite understand.”

I sighed. “Time is an immaterial thing, you see. It is physically impossible to travel through it. Zak believes that you travel around it. You must go through something else to arrive at your goal. We don’t know exactly what yet, but most likely some static-space or inter-dimension.”

The Primer’s face was beet red. “Miss Baxter. I still don’t understand.”

“I can’t explain it any simpler, sir. That’s just the way it is.” The scraping of pens against paper had stopped. The Secondary and Tertiary Listeners were both looking at the Primer. All you could hear in the resulting eerie silence was the Primer’s agitated breathing.

“Continue, then,” said the Primer quietly, struggling to get his facial expression under control. The scratching of pens resumed.

I blinked, trying to remember where I had left off. “Um . . . time machine . . . um . . . I was very worried about Zak that morning. He looked like a mess. His eyes were bloodshot and his hair was a bird’s nest.” I wrinkled my nose. “At least he didn’t smell.”

The Primer cleared his throat.

“But I had a reason to be worried,” I said softly. “There’s only one way you can really, scientifically test a time machine.”

“Human experimentation.”

I looked up. I didn’t even realise I had lowered my head again. I saw the guilty look of the Tertiary Listener. He gazed steadily at me, ignoring the Primer’s glare. “You would have to get a human subject for testing,” he said. “That’s the only way you could collect reliable data.”

“Tobias,” hissed the Primer.

I nodded. “That’s right. Zak wanted to test the time machine he made. And that’s exactly what he did. He used himself.

“I was totally against it, believe me. But I was stupid, and in the end, Zak corralled me into letting him test it. So we set up, noting down time and conditions and things like that. Zak put the electrode pads on and put down a date. Ten years from now.”

“What about location?”

“Tobias! I will ask the questions!”

The Tertiary Listener ignored the Primer. His eyes were focused on me. He was curious. Fellow scientist?

“Location doesn’t matter. The machine will set you down in the same location you were at in the previous time. It can’t change that.”

The Tertiary Listener – Tobias – nodded, and I continued.

“From what I saw, it worked as predicted. The electrode shock produced the intense vibration needed, and Zak just . . . disappeared. Vanished. I noted down what I saw, like Zak said I should; then continued what I was doing before. I was really worried.” I twisted my hands together, remembering the consuming feeling. “I started cleaning. Then I got a knock on the door. I opened the door to see Zak. He stared at me; then said ‘Can I come in, Frances?’

“I hugged him. I couldn’t believe it. Zak was back, and so soon! But when he came in, and I got a good look at him, I realised something was wrong. This wasn’t my Zak. He was older. And when he started to explain, I knew. It was Zak, but he was thirty years old instead of twenty. And he was from the future.”

There was a loud slamming sound, and the Primer stood up. The slamming must have been his hands against the podium. His face was rigid, unreadable. I looked at him in shock.

“She’s telling the truth, sir,” said Tobias gently.

The Primer sat down, face still stiff. Tobias nodded to me to keep going.

“This Zak said he’d come from future where time machines were a commonplace. Everyone had one. People travelled back in time for holidays and school excursions back to the past were a regular thing. He even showed me his. Instead of electrode pads, he had a band with gel pads on either end. The band sat at the back of your head, kind of like backwards glasses. The automated calendar was smaller and sleeker. It certainly looked like it was from the future, and I was inclined to believe this Zak when plugged another electrode band into his device, saying we needed to go to the future, urgently. And so we did.”

“Can you tell us what that was like?”

This time it was the Secondary Listener. The Primer didn’t even look at him, he just stared straight ahead.

“It was…if you can imagine it, it was like being in space without a space suit on. Everything was black, and I thought my insides were going to be squashed to a tenth of their size. It wasn’t like I imagined it at all, and it certainly wasn’t like in the books I’ve read.

“The future . . . it was amazing. Beyond your wildest dreams. I know how cliché that sounds, but it’s true. The buildings were so tall, they looked like they could touch the sky, and they had thousands of shimmering windows. The cars, they were flying through the air, a million different colours. The lights, the sounds, the shops . . . they were all so different. And the people! So many! Take the biggest city we have today a times it by a million! That’s how many people were there!” I grinned, remembering it all.

“Zak . . . well, future Zak, said that we had to find my Zak. Future Zak blended in well with the crowds in his grey shirt and black slacks. I blended in well too, with my blue dress and tights and boots, but when we found Zak, my Zak, he stuck out like a sore thumb in his scruffy lab coat, scribbling on his notepad.

“You should have seen my Zak’s face when he saw me. He was overjoyed that I was with him, but when he saw who was with me, he was stunned!” I smiled to myself. “He was looking at himself, after all, but ten years older.

“After a quick introduction, future Zak took us to an enormous office building. On the front, it read Hyde Industries. Zak couldn’t believe it; he was beside himself. Inside the building, people were bustling everywhere! It was a literal hive of activity! Organised chaos! There were desks everywhere, people rushing past with boxes and bit of machinery, other people tinkering in corners. Most people had lab coats on. And everyone we passed said hello, smiling. Nobody looked at us twice. Future Zak took us to what must have been his office. It was the same as the one Zak had at home. A mess.”

“Hey, wait a minute,” interrupted Tobias. “Won’t past Zak meeting future Zak cause a time paradox?”

I nodded. “That was one of the first questions I asked future Zak back in the apartment. He just gave me a knowing look and said a time paradox is the last thing we need to worry about.”

“Okay, keeping going.”

The Primer didn’t even seem to mind someone else was running his show.

“After future Zak answered all of my Zak’s questions, he told us something. Something very important.”

The two young Listeners looked at me eagerly.

“He said that when we get back to our time, we have to destroy the time machine my Zak made.”

The Secondary Listener exploded. “What? Why?”

Tobias glared at him. “Alec, be quiet! Let Frances finish!”

“Oh. Right,” said Alec.

I kept talking.

“Future Zak said that using the time machine – everyone using the time machine – was ripping apart our universe. Do you remember before how I said you can’t travel through time, you have to travel around it? Well, after years of study, future Zak found out where we travel. We go in another dimension, and back out again. Our universe isn’t strong enough to handle that sort of interstellar travel, and so every time someone uses a time machine, a hole is ripped in the fabric of the universe. Future Zak estimated another five years of using time travel the way it is now, and the universe will collapse in on itself because of the pressure.

“He showed us proof, too, so Zak and I would believe him. He took us into another room, a huge, long gallery. And it was filled with universal holes. They were just jet black rips, straight in front of us. You know how, when fabric rips, it gets those little raggedy edges? Well, it was just like that. And it was so suffocating in that room. It felt like all the air was being sucked from my lungs. Future Zak said that’s what our world will look like that soon. Full of inter-dimensional holes.

“Zak couldn’t believe it. He had invented a machine that people used in their daily lives, and he was the founder of an industry. I knew that look on his face. When we went home, Zak wasn’t going to destroy the time machine. I said as much to future Zak, and he took my Zak aside and said something to him that made serious. The two of them gave me a funny look, and my Zak nodded to future Zak. I knew future Zak had convinced my Zak to do the right thing.

“So, we travelled back to our time, and before we left, future Zak gave us a warning. We had to destroy the time machine as soon as we got back. Because, future Zak told us, a few minutes after we get back, police will storm the apartment, arrest Zak and confiscate the time machine.

“He was right. It all happened, just as future Zak said. So that’s why I’m here. As a witness, to say what happened was true and prove Zak’s innocence.”

“Ahem.”

The sound cut through the air like a knife. It was the Primer. “Miss Baxter. You’re telling us your roommate invented a time machine. Then he went forward in time, using this time machine. And his future-self went back in time and collected you and Zakhary. Then this future-self told you to destroy the time machine at all costs because it’s ripping inter-dimensional holes in the fabric of time?”

I blinked. “Yes, sir.”

“You can’t expect us to believe that, can you?”

Tobias and Alec were looking at the Primer with mixed disgust and shock.

“Sir,” began Tobias. “She’s obviously telling the truth. The lie detector’s showing no readings, and –”

“Enough!” the Primer cut him off. He looked at me furiously. “This is clearly a ridiculous lie, invented to try and free your friend.”

I stood up, knocking my chair over. The crashing echoed loudly in the big room. “You know how I can prove I’ve been to the future?” Anger was boiling deep within me, all directed at this petty old man.

“How?” spat the Primer.

“The Zak I met in the future remembered the conversation I had with him after this exact hearing. And he told me to tell you something. Something very important. And he’s sure you’ll know what I’m talking about.”

The Primer glowered at me, lips curled in revulsion. “What?”

“The AIC sends its greetings from the future.”

You could see the immediate reaction. Alec and Tobias’s eyes widened in fear and wonder. The Primer stood up ramrod straight, face livid. His eyes narrowed to little thin slits. “How do you know about the Anomaly Investigative Crew?”

I smirked at him. “I told you, I’ve been to the future.”

The Primer’s chest puffed up and spit flew from his mouth as he screamed, “GET HER OUT OF HERE, NOW!”

I felt the guard grab my upper arms, and laughed. “We know everything,” I said in a sibilant voice. “All your darkest, dirtiest, stolen secrets. Because we’ve been to the future. You’ll be happy to know, the AIC is still in control. For now.”

My feet slid across the floor as the guard dragged me towards the door.

I smiled to myself as I straightened my skirt for the last time. Even though the guard had closed the door firmly, you could still hear the Primer screaming.

“How does she know?”

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