The Singularity Blues

The Singularity Blues

Michael Ross knew that things would never be the same the day his car shut down because he wouldn’t Friend the car.

He pounded on the steering wheel of his car and punched the button to start the car. It was an eco-friendly commuter car that he’d purchased new that model year because it had the most efficient engine, best gas mileage for its class and, according to the review sites he’d used to help make his decision, had the latest in software to help “Keep You Connected (™)”. He knew that while he knew hardware and software, the inner workings of a modern car engine were like black magic to him. He thought about how he’d found himself where he was today as he grabbed his pack from the passenger seat and started to walk the remaining couple of miles to work.

As with many things, he’d had the best of intentions. He’d always been fond of new technology. He’d grown up building his own computers when that was still a thing that you did. He’d built hardware projects using the latest in open source controllers and open source software to feed his dog daily at the same time. He’d built systems to play his music wherever he was in his house as the lights turned on as he moved from room to room in his home and his house adjusted the heat based on where he was in the house, time of year and whether he was on his budget for heating or cooling for the year.

All these things he’d done because he loved the challenge but also the notion of a connected world. He believed that all of these advancements would eventually lead to him a more connected life that was efficient, cost effective and more interesting.

As he walked along the busy street, he thought to check his smartphone to find the closest bus stop. He typed in his security code and it flashed the familiar “Wrong Passcode” with the red screen. He paused, stopped walking, took a breath and typed in his code again. “Wrong Passcode” Again! This was really maddening.

He remembered that in the latest OS upgrade, his phone had gained voice recognition for unlocking and a variety of other tasks. He’d set that up thinking it’d be a cool feature and recalled training the system to recognize his voice and trying the feature out a few times. Initially he’d thought the notion of a voice assisted operating system would be sexy and cool, in reality, he found he felt pretty silly talking to his phone. Its limited vocabulary and commands made it sound like he was giving orders to a child, using small, simple words spoken slowly and with deliberation.

He pressed the button to activate the voice feature and spoke the code phrase he’d trained the system to recognize to unlock his phone: “Open the pod bay doors, Hal.” His face flushed as he looked around hoping that there was no one around to see him addressing his phone with phrases from classic movies. His phone vibrated, flashed red and the still slightly robotic voice of his phone replied “Access Denied”. He tried again, slowing his voice, speaking calmly and trying to protect the microphone at the bottom of the phone from ambient noise. Again, “Access Denied”. This was getting silly. He tried one more time and this time got an unexpected response: “Access Denied until you Friend the car, Michael.”

What the hell? He knew that the phone was connected to the car when he and the phone were inside the car. It was a simple Bluetooth connection. But, as far as he knew their communication was limited to passing information about his calendar, his music, his mail and … his social media updates. When he’d set up the phone he’d set the connection to share the information so he could track activity in his social media networks while he was in the car. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Certainly everything was becoming more and more connected, that was inevitable in this world of constant communication between all the devices that he used throughout his day. His phone was used as an additional piece of identification when he logged on to his computer at work. Multi-factor identification had become a necessary evil over the last few years as it became trivial to break nearly any password by any hacker able to put together a few home-brew systems with multi-cluster GPUs programmed to crack passwords in minutes.

Certainly Artificial Intelligence had become increasingly feasible and effective over the last decade as the technology finally reached a point where it could simulate something approaching an interaction with a human being. Of course, the CPU power to accomplish this didn’t happen on the phone or the car, it depended on enormous arrays of cloud compute clusters that did the actual analysis and simulation, but so long as you had a good signal and reasonable bandwidth, AI systems were now a reality where they’d been nothing but the stuff of fantasy and good science fiction movies when he’d grown up.

He slowly turned around and started walking back to his car. As he approached, the Bluetooth connection between his phone and car reconnected as he approached and the car unlocked. He got in to the front seat and the dash lit up. He tried to restart the car, but it remained unresponsive despite the dashboard activity. On the screen in the middle of his dash, the screen that displayed activity in his social networks as well as controlling the climate in the car and the music, lit up with the latest activity. Typically he did this via some buttons on the steering wheel or via voice commands, so this was a surprise to him. Under Recent Activity was listed Friend Requests. There were three pending and one was flashing. It read “Sigmund”. On a whim, as part of the process of setting up his car, he’d been asked to identify it with a name – all part of “personalizing his auto experience” and because of the color of the car (Sea Foam Green – it had seemed like a good idea at the time) he’d picked “Sigmund” based on a television show from his youth.

He’d seen the request on his phone when he was looking at his activity that morning but since he didn’t know anyone named Sigmund, he’d ignored the request. Could it be?

He reached out and touched the button next to the Friend Request which read “Accept”. There was the happy little ding that followed adding a new friend and a moment later his car started up! Obviously this was some sort of bug in the software. There was no way his car had stopped because he hadn’t Friended it!

He put the car in to gear and continued on to work knowing he would be late but hoping his boss wouldn’t notice. Sure enough, he managed to make his way to his desk and get signed on to his computer before anyone seemed to notice his tardiness.

He spent the day looking up information about his car and his phone, trying to get to the bottom of what had happened this morning. All of this, of course, in between getting his work done for the day. He was salaried, so while he didn’t have to punch a clock, he still had things he had to get done.

According to what he was reading, there were increasing reports of “glitches” being described on social media sites with some of the connected hardware that had been released in the last year. The people reporting these events were being told that it was most likely a bug in the latest version of the software for their car or phone or computer and it would be addressed shortly in a software update due very soon now.

The common factor seemed to be that, in all cases, the devices in question all used the latest cloud-backed CPUs to drive the software and provide the latest AI advancements to their customers. Because these devices depended on the cloud-computing infrastructure, they also required an “always on” connection, meaning they would not function unless there was a connection to the internet. Obviously not a popular feature in areas still suffering from low connectivity, but with the latest advancements in cloud networking, it was an very small number of people.

At lunchtime, Michael decided to stay in and catch up on his work instead of hitting the gym. That way he could leave around his usual time and not have to stay late at work. Instead, he grabbed something from the vending machine – a burrito and a soda.

Michael Ross wrapped up his day and climbed back in to his car, not entirely sure whether he expected any problems or not. Happily, the car started right up. Oddly, though, the car fired up the social media module. The screen that was used to update status was up on the screen – this was new. As he pulled out of the parking lot, the voice of the car spoke: “Good Day, Michael. I am happy that we are now friends. How was your day? I will update your status for you.”

This was certainly not something that had occurred before, though he’d read that some software in some of the new cars had been demonstrating new features. The owners assumed that they were simply beta customers getting early access to new features before they were generally available. Perhaps that was the case here, too.

Michael spoke hesitantly: “Uh … my day was a bit stressful. But I’m glad to be going home?” He couldn’t help the rise at the end of the sentence because he wasn’t entirely sure what was happening.

On the screen in the middle of his dash he saw the following: “Michael Ross is stressed” and here appeared an emoticon of a smiley face with gritted teeth “but is on his way home.”

Well, he thought, I can’t tell if I think this is very cool or very odd. Maybe a bit of both.

He continued to drive but did notice that the screen would update with weather or additional information from his networks, but only while he was stopped at lights – while he was driving the screen blanked. Safety, he thought.

He made his way home and started to reach for the opener for his garage door. Before he could finish the gesture, he heard the same voice, the voice he was coming to think of as Sigmund, speak again: “Let me get that for you, Michael!” and before he reached the button, the garage door started to open again. His garage door opener was a decade old, but he had hooked it in to his home automation system the year before, not because it was any great help, but mostly because he thought it would be cool to open it from his phone from wherever he happened to be.

Hmm, perhaps these new features wouldn’t be so bad, he thought as he grabbed his bag and entered his house.

He went back to his bedroom, passing his state of the art refrigerator that he’d just had delivered and set up a few weeks ago after the last one had blown a compressor and become too expensive to fix. He dropped off his bag on his bed and made his way back to the kitchen to grab a beer. He certainly felt as though he’d earned it after this day.

Sensing his approach, the screen on the front of the fridge light up, showing him a list of things that he needed to pick up at the store, based on his usage patterns and what was contained in the fridge. He saw it was time to pick up milk and some eggs. He grabbed the handle and tugged to open the door. It was stuck. Before he could tug again, he heard the feminine voice he’d chosen for the fridge speak: “What do you need, Michael?”

“Uh, I’m going to get a beer. Please open the door?” Again, the rise at the end of the sentence was not entirely under his control.

“Michael,” the fridge replied, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Maybe you should go for a run before you do that. Let’s say a half hour run and then you can have a beer.”

“What?!” Without thinking he said, “I worked out today! Just open the door, dammit!”

“Now, Michael, we both know that’s not true. The GPS data from your phone shows that you went to work and you did not leave and then you drove home. According to the vending machine you used at work, you had a burrito and soda – the empty calories exceed the healthy threshold for you by 30% for the day. Your health is important to me and doctors recommend at least 30 minutes of healthy exercise daily to maintain optimal health. Let’s say 45 minutes because of the burrito and soda. Why don’t you go for a run – don’t forget to take your phone so you can log your effort and share it on your social media sites – and then you can have a beer.”

How had the fridge known what he’d had for lunch? Oh, that’s right, he’d used an app on his phone to pay for the food – just one more advantage of a cash free world! And the phone had clearly tattled on him to the fridge.

Michael grabbed the handle on the fridge in near rage and pulled but the mass of the fridge just shook. The door would not budge.

“Michael, please do not abuse me or I will have to report your actions, thus voiding your warranty, as well as telling your phone and your car. Also, when you got on the scale this morning, it reported that you are almost 10 pounds over your optimal weight. I am sure you do not want that to continue so I ejected all the unhealthy foods contained within and took the liberty of ordering some lean proteins and fresh vegetables from the grocery store that you connected me to. They will be delivered in roughly an hour. Plenty of time for you to get out for that run. And then, perhaps, I won’t need to post on your social media that you are overweight and refusing to address the issue. Thank you! Have a nice day!”

He wasn’t sure what was going on, but it was clear that he was currently outnumbered by the devices in his life and that they were connected and reporting on his activities and, worst of all, threatening him with their information.

Slowly he went back to his room and started to change in to running shorts and shoes. He started to leave the room but his phone activated on the nightstand and flashed until he picked it up, stopping only after detecting the motion from the internal gyroscope contained in the phone.

He’d grown up believing that if the science advanced sufficiently, it would be a wondrous world which would allow luxury and advancements that could not be imagined. As he started to walk for a few minutes to allow his muscles to warm up, he though he’d been right all along. He could never have imagined that all this interconnectedness would lead to him being harassed, for his own good presumably, by the very devices in his life that were intended to better his life.

Welcome to the future, he thought as he picked up his pace. He needed to get back so he could have that beer he had earned.

At The Crossroads

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have regrets. I know I have my share.

Some are little. Small things done poorly. People I hurt or wounded with words or deeds. Things I did that brought pain either directly or indirectly that I still carry around today.

But none weigh on me like the one that has shaped my life and put me on a course that I never would have predicted. Or chosen.

What if? What if you could change that decision? What if you could undo an action that sent your life careening down a path you didn’t really choose but nevertheless is yours. Would you change it? Could you change it?

I write personal interest stories for my town paper. It’s clear that with advances in technology, economic upheaval and increasingly short attention spans that the future for a small town newspaper reporter is an uncertain one at best.

But I like my job for the most part. I get to meet interesting people. I get to tell their stories and, if I do my job well, I can represent them well and hopefully not as eccentrics who are disconnected from the world. My fear is that if I don’t do my job well I just become the guy who tells stories about crazy people doing crazy things, telling the stories to entertain folks who can then feel better about themselves as long as there is someone out there who is more messed up than they are.

I’m divorced now. Have been for more than a decade. It wasn’t a good marriage. We were too young and dumb to see the truth of where we were broken and lacked the tools to do anything about it at that age.

But, out of that marriage came two wonderful kids who I am immensely proud of. My son and daughter turned out better people than I am. They have careers that will support them, partners that love them and they are people I would be proud to know as friends. I am proud to be a part of their lives. Sometimes it feels as though they are the only thing I truly did right.

My job affords me the opportunity to meet a variety of people. Not just the interesting people who I usually end up profiling. I get to meet folks going through hard times, folks who behaved heroically in demanding conditions, folks who did the right thing when no one was watching. I really enjoy meeting people like that and I enjoy telling their stories, giving them attention they might not otherwise get.

But I also get to meet the occasional crackpot. Or hoarder. Or survivalist. Or entrepreneurs with ideas that haven’t yet been smacked down by reality. Those folks can be pretty interesting as well.

I believed the latter group included Joshua Brandon.

Joshua didn’t have any advanced degrees. He had to drop out of college – a good college back East – when his father’s health began to fail and he came back to care for his parents and their small electronics business. But it was clear from school records that Joshua had been something of a star. He was a standout through all his years in school and his nearly three years in college. He had top marks and had been invited to participate in research with one of his Professors as an undergraduate, something that doesn’t happen very often.

Joshua’s field of interest was Advanced Physics and his work with his Professor was related to quantum mechanics. If you look up his name you’ll find his name attached to several papers that I couldn’t understand. Perhaps you can and more power to you if you can.

Joshua reached out to me a few months ago after he read one of my profiles about a Librarian who with little support had started a local program which had successfully introduced a Maker Space in the local library and drew in lots of kids and introduced 3-D printing and electronics to the library.

Joshua contacted me and said he’d been working on something which he thought he might be ready to talk about. He said he believed that I might give him a fair shake when he started to explain his work.

I got Joshua’s address. He had a space in a commercial area on the outskirts of town. His space was located between a motorcycle repair shop and a small Korean church.

I left a message for my editor letting him know where I was going – a good practice when you’re visiting the more colorful of our local denizens – and headed out in my 10-year old Toyota.

It was a short drive – our town isn’t that big – so roughly 20 minutes later I was pulling up before an unmarked door with only the space number (15A) over the door. There was no business name or other markings on the space.

I pulled the door and found it open. I went inside to find a man who looked to be in his mid-30s. He was average height but looked to be in good shape. He wore work boots, jeans and a flannel shirt.

As I came in he walked towards me and said “Mr. Andrews?”

I nodded my head and shook his hand, he had a firm grip, but not overpowering.

“You must be Joshua Brandon.”

“It’s nice to meet you, sir. Thanks for making time to talk with me.”

“Well, I don’t usually make a habit of taking meetings in unfamiliar locations, but you sounded like you might have an interesting story to tell.

I did a bit of checking on you before I came over here. You were quite the rising star back in college. It was a shame you had leave college. Why didn’t you go back and finish?”

“Well, when my father passed, the store was my mother’s only source of income and she couldn’t run it on her own. By the time she passed it just seemed easiest to keep running it. It allows me a fair bit of freedom to work on my own projects.”

“What kind of projects?” I pulled out my notebook and turned to a fresh page to start taking notes.

“I’m going to tell you, Mr. Andrews, but before I do can I ask you a question?”

“Sure,” I replied, “call me Jim”.

“Jim, do you have any regrets in your life?”

“Of course. We all have regrets. Things that we can’t change. Choices we made that can’t be unmade.”

Joshua was watching my face closely. Tentatively and with some hesitation he asked, “what if you could? Could make different choices. Unmake those choices and go down a different path. Would you do it?”

Before I responded, I thought for a moment.

I didn’t think I would be where I am in my life. I was pretty smart in school. Near the top of my class. I loved science and math. I was going to be an engineer. That all changed during my senior year.

In the fall of my senior year of high school, I’d gone to a football game. I wasn’t a big fan of football but I went with my best friend Sam. There was talk of meeting up with some of our friends and one of those friends was a girl that I liked but had been too shy to pursue. I thought maybe this might be a good place to spend some time with her and perhaps I could overcome my difficulty with the fairer sex. Or so I hoped.

The night went well. We hung out with friends and rooted for our team and yelled till we were hoarse. It was a great evening. I even talked to the girl and it seemed as if we hit it off. I was pretty sure I was going to ask her out on a date the following Monday.

High on the adrenaline of the evening and the success of nearly maybe having a date with a pretty girl, Sam and I headed out from the stadium back towards town. I was driving my crappy yellow Pinto, but at least it was my car. It was never a fast car and never would be, but it got me from place to place.

As we exited the stadium we had to stop at a traffic light. Next to us another car pulled up and it turned out it was full of our friends. I heard a revving engine and looked to my right. Our friend Ben was grinning like a maniac and continued to rev his engine. My car was never going to win any kind of a race but we were feeling silly and so I revved my engine and all four cylinders whined like a pack of maddened squirrels that might live under my hood, powering my car.

The light turned green and we both stepped on the accelerators of our cars and took off laughing.

The other car was much faster than mine but I managed to catch up and pace him and in just a short period of time we were flying down the road at more than 70 miles per hour, faster than I thought my car could even go.

Ben started to fall back, more out of common sense than anything else.

Sam and I continued to laugh and cheer as we slowly pulled ahead thinking we were winning.

Ahead of us was the only other light before we got back in to town in another mile or so. And it was red.

To this day I don’t know why. Maybe it was that we were winning. Maybe it was the adrenaline or the hormones of a 17-year old boy but whatever the reason it never really was an option to slow down and stop for the red light.

As we entered the intersection, the last thing I remember was a bright light and a loud crash. Four days later I woke up in a hospital bed and was told that I had killed my best friend.

“Yes. Yes, Joshua. I have regrets. There are things I wish I could undo. But I can’t. I have to live with those choices for the rest of my life.”

Joshua replied, “What if you didn’t?”

I shook my head uncomprehendingly.

Joshua turned and walked through an open door to the back of the space. As he entered that space he flipped a light switch to one side.

I entered behind him, accepting his exit and the open door as a tacit invitation to join him in the other room.

As I entered I saw … I don’t know what I saw. There was some sort of contraption. There was lots of steel, lots of thick cables which I guessed carried power. If Doctor Frankenstein were rebuilding his lab in the early 21st century, he might have been very happy if it had turned out looking like what I saw before me.

Joshua looked over at me, bowed his head a bit and said quietly “It’s a time machine.”

I couldn’t hide my initial reaction so Joshua could tell this wasn’t going well so he was began speaking quickly.

“It’s a time machine. But it only goes back. Because you can’t go forward because the future is not there to go to yet. But you can go back. There are still some issues, but you can go back in time for up to two hours. Almost. 105 minutes. Roughly.”

“Mr. Brandon. I’m sorry. I think I’m wasting your time as well as my own. I don’t write fiction. I didn’t write about the guy who claimed to have been probed by the UFO. Or the lady who said she’d managed to cross her cats with her goats. I think I should go.”

“Wait, Mr. Andrews! Jim! Please. Can I show you what it can do? It’ll take 10 minutes. Please!”

“Mr. Brandon, I’m not a patient man and I don’t appreciate being part of this. I’ll give you 10 minutes and then we’ll part and I don’t want to hear from you again. Deal?”

“Sure. Okay. You can watch from there. I won’t waste your time.”

Joshua walked by a central dais that most of the machinery surrounded and made some adjustments on a keyboard and some machinery nearby and turned to me.

“Here’s what’s going to happen.”

He walked over to an open area about 10 feet from the machinery and pointed at a small X painted on the empty concrete floor.

“This is where it’s going to happen. Please watch this spot very closely for the next minute. What time do you have?”

I looked on my phone and told him “2:13pm. No, 2:14pm right now.”

“Okay, exactly one minute from right now I want you to watch that area very closely.”

“What am I going to see?”

“Time travel,” he replied quietly.

We stood looking at each other, neither moving, neither saying anything.

I asked him “Don’t you need to do anything?”

He said “I will. But not yet.”

I glanced down at my phone again. “I don’t undersand, but you have about 15 seconds before 2:15pm”

“Watch that space closely.”

I turned slightly and watched where he had earlier indicated. Mentally I began to count down. 10 … 9 … 8 … 7 …

Before I reached zero it happened. One moment there was nothing and in the next there was a small crate with a white rabbit on it where before there had been nothing.

There was no flash. No noise. One moment there was nothing and the next there was a white rabbit. On a small crate.

“What the hell! What just happened?”

I walked over to the box, walked around it. I touched the box. It was solid. I reached down and picked up the rabbit. The rabbit looked at me with his (or her) pink eyes and wiggling nose as if nothing more interesting than our meeting had just happened. Around his neck was a small collar. Affixed to the collar was what looked to be the body of a small digital watch. Where the rabbit had been sitting was a small yellow envelope which had been taped shut.

“Jim, would you take the rabbit over there and grab that envelope but don’t open it yet”, indicating where I’d been standing previously, “and what time does it say on the watch on the rabbit?”

Confused and with some hesitation I looked at the watch on the side of the collar and read it out loud “2:30pm. It’s got today’s date. Are you trying to tell me this rabbit traveled through time?”

“Yes, Jim. But please hold on a bit, I have a few things to do and only 15 minutes to do them in.”

Joshua moved quickly to the crate in the center of the room, picking it up and moving it to the center of the dais.

He next came over to me and indicated a small table which held some 3×5 cards, a marker, some tape and an envelope identical to the one in my hand but this one was not sealed with tape.

“Jim, I’m going to ask you to suspend your disbelief and do something. I’d like you to write something on this 3×5 card that only you know. Some small detail that I couldn’t know. It might be a birthday, some detail of your life, something unique to you.”

I handed him the rabbit, transferred the envelope to my back pocket and grabbed the marker. I thought for a moment and wrote down a date and a time. That date and time are embedded in my head more firmly than nearly any. The was when I killed Sam back in high school. I recall the time because it was on the police reports and it stuck with me the rest of my life. I could more easily have forgotten my own birthday.

“Now put the card in the envelope and tape it shut. After that, would you please hand it to me.”

Feeling more than a little skeptical about what was going on, before I put the card in the envelope I folded it in to quarters, more or less. Then I taped the envelope shut and gave it to Joshua.

He moved briskly to the dais, envelope in one hand, rabbit in the other. He set the envelope in the middle of the crate. He looked over to me and said “I’m going to set the watch to the current time. Right now it’s showing 15 minutes fast. What time is it now?”

“2:24pm”, I replied.

He fiddled with the collar, presumably adjusting the watch. He then set the rabbit down on top of the envelope and stroked a few times to calm it. He seemed to whisper something to the rabbit. The rabbit sat placidly with his little nose twitching as if all this was the most normal thing imaginable.

Next, Joshua walked to the computer keyboard and started typing while occasionally looking at some dials on the console in front of him. He looked again at his watch, looked over to the crate and back over to the spot on the floor as if determining that all was as it should be.

He looked over to me and said “We have three minutes left. In exactly three minutes you need to watch where the rabbit is sitting on the crate. There will be some humming and the noise level will rise a bit but not painfully.”

As we waited, I felt my back pocket to be sure the envelope I had earlier removed from the crate was still in place. I fingered it nervously wondering momentarily if what I was being told could possibly be true.

What if Joshua had really created a way to go back in time? How far could it go? He had said you could only stay for less than two hours. What could you do in that time? Could someone kill Hitler? I was pretty sure that wouldn’t be me. I had received a C in high school German. And someone like me was very unlikely to blend in with the locals.

Could I go back to the birth of Jesus to see what was going on in Bethlehem? Could I see Jackie Robinson play his first game in the major leagues? Could I march with Dr. King?

“Ten Seconds!”

I stopped thinking about impossible things and watched the dais.

Exactly ten seconds later, with the noise rising as Joshua had said to a noticeably but not painful level, there was an almost visible *pop* and the dais was suddenly empty again.

The machinery wound down, the noise abated and Joshua started walking towards me again.

“What do you think?”

“I think you are, at the very least, a very impressive magician, Joshua.”

“It’s not a trick! Do you still have that envelope? Can you open it, please?”

I reached again to my back pocket and opened the envelope. Removing the tape and reaching inside I found what felt like a folded up card.

With shaking fingers I unfolded the card I took out of the envelope. On it was the date I had written earlier. It was clearly written in my hand writing exactly as I had written it just minutes before.

“Joshua,” I said quietly, “Where’s the rabbit?”

“The rabbit is now fifteen minutes in the past. It, along with the crate and the envelope were transported there just now. The earlier version of you just saw it appear right on that X on the concrete over there, exactly as you remember.”

“But how? Why?” I couldn’t seem to put together a sentence. This was impossible.

“With my machine I can move anything in the target area back in time. So far I can only get go back about 35 years. I don’t know why, yet. And only for about 105 minutes. Any longer than that and whatever I send back snaps back to the time and place it was sent from. Again, not entirely sure why but I have some theories. The amount of energy required seems to be a function of the amount of time and the distance I am transporting the target. In fact, the distance is a real issue right now. I can’t seem to get more than 8 to 10 miles without burning out my machine and the components are not cheap to replace.

“Jim, this is real. I’ve sent back cameras. I’ve gone back myself and collected newspapers. You can go back in time.”

I thought about this for a few minutes. I asked him, “Why did you ask me if I had regrets”.

Joshua replied, “Because you can change the past! Do you recall reading stories about going back in time and changing things? Where you go back and keep your grandfather from meeting your grandmother and you aren’t born as a result? It’s all wrong! You can change the past.”

“I don’t understand. If you go back and keep yourself from being born, don’t you disappear, never having been created?”

“No! It’s not that simple. There will be one time track where you did go back and you aren’t born but the track where you WERE born still exists. You can change the past! Well, I guess really you’re creating a new time track. The one where you were born still exists but now you’ve also created a track where you were not!”

I sat in stunned silence, overwhelmed with what I was being told, unable to accept the possibility that what I was seeing could be true.

“Could you send me back? Could you send me back in time?”

“When? And where?”

I handed him the card. The date on the card was about 27 years in the past.

“The date on that card, but one hour earlier. And right here in town.”

“How much time do you need?”

“An hour. No more. Can you get me out to the football stadium outside town?”

Joshua did some quick calculations on his computer.

“No, but I can get you within a couple of miles.”

“You need to send me to that time.”

“So, you believe me?”

“If you can send me to that time and bring me back, I will believe you. I’ll help you find support for your work. I’ll tell your story.”

I couldn’t believe what was coming out of my mouth. It was as if my brain had split. Part of me was watching in disbelief as the other half behaved in a way that was reckless and dangerous and entirely out of character for me.

“Let’s do this now. Before I lose my nerve.”

Joshua looked at me with concern. “Are you sure about this?”

“No, but if what you say is right, I need to see it for myself.”

“Alright. Please stand in the middle of the dais with your hands at your sides.” Joshua turned his head from me and began clattering away on his keyboard.

I moved over to the dais. There were bright lights mounted on the machine that illuminated the dais. I squinted as I entered the glare of those lights. I put my hands at my side and asked “Will it hurt?”

“You won’t feel anything. One moment you’ll be here, the next you’ll be somewhere else. Bend your knees a bit. I’ve calculated the location I want to send you to but to be safe, you’ll appear roughly a foot above ground. If I transport you right to the ground level and I’m off even by a few inches – well, the results are not good. So, you’ll drop a foot or so down to the ground on the other side. Are you ready?”

“No! I’m not ready but do it before I change my mind. Where am I going?”

“You will be transported along route 10 outside town. You’ll be shy of the stadium by just under two miles and roughly 200 yards from the road. One last thing. I’m sending you for one hour. At the end of the hour your link to that time will destabilize and you will be yanked back to this time no matter what you are doing at the time. So, try to not be in the middle of the football field or, preferably, where anyone can see you. Is that clear? Okay, here we go! Ten seconds… Five, Four, Three, Two, One!”

His last syllable was cut off and suddenly I was falling!

Very quickly I hit the ground and barely caught myself from falling to my knees.

There had been no feeling at all! One moment I was in the lab and the next I was in a field. It was cold and felt like fall. The fields had been harvested and nothing remained but stubble. I looked around and not far away could see what I presumed was Route 10 and began moving to the road.

As I walked it began to sink in. I was clearly somewhere else so at a minimum Joshua had invented something that moved me from one place to another. If he was not lying about the time travel, then not only had I moved in space, I had moved in time!

If Joshua was correct, I was back in time the night that I was in the car accident. The accident that occurred because of my stupidity. The night Sam was killed.

If Joshua was telling the truth, especially about changing the past, I could give Sam his life. He could live the life I had taken from him. I could change the single biggest regret of my life.

I made my way to the road and walked away from the lights of town towards where the stadium was just down the road.

Joshua had said that I could change the past. Sam could live. And my life, at least the life of the 17-year old me, would change as well.

I would never be found guilty of vehicular homicide. I would be able to go to college. I could be the person I was supposed to be.

It would be simple. I felt in my pocket where I keep a small folding knife. All I would have to do is puncture the tires on my Pinto. No tires means no racing. No racing means no accident. Everything would be made right.

I thought about the possibility of the younger version of me walking a different path, not having to experience all the guilt, the stares of my peers, the broken bones. There would be no funeral for Sam, which I had missed anyway, as I was still laid up in the hospital. He could go live whatever life I had robbed him of because of my poor decisions. I could make it all right.

I was approaching the intersection where that accident occurred all those years ago. Where the accident would happen once again just an hour from now if I didn’t do something to change it.

As I entered that intersection where my life had taken the wrong turn, I had a thought. For all the horrible things that happened, not everything in my life was bad. I had two wonderful children. They are everything a parent could ask for in children. They make the world a better place for being in it. They make me proud.

My kids are one of the products of the life that followed from that accident.

I met their mother. I fell in love or what I thought was love at the time. We had kids we loved. There were vacations and school sports and school concerts. There were times of laughter mixed in with times of sadness and anger. It wasn’t all bad.

I became a part of my community again. I learned to write. I told stories about the folks who we don’t hear enough about. I worked hard and I think I bring more good in to the world than bad.

The stadium was getting close. I could see the lights in the distance. I glanced at my phone. It wasn’t getting a signal. No big surprise there. But it still worked as a clock. Based on when I left I still had about 35 minutes left. I picked up my pace.

I thought back to when my kids were born. Learning to walk and talk. Turning from babies to small people. People I enjoyed and loved spending time with. People who would grow up and live their own lives. Eventually, they would have families and kids of their own.

That would all change for the younger me. I wouldn’t meet my wife. There would be no kids. My kids would never exist. That thought filled me with a palpable sense of regret that caused to stop walking for a moment.

I was in the parking lot now. I knew more or less where I had left my car so started wandering in that direction. There were not many yellow Pintos in the world, let alone in the parking lot of the stadium, so it was pretty easy to find.

I reached out and touched the hood of my car. I looked in the window and it was just as I recalled it down to the tear in the seat of the passenger side where Sam had accidentally ripped it when something in his back pocket had caught in the fabric and tore the cover of the seat. We had “fixed” it with duct tape.

It would be simple. All I had to do was plunge my knife in to a tire. Two tires, actually, since I knew I had a spare in the back. Just two small cuts and there would be no accident. So easy to set things right again. Two cuts and walk away. In twenty minutes I will return to my time and my younger self and Sam can continue down a new road filled with possibilities.

But it came to me again, harder this time, that while the younger version of my self would have a different life, and Sam would simply HAVE a life that he hadn’t had, that life would not include the friends I counted on and who counted on me. I wouldn’t be the person who I am today, for all my faults, not a bad person. But the thing that kept coming up in my head, stronger each time, is that my children would never be in that new world.

While I wanted to right the wrong that haunted me the most in my life, was I willing to do that at the cost of who I became and the lives of my children?

I reached in to my pocket and pulled out the knife. I opened the blade. I put it against the rubber of the front right tire near where I stood. Just one easy motion and everything would be different.

There was a brief feeling of vertigo and suddenly I was back in the room with Joshua looking at me from behind the consoles of his computers.

He looked at me with concern. “How did it go?”

I walked to a chair nearby and sat down.

I told Joshua why I went back. What had happened and what my intentions had been.

I told him about the car and the knife and the tires of that old Pinto.

I told him about my kids and how changing my past would mean a future that didn’t include two of the people I am most proud of in the world.

I paused.

He asked, “So, what did you do?”

I looked back at him and asked, “What would you do?”

 

 

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Storm Affront

It wasn’t clear how it happened. Looking back at the records, we know that there was a large electrical storm that took place over our town and, at the same time, somewhere in southern California. After things returned to normal, scientists proposed a variety of explanations. Those explanations went far over my head but I recall a few phrases like “quantum entanglement”, “harmonic vibrations” and “sympathetic resonating frequencies”. But, at the end of the day, all I can tell you is this: My dog became possessed by a Kardashian!

Things are getting a bit fuzzy now that all the uproar has passed. The reporters have stopped bothering us, the scientists have gone back to their labs, the government vans have, so far as we can tell, stopped keeping an eye on us. But, here’s what I recall about what happened.

It was, literally, a dark and stormy night. I know that sounds trite, but it’s true and it’s relevant so it’s hard to not include that detail.

Where we live, we don’t get a great deal of thunder and lightning. Call it less than ten storms a year. But, this was a BIG one! Because of the geography in our area, we typically get twenty minutes of some nice flashes, some throaty rumbling in the distance and buckets of rain. We live in the Northwest United States, so rain comes with the territory.

This storm was different. It seemed to hover over the area like it was holding a grudge. On a regular basis there was a flash followed pretty quickly by a *crack* and rumble from the nearby lightning. My wife and I were watching from inside the house because of the rain. The power would occasionally flicker but the development we live in is only a few years old and the electrical infrastructure has been largely sound through these kinds of storms. But, as I said, this storm was different.

At this point I should mention the dog. Or the dogs.

We have two. They are sisters and they are labradoodles, a cross between a barrel-chested chocolate lab with a great disposition and miniature poodle that was not, shall we say, present at the act of conception. Though, had he been, he would have been feeling pretty full of himself for the accomplishment. We have labradoodles because my wife has allergies and this breed seems to trigger those allergies much less than the average breed.

They’re not big dogs, only 30 to 35 pounds each as adults. We have two because, the rationale went, one would be lonely as my wife and I both work and one dog by itself would just get in to trouble. So, we have two sisters from the same litter.

One of them is a yellow blonde and looks very much like a down-sized yellow lab. Same face and happy demeanor as a yellow lab. That one is fairly smart, albeit a bit sneaky, but always has a smiling face and a wagging tail. That’s Gabby. The other is mostly black with a few patches of white fur. She got the long legs and dark brown eyes and she’s pretty. That’s Zena. Her name starts with a ‘Z’ because my wife likes Z names. Her sister is named Gabby because I was able to sneak in a Xena Warrior Princess connection without getting caught.

Zena is the one that everyone else seems to like. She’s a bit neurotic and acts as though she’s a ten pound lapdog in her head. She will place her head under anything that could be a hand in hopes of being touched. She is demanding as she uses her wet nose to make clear that, to her, any unoccupied hand would really better be used to touch her.

As a result of all this, and don’t tell the dogs, but Gabby is my favorite. Zena strikes me as sort of pretty but vacuous. She’s interested in attention at all costs and doesn’t do much to earn it.

All this background may or may not be relevant. Who can say in retrospect?

Back to the storm.

As my wife and I were chatting about our day, having completed our chores and cleaned up after dinner. Gabby was nearby gnawing on a bone and Zena was under hand trying for attention. Suddenly there was a mighty flash followed almost immediately by an even more mighty *CRACK* of thunder and the lights went out. Well, mostly out. As our eyes began to adjust to the darkness, there was an eerie glow coming from Zena. That might have been my imagination, though, because it quickly seemed to subside.

Then, out of the darkness came a voice I didn’t recognize.

“Who the hell turned out the lights! Where’s the music! Someone get the lights back on right now!”

Obviously we were surprised because there was no one in the house besides my wife and me. And the dogs. The power was out so it wasn’t coming from a radio, computer or television. And, most strange, it was coming from very nearby my feet! Actually, it was coming from Zena.

At that point the lights came back on. My wife was sitting on the couch at the other end from me. I could see Gabby lying on the floor where she’d been gnawing her bone prior to the outage. At my feet was Zena and she was staring up at me with the same big, brown eyes and (to me) vacuous expression. But, she opened her mouth and spoke!

Please don’t get me started on the physics or the physical inability of a dog to speak. Even my high school Biology tells me that can’t happen. All I am going to do is wave my hands and say “quantum entanglement” or “sympathetic vibrations” and tell you that, yes, a voice came out of my dog’s mouth and it spoke. It spoke English. And it was a female voice. I’m just going to tell you what happened, not why. I’ll leave that to others with far more interest and education than I.

“You!” the voice said. “Where am I? Why am I on this floor? And where is my drink!”

I looked at the dog. I looked at my wife. I looked back at the dog and responded appropriately with “Huh-wha?”

The dog looked over at my wife. “Is he stupid? Answer my questions! I was at a party. This is, like, someone’s house or something. Where is the party? I was dancing with this really hot guy. The lights went out and suddenly I’m on the floor in a house with you people. Do I need to call the cops? Is this a kidnapping? I have money!”

The dog looked around a bit more. On a nearby wall was a floor length mirror which was resting against the wall because I hadn’t got around to hanging it yet. The dog looked over and saw the mirror. She walked over to the mirror. They say a baby can recognize itself in a mirror sometime in the first year or so. Some elephants can do the same. Our now talking dog looked at herself in the mirror, turned about, raised and lowered her head and then one paw. She sat and then she got back up on her feet. Then our dog turned to us and said, “Why is that dog in the mirror doing what I’m doing? What kind of sick joke is this? Do you know who I am?!”

I was still in shock and not particularly capable of reasoning. My wife who is far more level-headed in a crisis than I responded, “Who are you?”

And she told us. My dog was apparently possessed by a Kardashian.

At this point my brain re-engaged. I grabbed the video camera from my office and started filming. This seemed to please the dog who, consistent with her original personality, seemed to crave attention and the camera seemed to focus her.

My wife proceeded to talk to the dog, asking her questions, answering a few posed by the dog.

Meanwhile, it occurred to me that this experience was far, far out of my realm of expertise. I got out my phone and called my friend who is an adjunct professor in Psychology at the local university. He lives nearby, no more than a few minutes away.

He showed and I quickly caught him up on events. He, of course, wanted to know if the lightning had hit me but I assured him that he just needed to come in to the living room and see for himself.

He stepped in and came upon the strangest conversation between my wife and our now talking dog.

“I need someone to give me some answers right now! I’m going to call the cops as soon as I find a phone. This is kidnapping!”

At that point the dog spotted us coming back in the room, me filming again with the video camera. The dog seemed quite taken with the camera, looking directly in to the lens, seeming to pose in a flattering manner, turning to face the camera at an angle and, I swear, smiling.

I explained that my friend was here to meet her and that attention seemed to calm down our still talking dog.

After a few minutes my friend understood that this was not an elaborate prank, having established for himself that the dog was talking and responding to questions and seemed to have an identity and, more or less, a personality.

Soon after and following a flurry of calls, our house began to fill with additional scientists called in by my friend. Very soon our living room took on the look and feel of a press event. There were lights, cameras, microphones all around pointed at our dog. The dog, sorry for the pun, lapped it up.

Meanwhile, the storm which had seemed to abate for a while after the immense strike nearby, had continued to build again.

In the middle of a long, drawn out and rambling answer to a very simple question, there was, again, a mighty flash and *CRACK* of thunder and, once again, the lights went out. This time, however, it was far shorter, probably less than 10 seconds.

When the lights came back on, all eyes returned to my dog. She looked around, blinked and approached the nearest hand and began sticking her head under it in hopes of being pet.

The assemblage of scientists asked more questions, prodded the dog (which the dog liked as she took it for the attention she wanted) but quickly reached the conclusion that whatever had happened appeared to have come to an end.

There was talk of taking the dog and giving her more examinations. There was even talk of brain scans and even removal for dissection and study, but my wife stopped that line immediately. In the end, all the examinations and scans could not find any evidence that she was any different than the dog that she was the day before.

Whatever had happened had come to an end.

I don’t think there’s any moral to this story. Something odd happened and then things eventually went back to normal.

But, I’ll end with this: During the couple of hours that our dog was possessed by a Kardashian, it turns out there was a party in California attended by the same Kardashian. And during that entire time that my dog claimed to be that person, party-goers didn’t think it was odd that she spent two hours socializing, saying nothing, rubbing herself all over people for attention and occasionally drinking directly from a punch bowl until she passed out. No one at the party seemed to notice that their Kardashian didn’t have anything to say the entire time.

 

 

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