Here’s my latest science fiction short story. It’s slightly autobiographical as my Great Uncle Ed, the man who raised me, was an inventor. He had a few moderately successful inventions during his career, most notably in the field of marine navigation. The photo illustration for this blog is his original prototype of his early 1930’s compass course finder. He spent his last few years trying to create a time machine. I know it sounds crazy but he became obsessed with the idea.
Obviously he never succeeded but he did have several interesting failures. This work of science fiction is inspired by those failures along with his indomitable spirit. I hope you enjoy it.
“Michael, your Uncle Len needs you in the basement!”
“Damn! She always hollers at me when I’m in the attic,” Michael thought. He had refinished the formerly empty space a year ago and transformed it into his Fortress of Solitude. With only a large industrial fan to cool it, the space was especially hot during this Southern New Jersey July in 1961. Michael thought it was a small price to pay for the privacy it afforded to the 12-year-old. He would spend hours playing his Sears Silvertone acoustic guitar or reading, sipping on a bottle of Coke to stay cool.
“On my way!” he yelled back. Luckily there were outside steps that led to the back basement door, making the trip as easy as it could be on this hot and humid day. Michael was really sweating when he got to his uncle’s basement room. It had all the comforts of home, a 19 inch Philco TV, an old GE console radio, an unmade single bed, a tattered reclining chair and a workbench covered with enough high tech equipment to be a science fiction movie set. Len had been Michael’s main male role model since his father passed away when the boy was 5.
“I think I just sent my diary to my future self in 2004,” Len said to the spectacled preteen. Quickly doing the head math, Michael realized that Len’s future self would be 123 in the year 2004. He just nodded as his uncle continued. “I finally solved the power problem with The Shifter.” Len called his latest time travel device The Shifter. Previous failed attempts had been called Trans Dimensional Accelerator, Time Dilation Unit, Quantum Generator and several more equally oblique names.
“What makes you think you sent it forward?” Len asked, looking at what appeared to be a pile of ash under the unit.
“Forward, that’s the key. All my other attempts were trying to send things back. I’m pretty sure now that’s impossible. But forward into the future, that’s the answer. I’m sending it to where we will be. The future hasn’t happened yet so the laws of conundrum and paradox don’t apply. Can’t change something that hasn’t happened yet. The fact that we can’t travel back is probably one of the universe’s safeguards.”
“Safeguards?” Len thought as he continued to look at the pile of ash under the machine. “Uncle Len, what makes you think The Shifter didn’t just incinerate your diary?” He pointed at the ash.
“That’s just residue from the process. Probably the dust in the air.” Len always had an answer. Usually not the right answer, but he always had a quick response. Michael knew it was better to just smile and nod as he listened. But he did have a question this time.
“I don’t understand how you’ll know if something reaches the future. You won’t find out about it until it happens decades from now.”
“But in the future, I’m sure I will have perfected the device and probably know how to defeat the Universe’s safeguards about sending things back. I expect that my future self will send back some kind of confirmation. Even if he can’t send anything back, there’s no doubt my diary went somewhere, most likely into the future.” Michael was now staring at the pile of ash as Len continued. “My next move will be to send back a living being, one of the chickens.” Michael continued to stare at the pile of ash and hoped that his uncle wouldn’t kill yet another fowl from the coop. They always seemed to be the unwilling test pilots in his attempts at time travel.
Len often had the boy help with his plans to travel in time. He saw his time machine as final vindication of a long and less-than illustrious career. Every time he thought he was on the verge of succeeding, he tried to send an animal through time. It always ended badly.
“Mom said you wanted me?”
“Yes, I want to keep my momentum. Get me one of the chickens from the coop. Time waits for no man…That’s a joke, Michael. Once my future self sees that I’ve sent a living being through time. He’ll probably send one back, might even come himself if he’s figured out that whole paradox thing.”
The paradox thing Len referred to came from every science fiction story they had read. Those tales said that traveling through time and meeting yourself would cause catastrophic consequences. Michael wondered if any serious scientific text had ever noted the same thing.
The boy reluctantly went to the chicken coop. He knew better than to argue with his uncle. He always picked the oldest chicken he could find, knowing that this was a one way trip at best. He loved his uncle and would often spend hours talking and accompanying him on guitar while the man played the harmonica. As good as he was, Michael wondered why he never pursued a career in music.
Len had been a failed inventor his whole life. He had some success back in the 1930’s and 40’s with some improvements to marine navigation equipment. But he never earned enough money to really make a living. He shuttled between his three younger sisters’ homes until he outstayed his welcome at two of them. He made a deal with Michael’s mother for room and board in exchange for helping around the farm. In the past five years he probably put in one full week’s work. According to Donna, Michael’s mother, Len was not from the workers.
Michael returned to the basement with a hen that had stopped laying eggs several months ago. Realizing she was destined for the roasting pan anyway, he thought she was the best choice.
“Hold her under the beamer, Michael. That’s the cone shape device attached to the left side of The Shifter.”
“Right where the pile of ash is?” Michael asked.
Len didn’t answer but brushed the ash away. Michael placed the chicken on the designated spot. “She won’t stay unless I hold her.”
“Okay,” Len replied. “Just hold her there. Once the beam hits her, you can let go.”
“But I’ll get burned.”
“Nonsense,” it takes almost a minute before The Shifter reaches full power. She’ll be held in the beam before you have anything to worry about.”
“I don’t want her to suffer!”
“Any pain she feels will disappear when she moves to the future, I think. I’m pretty sure about that.”
Michael held the chicken in place as his uncle threw several switches and slowly turned a large dial that would have been the envy of any on-screen mad scientist. The machine started to buzz. It was a very loud buzz that shook everything in the room. Michael’s fingers started to tingle.
“Uncle Len!” he called out, but the buzzing was much louder than his concerned voice. The buzz got louder and the tingling in Michael’s hands spread up his arms and was quickly spreading through his body. He tried to let go of the chicken but found out he was paralyzed.
“Let go!” Len yelled. “The beam is holding the chicken!” Thinking Michael heard him over the cacophonous noise The Shifter was now making, Len turned to a panel of switches and dials.
Although Michael’s body was frozen, his mind was very much alive. Diverse images of naked women, classrooms, various urban and rural locations around the country, many people (clothed this time), objects he had never seen before and literally thousands of other pictures shot across his mind. It was like someone hit fast forward on a tape recorder only this recorder had pictures. Thousands and thousands of images, each one more confusing then the last, flashed in Michael’s mind.
He didn’t feel pain, but his emotions quickly went from joy to sadness over and over again. He felt like he was laughing and crying at the same time. About a year ago, he had fainted from the heat in his attic room and now he felt himself losing consciousness like he had back then. Soon, everything went black.
“Michael, wake up! For God’s sake, wake up son!” Len gently shook the boy.
The boy’s body started to move. He opened his eyes and realized he had the worst headache of his short life. “Len,” he said in a horse whisper. “My head really hurts. Am I okay?”
“You’re a little pale. You’ve been out for almost a half hour.”
“A half hour? And you didn’t call the fucking ambulance? You miserable old fuck, you tried to kill me! Fuck you. Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” Micheal was pretty sure the quote came from a movie but it seemed apropos.
“Hey, what would your mother say if she heard you talking like that.” Len realized that Michael never cursed. The boy sat up and stood, leaning on the workbench.
“Jesus fucking Christ! This is bullshit!” Michael said loud enough to be heard a block away.
“Easy boy,” Len said “I’d rather not have your mother know about this.
“She’s fucking dead, you asshole!” Michael shot back.
“Michael, what are you talking about? She’s upstairs. She’s fine!
“She died in 1997. What’s wrong with you? You sound like you have Alzheimer’s!”
“Have what?” Len asked. He quickly added, “Just sit down and relax.” He helped the wobbly Michael sit in the recliner. The boy was too weak to resist. He sat down and quickly fell asleep, or he might have passed out again, Len wasn’t sure.
A few hours later, Michael woke up. Len was busy cleaning up his workbench.
“What happened, Len?” Michael asked.
“I think you got an electric shock from the machine. You held the chicken too long. But once you let go the chicken didn’t incinerate. It stood motionless for a few moments after you released her and then just died. I guess the current surge that knocked you out was too much for her.”
Michael looked at the clock on the basement wall. “I’ve been unconscious for almost 3 hours. Head still hurts.”
“Take these,” Len said handing him two aspirin and a glass of water.
“Don’t you have any Alleve?”
“What the hell is Alleve?” Len asked, quickly adding, “Whatever it is, aspirin is what I got.” Michael swallowed the pills and started to leave the basement. “Nothing we have to tell your mom, okay?” Len asked.
“No problem, Len,” Michael said as started up the basement steps. Len thought it was unusual for the boy to not refer to him as Uncle Len.
Later that night, Len knocked on Michael’s attic door. He had his usual assortment of harmonicas in his hands. “Thought we could play a little music.”
Michael let him in. “Sure Len, the headache is gone. I took a nap for a while. Lots of really weird dreams. Think it’s the aftermath of The Shifter malfunction?”
“No malfunction, just a power surge. Going to add an active capacitance bridge. That should take care of it.”
Michael didn’t respond. Len had historically refused to admit that he ever made any mistakes. When he ran the tractor into the irrigation ditch, he claimed it went into reverse all by itself. Even insisted that a representative from the company come out and inspect it. The expensive service call showed no mechanical problems.
“Let’s just play some music,” Michael said. He sat down with his guitar and proceeded to play. As a 12-year-old he was a pretty good guitar player and singer. Even did a little fingerpicking. But tonight, his fingers flew across the guitar’s neck. It was a 12 bar blues, but Len immediately noticed some amazing licks he had never heard before. The boy was also playing some extremely complex chords that gave the music a very modern feel.
“Playing your fingers off, boy, I’ll just jump in when I can.” Len was an excellent harmonica player, especially considering he was self-taught. But tonight he could not keep up with the boy. Michael’s technique on the Sears acoustic guitar was nothing less than amazing. Len stopped playing and just listened. Michael was playing better than any professional Len had ever heard.
Michael stopped in a few minutes. “I don’t know where that stuff came from, Len. It’s like I’ve always known how to play like that. I’m a lot better than I was yesterday.”
“Michael, I don’t mind you calling me Len, but your mom might wonder why you dropped the Uncle?”
“Sorry, Len. It just seems natural to call you that. I’m having a lot of weird thoughts since the accid…uh, since you fired up The Shifter. I even cried about some woman named Betty. She left me and was fighting for custody of the kids. What kids? And President Kennedy. His funeral was so sad.”
“But Kennedy is still alive, Michael.”
“I know, Len..uh, Uncle Len. There are so many things that came into my mind. It’s like I lived through them. But they never happened…”
Len took a few minutes to think, which he rarely did before speaking. “Maybe they haven’t happened yet.”
“I’m psychic? All of a sudden I have ESP?”
“No such thing as ESP, Michael. What else came into your mind after the experiment? Take it from the first thing you thought of, try to give me a rundown in chronological order.
Michael stretched out on the floor and tried to get comfortable. “I used to like lying on the floor. Now it just makes me stiff.” He got up and sat at his desk. “Okay, here goes.”
Len sat speechless as the young boy regaled him with a story that included a Presidential assassination, a music festival attended by half a million people, a President resigning, astronauts landing on the moon, the Beatles breaking up, (Len didn’t know who they were), wars, economic booms and busts, a President having an affair in the White House, a host of inventions including cassettes, personal computers, CDs, MP3’s, cell phones…
The story went on for over an hour. During that time, Len learned that Michael would be married three times, Len would pass in 1990 and, as Michael had said right after he regained consciousness, his mother would die in 1997.
“Okay, boy. I have a theory.”
Michael winced. Usually Len’s theories were as improbable as his inventions. This time was different.
“I think The Shifter worked. But instead of transporting the chicken, or you, into the future, it somehow connected the mind with your future self. Your memories, everything that makes you who you are, were somehow transferred into your 12-year-old mind. You now know everything that will happen on this planet from now until sometime in the 2000’s. Could explain the cursing when you woke up and calling me just Len. Part of your mind is thinking like an adult.”
Michael didn’t respond. For a few moments, he was deep in thought. Earlier, when he remembered calling his uncle an ape after the incident, he thought of a movie he saw, or at least thought he saw.
As he continued in thought, he smiled as images of naked women came into his mind. The only other times he saw unclothed women were in the Playboy magazines his uncle gave him. He saw himself having sex with them. He tried to hold those thoughts but they were quickly replaced by thoughts of him in a classroom. Looked like a college and he was teaching a large class. Music, he thought.
“I see myself as some kind of teacher.” He said.
Len smiled since one of his theories appeared to be correct. “Actually, Michael, I’m pretty sure now you can be anything you want to be. Do you have any thoughts about the stock market?”
“Apple…a company named Apple. And Microsoft. Big dot com boom in the 1990’s. Atlantic City casino stocks will skyrocket after casino gambling is legalized in New Jersey in 1976…Why do I want a glass of red wine? I love red wine, but I’ve never had it…”
Len smiled. “Michael, you’re going to be able to buy your own vineyard. Hell, you’ll be able to buy 100 vineyards. We just can’t tell anyone what happened. Don’t want anyone taking advantage, except for us.”
Michael was surprised by how well organized his thought processes were. As someone who struggled with the basics of algebra, he was now able to think more clearly than ever before. Obviously something happened to him; maybe it was like the intellect boost he and his uncle had seen in the film Forbidden Planet.” So is that the deal? The Shifter made me smarter? But how do I know about things in the future?”
Len kept smiling. “Not smarter, Michael, just more, uh…mature. Let’s do this. You dictate everything you know and I’ll type it up. That way, if your knowledge fades, we’ll have a record. Then I’ll explain what’s going on.”
“Be easier if we had a word processor.”
“What’s a word process…never mind! You’ll tell me later.”
For the next several nights, Michael fastidiously recited all of his new memories as Michael typed them. When they were finished, the document was nearly 100,000 words long and contained a literal history of the future from 1962 to the mid 2000’s.
When he finished, Michael noticed a satisfied smile on Len’s face. He had never seen him look so content.
“Michael, The Shifter worked better than I could have imagined. Somehow, it reached out into the future and found your brain. I have always believed that each brain has a unique frequency, like the different radio and TV stations. But unlike the limited amount of radio and TV channels, there are an infinite number of brain channels. I think I read about something like this in Popular Science.”
Michael nodded. He and his uncle used to read Popular Science, Popular Mechanics and Mechanics Illustrated magazines cover to cover every month. They were the only three subscriptions that came to the house. “I remember that article,” he said.
Len continued, “I’ve worked for years on the space/time continuum. I was fairly certain that The Shifter could breach the time barrier and reach forward. What’s happened to you shows that I succeeded, sort of. But instead of physical travel, your brain frequency reached forward and somehow linked with your future self. Because you were exposed to the beam for so long, your future thoughts were transferred to the 1961 version of you. Your frequencies matched, it was an easy linkup.
“It’s like the Internet. I streamed the knowledge from my older brain to my younger self.”
“You’ll have to tell me more about that Internet stuff. That sounds like something I could invent,” Len said with a laugh.
“You might have to fight Al Gore about that.”
“It’s not important,” Michael snapped back. “So I know everything I will in the future?”
“As much as the human brain can recall.”
“I see a lot of problems with that,” Michael sighed. “School’s going to be more boring than ever.”
Len cared very much about the boy. He knew that Michael’s life had changed forever. It would be a minor blessing and a major curse to have to go back to the 6th grade with an adult mind. It was a problem he took very seriously and last night he thought he had come up with a solution.
“Michael, be ready tomorrow morning at 8. We’re taking a trip to Philly. I think it will solve everything.”
The next morning, the two hopped into Len’s old ’51 Mercury and drove to Philadelphia. Len insisted that Michael bring his guitar. They pulled up to a radio station and asked to see one of the DJ’s. After some cajoling and a $20 bribe, the pair were led into a small studio with one of the area’s top radio personalities.
“I got no time for this. What the hell is a kid with a cheap guitar going to do?” the DJ asked.
Len just smiled and said, “I know you produce records from time to time. I saw a story on the TV news that said you were looking for hit songs. Listen to this…”
With that, Michael started to play and sing, “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away…” along with the rest of the Beatles catalog, which his older self had obviously memorized during his life, along with songs from The Rolling Stones, The Who, James Taylor, Carole King and many others.
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