The Time-Traveller’s Lament

by David Stevens

The clan of homo heidelbergensis tutted and bobbed and swayed as Fred approached their hearth, but he was not concerned. As always, he was careful to stay on the other side of their fire. He told himself that they had grown used to his appearances. If he thought about it, however, he could not be certain of the chronological order of any given visit. He did not think about it. Nor did he ponder that he – with his stumpy homo sapiens sapiens legs, tiny teeth, and unimpressive browridge –  might not appear a threat to them.

Plus, he always brought food. “Don’t ask where I got these from, fellas,” he called as he threw bones over the fire. The fellas of course did not respond, but chomped down, so Fred soon heard cracking, followed by the sucking of marrow.

Fred stalked up and down on his side of the flames. “I think I may be finished with it all. I have intervened in history 168 times. I’m worn out. I don’t physically age when interacting with the Temporomobile™, but it’s been 200 years! And I’m only 37!

“Sure, I’ve had breaks – 200 years is a long time. Coming back here, that’s not a break, that’s the default for the re-set, but other stuff. Spa-days. Weeks. Months. Take some time to think. To not think. To chill. Can you blame me?

“I was wiped out. You get it. You’re down at the stream, washing the auroch grease and swamp mud out of your hair, and a sabre-tooth appears with his big, you know, teeth, and you gotta run, and you leave the babies behind, and the sabre-tooth is happy with that, but you’re not! You’re not as emotionally evolved as a 21st century romance writer, but you’re hominids, you have feelings, you don’t like your babies being eaten, but what are you gonna do? You’re not a bad parent, you’re not a bad person-oid. There was no choice.

“Louisa was dead. Hit by a car. But it did not have to be final. I had a choice.

“People made all of the usual noises – you’re still young; it was meant to be; there are plenty of fish in the sea; she wasn’t as smart as you …

“I was already close to the breakthrough. I worked. Constantly. Day and night. I have a montage of it back in the machine. And I did it. I built the Temporomobile™. I set the dial to the fateful time, and dragged her out of the way of the car just in the nick of … well, you know.

“I wept joyous tears – she was alive and in my arms. She was shocked at her near miss, and shaking, and … stepped straight in front of a speeding truck.”

Fred’s monologue continued. He did not pause to wonder whether he had survived his first encounter with the clan because in his chronologically jumbled travels, they had already met him. Similarly, he did not contemplate whether he had survived their first encounter with him, because he arrived with the overconfidence and bonhomie of long-term, strangely tolerated, weird neighbour.

The homo heidelbergensis clan gnawed on the bones, amongst their evening activities: hearth-tending; mutual grooming (and associated insect-eating); mating, sometimes before, sometimes after the mutual grooming; toolmaking; and keeping watch for night-dangers.    

“I ran to the machine, reversed the temporal flow, and this time after rescuing her, I took her into the house and made her a nice cup of tea.

“Which seemed to do the trick. Except later that day, two blocks away, she was struck and killed by the same make of car that killed her the first time.

“My instinct was to go further back, and remove that automobile company from existence, but of course, nobody wants to be Bradbury’s dinosaur hunter – well, they might, I hunted a dinosaur on one of my breaks, great fun. I digress. I had no idea what ripples that might start, how much I might change.

“I went back and forth, fixing things, but sooner or later the universe sprung back into shape, and – boing – she was struck by a car.

“There was nothing for it. I had to amend her mother, so that she would be stricter in raising Louisa and imprint upon her the danger of the automobile!

“I spent much of her mother’s childhood driving crazily by and narrowly missing her. There were one or two unfortunate incidents, but I erased those almost immediately.

“It seemed to work. Louisa was more timid, and she and her mother jumped at loud noises, but she was alive, my love was alive! And stayed alive.

“For three months.

“The next time, she was struck by a bicycle messenger travelling at speed, hit her head, and was gone.

“I studied Louisa more carefully. I discovered a slight astigmatism in one eye. She had not been seeing these speeding objects properly.

“I couldn’t figure how to accidentally carry out delicate eye surgery on a juvenile Louisa without being caught out.

“However, I traced the imperfection back 80 years, to a something-great-grandmother.

“Fortunately, the woman had died in childbirth, so had made no contribution other than an unfortunate genetic one. So, I once again travelled backwards; removed her from the picture; and substituted another something-great-grandmother.

“Oh, do not judge me harshly. I arranged an inheritance for something-great-grandma, so she never felt compelled to marry to avoid starvation, and died childless and happy at the age of 110.

“I took no chances. I surreptitiously arranged for Louisa to have acrobatic, dance and martial arts lessons in childhood, so that she was fit and nimble and particularly good at jumping out of the way.

“This final time. I was there. The car passed harmlessly. She crossed the street – in tighter fitting clothes than I remembered, showing a more muscular build from her lessons. The truck sped by immediately afterwards, unnoticed. I noticed the delightful lift at the tip of Louisa’s nose was gone – no doubt another genetic contribution from the substituted great-granny. It was a price I was willing to pay.

“Around a corner, a motorbike mounted the footpath, knocking pedestrians flying. Louisa sprung a grand jeté, leaping over the bike without a care. Ha! My investments were paying off. I was scared too, of course. What might the universe throw next at our love?

“With an extended step, Louisa avoided an open manhole. She then ducked as though in a silent movie, avoiding a timber shouldered by a spinning labourer.

“There was a loud snap above us. Worker’s hoisting an iron safe to a top-floor business had misjudged its weight, and the lifting rope had broken. The safe plummeted to earth.

“It was no bother to Louisa. She dived into a forward roll, grabbed a small child on the way, and tumbled them both to safety!

Take that, universe, I thought, and punched the air in triumph. Louisa deposited the child, turned to an opening door, and froze. A young woman of Celtic background – long wavy red hair, creamy skin with a spray of freckles – stepped out. Colpo di fulmine! They froze for a moment, then fell into each other’s arms, their lips locked in a passionate kiss.

“The universe laughed its arse off at me as I watched love at first sight. What are you going to do now, Fred?, it asked, braying food from its lips as it chewed up my heart.

“That’s it, fellas. That’s the story. I’ve given up. The universe hates us. If you ever work out language, after the sabre-tooth gobbles up your babies, don’t bother to ask “why?’. It was just meant to be. And the reason is.” This bit he punctuated with foot stomps. “Everything. Is. Shit.”

The clan had looked up. They tutted and bobbed and swayed a little more frantically than before.

“Except maybe. I don’t know. Is it a nature or nurture thing? Maybe Louisa swings both ways, and I just never realised because, you know, she died and all. Should I go back and give it one last shot? Just one more? Get in before the Irish chick?”

The clan had moved the babies and old folk behind rocks and into crevices. Spears and stone axes were raised.

The guttural rumble was deeper and louder than Fred would have predicted. It triggered the most primal fear response.

“I don’t want to look. There’s one behind me, isn’t there?”

It was messy. It was swift-ish, but not swift enough for Fred. Still, the sabre-tooth was happy, and left the clan alone, dragging Fred’s corpse into the darkness.

A few days later, Fred appeared and began tossing bones again. None present wondered if this was a slightly younger Fred, throwing his own chewed femur and broken rib cage that he had collected while strolling past.

“Don’t ask where I got these from, fellas.”

~

Bio:

David Stevens usually lives in Sydney, Australia, with his wife and those of his children who have not yet figured out the locks. He is the author of twenty five (now twenty six!) published stories, largely speculative, sometimes experimental, which have appeared among other places in Crossed Genres, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Pseudopod, and most recently in Vastarien Literary Journal, Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, and the anthology Prolescaryet. He blogs at davidstevens.info.

Philosophy Note:

The simplest time-travelling stories, if they rise above action and romance, are often wish-fulfillment with a dash of Amazing! The most sophisticated are often extended melancholic broodings upon history and the human condition. Mixed somewhere in there is a spectrum of approaches to technical questions, such as avoiding temporal paradoxes, and serious historical counterfactuals.
With Fred and his homo heidelbergensis audience, I was more concerned to lightheartedly and briefly touch on a range of other points: if science and technology takes us down a path, we will follow it regardless, and ascribe moral neutrality to that path; the pernicious idea that “acceptance” is for losers, for those who give up, as though an unreflective and overwhelming focus on a goal is not monomaniacal; the notion that if we work hard enough, we can achieve anything, and tied in with that, our recent return to the idea of science as an individualistic endeavour, and grudging “admiration” for high-tech heroes (cough, Ebon Tusk); and finally unexamined interference with the free will of others.

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