The Familiar Stranger

by Carlton Herzog

Professor Mulder,

I have practiced psychiatry for the past 30 years, specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia. In late 2054, I attended a patient—a CERN engineer—who seemed sane in every respect.

Yet, he insisted that he had been contacted by a visitor from the future. He also claimed that this traveler was his doppelganger, possibly from an alternate timeline. I remained skeptical and attributed his wild claims to a florid imagination and the stress of his work.

However, the further I delved into his story, the more I became convinced that he sincerely believed the truth of his claim.

Currently, he is on extended medical leave and remains under my care at the Institute. I convinced him to provide me with a written statement along with a copy of the Phone video he made of his visitor’s monologue. I have included both with this letter.

Professor Allen Treadwell, Department of Abnormal Psychology

Saint Mary’s Hospital, Zurich


 “He didn’t belong here. Or anywhere else on this earth. I took him to be the stuff of dreams, an airy nothing that had found a habitation outside my head. But there was too much sensory detail for him to be a mere figment of my imagination.

He steamed as the brown ice on him melted. That vapor reeked of feces and corpses and the deep earth.

He wore a parka with matching leggings but had wrapped the entire suit—including the boots—in thick black plastic then mummified it with duct tape. Bandages and rags covered his ears and nose, while a scarf or three wrapped python-like around his neck and mouth. Reflective ski-goggles covered his eyes. 

But for all those layers, he seemed oddly familiar—a badly dressed, noisome me.

He told of the coming world.

 ‘We are dying. My wife passed last week. My daughter the week before. There are no doctors left, no medicine. There is little hygiene in our crowded burrow. We live on top of each other, feeding on odious things—dung beetles, maggots, mushrooms, tilapia, worms—that live on feces and the dead. Raw dirty things that make you gag before you swallow. Thanks to that retinue of coprophages, my wife and daughter will be part of me again and again and again.

How the mighty have fallen: the once proud lords of the earth now reduced to scurrying moles. It is small consolation that this dramatic change came not from man’s hubris, but from circumstances wholly beyond his ability to predict or control.

The scientists saw It coming hundreds of years before It arrived. The mother of extinction events. At first, the cosmologists called it a “supermassive debris field.” Later, the poets, renamed it the Tartarus Field. But whatever the label, words could not contain its proportions or scope, though they could at least describe its components: stars, comets, asteroids, brown dwarfs, cracked planets, whole planets, gas, and dust—moving like a horde of locusts over a wheat field. It was as if an entire arm of some galaxy had somehow detached itself and begun a pilgrimage through our piece of space gravitationally absorbing all forms of matter within its field of influence. Over billions of years, it grew as it passed through system after system in galaxy after galaxy. Maybe through another universe or two. And the bigger it got the more stuff it attracted.

One might expect that when all that matter passed through the Milky Way, the earth was in greatest danger from a collision. Or simply being dragged along with the other debris. But that was not the case. It just nipped the edge of the Sagittarius Arm, and did so only with its dusty halo.

Yet, that was more than enough. Sweet, beautiful dust, the diamonds of space, reflecting light like the Star of India. Trillions upon trillions of tumbling, dancing, whirling, spinning, gyring, jittering dust particles. A great diamond necklace that wrapped itself around the neck of the earth and told us that we were married to the fate of the cosmos around us whether we liked it or not. And what a marriage it was: the sun disappeared from the sky, and with it the moon, and it wasn’t long there after that the earth and her waters began to die, and when they did, so did we.’

Then he was gone. I reached for a drink to steady my nerves. I went outside and scanned the night sky. I wondered if my visitor were some time-slipping version of myself projecting a warning into the past or a potent sign of incipient psychosis.

Professor Allen Treadwell, Max Planck Institute for Advanced Gravitational Study

Potsdam, Germany


Dear Professor Treadwell,

Consider that our brains are tuned to detect a shockingly small fraction of reality. We are taken in by the illusion of time having a single unified behavior. However, as special relativity makes clear, time’s expressed properties, like motion, are defined by its relationships. If one accepts the premise that time is a concentration of ever shifting energies running in all directions, one will not be surprised when it defeats our mundane expectations. To be sure, we can expect to acquire a greater understanding of its secrets. But that dynamic will remain asymptotic, for aspects of its truths–as with any other phenomena–we will always elude our grasp.

Hence, the foundation of science must always be to keep the door open to doubt. I find it helpful when an unfamiliar idea holds my attention to welcome that idea as the way to   something new. Therefore, I believe that it would be premature to prematurely dismiss your patient’s visitor as a hoax or hallucination. Further research is warranted.

Professor Fritz Mulder

Department of Physics and Astronomy, Iowa State University, Ames


Professor Mulder,

I need your help in solving a problem. As you may already know my team discovered an ancient human habitation in California’s Mitchell Caverns. For good reason, I have concealed the specifics of the find from the public. There are aspects to it that are deeply troubling. Let me briefly summarize what we have found.

On April 24, 2036, the cavern floor collapsed stranding a group of tourists on a heretofore unknown level below. The rescue team subsequently found an extensive network of a man-made tunnels fanning out from that initial rupture. They also found the remains of a human society. Soon thereafter, I, as head of the UCLA Anthropology Department, immediately put together a team and set out for what is now known as the Enigma Site.

When we arrived, I was shocked by what we found. There were miles of tunnels. Judging from the remains I conservatively estimated that this subterranean community had a population of a few thousand. Radio-metric dating of the human remains registered in the 3 to 4 million year range. However, those remains were anatomically modern in every respect right down to their dental work and steel replacement joints.

There were many more anomalies: the cavern floor, wall and ceiling contained high levels of iridium, an element common to asteroids; there were numerous ferromagnetic crystals magnetized on one end but not on the other (monopoles); the organic material we found proved aberrant, insofar as the human remains consisted of right-handed amino acids.

I realize that your expertise is in theoretical physics and not anthropology or archeology. But I believe that you may be in a better position to explain this mystery than anyone in my allied disciplines. I eagerly await your insight.

Sincerely yours

Professor Jesse Parris, UCLA


Professor Parris,

I have just returned from your Enigma Site. Based on the physical evidence you have provided, as well as my own observations, I believe that the Enigma Site is the result of a superposition between our reality and another. The tell-tale signs of that superposition are the right-handed amino acids and the monopoles, neither of which normally exist on this material plane.

After that, I can only speculate. How the remains of modern humans could be millions of years old yet be fitted with modern prosthetics would seem to defy explanation. But I know of no physical law that would prohibit the cross-pollination of alternate time streams. Nor one that would discourage time streams, like any distributed system, from evolving and developing emergent features along the way. Frankly, I am surprised that such a chronometric chimera has not been discovered sooner in one form or another.

Were I you, I would begin my analysis with two competing hypotheses. On the one hand, time like any physical system is subject to entropy, namely, moving from a state of order to one of disorder. On the other, time is a self-correcting code that keeps the universe from getting too big and makes local adjustments that to us seem disorderly but are necessary to maintain the greater equilibrium. In that respect, perhaps time like energy is conserved.

In any event, I suspect that we will see more of these time displacements.


Professor Fritz Mulder, Iowa State University, Ames


Dear Professor Parris,

I too have visited the Enigma Site. It confirms my hypothesis that time is not a linear, unidimensional feature of our reality. Rather, it is a dynamic, bi-directional wave consistent with Einstein’s observation that “the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

Indeed, we live in a carousel universe with more and more galaxies in the northern hemisphere rotating to the left and an equal number of galaxies in the southern hemisphere rotating to the right. When our universe spins, it focuses space and propagates sometimes as a wave, and at others, as a filament structure accompanied by robust, but entirely random, time vortices, sweeping bits of the future into the past.

But the story does not end there. My most recent observations indicate that our universe not only rotates on an axis but also revolves around a more massive object, such as another singularity or universe. Just as a white dwarf star pulls matter from a companion red giant in a binary system, the tidal forces between our universe and its companion amplify the time like curves produced by our universe’s rotation.

We can only guess at the larger reality we inhabit. For all we know our universe could be a speck on the spiral arm of some meta-structure composed entirely of universes. That meta-structure could be part of something even larger. Where it ends, we will never know.

We do know some small things with certainty. Rotation is one feature of this universe, from the spin of an electron to that of a galaxy and everything in between since the sphere is the most efficient shape to house matter and energy.

Self-similarity is another: big things look like the little things that comprise them. Circular solar systems are comprised of circular objects in circular orbits, many of which are circularly orbited by circular objects.

As the foregoing discussion suggests, I do not hold with the traditional multiverse view of discrete universes existing incommunicado from one another. To be fair, I do not have a language for the occulted, inaccessible structures in which we are imbedded. Suffice to say that if viewed from the domain of the very large, the meta-structure would reveal itself as a fractal pattern of self-similar topology extending into infinity.

Proof of this hypothesis is for the moment in short supply. But if Einstein’s theory of General Relativity showed us anything it’s that there is selective advantage in believing in what can’t yet be proved.

Professor Sherman Klein, Emeritus Professor of Astrophysics,

Oxford University



Carlton Herzog publishes science fiction, horror, and crime as well as non-fiction. He graduated from Rutgers University magna cum laude and Rutgers Law School where he served as Article Editor of the Law Review.

Philosophy Note:

As linear creatures, our language is saturated and animated by notions of time. Time is basically an illusion created by the mind to make sense of our reality. Albert Einstein, shared this view, writing, “People like us who believe in physics know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

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