I understand the temptation of the vastly open frontiers of scientific unknowns. We are curious creatures, we humans, always reaching, searching for understanding. It cannot be otherwise: were we not curious we would never have left the primordial ooze or harnessed fire or built cities and networks and spaceships and space elevators or even this very room we’re standing in.
But the fact remains: often, as scientists, we are still literally playing with fire. And we must - we must - be able to understand fully the consequences of what might happen when we get burned.
- Dr. Lakshmi Chadha, “The Limits of Scientific Discovery In the New Age of Exploration,” TEDxMoonBase, 20420228
The man, he is come again. I saw him, like a spectre, like a flash, from the corner of my eye, moments before I fell prey to the falling brick. Perhaps he is, as you say, a figment of my imagination. But I may only say he appears just before every instance of bad luck that ever befell your cousin. He is my ghost, or I am his. Perhaps he is my ill-fortune made flesh.
- Adolphe Sax, Letter to his cousin, 18340430
Chapter 1: Janelle
The door to the lab burst open as a hurricane breached the entrance, muttering to itself about fourth dimensional tilt. At least, that’s what it sounded like. Janelle carefully turned off her soldering iron and placed it on the table. She turned around, pulling her goggles down around her neck and sighing. Her roommate, Lakshmi Chadha, was a force of nature, a tropical storm with gale force winds packaged in the slight frame of a Desi girl from New Jersey. It was her destiny to change the world, or so she was convinced, and her most recent project had quickly become a total obsession: unlocking the secrets of time travel.
“Janelle, you are not going to believe this!” Lakshmi cried, shoving her notebook onto Janelle’s workstation. Janelle reached over to rescue a half-complete hard drive and her spare pliers from being knocked to the floor.
“No, stop- don’t…” Janelle said as she tried to wave Laskshmi off. It was clear that wasn't going to work. She sat back in her chair and allowed her carefully appointed workstation to be demolished and covered with loose leaf paper and notebooks scrawled with equations. It was no use.
Lakshmi had been spending every spare second of this semester trying to solve the problem of time travel. Or, as she had described to Janelle several weeks ago, it wasn’t really a problem, she was just trying to change the rate of time travel from one second per second -- and this is where Janelle’s eyes had glazed over -- “because we’re always traveling through time, of course, and if I can speed it up then I can maybe even reverse it or something!”
It wouldn't be such a big deal if she weren't Janelle's roommate and best friend. As it was, Janelle now knew more about theoretical dimensional modeling than she had dreamed. Or wanted.
“We’ve been thinking about the problem all wrong!” Lakshmi exclaimed, waving at the papers littering Janelle's desk. Janelle almost managed to get a word in edgewise, that we had been doing nothing of the sort, but Lakshmi was already off and running. She flipped to a new page in her notebook and began scribbling.
“It’s a timestream, emphasis on the stream!" Lakshmi said. "Look, let’s think of space-time as an actual stream instead of a plane or some non-Euclidian nonsense. The easiest thing to do is to be swept along at the pace of the current, right? Which is one second per second.” She drew a stream and an arrow pointing right with 1 sec/sec underneath. She drew some vaguely boat-shaped objects. “What I’ve been trying to figure out is how to either paddle faster downstream, traveling into the future at a rate faster than one second per second, or paddle upstream, into the past, against the current.”
She paused and looked up at Janelle. “Have you ever tried to swim upstream, Janelle?”
“You know my family’s from Arizona, right? There aren’t a ton of streams out in the desert.”
“I keep forgetting you’re from Arizona,” Lakshmi said.
“Contrary to popular belief, we do have black people in Arizona,” Janelle said. “For example, I exist. See also: my family.”
“No, it’s just so far away,” Lakshmi said, pausing for a moment to consider, and then summarily discard, places outside of her immediate view. She plowed forward, unperturbed.
“Right. But back to the timestream. You know that it expends energy to swim upstream, right? That was the problem the whole time! The amount of energy we would have to expend to swim up the timestream would be equal to or greater than all of the energy on earth.” She drew E=MC^2 and then M = a poorly drawn globe. “E prime, which is the energy that this would take, is greater than E! So that’s…” she paused, searching for a word. “That’s not possible. You can’t just create energy out of nothing.”
“Great,” said Janelle. “So you’ve cracked it, you’re done, and you’re finally going to study for those finals we’ve got coming up in a few weeks?”
Lakshmi laughed dismissively. “I haven’t just cracked what the problem is, I’m pretty sure I’ve solved for it! Do you know what’s easier than swimming upstream? Dropping anchor!” Lakshmi drew an sloppy anchor and circled it. “You just sit still and wait for the timestream to pass you by!”
“So… the diagram shows me how that might work for moving backward in time. But you think you can go both ways?”
“Oh, sure! Have you ever heard the expression, ‘The future’s just the past that hasn’t happened yet’?”
“That’s not a real expression,” Janelle said, raising one eyebrow. “You just made that up.”
“Did I? Maybe.” Lakshmi barreled on, balling up her page with the stream and the anchor. “The point is that time is exactly like a stream and not at all like a stream because everything is happening everywhere at once. Obviously.”
“When was the last time you slept?” Janelle asked, and was ignored.
“What I mean is that the entire timestream is like one big… water wheel. Or that MC Escher staircase that has no beginning and no end. Wait, yes. It’s like a continuous stream that is also a water wheel. It requires no additional energy to turn! Or maybe... more like an aqueduct. It just flows around and around and around and all you have to do is drop anchor and wait for the future to get ready to pass you from behind.” Lakshmi’s brow crinkled. “Does that make sense?”
“I mean, it makes about as much sense as anything else you’ve said.” Janelle shook her head, and pulled her goggles back into place. “Okay, good job, you solved it,” she said, switching her soldering iron back on. “Time travel, that’s a hell of a final paper for Relativity. Now, go write it up and I’ll meet you for Late Night at Simmons?”
“No, listen, Janelle.” Lakshmi reached over and unplugged her soldering iron. Janelle set her jaw and looked up at Lakshmi, ready to ask her what the hell she thought she was doing in her lab, ruining her things. Lakshmi's eyes darted left and right, then met Janelle’s. Her eyes were alight with an intense inner fire. She leaned in. “Janelle,” she said quietly, “I need you to build me a time machine.”
Janelle’s rant died, half formed.
It wasn’t a question.
Lakshmi was great at theoretical physics, sure, and there was no question that she was literally a genius. But nearly half the students at MIT were, too, and they didn’t run around trying to invent time travel. Most people just kept their heads down and did what they could to get by, and maybe made time for a robot or two on the side. Lakshmi had been working on this time travel problem for months like a woman obsessed, and Janelle was suffering the consequences.
“I need you to build me a time machine,” Lakshmi repeated. “A small one. For testing.”
Janelle sighed, and rubbed at her eyes, knocking her goggles off again. She met Lakshmi’s gaze again and wagged a finger in her face. “You’re lucky I like you,” she said. “And you’re lucky I can build literally anything. How big do you need it to be?”
“Uhhh,” Lakshmi spread her hands about two feet apart and then traced a cube with them. “About like this?”
“So, slightly bigger than a breadbox?” Janelle asked, nodding at the imaginary cube Lakshmi was still tracing.
Janelle thought for a second. “A microwave?”
Lakshmi’s eyes lit up. “Yes! Can you make me a time traveling microwave? Please?”
“I am going to need a lot more information to bring this from theory to reality,” Janelle said, but she was already sketching. “I’ve got to finish this hard drive first. Simmons, 10pm. I’ll meet you there, and we’ll talk more. I’ve heard it’s the good soup tonight.”
Lakshmi smiled. “Definitely, definitely. I will definitely meet you there. Thank you!” Lakshmi headed for the door.
“Lakshmi, wait!” Janelle called after her. Lakshmi looked back, head cocked. Janelle tried one more time. “I realize this won’t change your mind at all, but you know finals are coming up, right?”
Lakshmi let out a hearty laugh and spun toward the door. Janelle could hear her laughing all the way down the hall.
Chapter 2: Lakshmi
Lakshmi could not sit still, which had been fine earlier. She had baked three batches of muffins in the shared kitchen: blueberry, nut-free cranberry orange, and gluten free banana nut (she wasn’t sure of everyone’s allergies, but that was probably good enough to cover it). But now that she was here, actually here, in the room where she would host the most important meeting of her academic career, the not-sitting-still thing was harder.
She grabbed her third muffin and stuck her head down the hall for the third time. They still weren’t here yet.
“Dude, chill,” Janelle said, looking up from her pile of textbooks. “They said they were coming. They’ll be here.”
Lakshmi flopped back onto her chair and took a huge bite of her muffin, chewed for a few seconds, then popped back up to look again. Janelle shot her a look and she sat back down in the chair with a sigh.
Patience was not her strong suit.
Just then, the door opened and two other women walked in. First through the door was the Latina girl Lakshmi had seen around campus. She was short (like Lakshmi), and buff (not at all like Lakshmi). Lakshmi seemed to remember that she had set some kind of school shot put record last spring. Her muscles were visible even under her winter coat. Behind her followed a woman Lakshmi had never seen before.
“Hey,” the second woman said. “Are we in the right place?”
Even if she wasn’t, Lakshmi wasn’t about to turn her away. Her heart was suddenly pounding as she struggled to maintain a neutral expression. The new girl stood tall and straight, chin held high, and moved with the fluidity of a dancer, braids perfectly balanced in a knot on her head. Lakshmi couldn’t take her eyes off of her.
“Hey Imani, hey Gaby. Yeah, you are,” Janelle said. “Welcome to the first meeting of the most incompetent time travelers you’ve ever seen.”
“Janelle!” Lakshmi cried, deeply offended. “You know it works!”
Gabriela and Imani were Janelle’s friends, and she had agreed to invite them, which was good, because Lakshmi didn’t have time to make friends outside of her roommate (Janelle), and her physics department cohort (mostly gross dudes unsuitable for socializing). Janelle assured her that Gaby was the best coder and software designer around, and that they had collaborated on other projects, which was good. Lakshmi didn’t have time to spin someone up and wait for her to configure her software with Janelle’s hardware.
Initially, Lakshmi had objected to Imani even being there, but Janelle had insisted. Imani was a historian, which wasn’t even social science, but Janelle thought they needed someone who could offer historical context to their messing around in the timestream. Now that Imani was here, a thousand feet tall with eyes as deep as the night sky, Lakshmi was indescribably glad to have lost that argument.
“Most incompetent time travelers?” Gaby asked. “Fuckin’ A, man, if this is for real, you’re also the most competent time travelers ever. Unless everyone in the Physics Department has been hiding something from the rest of us.” Gaby leaned against a table and crossed her arms. She may have been as short as Lakshmi, but she was pretty intimidating.
“Definitely not. I think I’m the first person to figure out time travel, and I couldn’t have done it without Janelle. Do you… do you want to see how it works?”
“Wait, can you take me through the theory real quick? Keep in mind that I’m a humanities kid with a Calc-1 understanding of hard science,” Imani said, smiling.
Lakshmi had used the baking time on the muffins to refine her pitch, and did better with the stream/endless aqueduct/anchor metaphor this time. By the end of her explanation, Gaby was leaning forward and Imani was quirking a small smile and nodding along. Lakshmi felt like she could fly.
“Janelle, do you want to show off what you’ve built?”
Janelle walked over to the table and pulled the cover off the device with a little bit of a flourish.
“Okay, so I know this looks a lot like a microwave,” Janelle said.
“Isn’t that the microwave from the third floor?” Imani asked.
It was. Janelle had cannibalized the dorm microwave last night. Lakshmi and Janelle had worked for five hours on it, connecting together two smartphones (one obsolete, one belonging to Lakshmi -- sacrifices must be made), a forgotten external hard drive pilfered from the engineering department, and a boat-load of circuitry à la Janelle.
Lakshmi wasn’t sure if Janelle added the googly eyes after she had gone to bed, or if those had already been on the Microwave. Technically, the device was called the Chronatic Subresonator with a Hybrid-3 processor, but it was too late. Microwave had stuck.
Janelle laid out the technical specs, largely for Gaby’s benefit. If all went according to plan, after all, Gaby would be the one building the software and coding to the specs for the next iteration. Both Lakshmi and Janelle had reached the limits of their software dev knowledge with the prototype. At this point Lakshmi was mostly a project manager, which in reality meant that she was of next to no practical use.
“We’ve tried this once, and it was enough to convince us that it was real,” Lakshmi said. It had been enough to convince Janelle, at least. Lakshmi had known it was she could solve it as soon she had sketched out the problem on paper. “I hope it will convince you, and that you’ll move forward on the project with us.”
Lakshmi lit a candle, stuck it in the Microwave, and messed with some dials. She and Janelle could really only code pretty rudimentary commands (well, rudimentary for complex interstitial time travel, that is), so the entire experiment was fairly imprecise. She knew she was sending it “pretty far” back in time, but exactly when she didn’t know. She had been trying for sometime around the early Triassic period, so she wouldn’t confuse any humans or start any wars accidentally.
This wasn’t the first test. She and Janelle had tried it out last night in their dorm room, so she wasn’t startled when the Microwave disappeared.
It was really gratifying to see the others’ reactions, though.
Imani was incredulous. “What, where’d it go?” she asked. “Wait, no, I guess I mean when did it go? What happened to it? Where is it now? What’s going on?”
Gaby was more direct. “What the fuck? What the FUCK?!?” she cried, waving her hands at the empty table where the Microwave had been.
“It’ll be back,” Lakshmi said. “In fact, it should be here any… second… now…”
If real life had had any sense of dramatic timing, the Microwave would have showed up just then. As it was, she and Janelle answered reasonable questions from Imani and tried to understand the expletive-laced questions Gaby was slinging at them (Janelle took point on most of those, they seemed to be hardware mostly hardware related) for an additional three minutes and forty-seven seconds. It might as well have been an eternity.
But the Microwave did return, and no dinosaurs had trampled it. Lakshmi opened the door and saw exactly what she expected to see: a candle that was noticeably much shorter than it had been, proving that it had been somewhere for much longer than the five minutes it was out of the room.
Lakshmi wasn’t going to be the one to break the silence, and Janelle was being typically laconic. Gaby and Imani stood staring at the open flame in silence for an additional twenty seconds before Gaby finally spoke.
“What,” she said, in nearly a whisper, “the fuck. ”
Imani’s eyes suddenly snapped from the candle flame to look directly at Lakshmi. “Do you have any idea what this means?”
Lakshmi was a little stumped. She knew exactly what it meant in terms of the dynamics of quantum time keeping, but she didn’t think that was what Imani meant.
“I mean, if this is possible, think of what else we can do! We could go to the past and take actual soil samples! We could go and meet historical figures, and ask them about their lives! Or just observe them! Do you know how much this would mean to… pretty much every field of study? It’s just-- This, this opens up so many avenues…” her voice trailed off, hands raising to her temples.
She was talking just to Lakshmi now. Gaby and Janelle had popped open the back of the Microwave and Janelle was pointing out the Microwave’s external Hybrid-3 processor.
“We have to tell someone! We have to try it!” Imani seemed as excited as Lakshmi felt.
“I know!!” Lakshmi said. “Janelle said it could take years to get approval for a test on a human subject, but I don’t think we can wait for that.”
Janelle had also said that it probably didn’t matter, seeing as what they were doing was time travel and all. Except… Lakshmi wasn’t actually sure if they could use the technology to place themselves back into a time they had already been in, and probably the Institutional Review Board didn’t take applications via paperwork delivered through vanishing microwaves. If they flashed to the future, once the process was already completed, a) that would defeat the purpose of applying to the IRB to begin with, and b) they’d miss finals, which Janelle seemed really concerned about.
“Right, we should probably act soon,” Imani said, her fingers still rubbing her temples. “But we don’t want to be reckless. Human subjects are nothing to mess with.”
“We have to prove this really works,” Lakshmi said. She had spent the day thinking about what the next step would be. “I mean, you guys know this isn’t a stunt. But I don’t think a candle is going to actually prove anything to anyone with any power. Or, you know, money.”
“Right. How could we prove it in a way that they would find believable?” Imani squeezed her eyes closed and ran her hands over her face. “Ugh, I can’t THINK,” she finally cried. “My roommate has been blaring Kenny G’s Christmas album non-stop for a week. If I have to hear another lick of light jazz saxophone music at four in the morning, I am going to lose my mind.”
“That’s it!” Lakshmi said. She went to pull out her phone and then remembered that Janelle had cannibalized it to make the Microwave. “Can you check something out for me really quickly?”
“What am I looking for?” Imani pulled out her phone.
“Can you Wikipedia who invented the saxophone?” Imani stared at her, a slow and mischievous smile spreading across her face.
Chapter 3: Gabriela
“Wait, so you hooked an Android and an iPhone together to get the computational power necessary?” Gabriela was impressed. Figuring out time travel was one thing. Getting Apple and Google’s operating systems to talk to each other? That was real genius.
Janelle nodded and pointed out some of the other features, but Gabriela knew where this was going. She wouldn’t have been called in if they hadn’t planned something bigger, better, and much, much more difficult.
So. Time travel. What coding language would she even use for that shit? Probably fuckin’ Flow-Matic 4. She hated fuckin’ Flow-Matic 4.
She looked up to see the weirdo from Quantum Computation gesturing them over. Lakshmi, she thought, as she walked over. She was probably going to have to start using her name now that she was in it. She an incompetent time travelers now, like it or not.
Gabriela had a strict non-involvement policy in anything not directly related to classes or homework, but Janelle had hooked her up with some hardware for a group project with her fucking useless group last month and she owed her one.
Plus, time travel . You don’t get any fucking closer to the cutting edge than that.
“Okay,” Lakshmi said to the group, “if we’re going to be able to prove that this works to anyone else, we’re going to have to go for something big.”
“I fucking knew it,” Gabriela burst out. “We’re gonna go kill Hitler. How do you think that’s gonna go down? We are going to get our asses handed to us. I’m out.” She turned to leave.
“No! No, no no,” Lakshmi said, her hands tracing calming patterns in the air. “We’re not going to kill Hitler.”
“Yet,” Janelle muttered under her breath, and Gabriela glared at her.
“We’re not,” Lakshmi said, finger in the air, “going to kill anybody.”
“Fine, pacifist,” Janelle said. “What’s the plan?”
Lakshmi detailed the plan, which was even more complicated than Gabriela had originally thought. Traveling through both space and time? Preventing a pivotal invention? Documenting the whole process? It might just work. Maybe. It was as good idea as any, at least.
There was still a sticking point, though. Someone was going to have to travel back in time.
“Okay, yes, fine, great. It’s a plan. Setting aside the fact that we might not be able to build one of these functional enough to send a living person back in time, do you guys know the first rule of time travel?”
They all spoke at once.
“Don’t kill your own grandfather,” Janelle said.
“Watch out for butterflies,” Lakshmi said.
“Don’t do it if you’re not a white guy,” Imani said.
Gabriela pointed at Imani. “Got it in one. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but none of us looks particularly European. I’m not sure nineteenth century Europeanos would exactly welcome my Latina ass with open arms.”
“Actually,” Imani said, “there have been women of color in Europe since before Europe was a place. We were never exactly the dominant culture, but a lot of our perception of Europe as a lily-white continent is based in colonial narrative.”
“Right…” Janelle said, “but I’m not entirely sure locs and box braids were en vogue back then,” she said, gesturing to her hair and Imani’s.
“Plus, isn’t it going to be dangerous? I sure as hell am not volunteering.” Gabriela sat back with her arms crossed against her chest.
“Okay, so. Who do we send?” Lakshmi tapped her teeth with her index finger.
Janelle looked at her. “You know who you have to ask,” she said.
Lakshmi looked confused for a second, and then a wave of disgust crossed her face. “No! No! No. Janelle, no.”
Janelle nodded silently. Yes.
“Janelle, I can’t. Not Dave.” For the first time since they had entered the room, Lakshmi looked like maybe the whole thing was a mistake. She leaned over, placing her hands against the table for support.
“Are we talking about fucking Dave Patterson? That fuckface?”
“Who’s Dave? I don’t know him.” Imani looked concerned at Lakshmi’s stricken face.
“Dave Patterson,” Lakshmi said. “He’s another physics guy. He really, really, really wanted to date me. And then, when I told him I’m gay, he accused me of friend-zoning him.” Imani reached over and put her hand on top of Lakshmi’s.
“Ugh, of course he did. Fucking Dave,” Gabriela said. Gabriela had been done with Dave ever since her first group project with him when he wouldn’t stop creepy-staring.
“Okay, let me detail why effing Dave is clearly the only choice here.” Janelle held up her pointer finger. “Number one. We need a white man.” She put up her second finger, “who, number two, is dumb enough to donate his body to a science experiment that has so far only been tested on a lit candle,” she gestured to the candle, still burning merrily in the Microwave, “or, who, number three,” third finger, “could be convinced by four attractive women to do the same. Plus, four,” fourth finger, “he actually plays woodwinds in the orchestra with me, so he could probably get in good with the musician types of Belgium.”
“Fuck. Okay.” Gabriela couldn’t argue with that.
Lakshmi let out an enormous sigh. “Okay,” she said. “Guess we better go grab Dave and tell him he’s about to be the Grim Reaper of Smooth Jazz.”
Imani cracked a smile. “Nah, he won’t be doing any actual killing. How about the Jacques Cousteau of the Timestream?”
Despite herself, Gabriela laughed outloud. “The John Coltrane of who the fuck is that because the saxophone no longer exists?”
Gabriela looked over at the Microwave. Sometime in the last ten minutes, while nobody was watching, the candle had snuffed out.
Chapter 4: Dave
The thing was, these females? They just didn’t understand.
Okay, yeah, whatever, the cute Indian one invented time travel and then they all worked on it or whatever until they turned a washing machine into a time machine, and then they told Dave he was supposed to prevent the invention of the saxophone with literally nothing to go off of but a name and a patent date for the saxophone.
Oh, and the cute tall black girl with the braids had given him an outfit and taught him some basic words in Flemish, Dutch, and French, and told him how to shave his beard. But still! Literally nothing else.
So then, when he became the first man to time travel, literally ever, did they treat his return home like the conquering hero he was? No! It was non-stop yelling about poisoning or something dumb. He explained to them that he had been dropped six years before the patent date and that he had very convincingly posed as a long lost cousin, and then incapacitated him.
“You nearly killed him, you mean,” said the cute chick with the braids. Why was she so angry?
Well, yeah, he explained, because he wasn’t going to wait around for six years waiting for Adolphe to come up with the saxophone. He wanted to get the job done. So maybe he poisoned Adolphe Sax a little bit. Or a lot. It was hard to say! They didn’t exactly have accurate kitchen scales back then to weigh poison on.
And still they were yelling at him.
Neil Armstrong never had to deal with this bullshit.
So he agreed to be sent back again, and get the job done. Only this time they were even further off and he resorted to chucking a cobblestone at Sax’s head to try to knock any sort of musical acumen out of his brain.
Apparently that wasn’t what they wanted either.
“Dave, what the hell?” the cute Indian girl was shouting. She had the Wikipedia printout they kept sticking in the Microwave thingy in one hand and her phone in the other. “What happened?”
“It was off again, so I threw a cobblestone at his head and left.”
“You did WHAT??” The tall chick with the braids was so angry she literally stomped off. Dave rolled his eyes. And they kept saying he was the immature one. Right.
“Listen,” he said, “you guys aren’t there. You have no idea what 1834 was like! I was there for a month, trying to figure things out.”
It had actually been a really great month. It had been a beautiful spring, and he’d been able to tackle a sheep and play a vintage seventeenth century clarinet, which were both on his bucket list. Plus, even though he missed his X-Box, it was pretty nice being the smartest guy in the room.
Enough modesty: he kind of already was the smartest guy in the room a lot of the time. But to the knuckleheads in rural Belgium? Rudimentary electricity was beyond their grasp. He could be a god there. Here he was just getting yelled at.
“What part of ‘no unnecessary actions’ do you not understand? You should have done nothing and come straight back here!” the Indian chick’s voice was raised, but she also looked like she wanted to go after the girl with the braids.
“Yeah! That was the fucking protocol we fucking laid out for you,” the chick with long straight hair was yelling now. “Not fucking wait around for a month and then chuck a brick at the kid’s head!”
“My actions wouldn’t have been necessary if you hadn’t sent me back ten years too early!” Dave shouted back. “If you just thought about it for a second, you would see that this is really your fault.”
“You could have killed him! Do you have any idea the impact that could have on the timestream? We have no idea how fragile it is!” the Indian chick yelled.
“Yeah, and don’t get up in my fucking face and tell me it was my fault, motherfucker.” Oh shit, the short buff girl looked really angry. “We fucking teleported you to Europe and back in fucking time, don’t come to me with this bullshit ‘violence was the only answer.’ Jackass.”
“Well, you were off. By a lot.” Dave wasn’t going to give up the moral high ground here.
“Guys!” The short black girl was holding up her hands to silence them. “That’s it. I’m calling it for tonight. We clearly have to make some adjustments, it looks like this idiot busted a gasket on the Washing Machine on his way back, so we aren’t making any decisions until I fix that. Day after tomorrow at the earliest. Keep an eye on your email. Lakshmi and I will be in touch.”
The meeting was over, and Dave was still fuming. He was a pioneer! Marty McFly had nothing on his actual-time-traveling ass. Of course, he was only a pioneer if he could prove it, and despite what the girls said, to prove it he might have to kill a man.
He looked down at his clothes. Somewhere in Belgium they went from being a silly costume to being his favorite outfit, but he couldn’t very well walk around the quad in the weird short jacket and neckerchief. Better go change.
He walked out the door and saw that it was snowing, and that everyone was staring at their smartphones, speaking English, and listening to terrible music. Was this how Buzz Aldrin felt when he came back to Earth? Sort of like an alien?
Chapter 5: Imani
Imani stormed off in the direction of her room in Baker House. Normally, she found the walk across campus soothing, especially when it was snowing. Big flakes were falling fast, blanketing campus and silencing the small sounds of life.
It didn’t matter, she was still furious. She couldn’t be a murderer, even by association. She wouldn’t let it happen.
Imani pushed into her dorm room. Blessedly, her roommate was out partying, so the non-stop muzak had been turned off for the time being. She walked over to her dresser and lit her sandalwood candle (well, turned the heater on underneath it -- no fire allowed in the rooms), breathing in the scent and trying to put the stresses of the day behind her. She shed off her warm winter clothes like a cocoon and pulled on sweatpants and a tank. She had to figure out a way to fix this.
From the shelf she pulled down all the books she had checked out from the library to prep Dave for his trip back -- fat lot of good that did. She had books on the development of woodwind instruments, the closest thing to an actual biography of Adolphe Sax, a couple of general Belgian history books, a couple more specific to the early seventeenth century, and all the books Interlibrary Loan had on 1830s music and fashion in Europe. Between those and the JSTOR articles on the specific region they were trying to have Dave visit, she felt she had adequately prepared Dave. But obviously not. Tying her braids up out of the way, she spread all the papers and books out all over the floor and settled in to study them, looking for something, anything useful.
Just as she had gotten comfortable, she heard knock on the door.
She opened the door to Lakshmi, who looked ready to cry.
“Imani! I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry for everything. I’m so sorry about Dave, and I’m sorry about the machine,” she was really getting worked up. “And I’m sorry that Janelle brought you into this, only I’m not, because I’m so glad I met you, and I’m sorry…”
“Enough,” Imani said, putting all of her authority into the word. “What’s done is done. Now we just have to figure out a way to fix it. Help me fix it.”
Lakshmi took a deep breath. “Of course.”
Imani made them both a cup of tea while they sat amongst the pillows on the floor and discussed what to do next. Try and repair the damage already done? Come up with another way to prove it? Try the same plan once more with one of them traveling back? There didn’t seem to be any good options.
Almost without realizing it, Imani and Lakshmi had moved closer and closer together until their pinkies and knees were touching.
Lakshmi sighed and sat back, and Imani leaned back to join her, bumping shoulders.
“I’m so tired,” Imani said, staring at the shadows on the ceiling. The candlelight was playing against the snow reflected from the street lamp outside. All was calm, all was bright, and they might just have destroyed the entirety of spacetime.
“Well,” Lakshmi said, with a nervous chuckle, “you certainly don’t need any beauty sleep.”
Imani turned to look at her, and the way her eyes (deep brown with just the slightest hint of gold) shone in the soft light. She was so beautiful, Imani couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen it before.
Imani quirked a small smile, then felt a cloud settle over her once more.
“Do you ever worry that what we’re doing will destroy the world?” she asked.
“Oh, sure, climate change is the biggest challenge currently facing our planet, and it’s a problem because it’s a Tragedy of the Commons situation, except in this case the Commons is literally the entire planet and we’re the cows eating it all.”
Imani put a hand on her arm to quiet her, and Lakshmi shut up immediately, jerking to stare down at her hand. Ah, so that’s how it was.
“That’s not what I meant.”
“No,” Lakshmi agreed.
“I mean I’m worried we’re literally going to destroy the space time continuum.”
“Yeah,” Lakshmi sighed.
Imani carried on, regardless. “You probably have some sort of fancy science reason why it’s all fine and everything we’re doing is just flowing with the timestream and dropping anchors or whatever, and nothing is rerouting whatever river or whatever,” Imani trailed her fingers down toward Lakshmi’s hand. “I just, I can’t help but feel like we’re doing something really, really wrong.”
Imani’s heart was pounding with the significance of what she’d just said. What if they played God and lost?
Lakshmi opened her mouth, probably to tell her that the science would take care of itself, but she stopped suddenly and looked down at Imani’s hand. Lakshmi reached over and laid her hand on top of Imani’s.
“I’m calling it,” she said. “The experiment is over. We’re done.”
“No more?” Imani asked.
“No more,” Lakshmi said, and Imani, heart beating harder than ever now, leaned in for a kiss.
Subj: ALERT: The Washing Machine is missing
Come down to lab ASAP.
B.S. Electrical Science and Engineering, Class of 2022
“Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
Subj: Re: ALERT: The Washing Machine is missing
WHAT?? Omw. What happened??
B.S. Physics/Quantum Computing, Class of 2022
Subj: Re: ALERT: The Washing Machine is missing
I have a guess.
B.S. History/Science, Technology, and Society, Class of 2022
Subj: Re: ALERT: The Washing Machine is missing
wtf is he doing out there?
B.S. Computer Science and Engineering, Class of 2022
Chapter 6: Janelle
Gaby arrived first, bursting into the room swearing. It was funny: prior to this, Janelle had only interacted with Gaby in classes, where, to borrow a phrase from her great aunt, she kept a civil tongue. It seemed that in the company of friends, though, Gaby had no qualms with it.
“Who the fuck does he think he is?” she yelled as soon as she was through the door.
Janelle shrugged, and pointed at the Microwave. “I’m trying to fix this to be more accurate so we can send back a message, but we can’t turn it off or else we’ll lose the control print out. You want to help?”
Gaby sighed. “Yeah,” she said, and connected her laptop.
Imani and Lakshmi arrived a few minutes later, hand-in-hand. Janelle raised her eyebrows approvingly at Lakshmi, who gave a twinkle of a smile before getting down to business.
“Okay, so. What do we do?”
“I don’t think there’s much we can do, apart from sending a message back,” said Janelle. “Gaby and I are working on a way to preserve the control documents while also sending a message back. If you give us another hour or so, I think we’ll get it.”
“In the meantime,” Gaby said, “Check out what that motherfucker has already wrought.”
Imani pulled up the Wikipedia page on Adolphe Sax on her phone, and began comparing it to the control printout through the glass of the Microwave. Inside the Microwave they had placed a saxophone mouthpiece and a Kenny G cassette tape pilfered from Imani's roommate, and a printout of the Wikipedia page on Adolphe Sax. “Oh no,” she said.
Lakshmi looked over her shoulder at both the phone and the print out, and immediately joined in. “Oh no, no, no…”
Janelle and Gaby paused their work and watched in dismay as Wikipedia automatically updated to include trauma after trauma visited on poor Sax. After the first two, Janelle and Gaby returned to work, Gaby furiously typing and Janelle hooking up yet another processor to the back of the Microwave.
Lakshmi wrote, "DAVE. STOP." in big dark letters on a small sheet of paper. She looked over to Janelle and Gaby, who nodded, and she shoved it in the Microwave and slammed the door.
It flashed away as the Wiki page slowed down updating. They sat, crowded around Imani’s phone, not sure what was going to come next.
The Microwave returned with the same piece of paper moments later, with "OK" written across the top in what looked like quill ink.
“Okay, then,” Lakshmi said. “I guess we’ll write a letter to Dave telling him to come back at once.”
Dave, stay put. Does the Washing Machine still work? If you can’t do the calculations, we’ll do them. Just come back as soon as possible.
It flashed away. Lakshmi tapped her fingers on the table, nervously.
Gaby began to update the code and coordinates to accommodate a one-way trip back. “How did he even code it to begin with?” she muttered to herself. “He’s not that bright, and he made… at least six stops on his own.”
“Yikes,” Janelle said. “I don’t know if the Washing Machine can handle that kind of activity without a tune-up. It already had a blown gasket.”
Suddenly, the Microwave flashed again.
Inside, on a single piece of parchment were the words, “Don’t bother. Machine’s busted.”
Lakshmi let out a groan and laid her head down on the desk. “Janelle, can we make another one on short notice for a rescue operation?”
“How short is short notice?” Janelle asked.
“It’s time travel!!” Gaby exploded. “Does it fucking matter??”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, Lakshmi,” Imani said, running her hand over Lakshmi’s, “but isn’t the big issue that we don’t know? It’s pretty much been wrong every time we tried to send anything bigger than a candle or a piece of paper back, and it looks like Dave tried really hard.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” said Lakshmi. “We’re flying blind. But we still have to bring his sorry ass home.”
Lakshmi wrote another letter to Dave.
Don’t do anything. We’re coming to get you.
The Microwave flashed back almost immediately. No, don’t. I think I burned out the motor, and you know I can’t fix it. But listen, it’s been a few years. I’m older now. I’ve been living here longer than I ever lived at home, and man, you should taste the pastries. I’m happy. I have friends, including Sax. We play music together, and once Sax invents the saxophone, I’ll learn that. Actually, I might have to give him a few pointers. He doesn’t seem to be able to figure it out on his own. Best of luck fixing the future. We couldn’t fuck up the past too badly, so it should go okay.
The four sat in stunned silence for a few seconds after Janelle finished reading the letter. Then Lakshmi let out a bark of laughter, which made Imani laugh, and before too long the four were howling. Fucking Dave.
After the laughter calmed down, Gaby wrote out a final letter back. “Okay. Be well. Good luck. Let us know if you ever want to come back by, I don’t know, carving it into a stone somewhere or some shit.”
“Don’t actually write that,” Imani said, reading over her shoulder. She didn’t.
“So… that’s it?” Janelle asked. “We’re just going to leave him there?”
“You heard the man,” Gaby said, gesturing sharply at the last letter from Dave. “It’s what he wants. He never seemed very happy here. Maybe he found peace after… trying his hardest to kill a man?”
The full gravity of the situation sunk in for the first time.
“Oh my god.” Gaby looked around at the other three. “Did we send an incompetent serial killer back in time? What the fuck. What the fuck.”
Lakshmi shook her head, looking from her phone to the print off still in the microwave and back again.
“What does that even mean? What does anything even mean? We just invented time travel and then, what, broke it again?” Gabriela was spinning up. “Should we all just go read some Nietzsche or some shit? God is dead, time is meaningless, we left a classmate back a couple hundred years ago to die before we were even born. What the fuck?”
They stared at each other for a full minute before Janelle broke the silence.
“I don't know about you all, but I've got studying to do. Finals tomorrow and whatever.”
They stared at each other for a few more minutes before finally leaving in silence.
A week after what they had all taken to referring to as “D-Day,” Imani and Lakshmi were back in Imani’s dorm room. Imani’s roommate had left early for winter break, and Lakshmi and Imani sat together drinking tea and trying to unpack everything that had just happened. Dave, saxophones, finals week, a new relationship… it was a lot.
Lakshmi looked over at the other side of the room and saw something that looked pretty neat.
“Wait, is that a turntable? For real?”
“Oh yeah,” Imani said. “Who even listens to muzak on vinyl?”
“Can I?” Lakshmi asked. “My dad had one of these, and he would play old swing music for us. We used to dance around the house to Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, you know. The really old good stuff.”
“Sure, go ahead,” Imani said, shrugging. “It’s the least she can do for blasting me with Kenny G at all hours of the night.”
“Wait.” Lakshmi pulled out an album with the image of a mushroom cloud on the front. “Atomic Basie? This is actually good stuff!”
“Really? I don’t exactly trust her taste in music.”
“Trust me, then,” Lakshmi said, dropping the needle on the first track.
“Isn’t that what got us into this mess?” Imani asked, smiling.
Lakshmi crawled back over to Imani, smiling. She closed her eyes and their lips met just as Coleman Hawkins, playing at the Savoy Ballroom almost a century earlier, blared out a classic solo on his tenor saxophone.
There was more than one way to time travel.