Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Road Not Taken

The Road Not Taken

My boss called me into her office Monday morning.  There had been rumors floating around that something big was coming.   My first thought was a layoff.   In government service this is not common.   I mean, if the government is doing it, whatever “it” is, it must be something so critical that we cannot live without it, right? 

Our operation was hardly typical of government service.   Is time travel and historical research in the ordinary realm of common or needed governmental services?  And of course, being in a black projects budget made us so invisible that the ordinary pressure groups that protect agencies did not apply.  Indeed, the group most affected by what we did, historians (if they knew) would have regarded us as trouble.  Our research could not be published in the professional journals: who was going to be persuaded by an interview with Cotton Mather, when (and especially when) we had an audio recording of it? 

For the most part, we salted the past with documents that provided evidence to correct what was missing or had been misinterpreted.  This was not really inside the charter that CIA had created for the Historical Integrity Verification Project, but it made some of the professional historians who worked for us feel better about the hefty paychecks they received.  I was pleased as well; my work as a Time Detective had turned what had been a boring GE class at University of Iowa into a fascinating hobby; I was actually willingly reading the books and professional journals now, not just when told to prepare for a mission.   I enjoyed physics class in college because we put our knowledge to hands on experience with air hockey table experiments.  Hands-on works for history, too.

“Nick, you have doubtless heard the coffee pot chatter about a new phase of the project. You are going on a mission as part of it.”

I was thrilled that whatever it was, I was important enough, or skilled enough to be part of it.  But I kept my mouth shut to avoid sounding arrogant. Jane recognized by my silence that I was waiting for her to spill the beans.

“As you know, we have long been fearful of breaking the past. Even a minor change, a lost locket, an extra deposit in a colonial outhouse, might cause some subtle but potentially critical change in our present.  The Company originally funded our work in the hope of making such minor changes to effect positive results in our time without destructive side effects.” 

She paused, and I interjected, “Prevent Communism without destroying too much of the positive results of modern history.   Without the Cold War, modern electronics would not exist and the space program would likely have never developed.”

“Precisely.  We seem to have figured out how to determine the consequences experimentally.  What changes will happen to the future if my car stalls on the railroad tracks this evening?”

“With or without the speeding locomotive coming down the tracks?  With or without an ambulance standing by?  With or without a busy ER?  And was that ER upgraded to a Trauma Level 1 facility ten years ago because the local state legislator put this piece of necessary pork in an appropriations bill?  And what bribe, or pretty and easy lobbyist persuaded him to do so?””

She held up her hand.  “Okay. you have been reading Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity. I get that.  You know the enormous number of forks in the path of history--like looking 20 moves ahead in a chess game with 10,000 pieces and 2000 locations on the board.

“It turns out that every fork produces a separate temporal result—parallel universes if you like.  We have figured out how to examine those parallel universes.  Some have surprising results, not too far from the dead butterfly causing primates to not be the dominant sentient species.”

I was briefly floored by the prospect of all the possible forks and therefore the number of parallel universes.  “How many have they found?”

Jane smiled and went to the whiteboard.  Don’t think of them as truly parallel universes.  She drew a circle labeled A at the top of the board, then two lines below it, each leading to another circle, followed by more circles with lines.  “A-left is the result of one choice.  A-left-left is another choice in A-left.  A-right-left and A-right-right are often very similar.  In A-right-left, his name is Abraham Lincoln; in A-right-right, his name is Ezekiel Lincoln.  In some cases, we cannot identify what is actually different; the difference is there, but we either do not know what to look for, or the change is too subtle.  Perhaps someone has blue eyes, not brown.  In other cases, the differences have no measureable effect; Johnny still marries Suzie, but they meet at a disco instead of a high school dance.”

“So history can be self-healing.  Interesting.  How do you determine what’s different?”

“I don’t know if you noticed that new building across the street,” and Jane gestured through her window.  “The neutrino measurement system examines each fork and stores all the information it can gather.  The storage requirements are huge.  Now we can’t store every forked universe, so we only store the ones that have easily identified differences.”

“So how far out do we go?  Or do our changes not alter anything beyond the Earth.”

“Pretty obviously, the Space Age dramatically transforms the problem.  We are terrified of the number of forks (nearly all irrelevant to Earth) caused by Voyager’s pass by of Jupiter in the 1970s.  Every little dust collision makes a tiny fork in the future, at least at that distance from the Sun.  We limit our probing to Earth for that reason.”  Jane loved to spin these sort of hypotheticals (or at least I assumed that they were hypotheticals) to show how smart she was.  And it worked; I was in awe of the number of forks that hitting 500 dust particles that far away must have caused.

“So, what’s my task?”

“We have identified an event in 1698 that could cause a fork.  We want to change that event, and see how it expresses itself on our fork compared to the fork not taken.”  She sounded and looked dubious.

“So why the concerned expression?”

“You are going to prevent the death of a little girl, Patience Williams.”

My curiosity was now fully piqued.  “I would think that you would be overjoyed to save someone’s life, especially a child.”  I knew Jane had three children.

“It’s hard to see this as a negative, but messing with history, even in a controlled experiment still seems risky.”

I asked, with some concern for this little girl, “Can we reverse the experiment if needed?”

“Sure.  We analyze the experiment in its own branch, created by sending one of the physicists to Hawaii for two weeks before the first fork experiment.  It makes a minor branch, with no other significant effects.”

“The horror—two weeks paid vacation when it is snowing here.  So what do I do?”

“Patience Williams gets lost in the forest outside Salem Village in November, 1697.  She never comes back.  We have recently located her remains.  Our examination of her remains indicates death was natural causes, likely hypothermia.  You need to lead her back to town.  Try not to allow public adoration to swell your head or become too widespread.  That adds too many possible branches.”

“Do I know where to find her?”

“We’ll drop you a few hundred feet from where we found her remains.  She may be in a bad state by that point, although the weather was not that cold.  Keep her warm, and return her to her home.”

The next day, I entered what all of us had by this point come to call ‘the Time Machine.’  I put on my dark glasses, passed through the flash of light interface and fell to the ground.  I turned in all directions in the gathering gloom and saw a little girl of about six walking through the forest.  I saw her trip over a log, followed by a scream.  I reached her and saw her holding her badly bruised knee. 

“Sir, it hurts,” she sobbed.

“Let me help you find your way home.” I picked her up and was immediately struck by the smell.  This late in the year, bathing became less frequent because of the problem of heating bath water.  She wasn’t very heavy and it felt good to carry this sweet little girl back to Salem Village.  I knew from previous missions which was the Williams farm.  I knocked on the door and handed Patience to her mother.  “She fell in the forest and hurt her knee.”

The mother took Patience, and asked, “And who may I thank for helping Patience?  You are not from around here.”

“Ryan, Goodwife.  I am a traveler on the way to Salem Town.  I was walking through the forest and heard her scream.  If we do not look out for each other, how can we call ourselves children of Christ?”

“Would you care to join us for dinner?”

“No, thank you.  I still have some distance to travel this afternoon.”

A few minutes later, I was back in the laboratory.  Jane motioned me towards her office.

“Did we learn anything?”

Jane looked ready to cry.  “Yes, she needed to die in the forest.”

“What?”  I was incredulous that the death of this little girl played some important role in history.  Worse, while I have no children, I still found a soft spot for little Patience.  The prospect of her freezing to death in the forest was quite upsetting.

Jane saw my anger and quickly tried to defuse it.  “Let me show you what we recovered in the control branch.  On the screen of her computer I saw a video of a funeral sermon being delivered by Rev. Parris.

“Why little Patience died is another of those mysteries that Almighty God burdens us with.  There must be some purpose for this tragedy, even if we cannot immediately understand it.  We pray for wisdom in handling our grief at this tragic loss.”

Next, she showed an image from the Boston Gazette, dated April 4, 1720.  The headline reported the execution of Patience Williams for poisoning men in the tavern where she worked.

My head was now spinning.  “So I only saved her from freezing to death so she could be hung two decades later?”

Jane became increasingly uncomfortable.  “It took a while to figure out in the control branch, although it was instantaneous in our branch.  We just looked in the storage vault for their report.”

As I have previously related, one of our researchers had transferred antiques to the present by burying them in a chest in the forest, then retrieved them in the present day.  This has since become our method of relaying information from past to present.  Time travel forward, very slowly.  It appears that the vault is present in the control branch as well, providing a parallel universes communications channel.

Jane again looked pained.  “Patience was terribly abused a year after you saved her by a traveler passing through town, perhaps a sailor.  Like many children, she said nothing, and just buried the hurt inside.  She drifted into Boston as a young adult, and became a barmaid in a harbor tavern.  She started poisoning customers, largely sailors, which is why we suspect a sailor was her attacker.  Ben Franklin stopped in for a beer as a very young man and passed away.  Imagine the impact that had on the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Revolutionary War American diplomacy.  So the control branch passed a no-go message to our branch before you left.  An hour ago, you did not go back and save Patience in the forest.  Your memory of this persists, as does mine, but the parallel universe where Patience murders Ben Franklin is gone.”

I cringed at the memory of little inadequately bathed, cold Patience and wanted to cry.  “Could we go back and off this monster who destroyed Patience’s innocence?  I would gladly use some vacation hours to do so.”  Now I was really mad.

“We thought about that, but that sailor has a complex, poorly understood connection to some of the Green Mountain Boys in Vermont after passing through Salem Village.  We might be able to figure it out if we could see and travel to 1690s Vermont.  But we can’t.  No one is happy about this, you know.  But Rev. Parris might be right.  Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Road Less Travelled’ comes to mind:

“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.


  1. I'm quite liking these stories. When you have enough you should gather them into a book.

  2. I agree with KCSteve - I like these stories. Please keep writing them.

  3. Yes, add me to the list of admirers! That was a very nice short yarn!