Memoir of a Well-Intentioned Man
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
Youth. Every generation through history,
the youth of the day comes
equipped with the same arrogance as those of the ones preceding
theirs, which will not be dissuaded by any number of insistences on
the part of pessimistic parents, high school teachers — well-meaning
or just awaiting their pensions — or long-dead philosophers that
theirs will not be the first one to break out of the footsteps of their
predecessors and see their contempt for their elders justified.
I was no different, of course.
Though I could claim some measure of
justification in that, my particular avenue to greatness had not, in fact,
ever been done before (at least to anyone's knowledge), though many
had theorized that the behavior I was contemplating could not be anything
other than a disastrous vindication of the law of unintended consequences.
Growing up somewhat after the Golden Age of Science Fiction,
I and my
contemporaries buried ourselves under a sea of spaceships,
bug-eyed monsters, and — most intriguing to me — time
travel. While we were all about ray guns and evil space mutants out on
the playground, the more thoughtful of us, singly and in groups, hashed
out the what ifs involved with paradoxes, both of the
accidental and intentionally crafted varieties. Each of us, of course, could
spot the fatal error that the hero in the story made which
caused the universe to respond
with its ugly vengeance, teaching the lesson that
messing with history can never result in the silver lining that had been
We all discussed ad infinitum the problems with going back
in time and killing your own grandfather: would you
vanish into non-existence?
And if so, who could be to blame for it? I always thought such
conversations were fun, but ultimately pointless. If a
person in fact found himself with the capability to change the past, that would
not be the intervention he would choose.
The other standard fantasy, of course, was to kill, or otherwise prevent the
power grab of, some despicable character from history so as to save the lives
of the hundreds, thousands, or millions of people that he killed (depending on
the technology available to him at the time). This was almost universally
acknowledged as a Good Thing, though some devil's
advocate types would bring up the possibility that the new timeline, though
bereft of the particular heinousness that stared out at us from the pages of
our current history books, might actually be much worse. There
would then ensue debates about possible metrics one might use to
gauge the relative horror of alternate universes. There were also two rather
adamant schools regarding the probability of the change resulting in a net
loss at all. The optimists saw no reason to assume that a worse despot would
arise, and reminded us all that they were starting from a "known" net gain of
all the lives saved. The pessimists simply pointed at mankind's history and
I was in the optimists' camp by disposition; this tended to be reinforced by my
Youthful certainty that my plan would be flawless.
Eventually it comes time for a man to put aside childish things,
machines were supplanted in the natural order of things by girls, college,
jobs, and mortgages.
* * *
After graduating with honors, I had my pick of several teaching
positions at colleges around the country, and accepted an assistant
professorship of history at a
prestigious institution in New England. I am not the most gregarious of
people, but over the years I managed to make some acquaintances and form
some good friendships at the University and even some in the surrounding
communities. While much of the time I am cloistered within the world of my
undergrads and the global virtual community of my peers who share my
subspecialty, I am careful to escape those confines when it comes to my
social life, keeping my mix of friends eclectic and not restricted to academe.
During my second year there, I attended a lecture by a visiting professor of
economics. I go to many of the seminars on disparate
subjects in order to
keep my horizons broadened, though I must admit to a bit of prejudice against
his discipline which made me pretty sure that the talk on economics would not
be the most exciting I'd ever been to. I was pleasantly surprised, however, and
my questions at the lectern extended into several hours at a local coffeehouse
that I frequent (and sometimes think I keep in the black). When even this was
not enough, we exchanged email addresses before he left the next day and
continued the conversation at a relaxed pace; gradually, the topics strayed
from purely academic and we found that we had become friends. This was a
contributing factor in his decision to join the University a year later. Our
friendship grew, and several years later I was the best man at his wedding
to Wendy, whom I had actually known before him, when she was a student
in my Mesoamerican History course. In addition to being a good and
student, she had caught my eye in other ways as well, proving the sometime
truth of the stereotypical professor/student attraction.
Unavailable to me at the time, Wendy and I became friends through her
romance with Will, and in time I was just as likely to be spending time with
her alone as with Will, or with both of them. It was indirectly through her
that I learned of Dr. Percival Langdon, a theoretical physicist working at
another college nearby. I was accompanying Wendy on some errands one
afternoon, and we stopped in at the office of her friend Maria, who worked
for the company that rented and maintained the plants and trees in most of
the local office buildings. Maria asked after Will, and Wendy in turn
inquired as to news of Percy, who was Maria's husband. I sat to the side
and tried to look patient during their conversation, and eventually Wendy
and I resumed our rounds, after Maria and I exchanged ritual
"Nice to meet you"s. Talk of Percy was interleaved during the next few hours
with minutiae such as sailing ships and sealing wax.
It was while I was
helping Wendy from the car as I dropped her off at home that something
gelled in my mind, and I exclaimed to her, "Hey, are you saying that Percy
is trying to build a time machine?"
"Well, that's what it sounds like to Maria and me, but Percy always tells
us that it's not like that at all. Sometimes we tease him about it; it's
fun to watch him get exasperated and turn red trying to get us to understand
what he's really doing. Of course we don't understand any of it, and
it still sounds like a time machine to us."
I well understand where people are coming from when their work is
misunderstood, and the need to try to set them straight. Nonetheless, I
knew that I would have to meet this man and find out about his time machine.
* * *
"Time's up, Zack! Get back to work."
I put my pencil down, closed my notebook, and cleaned up the remains of
my lunch. I stow my memoir in my locker, the one labelled #1 of the five
there, and return to the generator room for another six hours of pedaling.
* * *
I didn't want to barge right in and demand a full accounting of his work,
but I didn't want to take years cultivating a relationship, either.
Fortunately, I saw that he was giving a series of public lectures during
the summer, and I made sure to be noticed at all of them, taking part in
the Q&A session afterward. I did eventually hint that I'd like to see
what he worked on. Despite his protest that the only visible manifestation
of his theories was the chalk dust on his jacket, I knew that he must have
a secret desire to see whether the universe really worked the way he claimed
it did in his equations and diagrams. Eventually, we built up enough trust
that he admitted the truth of it, and one Saturday morning, he called me
and said that if I wanted to see it, now was the time.
I hopped into my car and made the trip to his campus in 12 minutes flat; then
it took me another 14 minutes to wend my way through the sixty or seventy
high school marching bands that were trying to line up in their proper order
for the competition taking place on the football field. Percy's lab was a
room deep beneath the stadium, and I despaired of finding it on my own, but
I noticed him waving at me from over by the security office, and he took me
down with him.
I wasn't sure what to expect, but what I actually saw would have been
way down the list. In the corner was a small desk with a computer on it,
hooked up to the college network. Several sliding whiteboards hung on one
wall. In the middle of the room on a folding table rested a few electronic
gizmos; one was obviously a very high-end oscilloscope, the rest I could
not identify and were handcrafted. A data cable running to the computer and
a power strip's cord just barely reaching the wall outlet were the only
features that came close to disturbing the complete neatness of
the minimalist arrangement. Even the devices on the table were perfectly
aligned in a rectangular grid under their plexiglass dome.
Percy turned on the computer monitor and turned it to face me, then sat
on the edge of the desk with his arms folded, and appeared to be looking
slightly smug. I approached the monitor and looked more closely, but saw
no more than I did originally: a graph showing one quadrant of the
Cartesian plane, with a blue line across it at y=1.
"Sorry, Doctor, I don't know what I'm looking at."
"The line represents the rate of time passage within the chronosphere. It
is currently at 1 second per second! This experiment validates all of my
I start wondering if the guy's a total crank, but I have to find out for
sure. "How so? That's the same rate that time has been passing everywhere
I've been in my entire life."
In answer, he took a piece of bread from a desk drawer and put it under the
dome, then adjusted a knob slightly. The blue line jumped up to 1.00005.
"Time is now passing slightly faster in there, though not to such an extent
that we can see it. Now watch…" As fast as he could, he turned the
knob considerably to the right, and immediately brought it back to its stop;
the blue line was back at 1. "I don't know exactly how much I did, though
I could find out from the computer. But look!" I did, and clutched the
edge of the desk to keep from falling. The bread was covered with
Percy steered me toward a chair, and gave me as much time as I needed
to collect my thoughts. Finally, I was able to put together a coherent
sentence. "So this is your time machine?"
"As Maria insists on calling it, yes, but of course it's not what people
generally think of when they hear that term. I just see it as a setup to
verify that my math is right."
"So your math is just concerned with the rate of time passage within a volume of space?"
"That's a reasonable plain-English way to refer to what you saw, but it's
only one aspect of the mathematical system I've demonstrated here. It's
enough to validate the whole framework, though, so there's no need to build
rigs to test the rest."
"What is this rest that your framework includes?"
"There are several ways of looking at it — which are all really the
same thing, kind of like the equivalence of matter and energy
I know what you're really asking: yes, it provides for time travel, in
a couple of ways that term could be defined. But such things are too
dangerous to even contemplate."
"And what about what you've shown me here? I assume that you can slow
the time as well as speed it up —"
"Oh, sure." He reached out and twisted the knob all the way to the left.
The surface of the dome turned an impenetrable, totally nonreflective black.
"Time is frozen in there now. Well, not really, quantum effects don't allow
for that, but it's as close to zero as is possible."
"Well, gosh, Percy, that's got applications! Preservation of —"
"I know all that. Don't you think I've thought this out? But because it's
all really the same thing, I can't even allow the seemingly innocent uses
to be realized. No, I've proved my theories, and that's all that can be
done. I don't even dare publish the theory. For all I know, many before me
have worked this out, and we all have to relish the satisfaction anonymously."
* * *
Well, you've read the same stories I did as a kid. You know I had to steal
it. And I did. It was as easy as I figured it would be. We academics can
be pretty paranoid about our publication credits, but being sure to secure
the computer and lock the door are not our strong suits.
* * *
"Okay, Zack, shift's up. Hit the showers, then take your one hour
rec period before lights out."
When I got to the lounge, there was Milton, just like always. Milton
arrived here quite some time after I did, becoming the second inmate.
It was nice to have company for a while, but we ran out of things to talk
about after the first hundred years. I had already set up the chess board,
and he wordlessly took the seat before the white pieces. It seemed to
me that I'd been black yesterday, but I didn't make an issue of it. As
he had for the last fifty years, he opened with the Queen's Gambit, which
I declined as I always do on days when poultry is served at dinner. I
think I'll give him ten more years, and if he doesn't play something else,
I'll declare a moratorium on chess or insist we play more backgammon or
Terrace or Zertz. Two games ended in a draw, then I went to bed and
counted my ritual 500 sheep, resuming from
one hundred twenty nine million, six hundred fifty four thousand.
* * *
The mechanics of how I found another physicist to help me twist Percy's
work to my ends are not interesting. It was slow careful work, as I needed
to be sure the first time. It took about six years, but finally I was
a partner in crime with Dr. Anthony Lowell. He freely admitted that he
was not on the top of the heap of the world's scientists, either in genius
or moral scruples. But he wanted to see Percy's work and was not inclined
to be particular. After relating to him what I'd seen in Percy's lab, and
giving him the computer files, he said he needed to review them in his
mind for a bit. A week later, he came to see me again.
"It all makes perfect
sense, Zack. Your friend hit the nail on the head. It's simple once you
see it the way he's set it out, and as he said, the various aspects of this
time manipulation are all the same; once you really get any one of them, the
others are there for the taking.
"So what's the plan? Obviously, you want me to build one or more instruments
for you, but what's really on your mind? I hope it's not some hokey plan to
go back and kill Hitler or something."
"Well, it's not hokey — no, no, hear me out. I know you're thinking
of the horror stories everyone's familiar with: someone travels back and
kills some tyrant, saving millions of lives, only to return to his
time and find that the new order is even worse in ways no one could have
forseen. And yes, I do have a plan to change history. But here's how
my way will be different from all the others. Based on what I've read
in the notes, you should be able to build machines that work the way I'll
"The first problem is that the perpetrator in the horror stories basically
assumes that the past he wants to avoid is so terrible that preventing
it is ipso facto the good and right thing to
do. But I realize
that we can't really tell how the future will change; it may be good, it
may be bad, it'll probably be some of both. But the first machine I want
is just a viewer, so I can be sure that my premises are correct and my
plan based on facts rather than just do-gooder wishes.
"The second, and more important, point is the actual mechanism for making
the change, and I think this can be done too. I think of it somewhat in
database terms. You're familiar with transactions in a
database? You start from a given point, make whatever changes you need,
then if something isn't quite right, you can just rollback the changes
and all is as it was. I can travel back, do
what needs to be done, and my partner here — you — can
decide in the new present if things pretty much worked out, or whether
hubris had gotten the better of us after all. The way I read the theory,
until I return to the present, you have the option of rolling back."
"Hmmm. I certainly hadn't thought of it in those terms. I'll have to do
some more reading and thinking, but you may be right. Hey, if I roll back
and everything is restored, how will we know that it didn't work?"
"I've thought of that. You'll have to correct me, but I think that even
if our long term memories are changed in the new timeline, immediate
events will be the same. At the time the transaction is started, we'll
have our memory of what we're doing, and we'll have made an agreement
on something simple, like the position of a table or something,
that you'll change in one of two predetermined ways depending on whether
you roll back or not.
"But I've written out how I'm thinking this can all be done. Obviously
you'll need to examine it rigourously and decide if I'm right."
I pushed the notebook with my analysis across the table to him.
"Okay. I'm not going to rush this. Give me a month or so, and I'll be
* * *
"How's it coming, Zack?"
"I'm still just meandering. It would never win a Pulitzer
even if they'd let it be published…"
"Ha! That'd be the day."
* * *
Tony called me several weeks later. He said he'd pretty much
agreed that what I wanted was doable, but had been struck by the
import of what he might enable me to do, and was going over it all
for about the eighth time, looking for flaws. At the same time, though,
he'd begun construction on a temporal viewer, and might have it for
me in two weeks.
I began seriously hitting the books, substantiating the details
of my plan. I had several candidates, and I'll relieve your
curiosity — yes, one of them had to do with Hitler.
The Hitler plan involved the young ex-corporal's relationship
with an art dealer, Max Rothman, with whom he had developed a bond
when it came out during an incidental meeting at an art show that
Max had been in the disastrous (for the Germans) battle at Ypres.
While Max was trying to bend Adolf's artistic talents in a more
commercially viable direction, with Adolf's willing cooperation,
the young orator was also being courted by an embryonic
political party. While his anti-Semitism was a bit
on the abstract side for some of them, they liked what he could do
with a crowd. My research and interviews indicated that he may
have stayed out of politics, or missed out on the ground floor, were
it not for the untimely death of Max, random victim of
Jew-hating hooligans during the Christmas season of 1919. Adolf
never knew what happened to Max, but was extremely annoyed that
he had not appeared for a scheduled meeting to review his new
paintings. This shortly put him irrevocably on the path to the
dictatorship of Germany and World War II, which I remember so
vividly. My plan here was simply to persuade Max to enter the
restaurant for their meeting through the far door, thus avoiding
his unfortunate encounter.
This plan was my front runner, and would be the one I chose unless
I found some contraindication in my research.
The close runner up was to befriend Karl Marx during his university
days in Leipzig and immerse him in the writings of Adam Smith.
Presenting him with a copy of
An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations
would be an easy way to weight more heavily his thoughts on free
A plan that I wasn't seriously considering, but was fun to contemplate
just for intellectual exercise, was to circulate through the crowd that
day in Judea and lobby for turning the jailer's key in favor of
the carpenter from Nazareth. That was potentially so far-reaching
that I had no idea what effects it might have (assuming I knew what
I was doing in any other case). And, let's face it, there was some
fear that The Big Guy Upstairs might not like that kind of
mucking about with spacetime.
When Tony delivered the viewer to me, I spent two months verifying
the salient facts underlying my plan to make a Jewish art dealer
take the long way around. Everything checked out.
* * *
"Okay, Zack. Everything pretty much checks out as you thought, with
one addition. It's true that I can roll back your actions if they
turn out horribly, but I won't have much time to decide. It turns
out that the energy requirement for keeping what amounts to the transaction
log open grows exponentially after you've made your change. The
variables are far too complex to figure out exactly, but we'll probably
only be able to get enough juice for two or three minutes
to make the decision."
"So what now? I've verified my research; I'm all set. How do
we do it?"
"We just need to use the viewer to determine the exact coordinates you
want to travel to. I've got the machine with me, but we'll want to
do it from my lab because of the power available there."
"Okay, let's do it!"
I went to the closet and donned the period hat and coat that I'd
bought from a movie studio costume department, and we drove to Tony's lab.
From his jacket pocket he withdrew a device no bigger than a
portable music player and jacked it into a somewhat larger
rig on a workbench, which had some cables running from it about the
size of my forearm. "Sit on the floor," he commanded, and then clipped
some kind of small transceiver to my lapel. "Keep that there under all
circumstances, or I won't be able to bring you back."
He sat on the stool before a copy of the viewer that he'd given me.
I could see on its screen a split image: on the left was me, on the
right was the corner of the courtyard where we'd decided I should
Tony pushed a button and I had to tighten my coat around me. Christmas
in Germany! I quickly gained my feet and looked around me. I'd have
only a few minutes before Max would exit the synagogue and make
his way across the lawn toward the restaurant.
I oriented myself and found the door he would be coming from, and made
my way toward it, arriving just seconds before his appearance. I'd
decided that rather than trying to persuade him with some made-up
story, I'd get him to follow me along the walkways bordering the
courtyard as I engaged him in conversation.
"Here he comes," I heard Tony announce in my earbud. I pretended to be
passing by just as he made his exit, and faked a very convincing, I
was sure, double-take.
"Herr Rothman, guten Abend!"
He peered at me through his condensing breath, clearly trying to place
me. "Wilhelm Klink, we met at one of your shows
some months ago."
"Oh, I see. Well, I'm in rather a hurry, Herr Klink…"
"Yes, yes, of course, come, let us walk together." I had taken
up the outside position, leaving him between me and the wall and
forcing him to follow me down the covered walkway. "You know, you
gave me some good advice about my
own modest artistic endeavors
and I must say it's helped me quite a bit."
"I'm glad to hear it. Tell me how, exactly."
I kept up this chitchat until I got him to the side entrance to
the restaurant, with Hitler waiting inside, where he begged off,
telling me that he had an appointment. I thanked him again and
watched him enter. I then retreated from the light snow to a
sheltered bench. "Tony? Tony?"
"Yes, this is Tony. Is this … Zack?"
"Yes!. We only have a few minutes; I hope you're still
with me. There's a web browser open on the computer on your desk.
What page is displayed there?"
"It's a history site. It's a page describing the economic recovery
of Germany in the '30s and '40s. Is that what it should be?" He
was clearly a bit disoriented.
"That sounds good. Listen, what can you tell me about World
"Well, it hasn't come yet, thank God!"
"There was no great war in the 1940's?"
"Well, China and the U.S. both had a bit of a problem with Japan
for a few years, is that what you mean?"
"Oh, Tony, that's great! Hey, do a quick Google search on the
name Adolf Hitler for me."
"Hmm, not much. German artist in the '20s. Not known for much. His
main claim to fame was painting the ceiling of the Reichstag after
"It worked, Tony! It worked! Bring me home."
* * *
Ah, warm again. I brushed a few snowflakes off my sleeve and
struggled out of the coat. Wait, this wasn't Tony's lab. "Tony?"
I was in a small, starkly white room. Turning around, I saw an
old man sitting on a sofa, the only furnishing of any kind. He
beckoned me to join him.
"Come sit, Zack. You're going to be here awhile, so we may as
well get acquainted. You may call me Björn."
"What? Where's Tony? What is this place?"
"Take it easy. Sit." From a small ledge at the side of the sofa,
he retrieved a glass and offered it to me. Chilled Patrón.
They seemed to know a bit about me. "You're in the custody of —
well we don't really have a name for ourselves yet. In fact, you're
our first client. I and my associates find ourselves on the outside
looking in, you might say. We watch. We see people attempting to
muck about with history; trying to improve it, perhaps. Sometimes
we can stop them. We always have before, but we knew there would
come a time when someone would fool us, so we were prepared for
"I don't understand. I did it! I prevented the ascension of
Adolf Hitler! I prevented World War II. I saved millions of lives."
"Yes, you did. Well, in a sense. Pardon me for being crass, but all
of the people you saved are dead now. It was a hundred
years before your time, after all. Perhaps it is much
better this way. But we do not judge that, nor do we attempt to set
things back the way they were."
"Well? So what am I doing here?"
"Well, Zack, while we don't like to think we're playing God, we
do find it to be an act of the greatest hubris to alter history
as you did, and we decided to incarcerate those who do. There are
no set sentences, though neither are
they totally arbitrary.
What we're doing, Zack, is rescuing some cultural treasure that was
lost through your action. In this case, we've retrieved a recording
of Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen. Now you might imagine
that recovering such an important work of art from a now-phantasmal
timeline is not cheap, and you would be right. You'll be here with
us while you help generate the amount of power that we required
for that operation. Do you enjoy cycling?"
"Sure," I blurted out without thinking of the absurd
"Good! We've got one waiting for you. We don't need to talk about
exact figures at this point; something around twelve thousand years
will do. Fortunately, we won't charge you for room and board."
* * *
I slept late this morning, and was still asleep when the bed
retracted into the wall. I hopped into the shower, but didn't
have time to enjoy the luxurious spray. First shift would start
in fifteen minutes.
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