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 anticipated.

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 stood mute.

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, and time 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 appreciative 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 work."

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 mold.

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 — but 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 describe.

"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 in touch."

*         *         *

"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 economies.

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 appear.

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 War II?"

"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 a fire."

"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 you."

"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 non sequitur.

"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.

#     #     #

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.