Last night I saw the northern lights through a veil of clouds.
It seemed the glow of Christmas past, where smiled loved ones lost forever,
Shining dimly as joylight behind the snow,
Fading like dreams before the din of daylife,
So that I cannot prove to another they walked our earth,
But my dreamworld, retold.
This is how the aurora is dear to me, soullight,
There were three surprises. The first was that the time machine worked. The second was that after traveling backward in time, absolutely nothing was as they'd expected.
It wasn't that the history books were wrong - rather - it was as if all of history had been recorded and retold in the present day by people in the process of having root canals. Things were so off-kilter it led Roger to the "alterable past" theory. Perhaps their Inequality Magnifier had not only taken advantage of the big loophole in Bell's theorem, but rather, had magnified uncertainty along with the probability of superluminal transmission.
"Maybe you can only go to the past if it's not your past," Roger said to Linda. "And when you try to go to your past, you go to an improbable version."
"Exactly which part of the past is not our past?" Linda asked.
He was not a physicist, and though he considered himself a scientist, logic was not his strongest virtue. "Maybe the butterfly flapping its wings in Katmandu on December 24th doesn't cause anything to happen to us on December 25th in San Jose. Not enough time has gone by. So Katmandu isn't actually in our past and we could go backward to Katmandu just yesterday and see it as it actually is. Rather than going back to it two hundred years ago, in which case, all things in Katmandu have had the opportunity to propagate and mingle and effect all parts of San Jose, so if we went there, it would have to be different to prevent paradoxes."
"Why is everyone always so in knots about paradoxes?"
"I'm not concerned about paradoxes," Roger said, absentmindedly jiggling the key chain upon which the Inequality Magnifier dangled along with the keys to their house in Rochester, his Jeep Cherokee and her Taurus wagon.
She gave him one of her, "You could have fooled me," looks and picked an apple out of a street vendor's basket and bit into it. They walked away without paying. The street vendor chased them but Roger moved them two weeks ahead and where was previously a patch of unmolested cobblestone was now a pile of manure. She said, "How about we go to a time that doesn't stink?"
Roger scratched his head. "I'm not sure when that would be," he said, and began developing his theory of localized odors. He would hypothesize that eras in society could be marked by the prevalence of various airborne particulates to which the population would be so inured as to be unaware of their existence. Time travelers would find all epochs festering in odor but their own.
They went to New York City in June of 1859 and discovered that few people cared about the battle raging between the states. Instead, the population seemed preoccupied by learning to ride bicycles and constructing brick buildings with the aid of professional scryers who were quite adept at locating underground aquifers and previously unmarked graveyards using nothing more than forked sticks and bent iron rods.
After a few hours in town Roger came to the conclusion that telepathy was in widespread use because people communicated with a marked economy of words and no hand signals were evident. It turned out that people were so adept at reading tiny movements each other's smooth muscles they had to wear excessively concealing clothing to avoid broadcasting their thoughts to the public at large. This also was the origin of the game of poker.
"Thank ye Gods for the blessed invention of the telephone," one dapper New Yorker told Linda thirty years later. "I'd never have won a single hand of five-card stud and I deduce from your bosom that you would like to be led through the Argentine waltz."
Linda demurred, making a mental note to seek him out in Funk and Wagnall's as soon as they got to the 1950's.
"What did that guy want?" Roger asked her, returning from a shop across Fifth Avenue holding a small globe of something wrapped in gauze that dripped onto his shoes.
"A tango partner," she said.
"I think in 1859 that's a pretty significant proposition."
"Asking a woman to dance is tantamount to asking her to bed?"
"You must work very hard to be so stupid," she said. She turned her back to him and started up the street toward the park.
"We're not staying. My pudding is melting," Roger said. He had intended to bring them only further toward winter, where the fall sun wouldn't dissolve his confection but wound up overshooting by thirty-eight years.
Horses drew carriages and trolleys down Fifth avenue. The skies were clear but the light from the sun appeared much bluer than it did in 2006. It made it seem that downtown New York was coated in ice.
"You're not planning to eat that, are you?" Linda asked him of his pudding. "It's laden with who-knows-what fauna and flora that we've long since eradicated. You're liable to get polio or smallpox."
Roger pursed his lips, then grit his teeth. Then he set the pudding down in front of a horse, who sniffed at it until it was pulled into an alley by German Shepherd-sized animal resembling a rat.
People strolled past them, ignoring them for the most part but occasionally staring. Even though it was cool everyone and everything smelled of dried sweat and horse manure. The stench bothered Linda but not Roger, which agitated Linda even further.
There was a kid hawking newspapers on the corner of Fifth and Park Avenue South. Glancing quickly, an article caught her eye. She stole one from him and scurried back to Roger who moved them three hours ahead before the kid could catch them.
"Look at this," she said. Roger saw that William McKinley had been inaugurated. A dinner was being held to honor the surviving veterans of the Civil War. Former Union soldiers need only attend.
He said, "So?"
She pressed a finger into the paper, forgetting that newspapers could not yet divine the intent of the reader through capacitive coupling of motive thought through the fingertips. Roger grabbed the paper from her and brought it closer to his face.
The article stated that the mayor of Hazlet, New Jersey had finished consulting with aeronauts about the future of the town as the aerial gateway to the New Jersey shoreline.
Roger pursed his lips. "Could it be the Wright Brothers already invented the airplane?"
"They're still just kids," Linda said.
"And they haven't invented Baby Einstein yet."
"Einstein is still a baby."
A woman approached them and said something in a dialect neither of them recognized as English. When she spoke slowly, Linda realized she was asking if they had come from the airships.
"Airships?" Roger said slowly, as if speaking a foreign language which happened to use all the same words but required different ordering and inflection.
The woman made a sweeping motion with her hand and pointed upward. Several large metallic structures floated above the buildings. Linda had seen them before but they hadn't registered in her mind as being out of place. She'd presumed they were zeppelins , but then she realized they were decades too early for rigid aircraft. Numerous lights and devices rotated underneath the flying things. She saw what seemed to be windows or simply openings in the bottom of the craft. They reminded Linda of stateroom balconies on expensive cruise ships. People were looking down at them from above. Linda waved. One airship passenger waved back and held aloft a martini glass.
"That's interesting," Roger said, gazing upward.
While they were trying to invent enough sign language to converse visually with the people on the airship, they heard a voice on Fifth Avenue directed at them saying, "Do you think they speak? Maybe they're deaf."
First they noticed the smell. The odor of rotting fish drifted over the all pervasive horse stench.
They were both terrified when they saw the Tyrannosaurus. Linda clutched Roger's arm. Roger tried to calculate an escape, but rapidly came to the conclusion there was no means of escape from a 20' tall palentological specimen with teeth the size of pine saplings.
It was on a leash. A boy too small to be an adequate meal for the beast had one end of the leather lead wrapped around his wrist. The other end was tied to a hand knitted collar on the dinosaur.
"I must have one," said the dinosaur, taking a step toward Linda.
The boy said something in that same thick accent that made him impossible for Roger and Linda to understand, and the dinosaur giggled. It said, "May I stroke them?"
The Tyrannosaurus ran a scaly claw over Linda and said, "It's a Martian. I must have it. Can I?" The boy said something unintelligible, yanked at the leash, and the dinosaur followed complaining that all his friends had Martians and how come he never got to have anything fun and the boy didn't love him. When he stamped his foot the horses whinnied, but for the most part nobody took note of the thunder lizard as he was lead into Central Park.
Linda brushed herself where the lizard had touched, first grumbling. Then she couldn't stop herself from crying. She said, "You should have done something."
"We weren't eaten," Roger said. He kissed her on the cheek and watched the boy and his pet sauntering into the park. "Why do you think paleontology is so wrong in our time? And what the hell are those flying things?"
"Take me home," Linda said. "I'm hungry. I'm tired of being accosted by people and...talking things. And it stinks everywhere. Give me that."
She wrested the keychain from his hand, pressed the button, and took them home. Linda took a deep breath of her living room air. Though the ambient aroma was greatly improved, she could still smell traces of 19th century New York. She lifted her elbow and sniffed under her arm.
"I'm going to have to burn these clothes. Then I'm making lunch."
"Hey, you want to try something?"
"Didn't we just try something? I'm done for a while," Linda said. She went into the bedroom and started changing clothes. Roger came in.
"How about this - we go to Christmas past. We relive our childhoods."
"Not until I've had a bath," she said, but Roger wasn't listening.
He fiddled with the time machine. "Hey, I have an idea - totally off the wall. We set the time machine for the present."
"That's stupid." She started putting on the fresh clothes she selected.
"Why? Have you ever done it?"
"I don't have to, I'm always in the present," she said, and finished pulling on a sweater. She sat down on the bed. "Love, what are you looking for?"
Roger sat on the edge of the bed. He shrugged.
Linda said, "How about lunch? Then we can go back to Christmas in 1985 and play with Teddy Ruxpin." Roger fiddled with the Inequality Magnifier controls.
"It goes from the past to the future, so it has to cross through now," he said, hovering his thumb over the button. "What do you think will happen?"
"So you really are afraid of paradoxes."
"I'm not afraid. I want you to be happy."
"The thing about happy," Roger said, "we have such a hard time recognizing it."
Their eyes locked.
Linda blurted that she loved him. She marveled at how her soul had come to love before thought drifted away and simply was.
As the room evaporated to white Roger vowed he loved her, and then all he could see was the blue in her eyes and loved those with all his being. And then he forgot they were her eyes.