Saturday, January 2, 2016

Overwritten: The 2038 Problem (Part I)

Have you ever wanted to go back in time and change a mistake? Have you ever wanted to change so many mistakes that it would be best to just try it all again? I admit that the idea crossed my mind once or twice. I should have kissed her. I should have gotten there a minute later. I should have chosen the proverbial door number two. I always hate when people say nonsense like, “live with no regrets”. If you don’t have regrets, then you’re either a fool, or you never really lived at all. Mistakes make you who you are. They taught you, not only the kind of person you are, but what kind of person you should strive for. Everything that happens to me in my life leads me to each next moment, and even if I don’t like the moment, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if it changed. There are rules and dangers to time travel. Change one thing, and you change everything. In the end, if you’re given chance to go back in time, choose not to. It won’t turn out like you hoped. It’ll probably be worse. It was for me.
It was the second day of January in the year 2038. I was working as a prison guard, and though it didn’t pay much, I was happy. The hours were steady, the job was secure, and my life was on the right track. I had adopted a wonderful son, and was foster father to little girl named Melly who was a handful of trouble, but brilliant and had so much potential. And of course, because what I’m doing is telling you a story, this is the moment that it all changes. I was checking in on a particularly heinous criminal who was sitting in solitary confinement. At least, it was supposed to be solitary. When I opened the little window on the door, I saw someone else in there. She was holding her arms out like she was performing a magical spell. I triggered the alarm and was setting about getting the door opened when it happened.
I blink and suddenly I’m sitting in a car. Not only that, but I was supposed to be driving the car. I haven’t needed to drive a car with my hands, like a monkey, for years. I swerve and hit the brakes, safely pulling over to the side of the highway. A few people honk at me as they pass by. I grip the wheel tightly, giving myself time to reclaim my breath. Once I’m calm enough, I prepare myself to look in the rearview mirror, but I already know what I’m going to see. I don’t know exactly what year it is, but I know that I’ve been sent through time. My teenage eyes look back at me with disappointment. I reach into my pocket, looking for my phone, but it’s not there. Then I remember that I used to keep it on the other side. So it’s no later than 2017, I know this much. I’m right; my screen displays March 23, 2016. Okay, I think to myself, what do I know about this time? I turned 18 two days ago. I’m about to graduate from high school, and start taking summer classes at the University of Indianapolis pretty quickly. I just broke up with my girlfriend, making things a bit awkward, but not hostile. She’ll still be sore about it, though, so I better stay away.
Today. Today is what’s important. I have to figure out where I was going. The time, 11:55 in the morning. I’m cutting school. Why? Just because? Yeah, kinda. Just because it doesn’t matter all that much anymore. I already got into college, and I entered an accelerated program, so the few classes I’m taking this semester aren’t relevant. But still, it seems reckless. The forty-year-old in me does not approve. I feel so strongly about it that I merge with traffic, and then take the cloverleaf interchange to head back for Hamilton. I can still make it before lunch ends, and no one will notice.
I was wrong, and all eyes are on me as I slip into class ten minutes late. The teacher frowns at me, and in my mind I can hear a growl, but then she just moves on with the lesson. I still can’t pay attention, though. I’m thinking about what I was doing on the highway in the original timeline. I was heading for Lawrence, but why? Something about a convent? No, that can’t be right. A concert! What concert was it? It was a lot of fun, and I remember the artist, it was...Marlin something. Um. It was a jazz concert series, and it wasn’t in Lawrence. It was at the university fine arts theatre. And it wasn’t now. It was later. I was just going to Lawrence first to meet up with some friends and make the day of it. Who am I talking about? I know lots of people in Lawrence, but...why can’t I remember?

“Your memories are being overwritten,” my friend, Brian explains. It was not surprisingly easy to convince him that I was now a time traveler. He’s always been open to things like this. He starts drawing diagrams on the whiteboard in the empty classroom we sometimes hang out in after school. “What year was it?”
“2038,” I remind him. “January 2.”
He writes it on the board. “2038, and you go back almost 22 years to 2016. But not exactly.” He starts working through it out loud, but to himself. “Why not exactly? What is the significance of that day and this one? What’s the connection?”
“It’s not me,” I say.
“How not?”
“I don’t think I was supposed to be the one traveling. I eventually become a prison guard in New Jersey. One of the inmates gets a visitor who magically appears with him in solitary, and I think she’s the one who sends him back.”
“You’re a stowaway.”
“I guess.”
“Who is this man?”
“His name is Horace Reaver. He killed lots and lots of people after his wife died in a car crash.”
“Nothing else interesting about him?”
I think about it for a moment. What do I remember from the future? Ah, yes. “There were conspiracy theories about him being a time traveler. Tons of people testified, not always actually in court, that he saved their lives. Apparently, he stopped bad things from happening, as if he knew they would.”
“That would be a logical explanation,” Brian says. “I mean, it would explain your current condition, not who this woman is, or how time travel is possible.”
“What were you saying about my memories being overwritten?” I ask, knowing that to be the most pressing issue.
“Right, yeah,” Brian goes back to what he was saying, “in the original timeline, you went to some sort of event that you can’t quite remember, in a place you can’t quite remember.”
He pulls up a website on his laptop. “It’s called Ripple Effect-Proof Memory. It’s when people go back in time, often only with their consciousnesses, with the benefit of foresight. They know what’s going to happen, which allows them to change it. If the lesson is they can’t change it, then at the very least, they’re aware of it. But for some reason, you don’t have this. You’re susceptible to the changes in the timeline.” He holds out his hands like he’s presenting a giant bowl. “You don’t remember going to the event, because you never did.”
“The what?”
“Oh dear, and it’s getting worse.” He pulls up a chair and faces me with purpose. “Right now, you know what’s going to happen in the future, but once that future becomes the present, and especially the past, you won’t know what happened,” he pauses to glance at the words on the computer,  “the first time around.”
“What the hell is the point of that? I mean, if I have no hope of changing the future, and no hope of even knowing about it, why do it? Everything will just go back to normal, and we’ll all end up where we started.”
He sits up straight and raises his chin. “But it’s already changed. You went to an event—and trust me on this; you already told me about it—but you decided not to this time. From now on, we’re in uncharted territory. You’ll only have generalizations about the future. You’ll remember future terrorist attacks, future technological innovations, future movies. Even though you’ll eventually forget what you know about these things, because you know about them now, you’ll be influencing events based on this knowledge.”
“What?” I ask, extremely confused.
“You will be able to change events,” he simplifies, “but once those changes take place, you won’t remember what it was like before. Every decision will overwrite the decision in the original timeline, both in reality, and in your mind.”
“So,” I begin, “what am I supposed to do now?”
“I’ve never heard of this in fiction; not to this extent, anyway. I have no freakin’ clue.”

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