This story first appeared in Curios and Conundrums: Clockwork Mutineers (October 2017) from The Mysterious Package Company. The theme of the issue was time travel.
The George Eastman House, a film conservatory in Rochester, New York had been my intended mission. I swiped the large film reels after the museum had cleared out, and placed them carefully into a duffel bag I’d liberated from the gift shop. I used the computer in the darkened foyer to discover the few pieces of information I needed to carry out my own personal mission. The computer clock told me it was August 14, 2003. That meant Boss Teegan was five years old, growing up in nearby Pennsylvania. A crude but functional internet search gave me the address. Her childhood home was a only few hours away. As time ticked down, I boarded a Greyhound bus bound for Erie.
These were the early days of my captivity and my sentence of stealing treasures for an evil auction house from the future. I still had a lot to learn about time travel. That trip to Rochester was one of the very few instances when I travelled within Boss Teegan’s own lifetime, and I was determined to get the upper hand. If I could change the past, I thought, I would alter the future. No Boss Teegan meant no auction house, and my freedom. But I was no murderer… was I?
During those first few trips, my time allowance was downright luxurious. I would tap my wrist, and the subcutaneous green-glowing digits would tell me I had days to return to the sphere with my stolen film canisters. Days.
On later trips, Boss Teegan would make sure to shorten my tether. Alexander Musick couldn’t be trusted with days.
The Teegans lived in a semi-detached home on an unassuming suburban street, the kind of street you could walk down in a stolen pair of white coveralls and utility cap without attracting too much attention. Pool cleaner, utility man… no one looked too closely. A quick shimmy up the portico put me on the second floor. The window, of course, was unlocked. I tossed the duffel bag onto the roof and slithered into the empty bedroom.
Standing in Boss Teegan’s childhood home was disorienting. The rainbow bedspread, the puffy pink curtains, and the dresser topped with neatly folded ballet tights belied the heartless woman she would grow up to be. On the four-poster bed sat an aggressively orange teddy bear; on the nightstand, a photograph of an unmistakable young Miss Teegan, at perhaps four years old, joyously squeezing the life out of it. The pillowcases were purple. The markers were scented. All around the room, the wallpaper was patterned with butterflies. I grunted sardonically.
Here’s the thing about butterflies: a time traveller’s first concern should be to preserve the past in as pristine a form as possible, right? That means that any broad-stroke interference, like convincing Buddy Holly not to get on that plane, or telling the Titanic captain to hang a left, could have a major impact on the future. As Ray Bradbury illustrated while expounding on chaos theory, even a minor change to the past, like stepping on a butterfly, could have a profound impact on the future.
Down the hallway, I could hear a little girl’s voice. She was singing.
Bearing relativity in mind, though, killing a butterfly, which is a reasonably advanced lifeform comprised of perhaps billions of billions of billions of atoms, is a significant change to spacetime. Anyone who tries to tell you differently must think very little of butterflies. How seemingly innocent and unimportant can an action be and still change the future? What about breathing air that had never been circulated through a certain set of lungs? What about a time traveller’s body heat warming the surrounding molecules by a few degrees? Displacing just a single atom in the past should be all it takes to trigger the so-called Butterfly Effect, and break the future.
This is what I struggled to comprehend as I crept silently out of the bedroom, towards the bathroom at the end of the hall. Each time one of my feet sunk softly into the carpet, I considered the hundreds of synthetic fibres I was displacing that hadn’t been disturbed in this exact way, at this exact time, the first time around, without me here.
The hallway led to the bathroom, its door gaping. On the floor was strewn a small sun dress and a pair of tiny socks. I heard the swishing of water, and the muted trumpeting of naked skin rubbing against wet acrylic. Young Miss Teegan was taking a bath.
Oblivious to my presence, her view of me through the door blocked largely by the shower curtain, the little girl sang exuberantly, if not skillfully, as she clacked some plastic ponies together and made them splash around in the sudsy brine. How was I going to do this? I had little doubt that I had the strength to hold her under the water until all the life struggled out of her, but would the commotion summon a neglectful parent up from the main floor? And when it came down to it, could I really drown a five-year-old child?
Would I be trapped forever in the early 21st century, with its Plastic Age design sensibilities and uncommunicative cats?
I scanned the bathroom for another way. Could it be done quickly and painlessly, perhaps with something sharp? Was it even possible to humanely murder a child?
And there it was, sitting on top of the toilet tank: a hairdryer, its cord trailing from a non-GFCI outlet that was clearly against building code. Drop that in the tub, and the circuit wouldn’t trip. It would be over quickly, and I would be on my way back to the sphere.
But would the sphere even come for me if there was no grown-up Boss Teegan to send it? Would I be trapped forever in the early 21st century, with its Plastic Age design sensibilities and uncommunicative cats?What I failed to understand then about time travel is that every step I took towards the bathroom, every carpet fibre I displaced, down to every atom I shifted, had spawned a completely new timeline. Time ticks forward in increments too tiny for me to imagine, and with every tick, every possible arrangement of every atom in the universe instanced a new, separate dimension. The artifacts I steal for the auction house are taken from divergent histories, but the sphere always returns me to my own future.
Somewhere in the multiverse, there are timelines missing their Mona Lisas, their Crown Jewels, and their Dead Sea Scrolls, all purloined by me, a time-travelling cat burglar. The auction house learned quite quickly, though, that hoping to hock the Mona Lisa when the “real” thing sits famously in the Louvre is a tall order. So to avoid a reputation for selling mere impeccable forgeries, Boss Teegan tasks me with stealing only lost treasures — rare artifacts that have been scattered to the winds, the whereabouts of which are obscured by half-written histories.
There is always the risk that once the auction house posts a lot containing a long-lost relic, the owner of that same object in our timeline comes forward and indignantly declares the auction item a fake. In these rare cases, public opinion turns the tide. The thought that people would hoard these sparkly trinkets, depriving humanity of their God-given right to gawk at them in a museum, causes people to declare the collectors’ objects fakes, and deem the auction’s lot the real deal.
All this was moot as I stood poised above the hair dryer, my five-year-old future captor obliviously singing and splashing away. I stood, hand outstretched towards the hair dryer, frozen in time. Beneath the skin on my wrist, the digits blinked 4:10pm.
I decline to say what happened next — whether I dashed the device into the little girl’s bathwater or not. Because as with the story of Archduke Ferdinand prior to WWI, what I chose to do would not have mattered anyway – Ferdinand’s fate was indelibly etched in the annals of time. Despite escaping an errant bomb, he was destined that day to die.
What would have kept young Miss Teegan safe from Alexander’s plan?
Specific dates and times are important, especially when you’re time travelling.
Click here for the solution
At that moment, and during the moments that followed, the electrical grid that served cities and towns throughout the Great Lakes region began to falter. Before long, power was out across the entire Eastern seaboard of the United States and Canada, and would remain out for days.
Getting back to Rochester was a nightmare. Greyhound, and all public transit, was shut down of course, and I thumbed my way desperately along the I90, enduring the 21st century’s agonizingly slow traffic and small talk. I reached the crater in Rochester with, as usual, seconds to spare. The sphere arrived right on time to whisk me back to… not the future, by my future, with a speed and efficiency decidedly unmatched by the gas-fueled daisy chain of cars that had taken me to it.
The sphere vanished. I reappeared in the Ready Room, standing face to face with the adult Boss Teegan, who glared at me coldly from behind bulletproof glass. The drabness of that grey chamber stood in stark contrast to the multicoloured exuberance of her childhood bedroom. The woman, like her surroundings, had been drained of all colour and joy.
There is always a tense stand-off in the Ready Room. Boss Teegan is never interested in what I have endured on my trip. She never wants to hear how I materialized naked in ancient Rome, stole myself some clothes, and quickly learned how to speak Latin with an archaic inflection, all while trying to steal something. She cares only about what I’ve stolen. “The value of the treasure must exceed the cost of travel, or the auction house loses money,” she would repeat to me, until the mantra was seared into my brain.
In this instant, I stood before her and stared silently, my eyes tracing the lines on her mouth, the grey in her hair, and the mock youthfulness her makeup pretended, which had come so easily to her five-year-old face. Having seen her as a child, naked and splashing frivolously, she was now somehow unmasked; even Boss Teegan, my humorless gaoler, had once been small and vulnerable, had once been playful, had once giggled.
“Show me,” she demanded, in a voice far from a giggle.
I unzipped the duffel bag and pulled out the large film reels.
“Citizen Kane, 1941,” I pronounced with a flourish. “Original print. Undamaged.”
Boss Teegan’s eyes narrowed as if she was smiling, but her mouth remained unmoved.
“Good. Celluloid does not age well. This is now the only surviving print.”
Film, I thought to myself, was not the only thing that had not aged well. What had happened, I wondered, in all the time between then and now, that had made Boss Teegan into this?
“By now, I’ve brought you more than enough trinkets to fund your endeavour,” I said. “Will you re-evaluate our arrangement?”
“Our arrangement,” she sneered, “Is that you work for me. You sit in your cell until I need you. You make the trip. You bring me the item. Then you go back in your cell. There is no other dimension to it than that.”
“Isn’t there?” I replied, cocking an eyebrow cryptically. “You know, you had a very lovely home growing up.” I tried to screw up my lips into my best Boss Teegan impression, but malice is not my forte.
To my surprise, she tossed her head back and laughed.
“Did you hunt me down, Musick? Thought you might kill my younger self to duck your sentence in the future?”
Well, yes… that’s exactly what I had done and thought. But why did she not seem perturbed?
“You could kill me a thousand times over, in a thousand different ways, and I would still be here when you get back. Haven’t you figured that out yet?”
I hadn’t. But this new piece of information she had just given me was a major clue for my improvised time travel education.
“Back to your cell,” she said abruptly.
The electronic door opened, and the two beefy guards who apparently always skipped leg day lumbered through it. I knew what came next: an indelicate strip search, a pair of black-and-white striped pyjamas, and the insufferable loneliness of my tiny room.
“Wait!” I said, holding up a finger. To my surprise, they did. I reached into the duffel bag and pulled out another object, then held it up towards the glass so that Boss Teegan could get a good look.
I saw something flicker across her face like a glitch on a video screen: a momentary flash of recognition, accompanied by an uncharacteristic softening. Time stalled uneasily, as the guards looked uncertainly from me, to Boss Teegan, to the orange teddy bear I clutched at the end of my outstretched arm. For the briefest moment, I was looking into the eyes of young Miss Teegan, the five-year-old who liked bubbles and ponies, the little girl who would never dream of imprisoning a handsome and world-renowned liberator of precious objects like Alexander Musick. “Alexander is a nice man,” young Miss Teegan would say.
Finally, Boss Teegan broke the tension with an exhalation that she intended to pass off as a dismissive laugh, but I heard in it a choked mixture of relief and regret. “Take him to his cell,” she commanded, in a voice less commanding than she had hoped. Each guard grabbed me by a shoulder and began to drag me off.
Boss Teegan’s voice came over the speaker again. “Leave the bear,” she said. After a pause and a shrug, one guard prised the stuffed toy from my grasp and threw it on the floor of the Ready Room. They pulled me through the door, and it whirred shut.