This story first appeared in Curios and Conundrums: Countdown to Oblivion (August 2017) from The Mysterious Package Company. The theme of the issue was the end of the world.
The auction house had been sending me back in time to steal lost artefacts for what might have been years, for all I knew. After each stressful sojourn, I was strip-searched and sent back to my windowless cell. They consigned me to captivity with only floor-to-ceiling bookcases and overstuffed wing chairs for company. There was also a preposterously small fitness area, where I was hard-pressed to maintain my streamlined physique on the tiny trampoline. Meals, while delivered thrice daily (in addition to snacks), were largely provincial, and hardly befitting of a man who had attained no small degree of import in certain, admittedly criminal, circles.
A feeling of supreme vitality surged through my body, and I felt like I could accomplish absolutely anything.
But back to my escape. The darkened hallways were punctuated by floor-level guide lights that tinted the bare concrete walls with a subtle green glow. I pressed close to the shadows, fearing the nighttime patrol of a guard who never came. Scarcely able to believe my good fortune, I slipped incredulously into business end of the Ready Room.
It was here that Boss Teegan, my satanic captor, would prepare the time travel sphere for my compelled capers, separated from me by a thick, bulletproof sheet of glass, and no small amount of cowardice. Eager as I was to explore the console and hit the proverbial road, an adjoining room caught my eye. Creeping silently inside, I beheld a small chamber lined with well-appointed shelves and cabinets festooned with all of the confiscated treasures I had tried to smuggle back with me from my many missions to the past.
There was Chekhov’s actual gun, which had helped me discover that the Ready Room glass was, indeed, bulletproof. There were my precious eyeglasses, which I eagerly slid back onto my face with tremendous relief (Alexander Musick is many things, but far-sighted is not one of them). There were fireworks from the Ming Dynasty, cellphones from various eras, a trumpet from the siege of Jericho, and perhaps most precious of all, a small vial of serum that I had once torn from the neck of a certain re-animated Russian vizier in disco-era Soviet Uzbekistan. The net effect was like gazing into the desk drawer of a teacher who had spent all her time purloining contraband from her more enterprising students. There were other items I didn’t recognize; one particularly foreboding specimen was labeled “Shakespeare’s cursed skull.” Teegan had told me these things had been destroyed. I felt more betrayed by her than usual.
I uncorked the serum and took a lusty swig, trying not to think of where the vial had been hidden when Boss Teegan’s guards had eventually discovered it on me. A feeling of supreme vitality surged through my body, and I felt like I could accomplish absolutely anything. I hastily stuffed my pockets with numerous items from the cabinet, completely forgetting that my clothes and belongings could not travel back in time with me.
I tore back into the control room, and began pushing buttons and flipping switches with the vigour and acuity of a man reborn. I quickly queued up my target location from the onscreen map, and twisted two dials to set my destination time. To my surprise, the controls were far more accurate than Boss Teegan had let on; for countless trips, I was left with the impression that my destination time and location were calculated only vaguely. But here, I learned I could set my course with astonishing accuracy. I pushed a large brown button helpfully labelled “GO.” The familiar countdown light began to pulse.
I careened back through the hallway to the other side of the Ready Room with seconds to spare. The automatic doors hissed open, and I charged into the centre of the large divot in the floor. I had no time to disrobe before the sphere appeared and whisked me away in a twinkling. Would my clothes and possessions somehow interfere? Would they burn up? Would I be harmed? I was gripped by fear, however briefly.The sphere deposited me exactly where I had directed it to, in the middle of a busy square in central London. The place was packed with people. To anyone who had bothered to notice, I had just mysteriously appeared out of thin air, briefly encased in a shiny, transparent sphere, which had disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. The sphere left me standing in a shallow, concave depression carved in the asphalt. The only person who did notice was a dear old woman a short shot away who clapped enthusiastically. I was disappointed to discover that she wasn’t applauding my toned physique. She couldn’t even see a bare ankle. She decided I was some sort of street performer and offered me a butterscotch sweet from her purse. I checked the subcutaneous digits embedded in my wrist to see how much time I had. Five blessed minutes.
I dashed across the street and stashed myself behind a large silver maple that offered a discrete view of the plaza. The Law of Temporal Displacement (if Teegan hadn’t lied to me about that, too) meant that a temporary imbalance had been created by my travelling back in time. The future demanded a roughly me-sized body to return there. On this trip, of all trips, I had no intention of going back.
I covertly surveyed the square. A few hundred metres down the street, I saw Big Ben’s hands of the clock tower verging on two o’clock. I could vividly recall my own kidnapping from that day — from this day. I was strolling through this very square, hands stuffed in pockets brimming with the proceeds of an expertly conducted heist, whistling obliviously. I had heard the bells in the clock tower begin to chime, and by the second toll, I was pushed face-first into a waiting van as a cloth sack was pulled over my head. It was in the back of the van that I first heard her dispassionate, demonic voice. Meet the new Boss.
Teegan had planned exquisitely to arrange my captivity, but she hadn’t planned on this. Someone would be returning to the future today, but it wouldn’t be me.
There: peering across the street, I saw the man I was looking for rounding the corner, hands in his pockets, whistling like a fool. He was small-framed, like me. He was handsomely thick-browed, like me. He was, in point of fact, me.
It was in the back of the van that I first heard her dispassionate, demonic voice.
Further down the street, directly across from the me-behind-the-tree, an anonymous black van pulled up to the curb very near the crater. Out stepped two figures. One I recognized as a generic thug in the employ of the evil auction house, who had been rather unhappy to discover that vial of serum on my person, and was tasked with retrieving it by any means necessary. The other, although darkly clad with her face obscured by a scarf, was unmistakably Boss Teegan.
My path was clear. Just a quick sprint across the street and a good, swift shove, and I could send Boss Teegan back to the Ready Room to come face to face with herself… at which time her universe might implode, if we are to trust pop culture about anything.
But then, didn’t I face the same risk in meeting myself? The then-me was sauntering, carefree, down the sidewalk, rapidly approaching Teegan’s trap. I couldn’t risk seeing myself shoved back into that van… and I probably couldn’t risk seeing myself, period. If I was going to bodycheck Boss Teegan into the crater just as the sphere appeared, I would need to take the other-me out of the picture.
But how? My wrist-clock told me the sphere would return in less than a minute. I needed to stop Alexander Musick Mach 1 in his tracks from my hiding place across the square, without tipping off Teegan and the thug.
The answer came to me in a stroke of characteristic genius. With the other me satisfactorily distracted, I sprung out from behind the tree and sprinted across the square, charging headlong towards my victim as the precious seconds counted down.
How did Alexander Musick distract his other self at the crucial moment?
Alexander Musick hadn’t exactly been getting the naked truth from Boss Teegan.
Click here for the solution
Materializing fully clothed meant that I still had possession of the items I had reclaimed from the cabinets, including a cellphone. To stop the past version of myself in his tracks, I merely rang him up.
As my doppelganger stood with his phone to his ear and a confused look on his beautiful face, I turned my attention back to the task at hand: the sphere was due to arrive within the minute, and I was determined to send Boss Teegan back in my stead.
I set off across the plaza at a dead sprint. Boss Teegan was standing so close to the crater that if I crashed into her with enough force, I could pitch her into the hole like a Newton’s cradle of solid justice. The rest of the scene played out for me in slow motion.
As my feet smashed against the pavement and propelled me towards the van, I saw Boss Teegan take her attention away from the preoccupied Alexander Musick down the street and notice, for the first time, the distinctive divot carved out of the roadway, the tell-tale calling card of the time travel sphere. A fearful realization that a time traveler was nearby flashed across Boss Teegan’s face, like a big game hunter who returns to his cabin to find a shotgun-wielding bear in his living room. She looked around in a panic, and saw me running full-tilt towards her from the other side of the square. In an impressive but infuriating display of quick thinking, she grabbed her man by the front of his shirt and pulled him with her as she dove back into the van. The truck’s tires squealed and shot a jet of white smoke behind them as they gained traction, and finally thrust the van forward. It tore off around the corner, very nearly tilting on two wheels, and disappeared from view.
A prickly, hysterical sweat flashed across my entire body. What would happen if the sphere returned to collect empty air? What actual calamity would befall the multiverse if the Law of Temporal Displacement was broken? Boss Teegan had lied to me about nearly every other rule of time travel. How could I even be sure this Law was a requirement? And what was the risk of finding out?
I had a chance here, in my own present, to live out the rest of my life unmolested by the evil auction house and its schemes against me. A chance to pick up exactly where I left off, before my abduction and subsequent imprisonment. The other Alexander Musick who existed now had not experienced what I had experienced. He had not known the hardship of being transported, naked (and needlessly, it so happens) into strange times and places where he did not speak the language, to endure the peculiarities and prejudices of whichever unenlightened society rudely ruled the day. The Alexander Musick who was presently putting his overpriced cell phone away and strutting towards me, flush with cash and whistling like an idiot, was spoiled. He was soft. He had only ever pilfered paltry prizes from present-day museums and galleries so that private collectors could stash them away in secret curio cabinets. This Alexander Musick had never stolen the chalice from Augustus Caesar’s lips as he drank. He had never snatched the Scepter of Dagobert from the hands of a murderous jewel thief who was altogether too handy with a dagger. No. This Alexander Musick was soft. This Alexander was wasting his God-given talents. This Alexander didn’t deserve this timeline. I did.
The choice was to either risk seeing myself, or to risk defying the Law of Temporal Displacement. I steeled my resolve and, in a few long strides, I had reached the other Alexander. I gripped him by the front of his jacket, glared intensely into his alarmed eyes, and said “This will be good for you.”
With those parting words, I spun around like a shot putter with a comically large load, and hurled the other Alexander into the crater behind me. He landed on his back and skidded across the dirt exposed beneath the carved-out roadway, scarcely able to process what was happening. He gazed up at me, dumbfounded, a look of recognition dawning on his face. He beheld me, Alexander Musick: a better, stronger, and slightly older (but no less good-looking) version of himself. Someone to become. Something to aspire to. He beheld his future.
My wrist buzzed as the digits ticked down to zero. The sphere flashed into existence, briefly, before vanishing altogether, taking the other Alexander Musick with it.
In my last mission for the evil auction house, I had stolen the most valuable treasure of all: myself.
EpilogueI tried to pick up my life exactly where I had left it, but it was made more difficult by the fact that I was now aware of a nefarious entity intent on abducting me and sending me back in time to steal precious artefacts. Try as I might to track down Boss Teegan or to learn more about the shadowy group that had imprisoned me for all that time, my searches proved fruitless. Information about Teegan’s childhood had helped me track her down in one of my previous exploits, but somewhere in her early 20’s, it was as if the intel tap had been turned off, and not a whisper remained of her.
At first, I believed I had turned the tables: the hunted was now the hunter, and my aim was to find the evil auction house before they found me. I reached out to my network of adumbral associates, I hired private investigators… I even sent decoy Alexander Musicks to high-profile events in my stead, but not since that day in the plaza did I ever hear about, discover, or encounter, Boss Teegan or her nefarious operation.
The future to which I returned the other Alexander Musick was not the future of this timeline. The one truth of time travel I had confirmed was that with every tick of time’s clock, an entirely new reality was spawned. If I chose coffee over tea, I now found myself in the Coffee Timeline, while an entirely other Alexander Musick enjoyed his tea in a separate reality. If I nudged my coffee mug slightly to the left, I continued into the Left-Aligned Coffee Mug Timeline, while another Alexander Musick lived out his days in his Right-Aligned Coffee Mug Eventuality. The dizzying, mind-boggling array of timelines that were being spawned with each miniscule movement of the universe and everything in it meant that my reality would never “catch up” with the timeline in which the other Alexander Musick had been sent to the future in my stead. This also meant that the likelihood of anyone from that future travelling back to my particular timeline, among the near-infinite spectrum of available timelines, was so miniscule as to be laughable. This combination of temporal security and the vanishing act of Boss Teegan and her coterie suggested I could finally live out the rest of my life in relative comfort and ease.
And how long would the rest of my life truly be? I had had the foresight to quaff that mysterious elixir before I traveled back in time, and by all indications, the concoction promised remarkable longevity. I had truly achieved a happy ending for myself: returned to my regular life, at the exact moment when it was about to go south. I was now a little bit older, a little bit more handsome, and bolstered by memories of fantastic adventures most people could only dream of. Add to all that a renewed vitality and the promise of a dramatically longer life. I was on top of the world. This particular world.
I discovered the only real drawback – and it was a rather serious one – on a certain Wednesday morning as I strolled by a corner newspaper box on my way out to grab either coffee or tea, however the fancy took me. The headline first struck me as purely sensational, but with each new day, more and more scientific authorities confirmed the findings, and within the week, the world had erupted in absolute pandemonium.
The timeline in which I was abducted by an evil auction house had zigged, while this present timeline had zagged. And in this zagging timeline, as the week’s newspapers informed me with headlines in an ever-increasing font size (until editors had to start printing the front page in landscape in order to fit all the letters), a relatively minor mistake by a certain employee of a certain government agency had resulted in an impending catastrophe that was guaranteed to destroy the world in a little under a month. In this singular timeline, the employee had apparently chosen coffee instead of tea, and the rest of us were slated to suffer for it.
I sat at my favourite cafe with the screaming newspaper folded on the table, placidly taking in the worried faces of the other patrons, and gazing out the window at the high street shops that would surely be looted and destroyed before the afternoon was out. My blood pulsed with a vigorous, but false, assurance that I would live for a very long time. I chuckled wearily, and took a sip of my coffee, wondering what could have been.
Well, really. It could have been tea.