The Time Traveler's Muse
“What’s with the costume?”
At first it looked as though he didn’t hear me. The object of my interest was a bearded man in his late thirties with an athletic physique, clothed head to toe in white apparel. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a single contiguous garment.
Just as I prepared to repeat myself he leaned over the edge of the seven foot tall white cube he was perched on and reached out to me. I recoiled, which I consider justifiable, not knowing what to expect from a stranger sitting on a white cube in the middle of a national forest preserve.
“Hand me that wrench behind you. And it’s based on old movies.”
I took a moment to process his meaning. Where he’d gestured I found a matte white tool made from the same strange material as the ladder; light and slightly flexible like a very firm plastic but with the outer appearance of porcelain.
There appeared to be two handles, one at the base of the rod and another jutting out at an angle from what I assumed was the business end. Not taking my eyes off him I made a bit of conversation as I handed the tool back.
“So, this is for a movie or something? And this thing broke down before filming? Where’s the camera crew? Also, that didn’t look much like a wrench. How is it useful for anything when it’s so flexible?”
And indeed he wasn’t using it that way. If he was exerting himself physically there weren’t any grunts or heaves to indicate it. “You’re full of questions. But I’m not going anywhere, obviously. I meant my clothing is based on period appropriate movies about time travelers. It’s designed with great care to conform to your pop culture expectations of what a time traveler might look like.”
He’d already gone off the deep end but didn’t slow down for me to laugh or object to what I’d just heard. “The wrench was something I don’t know the correct word for in today’s English, or that it would have any accurate translation in this period. I guess you could say it is a type of multipurpose power tool. It is flexible only when I need it to be.”
My body instinctively lurched as if to force me back to jogging, because the man who before I’d stopped to question as an idle curiosity now seemed either high out of his mind or insane. Or up to something.
I fought off the flight instinct and instead determined to figure out what this guy’s angle was. All I knew so far was that I was living the sort of experience which if left unexplored would keep me awake at night for many years. Plan A was to probe his story for cracks and press him on it, second nature for a journalism student.
“So, you haul this thing out into the woods...” I gestured at the white cube, taking on a playful but accusatory tone with the intention of putting him on the defensive. “....And then what? Sit out here all day pretending to fix it? Is this how you meet girls? Lots of joggers come through here.”
“No they don’t”. He descended the stepladder, then in a visually incomprehensible procedure he folded it into itself until it was an impossibly small package roughly the size of a stick of gum. I gaped for a moment before regaining my composure. A magic trick to sway doubters, probably the first of many.
“I reinserted here specifically because it’s supposed to be federally protected forest land, off limits to joggers.” Several seconds of silence followed. I expected more of a spiel from someone I’d decided was trying to convince me of his othertimely origin, for personal kicks or...?
For the first time it occurred to me I might be unwittingly starring in some sort of web based hidden camera show. I glanced all around for any sign of cameras mounted to the trees, but nothing stood out.
“Do you come here to get away from the city? I don’t blame you. Looks unbearable, even from here.” The tallest buildings were just visible over distant brush. “Nasty way to live. Surely you know that. In nature, pack animals diverge into subpopulations when their numbers grow too great for every member to find a fulfilling role.
Cities prevent that, too much invested in one place, they just keep growing outward instead of reaching a healthy population cap and beginning to build somewhere else. Causes no small number of social maladies. But I don’t have to tell you that. It’s why you’re out here, am I right?”
It was. Or at least it was compatible with my own reasons for sneaking into the preserve on weekends, stashing my motorbike under a wooden footbridge and jogging 6 or so of the 40 mile loop before turning back. “So is this the part where you tell me about your future society, how something terrible is going to happen and you’ve been sent back to fix it?”
He was by this point back on the roof of the cube, so I did not see him laugh but I heard it. “There’s that pop culture again. One of the more remarkable things about you. The truism is that technology changes, society changes, but man doesn’t change. But we do. You think almost purely in pop culture references and don’t realize it. At least when dealing with the unfamiliar.
Your first unthinking reflex is to blurt out some parallel between that and some movie or television show you’ve seen. Never happens where I’m from, the entertainment is all extremely personalized so nobody would get the references anyway. You still watch television right? You should stop, it suppresses original thinking.”
“W-well, I don’t personally but I know people who have one.” The pop culture thing was right on the nose, and made me self conscious. “So, you gonna tell me how this thing works?”
A startling hiss, and commuter train style doors that had been flush with the surface of the cube a moment before parted to reveal a spartan and predictably white interior. Inside was a sort of two person alcove with dual curved surfaces facing each other, each shaped about right for an adult in a relaxed seated position. Somebody’s idea of chairs.
Where the table between them would be if it were a mobile home there instead was a bizarre looking ceiling mounted apparatus resembling a transparent barrel inside which two copper colored rings could be seen spinning on articulating mounts. A fog swirled inside the canister suggesting extreme cold, but none of it appeared to be leaking.
“It’s called a traction drive. Each of the rings generates a four dimensional toroidal field which, by gravitomagnetic principles exerts traction against the fabric of spacetime. When those two fields converge in one spot and rotate in sync, it’s effectively like pinching a flat surface between two wheels and spinning them to move yourself around on it. Just carry that up a dimension.”
I wasn’t going to catch him on the physics. It already sounded like bullshit but it wasn’t my strong suit. “So, that’s how you travel through time?” He leaned back over the edge and tilted his sunglasses, a shiny black ribbon-like curved band which normally obscured his eyes, down the bridge of his nose just far enough that I could see him raise an eyebrow.
“No, weren’t you listening? It’s not a time machine, it’s an aircraft. Three dimensional movement, not five. You think I’d tell you how to build a time machine?” Every answer he issued only raised more questions. A tactic which could easily ensnare a helplessly curious person. Perhaps he was trying to start a cult?
“Five dimensions? Don’t you mean four? Pretty poor aerodynamics for an aircraft. And if this isn’t your time machine, how’d you get here?”
He seemed to have a never ending tolerance for my questions, furthering the impression that all of this was theatrical in nature. I felt close to springing the trap. What he would do then seemed impossible to predict.
The white cube was probably built like a stage prop, fiberglass exterior over particleboard, but he wouldn’t be able to move it. It was still an open question how he’d gotten it here, unless he’d built it on site. What would he do if exposed as a fraud? Seal himself inside? Run off into the woods?
“First, a secondary field engulfs the cube that guides airflow around it during flight. Come on, you could’ve intuited that. Second, time travel necessarily entails travel to alternate futures and alternate histories. We haven’t got a method to consistently distinguish them from each other yet, not with any real accuracy.
That makes it five dimensional, as you’re often moving between different outcomes of the same initial events rather than just forward or backward along a single timeline. As for how I got here, I flew here. Where I’m from, the machine that was used to project this vehicle was built about fifty two miles east of here, in a mountain I can’t see from this vantage point. However in the here and now, the same machine’s in the final stages of construction inside the mountain just visible over the treeline west of us.”
He gestured and indeed at the very least he had a tourist’s knowledge of the local geography. “I need to get there, sneak in and install this.” He held up what looked like a passthrough cable with a small plastic box in the middle.
He didn’t wait for me to ask. “This goes between their computers and the gravitic lensing array. This is how I make it do what I want, instead of what they want, at the crucial moment.”
He flashed a wide, possibly deranged grin. “Almost done. Look out below.” I realized he’d long since folded up his trick ladder and wondered if he meant to jump, then looked up just in time to see him gently float to the ground. Magic trick number two.
“So you can fly now? What did you need the stepladder for? Or an aircraft for that matter? Jesus, this is shaping up to be a weird day.”
He laughed again, eyes invisible behind the visor-like sunglasses. “Remember when I said this clothing is designed to conform to your pop culture concerning time travelers? That’s so that nothing you could steal from me would give the authorities any hints about the future I’ve come from. The cube made it out of local materials, I arrived naked.”
I briefly envisioned this bearded stranger, nude except for his flashy sunglasses, sitting inside of the cube waiting patiently as it knit his jumpsuit. “Anyway, the same goes for my body. You don’t go back in a living body, that would be insanity. You might shed skin cells, or hairs, that would give them DNA to recover. Countless advances in human genetic engineering you’re not supposed to have for decades. If I told you what this body was actually made of you’d plotz.”
Finally, back to familiar territory. “So you’re a robot with fake skin? Like the Terminator?” He grimaced, and so did I as before I’d even finished speaking I realized it was another pop culture reference. “Nothing like a robot as you know it. Our efforts to reproduce the abilities of living organisms to self replicate, self heal and so on has left us with technology that does not differ meaningfully from biology.
One of those seats is a toilet. If you looked into it you’d find a gastrointestinal tract for digesting the waste into useful byproducts. As best I can put it, I’m currently made of a material with variable density. I can change it at will, and a tiny traction drive inside of it can move it about. Only at very low densities, it’d be too weak to lift you for example.”
I noticed just then he was still floating about an inch off the ground. An experimental poke felt like I’d just touched a human shaped balloon. He drifted gently away from me before seeming to regain his normal weight all at once. “Seeing is believing, yes? Or no?”
My first inclination was to ask why it was important that I believe him. But I was out of the interrogation mindset. Seeing a man drift like a cloud when touched has that effect. I was now, at least, willing to sincerely entertain his premise. “Let me wear the sunglasses.”
The look of recognition signalled that I was onto something. “Well, no, if you looked through these it’d give everything away all at once. And that’s no fun, is it?” He strode past me, with a physical presence that made me wonder whether I’d imagined his levitation earlier.
Sitting in a patch of sunlight was something closely resembling an oversized film canister with three feet of black glossy material perhaps five inches wide unrolled from it’s interior. Some type of solar cell presumably. He touched the top and with a sound reminiscent of retracting a tape measure, it withdrew the full length of flexible solar film back into itself.
This was where I’d expect him to offer an explanation but he seemed content that I understood well enough what was going on. The canister slid neatly into a hole on the underside of the barrel looking mechanism mounted to the ceiling of the cube interior.
An audible click followed and all of a sudden the rings inside the transparent section of the barrel revved up dramatically until they were not perceptible as spinning objects but rather solid featureless discs, emitting a barely audible whine. My stomach lurched and in my peripheral vision I noticed a weird distortion effect, not visible when I tried to look directly at it but subtly condensing the scenery in towards the cube.
“Anyway Alex, don’t hesitate to publish the story about all this you’re already writing up in your head, that’s how we confirmed I made it through beforehand. Please leave out how our toilets work, I don’t want you people thinking we’re all a bunch of perverts. Nice chatting with you but I’ve got somewhere to be.”
With that he climbed inside the cube and with a loud hiss the doors began to shut. Something tumbled out just as they did, and a moment later the cube zipped up into the sky, hovered for a moment above the treeline, then rocketed off towards the mountain he’d mentioned earlier.
I stood staring at the sky for a few seconds to confirm all traces of him were gone, then turned my attention to whatever had fallen out of the machine before liftoff. I became giddy, realizing whatever it was comprised proof I could show others that I’d been visited by a man from the future.
Who knows what it would be worth, just for the exotic materials? Bending down to retrieve it, I realized it was an empty bottle made of a blue paper-thin glass like material, and a bit of flexing my grip revealed it was astonishingly sturdy such that I couldn’t crush or even slightly deform it.
The label was animated, normally would have surprised me but it was the smallest of many wonders I’d seen that day. A little red crab danced around the legs of what I assumed to be a fisherman in a sleek form fitting wetsuit and a bubble helmet. The little crab pinched him and he swore in a language I’d never seen before, with some words in English or partly so and the rest some type of glyphs.
In the background squat yellow metal structures sat on the seabed with large round windows, illuminated from within. The crab scaled up until it filled the entire label’s display area, dancing maddeningly back and forth. The only complete english sentence, and my only clue to the mysteries of the future then appeared in the cartoon crab’s speech bubble:
“OCEAN’S FINEST CRABJUICE: IT’S CRABULESCENT”