Rodney Cross dreamed of a brighter future filled with robots, flying cars and space colonies.
And after inventing the quantum temporal machine he can make sure the future he wants exists.
Just as soon as he works out a few bugs.
If you enjoy fun science fiction stories, check out “Future Wasn’t.”
Rodney’s keys clacked like the rapid fire of a machine gun while the words glowed green on the oak-framed screen. Yes! Yes! Right there.
“God damn! Yes!” Rodney slapped the carriage return with a satisfying swat. The bell rang out. He’d done it. He’d finally cracked the final bit of code. He spun his chair around and jumped up. He ran for the stairs his long legs carrying his lanky frame rapidly across the cluttered basement. His stained lab coat billowed out behind him as he took two of the stairs at a time. He reached the top and banged the door open.
“Ouch!” The door bounced back at him. Rodney caught it and peeked around the edge.
Jessica glared at him and rubbed her arm. The door knob must have hit her elbow. A full eight inches shorter than him and curvy, she still had the long black curls that he loved about her the first time he’d seen her in college. Unlike him she didn’t have a stitch of gray in her hair. He didn’t think she dyed it.
“That hurt,” she complained.
“Sorry.” Rodney slipped out into the kitchen. Small with a tiny island at the center. Rodney slipped onto one of the two worn bar stools sitting at the island. He leaned on the battered wood. “Are you okay?”
She rolled her dark eyes. “Yeah. I’ll be fine.”
Rodney let a small smile escape. “I finished, Jess! I really finished it.”
“What? Your time machine? You can’t be serious.”
“I did! Except I’ve told you before it isn’t a time machine. It isn’t possible to travel through time.”
“I know, but —”
Rodney clapped his hands together. “I just can’t decide what to fix first.”
“You can’t seriously mean it works?” Jessica walked over to the sink. She turned on the faucet and water squirted up into the air. She cursed and shut it off. “How about fixing the sink?”
Rodney snapped his fingers. “Great idea! Wouldn’t you have thought that someone could make a sink that doesn’t leak?”
“Just give me a minute!” Rodney jumped off the stool and in two strides crossed over to the basement door and yanked it open. He looked back and held out his hand. “Come on.”
Jessica shook her head. “I’ve got too much to do.”
“You’ve got to come downstairs. The exclusion bubble doesn’t extend far beyond the temporal singularity. If you aren’t within the exclusion bubble then you’ll be changed along with everything else. You won’t remember how things were.”
“Rodney, come on. I’ve got to work tomorrow. One of us has to make some money.” Jessica rubbed the side of her head. “You don’t even look for a job anymore. You’re always down there working on these crazy —”
“Please? Come down into the basement with me and I’ll fix the sink. I’ll fix everything. I’ll make it all the way it should be.”
“Is this going to take long?”
Rodney grinned. “Depends on how you look at it, I suppose.”
He held up his hands. “No, not long at all. We’ll run the test and you’ll see that it works. Then we can figure out what needs to be changed.”
Jessica grabbed a red and white dish towel and started drying her hands as she walked around the island. She dropped the towel on the surface.
“I’ll come down, but only for a couple minutes. I have dinner to fix. Unless you want to do it yourself.”
“When I’m done you’ll have a robot that can cook our dinner for us,” Rodney promised.
His workstation took up one whole corner of the basement. He’d built the work surfaces from two-by-fours and plywood covered with a golden laminate. He built all of his own equipment with custom oak and cherry cases, internally-lit water cooled systems, refurbished vintage typewriter keyboards and hand-crafted monitor frames. Far better than all that plastic crap put out by the computer industry. Didn’t people understand how wrong things had gone?
But the pride of the workshop stood alone beside his work area. Bronze and oak frame with polished copper edging, it looked like a large ornate safe complete with a large numbered dial on the front and a handle. Rodney patted the top.
“What do you think?”
Jessica crossed her arms. “Very pretty. Maybe you can sell it on eBay for enough to cover the cost of building the thing.”
He laughed. He dropped into his chair. “Just wait until you see what it can do.”
Rodney’s fingers pounded the keys. “Just let me key in the parameters and the quantum temporal machine will scan the probabilities to find the key.”
A burst of rapid keystrokes and Rodney slapped the shiny carriage return. It snapped across the keys and the bell rang out. “Hang on!”
Jessica didn’t move.
On the monitor a stream of green on black numbers cascaded down the screen in a rapid stream. Then they swirled and spiraled around until they became a blur. A fractal pattern burst out of the center all blues and reds, replicated across the screen and then left the screen black except for a small text prompt in the upper left-hand corner.
“That’s it!” Rodney bounded up from his chair. He patted the quantum temporal machine. “It worked!”
“What worked? Nothing happened except for your screen saver coming on.”
Rodney waved a finger. “Oh, you doubt me. Well, come on. Let’s go take a look.”
Jessica turned and walked back up the stairs. Rodney followed on her heels. When they got up in the kitchen he slipped past her and ran around the island. He stopped beside the sink and gestured with his hands at the faucets. “Behold!”
She stopped and her eyes widened. Then she came over and looked more closely. Rodney enjoyed seeing her expression. Their old faucets had been cheap plastic knobs, for hot and cold and a thin curved faucet. Now it’d all changed. A wider chrome faucet rose up from the back of the deep shining sink look more like art than plumbing. No knobs at all. Jessica reached out towards the faucet and green numbers floated up — seemingly out of the metal surface of the faucet.
Jessica pulled her hand back and the numbers sank away. She pressed her hands to her mouth and looked at him. Rodney couldn’t help but laugh. He hugged his arms around his middle.
Jessica turned back to the faucet. She reached out and the numbers floated up again. She stuck her hands beneath the faucet and water streamed smoothly out of the wide faucet. She reached up towards the numbers and they changed.
She lowered her hand and the numbers decreased. She pulled back and the water shut off and the numbers shrank away. Rodney reached over and plucked the dish towel off the island. He handed it to her.
“Well?” He repeated. “What do you think?”
“How?” Jessica looked back at the sink, then at him. “How could you possibly have done this? You didn’t do anything!”
Rodney shook his head. “I did. I changed history.”
“You changed history?”
“Yes. You can’t travel to other times, but you can alter the past. Shift one tiny thing and the future changes.”
“I inspired someone.”
“You inspired someone?”
“Yep.” Rodney took her hands. “The quantum time machine scans through all the probable universes and finds the right moment susceptible to be nudged. And it nudges. Knocks an electron into another state. Causes a proton to take another path. Tiny changes that cascade until something bigger happens. In this case a bit of inspiration in the right brain and history came together to make this the standard technology in kitchens.”
Jessica looked around the kitchen. She walked over to the stove. “It changed too!”
Sure enough. No visible burners or controls but when she reached out displays rose up around the stove. Floating screens and controls. Jessica pulled her hand back. “You didn’t just change the sink!”
Rodney shrugged. “Of course the technology used is going to have other applications too. But isn’t this better?”
“I guess so.” She turned back to him. “How could you do this?”
“I’ve been working on it for months. I told you about it.”
She laughed. She shook her head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t believe you.”
Rodney went to her. He pulled her into an embrace. “That’s okay. There’s so much we can do now.”
Jessica looked up. He bent down to kiss her. He rested his forehead against hers. “What should we do next?”
Jessica stepped back. “We can’t keep changing things!”
“Why not? You’re not going to cite the temporal prime directive, are you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She waved her hand towards the stove. “We don’t know what all of the changes are with just this one thing. Don’t you think we should find out before you do anything else?”
Rodney pursed his lips. “You’ve got a point. I’m getting carried away. How about we fix dinner and then I’ll do some research afterwards? Find out just how much things have changed.”
Jessica nodded. “That sounds good.”
“Okay, what’s for dinner?” Rodney asked. “I’m starved!”
Research didn’t take long. Interactive holographic interfaces showed up everywhere these days. Browsing quickly showed that the technology had penetrated all levels of society. Rodney quickly placed orders for components to upgrade his own system since every site complained about his antiquated two dimensional interface.
Rodney laughed and spun his chair around. His eyes fell on the floor-to-ceiling book cases that covered the walls beside his workstation. Many classics of science fiction. Examples of the way the future should have turned out, but wasn’t. Time to indulge in one of his personal favorites. Rodney spun back to the keyboard. His fingers stabbed down at the round keys. Clack. Crack. Snap! He built up steam, building the query, searching for the answer. Over the decades the answer had proved elusive. All it needed was the right person. Maybe someone that hadn’t survived in the past by accident or design. The quantum temporal machine located the highest probability solution. He hit the carriage return. Colors and numbers flashed on the screen. The screen saver cycled through several cycles. Rodney tapped his fingers impatiently on his chair. Then the screen cleared. Success. The prompt waited for more input.
Rodney slapped the arm of the chair and bounded up the stairs. He stopped himself before banging the kitchen door open and eased it open instead. A shiny silver person stood at the sink, metal fingers dancing across holographic controls for the dish washer. The head turned and eyes glowed green.
“Mr. Cross, is there something you need?”
Rodney laughed. “No, thanks.”
He walked out into the kitchen. The robot was short. Five six or so with smooth rounded limbs. Bright and shiny. It moved easily, elegantly, almost like a dancer as it returned to the task of loading the dish washer. It shut the door and the machine started up.
“We’re going to have to do something about that,” Rodney said.
“Excuse me, sir. Do something about what?”
“The dish washer. Doesn’t it strike you as a silly device? Why not have a matter-energy converter and replicator? Then we wouldn’t have to wash anything. Just dematerialize it and return the energy for other use.”
“I’m not aware that such an appliance is available, sir, but I could do some searches and find out.”
“Don’t worry about it. Where’s Mrs. Cross?”
“I believe she is in the living room.”
“Don’t mention it, sir.”
Rodney left the robot to do whatever the robot did around the house and went into the other room. Jessica sat on a couch with a book floating in front of her. Rodney stopped, amazed. She reached up and flicked the page. It flipped over and he heard the whisper of paper against paper. It looked real, but come on, it was floating! And Jessica, she had changed too. Her hair was shorter, more styled. She looked thinner too, wearing a loose white top with thin straps over her tanned shoulders. She had matching pants. Like some sort of yoga outfit.
He’d forgotten to get her into the basement before he altered the timeline. His gut clenched. That was dangerous. What if the changes cost him Jessica? He couldn’t make that mistake again.
Jessica looked up at him and smiled. “There you are. What have you been up to?”
Rodney walked over to the couch and dropped heavily beside her. Jessica brought her hands together, closing the book. It shrank down drained into a ring she wore.
“Making the robot.”
Jessica’s forehead wrinkled. “Danny? Honey, we bought Danny two years ago.”
Rodney shook his head. “No. I mean, sure, yes, but only because I changed history.”
“What do you mean you changed history?” Her eyes widened. “You did it again without warning me?”
“I know. I’m sorry. I was looking at the books and I just thought it was too bad that we still didn’t have robots like in the books. I had the QTM scan probabilities for the right moment that would lead to the creation of intelligent robots in our lifetimes. And here he is.”
“But the first positronic brain was built nearly ten years ago! I remember it being on all the news sites.”
Rodney reached over and placed his hand on her leg. “That’s because I didn’t think. I’m sorry. If you’d been down in the exclusion field then you would have been protected from the changes.”
“Would we still have Danny?”
“Yes, but we wouldn’t remember buying him.”
“So the more you do this, the more out of sync you’re getting, aren’t you? You don’t remember what has happened?” She sat up straighter. “You don’t remember what has happened with us, do you?”
“I do.” Rodney rubbed his eyes. “I mean, as far as my memories go they might be different. Either way I love you. I won’t make this mistake again. The next time I change anything we’ll both be in the exclusion field.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t change anything else.”
“I have to.” Rodney got up off the couch. His hands waved about. “I can change it all. Solve the big problems. I can make the world a better place! You can’t expect me not to do anything!”
“It’s scary. It’s too much power, Rodney! What if you make a mistake?”
He shook his head. “I won’t. It’ll be wonderful. You’ll see.”
The next day — with Jessica and Danny by his side — Rodney used the QTM to order up flying cars. Out in the driveway they found they owned an old but working Toyota Peregrine. The road out front shrank by a lane and seemed to be used primarily by walkers and bicyclists. But since none of them remembered how to fly the thing Jessica forbid him from flying it until they had a chance to get lessons.
Standing outside on the cracked concrete landing pad Rodney looked at the house. The yellow paint peeling on the walls, the shingles growing moss. The old place needed a lot of work.
Changing the probabilities on last week’s Powerball lottery turned out to be child’s play for the QTM. Jessica quit her job immediately and allowed that the QTM might just be a good idea after all, but wouldn’t it be better if they took some time to enjoy the changes he’d already made? Rodney agreed. With their lottery winnings they could afford to remodel the house so long as the workers stayed out of the basement. Not that anyone would know what the QTM could do — but he didn’t want to risk damage to the equipment. He needn’t have worried. The crew that arrived to do the work were all robots except for the foreman, a heavy-set man with a silver goatee and a cane. He landed a big silver Ford Albatross on the front lawn. The whole thing rocked as he climbed down from the cockpit. Rodney came out to meet him. Jessica had gone out shopping with Danny piloting their new Lexus Enterprise.
The foreman beamed. “One and only. My crew should be arriving. Ah, here they are!”
A much larger Ford 2010 descended and landed on the lawn beside the Albatross. A crew of robots dressed in blue jumpsuits marched out of the 2010 and assembled in formation in front of the house.
Rodney couldn’t help grinning. “Very nice. You’ve got the specs I sent?”
“Indeed,” Lorkin said. “Full retrofit and an expansion out the back to add three additional rooms. We’ll work around your schedules but the work should be complete within one week. The crew will remain on site the entire time.”
“Excellent.” Rodney clapped his hands together and gestured at the house. “Go ahead, then.”
Mr. Lorkin turned to the robots. “You heard the boss! Go ahead and get started. Usual protocols for an occupied dwelling.”
Without a word the robots broke ranks and headed for the house. They moved in complete coordination. Mr. Lorkin turned back to Rodney. “Do you have any questions?”
“No, thank you. I’ll be working in the basement.”
“Very good. I won’t keep you any longer. If you have any concerns, don’t hesitate to let me know. Or tell the robots. They’ll follow your instructions.”
“I understand.” Rodney headed back to the house. As he entered two robots busy pulling up the fake wood flooring stopped their work and stood aside as he passed. Rodney nodded and headed to the basement.
His first order of business now was to find out what else had changed in this future. With robots like these just what could have been accomplished? It didn’t take long to discover that the space program still languished in near Earth orbit. No sign of fusion power. In fact with all the robots running around the demand for power was higher than ever. Even so no solar power satellites, fusion generators or antimatter production facilities existed. People had an amazing tool now — the robotic workforce — but it had a tremendous thirst for power. That had to change! He couldn’t do that. Not just yet. Not with Jessica out shopping. Upstairs the robots pounded on the floor. No matter. He could at least begin the calculations. There were a number of changes that needed to be made to the timeline. Rodney flicked open a new document and started listing the changes. Starting with human colonies throughout the solar system. At least space-based habitats, asteroid settlements and colonies on Mars. The outer solar system could wait awhile longer.
And that wasn’t all. What about wars? All this thirst for power had led to an increasing number of conflicts. He accessed a map showing current military conflicts around the globe and discovered an appalling number of conflicts. Add in all the sites of terrorist activities and it looked like the world was tearing itself apart in conflicts over resources and ideals.
Rodney leaned back in his chair. Some of these issues might be resolved by increasing the power supply to the planet. After all, if they didn’t have a lack of resources — including space — what would there be to fight over?
“Here’s what I want to do next.” Rodney floated a holographic screen over to Jessica.
The list scrolled across her eyes. Danny stood nearby, neatly kitted out in a tux. The list reflected on his chrome head. Jessica looked up. “You’re kidding!”
Rodney felt shocked. “Kidding? No. What do you mean?”
“How can you do all of this?”
He leaned forward. “That’s what the QTM does. It goes back and finds those points that need to be adjusted to create the change we’re looking for. These changes will achieve world peace and prosperity. More than that — we won’t be confined to one planet anymore!”
“But, Rodney, this is going to change everything. All of history will be different! We don’t have the right.”
“With great power, comes great responsibility,” Rodney intoned. He slapped the carriage return.
The bell rang.
Upstairs the sound of robots working ceased as if their switches had been flipped. Then he heard a loud crash and thundering boot steps. The basement door exploded into sawdust in an instant. Men with lights in black uniforms with featureless helmets ran through down the steps faster than a human could ordinarily move. Jessica screamed.
“Shall I clean?” Danny asked.
“Don’t move! Don’t move!” Shouted the men pouring down the stairs.
Rodney saw sleek matte black guns pointed at him. He shrank back against his chair and slowly raised his hands.
“You! Over there!” One of the men grabbed Jessica and shoved her away from the workstation. “Hands on your head?”
Jessica did as ordered.
“Shall I clean?” Danny repeated.
“Shut down!” Ordered one of the men, his gun pointed at Danny’s positronic brain. “Power down now!”
“Yes, sir.” Danny froze.
More weapons pointed at Rodney. Then a woman entered the basement. She wore the same outfit without the helmet and her gun was slung across her back. Short blond hair. Violet eyes, Rodney didn’t know what to make of that. She walked down the steps. Each footfall light, stirring the sawdust. The men moved aside for her but continued to point their weapons at Rodney. He scarcely dared to breathe, much less offer any resistance.
The woman stopped in front of his chair and looked around. “A home-made temporal adjustment device. Impressive. You’re under arrest as a temporal terrorist for crimes against humanity.”
“I making things better for humanity,” Rodney protested.
“That’s what they all say. Take him for processing. Call in a team to study and disassemble his equipment. Try to discover what exactly he was doing with it.”
“Stand-up. Turn around and put your hands on your head,” said one of the men.
Rodney looked at Jessica. Things had obviously gone wrong. He slowly stood. There was only one way out of this. He turned around and quickly reached out and hit the control and z-key.
Something hit him in the back. Hard. He cried out and fell to his knees. On the monitor a confirmation dialog waited for input. Stupid confirmation. Another blow hit him between his shoulders. He cried out and slapped the carriage return.
The bell rang.
Something hit his head and everything went black.
Rodney woke up on the floor. He looked at the wood flooring and wondered why he was on the floor. Had he fallen asleep? He started to move and his back throbbed in several places. It hurt! He groaned and slowly rolled over. His head hurt.
Hands grabbed him and hauled him up into a sitting position. His head swam and his gut lurched. He thought he might vomit. A woman’s face. He focused. Violet eyes looked at him.
“What did you do?”
Oh. Shit. Right. Rodney chuckled and then groaned at how it made his head hurt. “Undo.”
He coughed. “I hit undo.”
Her lips pressed together. She leaned in close. “What are you talking about?”
Rodney blinked. “Your world? All that stuff you remember? It didn’t exist until I made changes with my QTM.”
She shook her head. “Temporal adjustment machines were discovered five years ago.”
“No. I mean, sure, in your timeline. But it was my QTM that brought your timeline into existence. And I hit undo. It’s all gone now. Sorry.”
She grabbed the front of his shirt and hauled him up. She dumped him in the chair. “Watch him. Don’t let him touch anything, but for Darwin’s sake don’t hurt him. I’m going to try to contact base.”
Upstairs robots pounded away on the floors. The commander walked away from the group, trying to contact her base. Rodney closed his eyes and tried to shut out the pounding. His head throbbed.
“Can I get a pain-killer? My head is killing me.”
“Rodney?” Jessica asked. “What’s going on?”
He opened his eyes. “Don’t worry. A little miscalculation.”
The commander came back. She crossed her arms. “I’m not getting any contact with my people. What’s that racket upstairs?”
“Robots, working on our remodel.”
One of the men stirred. “Commander, the place was empty when we came in.”
She looked at him, then back to Rodney. “You’re saying that your temporal adjustment machine was the first? What’s your name?”
She sagged. She ran her gloved hand through her short blond hair. “Cross? Rodney Cross created the first temporal adjustment machine five years ago. He didn’t have the sense to keep it quiet and shared it with everyone. That led to the creation of temporal terrorists all intent on remaking reality to suit their ideals. He was killed within a year.”
Rodney nodded. “Interesting. But that was a different timeline, a different Rodney Cross. Not me.”
She shook her head. “If you’re Cross and you’ve just erased our timeline how come we’re still here?”
“The exclusion field. It doesn’t extend past the basement but it protects us from changes in the timeline.”
“Our Cross didn’t have anything like that. Temporal terrorists are like suicide bombers. One change and they might not exist. If they had something like that — by Darwin, it’d change everything.” She shook her head. “So in this timeline we don’t exist?”
Rodney shrugged. “I have no idea. Maybe you do, somewhere. Maybe not. The changes I made were pretty extensive. It was supposed to create peace and prosperity everywhere. Obviously I overlooked something or there wouldn’t be these temporal terrorists you talk about.” He glanced at the equipment. “I could fix it.”
Her eyes narrowed. “What are you talking about?”
“Well, with your help I can define parameters that restore your timeline, except without the temporal terrorists. It might put you out of a job, but otherwise things would be back to normal for you.”
“Let me talk to my people. Don’t do anything.”
She led the men over to a corner of the basement in his book stacks. Jessica came over to his chair. She crouched beside him. “Are you sure about this, Rodney?”
“Yes. I know what to do. Trust me. Stay close.”
Her eyes widened but she nodded.
The commander led her men back over. “Okay. We don’t have a better option. Restore our timeline and I’ll let you go.”
“Okay, let’s get to work. I need to get some information from you.”
An hour later Rodney finished adding the last parameters. He reached up and took Jessica’s hand. “Okay, commander. Here we go. This should fix everything.”
He hit the carriage return. The bell rang.
In that instant they were alone in the basement. Jessica let out a little squeak. “What happened?”
“I narrowed the exclusion field. It only included us. They’re all living out their lives without any memory of what happened here.”
“What about Danny?”
“Oh, I’m sure he’s around. When did people first land on Mars?”
“Cali Longshore, wasn’t it, in eight-one?” Jessica frowned. “How did I know that?”
Rodney grinned. “I added a merge feature. Should have thought of that before. Basically, I made sure that our alternate selves in this timeline ended up here in the same spot and we merged within the exclusion field. It’s all quantum foam. That way we keep our original memories but gain the new ones from this timeline. No more alternates going off messing up our plans.”
Jessica bent down and kissed him lightly. “You’re brilliant, you know? Scary brilliant.”
Rodney keyed the shut-down and stood up. “How about we take that trip out to Ceres? I think the future might just be brighter.”
She laughed, slipped her arm around his waist and walked with him to the stairs. To their new future.
This story is the 32nd weekly short story release, finished in June 2010 and published as an e-book in September 2010.
Eventually I’ll do a new e-book and print releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m also serializing novels now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. For October I thought I’d focus on scary stories. Next up is a such a story, Eating Disorder.