July 1, 2021
Philippa Harris was blissfully ignorant of the events, both past and future, that she was about to set in motion. That was probably the most fortunate part of the entire story.
Despite that, she stood frozen in thought, her mind racing, excited for what she was about to do. It was a rare quiet moment on an otherwise ordinary Thursday, which she allowed herself to enjoy. The winter sun had reached the windows, tinting the room with ochre, and warming the silence of the cool lab. It helped calm her thoughts. She felt ready.
In front of her was the result of the last five years of her life. She stared at it, trance-like, while it waited innocently on the table. It was a metallic device, no larger than a hard-cover book, and think-ing about what it could do quickened her pulse. Flashes of memories cut through her mind like shrapnel, images of the past carefully preserved.
She knew what she was planning was risky, but it was now or never; she was tired of waiting.
As she stared, she became caught up in the moment. A moment she felt might last forever if she could allow it. A lonely moment of emptiness stretching into a cold future. But if the evening's plan was a success, all that could change in an in-stant. She felt her skin tingle, while the curious sun-light crept further into her lab, finally reaching the shiny box, and giving it a magical orange glow.
A wave of nausea came from nowhere and snapped her out of her trance. Steadying herself on the nearby chair, she made it back to her desk to sit down. She was about to go over her checklist again when her assistant, Arjun, burst through the door with a train of words in an excited Indian accent.
‘Slow - down - Arjun.’ Philippa couldn’t help but grin at his excitement.
‘Sorry, boss.’ He took a breath and started again. ‘The TV show. Six pm, they confirmed it!’ Arjun was pacing around the lab in excitement. ‘It's on; you're going to be famous!’ He finally found a chair and rolled towards Philippa’s immaculately tidy desk.
Philippa's work for the last five years had been about space-time and a theory of quantum gravity. The theory suggested space-time had a foam-like structure full of microscopic wormholes. In theory, she'd found a way to enlarge those wormholes and send particles through them to any other point in time. Now, she had a device to demonstrate it.
But the possibility of making a monumental scientific discovery felt almost trivial to her. The idea of fame and fortune that would make most scientists fall over themselves with excitement held little allure for Philippa. Her motivation, known only to herself, was personal.
Arjun's grin faded as he noticed Philippa's discomfort. ‘Are you okay, Boss? Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you bursting in like that, but I just saw the email—’
‘It's okay, Arj, just a little nausea. I'll be fine. But yeah, great that the TV crew will be here too. No pressure at all.’ She instantly regretted her sarcastic tone. Arjun was genuinely excited, and she’d let her nervousness and discomfort get the better of her. ‘No, I mean it, it will be fun. Lots of champagne! I hope—’
‘No-no-no, boss, you can't drink.’ Arjun wagged his finger at her. ‘No champagne for you!’
It had been difficult for Philippa to give up the occasional drink completely, especially since losing her husband. It had been five years since he went missing, but thanks to IVF and her need to always plan ahead, she was finally carrying his baby.
‘I'll just have a sip,’ she assured him. She clapped her hands together in determination. ‘Right, time to get ready. I'm heading home to freshen up, and I'll see you back here around five-fifty?’
‘No problem. See you then!’ Arjun waved her off, his attention already turned to calculations on his tablet.
Arjun shut the door behind Philippa and stood facing it, paused. He stood there for what seemed like a long time, listening to Philippa’s retreating footsteps. Finally, he turned away from the door. His eyes travelled over the neat rows of chairs that were pointing to the room’s main attraction—the device sitting innocuously on the table, its lights occasionally flashing.
With a deep sigh, he walked to the table, eyes fixed on the device. Such a small object, but holding the power to change so much. He paused, studying it briefly, before reaching for it.
Philippa's home welcomed her with warmth and music, thanks to her plethora of smart devices. The blinds, the ceiling fans, the aircon, the robot vacuum cleaner… If anything could be automated, it was. Except for the books that seemed to end up all over the house of their own accord, the decor was minimalist and the house was kept tidy.
Her books gave her comfort and company. Or at least tried to, but there was a gnawing loneliness they couldn't quite mask, just as there was a permeating coldness the heating couldn’t touch, and the country music did little to drown out the silence which provoked her and echoed between the walls.
She went straight to the kitchen, eyeing the half-bottle of wine that stared back at her. For a moment, they were locked in a stand-off. Then she turned and went for the coffee machine. After spending too much time choosing dinner from the freezer, she placed a meal in the microwave and listened to Glen Campbell sing about being a highwayman as she waited.
She ate at the kitchen counter with only her thoughts for company as usual. How far they'd come with their project and how she missed her husband more than ever relentlessly consumed her. But if tonight was a success, all that could change in an instant; she could have everything she wanted. Of course, if things went pear-shaped, it would have disastrous outcomes. She just hoped Arjun wouldn't try to stop what she was planning. He's so cautious. Unadventurous.
The university that housed Philippa's lab was alive with excitement. The TV crew was setting up, and Arjun was running around helping them wherever he could. A white sheet covered the time travel device, and rows of white fold-up chairs were arranged in a semi-circle around it. A small crowd had gathered already.
Arjun checked his watch, then looked around for Philippa, only to find her approaching him, wearing her lab coat over a teal blouse.
‘You look great.’ Arjun gave her a relieved grin. ‘Are you ready for your big moment?’
‘Of course. More than ready.’
He took a deep breath. ‘Let's begin.’
They made their way to the front of the table. The chatter in the room faded off, and people began taking their seats.
The TV personality, a young woman in her late twenties, approached them. ‘Hi, I'm Sarah Collins. I'll be running this story. You're Professor Philippa Harris, and this is your assistant Arjun Miller, is that right?’
‘Yes that’s correct!’ Arjun’s grin was unable to hide his excitement.
‘I think we're okay to start if you're both ready?’ Sarah asked.
‘We are,’ Philippa replied, giving Arjun a hint of a smile.
Sarah turned to one of the two cameras, held her microphone up to her face, waited for a nod from her producer, and began to speak:
‘Tonight, I am told history is about to be made. We're at the University of Riverton, in the physics lab of Professor Philippa Harris. They claim they have achieved what—until now—was thought to be… impossible. They have managed to send matter both forwards… and backwards… in time. I'll let that sink in for a few seconds.’
Philippa was amused at the overly dramatic flair in Sarah’s speech, with suspenseful pauses at odd moments.
Sarah turned to Philippa and pointed the microphone at her, ‘Professor Harris, I understand that you have been working on this for quite some time now?’
‘Yes, I have dedicated the last five years of my life to developing a portable device to prove my theory.’ Philippa sounded a little nervous.
‘And,’ Sarah said, ‘is this what we will see demonstrated here tonight? I understand that you have been sending atoms through time?’ Sarah’s gaze theatrically darted from Philippa to the camera.
‘Ah, yes, however, we have progressed a little,’ Philippa replied, ‘we’ll demonstrate the process tonight with a much larger object. If all goes to plan, you'll see a duplicate of what we send back appearing a few minutes before you see us send it.’
Sarah’s eyes darted back to Philippa. ‘How much larger?’
‘Well, I was hoping we could use your handbag.’
Sarah laughed a little, unprepared for the suggestion. ‘Really? Well, if it helps science—’ She motioned to her producer for her bag, ‘—then I don't see why not.’
Handing her bag to Philippa, she smiled. ‘You’ll look after it, right?’
‘Of course.’ Philippa walked to the front of the table. ‘I'll have it on me the whole time.’
‘Er—’ Sarah began.
Arjun cut in, ‘Philippa, I don't think—’
The crowd was silent as Sarah cut him off. ‘So, are you saying that you, yourself, will be the test object? With my bag?’ Sarah’s eyes darted from Philippa to the camera with exaggerated drama.
‘If you have no objections?’ But Philippa didn't wait for a reply. Slinging the handbag over her shoulder, she turned to address the gathering. ‘So, let's say hello to “future me” sent back in time to about now!’
She checked the time on her wrist and made a mental note of it.
There was silence, then some murmuring from the guests. Arjun raised a finger and opened his mouth to say something, but stopped, his mouth frozen in the shape of an ‘o’, as a floating blue sphere of light appeared. It was no larger than a marble, shimmering energetically just behind the table.
The room fell silent, and some members of the audience looked alarmed as the sphere rapidly swelled to two metres in height and became more transparent. It now stood as a semi-transparent membrane, the thin outer surface glowing electrically blue.
In the centre of the sphere stood a duplicate of Philippa. As quickly as it had appeared, the sphere’s light faded, and then it was gone, leaving the second Philippa behind.
Second Philippa beamed with satisfaction as she looked around at everyone, enjoying their stunned faces. She was holding a metal box connected to a small iPad on top via a series of cables. Dangling from the box was a short lead with a plug on the end.
A few people who weren't so awestruck clapped as she walked around to the front of the table. ‘Hello, Sarah, I believe this is your bag?’ Second Philippa grinned as she walked around to the front of the table, holding the bag out to Sarah.
Sarah's jaw had dropped, and the room was still silent. Her eyes darted from the original Philippa to the new one and back several times. ‘I—’ she began and stopped again. Visibly composing herself, she raised her microphone to her face and turned her newsreader persona back on. ‘I have to admit, I am shocked. I’m standing here looking at two Philippas and two bags.’ She glanced at the camera as she took her bag from second Philippa and began checking the contents.
‘This is my bag,’ she announced, her eyes still wide.
First Philippa held out the bag she was holding. ‘And this one?’
Sarah put the bag down and looked at the one she had given to Philippa just a minute ago.
‘Well, I just handed it to you, so—’ She examined the contents. ‘Indeed it is. It's identical, they're—’ Words were failing her.
‘Okay,’ the second Philippa interrupted. ‘Let me explain what just happened. I sent myself back in time, from a few moments from now,’ she motioned to her other self, ‘and you're about to see me do exactly that.’
The first Philippa, bag on her shoulder, walked around the table and uncovered the device.
Arjun had watched in stunned silence from the sidelines up to this point, but now he joined Philippa.
‘This is amazing,’ he whispered, leaning in.
Philippa grinned at him. They checked the settings on the tablet connected by wires to the metal box under it. The same device that the second Philippa was still holding, except this one was still hooked up to the large power supply under the table.
Arjun had a concerned look on his face as he leaned in again. ‘Are you sure about this?’
‘Not to worry, Arj. We know it will work.’ Philippa subtly nodded to the other version of herself standing there, beaming at the crowd.
Arjun studied her for a moment and looked like he wanted to say something, but stopped himself. Finally, he nodded in agreement and moved away to the end of the table. Second Philippa joined him and leaned in to whisper to him. ‘Something very strange happened. I thought the whole test was about to fail, but then I arrived in the past. We'll discuss it later, but it's something that needs to be analysed. Everything is being recorded, right?’
Arjun was tense; beads of sweat had appeared on his forehead. He replied without looking at her. ‘Yes, Boss, all events and data are now being logged as requested.’
She gave him a thumbs-up and re-joined Sarah at the front of the table.
Original Philippa reached under the table and flipped a switch. She picked up the device, unlocked the tablet, and ran the app.
‘I’m now entering the destination time of 6:11 pm on today's date. You’ll notice that's about three minutes ago, when the other me appeared. The tablet will now perform the required calculations, store the correct time signatures to apply, and when it's ready, a 'GO' button will become active. When I tap it, you will briefly see the blue flash of a sphere surrounding me. I'll appear to vanish, but I'll actually just stop travelling forward in time with you. I'll have escaped the flow of time and be stopped at one point in reality—one single slice if you like—hidden outside of time!’
Philippa looked around to see if she’d lost anyone. Everyone's gaze was fixed on her, except for Arjun, who now fidgeted uncomfortably. She continued, her voice now a little shaky. ‘Then a gap in reality, a wormhole, will be enlarged around me, which will instantly transfer me to the point in reality that matches 6:11 pm. The loop will be complete, and my counterpart there—future me—will be the only one of me remaining in the room.’
The room was still silent and wide-eyed in anticipation.
Philippa found her hands trembling slightly as she studied the screen. They had tested on mice before with no adverse effects. But this was her first test on herself, and she'd reasoned it had to happen sometime; so why not now, and really 'wow' everyone. Besides, it obviously worked. Her last memory of her husband Thomas smiling at her flashed through her mind as she stared at the tablet. She re-checked the settings one last time before she gently touched the 'GO' button.
A blue, glowing sphere instantly engulfed her. Inside the sphere, Philippa stared at her tablet. Worry spread over her face as she looked up at Arjun, then back at the screen. A second later, she vanished, only to suddenly reappear inside the sphere. As she did, a third Philippa appeared in the sphere, also holding a device. Third Philippa was wearing different clothing than the other two, and her face was somehow slightly different.
The bubble was now growing larger. Meanwhile, second Philippa had started briskly walking over to Arjun, but was now moving in slow-motion as time began to distort.
Several people in the room jumped up, looking bewildered. The calm demeanour that usually defined Arjun began to crumble. His movements had become frantic and beads of sweat trickled down his face as his eyes darted around the room. He took a few steps towards Philippa but kept retreating. No one could enter the sphere.
Inside the sphere, the original Philippa looked at something in slow motion, eyes wide with terror. Another figure, still faint, had begun to appear. Third Philippa opened her mouth to say something, but no sound came. The two Philippas in the still-expanding bubble looked at each other, wide-eyed.
With agonisingly slow movements, the first Philippa unplugged the power cable to the device. As she did, there was a loud explosion under the table, followed by a column of smoke. The sphere vanished, and with it, the two Philippas and the third figure inside. At the same instant, second Philippa, who was now frozen mid-step on her way to Arjun, also vanished, leaving a silent room except for a hiss from the power supply as more smoke escaped.
Twenty-three years later
Orange leaves crunched under Isaac's feet as he zipped his jacket up higher against the wind. He checked his wrist. Not late yet! He was usually late for something, this time it was dinner at home. Dinner was at six, it was 5:44, and it took about twenty-five minutes to walk home. He'd been in town with a few university friends, and as usual, lost track of time. It wasn’t that his aunt Susan would be annoyed that bothered him, it was that he would be annoyed with himself. Sometimes he'd swear less time had passed than what was actually the case, and he felt like he'd lost five or ten minutes somehow.
Isaac ran for several blocks then rechecked his watch. That should do it. He walked the rest of the dusk-coloured streets, through the smells of dinners that seeped out of houses, and was occasionally illuminated by passing cars.
He rounded the last corner, reached his house, and opened the door at precisely 6 pm. ‘Ha!’ he said out loud to no one. Taking a deep breath, he went through.
Inside, the delicious aroma of dinner and country music coming from the kitchen greeted him. He shrugged his coat off and hung it, then kicked his shoes off and placed them neatly on the shoe rack. Walking through to the kitchen, he found his aunt placing bowls of food on the table.
‘Just in time!’ She announced as she sat down.
Isaac went to the fridge and brought water before sitting opposite her.
‘How was your day?’ Aunt Susan glanced up at him while placing spoonfuls of mashed potato on her plate. She asked him this every day, and he usually had a lot to tell her. But some days, when he had too much to think about, answering questions felt like an unwanted intrusion on his train of thought.
‘Meh. You?’ Isaac grabbed the bowl of vegetables and started filling his plate.
‘I managed to get some work done between the drop-outs, and I even had time for gardening.’
‘Internet still dropping out then? When's that going to get fixed?’
Drop-outs didn't bother him much now; he had one of the new phones, with Quantum storage and Graphene Super-Capacitor battery tech. This meant he could use 'Google Now', an app that could predict the information you might want in the future. It did this by analysing your usage and then pre-downloading and storing the data locally on your device. The idea was to help free up bandwidth bottlenecks during peak usage times.
‘This week sometime, I expect.’ She motioned to the box on the floor with the large Starlink logo on it. ‘The replacement dish arrived today, which reminds me, a package came for you too.’
Isaac looked up from his food. ‘For me? Who's it from?’
‘I didn't look, I just put it in your room.’
Isaac set his phone down and enjoyed the rest of his dinner before clearing up the table and heading up to the room that he’d had since childhood. The room was large because that’s how they built houses in the early 1900s. There were posters on the walls showing how his interests had developed over the years—Star Wars, the first Mars colony, and the 2032 remake of Back to the Future, among others. A large bookshelf leaned against one wall, filled with science-fiction novels, university textbooks, and a collection of cherished books from his childhood.
Flicking the light on, he grabbed the package from his desk. It was a box about the size of a cake tin. He was about to take it downstairs when he checked the sender—a law firm. He paused and decided it might be better to open it in private. Why would a law firm be sending me anything? He wondered, trying to recall if he might have done something he could be sued for lately. Nothing came to mind, so he began to open it, but stopped. What if it's bad news? Maybe I should leave it for tomorrow, and just enjoy the evening.
He set the box back down on his desk, pulled his phone from his pocket and messaged Chel.
Still ok for tonight? he tapped.
Chel's reply came quickly: Yep, but can I come to yours? I need to get out.
Sure, see you soon?
About 30, still doing dinner :(
Isaac smiled, knowing why she added a sad face.
He’d met Chel at university, around the science labs, and later found out her father worked there. The first time they spoke, Isaac had been in the library reading a book, and she just sat down opposite him, took one look at his book and stated, ‘Well, you're wasting your time!’
Isaac had ignored her at first, the introvert in him annoyed at being spoken to by a stranger. She didn't let him off that easily, though.
‘Hey, I'm talking to you. That book you're reading, it's rubbish. String theory is too flawed. Books on it should be re-classified as fiction.’ She leaned forward, trying to catch his gaze.
He’d looked up and studied her face. She was gorgeous, with long dark hair swept up in a bun and beautiful brown eyes that sparkled with attitude and intelligence. And, she looked serious, which was kind of endearingly cute, so he decided to have some fun with her. ‘It's okay, I'm a flat earther,’ he lied.
She’d narrowed her eyes at him. ‘No, you're not.’
‘Nope. If you were, you'd be funny looking. Every flat-earther is funny looking, but you're slightly cute looking, ergo, not a flat-earther.’ Leaning back in her chair and folding her arms, the look on her face suggested she was proud of her line of reasoning.
It was somewhere between Isaac feeling his face flush with embarrassment and getting lunch with Chel that day, that he decided he wanted her as a friend. Three years later, they were more than just friends.
He sent her another message:
How's your pizza?
She replied with an angry face emoji.
He stuffed his phone in his pocket before heading downstairs to join his aunt, who was catching up on her YouTube subscriptions on the TV.
‘Chel's coming over.’
‘Okay. Don't the Millers go out for pizza on Wednesdays?’
‘Yeah, usually, but her dad decided he wanted to cook tonight, which she's a little salty about,’ Isaac grinned, ‘being the pizza lover she is.’
‘Well, I know I'd rather have his chicken korma over pizza any day.’
‘Yeah, he should put that on a pizza,’ Isaac suggested.
Aunt Susan got up and headed for the kitchen. ‘Now that is a brilliant idea.’
She made herself a coffee and settled back on the couch to her YouTube. Isaac joined her there, staring at his phone. He cancelled all the notifications without reading any of them and idly lost himself on Instagram while he waited. Thirty-five minutes flew by before there was a knock at the door.
He jumped up and opened the door. Chel’s sparkling eyes greeted him and he leaned in and pressed a warm kiss to her lips. As he pulled back, his gaze swept over her, taking in the casual jeans and long-sleeve jumper. She always looked radiant, no matter what she wore. Stepping aside, he let her in.
Chel walked through and greeted Susan while Isaac grabbed beers from the fridge, and they headed up to Isaac’s room to study. His desk was an old wooden dining table—perfect for two people to study, spread out books, and still have room for snacks.
‘We need snacks!’ Isaac announced as he set the beers down. ‘Be right back!’
He raced downstairs while Chel got comfortable at the desk. When Isaac returned with a bowl of chips, she’d opened a bottle and was pouring two glasses.
‘What's with the box?’ She gestured to the package with her glass.
‘No idea, it arrived today from some law firm, but I don't feel like opening it yet.’ Isaac sat down on the chair next to Chel.
Before he could stop her, Chel grabbed it and shook it.
‘I'll open it!’ She ripped at the tape, the excitement in her eyes reminding Isaac of a child on Christmas Day. He grinned at her over the rim of his glass as he took a sip.
Isaac remained quiet as she opened the box. Inside was a letter sitting on top of some bubble wrap. Chel ripped the tape holding it together and carefully unfurled it, revealing a metallic device and some cables. She held it up to show him, quizzically raising an eyebrow. Isaac shrugged. The device resembled an old mechanical computer hard drive.
Chel handed him the letter and he read it aloud:
‘“Dear Isaac”—that's me,’ he said, trying to be amusing.
Chel grinned at him.
‘Please find enclosed an inheritance item as instructed by your mother, Philippa Harris, on June 15, 2021, to be delivered to you after your 21st birthday. We apologise for the lateness of the delivery. We wish you well, blah blah blah.’
Isaac frowned, placed the letter down on his desk, and took the device from Chel, turning it over a few times to study it. ‘That's nice. But what the hell is it?’
It had USB sockets and a three-pin power socket that fit a cable with a strange disk-plug end. Another cable was an ultra-thick USB to USB. There was a piece of tape above one of the sockets with the word 'phone' written in permanent marker. On one side there was a power switch.
Isaac pulled out his phone and connected it to the device using the USB cable, then flipped the switch. His phone popped up a warning about a high power drain, which he dismissed; his phone could handle anything. Another notification appeared, asking him if he wanted to install the 'S-T app'. He tapped OK, and the installation began.
‘Geeze, it says “two minutes remaining”. That's one huge app.’
He noticed Chel's confused expression.
‘My mother was a physicist, remember? So, this is probably a log of all her work or something that she wanted me to have to continue in her footsteps. It does kind of look like an old hard drive.’
‘Maybe there’s a personal note in there from her,’ Chel suggested.
Isaac shrugged. He barely remembered his mother. Physics didn’t interest him that much, other than knowing it was his mother’s specialty. He was certainly not the right person to follow in her footsteps, but maybe he could find someone at the university who would be interested.
Setting the phone and device down, they sipped beer as they waited. After what seemed like longer than two minutes, the screen activated with the message of the completed installation. Isaac picked it up, holding the attached device behind it, and tapped the 'Open' button. The screen changed to pale blue, and in red, the words:
It went blank for a second before the word 'CALCULATING’ appeared. After a few more seconds, it displayed the current date and time with the seconds counting up and 'SIGNATURE READY TO RECORD' written under it.
Under that was a live circular static pattern with rapidly changing numbers circling it. Another heading, 'DESTINATION', claimed a portion at the bottom of the screen. There was already a time and date set there, 23/6/2021, 17:30:00.
Isaac tried to alter the date, but the field was disabled. The word 'CALCULATING' alternated between white and red. After several seconds, it was replaced with a green 'READY', and a new button appeared that simply said 'GO'.
‘What’s happening?’ Chel said, leaning closer to see the screen.
He showed her the screen to get her opinion.
‘What does that do?’ She asked cautiously, noticing Isaac's serious expression.
Isaac's heart was beating hard now. He had an idea what this was. His mother had worked on quantum theories of space-time wormholes. She'd been quite the authority on them in her day, although he didn't believe her work ever came to anything before she died. But a part of him was screaming, 'What if… ?'
He stood and backed away from the table, staring at Chel. Neither of them spoke.
Grinning, he held his finger over his phone with the device under it humming slightly. Looking up at Chel, he felt the device getting warmer, feeling the moment.
He bit his bottom lip and tapped 'GO'.
June 23, 2021
One week until the demonstration, Philippa thought to herself as she twirled the emptied wineglass absent-mindedly between her fingers. Knowing she shouldn’t be drinking, she felt a twinge of annoyance at herself, but still wasn’t sure if she could cope without a glass now and then. Every time she tried, the walls of her house seemed to smother her.
One week to make sure the device was ready. She considered topping up her glass, but something stopped her. ‘How long have I been sitting here?’ She glanced at the kitchen clock, and found that what she thought was a few long moments with her liquid crutch, had in fact been nearly an hour. Dragging herself off the stool, she wiped a disobedient tear away with the back of her hand and was about to place her glass in the sink, when she heard the thud. She stopped and listened. Another thud and a creak. Was that a door handle? From upstairs!? She scurried to her pantry.
Everything around Isaac froze and was tinted blue. A white vertical line appeared in mid-air in front of him, before it grew wider and rapidly began to envelop him. His jaw dropped, eyes wide open. Fascinated, with only a small side of fear, he felt a cold electrical buzz envelop his body. Strangely, it felt kind of natural, as if it was as normal and familiar as goosebumps.
As suddenly as it had appeared, the whiteness receded to just a line again and then it was gone. The blue tinge dissipated, and he was left standing in his room, holding the device. The whole room was different, Chel was gone, and the late afternoon sun struggled to stream in through gaps in the closed curtains.
He looked at the device. The 2021 destination date and time were now at the top under “Current date/time”, and the destination time below now read the date he’d come from, in 2044.
‘No…’ he whispered. He slowly left his room and crept downstairs. The whole house was different. He reached the kitchen, now looking old-fashioned. There was a smell of coffee, and music was coming from a strange device on the counter. His heart was still pounding when he heard a voice behind him.
‘Who the hell are you?!’
Isaac spun around. The source of the voice was an angry-looking woman with a baseball bat poised over her shoulder, ready to take him out.
But Isaac couldn't speak. He instantly recognised the woman from old photos. They stood staring at each other when her eyes flicked down and she noticed the device in his hand.
‘Where did you get that?’ She nodded at the device.
‘Uh, wait,’ Isaac said nervously as his brain began to catch up with what was happening. ‘Uh… are you Philippa Harris? I'm Isaac Harris… and I think I'm your son.’ He was talking fast now, at a higher pitch, unable to hide his fear.
‘I was just up in my room,’ Isaac continued, ‘and I got this today from some law firm, so I hooked it up and it had an app and I ran it and pressed go… and there was a white flash and then everything changed and I think I just travelled to the past!’
Philippa dropped the baseball bat to her side, edged closer, and carefully took the device from him. She pulled out a chair and sat down, examining the device, her eyes occasionally darting to Isaac to make sure he wasn’t moving. She found the engraved code on the back, then went to her wall safe and retrieved an identical device, holding them next to each other as if comparing them.
‘Well, well. It worked. What year is it?’
‘Yes. It seems that you are my future son, and it also seems I planned for you to get here. Your name's Isaac?’
Isaac's shoulders dropped as he took a deep breath and nodded with half a smile. Philippa swapped the bat for a bottle of wine from the kitchen and motioned to Isaac to have a seat. Neither spoke as she poured a glass from the other side of the island counter and offered him one, which he gladly accepted. She took a sip, staring at him intently while thinking.
Her lips curved into a smile. ‘I had a son! It looks like you turned out okay. What year is it for you?’
‘2044? My aunt Susan raised me in this house since I was four.’
Philippa’s smile faded. ‘This means one thing: I die.’ Her eyes glazed over as she took a sip of her wine, staring at a spot on the wall above Isaac’s head.
Isaac awkwardly stared at his wineglass.
Her eyes finally came back into focus on Isaac’s face. ‘Well?’
‘I’m dead, right?’
Isaac cleared his throat, then took a sip of his drink. He cleared his throat again. ‘Uh, yeah.’
There was an awkward silence before Isaac asked what had been on his mind since opening the package. ‘Why did you do it?’
Philippa appeared lost in thought, but at Isaac’s comment, she came back to the present. ‘Do what?’
‘You arranged to have this device sent to me, but why?’
She sighed. ‘In one week, we will demonstrate the device publicly. Not this one,’—She motioned to the one Isaac brought with him—‘another one, at the lab. For the first time, I plan on testing it on myself. I haven't told my assistant because he'd probably talk me out of it. But I need to do it; I'm tired of waiting.’
Philippa took a sip of wine before continuing. ‘I take risks, but I plan for all eventualities. So, I thought, in case anything goes wrong, I'll arrange to have this copy sent to you or my sister—your aunt Susan—when you're older.’
Isaac thought for a second. ‘But, why? Why send it to me?’
‘Because, Isaac,’ She leaned in, speaking softly now. Tears started to burn her eyes as she looked into what could have been his father's eyes. ‘I wanted to make sure I got a chance to know you.’
Isaac smiled and took a sip from his glass, trying to hide his own tears. Philippa went to where he was sitting and motioned for a hug. Isaac stood up and felt like he was about to cry as the realisation that he was with his mum again hit him. He hugged her for a long time.
‘You look just like your photos,’ he said, wiping away a tear. ‘I can’t believe it—I feel like I'm in some dream.’
Philippa smiled back. ‘And you have your dad's eyes.’
‘Wait,’ Isaac said, blotting his eyes and composing himself. ‘You said this means you die, which I know you did; you died when I was four, so is that me in there?’ He motioned to her bump.
‘I assume so, I have already named him Isaac, and he is due in November.’
‘That’s so weird.’ Isaac grinned as he looked at her bump. ‘I was born November 15, 2021.’
‘Hold up, you said you were four when I died?’
‘So I don’t die in the experiment next week…’ She whispered, almost to herself.
Isaac tilted his head at her. This whole encounter was blowing his mind. As if it wasn’t enough he’d travelled through time and met his mother, he’d also revealed to her when she would die and met his own in-utero self. He suddenly felt dizzy and sat back down. ‘So… can we now prevent your death?’
‘Maybe,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘But we'd need to know how and when I died exactly. And in doing so, we'd create a paradox which would cause space-time to twist to compensate.’
‘Hmm, I was never told the exact details of your death,’ Isaac said dejectedly. ‘Twist?’
Philippa sat down across from him. ‘If we save my life, it will create an alternate timeline, one in which you never receive the device and come back to help save my life. If it works, then the fact that you're here now means the two realities twisted at some point in the future to allow both events to happen despite each other. I need to do more research on that side of things.’
‘Wild,’ breathed Isaac, now relaxed and enjoying being here. ‘You have to tell me—how does the device work exactly?’
Philippa lit up excitedly, ‘I'm glad you asked! Okay, reality, or space-time, has and always will exist. Its structure is like foam, made of infinite slices. Every second of time covers millions of those slices. Time behaves like a 'flux' around life, so we don't stick at one slice but instead, flow through reality and experience time.’
Isaac leaned forward, fascinated.
‘My device,’ Philippa continued, ‘produces a bubble of anti-time by reversing the time-flux field around you, causing you to slip out of time's grasp, and you're then experiencing just one single slice of reality.’
She was speaking excitedly now, her passion for her work pouring out. ‘For you, it appears as if time has stopped all around you, but in fact, it's you who has stopped! To everyone else, you vanished, left behind at a previous slice of reality.’
‘Like hidden outside of time…’ Isaac said.
‘Precisely! The device then inflates the nearest hole in the foam—a wormhole—to outside of reality itself. However, because the universe can't allow anything outside of reality, you are instantly transported back in if you go through it! But here is the fun part: Where you re-enter, will be at the slice of reality that matches your destination time!’
Isaac looked puzzled, ‘But how do you end up at the right time, or 'slice'?’
‘It's simple: Before you go through, the anti-time bubble adjusts your current time signature to be the one you would have if you were in your destination time!’
Philippa raised her palms up in a sort of shrug, looking triumphant, as if she had just pointed out the obvious. She sipped her drink and for a second wondered if her future son was able to grasp the concept, if he had inherited her intelligence, and her love of science to go with it.
‘Pfft, yeah, “simple”.’ Isaac gestured dismissively as if understanding everything Philippa had said. He did kind of understand it, but “simple” wasn’t the word he’d use.
‘Yes.’ Philippa continued, ‘you automatically re-enter at the point that matches the time you set. Because, where else could you go?’
Isaac turned his free palm upwards in a dismissive gesture and rolled his eyes, as if to agree it was obvious that you couldn't go anywhere else.
‘Then the device shuts down, and the bubble collapses. Time flux reverses back to normal, and you're caught up in the flow of time again.’
Isaac had to process this for a moment. He slowly nodded as his eyes looked around the table while deep in thought, ‘So to Chel—my girlfriend—I just vanished?’
‘Yes,’ Philippa smiled at the mention of a girlfriend, realising there was a lot she'd love to learn about him. ‘But don't worry, you can easily return to the moment right after you left.’
‘Of course… Wow. I can't believe you figured all this out. It's… crazy. But brilliant. And I get what you mean about time signatures too. I've always felt that each second has a different feeling to it and sometimes I feel it changing through me when I relax enough.’
‘Ok… that's interesting.’ Philippa raised one eyebrow before continuing. ‘It was many years of mathematics, experiments, and failures. Plus your father said something once which strangely put me on the right path. I admit I was a little obsessed for a while, but it was life-changing when I discovered it.’
Philippa let out a sigh. ‘I could never use the device outside of the lab because there is nothing small and portable that could perform the calculations fast enough and have the power to handle the device drain. It takes what I assume to be a quantum-powered power supply from your time?’
‘Yeah, my phone.’ He held it up to show her. ‘Graphene super-cap battery. Quantum-based storage though… Wait! That's it! My phone likely downloaded all the university logs and events of the past one hundred years. Maybe what happened to you is recorded!’
Isaac disconnected his phone from the device, opened the 'Google Now' app and searched for his mother's name.
He searched “Philippa Harris Death.”
He glanced up at his mother with a smile and tapped the first result.
‘Okay, so it says you were killed during a quantum physics demonstration of a space-time manipulation device on July 1, 2021, due to a hardware power surge… blah blah…’
Philippa blinked at him. ‘July 1?’
‘Yeah, it says the power supply was tampered with… hah, it mentions Mr Arjun Miller here, Chel's dad. He was your assistant? Wait! This is next week… How is that possible? If you die next week, I wouldn't have been born...’ Isaac’s words trailed off as he looked at her.
Philippa’s gaze darted around as she bit her bottom lip, thinking about what he just read. She stopped and looked at Isaac. ‘It's possible… fascinating.’
‘How??’ Isaac frowned.
Philippa got up and started pacing. ‘What I said before; you would be from a slightly different reality. An alternate universe. One in which the event of next week happened much later. One which was probably created from the demonstration going wrong. It's like whatever happens during the demonstration sends a ripple through time, and creates a duplicate reality at some point, which twists with this one for a while. It's probable, however, that realities would merge again sometime afterwards. Timelines with identical pasts likely could.’
‘Wild,’ Isaac said again, ‘so, what now?’
‘Now, we have another drink, order some food, and enjoy the evening! I'd love to hear all about you, and then we'll try to figure out a plan.’ Philippa's excitement was growing. ‘We have one week to fix this,’ she said with determination, ‘I'm no more prepared for my demonstration failing than I am for my death!’
She topped up their glasses and asked Isaac to bring up everything available on the event of July 1 and the weeks around it.
June 28, 2021.
Three days before the demonstration
Arjun whistled quietly to himself as he drove. The sun glinted rhythmically on his face through the trees lining the streets of Riverton. He reflected on how fortunate he was right now, working with a genius scientist and being a major part of a breakthrough in manipulating space-time. Working under Philippa was a fantastic opportunity that would help his plan to become a physics professor and teach at the university. He was very protective of what they’d achieved together in the last few years.
Turning onto the road that led to the University, his mind drifted to the day before, when Philippa started with the whole outside funding thing. ‘Arjun, I'd like you to meet Mr Jones, the Investor I was telling you about last week,’ her words had been repeating in his head.
He'd seen too many discoveries bought and used the wrong way, either by the military or private enterprise with more money than sense. He knew it was inevitable, but he didn't have to like it. And who was he to argue? It was Philippa’s project. A familiar feeling of helplessness nagged his thoughts.
Stray gravel crunched under his wheels as Arjun turned onto the campus grounds and parked in the undercover carpark. Deep in thought, he pulled up the collar of his coat as crispy brown leaves swirled around him, and made his way towards the lift. He checked his watch as he entered and rode up to the foyer, then made his way to the lab to meet with the investor, Mr Isaac Jones. Philippa had set up the meeting.
Isaac made it back to Philippa's home later that evening and went through to the kitchen where dinner was being made.
‘Well, that was weird, hanging out with a young Mr Miller,’ he said. ‘I've had dinner at his house with his daughter Chel many times, so it was difficult to keep in mind that he doesn't know me.’
‘I can imagine.’ Philippa handed Isaac a beer bottle and a glass. ‘I know we agreed it's a long shot, but he's the only one that would know how to make the experiment fail. As much as I hope it's not true.’
Isaac twisted the lid off his beer bottle. ‘Well, I didn’t find anything out. If anything, he seemed genuinely excited by the work. I really don't think he'd do anything malicious. I know him—well, future him—but still, the Mr Miller I know wouldn't hurt a fly. He's kind, generous, and pretty funny.’ He tilted his glass and poured the beer.
‘Funny, eh?’ Philippa asked, amused at the thought. ‘He's quite brilliant too.’
They sat in silence while Philippa sliced some cheese, placed it on a cracker, added a red grape to the top then popped the whole thing in her mouth.
‘Remember,’ she said, covering her mouth, ‘he doesn't know I plan on using the device on myself at the demonstration, so it's safe to say he didn't… won't… set out to hurt me. But if it was him, I want to know why.’
‘Okay,’ Isaac idly rotated his now half-empty glass on the table and looked up at his mother. ‘So what do you want to do?’
‘That's easy,’ she grinned, before taking a long sip of her sparkling water.
July 1, 2021
‘No, it's okay Arj, just a little nausea,’ Philippa replied to his concern, ‘I'll be fine. But yeah, great that the TV will be here too. No pressure at all.’
It was the day of the demonstration, and Arj was excited.
‘No, I mean it Arj, it will be fun, lots of champagne! I hope—’
‘No-no-no, you can't drink boss,’ Arjun shook his finger at her, ‘no champagne for you!’
‘I'll just have a sip,’ Philippa assured him, getting ready to leave the lab.
She picked up her bag and headed for the door. ‘Right, let's get ready. I'm heading home to freshen up, and I'll see you back here around five-fifty pm?’
‘No problem. See you then!’
He closed the door behind her, paused for a second, still facing the door, then turned and breathed a long, loud sigh before heading over to where the device sat, still bathed in the late afternoon sun. He picked it up and lovingly turned it over in his hands, admiring its beauty, then placed it back down silently.
Arjun closed his eyes for a few seconds before he sat on the floor in front of the power supply under the table and removed the front cover. Sighing, he opened his tool kit that waited next to it and began soldering a connector onto the output circuit board.
‘Sorry, boss,’ he whispered.
A minute later, he pressed his lips together, replaced the cover, and put away the tools. After covering the device with a white sheet, he arranged chairs in a semi-circle between the table and the large windows. Satisfied that everything was ready, he let out a sigh as he stood at the window to watch the sunset and wait for the catering team to arrive.
At 5 p.m. the guests began to trickle in from the main gathering in the lobby, chatting amongst themselves. At 5:30 the TV crew arrived and began to set up, with help from Arjun.
Philippa walked up to Arjun as he was checking his watch.
‘You look great,’ he said acknowledging her rare use of makeup. ‘Are you ready for your big moment?’
Isaac had arrived a minute before Philippa and found a seat at the back. He watched as his mum and Arjun walked to the front of the table, and the room went quiet. The TV lady went to them and chatted before starting her monologue.
‘Tonight, I am told history is about to be made…’
Isaac stared at Arjun, looking for anything out of the ordinary. He seemed nervous, but that was to be expected. He was on camera and this was a big deal. Isaac looked around at the other people in the room, scanning for anyone behaving suspiciously. Suddenly, he felt like there was someone else watching the proceedings, someone hidden from sight, but couldn't see where anyone might hide. He downed his champagne and set the glass on the floor next to him, dismissing his paranoia. Everyone was quiet and still, listening to his mother speak. He felt proud of her at that moment.
‘How much larger?’ The TV lady asked.
‘Well, I was hoping we could use your purse.’
Isaac shivered and shifted in his seat as he suddenly realised he might be about to see his mother's death play out in front of him. He wondered if maybe there was something he could do now if things went as recorded in history, maybe there was some other way to save her? His attention snapped back to the demonstration in time to notice Arjun's demeanour suddenly change. He had started fidgeting, adjusting his tie, scratching his neck.
‘Philippa, I don't think—’ Arjun began.
The TV lady cut him off, ‘So are you saying that you, yourself, will be the test object? With my purse?’
Isaac smiled, his nervousness put on hold. He was looking forward to seeing his mother time travel. Even though he'd already done it himself, he was curious to see how it looked to others from the outside.
A blue sphere of light appeared behind the table.
The sphere grew, flashed white, and then faded away. In its place stood a second Philippa.
Isaac smiled. That was pretty lit, he thought, looking around at others in the room. Most people looked shocked. Even the security guards looked quite entertained by what just happened. We could sell tickets to demonstrations like this.
He watched his mother as she walked around the table where she and Arjun checked the screen. Arjun looked concerned. He checked under the table and said something to Philippa. Philippa replied and motioned him away to the end of the table.
Philippa picked up the device, unlocked the screen, and ran the app.
Isaac sat up in his seat, not wanting to miss any of what was about to happen. He was a little nervous again now. What if it wasn't the power supply that was the problem?
He forced himself to not think about it.
‘Then a gap, a wormhole, will be enlarged around me…’
Philippa checked the settings one last time. She looked up at the audience, then at Arjun. Turning, she found Isaac's face at the back of the room, pausing for one last look. She smiled at him before she gently touched the 'GO' button.
Instantly a bluish translucent sphere enveloped her and she was frozen inside. The sphere flashed to white and vanished, taking Philippa with it. At that instant, Isaac, sitting quietly by himself in the back row, also disappeared.
The lab subtly changed—a few people were now in different seats, and items on benches at the back shifted as the silence erupted in applause, with several people jumping to their feet.
Arjun joined Philippa next to Sarah, grinning widely as cameras flashed. Sarah waited for the applause to die down before wrapping up with a concluding monologue.
The caterers uncovered canapes and began walking around with refilled trays of champagne. After much handshaking with various attendees, Philippa pulled Arjun aside to chat.
‘Arjun, I'm afraid I have a confession to make.’
Arjun looked surprised. ‘You have a confession? Does it have anything to do with how you did that without being plugged into the power supply?’
‘Yes and no… the investor… Mr Jones? Well, he's not really an investor. He's my unborn son. Isaac.’ Philippa patted her bump.
Arjun was silent for several more seconds, his eyes darting from Philippa’s face to her bump and back again. ‘W-what?’
‘He's my son. From the future.’
She proceeded to explain what happened a week ago—Isaac showing up, finding out she had died during the demonstration, how they had to suspect Arjun because there could be no one else, and that she used Isaac's phone instead to prevent the accident.
Arjun went to the nearest chair and sat down, leaning forward and putting his hands on his head. ‘I feel sick.’
Philippa retrieved a glass of water from one of the tables.
Arjun sighed and gulped some water. ‘Philippa, you know I have the utmost respect for you. I live for the work we have done together, and I would never, ever put you in any danger. I never thought you would use yourself in the demonstration.’
Philippa nodded, waiting for him to continue.
He took another sip of water and continued. ‘So I now have a confession for you. I did try to make it fail today. After you left this afternoon, I adjusted the power output of the supply so that it would output erratically. That should have caused the safety routines to kick in and shut down the whole procedure. But if what you say is true, it seems it might not have happened that way, but instead had terrible consequences… in another timeline. I am very sorry.’
‘Arjun, why?’ Philippa was in a bit of shock to hear him confess it, ‘why did you do it?’
‘Well—’ he began but was interrupted by his thoughts, eyes wide.
‘Wait, this is a paradox!’ he said with a look of wonder. ‘I thought a harmless failure will keep everyone away for now… give us more time to work on the power supply. I did it because I felt strongly about outside investment, but you arranged that, to try to find out what happened! If you'd never sent Isaac, I would never have been motivated to tamper with it. So, Isaac was the cause of your death, AND the reason it was prevented—a temporal causality loop.’
Philippa shook her head slowly at the realisation that what he'd said was true.
‘So, where is Isaac now?’ Arjun asked, looking around, ‘I saw him at the back during the demonstration.’
Philippa scanned the room to make sure he was gone. ‘I believe he, too, would have vanished when his phone did, as soon as the demonstration succeeded. The reason for him to come back in the first place ceased to exist the moment I didn't die.’
Arjun looked sheepish. ‘I really am sorry, Philippa. I was reckless.’
‘You were doing what you believed was right. I can't fault you for that, but in the future, talk to me instead, okay?’
He nodded, still looking a bit green.
She patted his arm. ‘It's time to celebrate. Let's get a drink.’
‘No-no-no, you can't drink, boss!’ Arjun started wagging his finger, then stopped, ‘well, maybe just a sip!’
May 6, 2044
Chel watched Isaac hold his finger over his phone with the strange device under it now humming slightly. He looked up at her, bit his bottom lip, and tapped the screen.
A mesmerising blue sphere of electricity swirled around him, engulfing him before snapping closed, taking Isaac with it. At the same time, Chel also disappeared, swallowed by the fabric of time. The whole room convulsed and changed. Two different timelines began twisting together, merging back to the one single timeline they used to be.
Downstairs, Isaac swayed, suddenly feeling dizzy. The room around him started warping and altering. His aunt Susan vanished. Furniture changed or disappeared, and some other pieces appeared, as reality reorganised itself. Isaac sank down. Years' worth of new memories flooded him, existing alongside the ones he already had.
Then he saw her.
Standing in the kitchen was his mother. Now 23 years older than when he’d seen her just one minute ago, yet her appearance was completely familiar.
Philippa caught him staring, his face white, mouth open. ‘You okay? You look like you've seen a ghost.’
‘Uhh… this is going to sound weird, but I think I saved your life…’
Philippa suddenly realised what was happening. She cleared her throat. ‘You just missed out on some good canapes.’ She gave him a knowing grin.
Isaac tilted his head at her. ‘You’ve planned to say that for the last 23 years, haven’t you?’
‘Totally.’ Philippa beamed at him. ‘Although hearing it now, it sounds a little lame.’
‘Mum, it's incredible.’ Isaac got up and looked around. ‘I have two sets of memories now, although the other ones are starting to feel… less real, or old. A minute ago, I was at the lab, at your demonstration… it was 2021.’
‘I thought that part would be a bit weird for you. I've been waiting 23 years for this day. This moment must be the other end of the time twist, where this timeline first became tangled with the one where I died—the exact moment you used my device to go back. Although I'm surprised you still have both sets of memories intact. I was certain one would fade within a few seconds, if there at all, leaving you with the memories from the timeline that took over.’ Philippa trailed off and studied him quietly.
‘Can someone please tell me what's going on?’ Chel asked timidly from the couch, her eyes darting between them.
They spent the evening with pizza—at Chel's request—and revealed the entire story to her. Philippa retrieved the device from her safe to show Chel. She was dubious at first, suspecting a prank, but her suspicion was soon replaced with amazement. Philippa also explained what happened after Isaac vanished from the lab, including Arjun's confession and the whole paradox of the events.
‘Mum?’ Isaac asked, ‘what drove you to invent the time travel device in the first place?’
‘Your father, Thomas,’ Philippa said. ‘It was his sudden disappearance that motivated me all those years. I had to know what happened. I wanted to go back, find out, and maybe save him somehow.
‘But you never did.’ Isaac looked away to the floor.
‘A return trip was the problem. The device was meant to store enough power for a return trip, but after that demonstration, we found it wasn’t reliable enough. If I had used it to go back, it would have meant a one-way trip. Two of me running around for five years wouldn't work, so without a portable high-capacity power supply, it simply wasn't an option. Too risky. So I waited, hopeful that Arjun would discover the answer one day. Eventually, other work came and went, we moved on, I had you, and the project was shelved. Life happened.’
Isaac bit his bottom lip and smiled. He picked up his phone and held it up. ‘Wasn't an option… until now…’
Philippa grinned back, looking from Isaac to Chel and back again.
‘Did I ever mention the exact date he went missing?’ She asked, also biting her lip, as Isaac plugged in his phone and powered up the device.
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