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The Tim Machine

Matt Larsen is a writer, performer, artist, and dad living in NYC with his brilliant wife, beautiful daughter, infant son, and two adequate cats. He wrote the children's science fiction musical, The Paper Spaceship and has been published in McSweeney's, Golden Visions, Flashshot, and Kaleidotrope. His visual art can be seen at the website powercityimages.com.
"Let's ask Tim about Hitler," I said, binding a corner of the Autobot potholder for my nephew's ninth birthday. "If you're done staring at your phone, Tim."
Tim looked up, blinking. "Godwin's Law?"
"No. Time travel," I said, glancing around the Thursday knitting circle. "Just talking, right, knittas?"
A few grumbles from the crochet folk, but we were an agreeable enough bunch, mostly thirty- and fortysomethings looking to fill a few hours with scarves and mittens.
"What would you do to kill Hitler, assuming you could?"
Tim was the smartest guy I know, a neurosurgeon whose only project looked like a sea cucumber in the process of turning itself inside out. His Etsy shop never sold. Quiet, but the hours always passed faster with him around.
Now, he seemed agitated. "Fine," he said. "Did anyone ask why he's not dead already?"
A murmur ran around the room. Not all of us believed a clone or two wasn't running around.
"Retroactively dead. Never-to-have-existed. The Fermi Paradox of time travelers. Where are they?" I asked.
Then Naomi, who until that moment had been sewing a Federation insignia on the breast of a bright red angora cardigan, and who until this point had been on the wrong side of the discussion, spat out, "Fantasyland. There's no such thing, and never will be."
"Like warp drives?" Tim smiled crookedly. He slid his phone into his breast pocket, nestled among pens and a protective plastic sleeve.
"That's different."
"Not at all. Faster than light travel makes it possible to send an observer out and back before he left."
"Well there are limits."
"Perhaps!" Tim answered with a flourish that knocked one of the double-sided needles out of Emilio's Battlesock Galactica. "First, have we reached peak evil? Some day, there might be worse than a failed Viennese artist, and all resources might go to eliminating him. Or her....
"Second, how long is our tribal memory? The Library at Alexandria burned. How many pharaohs were slated to die before those scrolls went up in flames?"
"You've talked about this before."
His eyes narrowed. "Um, yes. Also, what if the human race loses its thirst for revenge? Or ambition to go back in time? When the only constant is change, there's no guarantee that we even live in history's most interesting time.
"Finally, how much does it cost? If you need to build a generation starship to send humans to the limits of space and back, then you need someone with very deep pockets indeed."
"Would they have to be human?" Emilio asked.
"Probably not. Meat bodies would be shredded by the particle bleed coming off the front of your drive." He looked down as a picture popped up on his phone. And blanched.
Right. I was starting to see the picture. "You're saying organic matter is weak and heavy. We've gone to the moon but robots have done all the good stuff: Mars, Venus, Titan, gas giants and dwarf planets. What if they don't look like us?"
"Mind your knitting, Jean...."
I looked down at the symbol in my hand and held it up. "They could be cars. Or laptops. Radios. Music players."
Tim was silent.
I pursued. It's not often you can beat a brain surgeon to a punchline. "The Palm Pilot came out in 1997. Gore loses in 2000. Arab Spring starts in 2010."
"But that's crazy!" Naomi said.
Tim's phone was vibrating, blue bubble of a text lighting up the top, sent from a long string of numbers I did not recognize.
"There were scores of disasters they could have prevented." I snapped my fingers and lost a stitch. "They were setting firebreaks. In 2011, you have Occupy Wall Street. In 2015, protest candidates defund the Super PACs of every Washington insider. Where could they be now? Who are they stopping?"
"Do you really want to know, Jean?" Tim's voice was scary calm.
I did. "We've been carrying around intellectual cuckoo's eggs for a decade. Maybe longer. How many people have ever torn apart a Game Boy? Or Atari?"
His phone was going off, an eerie ringtone like a sonata mixed with a fax machine. It hurt the ears.
"Let me see it," I said. "Your phone."
"I can't."
"How long have you known?"
"Since my first Speak 'n Spell. Please. They're not perfect, but they've helped so many of us. Eight billion people on the planet now when there should have been half a billion on top of an irradiated cinder. You can't tell anyone."
"You can trust me."
He blinked. "I'm not asking."
It was my turn to gasp. "Have we had this conversation before?"
"Scores of times. You've all wondered. It's why we meet." He looked around the room, fingers spinning dials on what looked like a timer app on his phone. "I'm sorry. This is a strange confession. None of you are guilty of the crimes I'm punishing you for. Yet. I built the app. Cleaner that way. I'm so sorry." His thumb grazed a button.
"Wait. What does it feel like? Losing memories, time?"
"Ask a thread next time you pull it."
"Wait...?" I began, but someone was taking a picture brighter than the universe and I had to shut my eyes.
When I opened them, Naomi was in a heated discussion with Emilio over the finer points of alternating diagonals which Tim was pointedly ignoring. He looked very tired as he sheathed his phone in his pocket protector.
"There's only one way to do it!" she insisted.
"Fascist," Emilio countered, inserting a fallen needle into one row of his Pegasock.
Naomi sent him a murderous look. "You want a fight?"
"Ha! It'll be over before it starts."
"That brings up an interesting point," I said, looking over. "Let's ask Tim...."
The End
This story was first published on Monday, September 26th, 2016


This was originally supposed to be about guys all named Tim. Instead, it's (loosely) about FTL travel. How do warp drive spaceships avoid going back in time? Does everyone just agree to set their watches to Universe Mean Time? Knitting popped in last, a skill I learned before my daughter was born because I thought parenting involved sitting and cradling. I make maybe three hats a year and attended one Stitch-n-Bitch, which I hosted and was attended by my wife and one friend. Those who can, do, those who cannot, teach, and somewhere in between is those who write it all up.

- Matt Larsen

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