21 Minutes

For the very, very, very few of you that check this blog, my story won the second prize at TheScian’s science fiction short story writing competition 2008. Here’s the link: http://thescian.com/?q=node/233
What really surprised me though was that the second prize is Rs. 7500. =D

Here’s the story.

21 Minutes

Phillip felt sick in the stomach. But this was it. This was the moment he’d been working toward for the past two months. It seemed quite futile, looking at it that way. Nothing could happen in the next twenty-one minutes that would be worth all the effort. Just a short conversation with an old man. A brilliant old man, but that didn’t make too much of a difference. It was just co-incidence that he happened to be visiting this particular old man. Lately though, Phillip began believing less in co-incidences, and more in destiny. He would rather be visiting this old man than anyone else. However, Phillip would have done all this to be visiting any old man, or young man, or woman, for that matter. It was more about what he was doing.

Phillip decided he had spent enough time standing on the porch and staring at the door. He looked at his watch again. 20:49…20:48…20:47, counting down. Time was so limited right now. Ironically, it might never be a constraint again. It was raining outside. Phillip stepped outside the porch, into the rain for a while. His shoes got muddy, and his coat wet. He looked down the street. It was as motionless as a grave. He stepped back onto the porch, pulled his hood back, took a deep breath, and finally rang the doorbell. He began to carefully wipe his shoes on the doormat.

20:19; the door was opened by the only resident of the house. Phillip had only seen him in a picture. He was a lot younger in it. Phillip was tongue tied for a moment as he got a sudden hint of the unnaturalness of the situation. Phillip finally spoke when he realised that he should respond to the “What do you want at this time of the night?” look coming from the man standing before him.

“Mr. Eric Goldberg?”
“I’m Phillip Kantor, from Surge Research Laboratories. I would like to talk to you about this paper you wrote around twelve years ago,” he said while pulling out a bunch of papers from one of his inner coat pockets and handing them to Eric. It took a while for Eric to get over his surprise.
“It’s 10 O Clock at night Mr. Kantor. Perhaps we should discuss this in the morning.”
“I apologize Mr. Goldberg, but it is urgent. I would not bother you at this hour otherwise.”
Eric took the papers, barely even glancing at them, and gave his visitor a confused stare. “Let’s begin with you telling me why you’re here at this hour, wanting to talk about some papers I wrote twelve years ago. And what the hell is Surge Laboratories anyway? I’ve never heard of it.”
“Surge Research Laboratories is located in Berlin, Sir. We’re mostly concerned with research on subatomic particles. But that’s not of any importance. I’m here because I’ve based a rather remarkable theory on this paper of yours, and I’d like to talk to you about it.”
Eric contemplated this for only a short moment. He was never the kind to refuse any chance of adventure.
“Alright, come in.”

Eric walked back, and sat in a chair in the corner of the living room. Phillip entered the house, and looked at the top right corner of the room. He was almost expecting to not find the tiny camera camouflaged with the wall, but there it was, staring right back at him. He took off his coat, and hung it beside the door. “Make yourself comfortable,” Eric said as he picked up the glass of whisky he had left on the armrest of his chair. “I know it isn’t much, but I don’t usually
have visitors, even during the day,” he continued, as Phillip walked toward the only other chair in the room, and sat down directly across from Eric.

“Why do you keep looking at your watch?” Eric asked. “Well, I have this experiment that I have to get back to,” Phillip replied, looking at his watch again. ..18:50..
“In Berlin?”
“Yes, I have a flight to catch.”
“What time?”
“Midnight,” Phillip replied, after a pause.
“Alright, what did you want to talk to me about?”
“Do you remember what you wrote in that paper, Mr. Goldberg?” He asked, pointing to the document in Eric’s hand.
“Yes, most certainly,” Eric replied, going through the pages.
“Then I’d like you to go look at the four pages I added at the end of it.”
Eric quickly went over each page until he got to the last four. ..17:54..

Phillip sat silently, and analysed the expressions on Eric’s face as he read the document. He was first expressionless, and then he developed wrinkles on his forehead, then looked at the paper questioningly for a while, and then showed a slightly confused look as he used his finger to trace his way around the page. Phillip looked at his watch again, 13:51. He looked back up to find Eric looking at him.
“I don’t see the point of it…,” Eric began.
“Well, yes, I haven’t really given it a proper conclusion,” Phillip said before he could continue.
Phillip barely allowed his words enough time to escape from his mouth.
“What is the conclusion then?”
“Don’t you see it?” Phillip asked excitedly.
Eric looked back at the document and said “Most of the math seems to be going nowhere…”
“Well, I guess it is too much to expect you to get it in a few minutes, but I don’t know how no one figured this out over all these years.” Eric raised an eyebrow.
“It shows the definite possibility of time travel,” Phillip continued.

Eric wasn’t sure if the man sitting in front of him was crazy, but decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“Into the past at least,” Phillip continued. “The future is a completely different concept.”
Eric went back to the document, holding it much closer to his face this time.
“It even hints at the method of achieving this.” Phillip was oblivious to the fact that Eric wasn’t paying much attention to him anymore.

The pieces were all suddenly falling into place for Eric. Of course, Time travel! And it was so simple that there couldn’t be anything wrong with it. He had a feeling that something had to be wrong with it though. It was too simple. It was an intuitive feeling, but there was logic to back it up. If it was this simple, then how come no one had ever come across it before? He even wondered why he didn’t see this when he first looked at the paper. The way in which it was
done was a bit unconventional, but that’s all. It was so simple.

Phillip had stopped talking by now. “Have you shown this to anyone else?” Eric asked.
“So what do you plan to do with it?”
“What would you do?”
“Show it to someone who might be able to understand it better, get their opinion, and then…”
Eric took a short pause, and Phillip decided to complete his sentence, “Put it to test?”
“No. Don’t be naive. Not until the theory is perfected. Not until we fully understand the concept. It’s not even imaginable as of now.”
“I don’t think this can ever be publicly disclosed. Just think of what the consequences might be! Everyone would want to go back in time.”
“That’s true. Maybe that’s why we’ve never heard of this before; it’s far too unlikely that
nobody’s come across it so far. I’m even thinking that it’s so simple, it could be wrong.”
Phillip contemplated playing his trump card here. “It’s not wrong.”
“And what makes you so sure?”
“I’ve researched enough to convince myself.”
“What did your research involve, Mr. Kantor?”
“I‘ve managed to send some very small objects back in time for a short duration. Like video cameras. I have proof of the success of my experiments.”

“Alright, let’s say it’s right. How come nobody’s ever come across this before Mr. Kantor?” Eric already had a few answers in his head, but asked the question anyway.
“Well, as I said, this can never be disclosed publicly. So even if someone did figure this out, we wouldn’t know about it.”
“Based on how simple it is, I’d say a lot of people should have figured it out.”
“You never did.”
“So, what does that prove?”
“You should have, I worked it out starting with your theory.” Phillip waited for a response, but went on when it didn’t seem like he was going to get one.
“You have to admit, the logic I used in there would have seemed a bit…” Phillip paused to find the right word, “Unconventional, to you.”

Eric resumed his glass of whisky, which he seemed to have forgotten about until now.
“I had to spell it out for you before you saw that it was showing the possibility of time travel.
The paper is screaming it out, but you didn’t see it.” Eric looked back at the paper in his hand. It did seem to be screaming it out now. “I, myself, came across it purely by accident,” Phillip said, sinking back into his chair.
“So, you think it’s our conventional way of thinking that’s prevented people from coming across this theory?” Eric asked, calmly sipping on his whisky.
“No. I’m saying that someone has already discovered this, and that they’re actively trying to make sure it stays secret.”
“By changing everyone’s way of thinking?”
“Can you imagine what it would be like if everyone had access to time travel?”

Just thinking about it, Eric knew that it wasn’t possible. It was as basically impossible as two negative charges attracting each other. If changes made in the past were reflected in the future, and everyone made changes in the past they would begin to cancel each other out. There would be no state of rest, or equilibrium for the present. Everyone would incessantly make changes in the past. The present itself, would be unstable…

“People would do anything in their power to prevent that from happening,” Phillip interrupted his chain of thought. “They would divert research away from it. They could make sure no one finds out, and fix it if someone does.”
“Some small time researcher like you would have discovered it then,” Eric replied.
“They most likely have access to time travel to prevent others from discovering it. That’s what I meant when I said ‘they could fix it if someone does.’”
This was all happening too fast for Eric to keep up with. He couldn’t think of the obvious consequences of time travel being available. Phillip, on the other hand, had thought about this for a while.
“So, you expect people in black jumpsuits from the future coming to stop you from spreading the information about time travel?” Eric smiled.
“Actually, they should have come long ago, and prevented me from discovering it in the first place.”
“What if you really are the first one to discover it?”
“The basis of assuming that I’m not the first is that it’s quite impossible that nobody before me
managed to figure out something so simple, isn’t it?”
Eric wasn’t able to keep up with the conversation. He put down his glass of whisky.

Phillip quickly looked at his watch, realising he had forgotten about it all this while. ..9:52..
“Yes,” Eric finally said.
“Have you even thought of the consequences of going back in time?” Eric asked. He had something to say that eluded him right now. He was trying really hard to get back to it.
“Yes, of course. Come to think of it, people have been thinking about it for a very long time.”
“Not seriously enough… Not scientifically enough.”
“I guess. But what more could they do? Without figuring this theory all they could do is fantasize about it. It is a very captivating concept.”
Eric appeared to be in deep thought. Phillip noticed the same expression on his face as when he was trying to interpret the theory. His index finger was even tracing its way along an imaginary page on the armrest of his chair.
“I guess it was meant to be,” Phillip broke the silence.
“What?” Eric asked, almost unconsciously.
“I guess people were meant to spend so much time thinking about the consequences of time travel before they actually discovered it.”

And once again, Eric was experiencing what it feels like when everything falls perfectly into place. The theory was right, and it didn’t need any explanations that required stretching the
imagination to explain why it hadn’t been discovered so far. Like men from the future in black jumpsuits.

Phillip was looking at his watch a lot more frequently now. ..9:05..
“So you believe that things are meant to be, and you also believe in time travel?” Eric was laying the groundwork before making his point.
“They don’t have to contradict each other, you know. Maybe time travel was also meant to be. Besides, some things are just too farfetched to be called co-incidences. I think I believe in destiny.”
“So travelling back in time doesn’t change your destiny?”
“Well, the travelling back in time was also destined. It, in fact, fortifies my belief in something being destined to happen. It might not really make sense for something to just be meant to happen, but when you know that someone will go back in time if something doesn’t happen, and make sure it happens, it makes a lot more sense. There’s someone to go back to every point in time to make things right. It’s just that instead of thinking of time as a straight line, it’ll have loops where someone jumps from one point to another.”

“Well Mr. Kantor, it’s an interesting theory but I honestly don’t believe that there’s more than one thing that’s ‘meant to be’ based on that theory, but coincidentally, that one thing is just the thing you said is meant to be.”
The way that sentence came out, it sounded confusing to Eric himself. He decided to explain quickly before Phillip went through any more of the torture his countenance was showing.
“I can explain why nobody’s discovered your theory of time travel yet.” ..7:51..

“Now, if the theory of time travel is discovered, and the technology developed, sooner or later, someone will travel back in time, significantly before the discovery of time travel. And he,either voluntarily or involuntarily will change something then. And then, you know about the butterfly effect right?”
“Not exactly”
“Okay, let’s say our time traveller goes back in time and changes something small, like moving someone’s teacup from its regular place. That person would spend more time, say about fifteen seconds, looking for his teacup next morning. So now this person would be fifteen seconds late for doing everything else. Maybe he just misses a traffic light, goes through anyway, and gets pulled over and gets a ticket, which he wouldn’t have got otherwise. This person then goes to work, about five minutes later than he originally would have, and to add to it, he’s in a bad mood. This affects everyone around him. That’s just an example, but the point is that if you make even one change, no matter how small it is, it will trigger other changes. So now there will be more changes, and they’ll each trigger still more changes. Hence, the amount of change from the way things originally were will increase exponentially as time passes. And after a significant amount of time, moving that man’s teacup could just start a world war. And I’m not really exaggerating.

“Now, if this time traveller goes back significantly before the discovery of time travel, the changes he makes will snowball until the moment when time travel was discovered. The farther back he goes, the greater the change is likely to be.”
“Let me finish,” Eric said, cutting Phillip off before he even began.
“I never thought of time to be a straight line to begin with, Mr. Kantor. I see it as a line that splits up every time the outcome of something is uncertain. So there’s a lot of lines, infinite, almost. Parallel realities. This is just one of them. So in every reality where time travel is discovered, someone goes back in time, and changes something, it alters that reality. And however many new realities originate from after that point in time. Now in the altered reality, time travel may be discovered, or it may not be discovered. If, however, time travel is discovered, then the same process takes place again. So every reality which has discovered time travel becomes unstable after that point. This is why the only realities that have any hope of a future are those in which time travel is not discovered.”

Eric took a breath, something he had forgotten to do for a while, in all his excitement. For once, it was Phillip who had something to think about.
“That’s just one way of looking at it,” Phillip said.
“Of course, I’m not denying that. But it does explain everything, doesn’t it?”

“So every time someone travels back in time, he kills his reality,” Phillip said, in a somewhat questioning manner.
“Yes. When he makes a jump in time, there’s a loop, as you said. But the timeline takes a different path from the point he goes back to. What do you think would happen if someone went back in time?”
“For a theory, I suppose that fits. But what will happen to the time traveller once his reality ceases to exist? Shouldn’t he disappear with it?”
“There’s a dozen possibilities you can think of Mr. Kantor, and a few hundred more that you can’t. You can’t say which one will happen without doing some more research. I only like this theory so much because it explains everything…”
“It doesn’t really explain everything…”

“Everything we talked about so far. It explains why time travel hasn’t been discovered so far, and it explains it more naturally than having to incorporate people from the future coming back with the intention of preventing the discovery of time travel. They do it anyway, without knowing it. It also explains why the logic behind this theory of time travel appears to be unconventional. We could never have got to it conventionally. In all these different realities, which start to branch out from the beginning of time itself, people have developed different ways of thinking, invented and discovered different things, witnessed different natural phenomena, evolved differently, and I’m sure there’ll be plenty where man never evolved at all. And those realities which are least likely to develop time travel, survive the longest.”
Phillip let out a small laugh. “So I just killed my world, this … reality?”
“Probably. Our reality still exists this far. It’s just that we may not have a future. Although that’s only if what I said is right. ”

“But don’t you think that when man reaches a certain level of intelligence, it’s inevitable that he will develop time travel?”
“Not inevitable,” Eric said, suggestively.
“If it were, then man cannot exist beyond a certain point in time.”
Eric stayed silent.
“And the cause of man’s extinction will be that he discovered time travel?” Phillip asked.
“Man will never be extinct, as such. Because there won’t exist a world where he used to exist, but doesn’t anymore. It’s just that all the worlds where man existed don’t exist beyond a certain point in time. And I don’t even think that’s possible. Because unless someone goes back in time and changes something that prevents the evolution of man itself, there will always be realities in which Man exists.”
“But they all end in loops.”
“They don’t end in loops Mr. Kantor. A new path is formed at the beginning of every loop. And there can be an infinite number of possibilities. At least one would have to exist where he finds a way past it.”

“Possibly by not travelling back in time before the discovery of time travel.”
“You’re the one who said someone eventually will.” ..2:12..
“I hadn’t put a lot of thought into it. I still haven’t. But tell me, wouldn’t you think twice before letting anyone travel back in time after hearing that”
“That’s true, but there may be other ways out.”
“Such as?”
“It may be possible to make sure that the changes the time traveller makes in the past are small enough to not affect the discovery of time travel. Maybe someday we’ll be able to predict quite accurately the results of changing something in the past.”

Phillip looked at his watch again. 1:40; this was about the right time.
He spoke, “Mr. Goldberg, what if I told you that I am from the future, that I built a working time machine, and after doing enough tests decided that it was safe to test it with myself?”
“Then I would be flattered that you risked all this to come to visit me.” Eric said with a smile.
The look on Phillip’s face clearly conveyed that he was telling the truth.
Eric’s smile slowly faded away. ..1:18..
“And,” Phillip continued, “Since I’m still sitting here, I don’t think my reality ceased to exist after all.”
“That doesn’t make sense. When are you from?” ..1:06..
“Fifteen years, six months and a little less than twenty-one days from now.”

Eric stared at him for a while.
“You’ve got your ticket back?”
“Yes, in exactly 56 seconds.”
“So my theory is completely wrong? You’ve made a drastic change by talking to me.”
“No Mr. Goldberg, your theory is right as far as I can tell. I don’t have time to explain, but look up there.” Phillip pointed at the top right corner of the room. “See that black object? It’s one of my video cameras from my lab. I’ve been monitoring you for quite a while before I decided on the twenty-one minutes that would be inconsequential enough for me to come and visit you.”
“How can it be inconsequential enough? My knowing this will make drastic changes!”

It was when Eric began to get up to examine the camera that Phillip realised the mistake he’d made.
“Don’t get up Mr. Goldberg. I really don’t have time to explain. I would like to congratulate you for the amazing work that you did. You’re one of my idols. As you said, the fact that I came to visit you is enough to explain it. It’s a pity that the potential of your work isn’t recognised until long after your time. It was a pleasure meeting you” ..0:04..

The alarm on Phillip’s wristwatch went off. Eric stared at him with his mouth open. He turned to the window to look at where there was suddenly a loud noise coming from. The bright lights hit him straight in the face and he could identify the roar of a truck engine along with the screeching of tires on the wet tar road. He looked back at Phillip, only to find that he was alone in the room again.

Eric experienced, for the third time that night, the feeling of everything suddenly falling into place. Kantor knew this was going to happen. He knew exactly when it was going to happen. Eric realised how the past twenty-one minutes would be inconsequential to the rest of the world. Eric didn’t try to get up from his chair. He knew what was coming. He knew it was inevitable. The roar of the engine was now accompanied by the smashing of glass, the tearing of steel and the crushing of a concrete wall. Eric held his glass of whisky tightly. Was any man ever this sure that he was going to die?

His life did not flash before his eyes. There was only the exhilarating feeling of having figured everything out. His thoughts wandered to Kantor and what kind of a person he was, to leave Eric to die like this. On the other hand, Phillip would have to risk his own existence and that of his entire world as it will be to save him. Phillip would see his death as something of a history book. He was meant to die here.

He wondered if his life had been meaningful enough. Had he lived well enough? His answers were satisfying. His only regret was writing that one paper. Suddenly it terrified him, the uncertainty of the future. It shouldn’t. The affairs of this world would no longer concern him. His thoughts went back to those days he spent researching, the day he presented that paper. He could never have known. The lights were blinding now and all he could see was white. So this is what that deer must have felt like when he ran into it on highway 17.


Phillip felt sick again. He grabbed a bag from the table and threw up in it. It took a while before he could orient himself. He was in his lab. The alarm on his wristwatch was still ringing. He looked at the news article pinned on his wall. “52 year old scientist dies as truck drives into his house” It still had a picture of Eric’s house, smashed, with a truck in his living room. The article below it was the same, down to every word. Phillip felt like he could breathe again. His eyes wandered to the other articles around it. Nine other people who died unnaturally. Ten different people in different parts of the world. The only thing common to all of them was that very little of their surroundings remained after their death.

He looked at the five tiny cameras lying next to him. They had captured everything. The thought of watching the recording made him feel sick again. He disabled all the apparatus and locked it up in the store. He had succeeded in his work but he did not want to think about what to do next for a long time to come. Maybe the journey in time had disoriented him.

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