Time is such a strange concept. It’s a universal part of our everyday lives; everyone on earth has “felt” its effects. We can see its markings, its ravaging effects on the world and the people we love, and we’ve all, one way or another, submitted ourselves to its ghastly powers. Yet so few of us truly know it for what it is.
We think of time as an ethereal force, a great “other” to the world we live in. We think of it as being separate from our world, yet an integral part of it, when we should really be seeing the two as one in the same. Space is not space and time is not time, they’re one and the same. That’s why it’s called spacetime, after all.
For anyone who hasn’t taken the time to at least understand the concept, here’s a basic summarization. Space and time, the physical substance of our reality and the passage of changes within it, are relative to each other. They’re extensions of each other, codependant and singular in nature, two sides of the same coin. It’s why time flows differently in some places than in others, why a man on mars would experience the passage of time differently than the humans here on earth. As we travel through the physical presence of space, we inevitably travel through the substance of time itself, traversing two oceans in one ride.
Inevitably, this brings us, as it once brought me, to a similarly singular conclusion: if one can traverse time one way, then what is to keep us from doing so in another manner? Essentially, I mean time travel.
It was a crazy idea, as it probably seems to you now, reading this. It is to most people, and for good cause. For a long time, and for a long time to come, time travel was confined to the realm of fiction. To society, it was repeatedly taught that no such thing could ever happen. But among those who studied, those who questioned the universe, it was always a possibility, if only a whimsical dream of one. All those people needed was the push, the spark to drive them forwards and pursue that dream.
As it happened, I was that spark.
I was never particularly gifted in science, at least no more than any of my other colleagues. I wasn’t a wiz at theoretical physics, nor was I a master in any other branch of the skills needed to pull off my dream. All I had, in reality, was a good name and a shitton of money. I won’t say how I got it; time travel hasn’t been invented quite yet, so you’ll all have to wait a while longer before my name ever becomes relevant in the history books. What matters is that with that money, I had the means to pull together the best scientists and put them on a job otherwise thought impossible.
It was hard, at first. I had to actually convince them to join, which even with the cash was a bit hard to do. I mean, this was a big deal, a career defining task. If they worked for the years we thought it would take to get the job done and had nothing to show for it, they’d be ridiculed for the rest of their lives. It was only when I said that the research would be completely confidential that any of them decided to join.
As more and more physicists, biologists and chemists came together, along with the massive number of engineers we required, things began to speed up. One scientist, two scientists, hell, even five scientists can’t get much done, even when they have the brains of Stephen Hawking. A hundred scientists, though? Two hundred? You start to get results then.
After a year or two of arguing, discussing, and working between each man’s theory, we got the basic formula down. It wasn’t much, just a basic summarization of how we could send something backwards in time, just a little while back at least. We still didn’t have the real structural supports down: how to determine where we were when we landed in the past, or how to calculate the earth’s positioning relative to the rest of the universe in various time periods. Like I said, space and time are relative, and we still didn’t know how to send something, someone, back without splattering their atoms across the planet, or stranding them in the void of space to freeze to death. Nevertheless, when we sent that first rat back, when our team found the massive singe marks it made a mile away from base, we knew we were getting somewhere.
The rat, or what was left of it, had only been sent back a few seconds. We wanted to go farther; we wanted to send someone back months, years even, just so we could confirm that we’d really done it. If we were ever going to make that sort of jump, we knew we’d have to stabilize the process, and keep our first traveller from blowing up half the earth in the process. Luckily, the earth hadn’t seen that sort of damage in our lifetimes, so we took that as a sign that our research would eventually pay off.
Another year or so, and we finally built the machine. We had the formula we needed, and all the supplies were being used to the exact specifications my colleagues had put down. It was massive in scope, bigger than the hadron collider. We had to build it underground so our work could stay confidential, and that in itself provided a whole host of problems, but eventually we were able to get it done. When we first started it up, and we heard the proverbial gears begin to move, I think we all knew things were going exactly as planned.
What utter idiots we were.
I was the one who stepped into the machine. I argued that we were at the end of the line, and that if I died, it would be no better than if the machine had failed with someone else. We couldn’t simply go on if it did that, I argued, so it would only be better if the funding go out with the dream. They tried to stop me, tried to convince me it was a mistake, that even if it worked they had no way of pulling me back, but I reassured them that it would be fine, as long as they sent me back to a maximum of a single year. I’d just wait it out, I said, and come find them when today came around again, to congratulate them on a job well done. Reluctantly, they set me up. There weren’t any fancy tools involved, no fancy blue box to whisk me away into the unknown, no flaming car to bring me back to where I’d come. It was just me, a protective suit, and the massive chamber they’d use to spearhead me through time itself.
As the machine began to work, I closed my eyes. I could hear the massive surges of energy crackling through the wires and steel beams, the grinding of the parts around me turning, rings so large they could fit in a football field. The floor below me began to shake, just as I knew it would, and I smiled. Eventually the shaking grew more intense, the sounds louder until almost deafening, even with my protective gear on to lessen the noise. The floor vibrated more and more, until I could barely feel it under my feet.
That’s when I realized I couldn’t feel anything. I opened my eyes, only to be greeted by the black void of space. There were no stars here, only darkness, not even the smallest pinprick of light in the distance. I blinked, my heart pounding in terror. Had we failed? Had I been sent back too far, or simply misplaced by the machine? Where was I? In space? Where in Space?
Needless to say, I began to panic. My eyes darted about the black expanse, never catching sight of anything familiar. I reached about my suit, trying to find something to see by. I found my flashlight by the belt I wore, and used it to shine out into the blackness. The light turned on, but it’s rays never seemed to go farther than my own sight, disappearing into the shadows like rocks thrown into the ocean.
I was about to give up right then and there. I knew there was no hope for me, not here. If I had been thrown into the void like I suspected, then there was no point even trying to hold out. You can’t swim in space, you can’t find your way back home without a ship. Hell, there weren’t even stars by which I could position myself. Then I saw something, and my perspectives changed entirely.
It came in a flash, embodying the entire space I occupied, and image of a place I recognized. Blue skies filled the image, and a great, steel tower reached up to its peak filling the frame. Amongst the beams that made it up, I could see people moving, their faces rendered blurry messes by the distance. I recognized it all at once. The Eiffel Tower, I thought. I was seeing Paris, right in front of my eyes, yet somehow I knew I was nowhere near Paris. I was somewhere else, somewhere outside of Paris, outside of the world itself. I screamed as the image began to fade, my arms flailing out to try and grab it. Just as it faded, a new image appeared, blinding me for a moment and giving me a mini heart attack.
Before I could see this one, it too disappeared, only to be replaced by a third image, which in turn disappeared into the darkness of the void. More and more images took its place and vanished, each succeeded by a host of many more pictures and places. I saw them all rush before me, appearing and vanishing like a massive slideshow of the world. People and places, all different, rushed through my head, and I saw the changes that made them so unique. Time itself was rushing by me, the pictures changing to suit the period. I saw the Eiffel Tower more than once, but in different years, different regimes and stages of its life passing by. I saw other landmarks too. I watched the Statue of Liberty fade from green to bright bronze, stared at the World Trade center rise from the ashes into the light of the sun once more.
I saw styles change, streets change, landscapes change. I saw London burning more than once, each time emerging more alien than before. I saw the dresses women wore grow longer and shorter, brighter and duller with each decade. I saw mankind shrink across the globe, our cities becoming villages, then camps, then nothing at all. I saw an ocean shrink away, leaving a valley teeming with life.
Eventually, the world gave way to a barren wasteland. Nothing was left but oceans and barren rock, these too giving way to hot magma and an endless night sky. As I watched, the earth split into two planets, then into dust, cooling in the vacuum of space before disappearing into particles I couldn’t see. Our sun died, or rather reverted into gas, and another took its place, larger and brighter than the old one. More of these stars appeared as I realized how close I was getting to the beginning, and I let out a sigh of contentment. This would, eventually, have to stop.
The mother stars dissipated into glass, then into atoms, then into subatomic particles. Light began to fade, and I knew I was reaching the big bang, the beginning of all things, before time and space truly existed. I closed my eyes, knowing there wouldn’t be anything to see. Light didn’t exist for a while after the universe began, so I would have to imagine what was going on as I faded into nothing.
That was when I felt something, the first sensation other than sight or awe I had felt in eons. It was like the shiver you get down your spine when you’re alone, that sense of being watched by something you can’t see, except magnified beyond that a thousand times. I could feel, I could tell, that something was there, with me, outside the realms of time and space. I didn’t hear it, didn’t feel its breath, but I knew it was there, from sense and sense alone. It terrified me.
Slowly, I opened my eyes, and instantly wished I hadn’t. There, in the void, was something I cannot describe, something beyond my ability to do so. I could see it without light, hear it without air, could understand it without reason, but could never describe it in words. It lies beyond all that, beyond light and dark, reason and fallacy, yet somehow encompassing them all. All I can say is that it was big, huge, larger than all the oceans, all the mountains and stars in existence, eternally high and mighty and justly so in every sense of the word. And it was there, staring at me, like it had expected this all along.
It… spoke? No, that’s not the right word to use. It didn’t speak, per say, not in words. In fact, it made no visible signs of communication, either. I just… felt something, something from it, and I knew that it was speaking to me through that feeling. That is, in fact, what disturbs me the most.
What I felt was disappointment.
In an instant, I felt the universe explode around me, pushing me away for this thing, this god. It vanished into the infinite distance, my body hurtling at speeds unimaginable to fastest of beings, the expanse of time and space suddenly snapping back into place. Stars reformed, planets collided, oceans filled the trenches of distant worlds, and this time I felt it all. I was no longer outside the universe, I was in it, and I was experiencing all I had just seen.
I screamed as the sound of space bending around my form deafened me, as my suit disintegrated in the friction of a million gas clouds, as my skin felt the heat of a billion, trillion suns. I felt my brain collapse in my skull, my spine twist into impossible shapes and then snap back again, my consciousness never fading, my body never truly dying. How I wished in that moment that it would.
Then, at once, it all ended. There was a flash of light, the rushing of air around me, and I felt my body slam back into something hard. I couldn’t scream as I felt my body burst into a trillion separate pieces, not even a paste on the surface of… whatever I had landed against. I couldn’t scream as I felt it begin to reform, either, something pulling my body back into place. I felt all the pain of my cells growing again, all the twisting agony as ash became flesh, and skin began to reform on my bare, crimson form. Only when my vocal chords fully reformed did I scream, and even that was for a moment, for as soon as the pain subsided, my mind descended into exhausted unconsciousness.
When I awoke, it was to the smell of burning earth. The only thing I saw when I rose to my newly formed feet was a barren wasteland, a valley of ash and soot miles, hundreds of miles, wide. In the distance, black, burning mountains rose up towards the sky, just as dark as the earth itself.
I sat in that hole, that valley, for a long time. I couldn’t tell what was day or night till the ash began to fall, and the sun began to shine through the sky. Things got much, much colder in that time. I felt my consciousness fade in and out of life as my body died again and again of hypothermia, only to spring back to life seconds after death. I realized that something terrible had happened to me, something that rendered me beyond the reach of death itself. Perhaps it was my act of reversing time in such a way, my rebellious act ripping me from the grasp of that which I sought to defeat. Perhaps it is punishment from God, from whatever that thing was, for so foolishly doing so. I still don’t know.
I spent two days exiting the crater, what I now knew to be the site of my landing. The sun rose and fell two times before I finally made it over the mountains, to the ashen plains beyond. I wasn’t surprised to see the corpses of the creatures I’d killed in my descent, the burnt bodies of the massive reptiles I had helped remove from our planet forever. I just laughed at the absurdity of it all. I did a lot of laughing after that.
I had a long journey ahead of me.