The Man Who Would Cross Time
At the age of thirty-six, standing over a dead man on the floor of his garage, a pool of blood spreading towards him, Dr. Benjamin Jakeley became a polymath. Had the walls been covered with magnetic imaging equipment instead of pegboard, and, had that imaging equipment been trained on him, standing there, holding his glasses by one arm as if forgetting them, his clear blue eyes focusing deep into the man, not seeing him at all, the color-enhanced image of his brain probably would have undone a century of neuroanatomy and evolutionary biology. Not because enough neurons were firing to indicate what would be an epileptic seizure in another man, but because of what he could feel—almost hear—happening, nevermind the absence of pain receptors: the surface of his prefontal cortex folding in on itself the same way a mature star will in its last moments, when, desperate to live, it starts trying to fit more and more into itself.
This is what Dr. Jakeley was doing: trying to fit more and more in. Trying to make sense of the dead man on the floor of his garage at 3:38 in the afternoon, a time of day that, in relation to the garage, was essentially unfamiliar to him, as he was always at the lab then. Even on Sundays. Evidently, his assumption that the garage was no different at 3:38 than it was at 7:15 in the morning or 8:30 at night was baseless. Not a product of the scientific method.
He touched his right temple with the index finger of his right hand, to keep the creaking sound of his brain in his head.
The blood was going to get to his shoe in approximately six seconds.
He tracked it for two of those seconds, recalculating his approximation, suddenly doubting himself—if he'd been wrong about the 3:38 garage, he could be wrong about everything—but then, over the course of the next two seconds, he found the confidence that comes with a superior intellect, and nodded once, a smile curling up from one corner of his mouth.
The key was what he had already locked on: time.
The man lying on his stomach on the slick concrete floor of the garage was obviously the victim of an experiment in time-travel. An experiment that went wrong somewhere. Meaning he was one of the first; otherwise, the apparatus wouldn't have deposited him, dead, in the past. Whether he'd died in transit or not was immaterial; that he was dead didn't even matter all that much. Not to history. Not to science. What did matter was that, his absence in the future, now, meant that time travel was possible.
Dr. Jakeley smiled to himself, took a step back from the blood.
Why here, though? That was his next question. Assuming that the dead man was from decades into the future, not centuries—as suggested by the loose but recognizable clothing, the lack of obvious mutations or enhancements—then the coordinates of his temporal departure would be within inches of the coordinate of his temporal re-entry. Because the earth shifted on its axis and wavered in its orbit, yes, but not that much. It was another thing Dr. Jakeley had never considered before he became a polymath: that the geopositioning coordinates he'd always taken for granted were only stable as regarded space, not time. Just as the stars had been different to the Egyptians of five thousand years ago than they were now, so might his garage occupy a different address in space-time to the Egyptians in five thousand more years.
But there was time for all that later.
And maybe the apparatus was such that it compensated for temporal drift.
For the moment, anyway, Dr. Jakeley felt it was safe to assume either that the dead man on his floor had been standing here at the moment of temporal displacement, or that his—Dr. Benjamin Jakeley's—garage had been targeted.
As the second premise was ludicrous, he followed the first to its logical conclusion: not only had the dead man been standing in this selfsame garage in the future, but the apparatus must have been there as well, to allow him to be here, now.
Dr. Jakeley exhaled hard, his eyes heating up, everything coming fast now: if there was a time machine in this garage in the future, the garage that was now his, then the time machine was probably his. Not only was he going to, at some point, become fascinated with temporal dynamics, but he would also feel it necessary to conduct his experiments in the privacy of his own lab. Due probably to some split at the lab—a grant not granted, a bitterness harbored, an incipient prejudice against revolutionary concepts, a security breach: something.
He was going to build a time machine.
But there was more, too. Not just the man's presence, but the man himself: he was a victim of an accident. An explorer, yes, a noble sacrifice, his head traumatized for science, but still—Dr. Jakeley knew that, whenever he got to the point of human experimentation, whoever he sent through the apparatus would, at the very least, carry some sort of measuring device, or some artifact to leave in the past, to say nothing of rebreathers and environmental suits and the like.
Suggesting that this really was an accident.
Dr. Jakeley shook his head no, quit smiling. Understood it all in a painful instant, just by how old the dead man was: no more than twenty-five. His wife's age now. In the future, though—the dead man's future—Mrs. Jakeley would be fifty. And, it was undeniable, even without his glasses on: the dead man shared her hair color, more or less, and Dr. Jakeley's build. And, if he, the dead man, weren't somehow familiar with the family, why would he even be here in the first place? In the garage?
What it meant was that the dead man on the floor was the son Dr. Jakeley hadn't fathered yet. The one he had probably told time and again not to play with equipment in the garage.
But he was his father's son.
It had cost him his life.
Dr. Jakeley nodded to himself, swallowed, accepting his complicity in this, and looked at the calendar on the wall.
It was going to take him twenty-five years to build the time machine, then.
That sounded about right.
In an effort to avoid whatever cataclysm was going to happen at the lab, make him retreat to his garage, Dr. Jakeley just went ahead and started working in his garage anyway. Not that night—that night he was preserving the body of his son. For science, he kept telling himself, because he couldn't allow sentimentality to corrupt anything. And because, were he to report the body, the law wouldn't know what to do with it, wouldn't even know how to properly test it for what it was. In time, Dr. Jakeley knew, he would develop ways to analyze the body. Just those little ‘side-discoveries' his dissertation director had assured him were always there—the gadgets and plumbing and programs that you always had to improvise to enable your experiments, gadgets which, if you had the right contacts and hadn't signed the wrong papers, could get ported into the economy as velcro, teflon, etcetera.
Maybe that was why he was going to conduct the temporal studies in his own home: because of patent-issues.
But this was going to be bigger than patents, too. Time travel. The ability to go back, possibly undo. Or, just to observe, verify. The possibilities were endless, really.
Yes, this apparatus, it was going to be too big—conceptually—for the consumer shelf. Too big to put a price tag on. Rather, it was going to go directly into the history books, as the moment everything changed.
And it all started with Dr. Jakeley's son.
Perhaps he'd sacrificed himself, even. Perhaps, when Dr. Jakeley, grown conservative with age, hesitated about live, human trials (cadavers posed no moral difficulty), his son, the inheritor of the intellectual fire currently consuming Dr. Jakeley, broke into the garage one night alone, and entered the right sequence of keys.
Dr. Jakeley nodded to himself, pushing kitty litter over the blood on the concrete floor of the garage: a hero.
He wondered what his name was, though?
Stopping the broom mid-sweep, he eyed the chest freezer currently housing the remains of his son. The new padlock he'd installed, to keep Mrs. Jakeley out, for her own sake. The assurances he'd given her about why he needed the freezer space she didn't seem to be using anyway: science. The area to each side of the freezer that he'd already cleared, for the back-up generator and the tank of liquid nitrogen he had planned.
It was going to be beautiful. A shrine, almost.
He stayed in the garage, sweeping, until two in the morning, when he realized with an embarrassed flush—he was a polymath now, after all—that none of this was even going to be happening to him if he stayed out in the garage all night.
On the way into the house, he tapped his first and second knuckles on the lid of the freezer, held them there affectionately—so he wasn't wholly free of emotion—then turned the lights out in each room he walked through, until he had his hand on the bedroom switch.
Mrs. Jakeley looked up to him from the romance novel she was reading. The first one in ages with a price tag instead of a spine label. Meaning she'd just bought it.
"Ben?" she said, something like doubt in her voice.
Dr. Jakeley nodded, started taking off his clothes.
Eight and half months later, Mrs. Jakeley gave birth to the dark-haired son Dr. Jakeley hadn't so much predicted as guaranteed. The boy grew in leaps and bounds across the years. Each time he asked if he could work with Daddy in the garage, Dr. Jakeley would smile mischievously, tousle his son's hair, and tell him no. Insist that he was never, under any circumstances, to monkey with the equipment in the garage.
It was the only way to assure that he eventually would.
And the work, the apparatus, it was right on schedule. Seventeen years after becoming a polymath, Dr. Jakeley successfully sent one apple back through time. At first he thought he'd just vaporized it, possibly banished it to some in-between dimension, but soon discovered that what he'd actually done was radically demature the apple: it was now just a seed.
Dr. Jakeley studied the seed for a long time, then, finally, potted it, let it germinate. Not into just an apple, but an apple tree. It was a good metaphor for the work he was doing, he thought. Maybe this was going to be Adam and Eve, the new Genesis. Maybe this, eight years from now, would be where time was going to go cyclical, start repeating.
In which case, of course—holding to the metaphor (he did plant the tree, after all)—Dr. Jakeley would be analogous to God.
He laughed through his nose. Wondered if sending a mammal back would result in a zygote in his specimen tray.
The beautiful thing was that, aside from the control panel and displacement pad, the apparatus was no larger than four stacked office desks, and used no more electricity than that needed to charge household appliances.
A revolution, truly.
Twenty years into it, over dinner, his son out at some school function, Mrs. Jakeley looked across the table and asked, for only the sixth time, just what it was out in the garage that was taking up all of her husband's spare time?
Dr. Jakeley raised his wineglass to his lips, let it rest, and pictured a support group for science-widows—Mrs. Newton, Mrs. Copernicus, Mrs. Einstein—and introduced his wife to them, smiled over the lip of his glass, and said, simply, "You wouldn't understand."
She didn't look away from him.
"Is it worth it?" she said. "Do you think?"
The question caught Dr. Jakeley off-guard, made his eyes track across the uncomplicated print of the tablecloth.
Instead of answering, he stayed in the garage until two that morning, talking under his breath to his son, in the freezer, who would understand.
Of course it was worth it.
Two days later, he temporally dislodged his first cat. It landed on its feet just outside the window the night Mrs. Jakeley had sat there at dinner, waiting for her husband to answer an impossible question.
It hissed, scampered away.
Dr. Jakeley toasted it silently, with the slightest flick of his eyes.
When his son was twenty-two years old, he graduated from college. Dr. Jakeley attended the ceremony, on the insistent elbow of Mrs. Jakeley. What he couldn't tell her, for her own sake—technically, she would be a monomath, he supposed, compared to him—was that none of this mattered. That, for all intents and purposes, his life had become strictly teleological the day he came home early from the lab after a power failure and found the unexplainable dead man on the floor of his otherwise normal garage.
Not unexplainable, though: difficult to explain. Requiring a great intellect.
Dr. Jakeley sat down where his wife indicated, clapped when she clapped.
The only glitch with the time machine now was that it still dematured a specimen every now and again. Even when all the calibrations were the same. Meaning it had to have something to do with the nature of the specimen itself, something his equipment, cobbled together as it was, was too limited to detect. At the subatomic level, maybe. Or the macroscopic: perhaps there were undulations in the time field itself, from some event so large and so ancient that even a polymath couldn't easily conceive of it. To get at the true nature of the event, you would need an autist, a savant. Dr. Jakeley bit the end of his thumbnail. His wife shrugged her shoulder against him.
"There he goes," she said.
Dr. Jakeley looked up, focused.
His son, graduating into a sea of flash bulbs.
Dr. Jakeley smiled, said to himself that, if there had been an event big enough to ripple time, then his successful time displacements must be happening at some fortuitous place along the crest of the wave, maybe, or a still point in the trough.
But even the non-successes—it was hard to call them failures—weren't that disastrous: a neighborhood dog became a puppy again; a shoe became its composite elements.
And, anyway, it didn't matter: the moment his son was going to choose to time-travel was already going to be at one of those fortuitous places in the undulating time-field. The evidence was in his freezer, in the garage.
Dr. Jakeley smiled about this, clapped on impulse, and his wife and everyone else in their section opened their eyes, looked at him.
It was a prayer, whatever they called a prayer at these things: convocation?
Dr. Jakeley pursed his lips into a smile, lowered his head.
Two years later, their son safely out in the world, Mrs. Jakeley filed for divorce.
Because he traded her everything else—the stock portfolio he hadn't even known about, most of his retirement account, rights to any patents coming out of their thirty-two years together (which his lawyer conceded because she was going to have a hard time ever establishing the eureka moment, ha ha)—Dr. Jakeley got to the keep the house, the garage.
As he expected, Mrs. Jakeley sent their son over to check up on him at regular intervals. Groceries, utilities, the lawn—all the stuff Dr. Jakeley no longer had time for.
In order to insure the future, the past, he gave his son the copy of the key he'd taken from Mrs. Jakeley twenty-five years ago, to protect her from his work. It opened the back door of the garage.
"So I can go in now?" the son said, still holding the new thing the key was.
"No," Dr. Jakeley said, smiling on the inside.
His son shrugged, tongued his lip out. Surveyed the grounds. They were standing on the front porch.
"You know she still loves you," he said.
Dr. Jakeley nodded. His son said it every time, was still trying to fix them. Maybe that was why he was going to go back in time, he thought. Not for science, but love.
Dr. Jakeley liked that. Even polymaths have a sense of the romantic, even if they don't often have time to indulge it.
"It was just—just that you were always out here," his son said, gesturing towards the garage.
Dr. Jakeley nodded, looked at the garage with his son, not saying anything because, as always, the world was so delicately balanced: one wrong word and his son might go careening down some different path altogether, never take that step into the past.
Dr. Jakeley blinked back tears, saw his son off, holding the muscular back of his son's arm in the grip of his own infirm hand. It was as close as he'd ever come to a hug.
That night, he called Mrs. Jakeley. She'd given him all her new numbers.
"Benjamin?" she said.
Dr. Jakeley nodded, massaged his forehead. Told her he was sorry.
"For the last twenty-four years?" she said, finally, trying to match the grandness, the all-encompassingness, of his tone.
He shook his head no, said it inside: For the next one.
For their son.
He hung up, realized in the way all polymaths eventually will, the truth of the matter, the metaphor he was all wrapped up in—the story.
It wasn't Adam and Eve. That had been hubris, a simple expression of the ego needed to manage a superior intellect. His way of dealing with the responsibility of shepherding all of humanity into a new world.
No, not Adam and Even at all. More like Abraham and Isaac.
His god was asking him to sacrifice his own son.
That he'd already been sacrificed was immaterial.
And, perhaps—Dr. Jakeley conceded that he didn't really know—perhaps the world was all right as it was. Didn't need the complication of temporal displacement. Someday, yes, but—Dr. Jakeley was an aberration himself, advanced generations beyond what he should have been, just by the need to explain a dead man on the floor of his garage.
The only consequence of his son not going back would be that, maybe, time would get a little bit polluted. Instead of having stayed home the last twenty-four years to work in his garage, the young Dr. Benjamin Jakeley would instead excel at work, in some other field. Give his wife the marriage she deserves.
That night, with trembling hands, he changed the lock to the garage, and tried not to listen when it occurred to him (as it had to) that maybe this was the way it was supposed to go. Maybe the accident was going to have to do with his son having to break into the garage.
The twenty-fifth year, as if it had all been pre-ordained, Dr. Jakeley's wife called him with the rehearsed news of her new illness. She had months, maybe. Dr. Jakeley set the phone back down into its cradle and held his hand there, wondered what he'd done with his life.
That night his son came over and cried and Dr. Jakeley wanted so badly to tell him that he wasn't going to die now. That he didn't have to. But then he realized, too, that it would just be more playing God, putting his hand on his son's shoulder, telling him he was going to live forever, now. Long enough, anyway.
And that his son's mother, she wasn't.
For one drunk moment, Dr, Jakeley considered going back in time, warning Mrs. Jakeley of the consequences of this pill, that chemical, whatever it was that was killing her, but then he shut his eyes against the possibility. Because you can't just change one thing. Science fiction had told him that long ago. And, the thing that was killing her, the doctors might call it by its clinical name, but he was a doctor too, knew the truth: that he had killed her, with twenty-five years of loneliness.
Over the course of her dying, he disassembled and reassembled the apparatus countless times, just to keep his hands busy, and then, long before he could prepare himself, he was walking into her hospital room the morning after the night they had just been able to get her heart beating again.
On the way in, guilty, he'd stopped to buy her roses in the gift shop only to lose his nerve at the last instant, dug a paperback out instead, from the box the clerk was stocking from. A romance, because she used to read them. Walking up the hall he laughed about it a bit, flipped it open the way he used to when they were dating, to commit the last line to memory, so he could work it into their conversations over and over while she was reading it—so she'd never get what he was saying until she got there, to the end. He patted the book into the palm of his hand in cadence with his steps, shook his head in wonder, knew in the way only he could that irony was wanting the last twenty-five years back, and having the ability to take them back, but denying the possibility on what came down to moral grounds. Or, simple trepidation, really, which he'd come to understand was at the base of many of humanity's so-called moral principles.
Whatever it was, it hurt.
He lowered his head, walked into her room, and she looked over at him from behind her tubes and sheets and read-outs and—for the first time since the night they conceived their son—her eyes filled with tears.
She was reaching for him, saying it as if reciting it: " . . . and then he asked me if I wanted to come with him."
Dr. Jakeley opened his mouth to object, to try to shake this off, to breathe, to keep his scalp from crawling off his head: it was the line he'd just read. He looked down to the romance, then up from it again, trying to make sense, to change the world around him again so that it fit these circumstances. Like in the garage at 3:38 in the afternoon twenty-five years ago, his brain folded one more time. Realization washed over him, into the capillaries of his face, the base of his jaw, the pit of his stomach. He flipped the book open, turned the title page over, for the copyright: it was next year, one of those books that comes out a couple of months early.
Not a book she could have read already, if she even read romances anymore.
There was only one explanation for this: she hadn't read the book in the last week, but sometime farther back than that. Much farther, probably, judging by the look on her face. What he'd done, unwittingly, was bring a charged object— an artifact—into her room at precisely the right moment.
It was too much to be coincidence.
This, evidently, was the second time he was showing her this book.
The first he didn't remember yet.
Like the cat he'd sent two days into the past, Dr. Jakeley landed on his feet. It was twenty-five years ago. A seemingly arbitrary date to show his wife the novel, but an economical one: not only could he charge the book with meaning now, make what might be her last day on earth special—keep it special: maintenance, maintenance—but he could also, just maybe, save his son's life.
That the apparatus was only charged enough to send one of them back hardly mattered. Dr. Jakeley's life was over anyway. Now, with this one act, he could finally do something good, something for his family. Something they deserved.
In the pocket of his slacks, the romance, the copyright year neatly marked out now.
In his hand, the old key to the house.
He stood on the slick concrete of the garage for just long enough to orient himself, then crossed the back lawn, held the handle to the kitchen door only a nostalgic fraction of a second before pulling it open, his ears tuned for the electric pop in the garage that was going to announce his son.
The clock in the kitchen, though.
Dr. Jakeley smiled: 2:51.
In nine minutes, Mrs. Jakeley home from . . . from the library. That's where she worked then. God, it was all coming back now.
For eight of the minutes he had, in anticipation, just nervous maybe, Dr. Jakeley emptied the chest freezer in the garage, packing the freezer, cavalierly throwing away the stuff that wouldn't fit then hiding it under napkins he had to crumple and uncrumple over and over, to make them look natural.
At exactly 3:00, at the lab, the power failed. Dr. Jakeley stopped pacing the kitchen with the romance, set it down on the counter, looked in the lab's general direction.
In the confusion of the dead man on the floor of his garage that day, he'd neglected to ever track down the source of the power failure.
But now he knew: it was him, his temporal displacement.
The reason the failure wasn't immediate was that a series of transformers had to blow, all the way across town. A certain sequence of events had to occur first, before the lab's power could go down, sending everyone home for the day. A certain sequence of events starting with him. Turning to the sound of Mrs. Jakeley's car in the driveway, his hand on the countertop felt immeasurable heavy, ponderous, his eyes suddenly wide.
This wasn't a game.
When the front door opened, Dr. Jakeley flattened himself against the pantry, stopped breathing. Tried to prepare himself for how Mrs. Jakeley was going to look, tried in a matter of seconds to train himself not to overlay the image of her dying in bed, her life given for his.
But then she was there, and the book was in his hand, and he was sweeping her up, spinning with her across the floor of the kitchen, crying that he loved her, that he missed her, that, God, he wished, he wished he'd never—
She stopped him with her lips on his.
They fell against the counter together, the scientist and the librarian, husband and wife, and for the first time in their marriage, in their lives, made love somewhere other than the bedroom. Afterwards, standing against the refrigerator, her head buried in his chest, his hand stroking her hair, he said it out loud, like old times, like the times that hadn't come yet: "And then he asked her to come with him."
"He did?" she said back, unsure but willing.
"Yes," Dr. Jakeley said back, and closed his eyes, whispered to her that he was sorry, so sorry, that it hadn't been worth it, not even close, and, when she looked up to him, said it—"What?"—his brain folded again. Not in the way a scientist's mind folds, around a new discovery, a new truth, but in the way a husband's folds: around jealousy, around suspicion.
He held her by the upper arms, looked into her face.
"How did you—how did you know me?" he said, calmly, but she didn't understand, and then the scientist in Dr. Jakeley got it: she'd recognized him at his current age because he'd been back before, later. After this trip, he must have made another, displaced himself farther back into her life. Maybe, unable to control himself, he'd even watched her grow up. Not wanted to lose a single instant.
"Ben?" she said, and he realized he'd quit talking, that he was scaring her.
"It's okay," he said, pulling her to him again, holding her head to his chest once and forever—that was how they talked in the romance novel—and then a single napkin lifted from the counter, undulated, reminding him that this world, the past, was in motion.
He nodded to himself, stepped away from her.
It was almost time.
"The garage," he said, as if ashamed, and Mrs. Jakely turned her head towards it, not understanding, and Dr. Jakeley smiled to himself: at this point in their marriage, the garage wasn't yet an excuse, an explanation for where he was going to be spending another evening. "Just for a minute," he said, looking a the clock built into the stove, then away. 3:24. He blew air out his nose, something like a laugh, and nodded to himself again, that he had to do it, had to leave. Except he didn't seem to be able to let go of Mrs. Jakeley's hand anymore, was running through possibilities at a blur, trying to rationalize one more minute here, one more lifetime.
But he was a scientist.
Instead of saying anything to Mrs. Jakely, risking his voice cracking, giving him away, he let his hand trail from hers, lifted his other in farewell, as if he was just going to be gone long enough to get whatever he had to get from the garage, and stepped through the screen door, didn't look at the sidewalk under his feet but the way the empty laundry line in the backyard was cutting the sky in two, staggering it with clothespins.
The next time he looked up, it was into his own face, in the reflection of the window in the garage door. Already, as if part of him had always known what secrets the garage was going to hold, he'd lined the backside of the glass with black felt. That wasn't what stopped his hand at the lock, though. What stopped his hand was that, for a moment, he didn't recognize himself.
A man of lesser intellect would have screamed.
Dr. Jakeley, however, after turning his face—his reflection—to the side to check, understood in a flash: he'd stepped into the time field at the wrong point, had dematured twenty-five years. Was again the man he had once been. As he opened the door his brain was already processing the most likely—most obvious, most seductive—equation for immortality, checking for holes, for flawed reasoning, missed assumptions, places in his logic where nostalgia might be getting in the way of science.
There were no holes, though.
He let the door swing closed behind him, the lock catching automatically, and finally breathed.
It could work. All he had to do, was—was not touch the pale ring of light in the middle of the garage, dial it back up. Just let that portal close. Then . . . then replace himself. As simple as that. It would be violent, yes, but he'd done things to neighborhood dogs already, in the name of science. And it would be himself, anyway. He covered his mouth with his hand: a form of suicide. But no, not suicide. Euthanasia. Cutting off the withered limb, the version of himself that was going to neglect his family for twenty-five years. He was going to be the one in the freezer, only now it wouldn't be a shrine, but a simple storage unit. One Mrs. Jakeley could never find.
He would have twenty five years, after all. Twenty five years to build a time machine he could now build in two, at his leisure. A time machine he could build then save for that mark in the future he'd accidentally photographed with his mind as he'd left: 1:23:51. He'd liked the symmetry of it, the way the numbers added. That was the point in the future he had to step back into the time field, the point which would demature him again, then again, then again, until he'd lived forever. With his family, the way it should have been.
That was the real purpose of time travel, he now understood: not science, the collection of data, but the righting of past wrongs.
There were no bible stories for this, because this was beyond the biblical: the passive sins he'd committed as a father and a husband could now be erased.
And even if they weren't, it didn't matter: he was going to live forever.
What's more, he deserved it. It wasn't fair to lock a true polymath up in the prison of one body for a mere seventy years. Instead, he should be able to get back what he'd had to trade, get back all those years spent assembling the apparatus.
He looked at the clock on the wall of the garage—3:31—then, when the hair on the back of his neck physically moved, registering wind, breeze, air—breath?—turned, squinted at the figure standing in the door, backlit by the sun.
The first thing he said was the thing he was most afraid of, the thing that could ruin all of this: his son's name.
The man in the door stepped in, shook his head no, once, and again Dr. Jakeley didn't recognize his own face at first.
The man standing before him wasn't a reflection in glass, but time: himself, twenty five years ago. Now.
Dr. Jakeley smiled, took a step back, shook his head no. Said, "You're not supposed to be here for seven more minutes."
The man he had been followed him into the room, his eyes flicking for the briefest instant to the blue fuzz of the collapsing portal, the chest-level temporal shadow of the console Dr. Jakeley had designed so he could reach through the portal, manipulate the controls.
Dr. Jakeley looked back to it as well, then back to himself.
"Beautiful, isn't she?" he said, and then the man he had been pushed him back into it.
If the portal had been dilated, he would have fallen through, into the future. As it was, he just hit his shoulder on the control board.
He quit smiling.
"You don't—" he started, then saw that he, the him from here, was crying. His face, wet. "You're not a . . . a—" Dr. Jakeley started, touching his own temple, the many folds of his own brain.
Of course: he wasn't going to be a polymath for seven more minutes still. He didn't have the faculties to make sense of seeing himself doubled, twinned, stepping out of the mirror.
But then the man he had been spoke, his voice stilted, unnatural: "I saw you through the window, sir."
Dr. Jakeley opened his mouth, had nothing. Looked into the back wall of the garage, the wall closest to the house.
"With the key, too," the other him added.
Dr. Jakeley looked at it in his hand, then up to the wall again, and felt he was going to hyperventilate with awareness: the him from now had gotten home early, seen Dr. Jakeley making love on the kitchen floor with his wife, then, while he'd been appreciating the laundry line, the sky, the other him had been standing by the door. Focusing on the key to the garage for some reason.
Dr. Jakeley held it up, said, "But it's mine."
The other Dr. Jakeley shook his head no, held his own up. Said, "There's only two. Mine, and hers."
Dr. Jakeley laughed then—this was ridiculous—and looked to the clock: 3:34.
That he had what the other him thought was his wife's key had to just confirm what he didn't believe his monomathic eyes had just relayed to him: his wife making love on the floor of the kitchen of their home with a stranger. One who looked just like himself.
"You didn't even use anything," the Dr. Jakeley from twenty five years ago said, stepping forward, crying harder now, blubbering even, in a way Dr. Jakelely could clearly never remember doing. He held out his hand, the key, felt sorry for him.
His other self slapped the key away. It slid into the base of the door they'd just walked through.
"But I'm . . . I'm you," Dr. Jakelely said, making as if to touch first the other Dr. Jakeley's chest, then his own, draw an invisible line, but the other Dr. Jakeley just shook his head no.
"Impossible," he said, his voice insistent, teeth set. "You would have had to—had to . . . "
Come back in time, Dr. Jakeley tried to lead him, inside, and then, just as the other Dr. Jakeley started to make the connection, maybe, the door to the house opened, shut, and they both turned to it.
"Christy," the other Dr. Jakeley said, with his normal voice, and Dr. Jakeley felt a smile spread across his face, nodded, said it out loud as if for the first time: "Christy, yeah."
It brought the other Dr. Jakeley's arms forward again.
He pushed Dr. Jakeley hard, away from his wife, from even his wife's name, from the memory of what he'd seen them doing on the floor of the kitchen, and Dr. Jakeley, forgetting he wasn't twenty five years older, let himself be thrown back.
When his face came into the contact with the control board, the world exploded, the board hitting back it seemed, amplifying the blow across time, probably revealing the fundamental nature of one of the basic, underlying forces of the universe, probably, if Dr. Jakeley could just concentrate on it.
He couldn't, though.
The portal was already closing above where he lay, the hard shadow of the other world dilating down to a point, then less than that.
With his eye that still worked, the last part of him alive, maybe, he could see the scientist he had once been, his glasses in his hand, standing in the middle of the garage, focusing on nothing—focusing inside, trying so hard to make sense of all this, to reconcile impossible but mutually exclusive facts, each of which were undeniably true.
The effort left him catatonic. Changing into somebody else, the only thing working on him anymore his jaw, opening and closing so his ear could pop, balance out the immense pressure in his head. Balance out the guilt of having killed a man. Of having killed yourself, yet still be standing.
Dr. Jakeley nodded, seeing this from the other side now, and then the third set of keys in this timeline turned in the door.
Mrs. Jakeley—Christy—stepped part of the way in, the ball joint of her thumb immediately rising to the hollow of her throat.
"Ben?" she whispered, looking from one to the other, her face pale, drained, and Dr. Jakeley, as best as he still could, nodded, closed his eyes once to her, trying to say everything with them all at once, and, finally, slowly, she nodded, said it—"Science"—and he smiled about it, understood at last who the true polymath was, then looked to the clock again. 3:38. Time. He nodded, accepting this too, then looked one last time to his wife, bending to collect his keys from the concrete, hold them in her fist, close to her throat, an awareness in her now that she was going to keep inside for twenty five years, until it started burning a hole in her, and he closed his eyes, hoped that some earlier him was going to go back later, save her.
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