Timed Out

Jez Patterson

“If time travel is possible, where are the tourists from the future?”
Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time

“We can see the ghosts, but they can’t see us?” Manuel asked. The guide, a tall Argentine called Alvaro, had already been shooting glances at Manuel during the tour. Now, he smiled perfect teeth and said:

“Oh, yes. They can see us.”

“I’m glad I did my hair, then,” Manuel said, flicking his curls back, relieved that Alvaro was taking the touch of camp the wrong way. Natalia was in a bad mood, hadn’t wanted to take the Past-times Walk, and was being more-catty-than-catwalk today.

“Then why can’t we talk to them?” she suddenly demanded, but Alvaro smiled at her in such a way that Manuel wondered if he’d misread Alvaro’s compass.

“What you’re seeing is something that has already happened. The past. All the people you see would be ghosts in our time because, sadly, with the timescale involved, they’d all be dead. We’re not seeing dead people, though. We’re seeing images that have already happened. Done, dusted, over. Hence we can’t interact with them.”

“But you said they could see us,” Natalia insisted.

“As ghosts, right. We’re like Scrooge’s last visitor. The ghosts of things to come. But because we can’t change what’s already happened, we can’t do anything but observe. We can’t interact.”

“What if I wrote down a message now, held it up, and then came back a week later… Surely the person would have seen the message and then they would have time to respond to it.”

“No.” Alvaro laughed and Manuel resented both the amount of time Natalia was monopolising the guide and the fact that her tail was up and she was in for a stubborn fight to prove she was right, ruining his own chances with the guide when they got back to their own time.

“Why not?”

“Because we’re not able to change what happens, merely observe it.”

“But they are.”

“Unfortunately not. Although they see us, they can’t respond--because they didn’t the first time around…when we weren’t there.”

“But that would mean…” Natalia was scratching her head, oblivious of all the other members of the tour group who just wanted to see the 2010 World Cup they’d come to visit, when Spain would win its first final. “Well, that it’s actually the future that can’t be changed. I mean, they can’t change what they’re going to do even though we show them means that it’s not the past that’s static—it can’t be, because we’re here, we’re in it and you said we weren’t before—but the future.

“That would also be the reason why we can return to the point in time when we left, but not travel any further into the future.”

Natalia was furious about something as she glared at the guide. Alvaro nodded for the rest of their party to go on ahead and join those already filtering into Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium.

“You’re telling me my future is set and there’s nothing I can do about changing it?” Natalia asked him. “That I can’t even see what’s happening? Well, unless a future time traveller comes back and holds up a sign or picture of how things turned out. And even then all I can do is sit tight, teeth gritted, and let my future just happen?”

“Nati,” Manuel said, putting a hand on her wrist. It was cold, damp, the muscle beneath tight as wet stone, and she yanked it away. “You’re telling me I can’t stop anything from happening that’s already happened to my future self?”

“That’s kind of right,” Alvaro said. “Because future is a perception and not a reality, your future is only future as far as you’re concerned. For those looking back, who lived after you, your future is their past.”

“And they’ve already happened?”

“Everything has already happened. Everything that will ever happen, has happened. Put simply: we reached the end.”

Manuel felt a shiver run down his spine. “You mean I’m dead? We’re all dead?” he asked.

“I mean that the moment time travel became possible was because time itself became a meaningless concept. It was passive. Like a dead snake that will no longer rear up and bite you if you poke it in different places along its body. It finally allowed two contradicting concepts: the past cannot be changed, and the theoretical possibility of time travel. This is the only way both are compatible.”

“When there is no future left to disrupt…” Natalia said.

“I’m dead?” Manuel repeated.

“We all die, Mani!” Natalia snapped. “Just get over it!”

It was his time to round on her, though. Best friend or not, there was a cute guide to consider and, anyway, his emotions were as important as hers.

“We-ell, sor-ry, Señorita Perfectita! I don’t know who’s chewed a chunk out of your ass today, but you’re being a total bitch.”

“I saw a ghost before we left. Visiting me. My daughter.”

“Your daughter?” Manuel asked, running round in front of her and giving both her arms a squeeze. “Well, get you, Mamita!”

“She showed me a message telling me I was going to die giving birth to her.”

“Oh…” Manuel turned the arm squeeze into a hug, for the first time forgetting about Alvaro, who watched them with sympathetic detachment. As Natalia’s shoulders hitched up and fell several times, Manuel pushed her away and lined up his eyes with hers. “Ignore the guide, he doesn’t know everything.”

But Natalia raked her sleeve over her nose. “He will. He’s the father.”

The emotion that struck was inappropriate, selfish, outrageous--when Manuel was able to calm himself after and think about how he’d reacted. But it came before he was able to stop it.

“Say what?” He looked between the two of them, Alvaro for the first time losing his cool, pressing a finger to his chest and mouthing ‘What, me?’

One of the fathers,” Natalia said through her sniffles.

“How many do you need, girl?” Manuel said, hand on hip, not yet losing his indignation.

“Not me, my daughter. She needed two. You and Alvaro. You adopt her. Well, when I say ‘adopt’, Alvaro was the biological father. He donated, not impregnated.”

Alvaro’s eyes were bulging as he stared, mouth hanging open.

Manuel didn’t know what to feel, nor precisely what he was feeling.

“She was beautiful,” Natalia said. “I wish I could see more of her…”

“Shush now, shush…” Manuel said.

Alvaro cleared his throat. “Er…her father happens to work for the leading Time-visits agency there is? So I predict she’ll be flying back every evening…”

Manuel smiled over Natalia’s shoulder at his future husband. “Not till the little squirt’s done her homework,” he said.

Natalia nodded, sniffling, finally—Manuel was pleased to see—using a handkerchief rather than her sleeve.

“You’d better do a good job, dopes. Or I’ll come back to haunt you. Or forward. Or whatever it takes.”

“Sure, Ghost-mama. Sure…”

Arm in arm, the three walked towards the stadium where the vuvuzela horns and screams of the crowd seemed to welcome their own moment of triumphant resolution.

© Jez Patterson 2017 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 19:11 Wed 22 Feb 2017
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