Rewound

A SciFi Short Story by Paul Stansbury

Rewound

Paul Stansbury

 

Paul Stansbury is a lifelong native of Kentucky. He is the author of Inversion – Not Your Ordinary Stories; Inversion II _- Creatures, Fairies, and Haints, Oh My!; Inversion III – The Lighter Shades of Greys; and Down By the Creek – Ripples and Reflections. _His speculative fiction stories have appeared in a number of print anthologies as well as a variety of online publications. Now retired, he lives in Danville, Kentucky.

www.paulstansbury.com

www.facebook.com/paulstansbury/

 

Dane Hartdegen had not seen his twin brother, Clarke, in at least fifteen years. That had been at the funeral of their mother. Two weeks later, Clarke left his very lucrative research position in Silicon Valley to go ‘off the grid’ as he explained in a cryptic, one sentence email. Dane drove up to Santa Barbara only to find Clarke had moved out of his apartment, leaving no forwarding address. Calls and texts to his cell phone went unanswered, as did emails. He just disappeared.

Now, Dane found himself driving down a narrow Nebraska road about a hundred miles out of anywhere, checking his GPS for the spot where he should find a dirt path that would lead to his brother. He had received a letter four days earlier from Clarke, saying it was imperative he come right away. It had included nothing else other than the coordinates and instructions to turn left and go to the end of the path. It was postmarked Harrisburg, Nebraska. At first, Dane thought it might be a hoax, but immediately decided no one he knew had enough initiative to construct anything so elaborate. He was angry at the notion his brother would just issue him a summons to appear after fifteen years of silence. That took some nerve. He thought to ignore Clarke’s letter, but curiosity and resentment got the better of him, so he reluctantly bought an airline ticket to the Cheyenne Regional Airport. He made up his mind to scorch Clarke if it turned out to be a wild goose chase.

He rented a car and set out. The gently rolling farm fields of Wyoming transitioned seamlessly into the gently rolling farm fields of Nebraska. After an hour and a half, he reached Harrisburg, then headed north until he reached the GPS coordinates. There, he found the dirt path heading out to the left, disappearing over a low rise. He began to feel some relief that this probably was not a wild goose chase, but he still resolved to rip his brother a new one. On the other side, the path stretched ahead through an array of solar panels. His perturbation at the prospect of confronting his brother after all these years increased as he bumped along.

A mile and a half later, the path ended at a small building. It looked like a concrete outhouse with a steel door. He parked next to a white panel van. The dust caught up, swirling around the windshield. He waited until it settled before he got out. The entrance sat at the base of a low, broad hill. He looked around. No one in sight. He peeked in the driver’s side window of the van. Nothing. He walked up to the structure. A double door sat recessed one foot into the concrete. Taped to the door was a handwritten note reading, ‘Push the button’. An arrow pointed to the right. Shielding his eyes from the bright Nebraska sun, Dane found a small intercom box. He studied it for a moment, gathering courage. He decided to see this thing through no matter what the consequences and pushed the button.

Nothing happened. He pushed the button again, anger welling up. He was about to turn away when a scratchy voice came over the intercom. “Hi Dane, been a long time.”

“Clarke?”

“Who else? Look up at the camera so I can see your face.” Dane looked up to where the overhang met the wall and saw the glint of a lens in the shadows. “Dane, you haven’t aged a day, since I saw you last.”

“Clarke, what the hell is this all about? I haven’t seen your sorry mug or heard so much as a peep from you in fifteen years.” Dane heard a click, then the door swung open. A rush of cold air poured out. It was followed by an old man.

Dane stared at the balding, white haired figure. He looked like Clarke only older, much older. “Who are you?”

“Dane, It’s me.”

The voice sounded like Clarke’s. “Me who?” asked Dane.

“Me, Clarke, your twin brother. Your older brother by three minutes.”

“No way in hell my brother Clarke would be an old broke down reprobate like you. Where is he? No more BS. Tell me where Clarke is or I’ll have the Nebraska State Patrol out here in a heartbeat.”

“I know you are finding this hard to process, but I am your brother. A lot has happened in the last fifteen years. There’s things I need to tell you.” He reached out for Dane, who recoiled.

Dane wondered what he had gotten himself into. “Not so fast with the touchy, touchy. I don’t know you or what you’re up to. I came here to find my brother Clarke and if I don’t see him right now, I’m gonna call the police.” Dane reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone.

The old man pulled his arm back and blurted, “Syndactyly!”

“What?”

“Syndactyly, the fusion of two or more digits of the feet. An unusual trait in humans. Something you and I share as twins. The second and third toes on our right foot are webbed, to be exact.”

“Clarke could have told you that.”

The old man kicked off his shoe and pulled the sock off his right foot. “When we were eighteen, you and I got tattoos on those very same toes. ‘Dane’ on yours and ‘Clarke’ on mine. As I remember, it stung like a bee sting. We joked that if we ever died skinny dipping, the authorities could use them to tell us apart. I never thought I would have to use it to prove who I am to my own brother.” He held his right foot out in the sunlight. Albeit faded, Dane immediately recognized the tattoo.

“I don’t understand,” he said, looking at the old man he now realized may very well be his twin brother. “What’s happened to you? If you’re my brother, you’re a forty five year old man, not a senior citizen. You haven’t got progeria or some other rare aging disease do you?”

Come inside and I’ll explain.” Clarke motioned for Dane to go inside. “Watch your step, it’s hard to see coming in from the sunlight.” Dane entered and paused a moment to let his eyes adjust. As he started down a long flight of steps, he could hear the door shut behind him, snuffing out the last of the outside light. Industrial lamp fixtures cast a dim light in the narrow stairwell. He guessed they were about twenty feet below ground when the stairs ended in a small vestibule. A set of doors were on the right. Clarke moved by him and pushed through into a second vestibule. Dane followed. There were doors on either side. Clarke pointed toward the doors on the right and Dane entered to find another set of stairs. They ended at yet another set of doors. A keypad on the wall blinked red. Clarke entered a series of numbers and the lock clicked open.

They entered a circular room about 40 feet in diameter stuffed with old furniture and antiques. Off to one side was a small area with recliner, bed, and kitchenette. “Home sweet home,” said Clarke. The space reminded Dane of the eclectic antique stores and flea markets down in the historic district but with an efficiency apartment thrown in. “What is this place? You’re not a hoarder are you?”

First floor of an Atlas F missile launch control center, answered Clarke. “And no, I am not a hoarder. Just some things I picked up on my travels so to speak. There is another floor below this. That is where my workshop and all my equipment are located. It’s completely surrounded by metal. Practically speaking, it’s designed to withstand almost anything, including earthquakes. When it was built, it was believed even if a nuclear bomb struck nearby, it would be unaffected. It was also designed to protect against magnetic pulse, which makes it particularly useful for my purposes. On the other side,” he said, pointing toward the door, “is the missile silo. It sits underneath the hill you saw behind the entrance. Best of all, it’s far away from prying eyes.”

“Geez, Clarke, you could’ve collected antiques in Santa Barbara. You didn’t have to quit your job and become a recluse. But that’s not what concerns me most. You haven’t answered my question. What’s happened to you? You look like an eighty year old man.”

“I need to sit a while,” Clarke said. He walked to the other side of the room and sat down in the old green recliner. “I’m sorry, only have one comfy chair, never planned to entertain.” He pointed toward a table and chair a few feet away. Sit over there or bring it up closer if you like.”

Dane pulled the chair close to Clarke. “OK, if you are finished rearranging the furniture, I am still waiting for your answer. Do I have to repeat my question?”

“Time,” said Clarke.

“Don’t jerk me around. Cut the crap Clarke, I know time makes everyone grow old, but that doesn’t explain what I see happening with you. I need a straight answer from you or I’m leaving. I’ve already had a long day and I’m in no mood for this.”

“Time Travel.”

“Clarke, you know how this sounds. You need help…”

“Wait,” Clarke interrupted, “before you jump to conclusions. I tell you I am a time traveler. Now, hear me out.” He looked Dane in the eye. Satisfied his brother was paying attention, he continued, “While working at Avant Technologies, I got interested in the physics of time travel. I began my own sidebar research. Constrained by corporate bureaucracy, I decided to strike out on my own. To say the least, Avant Technologies was less than amicable at my departure and brought the full force of their legal Visigoths down on my head to prevent me from doing any private research. They pointed to some fine print provision on intellectual property in the employment contract I had signed. I knew they’d dog me till my dying day, so when they offered to release my 401k and sweeten it up with a generous payout for a lifetime no compete/no research agreement, I jumped on it. Of course I had other plans, so I took that and my savings and dropped off the grid to pursue my own research. After looking around for the right spot, I found this place and have been here ever since. That is, except when I rewind.”

“Rewind?” asked Dane.

“That’s what I call travelling to the past.”

“Clarke, you know time travel isn’t possible.”

“Oh, not only is it possible, but it is also a given fact that everyone who ever existed has time traveled. Why you and I have been time traveling together since you arrived. Creeping ever forward in time.”

“Well of course everyone travels forward in time. It’s this rewinding as you call it that isn’t possible.”

“How do you know it’s not possible?”

“The laws of physics say it’s not.”

“Well, at one time, the laws of physics said the world was flat and resided at the center of the universe. That’s pretty much been debunked. I suppose I could take the next week explaining to you the first ten years of my research in worm holes and cosmic strings. Then I could take another day or two to review the construction of my time rewinder. But the truth is, Dane, my dear brother, you degreed in fine arts.”

“Is that a cheap shot?”

“No offense intended. A fine arts degree is indeed a fine and noble accomplishment and a true benefit to society. But it’s not theoretical physics.”

“Agreed. So where does that leave us?”

“I think a practical demonstration would be the only method sufficient enough to convince you rewinding is possible.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I propose to rewind you.”

“For the sake of argument, even if I really thought you had discovered how to time travel, I wouldn’t agree to do it.”

“Why not, Dane? It’s easier than getting your toe tattooed.”

“Well, when I asked you what had happened to make you look so old, you said it was time travel.”

“What you see is the cumulative effect of hundreds of rewinds. I have come to believe that rewinding somehow causes the traveler to age prematurely. I think it has to do with how far back the rewind goes and how long it lasts. The first hundred or so times, I experienced no noticeable changes. But as I rewound more and more, the aging started and began to progress at an increasing rate with each rewind.”

“And having said that, you would still want me to do this rewind thing?”

“How else can I convince you? As I said, I believe a single small rewind would have negligible, if any, effect.”

“I still think this is a delusion. Sitting around in this bunker with all this old junk has driven you bonkers.”

“Where do you think I got all this?” Clarke asked. “I picked up some souvenirs on my rewinds.”

“This just gets better and better. You want me to believe you quit a great job and spent fifteen years living like a mole so you could go back in time and scavenge this junk? Clarke, this is nuts, totally nuts. I don’t buy what you’re trying to sell with this time travel phantasy of yours. I think you are sick, both physically and mentally. I believe we’ve got to get you some medical and psychological help right now, right this minute.”

“Let me make you a proposition, Dane. You say you don’t believe in time travel. If that’s true, then nothing will happen when I try to rewind you. If that be the case, I’ll do whatever you wish without argument or resistance. On the other hand, if you find you indeed were rewound, you will hear me out. What have you got to lose?”

“I’m gonna call your bluff. If I agree, what’s involved?”

“I will be at the controls below. You will go outside to the top of the hill beside the entrance. There is a large stone in the ground. I have a big magnet buried underneath. Stand on the stone. You will feel a fleeting sensation similar to what you experience when a rollercoaster starts its downhill run. Everything will blur, then the next thing you see will be the past. It’ll look like a misty morning on the bay, but that is normal. Well, normal for rewinding. I’ll set the rewind for the moment just before you turned on the dirt path. You should be able to follow your approach until you park. I will then bring you back.”

“Ha, wouldn’t I have seen myself when I drove up? I remember looking up there and didn’t see anyone, much less me.”

“No, because you have not made that rewind yet,” said Clarke. “You will remember it though after I bring you back.”

“You’re making my head smoke. So all I have to do is walk up to the top of the hill and stand there?”

“Yes.”

“And then you’ll come quietly?”

“If you aren’t convinced, I’ll comply with your wishes.”

Dane thought about the proposition for a moment. “It’s a deal.”

“Alright, we’ll rewind you after I rest a bit and we have some lunch.”

*****

After they ate, Clarke excused himself to go to his workshop in the lower level. He returned in a few minutes, holding a dog-eared book. “This is my journal. After my first few rewinds, I decided I needed a way to keep track of what I did and what happened as a result. I figured that if I did something while in rewind that altered the future, I should have a reference. So before each rewind, I would write down a few things or tuck a newspaper article inside to compare when I got back. That way I could tell if anything of significance changed. Then I could decide if it was good or bad. I could rewind to just before the previous rewind and stop myself if needed.”

“If the future did change, wouldn’t the journal change along with it?”

“While the rewind machine is active, it maintains its own sphere of time and space, unaffected by anything outside. During that time, in the sphere, everything stays constant. When the rewind machine is off, it marches along with the rest of the world, just like now.”

“If you say so. I’m still not convinced.”

“So let’s convince you.” Clarke set the journal on the table and opened it. Dane could see the pages crammed with small but legible handwriting. There were also numerous photographs and news clippings tucked in between the pages. Clarke flipped through the pages until he was almost at the back. “You said you remember looking up at the hill and not seeing anyone there, including yourself.”

“Yeah.”

Clarke handed Dane a ballpoint pen, then pointed to a blank line in the journal. “Before you go, record that then sign your name.”

“Why?”

“Proof that you rewound.”

“Now, I’ve got you,” chortled Dane. He made a notation where Clarke had indicated, then followed him back up to the entry door.

“When you see yourself, wave,” Clarke said, handing the journal to Dane.

“What’s this for?”

“You keep it with you so you can’t claim I altered it while you were rewinding. Just trust me on this one. Wave, and don’t lose the journal.”

“OK.”

“So, go stand on the rock and wait. That’s right above the old missile silo. It’ll take me a few minutes to get down to my equipment and dial everything in.”

It took a couple of minutes for Dane to exit and climb to the top of the hill. He found a large flat stone just where Clarke had said it would be. He reached his right toe out and gently tapped it, not knowing what to expect. It felt normal, so he planted both feet on its surface and turned to look back down the hill toward the entrance. He wondered if he was a fool to go along with Clarke’s antics. Most likely, Clarke had locked the damn door behind him and was sitting in his madman’s laboratory laughing until his brother gave up and went home. His thoughts were interrupted by a feeling that the stone had dropped out from underneath his feet. Instinctively, he looked down, relieved to see the stone still attached to his feet. Lifting his head, everything got blurry. He wondered if Clarke had put something in his food. Almost immediately it all came back into focus. The surroundings looked like a misty morning just as Clarke said it would. Dane glanced down toward the entrance. The van was there, but his rental was nowhere to be seen. He looked toward the spot where the path came in from the highway. His dark blue rental appeared, silhouetted against the horizon for an instant before it rolled through the solar panels. It whipped up a trail of dust. He watched until it came to a stop by the van and was immediately engulfed by the dust it had sucked along behind. Once it settled, Dane could see himself getting out and looking up.

Dane waved. Just as the other Dane waved back, he felt the falling away sensation again and everything got blurry. In an instant it cleared, the mist replaced by the bright Nebraska afternoon sun. Seeing his rental car parked by the van, he wondered if he had really gone back in time or if Clarke had drugged him? He ran down the hill and jabbed at the intercom button until he heard the click of the door latch. He jerked the door open, causing Clarke to stumble forward into the sunlight. He grabbed Clarke’s arm to steady him. “Clarke! Tell me what really happened. You slipped me some hallucinogenic drug or something. I know, I know, I bet it was a holographic projection. You used hidden cameras to video me driving up, then projected them in that mist stuff. Pretty slick.”

“Do you remember?”

“Sure, I remember. It just happened. Why?

“Did you see yourself?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you wave?”

“Sure, just like you told me to. And the other me waved back.”

“Fine, let’s go inside.” Clarke walked back in and started down the stairs. “Don’t forget to close the door.”

Dane was still clutching the journal as Clarke plopped down into his recliner. “I see you managed to hang onto the Journal.”

“Sure, wouldn’t want to lose your precious journal,” Dane said, handing it to Clarke, who opened it to the last page of entries and held it up for Dane to see.

“What does it say?”

“What do you mean?”

“What did you write in the journal before you rewound?”

Dane saw his handwriting. He remembered, heart pounding; muscles tensing as his adrenal glands cranked into overdrive. There it was, in his own hand, written no more than fifteen minutes earlier.

When I got here I parked next to the white van. I got out and looked around but didn’t see anyone. – Dane Hartdegen’

Dane stood in silence, waiting for the rush of adrenaline to dissipate. “But I remember seeing someone on the top of the hill.”

“No hallucinogenic drugs, no hidden cameras or holograms,” Clarke said. “You went back. Waved at yourself. You changed your past and now it’s a memory. But you also remember what you wrote in the journal.”

“I gotta sit down,” Dane said, dropping onto the other chair. “So it’s true.”

“Yes, it’s true.”

“Why did you wait all this time to tell me?”

“I should think one look at me and it would be obvious that I don’t have much time. It’s been some time since I last rewound. However, I continue to age at an accelerating rate.”

“Damn Clarke, once you knew what was happening, why didn’t you stop going back?”

“Couldn’t stop till I got things right.”

“What do you mean, got things right? Finish out your collection of antiques? Clarke, you could have done something to make this world a better place. Look at all the trouble in the Middle East. And what about racial strife right here in the good ol’ USA? Kids starving in Africa. Couldn’t you have done something about that?”

“You don’t think I tried?” huffed Clarke. “Sure, I set out to change things. Thought it would be a cinch to make the world a better place. It just ain’t that easy. No, you can’t just snap your fingers and have all the pieces fall into place. Lorenz theorized small changes to initial conditions that have the ability to affect later outcomes can result in large and often unanticipated differences in those outcomes on down the line. I was stupid enough to think if the final outcome was bad enough, any change would insure a better outcome.”

“Sounds plausible to me.”

“It took me maybe fifty rewinds just to figure out the basics before I tried anything big. Started out rewinding just a few minutes. Stayed on top of the hill. Wanted to make sure if the unwinding didn’t work, I could just unlock the entrance door and start over. After I was convinced I could rewind as far in the past as I wanted, I experimented with leaving the hill and returning successfully. I designed a remote control to allow me to operate the rewind machine from the launch point at the top of the hill. Then I tried bringing things back with me. Once I was convinced it all worked, I began rewinding in earnest.”

“What happened? Are you telling me this screwed up world is the best you could come up with?”

“No not at all, I’m trying to tell you the larger the outcome you try to improve by changing something in the past, the greater chance it will turn out worse. I know this from experience.”

“What do you mean?”

“I know this is going to sound like the plot from some silly Sci-Fi movie but bear with me. Everything I am going to tell you is the truth. I assassinated Hitler before he came to power.”

“It does sound silly. More than that it sounds like you are delusional. Couldn’t you think of something a little less grandiose?”

“Chalk it up to being relatively young and a theoretical physicist. But the fact of the matter is that I did it.”

“Sorry to tell you this Clarke, but the History Channel disagrees with you. Any day of the week, you can watch archival footage of Hitler and his henchmen slaughtering the Jews.”

Clarke took a deep breath. “After rewinding, It took me six months to make my way from this hilltop to Germany and back again. I went to Munich in November of 1923 for the Beer Hall Putsch. History had recorded during the coup attempt Hitler was wounded and later captured. While in prison he wrote Mein Kampf, which paved the way for his rise to power. I shot him to death, secure in the thought that I had prevented World War II.

When I unwound, I was horrified. Himmler had seized control of the Nazi Party, proving to be as ruthless a murderer as Hitler ever was. Unlike Hitler, he pursued the development of German nuclear capability. The Luftwaffe dropped the first atomic bomb on London at 7:00 pm on June 12, 1940. At 10:00 am the same day, Japan dropped an atomic bomb on Pearl Harbor. Both Great Britain and The United States surrendered. It’s all there in a history book I bought before I went back and fixed things. It’s over there,” he said, pointing to a large bookcase, “if you want to read all that happened after that. I must warn you it’s pretty shocking.”

“So, you went back and fixed things?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“Much the same way I convinced you. I rewound to a time just before my ‘assassinate Hitler’ rewind. I waited outside the rewind sphere and stopped myself from going to Munich.”

“And that was that. You fixed it simply by keeping yourself from going to Munich?”

“You don’t speak German or Japanese do you?”

“Why try something so grandiose?” asked Dane.

“Chalk it up to being young, or at least younger than I am now, and foolish,” sighed Clarke.

“You got it. Was that the only time you tried something like that?”

“No, like a fool, I thought it was a fluke. I tried going back to change the outcome of history again and again, always ending up making things worse each time. Then, I would have to go back and fix it. After I noticed the aging thing, I didn’t want to risk making another change that turned out bad and dying before I could go back and fix it.”

“That’s a shame you had to give up,” said Dane. “I can’t help think of what things might be like if you had succeeded just one time.”

“Didn’t say I gave up. I just said I wasn’t gonna rewind and try to change a major historical event.” Clarke took a labored breath. “Pretty soon, you are going to hear a rumble and feel something like a little earthquake. Don’t worry.”

“Don’t worry about what?”

“I’ve concluded that the rewind machine is too dangerous to leave behind. God forbid the government ever got ahold of it, or even worse, Facebook. I’m going to destroy it and all the information that goes along with it.”

“Don’t Clarke! Let me try. I’ll be careful. I’ll make sure good things happen; I promise,” Dane begged.

“That I am depending on,” Clark said, reaching to the side of his recliner and retrieving a large envelope. He undid the clasp and pulled out a handful of papers. He held them out to Dane. “Take these.”

As Dane stood up he heard a rumble and felt the floor shake beneath his feet. “No, No,” he winced. “You didn’t have to do that. There had to be another way.” Clarke gestured for Dane to take the papers. “What are those?” asked Dane.

“Another way.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Take ‘em,” Clarke rasped, “I don’t have enough strength to hold them out any longer.” Dane took the papers. Clarke continued, “On my last rewind I went back to 1964. I invested $80,000 in Berkshire Hathaway stock. I set it up in a charitable trust. Today it is worth in the neighborhood of $1 billion. These are the documents appointing you trust manager. You will also find my last will and testament, naming you the sole beneficiary of my estate. I also made a few investments for myself along the way and you should be well situated.”

“But Clarke…”

But nothing,” Clarke interrupted. “I finally figured it out. I couldn’t make things better by changing the past, but I could make things better by changing the future. Unfortunately, I realized it too late. Dane, you are going to have to do it for me. You are going to take this money and make things better. Maybe not for the whole world, but for as many people as you can. Will you do that for me? I’m too tired, too old to go on.”

“It’s an awfully big responsibility, I don’t know if I am up to it.”

“Hell, it ought to be a walk in the park for someone who has traveled back it time. Now all you have to do is go in the other direction and do the right thing, but without the aid of a time machine. Take care.” Clarke smiled, then fell silent.

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