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The Paradox Principle

by Bill Kowaleski

Time is a spiral, space is a curve.
— Rush, “Neurotica” from Roll the Bones

Eric looked at his watch when he heard the knock: 8:07 pm. Leave me alone. There’s something I have to do, and who’d want to see me tonight anyway?

But it came again, and then a man’s voice, strangely familiar. “Open up, Eric. I know you’re in there.”

He left the chain in place and opened the door a crack. In the dim hallway was an older man, trim, a full head of silver hair, odd rectangle-rimmed glasses, hooded gray sweatshirt.

“Who are you?” Eric asked.

“Let me come in and explain. You won’t believe me if I don’t show you some proof.”

“I just want to be alone.”

“I know. Feeling sorry for yourself.” His tone was mocking, sarcastic. “What a miserable, pathetic life I have. Woe is me.”

Blood rushed to Eric’s face. His voice rose, indignant. “You don’t know what I’m thinking. You don’t know me at all.”

“Don’t I? Let me in, and I’ll show you that you’re wrong.”

The man aimed straight for the tattered couch as if he knew where it was, carefully choosing an unstained spot. He sat, and his eyes surveyed the apartment slowly. “I’d forgotten how spartan this place is, how impoverished you are.”

Eric scanned him, head to feet. He just wasn’t right. The snug blue jeans for example: men that age didn’t wear those. And the shoes: some kind of gym shoe with a bright green edging. Eric had never seen anything like them.

The man reached into his wallet, pulled out a card, handed it to Eric. It was hard plastic, the size of one of those new credit cards that everyone on campus had been receiving. But embedded right into the plastic was a color photo of his visitor, slightly younger, without the glasses. The words Illinois Driver’s License ran across the top.

“Look at the expiration date.”

July 21, 2018. And then he noticed the name: Eric McDermott. His name.

“So, Eric what do you conclude?”

“We’re related? But this is weird. You’ve either got a driver’s license that doesn’t expire for forty-five years, or—”

“Or I’m you, from the future.”

“Oh right, the future. Did Bob put you up to this? He’s always making fun of my obsession with time paradoxes.”

“How well I know. But I expected you to be skeptical. So would it help to convince you that I really am you from the future if I told you something only you could know? Something you’ve never told anyone?”

“Whatever that could be. Go ahead.”

Bright blue eyes, the exact shade he had seen so many times in the mirror, locked onto Eric. With a soft, conspiratorial tone the old man said, “In fact, I’ll tell you two things. Here’s the first. You’re trying to work up the courage to kill yourself tonight. I imagine I’m making quite a mess of your plans right now.”

Eric shook his head. “You can tell I’m depressed. It’s pretty obvious. The rest is a lucky guess. Yes, I was considering the possibility.”

“Not good enough to convince you, eh? OK, how about this: You’re in love with your roommate, Bob. He’s at his girlfriend’s right now, just like every Saturday night, and it’s killing you that he’s not here with you.”

Cold fear rose in Eric’s stomach. He shot to his feet, looked away, paced. It was his deepest secret, a secret he’d never put into words. The old man laughed. “Your face, your body language all tell me that I’m right. Come on, Eric. We have to be honest with each other. What choice do we have?”

Eric paced the length of the small living room. Back and again, back and again. “OK, you’ve convinced me. Nobody could possibly know that.”

“And here’s the best part,” the older Eric said. “Forty years from now, Bob is a drunken, fat, bitter failure, and you... Well, here I am, here you are, traveling in time!”

“A failure,” Eric whispered. “With his looks and musical talent, I always imagined him a big rock star. But I guess you would know.” Eric paused, then added, “So why are you here? Why now?”

“I had to stop your suicide attempt. It took a year from our life. Yes, you failed, but you almost lost your liver. At least you reconsidered your life during your recuperation. Maybe I can save us that pain.

“But I have an even more selfish reason for being here now. Your obsession with time will lead to a doctorate in physics. Perfecting time travel will be our life’s work, and just in the past month, forty-two years from now, I’ve finally accomplished it.

“Only two members of my immediate staff know about it so far. I’ve travelled to a few times in the past alone, looked around, and come back. It seems to work. It really does appear to be the past, but there’s a mystery that nags at me. I haven’t been able to observe how changing something in the past affects the present.”

“Perhaps that’s because there are multiple time streams and—”

“No! I mathematically proved that impossible. And I also proved that time is more of a tight spiral than a linear stream. The key to moving in time is finding a way to jump from one loop of the spiral to the next. There’s only one time spiral, and if something is changed, it resolves any paradoxes that change causes.

“And here’s the key thing, I call it the Paradox Principle: Time changes nothing more than what it must change to eliminate a paradox.

“But that’s all theoretical, just mathematics. I haven’t fully defined how the change happens yet. I need to observe it. Oh, I admit, I’ve only made little changes so far. Killing people, destroying things, that’s not me. I need to effect a change that I can detect.”

The old man was warming up, talking faster. Eric’s eyes were drawn to his left foot, nervously tapping. Bob had mocked him about that tapping foot many times.

“So you’ll go forward to your time now and see what’s different when I don’t attempt suicide?” asked Eric.

“Exactly! It’s risky, but I finally decided to take that risk. My work is incomplete until I observe how the time spiral adjusts itself. So here I am, intervening in your suicide attempt, and more.”

“More? What else are you going to do? Tell me stocks to buy so you can get rich?”

The old man chuckled. “We do think alike, don’t we? Get yourself a pen and paper. I’m going to tell you exactly how we can get filthy rich.”

After Eric had written it all down, his older self said, “There’s one more thing. I want to get you past this rough spot in your life. I think I can make things seem a little brighter if you’ll give me a few minutes.”

Eric nodded.

“Your problem comes down to self-confidence. That’s what you lack right now, and it’s the source of all your unhappiness. It wasn’t until I believed in myself that my scientific career took off. And I had to come to terms with who I was: a gay man. If you could accept who you are now, if you could realize what a bright, good-looking, capable person you are, I think you could avoid some mistakes you’re about to make, and I’d see some real changes when I return to my time.”

He talked for an hour, describing how he rose above his fears and self-doubts; how accomplishment built his confidence; how love overcame his fear of being different. As he talked, the younger Eric’s mood changed. He felt a growing confidence.

For the first time ever someone had given him sensible advice about how to climb out of the hole he was in. He’d been sitting on the floor while he listened, but as his excitement grew, he sprang to his feet and walked to the window. “You’ve made so many things clear to me. Things that had me so stuck, so confused. This has been great!”

His older self said nothing. Eric turned around. The old man lay flat on the couch, and he truly looked old now. All the energy he’d brought with him when he’d arrived was gone. His face was covered in dark, ominous splotches.

“What are those purple things on your hands and face?” asked Eric.

The old man weakly raised a hand to his eyes. The blotches grew larger by the second. His eyes grew big. He gestured feebly with a finger. Eric walked to the couch, fell to his knees, placed an ear to the old man’s mouth.

He talked in the faintest whisper. “This must be AIDS, a fatal disease that ran through the gay community in the ’80s like a firestorm. A death sentence in those early years. Time is adjusting. Fast. Eric, confidence is a two-edged sword. Helps you succeed, be happier. But it can kill you too. Risky to change your past.”

He was gasping now. His hand dropped onto his chest. “Fatal even.”

He went limp. Eric placed an ear on the sunken chest. He heard no heartbeat, no breath. Could this have really happened? Had he just witnessed his own death?

He sat, staring at the floor. He couldn’t help but consider the time paradox this presented. When did his older self die? If it was before he’d invented time travel, then this evening could not have happened. But he’d only perfected time travel in the last month, in his time. And he’d been vigorous and healthy when he’d arrived. So the sudden disease must have been the result of some change that had happened in the past hour. It seemed that every scenario Eric could think of led to impossible contradictions.

Eric’s thoughts turned to the body on his couch. How could he possibly explain it? But when he looked up, the couch was empty. Only the faintest indentations revealed that anyone had recently lain on it. Numb and confused, he tried to stand, but a debilitating wave of vertigo overpowered him. He toppled back to the floor.

* * *

Eric awoke flat on his back, staring at the ceiling. Had he passed out? He looked at his watch: 8:08 pm. Hadn’t there been a knock on the door? He wasn’t sure, but he felt much better now. His depression was gone. He felt confident; an unfamiliar feeling, but he liked it. He sat up and noticed the sheet of paper on the side table.

Microsoft, Wal-Mart, Apple Computer, Google. Each one with a list of buy and sell dates stretching into the far future, all in his handwriting. When had he written that? What were they? He held it a moment, almost put it in his pocket, then shook his head, wadded it up, and dropped it into the trash.

He’d taken two steps toward the kitchen when he heard a sharp knock, three short raps, a pause, then one more. Why that pattern seemed so familiar, so compelled him to answer the door, he couldn’t explain.

* * *

In the year 1986, in a hospital situated among the restaurants and bars of Chicago’s gay community, a husband and wife sat beside a bed where the inert body of Eric McDermott had just stopped breathing. Standing beside them was a slender man in his thirties, blond, with intensely blue eyes that shed tears to accompany his sobs.

“He’s gone,” Eric’s father said in a whisper.

His wife nodded. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She stood and put an arm around the shoulder of the younger man. He buried his face in her coat.

“We’re so sorry for you, Glenn,” said the husband. “I know how much you loved him. And you’ve not only lost the love of your life, you’ve lost your mentor, the man whose work you so believed in.”

“Could I have a moment alone with him?” Glenn asked.

“Of course,” said Mrs. McDermott. They walked slowly out of the room and headed down the hall toward the floor’s visitor lounge.

Glenn grasped his lover’s bony hand, already feeling a bit too cool. He looked at the face: just skin over a skull, hardly a hint of the bewitchingly handsome, playful man he’d fallen for. He leaned in, whispering words he’d said to Eric before, when he was still alive, but repeated now as a solemn pledge.

“I’m going to keep our research going, Eric. We were so close. I’ll never stop until I succeed. And when I do, I’ll visit you on that day you told me about, the day you almost committed suicide. I’ll tell you how to stay alive, how to get through this, how to live long enough to reach your goal.”

He dropped the hand, sighed, turned to go, then looked back. “I won’t forget to use our secret knock. That way you’ll be sure to let me in.”

Copyright © 2016 by Bill Kowaleski

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