Drunk on Time
by J. H. Malone
Saul is a 20-something computer expert. He’s somewhat undisciplined and drinks too much, but he is charming and has a soft spot for older people and for his love interest, who is a brilliant but enigmatic researcher. They unlock the secrets of parallel universes with unexpected results for themselves.
Table of Contents, parts:|
1, 2, 3, 4. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
On Thursdays, Cabhan’s rolled out the corned beef and cabbage on paper plates at happy hour. Alcoholic graduate students used the occasion to eat, drink and avoid their studies.
I arrived before that, at three in the afternoon. A Boston Irish guy named Brian kept the bar weekdays between lunch and dinner. He set me up without asking.
“If you had a chance to know the future, would you go for it?” I asked him. Every other customer in the place was on a phone or tablet or reading an old fashioned book.
“I know the future already,” he said.
“The kids are almost grown. Me and the old lady are getting older. Pretty soon we’ll be Grandma and Grandpa and, after that, you know, the lights go out.”
“Jesus,” I said. I threw back the shot, and he gave me another.
When Liesl walked home alone after school that night, she found me asleep on one of the couches. I apologized and began to explain.
“Do not worry,” she said. “This will not be a problem for us.”
“You know that,” I said, “because you checked the future.”
“For me, the past is not important. The future is important. It has been my true university.”
“Don’t tell me what happens,” I said.
“Is this why you want to spend a semester here exploring life instead of doing research? Something bad is going to happen?”
The doorbell rang. She stood up.
“Well?” I said.
“Do you want to know?”
“No. Yes. I don’t know. Do I? Is it bad news?”
She let me think about that while she buzzed in the delivery boy.
“One semester and that’s it?” I said. I heard our dinner coming up the stairs. “Don’t tell me,” I said. “I don’t want to know.”
In the following weeks, while Liesl was lecturing or leading a seminar, I used the scanner. The University was happy, even enthralled, with her; she was queen of the campus. My friends in IT tried to corner me, desperate for the lowdown, but I had been snatched from them by the object of their interest.
She asked me why in particular I avoided the future. I told her that for me, the future was the last chapter in every book, the final standings for every season, the mother of all spoilers. The future featured the bad news, the worst news, the news we try to ignore, the death news.
I settled in as Liesl’s roommate, tour guide, and lover. I planned our nights out and our weekend excursions. We visited Walden Pond, where I read Thoreau to her while we picnicked. I took her to the USS Constitution, Faneuil Hall, and other such historical spots. We paddled a rowboat on the Assabet River, keeping our fingers out of the water because of the snapping turtles. A mink swam beside us, just beyond my left oar.
I called a scalper I knew, and we took the T to Kenmore Square and watched a Red Sox playoff game from the bleacher seats at Fenway. Professor Weingold shared his Celtics season tickets with us, and we sat behind the team bench at the Garden. We dined out and hit some more dance clubs. We rode the T or a bus back home when I was too high to drive.
Liesl was consistently present and interested. She smiled a lot. Her smile reminded me of the weather, sometimes sunny, sometimes shadowed with a hint of winter. Her lips defined the non-toxic knowing smile. No matter how rowdy the venue, she was never treated with disrespect.
We took in the fall color in New Hampshire, caught the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, and rode the Acalea Express First Class twice to Penn Station and back, spending two weekends in Manhattan. We flew in a Cape Air Cessna 402 from Logan to Provincetown for a weekend on Cape Cod and drove to Niagara Falls one Friday, starting out at seven in the morning and arriving at a scenic lookout in the late afternoon.
With the scanner, meanwhile, I traveled a little farther than New York or Niagara.
In space, the scanner filtered the sun. Liesl had bookmarked the planets, so I wasn’t the first to see them up close. I took exponential steps back to the center of the galaxy until I reached its black hole. Instead of stopping, this time I kept going. The scanner obliged me by stepping past the hole’s event horizon and into its interior, where I found a meadow. I backed out with my eyes closed.
After that I stepped out beyond our galactic cluster, beyond our supercluster, beyond the Sloan Great Wall, searching for an end to existence or an edge or a curve that would bring me back home, or for any other boundary or limit to reality. I never found one, and Liesl said that I never would.
The search wasn’t boring but finally began to seem pointless, then comical, then depressing. I ran time backwards to render the expanding universe smaller but I never made it small enough to find its limits, if it had any.
I did some moderate drinking during these sessions, but made sure that I was clear when Liesl got off in the evenings. Most of the time.
I found life amongst the stars to be pervasive but not profuse. Most planets not dead were dense with biomass. Nature would evolve a clever biological machine, like the ribosome on Earth, and elaborate it, improvising a planet full of life forms. The bands of similar worlds in the multiverse thinned when life was present on a world and thinned some more when that life was sentient, as choice replaced instinct.
I scanned sentient races but found none technologically superior to humans in any obvious way. Signs of extinct races argued variously for deadly cosmic events and killer technologies.
I scanned back in time to view the formation of the Earth. Stars crowded the night sky over our glowing planet, Sol still in the gas cloud that birthed it.
Without Liesl to scoff, I returned to the dinosaurs, two hundred million years of them. I browsed while they browsed. When some of them evolved feathers for warmth and then mating rituals, they became gaudy as peacocks.
The seas boiled with life. The land grew thick with it, matted with it, unlike today’s worn planet.
I hopped to Washington for a scan of Lincoln when he was older than I had last seen him. I crossed the Earths in our band of the multiverse looking for a strip of them where Booth’s weapon misfired. It took some time. Booth fumbled with the weapon, and Lincoln popped him a good one.
“You don’t use the scanner anymore,” I said to Liesl once, early on. We were sitting on a boulder halfway up Mount Washington on a Saturday afternoon. She made a dismissive gesture.
The White Mountains were arrayed in ranks to the west under a gradient of low sky. The day was clear when we started up the trail, but a floor of clouds had materialized as we hiked along. Liesl took in the panorama spread out before us. A gaggle of birders passed while we rested, arguing about a recent sighting of the elusive migrating Bicknell’s Thrush.
“You’re famous for your theories,” I said to Liesl. “Did you find them in the future?”
She stood up, gazing at the distant peaks. Her eyes were as gray as the clouds.
“Nichts ist wertvoller als dieser Tag,” she said.
“Your phone is turned off.”
“Nothing is worth more than this day,” Liesl said. “It is a quote from Goethe. You cannot relive yesterday. Tomorrow is still beyond your reach.”
Liesl knew things. Things I didn’t know. Things I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. She was embedded in life while I skated over its surface. I was drawn to her, excited and calmed by her but, most of all, in complete awe of her. She was visiting my world but didn’t live in it.
“There are answers in the future,” she said, “but not all the answers.”
“The future goes all the way out, doesn’t it?”
She raised an eyebrow. I bit my tongue.
Her hair was done up in some sort of strict German braid. “I do not tell my colleagues everything,” she said. “Some things I do not want them to know.”
“Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof,” I said, quoting from the upstart testament.
It was time to start back. The weather, famously erratic on that mountain, was not to be trusted, especially when clouds were involved. We pulled on our packs.
“I will tell you everything, if you ask,” she said.
I kissed her and settled for that.
We stayed the night in the Redstone Lodge, in a room up top with slanted ceiling and dormer windows. At dinner, I ventured to bring up the future again.
“I’ve been wondering,” I said, “you scanned us a year ago when you were living in Germany. What you saw then is happening now, correct? Isn’t that some sort of time loop?”
“The world has branched uncountable times since I scanned us.”
“I know, but still. Maybe the Liesl on the world you were scanning scanned this world. That would be a loop involving two universes.”
We were eating Jackson salad and New England chili in the lodge dining room. We were tired and hungry but satisfied with our day on the mountain. I had consumed a dirty martini and a glass of porter before the chili arrived.
“There are no loops,” Leisl said.
“But after countless Liesls observe the future of countless other Liesls, aren’t you eventually bound to end up with a loop somewhere?”
“Wouldn’t you run out of Liesls? Wouldn’t the final Liesl be forced to create a loop by scanning the future of one of the previous Liesls?”
“There are always more Liesls.”
“Infinite Liesls? Isn’t that a paradox in itself?”
“Infinities do not create paradoxes; they solve them.”
A lot of our conversations ended like that. I was talking to an oracle crossed with a sphinx.
Copyright © 2020 by J. H. Malone