“A lot of good men died in that box,” Master Sergeant Lippmann pointed to the tiny chamber, not much bigger than a phone booth. It was the transport chamber for the chrono-projector or time machine as everyone outside the military called it.
“Now we know you can’t go back in time for longer than you’ve been alive. In the beginning we didn’t know that. So in a way, Private Drake, you’re lucky. You get to go there and come back.” Sgt. Lippmann gave a snort as if he’d just made a joke. “What’s your birthday, son?”
“April 19th, 1994, Sergeant,” I answered. “Permission to ask a question, sir.”
“Go ahead,” Lippmann said entering my birthday into the computer.
“What happened to all those early time explorers? Where did they go?”
“Good question, kid. The latest theory is that they went into the void.”
“The void?” I had no idea what he meant. “You mean like outer space?” That was the most void-like thing I could think of.
“No, not like outer space. Not like any place you can imagine. The void isn’t a place at all, it’s nothing, no thing, non-existence. It’s where you were before you were conceived. You remember where you were before you were conceived, Drake?”
“No sir, I sure don’t. How could I?”
“You can’t. That’s the whole point. You can’t remember because you didn’t exist. You go into the void and there’s no coming back. You understand now?”
I was starting to get the picture. I was glad I wasn’t one of the first explorers but time travel was still fairly new and only volunteers were chosen to make the leap. I was still plenty nervous, I can tell you but I was excited too. I was glad to know that I’d be coming back. Those poor souls who were lost to the void, well I didn’t even want to even think about them.
I still don’t know what made me volunteer for this. I didn’t think it was the extra pay or the extra 30 days leave. I was an orphan and had no family that cared about me. Maybe that was the reason they picked me, though I couldn’t say for sure. Time travel was still experimental and a highly classified endeavor at that. The Army was still figuring out how to best use it as a weapon. I was lucky to be going, one of the first. Maybe I’d be in the history books.
“I’m setting the arrival time a few days after your birth date just to be on the safe side,” Sgt. Lippmann said. “We’re sending you to New York City on April 23rd 1994. That sound about right to you?
“Yes sir,” I said.
Lippmann helped me change into 20 year old civvies. They didn’t look much different than clothes people wore these days—blue jeans and a flannel shirt haven’t changed very much. “You’ll be there for exactly ten hours. This is just a systems test so you don’t have to do anything. Look around, enjoy yourself and remember the three rules: Don’t talk to anyone, Don’t take anything. Don’t do anything stupid. Can you remember that?” I nodded. “Good. Any questions, private?”
“Just one, sir, how do I get back?”
“You meet the chamber in the exact same location where you were delivered. Check your watch. You have ten hours from when you arrive. You ready to go?”
“Ready, sir.” I stepped into the chamber and the lights went out.
When they came on again, I was in the basement of an empty building. I emerged into the light and checked my watch. It was 11 a.m. I had ten hours to check out the past before returning to my present, piece of cake. I looked around at where I was and made a note of the address: 172 Deane Street. I didn’t know New York at all. I’d never been there although my adoption records said I was born here. Somewhere in this city was a four day old infant me. It was exciting to think about, but was hardly relevant to my situation.
All I knew about my origins was that I was found abandoned in a church somewhere in New York City and shipped off to an orphanage in the mid-west. I grew up neglected and abused in an endless series of foster homes and juvenile facilities. It was a terrible childhood, I hated every minute of it. The lack of a loving family was like a big hole in my heart. I joined the army as soon as I could. Already that decision was paying off. The army was providing the stable, environment I needed. It was also providing the travel and adventure the recruiters promised.
New York City was a wonder. I was dazzled by its size and energy. It took my breath away to be there. I started walking and marveling at the tall buildings and famous places I’d only read about. I walked uptown passing through Chinatown, Greenwich Village, Park Avenue. I walked for miles it seemed all the way to Rockefeller Center where I sat and watched the ice skaters and ate a hot dog from a street vendor.
I was tired, but happy and excited at the same time. I sat and ate and thought about being born in this city and whether that qualified me as a New Yorker. All I really knew about my self was that I was found in a church with a note pinned to my blanket that said, “He’s too much for me. Please give him a good home.” My mother’s tragic story and her hopes spelled out in eleven words. Sorry Mom, it didn’t work out quite like you hoped.
I continued my wanderings. I saw Central Park, The Empire State Building and found myself outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, yet another of the city’s tourist attractions. I went inside and sat in a pew. The place was awesome. There were a few old women up near the altar praying but most of the people there were tourists like me. I don’t think I’d ever been in a place so magnificent. I’d been raised in so many different homes, I couldn’t say what religion I was, but my mother left me in a Catholic church and someone named me Christopher so I thought of myself as a Catholic, although I wasn’t a very good one. Religion was another emptiness in my life.
I was tired from walking all day. The church was warm and quiet. I must have drifted off to sleep because the next thing I knew a priest was shaking me awake. “I’m sorry, son, but you can’t sleep in here. We’ll be closing soon so you either have to pray or move along.”
“I’m sorry, father, I must have dozed off.” My little nap had restored me. I checked my watch. I still had a couple of hours before heading back to my own time. I hadn’t really explored the church so I walked around and examined some of the numerous side chapels that branched off the main aisle. It was late in the day and the church was more empty than before. The side chapels were dark and lit only with a few candles. I passed a chapel dedicated to St. Christopher and, since that was my name sake, I went in.
There was an imposing marble statue of the saint looking kind and benevolent. The patron saint of travelers, that was fitting I thought. As I stepped inside the dim chapel, I noticed I wasn’t alone, a woman knelt in the shadows deep in prayer. I stepped back so as not to disturb her. When she was through, she crossed herself, stood and turned to leave. I glimpsed her tear streaked face as she passed; I don’t think she saw me.
On the marble steps before the saint was a basket and in the basket a baby. There was a note pinned to the blanket that said, “He’s too much for me. Please give him a good home.”
My heart was racing so fast I thought it might explode. How could this be? It was the most unbelievable coincidence, but I swear it’s true. I had found my infant self. What were the odds? Surely the saints themselves had a hand in this.
I looked up the long aisle but the woman, my mother, was gone. I turned my attention to the basket and my infant self. What was I supposed to do? Call the priest and turn myself over to the church’s dubious care. That would be dooming myself to the rotten life I had. Here was a chance to change things. But how exactly? What would happen if I took myself with me into the future and raised him/me/myself? Certainly the baby would benefit from a loving parent. I was young, I could marry and give the baby a stable loving home. I would have a mother, a family, everything I missed in life.
But, if I brought myself into the future, what would happen to the me I was? It made my head hurt trying to think of all the possibilities. There was nothing in my training to prepare me for this. No scholar ever considered this paradox. What was it the Sergeant said, “Don’t take anything and don’t do anything stupid.” Was it so stupid to want a better life for myself? Who could be a better parent than one’s self? Who better to know what I want, like, hate than myself?
I looked on that sweet innocent face and thought about the awful life that awaited him/me. I couldn’t leave me/him to that. I picked up the basket and walked out of the church. My decision made, I felt light hearted, almost happy, happier than I’d ever felt. I didn’t know what the consequences would be for the grown up me, but I knew they would be better for the baby me. I almost laughed out loud when I thought of Sgt. Lippmann opening the chamber and seeing the baby. He’d have a major hissy fit I was sure.
I hailed a cab and had him take me to 172 Deane Street. I waited the last 20 minutes for the chamber to arrive. I spent the time admiring my infant self. What a strange and complicated emotion it was. I felt like a proud parent. I’m sure that no one in the history of the world ever felt this way.
The chamber materialized right on time and I entered with the baby. At 9:00 p.m. exactly the lights went out and the chamber moved.
Sgt. Lippmann opened the chamber door, his jaw dropped and his stub of a cigar fell to the floor. Instead of Private Christopher Drake he found a small basket containing an infant boy.
Subsequent genetic testing revealed that the infant was in fact Private Drake. This startling result proved an almost insoluble puzzle to chrono-theorists who argued endlessly over the mysterious Effect. Likewise, it set back development of the time weapon for several years while Army scientists tried to figure out how to use the effect to their advantage.
Ordinarily, I would find the whole thing terribly amusing if I still existed, but I don’t. My life was instantly unwound as soon as the infant me entered the future, I faded into the void. At least I guess that’s where I am. It’s not so bad here, really, it’s not.