The Time Traveler’s Assistant Discovers What Could Have Been
~ Scott Edelman
The Time Traveler’s Assistant, understanding that whether the Time Traveler himself spent many months or mere moments in the past correlated not at all to the speed with which the world moved forward in this present, this future, expected the universe to instantaneously change by the time the blinding flash signaling the world’s first successful human transmission faded.
The control room’s barely functional equipment, with lights which often threw off sparks as they blinked data updates; the log book going back decades, tracking the far too many deaths caused by their experiments; the off-putting portrait fading with the years as it hung askew on one wall, keeping the target of their project constantly in their minds; even the flavor of the air, not yet fully recovered from all the wars between then and now, and perhaps never to do so without their intervention . . . each of these things and many more should have altered. But they had not.
To their great frustration, the Time Traveler’s Assistant noted—alone now in a room where moments before there had been two—everything was as it had been.
Did that mean the mission had failed?
Perhaps. But perhaps it had succeeded.
Or perhaps both. That was one way the time streams could be perceived, at least according to certain of the physicists.
But the Time Traveler’s Assistant believed in the actual, not the theoretical, such was their training, and so, as minutes passed, with nothing in the room having transformed, they knew—someone would have to follow.
And looking at the dials beneath their fingers they then knew—they would have to follow. And not years from now. But now now.
The Time Traveler’s Assistant had not anticipated this.
The Time Traveler’s Assistant did not want this.
But unexpectedly, enough energy remained pulsing through the interconnected machinery which filled the squalid warehouse to allow for one more trip. The group—impatient as only those attempting time travel could be—would not have to wait years for a second attempt.
And there was no time to tell the others, because it needed to happen before the power faded, or else this precious opportunity to possibly prevent yesterday’s catastrophe would be lost. They flipped the switches once more, exactly as they had mere moments before, only this time, as the small, dark room began to echo with a hum which grew into an urgent crackle, the Time Traveler’s Assistant without hesitation stepped from behind the control board and into the blindingly bright chamber.
So brilliant was the room they could barely make out the nearby door fly open, and so loud they could not decipher the shouts. But it did not matter. There was no time to explain their sudden need to disappear.
And then the blaze of white nothing vanished, and as the eyes of the Time Traveler’s Assistant adjusted, they could see the walls which had surrounded them had vanished as well, and they were standing in only rubble and ash, bent rebar and broken bricks, without a sense of having travelled. It was almost as if the room which had been about them had abruptly collapsed. But not quite . . . for not even the footprint of their former boundaries was there any longer.
They were now . . . elsewhere.
They had done it after all. They had gone back. But . . . to where?
The coordinates the team had carefully calculated should not have taken the Time Traveler who’d preceded them to a place of such devastation, and the Time Traveler’s Assistant—who briefly thought they perhaps no longer needed to think of themselves as merely an Assistant, for they were now a Time Traveler as well—knew they shouldn’t have arrived in the midst of such destruction either, for the sealed fate they were hoping to avert still waited in the (now) future place between their own (left behind) future and this (present) past.
They stood ankle deep in red ash, beside a brick wall which had collapsed just enough to create a ledge low enough to peer over. The air was both fouler and purer than what they exhaled from their own time in the moments after their arrival, a paradox they set aside to contemplate later. But for now . . . where was now? Were they inside of what was once a building? Or outside? There was no clear way to tell. But they could hear voices, and until they were able to determine whether those belonged to people who might try to stop them from accomplishing their mission, it was best to stay hidden, even though . . .
What was their mission anyway? The Time Traveler had one, and had the training to see it through, but that was then and this was now—or maybe it was also then, for time was a confusing thing—and there was no way, based on their environment, that the same task as previously devised could possibly cure the ills they’d inherited.
They looked over the barrier and saw the identical red dust in which they stood stretched all the way to the horizon, punctuated by rubble, and as well as dozens of people who were walking about, apparently aimlessly, leaving trails of mist rising in their wakes. Remarkably for all the stirring up of the grit of what had been lost, the air did not smell of destruction—which they continued to find surprising. It was a better scent than that of the world left behind, and with its unfamiliar tang, almost pleasant.
Someone coughed to their side, far too close for comfort in this or any age. They took a sudden step away and fell back over a brick, a cloud of dust rising to swallow not only them but also the one who had approached.
As the particles settled around them, the Time Traveler’s Assistant looked up at what presented as a woman according to their memories of the signifiers of this time. They were glad for the dust which had coated their garb, for it would perhaps mean they would not seem as out of place as they felt. After all, there had been no way to prepare for a journey the way the Time Traveler had. And the cougher’s hard-worn clothing was years old, as was their own, but unlike their own, her multi-layered clothing was ragged and filthy. She made no notice of that distinction between them, though, seemed concerned only with a photograph in her outstretched hand.
“I’m sorry,” she said, with a cracked voice which spoke of an age even greater than she seemed under the grime. “Please forgive me. I didn’t mean to startle you. But have you seen my husband? They took him away. They—”
Her voice cracked, and she lowered her head, pushing the photograph closer.
The Time Traveler’s Assistant thought the photo so blurry, the image could have been of anyone, perhaps even the Time Traveler himself—was that why the machine had brought them back to this time and place?—because there was a fix which required them to both take action at once?—but then blinked to clear the tears and grit from their eyes, and saw . . . no. So they shook their head, to which the woman said no more, only backed slowly away, mumbling, then turned to vanish around the other side of the wall.
The Time Traveler’s Assistant got back to their feet and peered carefully around the wall’s edge, watching as the woman hobbled into the distance. But as she vanished, they rose fully, for what was the point in hiding? The team hadn’t been working to wash away the centuries only to waste the moments which were then revealed.
Dozens of people milled about in what could have been mistaken for a vast desert, if not for the wreckage scattered about. Perhaps one of them might be made to reveal information which would explain what had pulled them to this date and time. But whom to approach first?
They came out from behind their hiding place, entered the orbit of bodies, and moved slowly about within them. Some seemed familiar with the path they trod, and cloaked in regret, while others picked their way slowly forward as if all was new to them. Surveying the faces of these long dead, they struggled to remember the lessons of this time, such as how to greet in a non-threatening way, how to ask without seeming overly inquisitive, how to move one’s body without giving offense, all lessons the original Time Traveler had so well memorized—until they came upon what at first appeared to be a mound of discarded cloth.
They paused for a moment, for such scraps seemed odd to be abandoned in that way, considering the threadbare condition of those who moved nearby, to whom such shreds would surely be precious—and to their great surprise realized . . . no. There was movement beneath the rags. There was . . . a body.
They knelt and folded back a patchwork of rough cloth to find . . . a child.
It had been a long while since the Time Traveler’s Assistant had seen anybody so young, one of the many crises the Time Traveler’s trip back was meant to solve, and yet, but a symptom of the true crisis.
“Are you all right, child?” they asked. “Is anyone taking care of you?”
It was a question the Time Traveler’s Assistant almost did not bother asking, for so self-absorbed were each of those around them it was an answer in itself. Whatever this place once might have been, it was no longer a community. It had been shattered. Shattered by the one they would centuries hence band together to stop.
The child curled up more deeply within its cloth, and frantically backed away, heels etching ruts into the red dust beneath.
“No,” they continued. “Don’t be afraid. I’m not here to harm you. There’s no need to be afraid of me.”
“It’s not you he’s afraid of. It’s all of us. It’s everyone.”
The Time Traveler’s Assistant turned to see a young man, or what appeared to be a young man. This moment demanded judgement which they, up in their own era, did not have to make. Why did things in the past have to be so complicated? A slash of cloth across his face obscured one eye.
In response to their obvious gaze, he pointed toward his face, then held his arms wide to encompass everything about him.
“That was what came from trying to prevent this,” he said.
“Are you . . . ?” They were afraid to say the words, for fear they could be true. What could he have meant by prevention? Could he be yet another time traveler, a later follower who leapt back years after them, once the team regrouped and was able to make a further attempt to change what the Time Traveler had not, and what they themselves had not yet changed, would not change?
“Yes,” he said, though the words which followed proved his answer to what was in their thoughts was actually no. “I am. And I’m not the only protester nearly killed by a supposedly non-lethal pellet. Non-lethal? What’s that supposed to mean? There’s nothing that isn’t lethal, not when used by people like them. I’m lucky an eye was all I lost. It could have been worse. Much worse. At least my cracked skull healed.”
He rapped the top of his head with his knuckles and smiled.
The Time Traveler’s Assistant swallowed, not ready for this world, not knowing what they were being called on to do, if in fact anything could be done.
“And the child?”
They looked over at the mound beneath where the wriggling had stopped ever since the Time Traveler’s Assistant had ceased addressing it.
“I’ve never heard him speak,” answered the man. “At least—not words. All I know is, he was once taken from his parents and caged, because of . . .”
He voice trailed off, and he pressed his lips tightly together. Instead of continuing, he merely shrugged, as if to say—there was, of course, no need to say. Was there?
“Ever since then, those of us who are able, watch out for him as best we can, give him food, offer shelter when the storms come. He doesn’t always accept it. He’s broken.”
“That is kind of you.”
“Well,” he said, shrugging again, and looking at the invisible child. “We’re all broken. So tell me—where have you come from?”
Before the Time Traveler’s Assistant could answer, could even begin to think of how to answer—because though the Time Traveler had rehearsed believable identities, plausible histories, they had done no such thing—another voice behind joined the questioning, only this one was loud and angry.
“Yes, where do you come from? I haven’t seen you here before. Why are you here?”
The Time Traveler’s Assistant turned and froze at the sight of the large man, never having been questioned in such a manner. He tugged at his grimy red cap, so shredded there was barely enough band left to the thing to hold the brim in place, and spat at their feet.
“We don’t get strangers around here often, and when we do, we don’t like them. And not just that—what religion are you? Huh? What’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you saying anything? Come on, tell me—where do you come from?”
Before they could give any answer at all, not a word, not even a syllable, her assailant moved even closer, and shouted.
“Forget it! Don’t bother answering! I don’t give a damn. It doesn’t matter. Wherever it was, why don’t you go back where you came from?”
The Time Traveler’s Assistant surprised themselves by emitting a sob which vibrated their entire body so deeply their knees almost buckled, because the question brought home what they already knew, but had been trying to keep the recognition of at a distance. Go back where they came from? They could not. They could never return to where they’d been mere minutes before. This was a one-way trip, just as it had been for the Time Traveler who’d preceded them. And not just because no such mechanism to boomerang home existed—but because the loss of home was the entire point of such a trip. Where they came from, if all was successful, should no longer exist.
“Back off,” said the one-eyed man to the hate-filled newcomer, interposing himself between them. “Your old wars have no place here. Leave the visitor alone.”
“Why don’t you mind your own business?” came the reply, along with a push, and then the two of them were rolling in the dust. The Time Traveler’s Assistant could barely make them out beneath the rising red mist.
They took that moment, after one last look at the pile of cloth beneath which hid a broken child, to move on. But there seemed to be nowhere to move on to, no possible point of purpose. All that was around were the ruins of what once was—distressing evidence of what the initial Time Traveler had been sent to the past to prevent. Yes, they supposed a society of sorts had grown out of the wreckage between the past and their present, now future, but the centuries of pain between those two points seemed insurmountable. So much had been lost, so much seemed beyond recovery.
Faced with the reality of what once had been theoretical, it was impossible to deny that The Time Traveler had failed. And because of the endless dust and ash which stretched far into the distance, masking any horizon, the Time Traveler’s Assistant knew they would not succeed. But neither would they fail. They hadn’t even been given a chance to try.
They were too late. What had happened had already happened, and it would be up to another to fix what was for them clearly unfixable.
They walked away, trying to ignore the shouting of the men behind, and the whimpering of the child as well. Each brought on a great despair at being able to communicate with anyone here. Perhaps this meant communication outside one’s own time wasn’t possible. Shuffling ahead, though, they knew they had to try.
In the middle distance, they could make out a waist-high rectangular block built of bricks and wood, behind which sat a man. Or what seemed at first glance to be a man, for the true details of the figure were masked beneath a conglomeration of strange artifacts with which he’d adorned himself.
His face had been smeared with what appeared to be clay, and atop his head were twigs woven together to form a helmet of sorts, almost as if what once was hair had solidified. As the Time Traveler’s Assistant drew closer, they understood the construction before the man to be a crude desk he had made for himself. He pushed papers across the surface, occasionally slashing at one with the point of a small, broken stick, appearing to act out some type of signing ritual.
There was something far too familiar about the man, impossibly familiar, and as the Time Traveler’s Assistant approached even nearer, a fading portrait popped into their memory, one seen so often as to have become little more than the background noise of their former life. They froze. Their feet became lead, and after a beat, they almost backed away.
As they quivered in that moment of indecision, the man looked up, noticing them. He smiled, his teeth bizarrely white against that discolored face, and waved them over with fingers too small for the hand which bore them.
The Time Traveler’s Assistant stood before the makeshift desk, trying to see this man as he had been before, stripping him of mud, and twigs, and the immeasurable weight of crushed history. And seeing what was revealed, they thought. . .this cannot be. They must be mistaken. They could not have been randomly brought to this here, this now, this . . . this man.
And then he flung open his arms, taking in the ground on which they stood, and all the horrors which ringed them, and said, “I alone can fix this.”
Only then was the Time Travelers’s Assistant certain that . . . yes.
Yes, they thought. Yes. But—
“No,” they said. “No, you can’t. It’s far too late for that.”
“What did you say?” asked the man, anger in his voice. They could tell he was unused to being contradicted. They knew he was unused to being contradicted, one of the reasons time travel was the only way to repair the future.
It was too late to fix what had been broken, perhaps. But not too late for justice. The Time Traveler’s Assistant reached across the mockery of a desk, and by the overly long strip of cloth which hung from his neck, grabbed the man, the one whose incompetence, arrogance, ignorance, and greed had caused all this. That he had survived what he had wrought was an abomination. They began to pull him across the top of the structure he had built. They would take care of this man, and then dismantle the replica of a desk he never deserved to have.
“Hey!” he shouted, as his helmet flew off and vanished into the dust. “Hey, hey, hey! You can’t do that.”
The man’s voice changed then with his protestations, in tone, in timber, no longer embodying the bluster of before, and as the Time Traveler’s Assistant pulled him along, toward the wall behind which they had first manifested, he started to shout nonsense words, seeming to speak not just to them, but to the universe. They could not understand the man’s meaning, but assumed the words would have made sense if they’d shared the same time of birth. No matter—once they were out of sight of the others, the two of them would talk, and the Time Traveler’s Assistant would make him understand what he had done. If he was capable of understanding, that is.
But before they had gone more than a few meters, the Time Traveler’s Assistant was tackled and separated from their captive. They were surprised to see their assailants were the two men who’d earlier been fighting—each now held one of their arms, no longer appearing to be enemies—and even the comatose child, suddenly energetic, had joined the group, pushing at their back.
A few more joined them to make sure the Time Traveler’s Assistant had no choice but to walk where they pulled, and as others rushed forward to hold electronic devices in their direction, they were dragged toward what at first seemed a far distant horizon, but once through a wall of smoke and fog, was revealed to be something more, a flaw in their previous perception. The land did not continue on the other side, for there was only a wall, one painted to resemble a dwindling continuation of what had been left behind. Then a door opened, and they moved through it to a room bare of destruction.
The Time Traveler’s Assistant was startled to see people there with crisp clothes and clean faces, and machinery, too, not so very different in appearance from what had sent them from far in the future, and numerous small screens on which could be seen the land of red dust they’d just left behind. So many questions filled their mind, but before they could utter any of them, they were hustled through another door, one which brought them outside again, only this outside, a true outside, was nothing like the former outside—a false outside, the Time Traveler’s Assistant now understood—from which they’d been banished.
Before they could take it all in, they were spun about. Only one other remained with them. It was her defender, the one missing an eye, who removed the cloth from across his face to reveal—that was another illusion. Unlike his earlier welcoming demeanor, he was angry now, and no longer willing to take their side.
“I don’t know what that was all about, but you’re out of here. I don’t even know how you got in. Everybody on the list is accounted for, and you’re not one of them. You didn’t have a ticket.”
The Time Traveler’s Assistant said nothing, far more disoriented by the journey they’d taken over the past minute than they’d been by the one which had encompassed centuries.
“Why would you want to sneak in?” he continued. “Why would you want to ruin everything for everybody? Keep moving, and we won’t have to get the police involved.”
He waited for an answer, then frowned, and turned, and went back through the doors from which they’d both come.
As he vanished, they gawked at the building in front of them, and at the sign above the door through which they’d just been pushed. A marquee read:
WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN
And beneath that, in slightly smaller letters:
AN IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE
OF A FUTURE THAT NEVER WAS
Below those large letters, between two doors which led to the mock world from which they’d been evicted, was a poster illustrated with a grotesque drawing of the man the Time Traveler had previously gone back to prevent from being born, and wrapping round that image a barely decipherable—to their eyes—script which told them of the lie they’d just been living:
Experience the tomorrow which was almost ours in a fully interactive experience. Freely wander the world from which we were rescued, and be grateful. Six performances only.
The Time Traveler’s Assistant understood now. They’d arrived at a where and when unattached to any change point they could manipulate to save their future, and the man they thought deserved punishment was not at all that man, only some sort of actor. But if that were so, then . . . where was now? They’d felt lost earlier attempting to unravel the meaning of the world of red dust, the world which proved to be an illusion, but felt no less lost now that a truth had been revealed. Was this what the Time Traveler himself had experienced on his failed mission? Had he become lost as well, first in time, and then to despair?
They dropped to the curb, devoid of a desire to go on, and took several gulps of the fresh air—fresher than the remembered world of the future left behind, and fresher by far than the false future from which they’d just been evicted—hoping to clear their mind. They slapped red dust off their jacket, and when the flecks settled, took another deep breath, and for the first time, truly looked at this outer world into which they’d been thrust.
The structures around them stood tall, nothing like the false future in the building behind, or the middle future which waited between the past as the Time Traveler’s Assistant understood it and the future they’d left behind. The casualness of those who wandered nearby was almost infuriating, for they felt the people who walked down the street should be celebrating. Shouldn’t they? How could they be oblivious to the absence of the horrible days ahead which had somehow been lifted from them?
Or would it have been their present? There was no way of knowing. For this time was most definitely not the time it was supposed to be, and instead one in which the destruction caused by a madman had been transmuted from reality into a theatrical performance, so perhaps the Time Traveler who proceeded them had caused a change after all. But if so, then why was the world the Time Traveler’s Assistant had left behind unchanged? Why had they needed to follow into that blazing chamber?
A hum arose from behind as if in answer to their questions, and when they turned toward the all-too-familiar sound, they saw the theater which had fooled them was gone, and in its place, a flickering circle, close enough and large enough so the world behind was subsumed in a crackling of energy which grew into a wall of lightning struggling to coalesce into something more. They instinctively recoiled, throwing an arm over their eyes.
Once the brightness dimmed and they could bear to look again, they saw the coruscating sparks had become a shimmering window, and on the other side stood those with whom the Time Traveler’s Assistant had until that afternoon worked, only . . . older. Much older.
The room her friends occupied was an unfamiliar one, too, with equipment even more complicated than that which had propelled them there. They recognized the woman at the center of the group as someone who had once been her peer, though based on her position in the room, and the deferential glances of the others, was now the leader. Her eyes widened on seeing them, but though she moved her lips, no sound came.
The Time Traveler’s Assistant shook their head, and spoke, to which their old friend—now truly old—also shook her head, then frowned. She twisted a screen to face out through the portal, then looked down and began typing.
“It is good to see you again after all these years,” scrolled the words.
“It is good to see you as well,” said the Time Traveler’s Assistant, then fell silent, not merely because they knew they could not be heard, but due to the sight of their friend’s tears rolling down through what the years had made of her. They thought of how their own brief moment had turned into their comrade’s decades, and how the gaps each had experienced could not possibly be compared.
“We have good news,” the scrolling went on. “We located a message the first traveler had left behind for us, etched into metal plates and buried where he knew we would find them, which meant that once we finally perfected the technology, we were able to pinpoint that time of fracture between when you and your predecessor landed, and thus able to complete the original mission. Actually, no. Not quite the original mission, but one close enough so the things which were meant to happen did not. The world he was sent back to prevent was never born. The path you followed in hopes of changing no longer needs to be changed. We have taken a step sideways, breaking free of that time stream. And you have shuffled sideways as well.”
Their friend looked up from the keyboard then, a radiant expression evident on her face. But that faded as soon as their eyes met, and she returned to her typing.
“Oh, how I wish you could see it. How I wish we could bring you back to learn what we have become. But . . . we haven’t perfected the means of return, and don’t know if we ever will. We wanted you to know, though . . . to know we have done as we hoped. We have to go now. There isn’t enough power to continue this transmission. We are sorry.”
The Time Traveler’s Assistant’s friend looked up one final time, and nodded. They nodded, too. Silently, they tried in every physical way they knew how to make sure those left behind understood they were accepting of their fate.
They would have to be.
The portal shrunk away until, with a final pop and a metallic smell, it vanished, revealing the building behind and the theater’s front door. The Time Traveler’s Assistant stepped inside, and behind a counter saw one of the men who’d only watched as they’d been dragged by before being tossed out.
“I am sorry,” they said to him. “May I go back? I promise I won’t cause any more trouble. I . . . I understand now.”
He looked at them for a few moments, expression blank, and the Time Traveler’s Assistant was about to continue their pleading when he nodded, then led them to a doorway. Once opened, the Time Traveler’s Assistant looked through on the future which never happened, populated with actors who only pretended to suffer the fates the election of a madman would cause, and in the distance, the actor who pretended to be that man himself.
“What could have been,” they whispered.
“Yes,” said man beside them. “That’s the name of the show. Are you going in?”
The Time Traveler’s Assistant stood silently for one further moment, looking at the past they in a small way had helped prevent, and then stepped through, joyfully kicking up the dust of a future which never was.
Scott Edelman has published more than 100 short stories in magazines such as Analog, PostScripts, The Twilight Zone, and Dark Discoveries, and in anthologies such as Why New Yorkers Smoke, MetaHorror, Crossroads: Southern Tales of the Fantastic, Once Upon a Galaxy, Moon Shots, Mars Probes, and the Harlan Ellison tribute anthology The Unquiet Dreamer.
His collection of zombie fiction, What Will Come After, was published in 2010, and was a finalist for both the Stoker Award and the Shirley Jackson Memorial Award. His most recent collection, Things That Never Happened, was published in 2020. He has been a Bram Stoker Award finalist eight times, in the categories of Short Story and Long Fiction.
Additionally, Edelman worked for the Syfy Channel for more than thirteen years as editor of Science Fiction Weekly, SCI FI Wire, and Blastr. He was the founding editor of Science Fiction Age, which he edited during its entire eight-year run. He also edited SCI FI magazine, previously known as Sci-Fi Entertainment, as well as two other SF media magazines, Sci-Fi Universe and Sci-Fi Flix. He has also been a four-time Hugo Award finalist for Best Editor.