THE GRANDDAUGHTER PARADOX
Brendan McConnell’s morning began at 4.45 a.m. on a spring day in 2010. Between sleep and wakefulness for the whole night, as he realised the appointed time was nearing he willed himself fully awake. Penelope slept on beside him. When planning his actions that day, he had thought of kissing her, but had decided the risk of waking her up was too great. She hadn’t slept much lately. And if all went well he would be back before anything could be noticed by anyone. He slid out of the bed, lifting the polka-dot duvet only very slightly and replacing it so it was as if no one had slept there. Lit only by sodium street lamps, their light edging through the gaps at the edge of the curtains, the room seemed to be bulging with clothes and books and papers in every possible space. Brendan thought of the crash courses in biochemistry and molecular pathology they had put themselves through, scouring textbooks and journal articles for some hint, any hint of some answer, any answer. A paper sea of modern biomedicine in their bedroom; the books with their definitive and authoritative titles: Comprehensive Biochemical Pathology, Advanced Immunology. And the journal articles, forming blobs of stapled paper around the room, discarded part-understood. He went into the bathroom to change, folding his pyjamas and leaving them on top of the laundry basket. He had left out fresh clothes; a purple woolly jumper Rose liked to stroke, a clean white suit, black slacks, underwear, navy socks.
When dressed, he went into his four-year-old daughter Rose’s room. Tubes and monitors were attached to her, keeping her breathing. He spoke to her, knowing that she too was on the borderland of sleeping and waking, but at this point in the disease’s progression, she would not become fully alert:
“Rose, I am just going for a little while. I will be back, I will be back, and when I am you will be better. I promise”
He went downstairs, opened his work briefcase, took out two envelopes—one addressed to Penelope, one to Rose—and left them on the hall table. He put on his brown slip-on shoes. He opened the front door, and stood a little back from the threshold for a minute or so. Perhaps he would need this time when he came back, perhaps he would come across himself waiting at the door with the door open, and this would allow him to slip in, do whatever needed to be done with Rose, and slip in beside Penelope. Then he left. He had parked round the corner when he had come home the evening before, knowing that Penelope would most likely be too preoccupied to notice and if she did, he would just say that he was trying to get a little bit more exercise. There had been far more erratic behaviour than that on both their parts recently. He drove to the university and parked in an asphalt car park near the back of the School of Experimental and Theoretical Physics, rather than near the School of Business where he lectured. He got out of his car, and shook hands with a bearded, burly, short man. They walked, in the gathering dawn, to the back of the Physics building.
Five hours later, in 2090, he was sitting with Rose and the grandson of the man who shook his hand that morning. Suddenly, Brendan heard his own voice cheerily announce “Rosie-Posie, time for your medicine”. He turned, and saw a contraption consisting of the top half of a teddy bear on wheels rolling towards him.
“It has your voice, Daddy.” Rosie said. “We had video files of your voice. All my robot companions had your voice, when I was a child, and then in my teens, and now here I am an old woman, with a companion robot with my daddy’s voice.”
“It looks like you’ve got a friend with you today, Rosie? What is your name?” Brendan heard his own voice, the voice—friendly, jolly in an understated, unforceful way—of the days before Rosie’s diagnosis. “I am daddy,” he blurted out.
“Really? Whose daddy?”
“Rosie’s. Rosie has had me for seventy-four years.”
“Really? Really?” Brendan wondered how the artificial intelligence routines that presumably lay behind the robot companion’s bonhomie were handling this.
It repeated in Brendan’s voice “Really?” in the exact same intonation. Suddenly a little red light flashed on the side of its head, and the thing stopped, frozen.
“You’ve ruined it!” Again she was a four–year-old, with the icy clarity to her voice that was the familiar build up to an explosive tantrum. “You’ve ruined it! I could talk to him, and it was like you never went away. Well, for a short time I could believe it, but I really could believe it for that time. And now you’ve ruined it, and I’ll never believe it again.”
“But I’m here now—is this thing broken?”
“That red light means that something stumped the nets. That hardly ever happens. The nets are as good if not better than a person at knowing what someone is talking about. It sent a file back to the manufacturers. They’ll come and take it away.”
“But how can you be angry. I’m here now, the real thing. You don’t need a robot to have my voice.”
“Don’t you tell me what I should feel. You left, out into nowhere, you left that stupid letter I got after Mum died. It didn’t help. At least the robot didn’t leave.”
“I’m sorry,” he began, with tears forming. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” This last “sorry” was said with a suddenly explosion of rage, and suddenly an angry torrent of words emerged: “I’m sorry for travelling through time and leaving everything behind to save your life, to save your life, and you would rather have a little bloody robot than me.”
She had calmed, and now looked at him with another familiar expression from her childhood, an expression of infinite patience and gravity. “Of course I would rather have you, but you have to remember you have been a dim memory for all these years. The first memory I have… holding your hand on a beach while eating ice cream, on a blindingly sunny day. I asked Mum about it before she died, and she said that we never went on a beach holiday. Yet I remember it, as clear as I remember opening that door and seeing you there an hour ago.”
“I see.” He sat, any anger gone. “At least with the companions you had something definite.”
“Yes. Yes. Daddy, daddy, I’m sorry.”
“No, I should be sorry. I’m the sorry one. You see… they said you were going to die. It wasn’t weeks, but days.”
“I felt such a hole in my soul all those years. As if part of me had been cut out.”
“Do you remember being sick?”
“I was in and out for years. Of course I remember but not really the specifics. I remember vividly enough some of the times they thought I was going to die, but as I got older it was just a sort of irritating backdrop.“
“What happened? How did you get better? They kept telling us not to hope. They kept telling us—”
“Mum always said that it just happened. I didn’t die. They thought I would die for years and years, until I was almost ten. But I didn’t die. I just got better. I think I was kind of famous. Granny used to say it was her novenas.
“Surely they studied what happened. It was supposed to be incurable.”
“It still is incurable. No one else has survived. But no one knows why I survived, and every other child with it dies.”
“What do you think?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, what do you think cured you?”
“It happened. I lived. Don’t you realise that this is much more important to you than it is to me? It was something that happened when I was small, I barely remember. I remember losing you far more. I live. That’s it. ”
“For you, it was eighty years ago. For me, it was yesterday.”
“I know. Do you know something? I just had the urge to call you Daddy. I’m sorry, this must be hard for you.”
“You are a kind girl. You always were.”
“I’m sorry. It is harder for you than for me. I’ve come to terms with—well, with a lot.”
“Well, for months all I’ve dreamed of was finding a cure for Astor-Garg Disease and it turns out even in the future they haven’t invented one. And I’ve found out that all my family are dead apart from you. And I can’t go back. And it’s all happened at once.
A discreet cough reminded him that Lazaro Viajero, grandson of Alvaro Viajero was still there.
“Maybe I should have stepped outside, I’m sorry,” said Lazaro.
“Don’t mention it,” father and daughter said, simultaneously.
During what they called the trials, during which he was hurled forward not for decades but for minutes and hours only, he experienced the process as the simultaneous tensing of all his muscles, along with a headache that felt like it came from deep in the very core of his brain. He had anticipated that, on making the eighty-year leap, both physical effects would be more intense.
So when the process ended and the sensations were no different, he felt disappointed. It didn’t work, he thought – so much for that cocky self-confidence, Alvaro. The box door swung open, and the first thing he saw was Alvaro standing before him. Confirmation; they had failed. She would die.
“What went wrong, Alvaro?”
“Dr McDonnell,” Alvaro bowed. His voice had the same intonation as before, but more refined, more polished, sadder. “It is an honour to meet you. Welcome to the year 2090.”
“I am not—“
“So it worked. It worked? And you came to meet me? Alvaro?”
“Dr McDonnell, you have been the only time traveller. Ever. So far, anyway. I am Lazaro Viajero. Alvaro Viajero was my grandfather.”
“So… it worked! And is—is Alvaro still alive?”
“I am sorry to say that he died twenty years ago. He handed this day and time down to me, and ensured that this room in the Learning Centre—you would have said university—was preserved. Only my parents and I ever knew why.”
“And… what is the cure?”
“For Astor-Garg. Didn’t he tell you why, the reason why? And how do I take it back?”
“Dr McDonnell. Take a seat.”
“You do know the reason why, don’t you?”
“Dr McDonnell, first of all, you need to know, your daughter is still alive.”
“It worked. I have done this already. I have already found a cure?” They had discussed the possibility that Brendan might find he needed to travel back in time from 2090 to a time with more developed time travel technology if the cure involved something that might be challenging to bring back.
“There is no cure for Astor-Garg. In eighty years medicine has gone backwards. We die from reasons you never did in 2010. We struggle with the technology of 2020. I do not understand what my grandfather built with you. I do not know how it works. No one does.”
“But she is still alive.”
“I am going to take you to her. She lives now in the house you lived in,”
“Here, in Dublin?”
“Yes. People don’t move much anymore. Transport is very expensive. We tend to stay where we are born.”
“And my wife?”
“There is a lot to catch up on. It is eighty years later from when you woke this morning. She has gone beyond.”
“Dr McDonnell, I am sorry to say she is dead.”
“Oh.” Brendan had realised that this was almost certain, but still felt it as a tightening in his gut. “But I can go back? Did you don’t understand how this works? You always said—I mean, your grandfather always said that there would be a way to go back?”
While he looked just like his grandfather, Lazaro Viajero was far more softly spoken, less ebullient, less confident. He also spoke with the accent of South Dublin. Brendan was only now taking in the differences, as Lazaro said with a sad smile, “Dr McDonnell, I am sorry to say that you can’t go back.”
Seven months earlier, Brendan had sat in a functional meeting room, seated at a desk opposite a tall, spare woman.
“I’m sure this isn’t what the university wants to hear, but really I can’t think of any possible collaborations between a tree physiologist and a lecturer in business administration. The fault is of course mine,” he said.
“No problem. It’s a relief to be honest.”
“How are you finding this? My, eh, discipline is at least vague enough that I can at least suggest something to the people I meet here, something about information hierarchies or whatever. You’re in a proper scientific field, it doesn’t strike me that there is much call for papers on the application of contemporary management models to… what did you say your particular field of expertise is?”
“Isotope ratio variation in tree rings”
“Hmm, well there you go. I’m afraid I can’t be of much direct help to you there.”
The bell rang.
“Nice to meet you, Natalie.”
“Nice to meet you, Brendan.”
Brendan moved to the next table. He had a large name tag “Brendan McConnell, Senior Lecturer, Systems Management, School of Management.” This was his first academic speed dating session. The university, wishing to foster interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary research (and, more particularly, publications), had organised a series of these events at which attendance was compulsory. Academics from diverse disciplines would rotate through a series of three-minute meetings, after which some social mingling was encouraged, all in aid of the possible development of some appropriately interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary or so on research.
Now he sat in front of a thickset, messy-haired man anywhere between mid-twenties and mid-thirties. “Alvaro Viajero, Physicist” was written on his nametag.
“Hi, I’m Brendan.”
“So I see.”
“So you work in the Physics Department.”
“You can read, then.”
“No offence, but I don’t think you belong in a university.”
“You don’t add anything. You are just a parasite, or rather you practice a parasitic discipline.”
“So, you don’t tremble with reverence in the presence of a senior lecturer in systems management?”
“No. You don’t seem offended.”
“No, I’m used to it. I feel that way most of the time myself.”
“Do you not feel that you’ve dedicated your life to something useless?”
“Well, I would be offended to be called useless.”
“But you made light of your discipline.”
“Well, I’m not that sure myself if we belong in a university. But that doesn’t make us useless. I mean—well, maybe I’ll start by asking you what should be in a university.”
“Sciences. Hard sciences mainly. Mathematics. Linguistics, proper scholarly history, proper philosophy. Things that actually create new knowledge, rather than re-organising what we know already.”
“Pretty strict criteria there. So no room for engineering, or most of the arts?”
“No. The university should be about new knowledge. Engineering is for trade schools. So is medicine. The rest is all bullshit.”
“Indeed. Indeed. Um, where are you from originally?”
“I am a scientist. I do not believe in the nation. I believe in the community of science.”
“Presumably you were physically born somewhere?”
“And did you physically grow up there?”
“Yes. And went to school and university and everything.”
“So you are Mexican.”
“As I said, nationality is an illusion. We are lucky to live in the age in which technology is making the nation obsolete.”
“I am glad my discipline and the nation state share an equally flimsy pretext for reality.”
“Do not take this personally. Most people are living under a state of permanent delusion.”
“Most people are too stupid to realise the truth about the universe, what the truth is. They are satisfied with comfortable illusions.”
“Are you talking about religion?”
“Not at all, not at all.” Viajero’s manner, up to now arrogantly confident, was momentarily anxious. “I am talking about our perception of the fabric of reality.”
“And how is that false?”
“Well, in most ways, but let us start with time.”
“Let us indeed.”
“You think time flows forward, you can’t go forward and you can’t go back, right?”
“Well, we are all going forward at the rate of one second per second.”
“Very clever. Well, the reality is, you can travel back and forward in time as easily as you can walk back and forth in this room.”
“The technology is not there, but the principle is obvious. Technology always follows principles, not the other way round. ”
“And what if you go back and kill your grandfather?”
“Well, don’t you destroy yourself? You can never be born?”
“But you have already been born. The timeline changes, but you have been born in the original timeline, and there you are.”
“So, you say there is no paradox.”
“If you go back in time, and you kill your father, well you’ve gone back and killed your father. And you are there. That’s it. You’ve changed the timeline, but you are part of the timeline. “
“But you’ll never be born”
“You have been born.”
“But you’ve killed your father, so he’ll never meet your mother, and therefore…”
“That’s in that new timeline. But you have created the timeline. By going back and killing your father. So you just keep going. Same thing goes if you kill your younger self.”
“What if you go back in time and stop the time machine being built?”
“So you’re saying that, let me summarise, a) time travel into the future is easy, and b) time travel into the past is harder, but not much harder.”
“And in the future they will crack this. It’s a matter of time.”
The bell rang.
“Well, no papers from us I guess.”
“No. This is a waste of time. Do not take it personally, I don’t mean talking to you”—again the flash of anxiety—“but this whole speed-dating thing.”
A few days later, walking with Lazaro at lunchtime by the lake—an artificial, concrete-bedded pond in the middle of campus—Brendan returned to the topic
“There are more paradoxes, aren’t there?”
“They aren’t really paradoxes. They are just funny things that arise from time travel, but they aren’t paradoxes.”
“What about meeting your own self? Either the past you or the future you.”
“So you meet yourself. Big deal.”
A few weeks later, sitting on a bench by the lake.
“To get back to the time travel thing.”
“You know the physics are quite trivial.”
“You keep saying that, but don’t you realise that what you are calling trivial is actually one of humanity’s most cherished dreams? What could be more amazing than to master time?”
“You forget that when people daydream about this they think they could go back and win the lottery or save someone from dying or stop September 11th or something. Of course, they forget that by joining the past timeline, it does alter. And perhaps the lottery numbers will be different, or by trying to stop September 11th they cause something worse. If you change the past, the present will not be just as it is now, except with one thing different.”
“What about the future?
“It’s not a big deal either. You get somewhere you are going anyway.”
“But suppose you were dying of a disease, that they can’t cure now. What if you go into the future, and they have cured it then?”
“That would be good.”
“I’m sure there would be millions who would jump at the chance. And what if you could skip a day you know will be bad, or skip Christmas if you hate Christmas, and so on?”
“All it takes is jumping a little in time. On the cosmic scale of time, very little. All those things fall into the category of nice things, not necessarily of any theoretical importance in the scheme of things.”
“What does it actually take, physically?”
“What do you mean by physically?”
“The actual reality of building it. You keep saying how simple it would be. Come on, Alvaro, you know that if you did this, Nobel Prizes would be in the ha’penny place.”
“It’s an Irish thing. Nobel Prizes would be the least of it. You would be put up there with Newton and Galileo and no doubt earn an income to match. ”
“You insult me if you think prizes or money motivate me.”
“Oh, come on. Stop telling me that you wouldn’t be delighted to be in such company as Einstein and Feynman and the others whose names I don’t recall.”
Early in their friendship Brendan had mentioned reading A Mathematician’s Apology and some of Feynman’s books, and professed to finding them mightily impressive, and that he realised the real position of maths and physics in the intellectual landscape, even though his own knowledge was pitifully weak. Since then, Alvaro had allowed him a certain joshing latitude.
“I would be ashamed to win a prize for a piece of tinkering, something that adds nothing to science.”
“If this was really so easy, how come some wicked wicked company hasn’t done it already and made a fortune from all those silly people who might think time travel is quite a big deal?”
“Because while it is easy to go forward, it isn’t as clear how you get back.”
“And? I’d imagine there are lots of people who wouldn’t care that much about getting back.”
“There wouldn’t be many repeat customers.”
A month later, Penelope drove them to the park. Rosie coughed a little as they manoeuvred into a space.
“She’s had that cough for a bit,” said Penelope.
“She seems lively enough though.” Brendan turned around in his seat. “Rosie, do you want to go to the playground?”
“I want to go to playground.”
“Good girl. Here we are.” Brendan began to turn, then turned back to Rose.
“Are you OK? You look really pale.”
“I am OK.”
They had parked. Penelope looked round also.
“Rosie, are you sure?”
“Maybe for a little while?” suggested Brendan.
They got out. When released from her seat, Rosie sprang up.
“Hold hands, there’s cars” Brendan said.
“Why do you hold hands, Rosie?” said Penelope
“Because there are cars.”
“And why do you need to hold a grown-up’s hand when there are cars?”
“Because they can hurt you.”
“Hurt you really badly. You can even get killed.”
They walked through the car park towards the playground. The playground was in a fenced off area between two football pitches. Brendan noticed a group of about thirty people at the far end of one of the pitches, with red, white and green flags on poles scattered around them.
They were surrounded by five spacehoppers, with what seemed from the distance to be teenage boys on them. A familiar figure was standing to the side, arm raised with flag aloft, and suddenly blew a whistle. As the whistle went, Brendan realised that this was Alvaro.
“You see that guy over there—the one who just blew the whistle? It’s that guy from the School of Physics” he said to Penelope.
“The obnoxious one?”
“Did I say he was obnoxious?”
“You made him sound obnoxious.”
“He’s not the worst.”
“Usually people you say aren’t the worst, aren’t exactly the best either.”
“What’s going on?”
“They look like Mexican flags or something.”
They were coming closer to the playground.
“Why don’t we say hello? Rosie, let’s say hello to daddy’s friend?”
“Friend?” Penelope was surprised.
“He’s a work friend.”
“Do I have to?” said Rosie.
“He’s very nice. Really, he is. Alvaro!”
“Dr McDonnell! What are you doing here?”
“I didn’t think you were quite the outdoor games type.”
A girl about Rosie’s age ran up to Alvaro and rapidly spoke in Spanish. Alvaro went down on his hunkers and replied with a smile.
Alvaro turned back to Brendan.
“It is a social day for Mexican people here in Ireland. A fiesta.”
“Oh.” Brendan was tempted to say something about the community of science, but didn’t.
Girls were being given medals at the end of the line. Alvaro smiled at Rose.
“Little girl, I am very busy, but perhaps you would like to run in one of our races.”
“No thank you.”
“You are a very polite little girl.”
“I don’t feel well.”
“Well, you need to take care of yourself. Mrs McDonnell, a pleasure,” he shook Penelope’s hand. “Your husband is very devoted to his family.”
“You don’t think much of his work, by the sound of things.”“He told you that?”“Alvaro, I just describe our conversations in an appropriately dispassionate, scientific manner.”
“Ha, you mustn’t take what I say too seriously. Are you alright?” He turned to Rosie with concern.
She had turned paper-pale, and swayed.
“Are you OK, Rosie?” said both Penelope and Brendan, right by her side.
She steadied, and the colour returned to her cheeks a little. “I am OK.”
“We better get you home, Rosie. I’m sorry Alvaro, it would be nice to hang out, but some other time.”“Of course, you take care of yourselves.”Rosie moved hesitantly, as if about to stumble. Brendan picked her up, carrying her while Penelope stroked her hair.
They said it might help to keep a diary. I don’t want to write dates or times. I just want to record a few impressions, before I go away.
There is a moment when you know there is something wrong, something more than the usual childhood infections, that your mindset changes from watchful optimism to constant dread.
He asked her about her daughter, his granddaughter.
“Tell me about her. Tell me about Penny. Was it short for Penelope?”
“No, that’s what she was called. After mum.”
“She hates being called Penny. Hated, I mean, I guess.”
“Things changed after you left. She always went by Penny. Maybe she wanted to be a different person in some way.”
“What was Penny—your Penny—like?”
“She was… hilarious. Always funny, cheerful, full of hugs. We tried to steer her away from princess costumes and dolls and pink gear, but she kept seeking them out” Rose’s eyes were full of tears.
“That all sounds very familiar. What happened?”
“It was in the early days of self-driving cars. They were supposed to be the absolute safest way to travel. But it turned out drunk driving was still drunk driving, somehow.”
“Where did it happen?”
“Here, in Dublin. In Rathgar. We lived in Rathmines. People had just started sending their kids alone in the cars to school. They would pull up a little away so they could walk the rest, to get exercise. They had mobile cams to supervise it all. So you could watch. You could watch the little darling getting dropped off. So I saw it all on a screen. A drunk. Manual override…” she began to weep, and just as earlier she had suddenly been four again, she was now the thirty-year-old woman whose daughter had died.
“I’m here.” He cradled his daughter in his arms, repeating again, “I’m here, I’m here, I’m not going anywhere.”
The cough that didn’t shift, the pallor, the listlessness—all were there for days, all had lead us to take Rose to the GP, to be reassured, to notice the momentary pause before Dr Darker began to tell us that it was still most likely a virus lasting a little longer than usual but still, to be on the safe side, she would make a referral, and then our life became a series of clinics in children’s hospitals, waits for tests, nights taking turns on a mattress on the floor of the hospital room.
Hearing your child is going to die, and there is nothing you can do about it.
After a while Rose began again, and told him the story, how she was frozen in front of the screen watching it happen as Penny got out of the car and hopped onto the pavement, how the other car—the death car—suddenly mounted it and swept away Penny and another girl and a supervisor. This was all matter-of-fact, detached. Rose had repeated the story again and again, to herself, to friends, to support groups, but never to her husband. She told Brendan about how they had hardly been able to talk again to each other. Both were numb, and the numbness never went. There was no blame or anger, just a sense of an ending.
Up to now I had been the stoic one, the one reassuring Penelope, the one who would say that there is always hope.
To be told the disease is not only incurable, but of unknown cause, neither genetic nor acquired, too rare to study with any reliability, something to do with protein folding, to be put in touch with the children’s hospice, and everyone being as kind and as professional and as decent as you could wish, and what does that matter anyway, in a way you wish someone would say something thoughtless or crass or rude and you could focus all the anger and sadness at them, have some anecdote to tell about how terrible they were, and that would—well, what? Or if there was something you had done, or Penelope had done, or someone had done, or something to do with pollution, and that had caused it, or even if it was something genetic, something you could blame and curse, something you could feel directly guilty about, not just the guilt at going on living.
To be told that it is simply a matter of proteins not folding, and given enough time and computing power Astor-Garg disease will be solved, but when—well, at the current rate of progress, eighty years say, probably sooner, but hard to know. A by-product of other advances. No one is hunting for a cure.
Brendan met Alvaro again, three months after they bumped into each other in the park on the day of the Mexican community festival. Alvaro knew Rose was sick, knew about the prognosis. He had seen Brendan gradually diminish—less speech, less movement, less reaction.
“I have to do it,” said Brendan, without preamble.
“Go forward in time.”
“Astor-Garg will be cured. It is a simple matter of proteomics. They keep saying this—all the doctors, all the journals. The problem is, it will take eighty years to work through all the combinations. Or less, probably.”
“Brendan, we should sit—“
“—so therefore it will be cured in eighty years. Which is, if I am not mistaken, the timeframe you gave for the problem of going back in time being solved.”
“I go to the future, I find out about the cure, I go back, I cure Rose. You told me a machine to travel forwards in time would be a simple matter.”
“I meant theoretically.”
“You said that the world was made of theories.”
“I did, but—“
“Alvaro, Rosie is going to die. She is going to die. That’s what they tell us, as nicely and as gently and as decently as they can, and they sit you down before they talk to you and make sure that you are comfortable and you are both there and you have time to think after and they bring you tea and biscuits and they are so nice but what they are saying is, your daughter is going to die, there is nothing we can do, there is nothing they could do in America, there is not even a quack somewhere or wacky fringe treatment or anything, there is nothing we can do. And I refuse to say, oh there is nothing we can do.”
“Brendan, Brendan, Brendan.”
“I cannot let her die, I cannot. Please. I cannot.”
“I will help you anyway I can.”
When she had finished talking and crying, Rose fell asleep in her father’s arms. Lazaro had gone out to the hallway, and Brendan only realised that he was still there when he heard the creak of a floorboard. He gently disentangled himself from his sleeping daughter, looked at her face, wrinkled and with greying hair. He thought that while Rose was well-preserved, clearly old age in 2010 looked not unlike old age in 2090. Then he realised these were his first thoughts about how the year 2090 was or wasn’t different from 2010. He tiptoed to the hall. Lazaro was reading a book.
“So, you still read books?”“Indeed we do. Are you surprised?”“I had thought they might disappear, with the eBook and the internet and all.”
“Not really. We don’t use the internet much.”“Why not?”
“I’m not sure. It’s for government use only, for emergencies, that kind of thing.”
It was the same house, and it only began to strike Brendan now that it was strange that the house had very much the same arrangement of rooms. In the hallway, there were pictures of landscapes, not ones he recognised. There was a grey panel, about the size of his hand, inset on the wall just inside the main hall door. On the floor there were three pairs of shoes, neatly lined up. The floor was thinly carpeted.
“She’s asleep. What do you think I should do?”“I don’t know. Put her to bed maybe?”
“Which is her bedroom?”“I don’t know, I have never been here before.”“How did you know she was alive?”“It was easy to keep track of that, just looking at the newspapers.”“Newspapers. Obviously they are still going too. I wouldn’t have thought so”
“Granddad said you would be surprised at how much things hadn’t changed, but if you had only listened to him, you shouldn’t be.”
“Ha, that sounds like Alvaro alright. I’m going upstairs, I’ll have a look where I’ll put her.”It was getting dark. Upstairs, too, the rooms were arranged as they had been. The bathroom door was open, and aside from another grey panel beside the mirror, all was the same. He pushed up the door to what he thought of as Rose’s room. It was still Rose’s room. The pink-framed bed with the loveheart-festooned covers; the toys piled in the corner, their owner too sick to play with them. All that was missing was the telemetry unit and the drip stand, and their attendant tubes and connections. He went into the room where he had that morning woken beside his wife. He saw the polka dot duvet, neat and flat on one side, rumpled on the other, as if someone had just got up. He saw the clothes—his clothes, Penelope’s clothes—all around the room, bulging from every corner. He saw the books with their titles, always such definitive and authoritative titles—Comprehensive Biochemical Pathology, Advanced Immunology—and he saw the journal articles, printed and poorly stapled, all in paper blobs around the room, discarded half-understood for all the desperation of their search. It was the same room he had left that morning. All that was different was no sleeping Penelope.
He turned to fetch his sleeping daughter and carry her to her bed.
Food for Thought
Many philosophers, such as Epicurus, have tried to argue that the fear of death is irrational since both before and after our lives we did not exist; we do not fear the time before we were born, so why fear the time after death? We are, in this way of thinking, living in an island of time. Einstein has taught us that the apparently linear nature of time is illusory. This is not our lived experience of time. This story explores time travel, which is another way of saying cheating death, from the point of view of the emotional response to travelling so far, so irrevocably far, from our loved ones.
About the Author
Séamus Sweeney has had fiction published in Alt Hist, Bloodbond, Of Airships and Automatons, Nthposition.com and Beyond Imagination. He has published reviews in the Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, The Lancet, The Scotsman and The Spectator. He is married with three children and lives in Tipperary.
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