The Road Not Taken by August von Orth

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THE ROAD NOT TAKEN

August von Orth

My Fireball XL5 spaceship crashed on Mercury. The ninety degree heat transformed the curb in front of my house—mostly crumbled to rubble—into a great planet Mercury. The strange man walked up to me as I sat beside the crash site on the curb. I should probably have been worried, but this was a lifetime ago when kids rode bikes without helmets and played outside without a head full of stranger-danger. And no, he didn’t kidnap or molest me. I do wish I had paid better attention though. Even being a little kid, I probably would have, if I’d know I was about to meet myself. Well…sort of me.

I heard him before I saw him. He shambled along the sidewalk with a tap-step gait, a raven-topped cane supporting every other step. He wore church clothes and beads of sweat mottled his face. I didn’t feel so sweaty, but he was old and fat so maybe that made the heat worse. I thought he would pass but he stopped. He cast a long shadow over the curb where I sat. “Mom’s inside. Dad’s at work.”

“Okay.” He pointed at the XL5 with the cane. “Looks like a pretty bad crash.” He had a nice voice, the kind Nana used when she thought you were great even when you did something stupid.

“It’s not really broken.” The crash landing ripped the nosecone from the ship and blew the hatch open. The impact threw Steve Zodiac and Venus out onto the rocks. They would die of heat if they didn’t get back to the ship. “It’s just a pretend crash.” I picked up the nosecone and slipped it back onto the ship. “See.”

“Cool, Billy. You got that for your birthday on Tuesday?”

“Yeah.” I held my hand over my eyes to shade the sun and looked up at the stranger. “You look like my Uncle Bull. Except he doesn’t have a cane. You an Uncle I don’t know or something?”

“Something like that.” He pointed with the cane again, this time at my house. “I used to live there when I was your age. I used to have a Fireball XL5 too.”

I looked real close at his face, but he wasn’t smiling. “This toy is from the TV show. You’re like…old. They didn’t have TV when you were a kid.”

“It’s kind of complicated. I wasn’t a kid a long time ago, just a different kind of now.” Still no smile. “It comes from traveling in a spaceship really fast.”

I squinted at him real hard so he’d know I wasn’t buying his jazz. “You saying you were in a spaceship?”

“Yes.” He stared right back at me without the crack of a smile.

I wasn’t about to call him on this whopper. When I did that with Uncle Bull he called me a sensitive little sissy. “Okay, so did you like maybe go faster than the speed of light or something? The XL5 can do that on TV.”

“No. You can’t do that in real life, but you can go very, very close and it makes time slow down.” Still the serious face.

This old guy is on a roll.

“Once you do that you can travel to the edge of the universe. Then you find you’re not just traveling in space anymore, but in time.” He shrugged. “That’s how I got here, back to the time when I was a kid. At least, sort of.”

The old guy was too good at this. Something spooky about him. “What’s your name, mister?”

The stranger smiled, but not a caught-in-a-fib smile, a normal happy smile. “William Tobias Arnott.”

Goosebumps rose under the sweat beads on my arms. That’s my name. People called me Billy since I was a kid, but Mom called me William Tobias when she got cheesed at me. This is creeping me out. I wasn’t really scared though, because my PF Flyers were real fast. As the World Turns babbled from the TV in the house, and I knew I could be in the living room telling Mom before the old gimp got halfway across the lawn. “You know you can’t hurt me. I saw it in this movie about a time machine. If you kill me then you die too since you’re really me.”

His face fell like that really stung him. “I would never hurt you, Billy.” He leaned heavy on his cane. “Good thing too, since what you say isn’t true. We aren’t the same person, just almost the same person.” His eyes were serious but nice, not crazy at all. “There are slight differences between this now and the now when I was a kid.”

“What?” I was really confused but starting to realize that he wasn’t pulling my leg. Probably a nut, but not teasing. “I’m just a kid who saw stuff on TV. I don’t know adult stuff.”

“I know, Billy. But it’s pretty simple in a way.” He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped the sweat off his forehead. “You know the screws Dad keeps in the jars in the garage?”

“Sure. I help Dad all the time.”

“I know you do.” He smiled. “Well going around in time is like the grooves on a screw. The grooves go around and around the screw but never come back to the exact same place. Each time a groove goes around it’s a little closer to the other end of the screw.”

“I know. I helped Dad fix the washer.” Does this guy think I’m a retard or something? “I screwed in the screws when we put it back together.”

“Well time is like going around the screw. Each go-around lands you in a time that is just a bit different than before.” He reached into his shirt pocket, unfolded a sweaty piece of paper, and handed it to me. “I printed this out for you. It’s from my time.”

The paper looked like a magazine cover torn off. It was gross with sweat but I took it anyway. It was some kind of history for kids thing with a picture of Hitler. It said something about looking for his body. “I don’t get it. Even kids know they burned Hitler after they hung him.”

“That’s just it. In my time he killed himself and they never really found his body.” He shrugged. “It’s one of those things that are different.”

I scratched my head. Am I supposed to get the point? “Why are you saying all this stuff?”

He smiled again, but his eyes got sad, like Nana when she gets too tired to play anymore. “I just wanted a chance to meet you. I’ll be sending you things a few times later in your life, but not in person. I’m an old man and I’ll be dead by then. So this is my only chance to actually meet you.” He reached down and tussled my hair. “Bye, Billy.”

He turned and walked back the way he came. His cane clicked on the sidewalk as he went. He was already a few steps gone when I remembered to say, “Bye.”

Mom got pretty upset about the Hitler paper. Dad thought it was one of her relatives playing a prank and didn’t take it serious, which upset Mom more. She called neighbors and got the whole neighborhood worked up about a wierdo maybe bothering kids. But nobody ever found him. And like he said, I never saw him again.

But he did follow through on sending me things. The first time was the day before college graduation. I came home that day as Wee Willie Weber announced the Cash Call Jackpot amount on the kitchen radio in the back of the house. The scent of lasagna baking drew me back there. I found my mother giddy with excitement. “You got a UPS package!” A brown paper package was torn open on the kitchen table. A raven-topped cane, a yellowed eight-by-ten color picture of a beautiful blond woman and a cashier’s check were laid out. Mom had a letter in her hand. “A law firm sent the package. It has a letter from somebody with the same name as you.” She handed me the letter. “It’s a very strange letter.”

I didn’t bother asking Mom why she opened a package addressed to me; she loved opening packages and didn’t bother with such pesky details. She watched me with flushed cheeks while I read:

Dear Bill,

We met when you were still Billy. I was the older version of you with the cane. I’m dead now, and this comes to you on a very specific date from a law firm handling a piece of my estate. You are planning to go to a graduation party tonight. I leave you my cane because you will need it for the rest of your life if you attend that party. The details aren’t important. Instead take the enclosed check for two-thousand and sixty-four dollars and pick up the KZ650 you ordered from the Kawasaki dealer. I remember the exact amount owed because I went to the party, ended up permanently crippled, could no longer afford the motorcycle and still have painful memories of the whole incident. Take your cue from Robert Frost and travel a different road. Skip the party, pick up the motorcycle and drive to the address on the back of the enclosed picture. She is the woman you will marry some day after you both marry and have children with the wrong people first. She will also be beat to a pulp by her first husband. I suggest you skip all the mistakes and go get her tonight. We don’t have to be exactly the same.

With love,

William Tobias Arnott

I had the worst case of goosebumps after reading the letter. I did remember him, but it had been years since I last thought of him. I’d always figured him for a kook. “How could he possibly know about the motorcycle?”

“What the hell, right?” Mom’s eyes were wide. “Is this the guy who gave you the Hitler picture when you were little?”

I picked up the cane and touched the raven on top. Déjà vu chilled me. “I think it is.” I put the cane down and picked up the picture. It was brittle with age but the young woman wore a ruffled sundress that looked like a current style.

Mom squeezed up next to me and looked too. “She’s pretty. You have good taste.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You’re kidding, right? You’re not buying all this, are you? This has to be some kind of elaborate prank by my friends.”

“Maybe.” She smiled. “But you could sure do a lot worse than this girl.”

In all honesty I can’t remember exactly what I said after that moment. Probably something about my physics degree and how I couldn’t believe such nonsense, because I was going to graduate school in a few months and needed to think like a serious scientist. But in truth I already knew what I was going to do. A few hours later, like a salmon swimming upstream, I was on that KZ650—gloss black and major bad-ass—heading west to the address on the back of the picture.

I stood in front of her apartment door. The Little River Band played inside. This is nuts. I knocked. My heart hammered. Footsteps approached from inside.

The door opened. The woman from the picture stood before me in jeans, a tee shirt and bare feet. She smelled fresh like baby powder. “Yes?”

“Um…” My tongue forgot how to work. Speak you idiot! “Robyn?”

“That’s me.” An uncertain smile graced her lips. “And you are?”

“Um…” My eyes locked onto her lips and refused to look away. Stop it! “Bill. I’m Bill.”

A man came up behind her, a little dark-haired guy in an acetate shirt, and pushed in front of her. He jutted his chin out at me. “Hey jerk-off, what do you think you’re doing?”

My nostrils flared and my fists balled tight. A growl rumbled up from my throat. My right fist decided all on its own to lash out and connect with the little man’s chin. He pitched over backward and landed with a thud on his back, unconscious.

Robyn cocked an eyebrow, not alarmed but confused. “Is that why you came here?”

The surge subsided. I was light-headed and a little wobbly. My mouth hung open. I shut it. “I’ve never done anything like that before.” I looked at my hands like they belonged to somebody else. Did I really growl? “I’m sorry.”

“Okay.” She looked down at the bully and shrugged. “It’s not like he didn’t deserve it.” With one hand she brushed her hair back from her face. “You still haven’t said why you came.”

I reached into my back pocket where I’d stashed the letter. “What the hell.” I handed it to her.

She read it without any expression. She finished reading and her gaze kind of drifted off into space.

Her silence unnerved me. “I know. I’m probably a lunatic. I’ll understand if you want to call the police.”

Her eyes refocused and looked into mine. “The moment I saw you I knew you were going to be important in my life.” She looked over my shoulder at the parking lot behind me. “Is that the KZ650?”

My heart rose, buoyant. “Yes.” My smile grew so big I found it hard to speak. “Nice, huh?”

“Eh.” She smiled. “I notice you have two helmets.”

“I had to guess your size.”

She stepped around the little bully—now snoring where he lay—and came outside. “So are you going to ride me off into the sunset or what?”

Mom was ecstatic when I brought her home. Dad rolled his eyes. I remembered the old man telling me he would send things several times, so I contacted the law firm to find what else was in store. They had no further instructions regarding the old man’s estate. Robyn and I married while I was in graduate school. We raised four kids on little money while I built an academic career over the next thirty years. And that career focused on understanding what the old man, the other me, knew. I needed to understand how all this could happen.

Then came the heart-stopping call from the hospital. My teaching assistant at the University ran in and interrupted my relativity lecture. “Something’s wrong with Robyn!”

I rushed to the hospital, heart in throat. I could barely stand still waiting for the spike-haired kid in reception to find her in the computer. Come on! I wanted to reach over the counter and do it myself, but knew the resulting commotion would further delay finding Robyn. When I finally had the room number in hand, I ran through the labyrinth halls past wheelchairs and gurneys, dodging slow moving people who smelled of antiseptic and misery. But she wasn’t in the room! I searched nearby and finally found her sitting in an oncologist’s office wearing a hospital gown.

Dried tears stained her cheeks but she had calmed. “Don’t worry, honey, they caught it in time.”

I grabbed her hand and squeezed it. “Caught what?”

The oncologist had two x-rays up on the view box. She stood before them scratching her head as if puzzling through a math problem. Robyn reached out and took my other hand too. “A small cancerous tumor in my left lung.”

My knees suddenly couldn’t support me. “Cancer?” I dropped into the seat beside Robyn.

The oncologist turned to me. “We were lucky, William. It was just a tiny carcinoma and we were able to biopsy and remove it all at once. We need to do some follow up treatment, but it looks like your wife will be fine.”

Relief and concern swirled in my head. “But how did you know to look for it?”

“Now that’s the question.” The oncologist turned back to the view box and pointed at the left lobe of the lung on the right x-ray. “This is the x-ray we took today and it shows an almost imperceptible tumor.” She pointed at the left lobe of the other x-ray. “This one shows a much more advanced cancer in the same place, which your wife’s tumor would have grown into in about a year. But watch this.” She overlapped the x-rays on the view box and lined up the bones. They matched up perfectly except for the cancer.

“This legitimately looks like x-rays of your wife with the cancer now and what it would have looked like a year from now. A year from now would have been too late to save her.” She turned back to me with a flat expression. “And the date on the second x-ray is one year from today, amazing because someone just mailed it to your wife.” She put her hands on her hips. “I’ve never seen an x-ray hoax like this before, but whoever did it saved Robyn’s life.”

“I didn’t want to scare you if it wasn’t true,” Robyn said, “so I came right here with the x-ray.” She held up a UPS overnight envelop with the return address of an unfamiliar law firm. “No letter this time, but there is a picture.” She had a very odd look in her eye.

I knew, of course, who had sent it as I took it from her. I slipped the picture out and gooseflesh chilled my arms. I held a frail yellowed picture of our three oldest kids as they looked today. “This can’t be.” As I stared at it I realized there were differences, but more similarities than differences.

“Turn it over,” Robyn said.

On the back it said: The two oldest are from Robyn’s first marriage, the youngest is from mine. The timelines try to pull themselves back together. My face tingled. I had to remind myself to breathe.

I’d spent years studying spacetime physics based on my earlier experiences with this older version of me. I’d figured out how space and time could spiral together. I thought I had it all figured out. But this new thing threw that notion to the wind. The genetic probability of our oldest three kids being so identical to kids produced in another timeline with different partners was astronomically small. I was more likely to win the Mega Millions every week for a year. As my other self hinted, there was a deeper something to spacetime that linked the different timelines even closer than biology. I know nothing.

And, not surprisingly, the new law firm that sent the package knew nothing about any further plans. But I did hear from the old man one more time. I was at retirement age, but we couldn’t afford it, so I was still working. And I had just published my masterwork, a theory of spacetime that explained all the mysteries the old me had left for me to ponder. Except nobody knew how to test it. I feared I might be stuck never knowing if I got it right, always wondering if I missed the mark.

But a company called SpaceTime Ventures wanted to work with me to prove it. In my den I sat with my tablet and looked over a job offer. I ignored the smell of popcorn from the other room. Snow fell outside my window. The job would mean leaving my secure, if modest, position at the University. But it also meant a generous salary and a chance to prove my theory. I’d been pondering the offer for a week.

From the other room a tiny voice called, “Grandpa, it’s time for the movie.” Robyn was gathering the grandkids in the adjacent great room. Our kids were out together for New Year’s Eve and we had all the grandkids for the night.

“Be right there, kids.” I should just sign this thing. “Start the movie and I’ll be right in.” My finger hovered over the signature block. The tablet chimed to announce an incoming email. My eyes went to the pop-up info-bubble. A chill ran through me when I saw the name of an unfamiliar law firm and the subject line: final provisions from the will of William Tobias Arnott. I tapped the bubble before it disappeared and brought the email up on the tablet.

The law firm’s email was terse, declaring that the three attachments were the final provisions from the old man’s will to me as his heir. From me to me…sort of. In the great room the theme music from Alice in Wonderland swelled. I tapped the first attachment open.

At first I didn’t understand what I was looking at: a long list of well know companies with dates and dollar amounts. Then it hit me. The old man had invested in companies he knew would succeed. He’d invested modesty in each, likely to avoid attention, but each had grown as he knew they would. I scrolled to the bottom of the list and the overall total stunned me. And the sentence on the line below transformed stunned into flabbergasted. All that money was waiting to be transferred to my account. The old man, the other me, had arranged to eliminate the financial burdens that delayed my retirement.

My finger shook as I opened the next attachment. A press release from SpaceTime Ventures, whose job offer I’d been about to sign. It had a picture of the old man at the top, an older and worse-for-wear version of me. The date was ten years in the future. It said simply that he was about to leave on a space journey in a ship the company had built to prove his theory. The ship would transmit data back from along the route to prove the theory. But it was a one way trip. His destiny…and mine?

I opened the last attachment and a video filled the screen. “Hello, William.” The old man was videoing himself with something held at arm’s length. He wore a dark suit and glowed with sweat. He pointed over his shoulder. “I’m about to go meet you.” In the background behind him was a blue house that I recognized instantly. My stomach flip-flopped. On the curb in front of the house a small boy played. Me. “I hope this comes at about the right time. As you know by now, this timeline thing isn’t fixed, and this is the farthest across time that I’ve reached for you.”

“Anyway,” he continued, “after Robyn died, I’m afraid I wasn’t much of a father. A bit of an asshole really. By the time I left on this little jaunt through spacetime my kids hadn’t spoken to me in years. So I had nothing to lose. But not so with you I’m sure, since I know the choices I would have made in your shoes. Or is that our shoes? In any case, I’ll be honest and tell you that the spacetime theory proved not quite correct, though I did eventually figure it out during the trip. And now I understand the universe in all its wonder. You can too.” He smiled, his eyes sad. “But William, we don’t have to be exactly the same.” The screen went blank.

I found a tear in my eye and wiped it away. I tapped the tablet to bring the SpaceTime Ventures contract to the top, closed the document, and used my finger to drag it across the screen into the electronic trash. Gone. I put the tablet down and went into the great room. I smiled at Robyn snuggled on the couch amidst a heap of grandkids, all focused on Alice up on the screen. “So what have I missed?”

Robyn looked up and smiled. “You haven’t missed a thing.”

Food for Thought

What if you could go back and do it again? The idea of going back in time to relive all or part of your life is an often visited theme in speculative fiction and even music. Eddie Money anyone? But the physics of cosmology offers an interesting twist on this. Because of lingering issues with the Big Bang theory, it is interesting to look to General Relativity for an alternative. Einstein’s theory treats time the same as space, equating the two in his theory. I won’t go into all the details, but it is possible to use this theory to define a cosmology without a Big Bang; basically, over large stretches of space-time, time becomes space-like and space becomes time-like. It successfully describes the key observable features of the universe (redshift, etc.), but in a very different way: space and time curve back in on themselves over very large scales.

This brings on a confounding philosophical issue: what does it mean for time to curve back in on itself? Does time simply repeat? Or is it more like a spiral, almost repeating (like the parallel universes version of quantum mechanics)? Well this confounding issue is the engine for my story: The Road Not Taken (with apologies to Robert Frost). William Tobias has found a way to travel around space-time and meet a young version of himself. Can William influence his younger self to avoid the mistakes he made in life?

About the Author

Dr. Robert August is an internationally recognized nuclear detection expert with decades of experience developing technology and methods for addressing the issue of clandestine nuclear attack. He has advised the Office of the Secretary of Defense on policy development and has served on National committees concerning nuclear detection issues like the Nuclear Defense Working Group that developed recommendations for the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. He served as Chief Scientist and Deputy Director of the Homeland Security Institute, an institution created by the US Congress to advise the Department of Homeland Security. Prior to this, for 21 years, Dr. August was a physicist with the Naval Research Laboratory, where he invented, developed, and deployed nuclear detection systems and provided expert analysis and interpretation of nuclear intelligence data, much of which has had policy impacts for current nuclear antiterrorism concerns. He has published numerous research and analysis papers in journals and government reports. Dr. August earned a Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics and an M.S. in Physics from Duke University. Prior to this he earned a B.S. in Physics from Rutgers University, Camden College of Arts and Sciences.

August von Orth is the pen name for Robert August, created to set apart his more artistic output. The name also honors the memory of his mother, Pauline Louise August (nee Orth), 1934-1994. In German, von is a preposition which approximately means of or from, and usually refers to a geographic place. Ignoring standard usage, here he uses von to mean genetically and physically from his mother. So August von Orth honors the fact that he is an August from an Orth. She remains his first, and most passionate, fan.

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