I was sitting in front of my home computer, attempting to print out an article I'd found on the web. It was a distraction from my work and I didn't want to spend too much time at it, so naturally the printer took the opportunity to whine that it was out of ink. I growled at it, to no effect, then rummaged around in my desk for the spare ink jet cartridge I'd seen just days before.
I went through all of the other drawers, getting more frustrated by the second, before looking in the big one on the bottom. Naturally, the colorful box was sitting right there on top of the pile, almost laughing at me. I sighed, then reached in, but as my hand closed around the box I also snagged a slim object beneath. It was an old audio cassette - a sure sign that it had been way too long since I'd cleaned out this drawer.
My first impulse was to get back to the job at hand and drop the tape right back where I'd found it, but something made me pause and look at it more closely.
The original Asylum label declared it to be Linda Ronstadt's Simple Dreams. I recalled that the cassette, sans case, had somehow found its way into my collection during my chaotic college years. I'd never actually been a fan of Lovely Linda's music, though, which went some ways toward explaining the blocky handwriting over the label that now read "Frank Garcia, 6/2/1998." Hmm, that brought back some memories.
Back in those days, I'd been a big fan of Frank's nationally syndicated radio talk show. His shtick had been mostly the paranormal and conspiracy theories, which my twenty-years-younger self had unaccountably found quite entertaining. My nightshift job had kept me from listening live, but I'd frequently set the timer on my tape deck to record parts of his show so I could hear them in the morning. I recalled that a shortage of blank cassettes one night had driven me to record over this tape's original content, but I couldn't remember if I'd ever actually played it back.
I'd quit listening to Frank's show a decade and a half before, but for some reason I hadn't ever gotten rid of this old, beat up cassette. The time had definitely come, though, so I gave it a gentle toss toward the square trash can in the corner.
With the walls acting as dual backboards, I hadn't missed in weeks, but somehow the cassette caught an edge on the back of the rim and bounced out, clattering across the hard floor and bumping up against the toe of my shoe.
I took aim for another shot, but then, on a whim, relented and instead popped the plucky cassette into the little-used player behind me. I set about the task of installing the ink cartridge just in time to hear Frank give out his toll-free number. I still knew that one by heart, having heard it a few thousand times.
The recording was of an open phone hour, where the real crazies had come out of the woodwork. Indeed, the first two calls involved a ghost sighting and an alien abduction. I successfully printed the article and got back to work as I listened with one ear.
"Thanks for your call, Tim," Frank said in his smooth baritone, ending a conversation that I'd found particularly amusing. "After hearing that story, I'm sure we'll all steer clear of wheat fields in Midland, Kansas at three in the morning." Crop circles had been all the rage back then, but the aliens had seemingly given up on them in the last decade or so. "Now let's go to our next caller. It's Luke in Los Alamos, New Mexico."
That piqued my interest a tad. Luke's not all that common a name, but it's mine, too.
"Hi, Frank, I was a big fan of your show for years."
"Was? What did I say that made you not such a big fan?"
"Nothing. It's just that on my end of this connection it's the year 2035 CE. Your show went off the air back in 2001."
"CE? What's that?"
"Sorry, force of habit. It means 'Common Era.' The use of the term 'Anno Domini' was banned years ago for being non-inclusive. You can't say things like 'In the year of our Lord' in public anymore."
I stopped typing and listened more closely. It wasn't that the caller had claimed to be from the future - that wasn't in the least unprecedented during Frank's open phone hours - it was the sound of his voice. It was obviously that of someone in his later years, but still deep and clear. There was also something about it that just made you automatically want to take him seriously. A born lecturer, preacher, or politician, I figured.
Interestingly, Luke's guess about the future demise of the show sounded about right. I seemed to recall that Frank had finally retired in about '01 or '02.
In the meantime, Luke's wild claim about being from the future had been served up like a juicy hunk of meat, and Frank dug in with gusto. "My show's only got three more years left in it? Well, I guess a run of twenty-seven isn't too bad in this business. Tell me Luke, how is it that you're calling us from 2035 CE?"
Good question. Frank's callers had always had explanations for claims like this, but those had often failed the straight-face test.
"Well, Frank, I work at a research facility that's been developing a technology to communicate with the past through alternate dimensions."
"Then I'd judge that you've succeeded. Are you folks using wormholes or something?" His tone was calm and thoughtful.
For me, that had always been the coolest thing about Frank. He would seemingly take the most outrageous callers at face value as long as there wasn't anything in their story that was patently stupid or an obvious put-on. And by those standards, Luke was doing just fine so far.
"Not a bad guess, Frank, but it's actually based on a freak discovery that wasn't made until just a few years ago. I would explain it to you, but-"
"Don't tell me. You're afraid that if you say too much, it could mess up the future, like going back and murdering your own grandfather." In his line of work, Frank was familiar with the standard doctrine on time paradoxes.
"No, that's not it at all. Our theoreticians have come to the consensus that contacting the past can't change our own timeline, it just creates a new one - like yours now."
Having listened to him for a couple of minutes, I realized that Luke's voice, in addition to being quite compelling, sounded strangely familiar. I couldn't put my finger on where or when, but I was sure I'd heard it somewhere before.
"So you're on a different timeline than me?" Frank continued.
"So if you can't cause any paradoxes, why not explain how it works?"
There was a short pause. "Because I don't really understand the theory myself," Luke replied, obvious embarrassment in his voice. "I'm just the overnight security guard."
That was a nice touch. The cranks who had called Frank's show "from the future" had usually made themselves out to be geniuses. I would have expected Luke to claim he was the chief researcher on the project or something.
I suddenly realized that I hadn't done any work at all since this call had started. I resolved to toss the tape and get back to work - after this call.
"Luke," Frank asked, with debatably genuine concern in his voice, "do your bosses know you're playing with their fancy equipment?"
"Uh, yeah, and I can tell you they're not terribly pleased about it. I'm alone in the building and I've put the outer and inner perimeter security systems into anti-incursion mode. I've also barricaded the door into the Displacement Lab. I can see them on my monitors, outside the fence, but it may take them a while to get in and stop me."
"Sounds like you're going to be in some trouble for this little stunt," Frank said conspiratorially. "You're not doing it just to talk to me, I hope."
Luke chuckled. "I liked your show back in the day, Frank, but I didn't like it that much. No, when I got this job last year and figured out what these people were trying to do, I spent a lot of time deciphering the scientists' notes and figuring out how to operate this crazy thing. My goal was to send some advice back in time to someone who could really use it. See, I need to tell him-"
"Hang on there, Luke," Frank interrupted. "It seems strange to me that they would allow a security guard such easy access to that kind of stuff."
"More than you know. Commercial artificial intelligence units still don't have full consciousness, but they're really good at surveillance. I'm only here because some government busybody added a clause to the contract that requires an actual, live security guard to walk the halls after hours. The rub is that they couldn't find an easy way to make this particular AI comfortable with that, so they ended up just disabling the interior monitoring at night. To compensate, they hired a guard with forty years of experience and a spotless record. Me. I've pretty much had the run of the place when the staff's not here."
"Well, so much for your clean record. I can't imagine you'll be able to find another security job after this."
"Oh, losing my career is the least of my worries. What I'm doing right now is going to seriously distress some very powerful people. I'll disappear into federal detention for the rest of my life in the unlikely event that the DHS goons out there bother to take me alive."
"DHS? What's that?"
"Oh, yeah. That would be the Department of Homeland Security."
"Seriously?" Frank's voice plainly said that he was more doubtful of the eventual existence of such an improbably-named government agency than he was of getting a call from thirty-seven years in the future.
"I know, Frank. In your time, in the late nineties, it would have sounded strange to me too, but just a few years later there was a bad terrorist attack and everything changed. People on both sides of the political aisle suddenly decided that consolidating all of America's federal civilian enforcement agencies into one department was a good idea."
"Well the name's got a seriously authoritarian vibe to it, Luke. It sounds like something Goebbels or Trotsky might have come up with."
"I'm with you there. I do believe it was formed with the best of intentions, and I think for a while it was a net positive, but when you give any government agency more power, it's only a matter of time until they start to abuse it."
"Yeah, the DHS really started to get out of control back in the late-teens, and it's only gotten worse since then. They've become the national police force that our founding fathers feared so much. With the explosion in the number of federal laws, they can pretty much pick up and hold anyone they don't approve of, almost indefinitely. More arrests are made by the DHS now than by all other police agencies combined, and a lot of those are for obviously political reasons. Even our so-called elected officials have learned the hard way that you don't cross them."
"This message of yours must be a big deal for you to throw your life away like this, Luke." As always, Frank sounded as if he'd totally bought in to the caller's tall tale.
"Actually, what I'm doing isn't really all that big a sacrifice at this point. I've got cirrhosis bad and need a cloned liver if I'm gonna see the New Year, but I'm 73 and only the social equivalent of a GS-5, so they've judged that I'm outside the National Health guidelines for the procedure."
"What, do they have death panels or something?"
"Funny you should use that term, but yeah, pretty much."
"Well I'm still sorry to hear it."
"Don't shed too many tears for me," Luke said with a verbal shrug. "The cirrhosis was self-inflicted. Still, I called you for a reason, so would you mind if I left my message now?"
"In a bit," Frank said, putting him off again. He really seemed to be enjoying himself now. The combination of Luke's persuasive voice and internally consistent story made him sound almost credible, which would be good for ratings. "I promise I'll give you time for that, Luke, but first I'm curious as to why, if you've got such an important message and have such advanced technology at your disposal, you're calling me? I mean, shouldn't it be a prominent scientist or politician or someone like that? Is it because you think I'm the only person open-minded enough to believe your story?"
"It honestly doesn't matter whether you believe me or not, Frank. What's important to me is that one particular person hears this, and by calling your show tonight, I know for sure that he will."
"And how could you possibly know - from thirty-seven years in the future - that one particular person is listening to my show right now?"
"It's because the message is for my younger self. I still have a copy of this hour of your show and I remember listening to it the morning after it was broadcast. I recorded it over an old Linda Ronstadt tape."
Time seemed to stand still as I numbly swiveled my chair back toward the player and pushed the pause button.
Linda freakin' Ronstadt?
Listening to the old tape had been entertaining until about five seconds ago, but now I was in total and complete shock. I've always prided myself on being a practical-minded, rational sort of guy, but now the most preposterous kind of Twilight Zone scenario was staring me right in the face.
I considered and discarded a half a dozen possible explanations for what I'd just heard, but nothing I could think of could account for Luke's mention of the original label on my tape. It was just flat out impossible.
Then the obvious truth hit me. Of course Luke's voice had sounded familiar to me the whole time - it was mine, or what mine would sound like in twenty-odd years. Against all logic and common sense, this future version of me, stored on a thin strip of magnetically-coated Mylar, was somehow real. There was no other logical explanation. Trembling now, I reached out and pressed play.
"So if you've already heard this hour," Frank said, "you know what I'm going to say next, right?" It would have been his style to entertain his audience by putting Luke to the test.
"No, my voice isn't on the tape on my timeline, it's being recorded onto young Luke's tape on your timeline."
There was a brief pause as Frank evidently thought that through. "Okay, I suppose that makes sense," he finally said, "but I'd imagine that my talking to you instead of another caller is going to make our timelines diverge."
"Actually, they started diverging when your producer picked up my call fourteen minutes ago. While I was listening on hold, your conversation with Tim from Kansas was subtly different than what's on my tape. But our theoreticians think that timeline changes take a while to become profound, so you've likely still got Michael from Chicago and Ella from Wilmington ready to come on after me."
There was a longer pause this time. "You're right, they're in the lineup," Frank said. I would have expected to hear more surprise in his voice. Maybe he'd figured he was being pranked by his producer.
"So how about it, Frank? May I give him my message now? It'll only take a minute, but the DHS guys are at the outer doors of the building. I've got maybe ten minutes left."
"Our next break is in six, so you'll get your chance," Frank said, cool and unperturbed as always. "Tell me though, Luke, how do you operate this time machine of yours? Do you just punch in a date and time, then dial the phone?"
"Believe me Frank, it's not a phone on this end, but due to the peculiarities of this technology, some of the easiest things to modulate in the past are the signals in fiber optic telephone lines. The techies could have accessed any number in the world."
"What do you mean, could have? They aren't going to?"
"Seems like a waste, huh? Management was popping corks a couple of days ago after they listened in on a conversation from back in '16, then they reported their success to Washington. They asked for permission to transmit, but instead the National Science Director suddenly told them to cease all operations. She tubed in from D.C. this morning and demanded a meeting with the staff. Not just the techies, mind you, but everyone even remotely related to the project."
"Sure did to me. Somehow, I got left off of their list, probably because they thought I was too stupid to understand what the scientists were up to. I spent the day at home, monitoring my coworker's net accounts. One by one, they all dropped off the face of the earth. Even their avatars are gone."
"Off to the camps, huh?"
"If they're lucky. I warned those eggheads that when the higher ups finally realized that this project would enable someone to listen to confidential DHS phone conversations from years ago, they'd shut us down and throw everyone down the rat hole. I suggested that they pronounce the whole technology a dead end and just walk away. Unfortunately, my warnings were dismissed as part of my 'paranoia' about the government. Those lambs had spent their whole lives sucking at the federal teat and didn't seem to know any better."
"Sheeple," Frank said disgustedly. "Yet you still came in to send this message?"
"It was now or never. Sooner or later they'd have figured out that I know too much."
"You couldn't make a run for it?"
"Not a chance. With the cash rounded up a decade ago and all housing, food and medical resources under direct government control, there's nowhere to hide. Even if there was, there would be no way to get there, what with the fracks everywhere."
"Sorry, Facial Recognition Cameras. For the last nine years it's been a federal crime to go out in public with your face concealed. They like to know where everyone is - for our safety of course."
"Chilling." Frank sounded spooked by that, but then again, that was part of his shtick.
"I figured I had nothing to lose by trying to send a message," Luke said, "so I headed for work as usual. I got here just as they were frog marching the last of the staff out."
"How did you manage to get in?"
"I waited until the DHS vans lifted away. They only left two guards out at the gate, so I worked out a plan. I rode up yelling frantically about how I had to save the government's evidence by disarming the 'self-destruct' that was going to blow in just minutes. I can be very convincing when I want to be, especially when I'm in my fancy uniform, and those snot-nosed kids actually believed me. One of them escorted me in here before they could clear it with HQ. He's tied up just inside the front door."
"Luke, you're a regular James Bond to have pulled this off, but I still don't get it. If you wanted to give your younger self a message so badly, why didn't you just call him? I'll bet that would have been a very interesting conversation."
"Sure, and I'd have loved talking to myself, but the embarrassing truth is that I couldn't find my old phone number. I still knew yours, though, and knew that young Luke would hear me on the tape. And with it recorded, he could play it back as many times as necessary to get my advice through his - my - thick head."
I slumped a little in my chair, staring at the player. Old Luke had been so sure, and why not? I'd always listened to the tapes the next morning. With this one, though, I hadn't. I figured I would never remember why not.
"Look, I promised to let you pass that message - and I will," Frank said, "but there's just one more thing. I'd like you to give us a juicy tidbit about our future. Not that your personal message to your younger self won't be fascinating in its own right I'm sure, but I'd like to hear something relevant to the rest of our listening audience. Maybe that terrorist attack you mentioned earlier?"
Luke chuckled dryly. "I figured you'd want something like that, so I came prepared." There was the brief sound of rustling paper. "Let me warn you, though, when it comes to future events, even the really nasty ones, I don't think knowing about them in advance is necessarily a good thing."
"How do you mean? Wouldn't the ability to stop something bad from happening be wonderful?"
"Well, imagine that I'd called Pearl Harbor on December 6th, 1941 and warned them about what was set to happen the next morning. If the Japanese sneak attack had been thwarted, would America have entered the war in time to turn the tide in Europe? Maybe by the time public opinion was in favor of fighting, the Axis powers would have consolidated their gains firmly enough that we could never have beaten them. Would the world on that timeline be a better place because of my warning?"
"I see your point, Luke, but you can't deny that the thousands of Americans who died in Hawaii on December 7th would have been better off, right?"
Luke sighed heavily. "That was my conclusion too, so with that in mind, let me tell you about what happened in my timeline on September 11th, 2001."