I’d done it. The time machine had worked. I was twenty years, seven months, three weeks and five days in the past.
I breathed in the cool, damp air of that early September morning and a flood of memories overwhelmed me, like they did every day. But now they felt far more real because they were; I was here, at the moment my life changed forever.
I glanced at my watch, and my stomach lurched; I didn’t have much time. I hadn’t come all the way back to fail because of a few seconds. I sprinted across the campus, realising only now how large it actually was. By the time I reached the main road, I was panting badly; my 45-year-old body was badly out of shape, but that was no surprise; I hadn’t bothered to keep up my once-toned runner’s physique.
But that’ll all change now, I thought. I’ll get my family back. I’ll be able to keep fit again, because I’ll have someone to keep fit for.
A squeal of tyres off to the right; my head snapped round. There they were! I swallowed hard and smiled; my beautiful wife, as perfect as I remembered, pushing the buggy; our daughter, just three years old, with her 23 year old mother pushing her along to meet me – or, rather, the 25 year old version of me – for lunch. If only she’d been a few second early, but that was Mel for you; always running late.
I ran, ignoring the protests from my lungs, my knees, from everywhere. My wife hadn’t heard the car, nor had she seen it; it was coming from behind her, as the police report had thought. Mel was bustling along, talking to Jessica in the buggy, and wasn’t focused on anything else; certainly not the black Ford Fiesta that had suddenly lost its ability to steer. I glanced right; there was the tree it would bury itself into any moment … after ploughing over my perfect, darling wife and our equally perfect daughter, and my life would end.
It was tight, but I made it; my wife screamed as I pushed her onto the grass. She bellowed at me to get off her daughter as I pushed the buggy forward and leapt out of the way; I felt the car brush against the backs of my legs, but it didn’t hurt me. The car carried on and smashed into the tree; I didn’t give it another thought. The driver was unharmed. I knew that for a fact; I’d visited her in hospital, after all, two days from now.
Jessica was crying from the shock, and I stepped forward to comfort her – but then I stopped. I wasn’t meant to be here, and I didn’t want Mel to see me; she couldn’t. I’d disrupted the time-line enough, I couldn’t have her know what had happened.
But Mel was striding toward me now, alternately shouting and sobbing; I was faced away from her, but I could hear her shoes clipping along the pavement. I swallowed and willed the machine to do its job; I couldn’t be seen, I just –
As I felt a hand touch my shoulder – a perfect hand, one that I’d waited twenty years to feel again – the world around me shifted. The seasons moved in a heartbeat, in the opposite direction than a few moments ago; forward this time.
Before he knew it, I was back where I started. March this time, twenty years from where I had just been, and in my present. The lab was precisely as I’d left it. It hadn’t changed one bit. I smiled; I couldn’t help myself. I’d done it. I’d protected the time line; this room was designed to show the changes in a thousand different ways, but everything was –
There was a poster on the closed door, of a young woman – she couldn’t be any older than Jessica’s age now – with brown hair falling down over her shoulders, piercing green eyes peering out into the room, and arms crossing her chest. I stared at her for a moment; she looked familiar. She looked like a younger version of Mel – of how Mel had looked, in fact, when I had seen her a few minutes ago in the past.
“Jessica?” I whispered.
I turned and walked briskly to the window. My stomach churned again, and with the same uncertainty as before. I looked out over the campus. Bile rose up my throat, and I swallowed it back without thinking. The lush grass had gone, torn away and replaced with metallic, harsh buildings, satellites, and military guards patrolling chain link fences.
My jaw slackened. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I waited for my memories to catch up with my travels; I had theorised that, under the principles of quantum physics, a time traveller’s memories would adjust when the settled in a new time line and catch up with changed situations.
Abruptly, my memories stirred, and I winced as my mind roared; I collapsed to the floor with the intensity of so many changes. My daughter – my beautiful daughter with the cruel mind. I had saved her, twenty years ago, to give her a second chance at life. Now, she savoured her life above everyone else’s; the time machine was hers, and she was going to use it. She ruled us, despite her tender age, and now she was going to control the past.
I’ve saved her. Now she was going to destroy us.