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June 17, 2024

Time After Time

By James Rumpel (short, PG-13)

Cover image.
Image credit: Sand Pilarski. More info.

James Rumpel is a retired high school math teacher who enjoys spending some of his free time trying to turn a few of the odd ideas circling his brain into actual stories. He lives in Wisconsin with his wonderful wife, Mary.

~~~

Corvian Time: 345-92*110

The shuttle was ready for take-off. Two cloaked figures stood in the small ship’s shadow.

“Are you sure you want to do this? The council has ordered the device’s destruction. You could get into a great deal of trouble.”

“This is the most important invention of our time. I can’t let it be destroyed. I’ll hide it on an uninhabited planet. No one needs to know and if it is ever needed, I’ll be able to go back and get it.”

“What if it falls into the wrong hands? You saw what it did to the Poruvians. It caused utter economic and societal chaos.”

“I will not let it be destroyed.”

Earth Time: May 16, 2024 2:03 PM

The waters of Lake Michigan lapped at the pebble beach just south of Two Rivers. A group of young men sat in a circle, drinking beer; their coats wrapped tightly around them to fend off the cold spring wind.

“We really should move the Beach, Beer, and Buds Bash to July.”

“Can’t do that. It’s tradition, Bro.”

“Where’d Andy go? He’s my ride home.”

“Oh, he said he wanted to go for a walk.”

“That’s fine with me. He’s been getting on my nerves lately. All he does is complain.”

“I know but we should give him a break. Things haven’t been going too well for him lately, what with getting fired from the Kwik Trip and all.”

“That was his own fault How stupid do you have to be to steal bananas right in front of the manager.”

“Andy’s not stupid. He just doesn’t think things through very well.”

One of the young men grabbed two cans of beer from the cooler and started down the beach. “I’ll go look for him.”

Earth Time: May 16, 2024 2:11 PM

“Hey, Andy, what are you doing? Be careful. Those rocks are slippery.”

Andy looked back from his perch on top of one of the boulders that marked the boundary of the beach. Centuries ago, these large rocks had fallen from the cliff that towered over this portion of the Lake Michigan shore.

“I’m fine, Ray. You don’t have to act like my mother.”

“Why are you even climbing on them?”

“There’s some sort of weird metal thing that washed ashore between these boulders. Maybe it’s worth something.”

Five minutes later, Andy walked up to Ray, carrying a copper-colored sphere, about the size of a baseball.

“I don’t know what it is,” said Andy. “It’s pretty heavy and very cold.” He juggled the ball back and forth between his hands.

“Well, it has been in the water. The lake hasn’t warmed up much yet. Maybe it fell off a ship or something,” suggested Ray. He handed one of the beers to Andy. “What are you going to do with it?”

Andy stuck his discovery in the pocket of his hoodie and took a sip of beer. “I don’t know. Maybe I can get some money for it at the rock shop downtown.”

“That place just takes advantage of the tourists. They don’t know anything about precious metals.”

“You think it might be precious?”

“Not really, but somebody might be willing to pay for it. It’s probably just junk.”

Andy smiled. “I’ll sell it to you for twenty bucks.”

“What would I do with it?”

“I don’t know. Use it as a doorstop or something. I kind of need the money.”

“I tell you what,” said Ray with a sigh. “You keep the stupid ball. I’ll loan you twenty bucks. You can pay me back when you find another job.” He pulled out his wallet. Inside were two fives, a ten, and a twenty. He handed the twenty to his friend.

“Thanks, Ray. You have no idea how much this is going to help me.”

Earth Time: May 16, 2024 8:15 PM

Andy turned off the TV and walked to the refrigerator. It wasn’t a long walk since his apartment was little more than a single room above Mr. and Mrs. Lowell’s garage. His bathroom was downstairs next to Mr. Lowell’s workshop. His place wasn’t much, but it was all he could afford or, at least, used to be able to afford.

He was able to scrape enough peanut butter out of the bottom of the jar to make a sandwich. He spread the peanut butter on his sole remaining piece of bread before folding it over. He was about to take a bite when he noticed a strange glow coming from the pile of dirty clothes next to the cot that served as his bed.

It only took him a moment to locate the source of the luminescence. He picked up his hoodie and pulled out the sphere he had found by the lake. Andy set it on the milk crate that served as his coffee table. The orb was warm to the touch.

The increase in temperature was not the only transformation the orb had gone through. When he had found it, the surface of the ball was smooth and all the same color. Now, there were two round indentations. One was dark blue and the other yellow.

Sandwich still in hand, Andy touched the blue circle.

Suddenly Andy found himself engulfed in a blue light. For nearly thirty seconds, he was unable to move as the light surrounded him. Then, as suddenly as it appeared, it was gone.

The illumination did not seem to have any effect. Andy didn’t feel any different. The only thing that had changed was his level of curiosity. Without hesitation, he reached for the yellow circle.

A beam of light shot out of the sphere this time a few feet in front of Andy. It grew until an oval of bright light, the size of a doorway, floated in the center of the room.

He reached out his hand and barely touched the light. Nothing happened.

Earth Time: May 16, 2024 8:18 PM

With a shrug, Andy announced to the empty room, “Here goes nothing,” and stepped through the ellipse-shaped glow.

Earth Time: May 16, 2024 8:17 PM

Andy touched the yellow circle. A beam of yellow light grew to the size of a doorway.

Andy stepped through the doorway and found himself face to face with himself.

“What the . . .”

“You’re me.”

The pair of identical Andys stood in silence for nearly a minute.

Finally, one of them spoke. “Do you think this is a cloning machine?”

“It might be, but I never stepped into the beam.”

“I did, a little while after I turned it on.”

“But, I just turned it on a second before you came through.”

Another stretch of silence followed.

“Could it be a time machine? Did I just go back in time by a minute?”

“That might be it.”

One of the Andys noticed he was still holding his peanut butter sandwich. In his double’s hands, was the exact same snack.

“The sandwich came back with me. You know what that means, don’t you?”

“Yes, I can have infinite sandwiches.” Andy took his sandwich and tossed it through the portal. To both Andys’ surprise, a single sandwich flew through the light and smacked against the wall.

“That didn’t do anything.”

“Weird. Maybe it will only go back in time if it goes through the light with me.”

Earth Time: May 16, 2024 8:22 PM

Without stopping to think, Andy, sandwich in hand, stepped through the portal.

Earth Time: May 16, 2024 8:21 PM

“Could it be a time mach . . .,” Andy stopped in midsentence when he saw himself emerge from the oval-shaped light.

“Now there are three of us . . . uh . . . me,” said the Andy standing next to him.

The newest Andy looked at the Andy that was him before he stepped into the portal. “But look, now we’ve doubled the sandwich.”

“But what good is doubling the sandwich if we duplicate ourselves? We still only have a one sandwich to one person ratio.”

“Okay, how about if I take two sandwiches through.” Andy number three grabbed the sandwich from his previous self and, once again, jumped into the light.

Earth Time: May 16, 2024 8:21 PM

Andy nearly knocked over his previous self when he stepped through the passage.

“See,” he shouted to his confused earlier selves, “Now, I have two sandwiches. Combine that with the two that you guys are holding and the one stuck to the wall and we have 5 sandwiches and only four people.”

“Let’s take a second and think about his,” said one of the other Andys.

Earth Time: May 16, 2024 8:42 PM

Seven Andys were all crammed into the little apartment above the Lowell’s garage.

“Okay, what have we learned so far?”

“It’s definitely a time machine. It sends us back one minute in time.”

“We can’t reverse it by jumping through the portal in the opposite direction.”

“Yeah, that only makes more of us.”

“Anything we are carrying gets sent back in time with us.”

“None of the buttons on the little ball seem to be working anymore. We can’t turn it off or reset it.”

“We still don’t have enough peanut butter sandwiches. Time travel is hungry work.”

One of the Andys stood and started gathering the sandwiches. “Well, I can double the number of sandwiches easily enough.”

“No, wait. This is getting us nowhere. What are we going to do? The seven of us can’t live in the one small room.”

“We should get a bigger place.”

“How? We don’t have enough money. All I have is the twenty dollars Ray gave me at the beach.” Andy pulled the bill from his pocket.

“I’ve got one too,” said a second Andy.

Soon, seven identical twenty-dollar bills were sitting on the crate next to Andy’s worn sofa.

“We could turn that into $280 just by carrying it through the portal.”

“But, then there’d be eight of us.”

“True, but we’d have more than $20 each. It would be like $35 per person.”

“And if we kept going back through, we’d be rich.”

“I’ve got a better idea.”

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Probably, we are the same person you know.”

“If we break into Kwik Trip we could get a couple of hundred dollars from the till and nobody would ever notice. I still have a key.”

“We all do.”

“Why stop there? We could probably borrow a bunch more from family or friends.”

“I bet if I looked in Mom’s car, I could scrape together a couple more bucks.”

“Every little bit helps.”

“I think we’re going to need more help.”

Earth Time: May 16, 2024 11:58 PM

“Okay, does everyone know their assignment?”

Twenty identical Andys all nodded in agreement.

“We’ll all meet back here in an hour. Any questions?”

“Just one. Do you want me to grab some bananas when we get the money from Kwik Trip?”

Earth Time: May 21, 2024 10:39 AM

Ray spoke on the phone while he walked toward Andy’s place.

“I’m just going to check on Andy. I haven’t seen or heard anything from him since Saturday at the beach. I want to make sure he’s okay.”

His friend on the other end of the phone replied, “I don’t think he’s home. I just saw him drive by in a pickup truck. Where’d he ever get the money for a truck?”

“It probably wasn’t him,” replied Ray.

When he got to Andy’s place, Ray climbed the stairs and was about to knock when he heard voices inside.

Actually, it was only one voice. Andy was home and he was talking up a storm. Strangely, Ray couldn’t hear who he was talking to.

Ray knocked on the door. It took Andy a while to answer and when he did, he only opened the door a tiny amount.

“Hey, Ray. What are you doing here?”

“I just thought I’d check up on you. I haven’t seen you around.”

Andy slithered through the doorway, only opening the door far enough to slide through the opening. He quickly shut the door behind him.

“I’ve been busy. I’m going to move out of this dump. I got a bigger place in the country. Do you remember the old Wilson farm?”

“How can you afford to move? I thought you were broke and unemployed.”

“Oh, I came into some money.”

“That’s good to hear,” said Ray, suspiciously. “Are you sure everything’s okay? You’re acting sort of strange.”

“Nope, everything’s good. Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got some more packing to do. I’ll talk to you later.”

Without another word, Andy slipped back into the apartment and pushed the door shut.

Ray stood there for a moment, confused. Finally, he shrugged, went back down the stairs, and started walking home.

He was two blocks from Andy’s when a red pickup truck passed by. Ray didn’t get a very good look, but he could have sworn Andy was driving the vehicle.

“I guess Andy’s got a doppelganger in town,” he thought.

Earth Time: August 20, 2043 12:35 AM

Ray dove behind the burnt-out shell of an abandoned car. He held his breath, hoping to stay out of sight of the patrol vehicle that watched this part of town. Being out after curfew was a serious crime.

Luckily, the sentinels drove by without noticing him. Ray exhaled slowly and looked around the parking lot of the Andymart. The store had closed when marshal law was enacted two years prior. The lot was empty except for the remains of a dozen or so cars of different makes and models. A single solar-powered light sat atop a pole in the middle of the lot. It gave off a murky light, bathing the area in eeriness.

Ray noticed a solitary figure running toward him. The parking lot light flickered on and off, creating a strobe light effect. It appeared as if the runner was jumping forward in time as he sprinted toward Ray’s hiding place.

The man skidded to a stop next to Ray and ducked behind in the wreck’s shadow.

“Agent B-52?” asked the man.

“You can just call me Ray.”

“No. You will call me Agent A-12. We need to maintain anonymity. We must be careful. The Andys have a lot of followers.”

Ray shrugged. “I can’t blame them. If you don’t do what the Andys want they can make your lives miserable.”

“Can I trust you?”

“Of course. Somebody has to do something.”

The Agent stared at Ray, sizing him up. “Is it true that you knew the original Andy?”

“Yes, he was just a normal guy until he got ahold of that time machine. I still don’t know what happened to him.”

“Power has a way of changing people. Do you think he would still recognize you? Could you get him to let you meet with him at his compound?”

Ray shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve talked to him a few times, but it’s been years. He’s much more paranoid than he used to be.”

“Well, without going into too much detail. The Agency thinks it has a way to fix everything. We just need someone to get his time machine. That’s where you come in.”

Earth Time: August 22, 2043 1:33 PM

After a thorough search, Ray was escorted inside the compound. The guard who led him was not an Andy. He was large and muscular; not someone to be messed with. The army fatigues he wore were emblazoned with multiple emblems all of which prominently displayed Andy’s name or face.

Ray was amazed by the vastness of Andy’s compound. What once had been the Wilson farm was now acre upon acre of heavy weaponry. Concrete walls and barbed wire encircled the perimeter. Hundreds of men and women patrolled the area. At least fifty percent of the men were Andys. A few of them waved to Ray as he passed by.

Eventually, Ray was brought to a large building that looked more like a college dorm than anything else.

“Wait here,” said his escort. “I’ll get the Andy in charge.”

The soldier went into the building. Five minutes later, he reemerged, followed by Andy.

Andy had a huge smile on his face. “Ray,” he shouted, “it’s been a long time.” He pulled Ray into his body and gave him a quick hug. He released his grip and looked Ray over, from top to bottom.

“I hate to say this,” said Andy, “but the years have not been kind to you. You look like crap.”

Ray wanted to say that it was Andy’s fault that he looked the way he did but that would not have helped with his mission. “You look good.”

“Yeah, I’ve been lucky. A few of me haven’t had it quite so good. I’ve lost a lot of brothers through the years.”

Ray looked into Andy’s eyes. His former friend was different. Sure, he was older but there was more to it than that. Andy wasn’t the same carefree, reckless boy he had known twenty years ago.

“So, what brings you here?” asked Andy.

“This is going to sound stupid, but I have to try. I came to see if I could get you to give this all up. Why can’t we just go back to normal? So many people have suffered since you’ve taken power. The Andy I knew was a nice guy. He didn’t want to hurt people.”

“I still don’t” answered Andy. “If there was just one me, I’d be happy to have things go back the way they were but there are fifty thousand of me and we need to survive. That takes a lot of money and resources. It wasn’t so bad in the beginning; money was easy to come by. That is until the whole inflation and devaluing of the dollar kicked in. Who would have known that making and spending millions of dollars would do that?”

Ray bit his tongue. He wanted to say, “Anyone who paid attention in Mr. Challe’s econ class,” but knew better.

Andy continued. It seemed to Ray that he wanted to talk; wanted to tell his side of the story.

“I was going to stop using the sphere once I had all my selves living comfortably but then the government had to step in. If they’d have left me alone, I would have left them alone. We needed to defend myself and one thing led to another.”

Ray glanced at the watch Agent U-2 had given him.

“I understand,” said Ray, “I just think you could still . . .”

All hell broke loose.

Sirens wailed. The sound of helicopters and airplanes filled the air. Almost immediately, large anti-aircraft missiles were launched from every corner of the compound.

Ray stuck his hand in his mouth and grabbed the false tooth that Agent U-2 had supplied. He dropped it on the ground and stomped on. Immediately, a brown gas filled the air. Andy and the guard both fell to the ground, unconscious.

The antidote Ray had taken before coming to the compound prevented him from being incapacitated but he didn’t have much time.

He looked at his watch. The built-in GPS was directing him toward a cement building across the compound.

Ray took off running. All around him was pure pandemonium. People were shouting. The helicopters overhead were dropping smoke bombs, making it nearly impossible to see. Gunshots and explosions assaulted his ears. If not for his watch, Ray would never have been able to find the building that housed the time machine.

He nearly bumped into an Andy but managed to turn his head before being recognized.

When he reached the building, the front door was hanging by a single hinge; blown open by a well-placed bomb. Inside, smoke still filled the air. Ray headed to the stairwell, if the intel was correct, he would find the time machine on the third floor.

Locating the room where the sphere was kept was not a problem. The two Andys guarding the door were.

“Andy,” he shouted, “help me. Get me out of here?”

It took a moment for recognition to register on both Andy’s faces.

“Ray? What are you doing here?”

“I had come to meet with one of you. You know, to talk about old times.”

One of the Andys took a step forward. Ray grabbed the Andy’s rifle and brought his knee up into his old friend’s groin. In one motion, he spun around and aimed the gun at the other Andy.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I have to do this. Drop your weapon.”

“What are you doing?” asked the Andy who wasn’t lying on the floor writhing in agony.

“I said drop your gun.”

Andy complied.

“Now, let me in the room.” Ray picked up the second Andy’s gun and moved to a position where he could watch both Andys simultaneously.

The upright Andy slowly moved to the door, staring at Ray the entire time. He entered three digits into a keypad and the door swung open.

Ray raced into the room. The ball that he had first seen on the beach twenty-some years ago sat on top of a milk crate in the center of the room. A glowing yellow oval of light floated in the air a few feet from the orb. Another Andy was sitting at a desk on the opposite side of the glowing portal. As soon as the Andy saw Ray he jumped up and ran toward the light.

Luckily, Ray had been taught to anticipate this move. Instead of trying to stop the Andy, he dove at the sphere, knocking it off the crate and causing the portal to spin to the other side of the room. The Andy was in mid-dive when this happened. Instead of jumping into the time machine’s opening to the past, Andy dove headfirst into the milk crate.

Without hesitation, Ray grabbed the sphere and ran back to the hall. One of the Andys that had been guarding the door was still there, the other was nowhere to be seen. Pointing the gun at the remaining Andy, Ray motioned for him to move to the side. Reluctantly, Andy obeyed.

Instead of running toward the stairs and the exit, Ray continued down the hall. He used the butt of one of the rifles to smash a window and looked outside. Smoke was everywhere but he was able to find a rope ladder hanging a few feet from the opening. He climbed onto the window sill and took hold of the ladder. Swinging outward, he found a lower rung on which to rest his feet. He didn’t try to climb upward. The helicopter from which the ladder dangled began to fly away from the compound.

After a couple of explosions that were too close for comfort, the chopper left the compound behind. Ray clung to the ladder with all his might. He released one hand for only a moment when he checked to make sure the time sphere was still in his pocket.

Earth Time: August 23, 2043 4:11 PM

Ray handed the sphere to Agent A-12.

“What now?” he asked.

“Well, first we prepare for a counterattack,” replied the agent, an ironic grin plastered on his face. “The Andys will not be happy.”

“I mean, what are you going to do with the time machine? You aren’t going to use it to make more agents are you?”

U-2 shook his head. “No. Don’t worry about that. We have a scientist who thinks we can reprogram the sphere to make one jump further back in time. We can make it so that none of this ever happened.”

“How do you plan to do that?”

“You’ll see.”

Earth Time: May 15, 2024 2:49 PM

Ray glanced up from stocking shelves at the Hardware Store and looked at his reflection in the plate glass window. He was struck by how bad he looked. He never realized how wrinkled and bent over he was. When did he grow a beard?

When his reflection motioned for him to come outside, Ray realized it wasn’t his reflection at all but someone who looked incredibly like him. Did he have an uncle he didn’t know about?

“I’m going on my break,” he announced as he pulled off his orange apron and tossed it behind the counter.

“Do I know you?” he asked when he walked up to the stranger.

“You should,” said the man. “I’m you from the future.”

“Boy, things aren’t going to go well for me,” laughed Ray.

“I am serious,” said future Ray. “I’ve come back in time to tell you something very important.”

“I bet you’re going to tell me not to date Angela Hovermyer. By looking at you, that doesn’t end well.”

The older Ray smiled. “I haven’t thought about Angela in years but, no, that’s not what I’m here for.”

“How do I know you’re me from the future? Is this some kind of prank or something?”

“Look at this,” the older man rolled up his sleeve, revealing a faded scar near his right elbow. “Remember when Jaylon Russell tackled you on the playground and you broke your arm in third grade.”

Ray hesitated. “You could have used make-up to simulate my scar.”

“Okay, I didn’t want to have to use this but I guess I have to. In ninth grade, I ate a dozen boiled eggs at lunch before playing basketball in gym class. About halfway through class, I ran into the hall.”

“Okay, Okay, I believe you. You don’t have to finish the story. Nobody but me needs to know what happened in that trash can.”

“What I am about to tell you is a matter of great importance. You could save the world from years of chaos and suffering.”

“This sounds important. Why me? Do I become some sort of super spy or something?”

“Not exactly. All you have to do is buy a metal ball from Andy tomorrow at this year’s Beach, Beer, and Buds Bash.”

“How’d you know about . . .?” Ray stopped in mid-question. “Duh.”

“He’s going to ask you to buy it from him for twenty dollars. All you have to do is pay him the money and bring the ball to me after the party. Don’t try to do anything with the ball. Just bring it to me. I’ll take care of everything.” He handed Ray a piece of paper with a time and address written on it.

“What is it? Is it a bomb or something?”

“Something like that. Don’t worry I’ll keep it safe.”

Earth Time: May 16, 2024 2:11 PM

“Hey, Andy, what are you doing? Be careful. Those rocks are slippery.”

Andy looked back from his perch on top of one of the boulders that marked the boundary of the beach. Centuries ago, these large rocks had fallen from the cliff that towered over this portion of the Lake Michigan shore.

“I’m fine, Ray. You don’t have to act like my mother.”

“Why are you even climbing on them?”

“There’s some sort of weird metal thing that washed ashore between these boulders. Maybe it’s worth something.”

Five minutes later, Andy walked up to Ray, carrying a copper-colored sphere, about the size of a baseball.

“I don’t know what it is,” said Andy. “It’s pretty heavy and very cold.” He juggled the ball back and forth between his hands.

“Well, it has been in the water. The lake hasn’t warmed up much yet. Maybe it fell off a ship or something,” suggested Ray. He handed one of the beers to Andy. “What are you going to do with it?”

Andy stuck his discovery in the pocket of his hoodie and took a sip of beer. “I don’t know. Maybe I can get some money for it at the rock shop downtown.”

“That place just takes advantage of the tourists. They don’t know anything about precious metals.”

“You think it might be precious?”

“Not really, but somebody might be willing to pay for it. It’s probably just junk.”

Andy smiled. “I’ll sell it to you for twenty bucks.”

“Sure, it’s a deal.”

Earth Time: May 16, 2024 7:12 PM

Ray found the older version of himself sitting on a bench in front of the bus station. He handed over the metal orb.

Older Ray took the ball and dropped it into a cooler filled with ice.

“So, what now?” asked Ray. “Do you go back to your own time?”

“No, I can’t do that. Time travel is a one-way ticket. I’m just going to disappear. I have enough money to buy a place far from here and live comfortably. Don’t try to find me. My being trapped in this time isn’t ideal, but it’ll be okay.”

“Okay, but could you at least tell me what this is all about? It’ll only take a minute. What harm could a minute do?”








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Article © James Rumpel. All rights reserved.
Published on 2024-06-17
Image(s) are public domain.