THE FRENCH TIME MACHINE
My friends, I have something to tell you, and I’ll keep it brief.
Time is like a broken mind, but it has made me whole. What I saw in Algeria, what I did, trying to retain the glory of beloved France, the illusion that I still love, snapped my consciousness, fragmented my soul beyond repair. I saw my heart beating and my lungs contracting and expanding like mere balloons, and my absurd testes wielding the hammer of Michelangelo. But the stone he used to sculpt his greatness never screamed. You’d be crazy, too, if you built the minefield that killed so many patriots, but it was beautiful for its day – with spotlights and electrified fences and sensors tied in to the command station that dispatched the helicopters. As for the mines themselves, they were a new generation. It was art underneath the ground, and the supply lines from Tunisia were taking a beating. We were choking the life out of the rebels, before De Gaulle, of all people, lost his nerve and handed the country to Ben Bella on a platter of guilt. But that was my misused teenage joy, the thought that Professor De Riviere’s star pupil, the one who invented the electrical review imager, could somehow become such a prolific inventor of widows. May Allah have mercy on my Christian soul, may the colonized never cease to rattle the chains that are like diamonds for us who do not wear them.
But as I was saying, before the complexity of the world distracted me, I have something to tell you. Wonderful things that can come out of a devastated mind; a soul that has ingenuously served evil is relentless in its efforts to atone.
The war was over, we had lost Indochina and Algeria, and my technological masterpiece was now as outdated as the Maginot Line, or the rusted cannons that guard the beaches of Martinique from pirates whose ships are at the bottom of the sea. I was coveted by all the engineering firms and scientific research teams, the dismemberment of the colonies must be compensated by new avenues of virility. My mind never lagged, its great weakness was always its inability to wait for my heart. My intellect was an Olympic athlete, my morals smoked cigars and sat all day in a cushioned chair. When the dam of everything I had done finally broke one day that I saw a boy with an artificial leg hobbling about a hospital in Marseilles, I nearly destroyed myself like Oedipus, after he found out who he was.
But the lust of invention refused to let me go. Justice was thwarted by the prayers of unknown things. The feats of psychics, who publicly humiliated me merely by handling my car keys, convinced me of the constant occurrence of time, and the time-nature of space: a small price to pay for thirty people in a nightclub finding out about my vices. The past, the present, and the future depend upon each other and yet, they exist simultaneously, and access is lateral rather than vertical. You need not age to see your future, only step into your parallel form which already inhabits the future, which is nothing but the trajectory of the present. I call this form the "personal vehicle." The question which consumed me was not this, but whether one depended upon one’s personal vehicle in order to travel through time, in which case, barring the possibility of reincarnation, one’s range of exploration must be considerably restricted; or whether one could travel, without one’s personal vehicle, into a time in which one, oneself, did not exist.
Various thought experiments, so generously vindicated to us by Einstein, convinced me of the possibility of traveling without the personal vehicle, both forward and backward, as a displaced phenomenon, which could be balanced out by a corresponding depletion of energy in the system intruded upon. The energy loss to the system would be so slight, and need not cause any grievous damage to any sentient being located within that time, that the impact seemed minimal, and wholly worth risking in light of the potential reward.
But what of the impact of one’s actions, which might dwarf the negligible effects of one’s presence? That was harder to calculate.
But once again, thank God, a variety of thought experiments convinced me that none of the more frightening scenarios most often attributed to time travel applied. I could not alter the past, or if I could, it did not matter, for it was as it was, and if I could alter it, I already had. Therefore, I could not, by some colossal mistake, thwart the meeting of my mother and father, negate my own birth, and vanish into nothingness. Nor could I deliver a crate of machine guns to Hannibal at Zama and change the course of history. Or better stated, if I could, I didn’t. And I never would. Furthermore, I need not fear being killed by Caligula or Robespierre during my adventure, and equally important, I need not fear jolting the consciousness of mankind off its known path by introducing into its perceptions the legend of a man who disappeared into thin air just as a lion was about to rip him to shreds in the arena. On the down side, I could not stop the Holocaust; I could not abort Hitler or rescue Joan of Arc from the stake. On the day I finally understood that, I walked out of my house and stood for three hours in the rain, saluting the fallen who would never rise, except through us, as we rose because of them. Some souls lift us all by falling.
As for the future: I determined through a simple application of the commutative principle (5 x 6 = 30, 6 x 5 = 30), that I could not rescue the present from the platform of things to come, nor alter the future in any way inconsistent with its projection from the present. However, I could experience it, as well as the past, with full sensory awareness. I could suffer in other times and enjoy them. Like the number0 in addition and subtraction, I could be a part of them without affecting them, except as they had already been affected ("would be" and "had been" were moot distinctions at this level of reality). Existence is elastic, and stretches with human transgressions to accommodate the violations our brilliance is capable of producing, but remains intact. Bellerephon, by the time he reaches the peak of Olympus, is as tiny as an ant.
This theoretical knowledge, arrived at through a combination of mathematics and the wild imagination I used to flee from the tears my toys had inflicted on mankind, was backed up by the laboratory results of my "psychometric scanner", an absurd but grand device funded by the police department of Paris and LaSalle Technologies to attempt to recreate crimes from the time-multiplicities of the crime scenes. The police wanted visual imagery, something akin to the movies or TV, but that was not what I gave them. Instead, they received a device that "destabilized" the time fixation of a scene assessor, who began to receive leaked images, similar to hallucinations, from the multiplicity, until he could re-fix on the time-strand in question. The interface between man and machine was extremely difficult, and effective only in the case of highly sensitive individuals, the kind who rarely go into police work.
However disappointing the results were, there were results, and now I knew, beyond all shadow of a doubt, that time travel was, indeed, possible, it was only a matter of developing an appropriate energy source which could rupture the time-borders and deposit the brave explorer or forlorn refugee, as it might be, into another epoch.
For me, the joy in the world I lived in was meager, and I longed for an escape. Since I knew where the past led to – to this dismal world I inhabited and wished, with all my heart, to leave – I knew it was to the future that my effort must be directed.
In these days, the Americans had taken over our role in Indochina and were floundering badly. I watched them die, each night, on the TV, while our own reckless students threw up barricades and made absurd gestures of changing the world. American companies bound to the military-industrial complex contacted me, they wanted me to help them mine the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and to help them fortify vulnerable outposts around some important Vietnamese cities, such as Hue, DaNang, and Quang Ngai. They were especially interested in my work on CCMs – code-controlled mines – which I had proposed to build around Fort Bonalie before De Gaulle’s cave-in – damn my obsolescence, for I truly believe he was a visionary, whereas I was an evolutionary dead-end. May God forgive me by using me for the good of man! The Americans were also intrigued by the potential of my psychometric scanner, especially for "forward viewing", which could, if developed to capacity, unveil the guerrillas whose elusiveness depends upon their use of time. By proper scanning of the terrain, the speed and the stealth of the guerrillas’ movements would be lost, they would be exposed as if they were camped out in broad daylight for weeks at a time.
Huge sums were offered for these projects, and promises made to finance my construction of a genuine time machine, which was more of a bribe than an act of support since no one really believed it could work.
However, I knew my soul was already dangling by a thread for what I had done in Algeria, I could not take the knife to my slim chances for salvation by reliving the sin of North Africa in America’s valiant Asian folly.
At the time, my good but sterile and rather simple wife, Matilde, was killing me slowly with her lack of curiosity and indignation; it was like living with a cow chewing grass, God forgive me to speak of a human being like that. But she was the wife of a soldier who didn’t need a companion, because war absorbed him totally. When peace delivered him back home, and awoke in him the desire for a friend, he found he had nothing more than a pillow of flesh to lie on, and hurl his fruitless liquids at. The way she seemed to melt like wax in the summer, and to sit in her chair reading magazines that were no better than staring at the wall, sickened me. I think I was more lonely than I was arrogant.
What restrained me in these days from destroying myself, was Khadija , the little Arab girl we adopted, my way of pleading to the universe for forgiveness for the brilliant crimes against humanity I had buried under her earth, the belt of land mines that made a thousand cripples for a lost cause. How many legless men and women, now, were free? Those are the ones De Gaulle could not save.
Khadija was to be my salvation, my heart restored, but every time I saw her, I remembered why she was in my home – to hide all the others who had died. When she smiled at me for something so simple as giving her a piece of candy, I thought of myself: Disgraceful pretender, do you think this smile you win with chocolate can change who you are? Do you think this laughter you coax from her with toys can pay her for the mother she lost? The mother who you may well have killed? Should I go ahead and tell her who I am? Khadija, I am the one who buried ten-thousand cobras beneath the sand, I am the one who stalked the bare feet of your nation with all of my sinister cleverness. I blew up the ones bringing guns, and I blew up the ones coming for water. I blew up guerrillas, and I blew up children dancing in the wind. I replaced joyous feet, flying like birds across the ground, with scar-covered stubs, and eyes chained to sorrow, like animals that can’t leave a post.
When Matilde began to take Khadija to the Church, I said, "Maybe we shouldn’t, Matilde. Maybe we should wait. She can make up her own mind when she’s older."
"We’ll have ourselves a good little Catholic," Matilde told me. "God forbid our girl should ever become a Muslim – to wear one of those scarves. You know, they whip them if they read a book!"
When I saw Khadija with her rosary beads, praying to Jesus and Mary, I thought, "So now, my sin is complete." You cannot cover over a coffin with good deeds, the earth of compensations is too thin to bury what is irreversible.
My depression was enormous, my self-hate, my despair. I saw myself already dead, a walking corpse, I saw my civilization, my empire, tarnished and fallen, I saw my world slowly killing itself with repetitions of tragedies not believed in, I saw the clear warnings of only yesterday discounted like stories of mermaids of the deep. I saw folly not even scratched by thousands of years of history, I saw compassion not elevated by the lives of a thousand saints, I saw madness high in the sky and wisdom on the bottom of a soldier’s boot, I saw hope faltering like an aged body whose heart is failing, I saw proud and beautiful heroes falling like flags to the ground, words of justice treated like spit in the eye, utopian visions betrayed by factories bearing litters of guns and by children floating like balloons away from the hunger of the world. I saw unfettered apocalypses resisted by blind Edens.
I am not sure if I wanted to escape, or simply to see if the future was worth the suffering. If there was something for Humanity to look forward to, a light at the end of the tunnel of history, or if all this fighting, dying, and dreaming was only to reach a black cloud, to crawl into a coffin of tyranny, injustice, and mayhem.
In these days I worked harder than ever to build my time machine. I must break out of this darkness, I must rip away the veil from the face of what lay ahead, I must see the beauty or the wretchedness, otherwise, I could no longer motivate myself to be a member of the human race. The suspense, however, was ruined by the pervasiveness of barbarism, which seemed to spoil the ending. How else could the story end?
But still – hope – less than 1% probability of hope – kept me digging for evidence. Digging with mathematics, physics, and mechanics. Digging for something that could redeem my species. Only something extraordinary like that could redeem me! In the end, with nothing more and nothing less than the massive particle accelerator they built in the south of France in the late 1970s – dear heroic, pathetic France, still trying to keep pace – I was able to design a potentially viable time machine. I built an energy spur off of the accelerator, and within a geometrically perfected vortex-generator, constructed a sheltered time-mobile with which I intended to pierce the time border and enter the future as a displaced phenomenon.
By this time, I was aging, we were already in the 1990s, and I felt myself terribly frail to be a pioneer, a Columbus made of glass. Khadija, my light and joy, was a mature woman now with a family of four, a Moroccan husband, and a scarf on her head. She had found her way back to her rightful folly, or perhaps to the truth, who am I to say? Time has not led me to God, or taken him away from me. I have chosen to be obsessed rather than spiritual. And yet, now I understand that even one in love with machines cannot help but see a beauty that is beyond his hands, some angel in the metal with which he transcends the starkness of matter.
Khadija, my beautiful orphan daughter, stolen from your home by the beasts of land mines I scattered like seeds into your native soil. Thank God, my guilty arms could not hold you back from who you are! She was, in the end, a strange, disturbed, and serious girl who could, nonetheless, smile like a rainstorm ending, like leaves still dripping water beneath a bright and healing sky. She cared for me, because her heart was twice the size of mine.
"Please, father," she told me, hurting me terribly by using that term I deserved so little. "Do nothing foolish! Your machine – shouldn’t you test it with a chimpanzee, like they did with the space capsules?"
"First I must try it to make sure it’s safe for a monkey," I jested.
"Please!" she told me. "Don’t joke at a time like this. I am concerned."
Her husband, cryptic and ever skeptical of me, with eyes that seemed to be in a constant struggle against anger because of the damaged state in which he had received his wife from us – from me and poor Matilde, may she rest in peace – walked away. He couldn’t stand anything resembling affection between his wife and Christian father-in-law.
But though Khadija protested, I knew she was unhappy, too. Lately, anti-Muslim sentiment had been growing in her neighborhood; her kids had been teased and bullied in school, and on the street someone had thrown a bottle of soda at her. Although I, myself, had used bullets and explosives against Muslims in their own land, the thought of someone here, in France, throwing a coke bottle at her was unbearable to me. A disgrace!
"Listen, my dear," I told her. "The world has worn me out with its cruelty and unfairness. With what is outside of me and what is in me. I need to see what is beyond this. I need to drive around the curve on this highway of pain, to see if something better lies around the bend. Without that knowledge, I can’t go on. How can any of us go on? Khadija – if I find the world is worse than it is now, I won’t tell you. God forbid you should be disheartened even more than you must be now. But if I find, by some miraculous chance, Khadija, that the world is better than it is now – that it has finally pulled itself up by the bootstraps, finally looked into its tormented soul and recognized the beautiful possibility of what it could be and chosen that over what is easier to be, then I shall, by all means, tell you, and if it is possible, open for you the door to that world. Do not deny me this first true act of fatherhood, my dear Khadija – the chance to find for you a golden world, and bring you to it. To discover a refuge for you and your family, beyond the hatred and contempt of those who I once served with a rifle."
In tears, Khadija forbade me to make the effort, knowing that I was as stubborn as a hundred mules, and that, in all events, her love could never deter me, because I felt I did not deserve it.
Though I told her I might find a paradise, I dreaded what I might find instead. Observing the ups and downs of history, one found the ups to be brief and not so high as the longer nights were low. Who could believe that a world which had seen the Inquisition and the Nazis could ever be saved? Who could believe that a world which saw Dienbienphu, only a few years later could stumble into the Tet Offensive? Savagery stretched from the beginning of time to modernity, while the lessons of history were forgotten in a decade. What hope was there?
Fearfully, because even though I was old and now knew that death would not overlook me, I hoped to die imagining a dawn rather than a ceaseless night, I set the controls of the machine three-hundred years ahead. I must give Humanity a little more time to find its way!
Dear God, I thought, if you exist, please: blow me and my machine up if the world to come is dark. I would rather that my time-mobile erupt into flames, or that I perish from the force of acceleration through the time barrier, than that I awaken in the rubble of Paris, in a charred and uninhabited wasteland, or in a city of slaves or gluttons standing upon the dead.
And with that said, challenging the visions that make us persist, I threw the red switch inside my time-mobile, as the engineers at the accelerator hurled all the power at their disposal into my audacious energy spur.
What they saw beyond me I am not sure, but I saw a blinding light and felt my body violently shaken. Everything was vibrating, humming, shaking as though Pythagoras had just been struck on the funny-bone, and the musical pitch of stars making light was thundering by, deafening me, biting me like that mad prostitute from Lyon. Good God! I thought, the universe is ending, it’s melting, its insides are spiraling out like a tornado! My head was struck by something – again! – I felt a cap pop out of my tooth and my lip was bleeding and I started crying, even though I tried not to. And suddenly there was a jolt, it was like that time I was driving drunk, well, the wine bottle was kinder to me than any friend, and I crashed into the sign post, and suddenly there was no more Laplace Street, just a road with no name and pieces of glass from a headlight.
My God, I wondered, is my neck broken? But it wasn’t, and gradually, I became aware of my time-mobile sitting in a field of luxuriant grass, greener than any green I knew, and suddenly throngs of beautiful, healthy-looking people were swarming all around my machine, and a tall and handsome one, who was what the human race has been striving to achieve ever since our stooping ancestors first came down from the trees, came up to me, and said through the window I rolled down: "We’ve been expecting you."
And I wept tears of joy, because merely looking at them, I knew the world had been saved.
In the days that followed, I learned I was not wrong. These splendid creatures who called themselves men, but were radiant like we never let ourselves be, with the broken chains of ancient fears and resentments lying discarded to the side of their world, welcomed me as if I were a brother.
"You knew I was coming?" I asked them.
"Of course," they said. "We never doubted you."
"You know what I have done?" I demanded, determined, for once in my life, not to be admired because I was not known.
"That is what makes your coming so special," they replied.
"The land mines," I said, not sure if they understood.
"That is what makes your coming so special," they repeated.
They showed me the world they had made, a mere three-hundred years after the nightmare I had come from: a world technologically advanced, in which technology did not seek to invent a way around justice. A world socially inclusive, that did not demote technology, because it knew how to control it. A world not divided, yet not leveled, in which greatness did not excite envy, nor demand servitude; a world kind, yet vigorous; a world peaceful, yet passionate; a world pleasing to the eye, yet deep; a world generous without manipulation, wise without pretense, and reflective without lethargy. A world utterly fascinating, not like a redundant battery-operated toy which you quickly tire of, or a card trick that amazes you just once, but a richly-souled woman who can think, feel, write, dance, sing, listen, speak, play a thousand different instruments, and make love each night like she was the one you might leave her for.
It was a world whose human development astounded me, whose institutions arose from foundations of philosophy and spiritual attunement; whose laws were fair and far-sighted, whose customs were dignified and life-filled, whose streets overflowed with constant gestures of understanding, touches, laughter, and galloping thoughts, joyful to stretch their legs and run.
Three-hundred years! I gasped, bewildered by the difference. Though Paradise is what all men dream of, one notch below Paradise in the real world is surely better: and this is what I had stumbled upon in my great gamble to see what lay beyond the darkness of my times.
For a moment more I lamented, exclaiming: "I am not worthy of this!"
But my gracious hosts told me: "But it comes from you."
And that is when I knew that, in spite of all the aches and pains of my aging body which they could assuage and my old world could not, in spite of the resplendent abode they offered me to dwell in for a hundred years more of life, in spite of the noble exciting world they gave me to live in, I must go back to the world from which I came. I must spread the word to the disheartened. I must tell the pessimistic and the depressed, the hopeless and the vanquished. I must tell Khadija that she was as beautiful as the morning light, that those who hated her were a dying breed, that after the dark wave pounding our own times had finally finished with its bluff of doom, we would arise to be what was intended for us.
I must tarry no longer in the land of my dreams where but one day was enough to heal the damned.
I must come back to tell the world I knew about this world to come, and to help build it. I must accept my responsibility to carry it into being upon my shoulders.
When I offered, nonetheless, to take my dear daughter back there, her view was the same as mine; she chose the struggle over the refuge.
Truly, there is joy in living in a beautiful world. But there is even more joy in making the world beautiful.
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