“Ah, Mr. Thompson, sir, so good to see you – and the other members of the board as well. How are you? I hope I’m not too late. You know how it is, always running out of time.”

Carl Kearsley could not have been more out of place among the dark suits and leather briefcases. He wore grease-stained jeans and a dirty lab-coat, clothes better suited for his messy workshop than a corporate board meeting. Even so, he shook every hand as vigorously as he could, hoping to convey a sense of confidence that inwardly he lacked.

Mr. Thompson grunted as he sat down at the head of the conference table. “Very well, Mr. Kearsley. Let’s get started.”

“Of course, of course,” said Carl, nearly tripping over his ungainly feet. Only when he looked down the long mahogany table at the long rows of black leather chairs and the balding, heavyset men occupying them did the sinking weight of fear begin to weigh on him. He hesitated for the briefest of moments before masking it with a smile and returning to his natural state of enthusiasm.

“Gentlemen, I am so glad that you could make the time to meet with me. As I’m sure you already…”

“Let’s cut to the chase,” said Mr. Thompson. He sat at the far end of the table, facing Carl directly with his unflinching gaze. “We’ve sunk almost fifty thousand dollars into your project, with precious little to show for it. Now, you’ve had a lot of good ideas before – none of us is claiming that you haven’t – but what you’re asking is, quite frankly, audacious. We’re giving you one last chance to make your case before we pull out. Just why do you think this project of yours isn’t a gaping money-hole?”

“Why?” said Carl, his knees quivering ever so slightly. “I’ll tell you why, gentlemen. Ever since the dawn of civilization, humanity has been a slave to the inexorable, relentless, unforgiving beat of the clock. Time, as we experience it, flows only in one direction, but…”

“We’ve all heard the sales pitch, Mr. Kearsley,” said one of the men. “What we want is results. Why should we believe that you can build a functional time machine?”

“Why, haven’t you read my father’s notes?” Carl asked, his hands turning clammy. “The math – he proved that time is multi-dimensional. And I’ve continued his work, demonstrating that the intersection between temporal continuums is…”

“Your father’s work is practically undecipherable,” said the only woman seated at the table. “Our R&D team can’t make any sense of it, and our consultants tell us that there are flaws with the math.” With her stern features and icy glare, she reminded Carl of his second grade teacher – the one who had made school a living hell the year after his father had gone missing.

Carl Kearsley clenched his fists, taking a deep breath. “My father’s math is sound,” he answered, his voice low. “He was a brilliant man, and I’m going to prove it.”

“While your enthusiasm is admirable, Mr. Kearsley, you still haven’t shown us why we should continue to sink funding into your project.”

“But what about the time-skip experiment? Surely you can’t deny that was a success.”

“Your machine broke down almost as soon as you turned it on, and the results were dubious and underwhelming. Unless you can replicate…”

“But I can – I can! All I need is some money for the repairs.”

Mr. Thompson sighed. “I’m afraid we can’t do that, Mr. Kearsley. We have a responsibility to our shareholders, and this project shows no sign of ever becoming profitable.”

Carl took a deep breath and looked from face to face. None of them showed an ounce of sympathy. He thought of his father, laboring for years against the same contempt and derision. There was only one way left to save the project, but it required a leap of faith that was absolutely terrifying. If it succeeded, it would vindicate his father beyond any doubt, but if it failed…

“Very well,” he said, his hands shaking. “You asked to see results, gentlemen. Well, prepare yourselves.”

As he strode to the door, he felt as if he were standing on the pinnacle of one of the most important moments of his life – a crossroads that would decide the entire course of his future.

“Time is multi-dimensional. This necessarily alters our conventional understanding of cause and effect. Until now, we have only been able to consult the past in order to look to the future. But assuming time travel is possible, why not consult the future itself?”

“What are you talking about?” asked the woman with the icy glare.

“Simply this,” said Carl, turning to face them with his hand on the door knob. “With a functional time machine, I could travel to any moment in history and interact with it. I could even come back to this very meeting. So much hangs in the balance right now. You’ve made it clear that without results, my funding will be discontinued. Well, gentlemen, witness my results!”

He flung open the door, hoping desperately to come face to face with a future version of himself. The door swung on its hinges until it banged against the wall of the conference room, cracking the drywall and leaving a sizable dent. The executives and investors leaned forward, but the hallway was empty – no one was there.

“Is there something you want us to see, Doctor?”

Carl’s stomach sank, and his legs turned to water. He opened his mouth, but could not speak. His greatest fear had been realized.

“I’m afraid we can no longer continue to fund your project, Doctor Kearsley,” said Mr. Thompson as he closed the cover on his tablet. “This meeting is adjourned.”

#

The awful, sinking weight of despair gnawed on Carl Kearsley all through the long ride back to his home. The bumper to bumper traffic only made it worse. Sitting alone in his car, locked in the hazy gridlock, there was nothing to distract him from the truth that all his life’s work had been in vain.

Why had his future self failed to appear? What flaw in the causal matrix had prevented him from coming back? Time was not linear – his father had proven as much. According to the multidimensional nature of the matrix, it made perfect sense for his future self to use the finished time machine in order to secure the funding. Such loops of causality were not forbidden – in fact, the math encouraged them. So where was the flaw?

The only explanation was the one that he’d feared from the moment he’d taken up his father’s work: that time travel was fundamentally impossible. That was the shadow of fear under which Carl had labored all his life, and now, the shadow had become a reality. If he could not travel back in time to save his own project, then perhaps he would never build the time machine at all.

As he sat in traffic, inching along at a pace that made eternity seem like more than an abstract concept, his thoughts wandered to his father, laboring in obscurity for so many years before his abrupt and unexplained disappearance. All his life, he had faced cynicism and doubt, but had continued his work even in the face of setbacks and discouragement. He had never seen his dream come to fruition, but had pursued it relentlessly nonetheless. Carl wished that he had known the man not just as a father figure, but as a fellow inventor. He had dedicated his life to vindicating his father’s work, but now it seemed that all of his efforts had been in vain.

He reached his house long after sunset. The last hues of the rapidly fading twilight had all but disappeared, and the lights of the city drowned out all but the brightest stars. With a heavy heart, he walked past his unkempt, weed-filled lawn and up the creaky steps to his front porch.

To his surprise, the lights were on inside.

He frowned. Had he left them on when he’d left in the morning? Though possible, it was highly unlikely. He’d installed a timer on the kitchen light switch to prevent that very thing, and while it was hard to tell from the front porch window, the kitchen light seemed to be the one that was on.

With a healthy dose of caution, he unlocked the door and stepped quietly inside. Sure enough, it was the kitchen light. The smell of freshly ground coffee met his nose, making him frown. Someone was in his house – someone who didn’t belong there.

“Hello?” he called out, his heart racing. “Who’s there?”

“Only you,” came a voice, followed by a loud chuckle. “In a manner of speaking, of course.”

Carl rounded the corner and came face to face with the strangest, most disorienting sight of his life. Sitting at his kitchen table was a man who resembled himself in every way, down to the lab coat and dirty jeans. He was drinking coffee from his favorite mug – the one that said “this might be vodka” on the side. He grinned as if it was his house, not Carl’s.

“Who are you?” Carl asked, his cheeks turning pale.

“I told you, Carl,” said the man. “I’m you.”

Realization struck him like a bolt of lightning. “You–you’re me? From the future?”

“Precisely.”

Like the earth-shattering crack of thunder following lightning at a slight delay, Carl’s realization quickly turned to rage. “What are you doing here?” he shouted. “Why didn’t you come at the board meeting, when I expected you? Do you realize what you’ve done?”

“Of course I do. The board has cut your funding and dropped your project.”

“Then why didn’t you stop that?”

“Because that’s the best thing that’s happened to you,” said his future self. He gestured to the chair next to him. “Care to have a seat?”

“What? No!” screamed Carl. “Do you–what do you mean, losing my funding was the best thing to happen to me?”

“Why do you think?”

The question did more to calm him than anything else could. As his mind set to work on the answer, his rage slowly deflated. He sat down in the offered chair.

“I–I don’t know. I needed the money to repair my equipment after the failed time-skip experiment. Without it, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to complete the research that I need in order to build a functioning machine.”

“And yet here I am, speaking with you. Therefore, you obviously found a way to do it.”

“But why put it on me to develop this technology by myself? Wouldn’t it be easier to get the financial backing of a large corporation – wasn’t that the plan from the beginning?”

His future self smiled. “Now you’re asking the right questions. And since you’re listening, I’ll give you the answers, after asking a few questions of my own. First, what makes you think that corporate funding is your only option?”

The question took Carl back. “I–I don’t know. I just assumed that that was the only way to get the capital that I needed.”

“But isn’t time multi-dimensional? What made you believe that the only resources available to you were the ones in the present?”

“Because–well, because at the time that’s all I had,” Carl stammered. It was a lame answer, and he knew it. His future self evidently knew this, because he merely raised an eyebrow without belaboring the point.

“Second question: what makes you think that it’s easier to go the corporate route? To sell out your copyright and lock down the technology with patents?”

“Well, it’s the best way I could see to raise the capital,” Carl said. Like a spectator at a debate, or a long-time lurker on a spirited message board, he could see where his future self was going with this.

“The fastest way, perhaps, but what about the long-term effects of such a choice? Do you know what would happen if the technology became proprietary?”

“I suppose it would lead to a great deal of problems.”

“That’s putting it lightly,” said his future self. “Time is not linear – it’s multi-dimensional, just like father proved. That means that for any given moment, there are countless alternative timelines that exist apart from the one we are experiencing. I’ve only explored a few of them, but I’ve seen enough to know that it’s easy to screw things up. And what in this universe is better at screwing things up than a bloated corporate bureaucracy?”

“So you’re saying that if I did get the corporate funding, it would lead to disaster?”

“Precisely. If you want to serve the time-traveling community, the best thing you can do is to keep the technology free.”

Carl blinked. “The time-traveling community?”

“Of course! Did you honestly think you were the only one?”

“Well, no, but–you mean there are time travelers among us?”

His question elicited a deep belly laugh from his future self. “If only you could see your face right now! You will, of course, but that’s not the point. Yes, there’s a community of time travelers. We’re a lot more prevalent than you might think. Benjamin Franklin, Martin Luther, Satoshi Nakamoto – you’d be surprised to learn just how many of us there are. Though not all of us see eye to eye. Hitler, for example…”

“Hitler was a time traveler?”

The future version of himself sighed. “Yes, I’m afraid. That’s why none of us have been able to eliminate him from the matrix entirely. By the way, when does Hitler die in this timeline?”

“Uh, 1945.”

“In a bunker? At the end of the war?”

“Yes.”

“Ah, so we did manage to stop him! Good…very good.”

“Wait,” said Carl. “You’re telling me that all of history has been shaped by time travelers?”

“Precisely. That’s why it’s so important to keep the technology open source. There are a number of timelines in which the technology becomes proprietary, and all of them collapse into paradox and chaos. Time just wants to be free.”

“But–but how did you develop the technology in the first place? How am I supposed to develop it?”

His future self grinned. “Good question,” he said, fishing into the front right pocket of his lab coat. “You’ll develop it the same way I did: through collaboration.”

He reached out and handed Carl a flash drive. The casing was black and made of plastic, with an empty keyring and a retractable USB head. It looked like one of the many flash drives in the upper drawer of his workshop computer desk. Chills shot down Carl’s back as he took it – perhaps the present-day version of the same drive was lying in his desk right now.

“I must go, but I wish you the best of luck. A great work lies before you, one in which you will not be alone. Farewell, and remember: time wants to be free!”

The air around Carl’s future self began to shimmer, and the light seemed to gather immediately around his person. It became brighter and brighter until Carl had to shield his eyes – and then, in a flash, his future self disappeared into thin air. His coffee mug sat on the table where his future self had left it, half empty and still steaming. The lights were on, the chair was pulled back, but most importantly, the flash drive was still clenched in his sweaty hand.

Carl wasted no time. As quickly as he could, he sprinted to his workshop and turned on his computer, tapping impatiently as it booted up. The moment it was ready, he plugged in the flash drive from the future and brought up its contents. It contained a list of blueprint files and text documents with names like “FUNDAMENTALS,” “APPLICATIONS,” and “METHODS.” On a whim, he opened the file named “FUNDAMENTALS” and began to skim over it. As he did, his heart began to race and an insuppressible grin spread across his face.

This was it: this was what he’d spent his whole life working on! Every problem he’d toiled unsuccessfully over, every paradox he’d spent sleepless nights trying to unravel – the solutions were all plain before him. Some of them were clearer than others – there would still be something of a learning curve trying to put it all together – but still, given enough time, he had full confidence he’d be able to do it.

He worked through the night and into the early morning. By the time he finally left his workshop to collapse exhausted on his bed, his mind was swimming with the possibilities.

This was the dream his father had spent his life working toward. If only he had lived to see it – but then again, why not? Time wasn’t linear, it was multi-dimensional, allowing for all manner of loops and interwoven causalities. And when his home-built time machine was fully functional, thanks to the open source ethic of the time travel community, then perhaps Carl would be able to go back and meet his father. Perhaps one day, they would even be able to collaborate.

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