Odd Prompts – Week 19

This week’s prompt is from Cedar: Time is relative and there are no rules. Except for this one rule. What is it?

To me this hints at Time travel, something just about every SF fan knows about.  Stories about people traveling through time date back to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and HG Well’s Time Machine.  Twilight Zone has several episodes that touch on the subject.  The method of travel can differ from design, (Time Tunnel and Quantum Leap are experiments that went sideways, Star Trek’s The Guardian of Forever was designed to let people travel) to accidental (Buck Rogers, even that Connecticut Yankee could be considered accidental)  The one constant is that at first the protagonist is usually like a fish out of water.

One area where the theories differ is on whether or not the past is fix or fluid.  Some may recall an episode from the remake of Twilight Zone called Cradle of Darkness where a woman tries to go back to 1889 and kill the infant child of Alois and Klara Hitler.  The episode ends with the nanny kidnapping a Romany child about the same age.  Adolf Hitler still grows up to lead the Third Reich.  History asserts itself.  On the other end of the scale is Quantum Leap where every episode has some “small” detail changed.  But are the changes always for the better?  Most of us remember the scene in Back to the Future when Marty realizes that he has changed the past is that his parents never marry.  The rest of the movie is spent trying to correct that mistake.  Or Star Trek’s City on the Edge of Forever where McCoy accidently saves a woman in the past and changes the future, we all know how that one ends.

What is the one rule that cannot be broken?  My sister half jokingly called it the Prime Directive of Time Travel:  Do Not Intervene.

But is Nonintervention enough?

Observer Effect

It started in Philosophy class with a lively debate on time travel and changing the events of the past.  One side said the past was immutable; nothing the time traveler did would change the past, Hitler and Stalin would still be born and come to power.  The other side said that the time traveler could change the past, but would be better served to not interfere, what one student jokingly called the “Prime Directive” of time travel: observe but do not intervene.  Kennedy had to die; the Twin Towers had to fall.  The rest of the class stayed out of the debate, believing that time travel belonged in the realm of science fiction.

Lowmeyer left the class pondering the possibilities of changing history.  Raised on such stories as Time Tunnel, Star Trek, Quantum Leap, Back to the Future and Doctor Who, he believed that changing the past was possible, and that it didn’t always have a happy ending.  Given the chance, he’d like to be the one to put the Non-Intervention clause into practice.  During the 10 minute walk from McClung Tower to the Nielsen Physics Building he pondered what event he would most like to see.   He wandered into Professor Breinig’s lab still half lost in thought.

“What has you so preoccupied Mr. Lowmeyer?”

“Question from Philosophy involving time travel.  It got me to wondering what event I would most like to see.”

“Ah, and what did you decide?”

“The assassination of Dr. King.”

“Oh?”  Professor Breinig laid down her pen and peered at him over her glasses.  Her expression clearly said she wondered why a young white male would be interested in the death of the well known civil rights leader from the Sixties.

“Yeah, I’ve always wondered if James Ray really did do it or if Earl Clark was the real shooter, as Loyd Jowers claimed.”

“Ah, I see.  That’s interesting.  Perhaps someday we will know.”  She turned back to the control panel beside her and started to read the screen.

Lowmeyer shrugged and went to clean the other side of the lab.  He spotted a coffee mug sitting on a seldom used desk.  “Prof, your coffee.”  He picked up the mug and turned to hand it to her.

She looked over her shoulder.  “I haven’t made the coffee yet.”

Lowmeyer looked at the mug and the steaming contents.  “Yet.”

The next few weeks were filled with silent excitement.  No one dared talk about the project outside of the lab, but everyone knew they were on the brink of proving real time travel.

The coffee mug was the first, other objects followed and the time between the appearance and sending increased from a few minutes to hours.  When the cat walked out of Professor Breinig’s office they knew the next step was ready.

The first live subjects were mice and rats.  It was two weeks before they found the cat at the shelter.  Even though there was no evidence of harm to the animals, Professor Breinig was reluctant to test the machine with humans even though she had nearly a dozen volunteers.

Chuck’s Saint Bernard, Cleo, arrived over a month before he did.

Lowmeyer officially graduated at the end of Spring Semester, but had offered to stay on through the summer to assist.  Summer Term was nearly over and he was becoming worried that not only would he not be the first to test the machine, but that he might not even see it happen.  He persuaded Chuck to help him build and test and device to return the traveler back to their starting point.  Chuck’s sweet Cleo was the test subject and appeared none the worse for the 15 minute test.

Lowmeyer met with Chuck in the lab the last week before he had to leave. He was dressed in simple jeans and a plain t-shirt.  He’d looked up everything he could on the dress of 1968 and the events of April 4th.

He arrived just outside the campus on April 2nd and, after looking around for nearly half an hour marveling at how much the campus had changed, made his way to the bus station.  An eight hour bus ride to Memphis with limited facilities was an experience.  No cell phones, tablets, or hand held games were available to distract him from the boredom.  He hadn’t thought to bring a book; of course any book he could have brought would be an anachronism.

They arrived in Memphis in the very early hours of April 3rd.  Lowmeyer found an all night diner and sat in the back booth and half napped until after the sun rose.  He found a room on Mulberry across the street from the Lorraine, down the hall from where Ray was reported to have rented.  He settled in and awaited history, keeping his interactions with the locals to a minimum.

The next day was spent watching the people walk past on the street and laying in bed listening to the news.  He watched King and Abernathy walk into their usual room at the Lorraine.  Just before 6:00 he moved a chair in front of the window to watch.  King was standing on the balcony watching and thinking as the sun slowly sank in the west.  At 6:01 the shot rang out and King fell.  Abernathy, followed by a few others, ran out of the room.  They looked across the street and pointed at a window to Lowmeyer’s left.

Satisfied that Ray had been the shooter, since the claims of Jowers put Earl Clark in a different location, Lowmeyer triggered the return device.

The lab was dark and quiet when he returned.  Lowmeyer wondered why Chuck had left after only five minutes.  He flipped on the lights and looked around; the room didn’t look the same.  The computer banks were in the wrong place and the machine was gone.  Unnerved he walked to where he had parked that morning.  Chuck had to be playing come kind of joke.  Maybe Breinig had caught Chuck and was trying to teach him a lesson.  Either way, he’d go home and write up what he had seen.

He reached the parking lot and looked around.  He was pretty sure he’d parked in the lower part of Lot 18, but his old Buick was not there.  It was possible that it had been towed; after all he had parked after normal hours.  He stood there debating whether to try calling the tow company or walk home and worry about the car later.  The only problem with calling the tow company was that his cell phone was in the car, as was his house key.  That left going back into the Nielsen building or walking to the library and seeing if it was still open.

It turned out that the Hoskins Library was still open so students could study in peace for their finals.  He found an empty desk, grabbed a couple of sheets of scrap paper and started scribbling down what he remembered.

Wanting to know who the other people were that had been with Dr. King, he wandered over to the history section and started looking for books on Dr. King.  The first book he found showed a photo of Dr. King shaking hands with Walter Mondale.  Shaking his head he put on the cart to be reshelfed in the fiction section.  The second book was little more help.  When he flipped to the chapter on the assassination it was listed as an assassination attempt.  A third book had photos of King lying on the balcony, but the image didn’t quite match the one he remembered.  Another photo showed King a few days later with the left side of his face bandaged.

Lowmeyer felt the blood drain to his feet as he pulled a couple of more books and went to a desk to read.  They all said the same thing, Ray had not been able to get the room he’d wanted, the one Lowmeyer remembered, but had been farther away.  The shot had been partially deflected by the corner of the hotel and had stuck Dr. King on the left side, instead of the killing shot on the right side.

Dr. King had survived and, sixteen years later, reversed his position on going into politics.  He answered Walter Mondale’s call.  Mondale and King served together for over six years.  Vice President King died of a heart attack in 1990.

Lowmeyer opened a book on American Presidents and started reading at 1980, Ronald Reagan’s first term.  Except he didn’t win the second term.  He was the last Republican President.  Mondale had won in 1988, with Dr. King at his side.  Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson had followed Mondale and King.  Jackson ran in 2000 with a charismatic young man from Illinois, a community leader by the name of Barak Obama, who showed great promise, winning by a narrow margin.  When the twin towers fell in 2001, Jackson had shown great restraint and not retaliated.  Instead he had opened negotiations with the Middle Eastern countries to allow them to hunt for the mind behind the attacks.  In 2004 Jackson and Obama won a second term.  2008 saw another historical milestone as a woman, Carol Braun was elected Vice President of the United States as Obama’s running mate.

The last entry was for the 2016 elections where Braun had tapped Peter Buttigieg as her running mate.

Lowmeyer sat back and wondering what had happened.  He’d been very careful to avoid coming in contact with anyone associated with Dr. King.  He’d made sure to get a room down the hall from Ray.  So why had history changed?  Had Chuck tried to come after him?  Then he remembered the Observer Effect.  His presence had some how altered history; maybe the person who should have been in his room had ended up in Ray’s room.

He looked around and realized that he was the only white male in the library.  The chill he’d felt slowly turned to fear.  He realized that he was going to have to find a way to go back and correct history somehow, if he ever wanted to go home.

He closed the books and started looking for the back door when he saw the security guard come in.

My personal theory is that time travel into the past risks the Butterfly effect, or a variation of Observer Effect.  Any changes, no matter how small, will affect how history progresses.  As far as I am concerned, the only way to safely travel through time and not change anything is do it as a hologram or some other none corporal form.  It’s may not be worth the risk.

Becky Jones got my prompt, a photo of sunrise in a cemetery, and produced a wonderful story.  If you’re not already following Becky, go read it.


Butterfly effect:  the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.

Observer Effect: the theory that the mere observation of a phenomenon inevitably changes that phenomenon. 

5 thoughts on “Odd Prompts – Week 19

  1. There was story (by Asimov?) about a device for “viewing the past”. While it couldn’t view ancient history, the user could view any time & place (limited by IIRC the last hundred years).

    The problem was “when does the past start”.

    Answer being “right now” so the device was actually the perfect spy/surveillance device and US government people realized the problem.

    Unfortunately, one of the developers of the device had arranged for the knowledge of the device to be released world-wide.

    IIRC the story ends with a nucular strike on Washington DC (where the characters were being held).

    Liked by 1 person

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