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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

by Charles Sundt 1998

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At last it dawned on me: they all had blue eyes.

I remember having had a feeling of being watched, then noticing that everyone in the bus had blue eyes. Except me, of course. I had fairly ordinary brown eyes - though I appeared to be alone. James was no exception, either... I had known him for years, though I never really thought about the colour of his eyes. I dismissed the observation, initially. It was just an odd coincidence. Though I must admit, when I noticed that the bus driver also had piercing blue eyes, I got a bit paranoid.

I started checking everyoneís eyes. An overreaction, perhaps, but it caught my imagination. I was surprised to find that I seemed to know a disproportionately high number of blue-eyed people. I played tennis that afternoon, with a group of local friends. All with blue eyes. The coach as well. I went to the pub afterwards. Did the landlord have blue eyes, or was that my alcohol-infected imagination?

The great test, I figured, would be at my workplace, the International Aeronautic Space Administration Research Labs, the next day. I spent the journey there trying to recall the colour of my colleaguesí eyes, but I would have hesitated to imagine that such a high number of co-workers shared the same, haunting characteristic. I managed to find two brown-eyed people that day, but I couldnít go up to them for no particular reason and point out this alarming situation. I didnít yet have enough evidence.

On the way back from work, on the blue-eyed bus, I confronted James with an unusual question. I asked him if there was a big conspiracy going on against brown-eyed people like me. I often ask him far stranger questions - my mind works that way - so I would have expected him to come up with a quick-witted joke in response as always. But he looked briefly bemused. I was immediately uncomfortable; James was never lost for words. I asked him if there was something wrong. He replied that there wasnít, although he saw my point. He agreed that there seemed to be a much higher proportion of blue-eyed people around than genetics and accepted statistics should govern. I nodded, but didnít continue. James appeared uncharacteristically humourless. Something felt wrong.

I almost let it slip after that, but my curious mind couldnít let it go. I decided to investigate at least one step further. I visited my optician that weekend, and asked about blue coloured contact lenses. They were expensive, but I though of it as an investment - like a new pair of shoes. They would make me look smarter. And, more importantly, allow me to blend in with the crowd.

I was excited about going to work again once my new blue eyes were in place. I couldnít wait to see what Jamesí reaction would be. I felt sure that it would clear up any wild theories I still held of ridiculous cover-ups involving a devious race of blue-eyed people. Nothing could have prepared me for what he actually did when he saw my new intense sapphire blue eyes...

I remember getting on the bus - I got an odd stare from the conductor actually, he must not have recognised me at first - looking away from James, sitting down, then getting ready to surprise him. I looked up, opened my mouth to say something - but it froze in my throat. James had a look of horror on his face. He looked like he was about to punch me. I wasnít sure what to do, I sort of shrank away. He looked at me like a friend might look at a rude pupil when the headmaster walks in and catches him swearing at the teacher. I felt like I was in big trouble.

It got weird after that. I was really lost - I didnít know what to think. James grabbed my arm and dragged me off the bus at the next stop. He phoned for a taxi from a booth nearby, holding me as if I was about to run away. I was still in a state of utter confusion when the taxi arrived. James knocked on the front window of the taxi, still grasping me by the arm. The taxi driver rolled down the window and took off his shades. He had blue eyes. James nodded and bundled me into the back seat. Now I was confused.

It took me almost half an hour to calm myself down and start thinking straight. James still looked very angry. He was staring straight ahead. He had let go of my arm. I could tell he was clenching his teeth. I braved a question. The silence was broken awkwardly. I repeated the query, weakly. Whatever the situation, I thought that asking where we were going was reasonable enough.

James looked at me stolidly. He narrowed his eyes and spoke coldly. He said something about haven given me a chance to forget about my Ďlittle observationí. I opened my mouth to say something, but James continued. He claimed that I had ruined the experiment. At this point I gave up. I appeared to be living in a science fiction story - I refused to believe it. I started shouting at James, even yelling at the taxi driver. I insisted that the cab was stopped, and this situation was explained to me immediately.

James responded concisely. He rolled up his hand and gave me a skull-cracking punch.

I woke up on a hospital bed. I wasnít really surprised. I had now taken it for granted that I was no longer living real life - and this is exactly what would happen if this was all a Hollywood film. In fact, this place probably wasnít a hospital, but a mad scientistís lair. I wasnít far off, really - but the truth that has since been revealed to me has shaken my very being. I had not moved into a world of fiction, I had moved out of one.

The doctor that was sitting next to me noticed that I had awoken, and he greeted me by name. He put down his newspaper and leant over, pulling something out of his pocket. He held up the object in front of my slightly blurred vision, stared at me with his deep blue eyes and turned on the torch. The light made me blink and turn my head away. I noticed the headline on the doctorís newspaper: "Failure Threatens Fourth Retro-Experiment". The doctor commented on my eyes contracting in a normal, healthy way, and he informed me that I should be ready to go. I was about to ask where I was going to, when James walked into my field of view.

At first I was glad to see him, and I smiled - but then I remembered the unusual taxi ride, and I flinched. I relaxed when I saw him smile back. He shook his head, as if he was incredulous of something, and offered to help me up.

I first felt the pain when I sat up. James laughed when I jerked my hand up to my cheek, nearly losing my balance. He apologised, commenting on the size of the bump on my cheekbone. I suddenly remembered the blue contact lenses that started this whole mystery off. I checked my eyes to see if I was still wearing them.

James shook his head again, saying that those lenses were a museum exhibit by now. I furrowed my brow, saying that this all seemed beyond explanation to me. James assured me that he would explain everything. He helped me out of bed and we started walking, through a door and along a big white corridor.

That conversation was incredible. I was, of course, sceptical at first, but since then I have seen that it is all true.

James explained to me that I had been living in a vast experiment. My entire life, since age ten, was synthesized in the interests of science. Any memories I had from before then were my imagination. I was selected to participate in one of four epic experiments performed consecutively, each of which involved recreating four key moments in humankindís modern history. The aim was to see if four of the inventions vital to the technological progression of the human race could have been handled differently, so we had a competent space programme by the dawn of the third millennium.

I didnít understand what reason could possibly have warranted such a large project, just to see if mankind could have accelerated the development of his spacefaring abilities. James said he would clarify a few further points before he told me. Apparently, I had no hope of believing the truth if he told me now. I kept my thoughts patiently at bay, while James continued with the explanation.

In each case forty people were given a kind of artificial world to live in - an almost exact simulation of the past. Each experiment had its own small country put aside, devoted to living in an ancient era. The illusion was precise down to the television programmes, the news, the fashions, even the attitudes of the population. They each grew up in this environment, knowing nothing different. The actual year is 2107 - I thought I was living in the early 21st century.

Each of the subjects were given the education that was available at the time that their respective experiments were set in. Special supervisors made the deception complete, befriending the subjects and ensuring that each person grew up gaining knowledge in the right fields, making the right discoveries - until eventually they invented the pivotal item.

The reason James had been so angry at me was that blue eyes were a way of identifying the supervisors of my experiment. Apparently, we were just weeks away from making the vital discovery, so lots of new Ďblue-eyed peopleí were flocking to see it happen. With my blue lenses, confusion would have been inevitable. I nearly ruined the experiment. I hope the others can do without me - I wonder how they explained my disappearance.

What would we have invented? It took James a while to convince me that his answer was true. Back in the IASA Research Labs, we were doing work that was completely unrelated to our impending discovery, and I had assumed that such an creation was unworkable anyway. The four epic experiments were to observe the feasibility of using alternative methods to develop: powered flight, the atomic bomb, space flight, and finally my experiment - the fourth experiment - the time machine.

It made me realise the scale of the operation. To think there were three other Ďworldsí like the one I had just left, each totally unaware that there is any existence outside of theirs. One of them at the dawn of the 20th century, one in the heat of the second World War, one a little over halfway through that century, and then mine at the beginning of the next. Or at the beginning of last century, I should say - I have a lot to get used to.

Was I really about to invent a time machine? Surely thatís impossible. If they had been invented, we would have seen time travellers from the future, in the past. It rarely occurs to me that this may actually have happened, but it was censored from my artificial world. According to James, time travel is currently far too expensive and draining on resources to do on a regular basis, and therefore it doesnít get misused in the way that so many imaginative science fiction writers loved to write about. Thatís part of the reason these grandiose experiments had to be conducted; to make sure that the scientists get it right first time when they travel back through time to make the relevant changes for real.

Of course, the first three experiments were finished long ago. My existence was based on a reality that had already been altered significantly by three previous journeys through time. The Wright brothers were given some early commercial assistance so their creation got off the ground faster; Hitler was kept at bay a little longer, and the Manhattan project was delayed, so the rapid technological progressions necessitated by a world war were prolonged; NASA were granted a more organised and less political approach to space travel - and all this meant that in my time, space travel had progressed far further than it would have done naturally. I wondered again why space travel was so vital. I made a mental note to insist for an answer later.

I asked James again, more directly, if I really was on the verge of inventing a time machine. To my surprise, he denied it. He stressed that I was not about to invent a time machine, I was about to discover one. I demanded an explanation. The entire story soon became much clearer.

James elucidated: In the original past, near the beginning of the 21st century, an apparently alien spacecraft descended in a field near the isolated IASA Research Labs. The craft remained there for approximately four minutes, easily long enough to get undeniable photographic and video evidence. It did nothing for forty-two seconds, then sent a constant stream of electronic information to all of the computers in the Lab before its swift departure. It was tracked until it turned into the shadow of the moon, where it promptly disappeared. Observational rockets were later sent to the far side of the moon for a close inspection, but nothing was ever found.

The alien information that had been dispatched to the Labs, written in clear English and apparently sent through normal fibre-optic cables, was a detailed step-by-step guide to building a time machine. The IASA Research Labs had the resources to build the machine, so - initially in secret - they followed the instructions and manufactured a functional time machine. The science behind it was so revolutionary at the time - it set people thinking along completely new lines.

James explained how the invention had been handled. The IASA scientists didnít have much time before their toy was taken away from them by the various governments, so they made some fairly disappointing mistakes. They couldnít work out the maths behind the paradox problem - like what happens if you shoot your father before you were conceived - so they just agreed not to change things. How naive! One idiotic scientist thought it would be a good idea to go back to the 1920ís and buy lots of shares in various American companies, then sell them at a huge profit just before the market suffered the infamous Wall Street Crash. He sold them, a large quantity, on Thursday the 24th of October 1928, causing a panic in the stock market... the rest is history.

Another, more moralistic scientist decided time travel should be used for more benign things. Simple observation would be fascinating, and of much greater historical and scientific value than making money by ruining ancient economies. The scientists unanimously agreed that the most significant and interesting event in history was the death of Jesus Christ. They vaguely attempted to plan the escapade, but due to a small timing error, they sent their scientist back a few years early. Christ didnít die when they thought he had done. They sent their scientist back in time from inside a cave, with the intention that no-one would see him appear - they wanted to cause minimal interference.

That scientist ended up waltzing out of the cave in his white protective suit and being confused for a certain Lazarus, back from the dead. One of the young men in the crowd took the initiative and claimed that it was he that had miraculously raised Lazarus from the dead. This young man got an instant reputation, and due to some clever confidence tricks, he became known as a miracle-worker. The legend we know as Jesus Christ. I can understand why they wanted to have another go at dealing with time travel. They certainly educated me to be more responsible than that bunch of blunderers.

Eventually, the story of aliens and time travel leaked. The time machine and the compelling evidence for alien presence caught the imagination of the public, and a soon an ambitious project was set up to go back in time and follow the aliens, perhaps making contact with them.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of time travel, nothing mechanical can be sent back without ceasing to function properly. This complication could not be overcome. But the lure of contacting an alien species could not be passed up, so an impressive project was planned and, with global support, implemented. The theory was that if space travel was sufficiently well developed by the time the aliens came, they could be followed immediately: so everyone set about devising ways to speed up the technological breakthroughs of the past. I was one of the Guinea-pigs in this monumental effort. I suppose I should be honoured, but I donít feel it.

Right now, having been kept in this cross between a hotel room and a prison cell for three weeks already, the story has had time to soak in and I am no longer impressed. For a start, I resent these people for taking away my comfortable 21st century existence and throwing me into this strange world of the present. I had a brother in that false existence. Am I ever going to see him again? He had brown eyes - a Guinea-pig like me. My Ďparentsí had blue eyes. Well, my dad did, I never knew my mother. That must mean that these people that I devoted my life to, were strangers. I hate that thought.

I despise James in particular. He was my friend because he had to be. Every little thing we did together was planned. Why did I have to be chosen to lead a false life? Iíve probably been deprived of a luxurious futuristic existence in this modern, politically sound world too. It really annoys me. The whole morality of the experiment is doubtful as well, especially prolonging the Second World War. It amused me to think how many arrogant scientists with Jewish descendants must have mysteriously disappeared from history because the war was extended.

Now I have to wait until the fourth experiment has ended so history can be changed for real, one last time. Then the experiment will be complete, and the human race will hopefully have met the aliens. James has gone back to the 21st century to watch it happen. Iím stuck here with nothing but a computer to keep me company. Mind you, it holds the most engaging conversations...

A month later. Itís over. I donít believe the result. The experiment finished a couple of weeks ago, and just yesterday a bunch of scientists went to change the past. Of course, they returned about two hours later even though they had spent years in history.

A fortnight ago, it was explained to me that our memories would be naturally altered when time was changed, to incorporate any differences in the present caused by altering the past - like missing people. Only the scientists who did the time journey would remember what it was like before they changed time. So everyone spent two weeks recording absolutely everything about everything in order to send the information forward in time, and read it again later so they could tell what had changed. Confusing, but I think thatís the gist of it.

Once the time travellers returned, we all gathered around the various computers in this big white building to read the summary of what life was like before we changed time, then we all looked through the history books.

The archive video footage was clear: the Ďaliensí were successfully followed. The craft landed on the far side of the moon. A door on the side opened, and two beings walked out in light spacesuits. They made some quick adjustments to the craft, went back inside it and disappeared in a quantum ripple. They had travelled back to whatever time it was that they had come from.

It was quite obvious in the pictures from the observational shuttle that had followed them, that these beings - that had travelled through time to give us time travel technology - were humans.

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