Science Fiction Historical time travel paradox hindenburg Pelee Sultana

Where and When

By James Van Pelt
Jul 10, 2020 · 6,847 words · 25 minutes

Volcano ash cloud

Photo by Yosh Ginsu via Unsplash.

From the author: The classic time travel paradox suggests that trips to the past are impossible because any change to the past will change the future where the time travel machine is invented, causing the future that sent the machine to the past to not exist, thereby not changing the future (and so on forever). But there are places in the past where one can travel that by their nature are insulated from the future. Time travel is possible!

The two scientists surveyed the cabin’s interior from their positions behind the crowd at the windows.  Jake flicked the command that turned his recorders on, his eyes and ears sending the signal to the computer buried in his jawbone, while Martin stepped to a table and retrieved what turned out to be a menu.  He held the pages like they were holy script.

“After all these years,” Jake exulted while turning slowly for the recorder’s sake.  A silk wallpaper imprinted with a map of the world covered the wall beside him.  Rich contrasting carpet.  Recessed ceiling lights.  The transition had been without effect.  No sound or dizziness.  No flash of light or sensation of falling.  Just a blink.  “What did we do differently?”

“The math never came out even, but it should have always worked.  Maybe there are more opportune moments.”  Martin carefully opened the thin document.  “A thousand failed attempts.  Wouldn’t Brownson be proud.”

Jake grimaced.  “If he had survived.”  For an instant, he thought he saw Brownson among the people at the window.  Broad shoulders.  One arm.  Grey hair.  But the light shifted, and Jake could see he was wrong.  Two arms.  Blond hair.  A stranger.  The project had been Brownson’s from the beginning.  All the theoretical work, most of the construction, only letting them help when he needed two hands.  Spending long nights bouncing his ideas off them.  Arguing with them about paradoxes.  His faith buoyed them when they were ready to quit.  His determination to succeed drove them on.  His obsession.  He should be here, Jake thought.  This day belongs to him.

A soft thrumming filled the air, and both men compensated slightly as the floor moved beneath their feet.

Jake’s breathing came hard.  It had been a thousand attempts.  They’d poured over Brownson’s papers until their vision had blurred.  Constructed and reconstructed the device dozens of times.  Was it a math problem?  Was there a flaw in the underlying theories?  Were the old saws about paradox and the impossibilities true, the ones that worried Brownson incessantly?  “We must be able to get around it,” he’d said.  If only the old man had confided in them more before he’d died in the explosion, alone in the lab.  “I’m going to try something,” he’d said.  The investigators concluded later that a bomb destroyed the building.  They found chemical traces and a melted timing mechanism.   Rival government?  Terrorists?  Jake and Martin had labored from then on in paranoid secrecy. 

“Where and when are we?” Jake said to himself.  We’re here!  he thought, wherever here is.  And we’re now, whenever that is.  He panned around the long room, across the backs of the people at the windows, and over metal-framed chairs pushed up to the tables.  He lingered his focus on a yellow piano in the room’s center.  A wine glass and crystal carafe poised above the keyboard tossed bright glisters from the ceiling lights.  The room smelled of cologne and perfume and roast beef.  His fingers glided coolly on the silk wall.  Jake smiled.  What style were the clothes the people wore?  1920s?  1930s?  If he queried the computer, it might tell him, but it was more fun to guess.  None turned to look at them.

At the window, a middle-aged woman with a cane hooked over her arm said, “Finally.  The family has been waiting for hours.”  Reading glasses hung from a silver cord around her neck.

Ahh, English, thought Jake.  He spoke French, German, Italian, Spanish and a smattering of Mandarin.  Martin knew Portugese, Swiss and Russian.  If needed, their computer implanted in his jaw could translate, but that was an awkward way to talk.  Jake hoped the recorder caught what the people said.  Voices from the past.  Real ones.  The linguists would salivate over the subtleties of vowel shifts, the nuances and shading of pronunciations from hundreds of years in the past.  Not radio recordings or movie voices, but real people talking among themselves.  The social historians would write treatises on the ways of the era based on his recordings.  Whole new areas of study would be opened up.  They’d succeeded!  They’d jumped the unjumpable chasm.

“The Germans build a marvelous ship, but they can’t control the rain and wind,” an older man with dark muttonchops and a grey smoking jacket replied.  “Not yet, anyway.”  From the way the woman with the cane and the muttonchopped man stood together, their arms almost touching, their chins at the same angle as they looked out the window, Jake guessed they were husband and wife.

Jake moved to an unoccupied length of window.  By putting his face next to the glass that leaned out from the top, he could see that three-hundred feet below a grassy airfield waited.  He strained to see what was to the right and left beyond the cabin: long stretches of silver-grey fabric, and above them a bulging grey fabric shelf that blocked part of the sky.  No wings, he thought.  We’re in a blimp. 

Cars the size of matchboxes covered the ground on one side of a long wooden building.  People ran beneath them.  He hoped the glass wouldn’t mess up the recorder’s images.

The muttonchopped man said, “We’re tail heavy.  If those folks don’t watch out below, they’ll get a good soaking.”

“How so, dear?” asked his wife.  She smiled at him, a brief look, then she gazed out again.

“Water ballast.” 

A nearly subsonic, mechanical thump bumped the room, then the people who’d been running scattered, their hands covering their heads as water streamed down from somewhere aft of the cabin.  The muttonchopped man laughed.

Martin sidled up beside Jake.  “Look at this,” Martin whispered, holding the menu he’d retrieved from the table.

Jake scanned the German text.  “Nice wine list.  Do you want the beef broth with marrow dumplings or the cold Rhine salmon with spiced sauce and potato salad?”  He could barely keep from giggiling.  They had done it!

“No, not the food.  Look at the name.”  He stabbed a finger at the top of the page.

Trying to settle his heart, trying to keep the grin off his face, Jake read the heading.

“We’re going to Hindenburg?  Is that where this airfield is?”  Were the people he’d listened to American or English tourists on holiday in Germany?

Martin shook his head.  “No, no.  We’re on the Hindenburg.  The zeppelin.  The Hindenburg.”

Jake’s computer squeaked for attention with a bone-induction message only he could hear:  The Hindenburg, first commercial flights in 1936.  Final flight, May 6, 1937.  Gas volume of 7,062,000 cubic feet.  Gross lift of 242.2 tons.  Originally designed for helium, the ship . . .”  Jake flicked the voice off.

Ahead and to the left of the ship, a solid-looking tower of crossbeams and heavy struts awaited them.  The zeppelin turned ponderously toward it.

The tower slid slowly toward the front of the ship.  The grass below had given way to cement and tarmac, dark with long puddles of standing water.  Fragments of the ship’s reflection shown back at them.

“When are we on the Hindenburg?” said Jake.  A crew member opened one of the windows so the passengers could see better.  A refreshing, rain-scented breeze filled the cabin.

Martin tapped his finger against the top of the menu impatiently.  “What does it matter?  We’re on the Hindenburg.  The go-down-in-flames-oh-the-humanity Hindenburg.”

“It does matter.  The Hindenburg flew for a year before it blew up.  If it’s 1936, we’re in great shape.  Can you imagine?  1936!  Franklin Roosevelt is president.  The Berlin Olympics.  The Spanish Civil War.  Picasso is alive, and so is Errol Flynn and Ginger Rogers.  We can go to Hollywood!  What are the odds of all the places and times in the world that we’d end up on the Hindenburg in 1937 when it goes down?”

“Why are we in an airship at all?”  Martin looked out the window at the ground.  “Brownson said temporal and physical destinations were random.  No guessing where we’d end up, but this seems precise.  If we’d arrived ten feet that way,” he waved beyond the cabin, “our visit here would have been short.”

Long cables dropped from the front of the ship.  Men on the ground ran to catch them.  The hum that pervaded the background shifted, and the cabin shuddered.  Jake braced a hand against the slick metal window sill to compensate for the change in speed.

Martin shook his head.  He stepped around Jake.  “Excuse me, sir,” he said to the man with muttonchops. “My friend here is a little confused.  Would you tell him what year it is?”

Before the man could answer, Jake heard a soft pop from outside the window, like a gas burner being turned on.  The woman with the cane over her arm leaned out the open window, looking up.  “What is that, dear?”  She reached behind her without turning her head and grabbed the muttonchopped man’s wrist.  “It’s like a sunrise.”

A pink and yellow glow brightened the zeppelin’s fabric toward the tail.  Jake leaned out too to record the image, but the soft glimmer turned into flames racing toward them, furiously fast.

Jake pushed away from the window.

“It’s on fire!” someone screamed.  The floor began to sink beneath their feet.

Martin faced Jake, his expression serious.  “1937.”

They reached for their panic switches under their shirts at the same time.  Before the world blinked away, the muttonchopped man and the woman with the cane threw themselves out the window.  We’re still 300 feet above the ground, Jake thought before it all flickered and they were back in the laboratory.

Collapsed in a chair, Jake still breathed in interrupted hitches, his heart pounding in his throat.  His hand fluttered as he reached for the coffee cup.  Martin, though, bustled from his workbook full of figures, to the computer, and back again.

“Nothing in Brownson’s notes said we could end up in a zeppelin.”

Jake closed his hand on the cup.  Gripped hard to stop the shaking.  “Not any zeppelin. The Hindenburg.”  He shut his eyes for a second, but he could see the mooring mast looming in front of him, beams and struts reflecting a hard, blazing light.  In his vision, the woman, her cane still carefully tucked over her arm, tumbled out the window after her husband.

Martin ran his finger down a line of notes, turned the page, kept reading.  “A hundred to four hundred years in the past, Brownson said.  Location variable.  But the math kept us on the ground I thought.  Of course, the damn math never made any sense in the first place.  Equations never balanced equally.  Nothing reduced perfectly.  Nothing was absolute.”    

Jake shivered as he pushed away from the chair, glad for the coffee’s heat.  From their lab’s single window, he could see the tar paper and gravel roof running to a low, brick border.  Beyond that, a few clouds rested on the horizon.  Their lab perched on the roof of the industrial park’s highest building.  If he opened the door and walked to the edge, a handful of equally nondescript structures with equally bland roofs would lay out before him, like a bleak checker board.  They were far from Brownson’s destroyed lab and whoever bombed it.  He remembered the last time they’d seen Brownson, his only hand protectively over the top of the device, the place for the sleeve for his other arm sewn shut at the shoulder.  No sleeve dangled.  “Don’t want it catching in the equipment,” he’d said.  Brownson, now, was gone, in explosion and fire, like the passengers on The Hindenburg.

“Those people are all dead.”

Martin looked up from the notebook.  “You’re being sentimental.  They’ve been dead for two-hundred and fifty years.  Their children are dead too, and their children.  But if you’re talking about the people on the Hindenburg we saw, that’s not true.  Only thirty-three died because of the crash.  Sixty-two lived.”

The flames had come down so fast.  “Only thirty-three?”  Jake’s mouth was dry.  Every swallow hurt.

After a moment, Martin, his voice distracted and preoccupied, said, “Yes, and two dogs.  The rest got out when the ship was low enough.  Didn’t your computer tell you all this?”

“I turned it off.”

Jake could still feel the radiant heat.  The people screaming, all of them at once.  The floor slipping away toward the ship’s tail.  Glassware tumbling from the tables, and chairs falling toward the back wall.  He had kept pressing the panic switch.  How long would the device take to snatch them back?  What if it wouldn’t?

“I behaved badly,” said Jake.  “I . . .”  His gaze roamed the room.  Electronic equipment piled on the work table.  Security video displayed on four monitors.  No one would plant a bomb in their lab!  The table, the monitors, the lab on a building’s roof were so far away from the collapsing ship, from old people jumping from windows.  “I didn’t help anyone.”

Martin turned the computer off.  He shut the notebook.  “Jake, those people were dead before we got there.  They’d been dead for a quarter of a millennium.  You couldn’t help them.  You couldn’t harm them.  You couldn’t change their fate.”  He sat on the table’s edge and smiled.  “I know it’s a shock.  I’m still quivering myself.”  He held his hand out, but if it was trembling, Jake couldn’t see it.  “We traveled in time, Jake, and we returned.  All that nonsense about causality loops and killing your grandfather so you won’t be born, and a dead butterfly changing human history, it’s wrong.  Brownson’s fears were wrong.  We can travel in time.  Think about how wonderful you felt when you realized what we’d done.”

Surprisingly, the coffee tasted good.  Jake took another sip.  “That’s true.  When we arrived.  Yes, it was great.”  He brightened.  “We’ve made history.”

Martin laughed.  “That’s the spirit.”  He checked the clock on the wall.  “It’s early, still.  You know what we need to do, don’t you?”

Jake sat up, put the coffee cup on the table, straightened his shoulders, ran a quick diagnostic on his implanted computer.  “Yes, I do.”

“That’s right,” said Martin.  “We have to go again.”

He pressed the button that activated their synchronized devices.

“See, we’re on the ground,” said Martin.

They stood on a narrow brick-paved road between a line of two-story shops, neatly-swept concrete stairways leading to their doors, arched stone lintels over the windows.  The signs were in French.  Tobacco and Supplies.  Fresh bread every morning at 10:00.  Overhead, low, dark clouds greyed the sky, but the sun on the horizon, cut under them, casting shadows on the buildings across the street. 

A newspaper hung inside the bakery’s window.  “Les Colonies, ‘Voice of the French Peoples Everywhere,’” said Jake.  His computer said, There are 785 unique matches to newspapers entitled Les Colonies.  Then it pinged off.  Jake needed more information for it to give him a useful analysis.  He wiped a thin layer of dust from the glass, then read from the top story.  “It says the governor and his wife are in town and not to worry.”  He struggled with the translation.  “The commission, it says, declares that the crisis is past.  It doesn’t say what the crisis is.  Lots of news about an upcoming election.”

“So, where and when in the French speaking countries are we?”  Martin walked part way down the street, peering into the windows.  “Everything seems closed.”

Jake scanned the rest of the paper he could see.  “Religious holiday.  Ascension day.  Early morning services at Notre-Dame de l’ Assomption.”  The computer chirped to define Ascension Day.

Martin looked back at him, eyebrows raised.

“Catholic holy day in May.  Everyone goes to mass. No date on the paper, though.  No city name.”

Ladies’ hats rested on red velvet stands at the next shop.  Martin sniffed.  “Do you smell that?  It’s the ocean.”

Jake joined Martin walking up the street which curved slowly to the left.  Their shoes kicked up puffs of dust, and when Jake turned, he saw their footprints buffed the bricks clean as if they had just missed a momentary snow storm, but the air was warm.  A pile of wooden baskets were turned upside down beside one shop door, shreds of lettuce clinging to the slats.

“Ah, there you go,” said Martin.  A gap between two buildings revealed a bay to their left only a couple blocks away.  A handful of single and double-masted boats, their sails furled, rested quietly on the smooth water, where sea gulls perched on the docks’ pilings or skimmed the surface between the ships.

Appearing from around the street’s curve, a family walked toward them.  The man wore a jacket with wide lapels, and he carried a walking stick.  Beside him, the woman held the front of her long dress up to keep the hem from trailing in the dust.  A pair of ten-year old boys walked primly behind them, both hugging a book to their chest.  When they passed, Jake offered a “Bonjour.”

The man stopped, tipped his hat, revealing dark hair slicked to his skull and parted in the middle.  “Bonjour.  You are scientists?” the man said in a French Jake barely understood.  Some kind of creole?  The woman stood beside him, and the children hid behind, but they peeked around her skirt.

“We are visitors,” Jake said, confused.  Why would the man call them scientists?  It would only be more startling if he’d called them time travelers.  “Yes, scientists, I suppose.  Why do you ask?”

“Your clothes, monsieur.  The fashion on the continent, I suppose.  We don’t get important visitors on the island often.”

“We are safe?” said the woman.  Her voice was surprisingly deep.  “There is noise at night, and the dust.  The children worry.”  She waved her hand at the air.

One of the children shook his head.  Jake put his hand to his mouth to hide a smile.

“Of course we’re safe,” said the man.  “The governor’s family, after all.  Would they be within a hundred miles of here if we were not?  Come, we will be late.  Au voir.”

The man set off at a brisk pace.  The woman gathered a child’s hand in each hand, and followed.

“What did you find out?” said Martin.  “Did you get a date?”

“No.  We’re on an island, though.  Not France.  And he said something about the continent.  A French colony then.  And they’re worried about something.  He thought we were scientists.”

Martin looked at the road.  “There’s no room for an automobile here.  No radio or television antennas.  Sailing ships in the harbor.  We could be in the 1800s.”  He laughed.  “It worked again, Jake.  We’ve slipped time’s surly bonds.”

Unease kept Jake from joining Martin’s joy.  The memory lingered too strongly of the growing roar, the flames reaching around the zeppelin’s side.  How could they have arrived then and there?  A change in the light caught Jake’s attention.  Where the sun cut a sharp shadow on the buildings now all was a uniform shade, as if dusk was falling.  Rolling like a slow ocean at storm, the clouds squirmed overhead.  The two-story buildings standing so close together under a ceiling of black clouds suddenly seemed imprisoning.  Jake ran ahead.  What hid on the other side?  Why were the clouds so strange?  He passed an old man in his Sunday best, walking with a heavy limp.  A young girl, leading a dog on leash, watched wide-eyed as Jake dashed by. 

“What are you doing?” yelled Martin. 

Jake reached a junction.  Across the street, a small park held cast-iron benches with brightly painted red seats.  In a small white gazebo, surrounded by yellow flower beds, a man in military uniform leaned on the railing, smoking a pipe.  He tipped his hat at Jake, but Jake’s attention was beyond the gazebo, up and up.  Martin joined him.  “We should stay together.  This is an unfamiliar time, and . . .”

Beyond the park, beyond and above the rows of houses that made the rest of the city, a mountain rose against the sky, pouring black clouds from its peak.  No gentle oozing of clouds either.  They catapulted from the shrouded mountain, ascended, caught in a high wind that didn’t reach the ground, and flattened over the town.

Jake strode across the street, into the park, his gaze trapped by the silent display.  The mountain was close, no more than five miles.  Houses in rows lapped against the sloping flank of it.  How quiet the town was.  None of the seabirds called out.  Water in the bay made no sound under the docks.  Only his muffled footfalls in the dusty grass.  His own breathing.

On the gazebo, the soldier watched Jake’s approach.

“Where are we?” Jake demanded.  He gripped the gazebo’s railing as if to vault himself beside the soldier, a teenager, by his unlined face, so new to his uniform that he looked uncomfortable in it.

“Martinique,” said the man with a rise in his voice, like he had asked a question.

Nervelessly, Jake’s hand fell away from the painted wood.  All the horizon held was the mountain and its billowing performance.  “What town is this?” he nearly whispered.  Martin walked to the gazebo’s side, staring at the volcano.          

Puzzled, the young man said, “It is St. Pierre.  My company is here to proctor the election.”

“Oh, no,” said Jake.  “We’ve done it again.”

Martin turned back to him.  “What?”

“I know the mountain.”

From somewhere in the town behind them, a church bell rang out, breaking the silence with its somber tolling.

The soldier laughed nervously.  “The Angelus bells.  I must be going, monsieur.”

“That’s Mount Pelee, isn’t it?” said Jake in English.  “C’est Mont Pelee?”  He grabbed the soldier’s arm as he went down the steps.  Under the heavy flannel uniform, the man’s arm felt slender.  He’s just a boy, thought Jake.

“Yes, Pelee.  I must go to the cathedral,” said the young man.  “I’m already late.”

Jake’s computer said, Mt. Pelee exploded in . . .  A thunderous clap of sound overwhelmed the rest of the message.

On the mountain, a cloud wall boiled down the slope, its folds and wrinkles glowing like veins on fire.  Trees vanished behind it.  Within seconds, the upper half of the prominence became all cloud, rolling down, swallowing land, obscuring what before had been clear.

Martin said, “Should we be worried about that?  What is it?”

The soldier wrenched free from Jake’s grasp, glanced over his shoulder at the mountain, then ran down the street, away from the engulfing cloud.  In its squeaky voice, the computer recited a litany of facts.

Jake didn’t move.  Didn’t even twitch.  His thoughts slowed down and felt cold to him.  Emotionless.  “Pyroclastic flow.”  Another explosion ripped the hidden mountain top.

Martin took a step back.  “Will it reach us?”

“In about two minutes.”  Near the peak, the smoke radiated an incandescent orange, and a series of smaller detonations like cannon fire rattled the park.  Jake’s insides had emptied.  Had the family with the two little boys reached the church yet?  If they were lucky, they had time for a short prayer.  The computer talked to him.  Twenty-nine thousand people would die in the next few minutes: the governor and his wife, in town to calm the population, the scientists who pronounced the volcano safe, the farmers who had fled fields where crops had died in the weeks of ash fall, the people who’d abandoned villages close to the mountain for the safety of St. Pierre, all of them would be gone.  Only a prisoner in a basement cell would survive.  Rescuers would find him days later, horribly burned, crying weakly from beneath the jail’s rubble.  “Geologists call it nuee ardente, the glowing cloud.  Super-heated air and volcanic ash traveling a hundred miles an hour.  Strong enough to knock down buildings.  So hot that breathing it boils the lungs.”

“How did we get here?” shouted Martin above the growing roar.  Furious, he glared at the cloud that reached the town’s edge, hiding homes and shops and factories.  “This is not random at all!”  He touched the button inside his shirt, vanished.    

Jake could feel the fear around him.  If he turned, citizens would be on the street, drawn by the noise.  The cathedral would empty.  Hymn books in hand, they’d be waiting.  Children, grandparents, craftsmen, soldiers, wives.  Trash in the street beyond the park stirred.  Now, all was dark. As if it contained a thousand freight trains rumbling headlong down their doomed tracks, the mountain bellowed.

Before the heat.  Before the flesh-stripping wind.  Jake pressed the button within his shirt.

Without taking his hand off the monitor input, Jake flicked from one image to the next, grainy black and white photographs of buildings without roofs, all the windows gone, bricks scattered in the street, and everywhere, bodies burned black.  “They had plenty of warning, you know,” he said.  “The mountain had been misbehaving for weeks.  People had already died.  There were mud avalanches and a tidal wave and ash falls, but they didn’t leave.  How can you keep your children with you when there are . . . signs . . . portents?”  He sighed and turned off the monitor.  “When there are evil omens in the sky?”

“Damn it, Jake.  What’s important here is the impossibility of us showing up at two disasters.  History is mostly boring, repetitious, day after day existence where people go about their ordinary lives.  Historic events are rare.  How could we possibly be present for two of them in a row?”

“I don’t know what the science is, here.  Brownson’s math looks more like chants and incantations to me than physics anyway.  We built a machine that we don’t understand.  I wonder if Brownson even knew.  If only we could ask him.”

Martin swore and slapped his notebook closed.  “The one-armed bastard.  Maybe if he hadn’t been so cryptic with us, we’d have a better chance of figuring it out.”  He paced around the lab, head down.  “We’ve been time travelers for all of what, ten minutes total?  Both times we’ve been scared.  We’re not thinking straight.”  He paused, looked at Jake.  “We need rationality.  We were never in danger.  We could come back to the lab anytime.”  He paced again, circling their work table, passing behind Jake at the monitor.  “Here’s the problem: we only have two points on the graph.  We can’t reach a conclusion without more information.  I say we try again.”

The blank screen looked back at Jake, but he could still picture the old images from centuries past.  He’d never thought of the people who’d lived before as people, really.  Those lives were abstractions.  Nothing to do with him.  But he could see them now, the living, beating, desperately intense faces from the past, trying to avoid their fates, staring down the rushing pyroclastic cloud burning toward them at a hundred miles an hour, or on the Hindenburg, waiting for the ground to come close enough so they could jump, not knowing if the raging hydrogen and diesel-fueled fire would reach them first.

“I don’t want to visit the dead anymore,” he said.

Martin put his hands on the back of Jake’s chair.  He could see Martin’s reflection in the monitor overlaying the ghost images of a destroyed town.  “I told you already, they were dead before we started.  We’re dead, Jake, to someone in our future, but you’re thinking about it all wrong.  They’re alive too.  Everything they’ve ever done is still being done.  Nothing is in the past now.  It’s all redoable.  Replayable.”

He checked the equipment strapped across his chest under his shirt.  “We have to go again, and we need to do it now.  I can’t tell from Brownson’s figures why it’s working.  So much of his calculations are about the paradoxes, and they’re a waste.  ‘Solve the paradox!’ he said.  ‘Solve the paradox!’  There’s no paradox.  We’ve traveled, but we can’t guarantee we can keep doing it.  Maybe the Earth has to be in the right place in its orbit.  Maybe the atmospheric conditions have to be just perfect.  If we don’t go now, we might not be able to go again.”

For a moment, Jake didn’t stir.  It was like the weight of Mount Pelee coming toward him and nothing mattered.  He pushed away from the monitor and faced Martin.  Finally, he nodded.  Martin was right, he was dead any way he figured it.

At first Jake thought he’d gone blind until he saw the nearly full moon through thin clouds.  A cold wind pushed against his face.  He took a step, kicked something yielding, and a sleepy voice said, “Watch it, goll darn ya’.  Can’t a soldier get a decent sleep anywhere on this boat?” 

Standing still, Jake listened until his eyes adapted to the pale light.  Water sloshed heavily to both sides.  A substantial pounding vibrated the floor beneath his feet, and before the first faint lights grew visible on the shore a couple hundred yards away, he’d already decided they were on a steamboat near the bow.  He turned his back to the wind.  Moonlight revealed twin grey smokestacks belching smoke and sparks above a pilot’s cabin, and dark forms that covered the deck like a lumpy landscape.  He looked down.  The man he’d kicked had rolled onto his side, pulling a thin blanket over him.  The bundles were men sleeping on nearly every inch of exposed surface.  Walking without stepping on someone would be hard.

“When and where are we?” said Martin.

“Someplace that’s going to sink soon, or catch fire, or be attacked.” Jake said.

Martin grunted.  “I should have brought a coat.”

“Go back and get one.”  On the shore, ghostly trees touched their branches to the water.  A lone cabin, a dim light flickering in its window, peeked out from the woods.  On the boat’s other side, the river reflected the moon like a long, undulating silver plate until it vanished in a low fog that hovered just off the surface.  The air smelled cool, wet and muddy.

“Big river.  Steamboat.  English spoken here.  The Mississippi.”  Martin strode over a silent shape, careful not to step on it.  Jake followed.  Gingerly they moved toward the shore-side railing.  Men sat up there, some leaning their heads on the shoulders of others.  Some talked among themselves. 

“He’s dead, the bastards,” said one.  No one replied.  “A coward’s shot, I tell ‘ya.  A yella’ deed, it was.”

Jake took a place at the rail.  Below, the river flowed past slowly.  The ship’s headway was gradual.  The cabin on shore crept astern.

“You’ll feel better when we hit Cairo and head home,” said another voice.

“Vicksburg, Memphis, Cairo, Evansville.  What’s it matter?  Dead is dead.”

Farther down the boat, the paddle wheel churned, digging into the water with quick, ponderous movement.

“You didn’t even vote for him.”

“I would’ve.”

Dampness on the rail chilled Jake’s arms.  The only warmth was Martin standing beside him, blocking the wind.

“Who is dead?” said Martin.

A log with one crooked branch sticking out like a bony, broken bone drifted by only thirty feet away.  At the end opposite the branch, a pair of birds, their beaks tucked under wing, huddled side by side.

“The president, ya’ cracker.  Ain’t ya’ talked to anyone?  Some southern dog of an actor they say done it.”

Jake leaned back, but the men were swathed in shadow.  He couldn’t see who spoke. 

“Lincoln?” said Martin.  “Are you talking about the assassination of Lincoln?”

Someone snorted in disbelief.  “Twarn’t Jefferson Davis.”

Jake’s computer squeaked to life.  Before he muted the citation, it said,  Abraham Lincoln died on April 14, 1865.  John Wilkes Booth fired on the president during a performance . . ..

“How long ago?” said Jake.  He couldn’t remember much about the Civil War beyond the obvious.  If Lincoln was already dead, then the war was over.  Antietem and Gettysburg and Chancellorsville were in the past.  Certainly nothing to fear, like the destruction of the Hindenburg or Mt. Pelee erupting.  The shooting had ended.

“Don’t know what today is,” said the voice.  “Ten days, maybe.  Two weeks.”

Jake activated a search for the dates with attention on disasters.  A second later, the computer said, At approximately 2:00 a.m., April 27, 1865, the massively overloaded steamboat, Sultana, exploded.  At the time it carried approximately 2,100 repatriated Yankee soldiers, most from the Andersonville prison camp.   Between 1,700 and 1,900 men died.  The voice carried on.  Facts, figures.

 Jake swallowed hard.  “This is the Sultana, isn’t it?”


“Would you know what time it is?”

“Don’t know that neither.”

Jake whispered to Martin.  “The boat is going to blow up.”

Martin’s head dropped to his arms.  “That doesn’t make sense.  The figures . . . the math . . . random times, Brownson said.”

Closer to the pilot’s cabin, another man slouched on the rail.  Jake’s gaze lingered on him.  The moon’s light burnished him like a bleached shadow.  Was this also a soldier who would never make it home?  His posture seemed familiar and out of place.

“We should leave, Jake.  An explosion won’t give us time to escape.  I need to get to the lab and redo the calculations.  I’ve missed something.”

Jake straightened, moved toward the pilot house.  A rift in the cloud cover brightened the light for a moment, showing the man’s shirt sewed shut at the shoulder.  No arm.  Jake thought, these are Civil War veterans; many of them have lost a limb.  As he looked at the landscape of sleeping men, he saw a half dozen crutches resting across blankets.  Still, Jake’s neck tingled.  No empty sleeve dangled from the one-armed man.  It was gone, sewn up, as if there had never been an arm for that space.

Martin sounded panicked.  “I’m going.” 

Jake’s back grew cold.  Wind brushed against him, and the air felt empty.  Without looking, Jake knew that Martin had gone.  He approached the man at the rail, stepping over outstretched legs, until he stood next to him. 

“You were fools to come.  It’s not worth it,” said Brownson.  The old man stared into the water, the side of his face a chalky reflection of moon and river air.  “How much time did you give yourself?”

“I don’t know, but it can’t be long.”  Jake imagined the boilers deep in the ship’s bowels, leaking steam, overpressured, fighting the current and the crowded deck, maybe seconds from ripping at the seams.  He put his hand next to Brownson’s, and behind his eyes he felt a sudden pressure.  His voice caught in his throat.  “Your lab . . . they’ve bombed it.  You can’t go back.”

“They?”  Brownson sounded tired.  His voice was flat.

“Yes.  Someone.  Maybe another government.  They might have found out what we were doing and became scared.  Maybe they thought you could solve the paradox.  But there was a bomb.  You sent us away that day, or we would have gone up too.”

“So, how did you get here?  How did you arrange it?”  said Brownson.

Jake could feel his brow wrinkling.  “What do you mean?  Your machine, of course.  Your design worked.  There’s no paradox.”

Brownson turned to face him.  Moon shadows under his eyes made him look a hundred years old.  “I didn’t solve the paradox--I worked around it, and so did you, or you wouldn’t be here.”

No answer worked.  What did he mean?  “We just activated the device.  We didn’t solve anything.”

Closing his eyes, the old man sighed as if he never wanted to breathe again.  “The information paradox stops time travel, as I argued.  Information that would change people’s actions can’t go forward or back.  The time line is immutable.”

If it wasn’t for the beating of the paddle wheel and the soaking Mississippi breeze, Jake could almost feel back home in the lab.  This was the direction of a hundred arguments.  It was where the math piled up, making no sense.  “But we’re here.”

“Yes, we are, and we can go anywhere the information we carry doesn’t matter.  We go to time’s dead ends, like this sad ship.”

Jake’s thinking felt sluggish.  So much had happened in the last hour.  Too much to comprehend.  “I don’t understand.”

How close were the boilers to letting go?  Jake’s hand crept up to the panic button under his shirt.

Brownson said, “We can’t bring information from the future to the past, but we can’t bring it forward either.  Not if we could tell other people what we found.  I planted the bomb.”

Overhead, the moon vanished within the clouds, and darkness covered the steamboat.  Brownson’s voice came out of the black.  “It was sealed.  Undefusable.  When I set it, when I couldn’t get away, I made the first trip.  I’ve proven that you can travel in time, but no one will ever know.”

“How much time?”  Jake’s hand caressed the switch.

“How much time did you give yourself?”

“We didn’t do anything.”

“You didn’t?  Then it must be something else.  Something unexpected.”  Brownson faced away from the river, looking over the sleeping forms.  The two soldiers who’d Jake had talked to earlier were still conversing.  “Lincoln’s dead, the cowards.  Lincoln’s dead,” spoke one, his voice without feeling.  Brownson said, “You poor boy.  These men didn’t do anything either, but their stories are over.  The unexpected is on its way for them, the inevitable, as it is for me, here or in my lab or somewhere else.”  He paused for a raspy breath.  “Just as it is for you.  Your lab won’t be there long.”

Before he could hear another word, before the boilers could let loose to fling hundreds of men into the frigid Mississippi, before the bitter soldier talking in the cloud-veiled night could say again that Lincoln was dead, Jake pressed the button and disappeared.

Martin sat at the worktable, his hands wrapped around the back of his head, his forehead pressed against the scarred work surface.  He didn’t look at Jake when he appeared in the room, but he talked anyway.  Perhaps he’d been talking the whole time.  “Our destinations weren’t random.  The physics of the paradox tossed us where we couldn’t matter.”

“I know.”

“The math says that Pelee is here, right here in the room with us, and so is the Sultana and the Hindenburg and everything else.  The end is on its way.”  He began weeping.

“What did you say about Brownson’s math?” said Jake.      

“Tornado.  Earthquake.  Meteor strike.  Nuclear bomb.  Fire.  Flood.  Famine . . . quick famine.  It’s on the way.  That’s how the equations balance.”

Jake ripped open his shirt.  Double checked the equipment.  Power was good.  “You told me something about the math once, about the equations.”  He looked out the window.  Was the sky turning dark?  Was there a rumble in the building’s basement.  The unexpected was surely on its way.  “Brownson told us that information couldn’t travel in time.  That’s the paradox at work, but you said the math never solved perfectly.  The numbers were always a little unbalanced.”

“I don’t get you,” said Martin.  “The numbers don’t matter now.”

“Only thirty-three people died on the Hindenburg.  One man survived Mount Pelee.  Five hundred or so lived through the Sultana.”  Jake spoke fast.  What had happened began to make sense, if he had enough time.  If he could get to where he needed to go before the time ran out.  “If information is prevented from traveling backwards and forwards perfectly, if the equations add up perfectly, then we should only have been able to travel where there were no survivors.  There could be no chance for escape, but if I get to the right place I might have a chance.”

He pressed the button and found himself on a steel deck, slick with ice.  The ship’s name, Halifax, was printed across a lifeboat.

He pressed the button.  Martin flinched when he reappeared.

Jake pressed again.  Another mountain rose up before him.  Its top too was smoke-covered. 

He pressed the button.  Martin said, “Where are you going?”

The button gave way.  A cityscape.  People streamed by, many on bicycles.  Street signs were in Japanese.  Without looking, he knew a lone bomber flew over the city.

“Tell me where and when,” shouted Martin.

Jake paused, ready to go again.  How much time did he have?  None to be wasted, for sure, but the numbers didn’t lie.  Their imperfections held all the hope he needed.  Maybe most of information could not go from the future to the past.  All he could believe was that in the fractions that didn’t add up, he could slip away.

“The Hindenburg,” he said.  “If I wait long enough.  If I jump from the widow not so high that I’ll die, not so low that the ship will crush me, then I’ll survive.  Sixty-two people lived.  I can be the uncounted sixty-third.”

There’s no point in not trying, he thought, and he pressed the button.

This story originally appeared in All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories.

James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."