STORY NUMBER: 38
PROMPT PROVIDER: @mrmoth
It was a normal Tuesday that changed everything. Matt had spent the morning and early afternoon wandering the grey and drizzly streets of central London, killing time and shooting the breeze with Lisa. She had a photography project on the go which involved shooting pictures all around London. He hadn’t fully grasped the concept, but he was happy to traipse around for the cause. Their route hadn’t made any sense or been planned: they weren’t beholden to any course in particular, so they’d just walked and let London’s muddled geography pull them in whichever way it would.
They were on a quiet backstreet when the hooded man approached them. He shuffled up, seemingly from nowhere, with a conspiratorial hunch, and an awkward gait. His clothes were tatty and his body thin. He looked stressed; a skeletal figure wrapped in an oversized black hoodie that concealed his face, but did nothing to disguise the state of disrepair his body was in.
“Go back to the main road, I’ll meet you there”, Matt said quickly to Lisa. If the hooded figure was going to trouble anyone, it might as well be him alone.
The figure thumped into Matt, delivering something between a gut-punch and a hug. “You need to take this”, he implored, his voice reedy and desperate. “I can’t stay.”
Matt reeled, expecting to be winded, but wasn’t. The mugger’s embrace wasn’t threatening. It was almost… tender? He wasn’t thinking straight.
“I’m sorry for doing this. You need to take it. You don’t want to, but you have to. Your life… I… Look, you just need to take this. I’m sorry. I know you hate me. Get it done.”
With that strange diatribe, the figure released his grip and ambled away. Matt looked down. In his unwitting hands he held a brown paper envelope. It seemed curiously antiquated. He turned to yell a rebuke to the hooded figure, and was met with a now-distant face staring back: gaunt and troubled and uncannily familiar. He couldn’t place it at first, but when their eyes met properly, the adrenaline coursing through his system abated, and a curious calm descended. It was like seeing the solution to a puzzle that hadn’t been posed yet. He stood, gaping at nothing. The figure was gone.
The rest of the afternoon passed in a fit of rage and confusion. He struggled to process what had happened and processed all-too-well what would happen next. He felt trapped in his own skin, furious at himself.
The envelope, when he had opened it, had contained a number of sheets of paper, detailing a baffling array of mathematical designs. He didn’t truly understand them – not yet – but their purpose was clear. It was the plan to a time machine. He wouldn’t have believed it had he not already convinced himself.
Because, unquestionably, the man in the hoodie had been him. He knew that now. A him from some indeterminate future, who had travelled back to bestow the secret of time travel to his younger self, and in one fell swoop, ruined Matt’s life. All of his lives. His whole existence. Forever.
Lisa hadn’t seen anything, and so hadn’t understood. Thus, Matt sat in a bar that evening and drank alone. He didn’t know that he’d have many chances to do that again, now that he didn’t have a future. He went over it in his head again and again, and always he came to the same conclusion.
All of his plans; everything he’d ever wanted to achieve; all that he’d ever wanted to do with his life: it had all been taken from him. He had the plans to a time machine, and he was going to have to dedicate his life to building it. All so that he could one day travel back to give them to his younger self.
It didn’t matter how much he didn’t want to do that – how much the idea of years of scientific endeavour and technical toil bored and terrified him in equal measure – because he was already destined to do it. Had already done it, in fact, or he’d never have had the plans in front of him in the first place. He knew he couldn’t walk away, because if he could – or had – none of this would be happening. No. It was set in stone. Locked in. A nightmare imprinted on the fabric of the universe. By his own hand.
He’d ensnared himself in a causal loop and rendered his life inert; the world’s most powerless being; a man devoid of choice.
Matt had often suspected he was a fuck-up, but now he had empirical proof of it. He cursed himself for having cursed himself. He knew he was doomed to follow a path that he didn’t want to follow; to lead a life of someone else’s choosing. His own choosing, somehow, and yet simultaneously the last thing he’d ever choose. He’d led himself down this endless, cyclical road, with nobody to blame but himself. It takes a special kind of idiot to fuck one’s own life up for eternity, he thought.
It barely made any sense. Thinking about how the loop got started hurt his head, so he tried not to. Perhaps after slaving away for years on the machine, and after handing over the envelope… perhaps then he’d be free? He didn’t know where his hooded-self has disappeared to. Maybe then he could live his life the way he wanted? Maybe one day.
It was a horizon so distant he couldn’t even see it.
For now, he was an ouroboros. His entire potential reduced to an MC Escher drawing. Imprisoned in a life where his choices didn’t matter because they were unequivocally destined to lead to the same results. A life where nothing he did was of consequence, because he knew everything was predetermined for him. He felt hopeless, and wondered if he were the only one.
“Hey, where are you going?”
The bartender broke him from his musing. He’d gotten up to walk away without even thinking about it. He hadn’t paid yet. The bartender stepped out from behind the bar, face like thunder. “I said: where do you think you’re going?”
“I’m going to build a time machine”, he said, without emotion, and set off down his narrow path.
PROMPT: You are handed the plans for a time machine by your older self.