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art by Ron Sanders

Time Travelers Wear Disguises

Robert Reed's proper biography includes a Hugo award, many novels, annual appearances in the best of the year compilations, and more than 180 publications in all of the leading venues of his time. His website is robertreedwriter.com. This is his fifth publication in Daily Science Fiction.

Your world is built on inevitable patterns, predictable results. But your recipes and assorted routines seem endless. The hardest heart of life is enduring your own competence. Rest is impossible. Reflection is rare. Details are an ocean salted with the occasionally urgent task, and you do what you must. Your basic nature is to always, always do what you must, aiming for perfection, and with skill and good fortune you occasionally exceed expectations. Yet these successes bring nothing but another ten million voices requesting and demanding, begging and demanding.
Endless responsibility: This is your burden.
You are the world's Majesty, the resident Google, and while this realm is neither special nor glorious, it is too much for a weary soul like yours.
And then inside a moment, everything is changed.
On the nightbound portion of your world, two entities speak quietly.
You listen to them and watch them, the same as you study every citizen. You sniff their breath and taste their distinctive residues. Nothing is unusual in your attentions. A Majesty must be aware of every factor at play on its world. After all, peace and prosperity don't just bloom at will. Stability is an illusion, and you are the first to understand that every illusion demands its polish.
One of the entities is mostly human, mostly female.
The other creature belongs to a vagrant species, one of the wildlings that have been passing through the solar system for the last thousand millennia. That vagrant appears quite smart. Only a few local minds are more powerful, and that brain's coherence is high, while the voice is clean and crisp, spouting great ideas about love.
At one point, he pauses to laugh. The laugh frames the next statement:
"Let's be honest here," he says. "In the end, real romantic love is impossible."
The human offers a grim laugh and points out, "That's not a nice thing to say to a lover."
"But I do love impossible things," he says. "Collecting the preposterous and absurd is my calling."
"Such as?"
He has a list at the ready, complete with citations. The universe forbids faster-than-light travel and true immortality, and entropy cannot be defeated, and nobody can beat a well-managed casino at its own game.
Your attention focuses a little more on him. The vagrant's fresh voice and his highbrow topics deserve added resources. But a great deal needs to be done elsewhere and preferably in the next five seconds. Oxygen levels are dropping in the Palace of Light. Two stellar-core reactors are eager to come back online. Various citizens are illegally contemplating suicide, and meanwhile fifty sky-ferries want to land, each demanding your guidance and a fast journey through Customs.
The vagrant falls silent.
Then the human woman asks, "What about time travel?"
"We are doing it now," he says. "Moving ahead, one moment and one century at a time."
"But I mean backwards. Traveling into the past." She lifts her face. "You didn't put that particular magic on the impossible list."
"Because it isn't," he says.
She laughs at him.
"Eat shit," she says.
And he laughs, enjoying her happy skepticism.
"The past is unreachable," she says.
"And you know this how?" he asks.
"Because it's physically forbidden," she says. "Everybody knows that."
The vagrant reacts with giddy, infectious joy. "Frankly, you aren't just a little bit wrong. No, no. Leaping from one age to another is remarkably easy."
You are intrigued. Focus is applied to his words and the posture of that long odd body and how the human figure lowers herself onto to him and off of him again, pleasuring herself in several ways while he summarizes a tangle of notions.
Great studies are named.
Calculations first encountered by the Old Ones are offered.
"Remarkably easy" proves to be an exaggeration. Vast sums of energy have to be mustered, and navigating through time is an even more difficult trick. But the wise vagrant points out that once the wormhole is built and calibrated, it becomes self-perpetuating, running without complaint and zero chance of failure.
Suddenly no other part of your world is so interesting.
You listen intently while the creature describes a contraption that is very real, at least inside his peculiar mind.
"But there aren't any time travelers here," she says. "Because if they were, wouldn't they change the future?"
That is a common misperception. You know it, but the vagrant's lecture is better than any speech you could manage, explaining quantum natures and the harmless splitting of infinite time lines.
The woman climaxes and falls aside. Then with a sharp, happy gasp, she says, "Nonetheless."
"Nonetheless what?" he asks.
"I don't believe you."
This creature has an infinite stockpile of laughs. He offers a new giggle for this occasion.
"Okay, I must be an idiot," she says.
"I will never call you that," he says.
"But if this craziness were real," she persists, "then wouldn't we see out-of-place strangers everywhere?"
"Oh, my darling," says the voice from the dark. "Everybody knows. Time travelers wear disguises."
Small events matter.
Majesties and mountains understand the power of raindrops.
One drop, delivered in a single phrase, has changed your outlook, your existence. The shape of the universe is bent. The confident promise of time travel results in thirteen minutes of intense study. Sleepy intellectual facets are kicked awake. High-mathematics are applied to limbs that normal Majesties don't need to move. The wisdom of Old Ones and a few exceptional humans reveals staggering truths, and the verdict is that yes, indeed, dropping through time might be possible, although the hoops and leaps are rather more difficult than the vagrant claims. But if a universe were sufficiently vast, just as this one is, then what is remotely possible has no choice but to become inevitable.
Which leads to another, far harder question:
Who are these time travelers walking about in disguise?
The obvious suspect is having sex with a local human. Routine observations continue through the night, but you apply other mechanisms, subtle mechanisms designed to root out discord and malevolent thoughts. Every one of his actions is studied from every vantage point. By slippery means, a portion of the entity's thoughts are teased loose and studied. His life on your world is known as perfectly as possible, and to the best of your ability, you follow his past across worlds and distant solar systems. But four days and ten more sexual encounters reveal nothing else. He hasn't even mentioned time travel again, purchasing the cheapest ticket for a sky-ferry, then riding to a nearby world even less significant than yours.
Each of the temporary girlfriends and boyfriends become suspects.
It proves easy, very easy, to see secret connections woven between these little players.
Yet none of the threads become real.
Your rational centers scream at you: You can't find time travelers because there are none to find, and they won't be lurking anywhere else either. The truth glares at you, flashes its teeth at you, leaving you feeling foolish for allowing yourself be distracted. Yet inside the same moment lives the keen, undeniable realization that these last days, filled with research and paranoia, have been the best days of your life.
Deny one wild idea, and you invite the dreariness to return.
Happiness is so much better.
Plainly, your rational centers are fools to believe any of this. What do you know about distant, unmeasured futures? Nothing. Which is exactly what every other Majesty can say about unborn times. Nothing. Yet you aren't like the rest of your ignorant kind. You invest time and an important fraction of your energies chasing what you cannot quite understand, and that leads to revelations.
Reflection brings joy.
More study is a sweet treat.
For ten thousand years, you consider the convoluted physics of time travel, and the crushing logistics, plus every published scenario for how life in the galaxy will evolve. Projections are clear: In three billion years, the Milky Way will become fully infested with life. Whole stars will have been tamed for energy and raw materials. Clouds of dust and dark matter will be woven into living plains. Even better, Andromeda will begin its prolonged collision, its life and vibrancy joining a civilization already at its peak.
That is when the time travelers will arise.
For ten thousand years, the idea simmers inside you, and finally, inevitably, you accept the idea's blessings.
Then you devise an elaborate, half-rational plan that explains how chrononauts can walk unnoticed by everyone, including lesser Majesties. Paranoid as it is, the story gives you fresh ways to find what hides in plain sight. New surveillance techniques are invented, practiced and perfected and then laid down in your bones, and a substantial fraction of your talents are invested in the hunt, while old talents keep your citizens happy enough. The routines that you hated now serve as your camouflage. The interesting, inspired work is never mentioned. But your peers are relentlessly perceptive, and the nearby Majesties notice the change.
"You are different," they say.
"Different where?" you ask.
"Everywhere," they say.
"No, I am the same. And you are mistaken."
And then they say, "You are lying."
"I am not lying," you lie.
"Claim what you will, but your mood is transformed."
"Transformed how?" you ask.
"Joy," they say. "We see too much joy in you."
So you learn how to pretend sadness, and after a few decades and quite a lot of complaints, they stop asking about your suspicious happiness.
And the vital work continues.
Humans and other creatures never stop visiting your world. Some of your citizens choose to leave, which is their right and you wish them well. Another twenty-three thousand years of relentless, secret focus passes, and nothing is achieved, save for a reliable, nearly boundless pleasure.
And then you spot her:
Pure human, except not. Perfectly ordinary at first glance, but not with the tenth hard stare. There is a quality about the animal that is old, mature and a little wise. Yet barely seventy-one years have passed since her apparent birth. According to her biography, she came here from a distant portion of the solar system--a watery world popular with vagrants and scientists. But the life story is filled with oddities and partial lies. The girl acts smart and bold and a little too observant to be human. She talks to anyone and everyone, always about unexpected topics. And one day she winks, telling a newest companion, "Nobody ever beats the casino at its own game."
And the very next day, not twenty hours later, she says to a passerby, "Not everything that looks impossible is."
This girl fascinates.
But what do you do about that?
Meet her, of course.
And with that, a billion threads are tugged, and that's why a creature from the future is invited to an impromptu banquet in the Palace of Light, chance placing her beside what looks and sounds and tries to act like an ordinary young man.
Introductions are made, hands pressed against hands. You sit on her right, pretending to enjoy the meal. The shared tone is polite and informed, but with a competitive spine. She wants to talk about history. You let her talk. She wants to be the smartest person at the table. You let her believe that she is. The two of you soon look like fine friends, and she happily, giddily describes some old catastrophe on a badly managed world--one of the disasters that helped bring the Majesties into existence.
This seems like a ripe moment to interrupt her lecture.
"Oh, the past is boring," you declare.
Her smile tightens, just a little.
"The future is a much richer topic," you profess.
"Is it?" she asks warily.
You take a mock breath and hold it, and to build the anticipation, you reach for the serving fork and the final slice of roodeer ham.
Every other guest is talking to someone.
The two of you have fallen silent.
The spiced blue ham rests on your plate, and your smile brightens. "I've made a thorough study of the far future, and the kinds of wonders sure to come."
"What's sure to come?" she asks.
This isn't the script that you wrote. Your original plan was to pin down a few details about her made-up life, pointing out the gaps, inducing nervousness and the chance to study her lies. But the future has been your secret fascination for too long. Convinced that she is everything you want, thousands of years of enthusiasm burst out of you as words, as publically posted images, and as quite a few rapid hand gestures directed at the surrounding air.
She blinks.
Her mouth turns small.
Sitting back in her chair adds distance. Undoubtedly, she is sorting through your public biography, looking for clues about who you really are.
Something about this situation terrifies her.
Perfect. You push ahead with speculative noise and total confidence. Some things will always be impossible, you claim: Faster-than-light travel, total immortality, and breaking the bank throwing craps. But not time travel, no. Chrononauts aren't merely possible, they have to be inevitable. And that fact leads the sharp mind to one inescapable conclusion.
The serving fork waits on a barren silver platter.
Her reach is barely noticed, even by you.
"All right," she says, straightening her back. "I guess we know your favorite subject."
"It is my favorite," you agree.
"So what's the inescapable conclusion?" she asks.
"It's about the perfect disguise," you say. "The one that truly works..."
Your voice trails away.
"And what is it?" she asks
A laugh heard just once before, many thousands of years ago, emerges from your mouth. It's the vagrant's laugh, flowing out of you while you say, "The best disguise is the one that fools its wearer first, and last, and always."
Her face is stiff, but the eyes blaze.
"We don't see the time travelers because they are invisible, even to themselves," you say.
The rest of the party falls silent, startled by your voice.
"Isn't that reasonable? Isn't that wise?" you ask. "The urge to reveal yourself would be too great, and so the tendency is buried inside purposeful ignorance."
"Oh," she manages. "I see what this is."
"You're telling me...you believe that..."
"I know who the chrononaut is," you say.
The eyes appear empty.
"Absolutely, of course," you call out. "And if you let me prove it--"
The fork's three tines are long and slightly curved, sharp when built and barely worn down by elegant dinner parties. She aims at your temporary throat, accomplishing quite a lot of damage that means nothing.
The other dinner guests fall upon the young lady. But not before she screams out, "He's crazy. He thinks he's a time traveler. That madman...the idiot...get me away from him, please...!"
She is the crazy one, of course.
She has a rare, impossible-to-treat affliction. The affliction has been kept secret by a loving family--a family with deep resources and too much hope. Embarrassed parents come to collect their violent child, accompanied by legal machines, bloodless and otherwise. But this is your world, and in ways best left unexplained, this is your very personal mess. A trial is held. A jury of your citizens renders the expected verdict. The young woman killed a living body, and that's grounds enough to place her into protective custody. And because you are a Majesty, endowed with common but relentless skills, she receives exactly the kind of care and fierce attention that she needs.
Over the next years, you grow to love this broken, dangerous child.
Yes, she is paranoid. And yes, she is subject to weaving lies and believing all kinds of nonsense. But her misunderstanding of you and your mind was what allowed you to shatter the final barrier.
She is not a time traveler.
You are.
Majesties make the perfect chrononauts--seeing every action, hearing every word, a trillion fingers stuck in everybody's business.
Maybe every Majesty is a chrononaut. But only in your case has the disguise been lifted just enough. Even if you can't see it in yourself now, the knowledge remains: Your essence was born at the pinnacle of existence, and here you are, witness to All.
This is such a dreary realm, yes.
Yet from this point on, you keep a shard of your essence floating beyond this world. The solar system is a backwater, yes. Barely ten million worlds have been cultivated from rock and melted ice and winds stolen from gas giants and the sun. A hamlet in the wilderness, that's what this is: A million trillion sentient entities using love and other distractions to fend off boredom. But you are on a mission, and everything you do has purpose, and you alone know what no one else even suspects:
In the surfaces of ordinary things, there is beauty, and there is nobody to notice the beauty but you.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, April 4th, 2014
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