The first in our series of this year’s short stories, inspired by science and written by science communication students at Imperial College.
“I love time travel, in particular the way it really hurts your brain when you try and get your head around it. I wanted to create a story with temporal twists and turns, where the reader would have to do some work in piecing together an initial sequence of seemingly unrelated events. That’s all I’ll say – I don’t want to spoil the puzzle. “
24th May 2046. 10am. Gödel Spacetime Research Laboratory, Vienna, Austria.
A boy goes to see his parents at their research lab.
There is an explosion.
Their bodies are never recovered.
New Year’s Eve 2099. Saint Nikolaus Church, Rosenheim, Germany.
A boy in blackened clothes stands outside a church, baffled.
He stares at the sky.
An old lady throws her arms around him.
17th April 1955. Princeton Hospital, New Jersey, USA.
A dying old man puts a letter in an envelope.
He gives it to his grandson.
14th March 2030. Landeskrankenhaus Hospital, Salzberg, Austria.
Twins are born.
24th May 2046. 10am. Rosenheim, Germany,
A man knocks on the door of a house.
He has been waiting to do so for a long time.
A girl answers.
“Hello. Are you Magda?”
“I have a letter for you”
He extends an envelope to her.
She takes it.
It looks old.
She turns it over.
“It’s from my great-great-grandfather.”
“He wrote it, and gave it to his grandson, my grandfather. Just before my grandfather died thirty years ago he gave it to me.”
“Then how can it be for me?”
“Is your twin brother currently in Vienna with your parents?”
He looks deeply saddened.
“Then it is for you”
She looks at the envelope and back at him.
His eyes are familiar.
He bids her farewell and leaves.
She goes inside and opens the letter.
17th April 1955
I don’t know where to start.
Both in that I have so much to tell you, and that I do not know where the beginning lies. My life will end before it began. This will not be an easy letter to read, my darling sister.
If this has arrived to you at the time I instructed, then you have not yet learnt the news of the explosion at the lab. For you it occurred some five minutes ago. For me, as I write this, it was over half a century ago. I still remember it as vividly as if it were yesterday. There was no warning, no alarm, no chance to exchange glances or words of goodbye. Just a noise so loud that I felt it came from within me, shattering every cell of my body as it penetrated out through my flesh. My head rang like a thousand church bells. Amidst flames I caught sight of mother and father holding each other at the far side of the room. I opened my mouth to call out but my words were consumed by a deafening silence and a blinding flash of light. The next thing I knew I was facedown in a gutter in Aurau, Switzerland, in 1894.
Of course, at that moment, I did not know where or when I was. I had no idea. In ruined clothes and deafened by the blast, I frantically shouted at passers by for help. I spent a night sobbing on a bench. When I awoke a young girl was looking over me. “Odd shoes” she said. Marie. Sweet Marie. She took me home to her father, Jost Winteler’s house. I am forever indebted to them and their kindness. They bathed and fed me, saw to my burns and gave me a clean bed to sleep in. They did not ask me many questions, or at least they did not insist that I answer them. They commented on my funny dialect; the German of the 1890’s is very different to that of a century and a half later. I told them I had a speech impediment as a child.
After a few weeks or so I began doing bits of paperwork for Jost, who was a professor at the local school. With my health and mental state improving, I realised I needed to tell him and Marie what had happened. Not the truth of course – for they would never accept it – but a believable story that would leave me in as helpless a situation as I found myself.
And so I made one up. Aside from my birthday that I kept the same – more for sanity’s sake than anything – I entirely invented the first 16 years of my life. I could have told them that I had a twin sister named Magda, and that my parents ran a physics research lab in Vienna, or that I grew up in Rosenheim, or that I had two dogs called Curiosity and Rover. But I was scared of my past, my past that lay in the future. So I discarded the truth and laid down a lie. I was born not in Salzburg but in Ulm. I went to school not in Rosenheim but in Munich. Our parents, Hanke and Priska became Hermanne and Pauline. You, my dear sister, my only sibling, Madga, became Maja. And you were all killed in a fire in Pavia, Italy, in December 1894.
As time went on the details grew in number and strength like the roots of a tree.
And I began a new life in Aurau.
For one year I attended the school where Jost was a professor and then left for a polytechnic in Zurich. There I met Mileva. Our first child was born in 1902, a girl. When Mileva told me she wanted to call her Lieserl my heart dropped to my stomach. I knew the name. I had read it somewhere. Somewhere familiar. Suddenly my head was awash with dates and times, people and places. How had I not thought of this before? I was not named after a famous scientist. I was he.
I hoped that I was somehow mistaken; that I and the famous scientist were leading uncannily similar but nonetheless separate lives. When Lieserl contracted scarlet fever I knew she would die, and when she died I knew who I was.
In 2046 she would have been cured with a single pill. I mourned both her life and my past, the future-world that I had lost.
I could go on and recount to you the story of the rest my life. But you must now realise, as I did then, that you could just read it in a book or on the Internet. Being a physics student from the 2040’s, I of course excelled in physics and mathematics in the 1900’s. I could have excelled in any subject, but I was not to. I already knew my fate, because I had seen it in the future.
This is the thing that I struggle with the most. The path of my life lay ahead of me like a concrete motorway, vast and unrelenting. But whose life was I living? Had I stolen it from someone else? I thought up the mass-energy equation because I had studied it in school in the future and so knew that it was to be my invention. But whose insight was it actually? It can’t have been mine because I stole it from another person, from another me. Who or where that other me is I will never comprehend.
I have felt my entire life like a fraud and a thief, haunted by exhaustingly unanswerable questions. When I was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921, all I wanted was to tell the world that I carried a physics textbook from the future in my head.
Maybe I could have escaped the concrete motorway, steered my life off its predestined course. But I worried about what that would mean for the future of the world in which you and I were born. For the same reason I did not choose for this letter to be delivered such that the explosion might have been prevented. I did not, however, want you to discover the news and mourn me, for I did not die. My life went on, even if it never felt like my own.
But there is more to this letter than the bearing of bad news and the story of my life.
I have a message for you.
After the explosion and the deafening silence and the blinding flash of light, I found myself for only a few seconds on the doorstep of the church in Rosenheim where we played as children. I looked up. The sky was alight with a thousand fireworks. An old lady appeared at the gate, exhausted. She ran up, flung her arms around me and whispered in my ear.
“Tauber Bridge. 2nd August. 2059. Sunset. Thank you”
With her kiss still warm on my cheek I was gone.
For many years I struggled to understand this event. Who this woman was, how she knew I’d be there, what the message meant. For a long time I assumed that the message was for me and was convinced I was going to spontaneously time-travel straight to Tauber Bridge in 2059. But how would the old lady know that, and why would she thank me?
And then I realised. The message was for you. And the message came from you. You were the old lady at the church and you gave me the message so that I could give it to you in this letter. I have no idea what awaits you in Tauber in 2059, I am the messenger of a secret between you and yourself. I hope it is worth the wait.
My life is now at an end and I will never see you again, but I take comfort in the knowledge that you will briefly embrace a young me when you are old. I’d remind you not to forget to go to the church, although I already know that you won’t.
We are the paradox twins. I was born on the same day as you and yet I will die before you are born.
I have missed you more than you know, and will love you in every time.
2nd August 2059. Tauber Bridge, Germany.
A man and a woman in blackened clothes hold each other on a bridge at sunset, baffled.
Their daughter Magda Einstein runs, teary-eyed and open-armed, towards them.
Isobel Lawrence is currently studying for an MSc in Science Media Production at Imperial College.