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08 April 2013 @ 01:14 pm
LJ Idol Exhibit A: "Chasing Eden"  
Chasing Eden
real lj idol | week 11 | 1808 words
What goes around, comes around


The first time Ilaria Martel touched the past, the skies of the present were so black it was nearly impossible to see. "Please," her husband Michael said. "Do it for me. A few more years of this, and I won't be able to breathe." Ilaria thought about the labored sounds of Michael's lungs straining in the night, sounds that would someday yield to the terrible and bottomless depths of silence.

She got in the car and drove straight to the lab.

It took just minutes to configure the ChronoTransport. She'd memorized the dates long ago, back when she'd first started thinking about taking such a dangerous risk. This time, the journey would not be the hours or days or even weeks her colleagues had tried before. Ilaria would jump farther than a century, and hope the technology was strong enough to bring her back.

She set the delay, and stepped into the unit's chamber. Seconds later, there was a bright flash followed by a burst of shapes and color as she oriented herself to her new surroundings.

It was office, with a very important piece of paper lurking in the piles on top of the desk.

She sifted carefully through the documents, looking, looking, and then found it: an environmental report on carbon pollution, with recommended guidelines for emissions limits. Using her UltraPen-Plus, she scanned in the document's font and programmed a modification to a single digit. The pen did an erase-and-replace, and then she was done. The new limits on carbon emissions were five-percent lower than before. The future would be a much cleaner place.

Ilaria had to wait a few minutes for the jumpback—she hoped no one would come in before she was gone. Then with a jitter and a distant sense of ache, she finally felt herself being transported out and away.

The lab looked a little different when she returned. It was more cluttered, and the equipment was shabbier. But something should have changed, she thought—wasn't that the whole point of her journey? She rushed out of the building then, eager to get home.

She stopped when she saw the street. There were so many people, so much activity—it was like stepping into a bee hive. Shouldn't there be more cars? she wondered. And different cars at that? She saw a lot of bicycles, a few cycle-taxis, and smaller vehicles with what looked like solar-panel roofs.

Those solar vehicles gave her hope. It must have worked!

None of the buildings across the street were familiar. Ilaria walked over to the next block to get her car out of the parking garage, but there was no garage anymore. She might not even have a car now, and she probably wouldn't recognize it if she did

Oh God, what if there was no Michael anymore?

She checked her pockets for her VoiceLink—Yes, still there—and pulled it out. Different design, but similar enough. She brought up the saved listings and selected 'Home.'

"Hi, honey," Michael said.

Oh, thank God!

"Is everything all right?" he asked.

"Of course." Then something else occurred to her. "I know this sounds funny, but what's our address?"

"Are you sure you're all right?"

"Yes, it's just… it's very crowded down here. You know. It's hard to think."

She rode home in one of the cycle-taxis, with the press and push of other traffic narrowing the way. The buildings were so tall that the glimpses of now-blue sky seemed to come from impossibly far away. The driver stopped in front of something sterile and gray and woefully functional-looking. Ilaria got out and paid her fare, glad to discover that at least her currency was still good.

Their apartment was on the seventeenth floor. She walked down a murky hallway studded with dozens of doors until she found her own. Michael answered the bell—He looks good, so much better—and quickly closed the door as soon as she was inside.

"How did it go?" he asked. "Did you finish what you went in for?"

'Yes." She smiled at the sudden blissful feeling rising up inside her. "Yes, I did."

As the day wore on, she tried to get used to their incredibly tiny apartment. They didn't have a lot of stuff anymore, but there were still plenty of things to trip over and run into. Sounds from nearby apartments bled through the walls, an irregular murmur punctuated by crashes and shouts. Ilaria felt like a rat trapped in a cage, but at least Michael was healthy now and the world was so much cleaner. It wasn't until the next morning that she remembered that Michael no longer worked.

Having shifted the future, her previous past was still much clearer than the new one she'd inherited. Bits and pieces of her new history surfaced like things forgotten. She now knew that cleaner environmental habits had also made everyone resource-happy, not just in highly developed countries but throughout the world. Civilization had used up nearly everything it had—not the same resources as before, but just as recklessly. Ilaria also knew that the planet suffered from intense overpopulation now, and that anything of value was reused and reclaimed until it finally fell apart.

The new world was loud and frantic and packed in too tightly, and this version of Michael had only gone outside four times in the last three years. His anxieties kept him a prisoner in his own home.

Ilaria went to work each day along with what seemed like half the city, and bumped elbows in the lab with people she'd never seen before. The constant activity made it hard to concentrate, and everyone was so irritable. But her cramped apartment was even worse. Michael waited all day for her to come home, and then bombarded her with all the thoughts he'd been holding in since she left. She understood how hard that isolation was for him, but his emotional neediness was suffocating. Sometimes she just hid in the bathroom with the door locked, hoping he wouldn't notice how long she was gone.

She lasted just over a week before the noise and crowding completely wore her down. She was miserable, Michael was miserable, and everyone else seemed even unhappier than before. Late one night, after Michael went to sleep, she snuck out of the apartment and went back to the lab.

This time, she wrote herself a note with her address on it and put it in her pocket. Then she programmed the ChronoTransport again and got inside, hoping to God that this version of the technology was reliable enough to jump her out and bring her back.

The bright flash was a little dimmer, but she arrived at the right office all the same. She locked the door this time, found the emissions recommendation report again, and got out her UltraPen-Plus. This one didn't work as well—she erased the original number and substituted a value higher than the one she'd used last time, but a faint ghost of the original number remained. She stared at the paper for a few seconds, but there was no way to make the change cleaner. She finally put it back in its place in the pile, and waited. A few minutes later, the ChronoTransport took hold and pulled her back.

The lab looked a little better cared-for this time. That was promising. Ilaria checked the note in her wallet, and a new address was there, evoking barely-formed images of a place she didn’t quite remember.

The streets outside seemed less crowded than before, but it was still night and hard to be certain. The bicycles and cycle-taxis and strange cars were still there. Ilaria was fuzzy on how she'd gotten to the lab in the current version of the present, so she opted for safety and rode home in a cycle-taxi again.

Her apartment building had fewer floors now, and the apartments were farther apart. She breathed a sigh of relief. She took the elevator up to the fourteenth floor and entered her apartment quietly. Michael was still asleep as she slipped into bed beside him. Maybe now her travels could finally end.

Ilaria woke up to a sunny day that clearly proved her work had chased some or even most of the pollution away. Michael still looked good, and the city was big and clean and bustling. It was amazing. She couldn't have hoped for better.

She made her way into work an hour later. There were a few new colleagues, and a few from her original time were missing. She realized then just how big a risk she'd taken in assuming her own job—even the lab itself—would exist in the future for her to return to. The thought haunted her all day.

There seemed to be more people than in Ilaria's original time, but far fewer than after she'd first tinkered with the past. Now that she wasn't completely overwhelmed by all the extra people, Ilaria noticed details she'd missed before. This new world was much more physical—not just in the use of bicycles and cycle-taxis, but in all the jobs and tasks being done manually that had been automated before. Everyone was busy, from the man sweeping the street with a broom to the woman mopping the bathroom floor. The balance between humans and machines was more finely crafted than she'd ever thought possible. Who would have guessed?

She hummed to herself as she walked home—only two miles, two miles was nothing—and even bought flowers from one of the street vendors along the way. It wasn't until she entered her apartment that she realized what else this new world had brought.

Michael was sitting on a chair by the window, looking utterly exhausted. Had she really forgotten how few exceptions there were now for 'able-bodied' people to avoid jobs requiring strenuous work?

Michael had never had much energy or stamina, in this world or any of the others along the way. They'd originally thought it was the pollution taxing his lungs, and then his emotional state in the overcrowded world of Ilaria's first revision. In this current incarnation, doctors had never found a cause for Michael's condition, though they'd hinted at it being nothing more than laziness and weak character. The likelihood of three decades of "laziness" hadn't changed their opinions over time. Even now, Michael was still classified as fully able to work.

Ilaria crossed the room and hugged him gently, her fingers stroking along the tired lines of his face. "Shall I make you some tea?" she asked, when the words she meant were, I'm sorry.

There would never be a utopia for Michael, and never one for Ilaria herself.

This new version of the world was simply closer for everyone else.

That would have to be enough.

Notes: I went for a less obvious interpretation of the prompt here, one involving actions that lead to much later results. This one stresses the irony (or tragedy) of trying to change a specific outcome via time-travel, and finding that some aspect of the original problem persists no matter what you do.

If you liked this story, you can vote for it along with other fine entries here.

audreybuttercupaudreybuttercup on April 9th, 2013 01:32 am (UTC)
I really like this. It's that old adage of "greener pastures" you know?
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 9th, 2013 01:39 am (UTC)
Yes-- the thought that something different will be better. Here, "different" always leads to some abstracted version of the same place.

Were the three "nows" clear enough? That was one of the biggest challenges in writing this!
eeyore_grrl on April 9th, 2013 02:11 am (UTC)
I think the power to tweak the past/future would never create a utopia; too many options that most, if not all, people would never find "perfect."
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 9th, 2013 02:36 am (UTC)
Yes-- one person's idea of "wonderful" might not be someone else's.

If you add in unexpected futures resulting from your tweaking, the risk is even worse.
(Deleted comment)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 9th, 2013 06:30 am (UTC)
Someone will always lose, and someone will always win.

That's the part that no one thinks about for very long. As hard as it is to admit, one person's "need" is another's "must not happen." You might be able to get close or closer, but it's impossible to get all the way there.
cindytsuki_no_bara on April 9th, 2013 04:13 am (UTC)
this is actually kind of sad! but also this is the lesson of time travel - you try to fix one thing, and screw something else up instead. i like the different outcomes of ilaria trying to change the present, especially that trying for a cleaner future instead leads to a much more crowded one, and that ultimately there's no way to get rid of whatever's wrong with her husband.

(her first trip back in time reminded me of the domesday book, by connie willis, in which the history department of an oxford college in the near future uses time travel for research, and the students going back in time have to be very, very careful how they integrate into history, so as not to change anything.)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 9th, 2013 06:38 am (UTC)
It is sad-- so much desperation, and then that glimmer of hope that turns out to be nothing but a mirage.

students going back in time have to be very, very careful how they integrate into history, so as not to change anything
That's the usual caution-- observe, but don't affect. There are so many tropes I like in time-travel, and that's one of them. The "you can't change the future because you ARE the future" is another, and of course this one-- "You can't control how change affects the future."

So many possibilities!
tatdatcmtatdatcm on April 9th, 2013 04:18 am (UTC)
Reminds me of the adage, "be careful what you wish for, it might come true". Well done.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 9th, 2013 07:42 pm (UTC)
That's a good description of it-- because what you thought you wanted always seems to have unconsidered aspects that will haunt you later.

Thanks for reading!
lriG rorriMlrig_rorrim on April 9th, 2013 08:33 am (UTC)
I have a soft spot for time travel stories, and this one really worked for me. I like how she was motivated by personal interests, that global concerns came second in her consideration. Aiming for specific changes with a sweeping world shift is tricky. Well done!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 9th, 2013 07:44 pm (UTC)
Aiming for specific changes with a sweeping world shift is tricky.
Yes-- and even though she thinks these changes will benefit the world as a whole, the problem she's trying to solve is more personal. And it's the personal level that turns out to be impossible to fix!

I haven't written time-travel before, and really wanted to try that out this week. I have a love for this genre, in general. :)
theun4givablestheun4givables on April 9th, 2013 11:52 am (UTC)
I love that no version of the present was perfect for Michael -- or even Ilaria, when you came right down to it. While the planet itself may be in a better state of health, that doesn't mean everything else would be magically fixed. It's quite impressive how the most tehcnologically advanced now is also the same one where the Earth suffered the most. Interesting take on the time-travel stuff. :)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 9th, 2013 07:49 pm (UTC)
or even Ilaria, when you came right down to it.
Exactly! So long as Michael is miserable, she'll never truly be happy herself.

It's quite impressive how the most tehcnologically advanced now is also the same one where the Earth suffered the most.
I'm glad you noticed that. The pollution comes as a side-effect of relentlessly pursuing whatever you want, including science. But in putting the brakes on a little, you hem in the "how" and eventually a little of the "what." It seems counterintuitive, but not implausible!
Myrnamyrna_bird on April 9th, 2013 04:05 pm (UTC)
I have just started watching old episodes of Doctor Who on Netflix so having a new appreciation for time travel themes!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 9th, 2013 09:51 pm (UTC)
People are telling me that I should try the new Dr. Who, and given that I like time travel very much, they may be right. :)

Thanks for reading!
zephyrlyzephyrly on April 9th, 2013 04:16 pm (UTC)
I know I've said it to just about every LJI contestant at this point, but you need to start reading Philip K. Dick. Everybody needs to start reading Philip K. Dick.

Maybe it's a good thing that I keep saying it, though. He's one of my favourite writers, and the fact that so many entries have reminded me of his stories is great. Reality-bending! I love reality-bending stories!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 10th, 2013 12:59 am (UTC)
Anything you would recommend as a starting point for reading Philip K. Dick? I could put it on my "to read" list.

I think I gave him a try years ago, but it didn't take, for whatever reason. Hope it wasn't his prose style, because that problem tends not to go away for me!

I love reality-bending as a concept, and there are so many ways to use it. Honestly, my favorite Ursula K. LeGuin book is "The Lathe Of Heaven," which a lot of people dismiss. But it goes right up that alley. :)
zephyrlyzephyrly on April 10th, 2013 01:51 am (UTC)
Like everybody in the world has told me that I need to read that book, but for whatever reason, I never have.

There's a lot of directions to go with PKD. My personal favourite is Ubik. If you liked Blade Runner, then Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a good place to start, although it's more about the ethical treatment of intelligent robots than reality-bending. The Man in the High Castle (my least favourite of his books) is good if you like alternative history (it's about a timeline where the Axis won WWII). Due to the movie, A Scanner Darkly is probably his best known book. And Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said is just totally wtf with the whole reality-bending thing.

If you like religion, VALIS and The Divine Invasion are great, but I wouldn't start off with those. PKD had some kind of crazy religious experience toward the end of his life, and I had originally read those two for teh lulz. (He did do an awful lot of drugs in his lifetime, after all.) I came away from those two books profoundly shaken. I mean, he spent his life questioning the fabric of reality, and then he had some experience that actually showed him the fabric of reality. Supposedly, I guess. (Personally, I don't know what happened to him exactly, but I do believe it was something. Aside from LSD flashbacks and epilepsy.)
Janet Snakehole: [hp] weasley is our kingapplespicy on April 9th, 2013 10:00 pm (UTC)
Lovely, lovely, lovely. I have basically loved everything you've written for the competition, and this story doesn't disappoint.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 9th, 2013 10:21 pm (UTC)
Wow, that's wonderful to hear. I had no idea!

I'm not sure what made me want to do a time-travel story this week, but I was all set to grab the "Paraphernalia and Memorabilia" prompt until Gary changed up the game.

That would have been a completely different story! The prompt drove this one in its own direction, with the circling back to try to get a better outcome that still unfolds in a way the narrator can't anticipate.

I've enjoyed your stories throughout as well. Lots of creativity!
B Manimpoetry on April 10th, 2013 05:25 am (UTC)
This is so haunting and beautiful. Very calculating. I can't tell you how much I love it. Ok, I'm trying. :)

Love the responsibility of time travel being so paramount. We can't ever just produce perfection I guess. I obviously feel a deep connection to Michael.

I will say, if I had one gripe, your constant product placement for UltraPen-Plus was kind of off putting.

The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 10th, 2013 06:39 am (UTC)
I'm so glad you liked it!

Michael's part in this is so sad, because for him it isn't even a question of perfection, just the hope of not having to struggle every single day. He sure isn't alone.

your constant product placement for UltraPen-Plus was kind of off putting.
Hahahaha! I probably should have stuck with "UltraPen," but got distracted in trying to finish the story.

UltraPen-Plus: Now you too can falsify documents on the go!
Seantalon on April 10th, 2013 08:32 pm (UTC)
Time travel/many-worlds! \o/

Weirdly, I feel like my recent intake of time-travel stories is fairly high — I just saw Looper on a plane trip to China and played through Bioshock: Infinite, which touches on some of these themes.

This was definitely an interesting way to take the prompt, and the transitions were very clear. I wanted to see more, though I also know that there's so much to explore that it may be hard to fit it in one entry.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 10th, 2013 08:58 pm (UTC)
I was hoping you'd like this one. :D

And yes, you're right about how much you can fit in a single story. I think this is my longest story for this entire round, at 1800 words. I only wrote a few that were 1500+ in Season 8, too.

I really enjoyed 'Looper', which got more interesting as it got more complicated. The way it ended both made sense and saddened me-- the entire, wonderful experience of being married to the woman who saved him was erased, just like that.
whipchickwhipchick on April 11th, 2013 02:27 pm (UTC)
Really interesting, and very sad. I got the three "nows". The human-powered future reminded me a lot of India - a person sweeping is cheaper than a vacuum cleaner.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 11th, 2013 04:59 pm (UTC)
Is it cheaper because of the cost of the vacuum cleaner, or because of the cost of the electricity?

Here, the leaning was toward having less unnecessary use of fuel/energy. Some of our labor-saving devices are very valuable! Others... not so much bang for the buck.

Nice to see you back. You must be a little less buried now!
alycewilson: timealycewilson on April 11th, 2013 09:51 pm (UTC)
Good job with writing a time-travel story. I wouldn't want to tamper with the past, because you never know what one small change will produce.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 11th, 2013 10:10 pm (UTC)
I've always thought that too-- people should be much more afraid of "fixing" things that way than they actually are.

Thanks for reading!