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.
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