‘There Are No Echoes’, Davian Aw

Illustrations © 2017 Miranda Jean



 [ Iteration Variation Repetition, © 2017 Miranda Jean ] He does not know where the hands come from: if they are real or merely dream, for he cannot tell if he’s awake or lost in sleep from his exhaustion. But there’s something about the man that evokes a feeling of going home, and his voice recalls someone he heard a long, long time ago.

“I knew you’d come,” KJ whispers. He cannot remember how. His mind is halfway delirious; he has the sudden urge to cry. He clutches to the warmth of the stranger’s chest and does not protest when he lifts him up.

Rain hits his face as they leave the stony shelter of Torin Arch. The night is almost gone. Brick buildings underline the predawn sky. They turn into an empty alley overgrown with weeds.

“Axell!” the stranger hollers. He kicks the air; there’s a thud. “Axell! Open up!”

Soft notes chime above the rain. A vehicle materialises before them: white, sleek, double-decker, the name Déjà Vu emblazoned in electric blue on the door that finally slides open, spilling warm light onto KJ and the stranger and framing a silhouette in the doorway.

“Sorry,” the silhouette says, stepping back to let them through. “Radio was on.”

The door slides shut and mutes the storm.

“Get me blankets,” Kenneth says. “He’s freezing.” He lays the shivering boy against the wall and keys up the temperature controls. Warmth blossoms from the air vents.

Axell pulls blankets from a shelf and tosses them over. “What’s next?”

“Back to Earth. We close the loop.”

“It’s been so long since I’ve seen that face,” Axell muses. “You want to get him up to a bed?”

“Yeah, that’ll be great. Kill grav.”

“Yessir.” Axell hops into the pilot’s seat up front and straps themself in, fingers flying deftly over the controls. Engines roar to life. “We’ll go forward a few hours. Temporal displacement in 3… 2… 1…”

Electricity flares in blinding tendrils across the viewports as the ship hurtles out of time, screaming through a timeless void until they erupt, with a bang, into the soundless dark of space.

The dismal alley is gone from the cockpit windows. The planet Demitar curves below them in a panorama of grey-green glory.

KJ slips off the floor, trailing blankets from his body. Kenneth reaches out to catch him. His hand grasps KJ’s wrist—the boy’s hand so small against his—and he spares a moment to wonder at the impossibility of this moment: past and future meeting and touching in the air against a backdrop of their homeworld rising before the sun.

“Magnificent, isn’t it?” Axell asks, floating out of the pilot’s seat and nodding at the view.

Kenneth nudges KJ towards the ladder. “Only from a distance.”


The weightlessness hits KJ with surprise.

He did not expect to get to space this soon. His visions of escape from the orphanage involved first exploring the streets of Demitar, getting into scrapes and building character before stowing away on some cargo ship headed for the stars. That was how it went in the stories. That was how it went in his mind each time he saw the white hot glow of ships burning through the atmosphere, laden with supplies from Earth or one of the other colonies, and wished desperately for the day when one of them would come for him.

The upper deck of the ship is half the size of the lower one. There are two bunk beds in opposite walls above nailed-down desks and freely-hovering chairs, a closet curving from a bunk to the open hatchway.

Kenneth floats KJ through and onto a bed. “Get some rest, all right?” he says softly, strapping the boy in. “I’ll explain everything when you get up.”

KJ is too tired to articulate a reply.

Space, he thinks, as Kenneth makes his quiet exit. He’s had so many dreams of visiting other planets, each so wondrously exciting against the drab gloominess of Demitar that had drawn him out the carelessly unlocked door and onto the streets in desperate hope. He’d read fairy tales set in the fertile green lands of Arethusa, devoured adventurers’ reports of the jewelled cliffs of Rodabram, gazed in longing at travel brochures of scenic resorts on Petlari, and looked through screens in appropriated nostalgia at the abandoned skyscrapers of Earth—long given over to beautiful ruin when their occupants set sail for the heavens.

One day, he had determined, many times over, one day when I grow up, I’m going to see all those places.


Axell is admiring the view when Kenneth gets back down.

“Off to Earth,” Kenneth says. “9th June 2261, 9 a.m. You know the address.”

“There’s no rush,” Axell murmurs, beginning a languid backstroke through the air. “We’ve got a time machine.”

Beyond the cockpit windows, Demitar and its problems lie in a peaceful green marble shrouded by night. Bittersweet nostalgia stirs Kenneth’s heart. Somewhere down there, his bed in the orphanage is exactly the way he left it years ago and hours ago. Drunken song still emerges each night from the miners at the pub across the road. The old woman is still alive and peddling factory rejects beneath the Zhulin Bridge. The sun-starved birds still flutter weakly about the Aviary, years before the animal rights activists demand their return to Earth.

“Do you ever still have second thoughts?” Axell asks. “About all this?”

“All the time,” Kenneth says. “But I don’t have a choice.”

“What’s the worst that could happen, KJ? We could fly off right now, drop the kid off at Arethusa. Maybe all this would just fade away, and you’ll wake up somewhere amazing and remember nothing. We don’t have to stick to the plan, ensuring you waste your life building a time machine just so you can do it all over again.”

“Yeah, or maybe the universe will explode and everyone will die.” Kenneth grimaces. “Please, Axie. Close the loop.”

Axell sighs, then tumbles into the pilot’s seat and preps for departure. “I guess we might as well see it through. All right. Jumping in 3… 2… 1…”

When the crackling brightness fades, Demitar is gone, swept away from them by the galaxy’s spin. Earth hangs ahead in the distance: a few hundred years in the future.

“Dropping spatial anchor,” Axell says. “Preparing for second jump—”

Sparks blind the windows once again and fall away to reveal Earth in the same spot of sky as they speed towards it.

“ETA two hours,” Axell reports, as gravity returns with their acceleration. “Welcome home, KJ.”


It feels like a script. It’s more of the same cursed script that has dominated and dictated his life, and surely it must be—is—impossible that the words he’s saying are identical to the ones he heard his future self say many years ago. His mind struggles to merge the fading memory of that man with who he presently is, and to recognise the young boy before him—who could be mistaken for his son—as the person he used to be.

“When you’ve completed the machine,” Kenneth says, “you’ve got to come back to this time, as me, and rescue yourself off the streets. You give him this notebook and tell him everything I just told you. Got it?”

KJ nods, eyes barely on the microwaved dinner he’s wolfing down in the ship’s dining booth. His stare traces the features of his future self’s face in their disconcerting mix of strangeness and familiarity. He can’t help but think it’s what his parents would have looked like.

“I know it’s a lot to take in,” Kenneth says. He smiles awkwardly at the boy, and feels a chill as their eyes lock. That was me, Kenneth thinks. That is me. He remembers being on the other side of that gaze, full of the youth and innocence now looking back at him. With the memory comes a profound loneliness—he had only ever been talking to himself.

KJ flips silently through the notebook. It’s filled with all the information he would need to give the ship its time travelling capabilities: formulas and equations and blueprints that he has no way yet to comprehend. He closes it. “Did you ever get to visit all those planets?” he asks.

Kenneth remembers that, too, and his heart sinks.

“No,” he admits. “Well, I got to grow up on Earth. And you will, too.” He grins, but the disappointment in the boy’s eyes condemns him across the years. “Look… building the time machine took a lot of time, and…”

“But that’s why I escaped,” KJ says. “I wanted to have adventures—”

“We got this ship,” Kenneth interjects. “You know, we’re one of the first people to ever travel through time. That’s more adventure than most folks will ever get.”

“But—”

“Hey.” Kenneth leans across the table, eye-to-eye with his past. “It’ll be all right, I promise. When you grow up, all those things… they won’t seem so important any more. You’ll find that life is full of its own small adventures, and you don’t need wild escapades on foreign planets to be happy. You do at least get to see Earth. It’s a beautiful place. You’ll spend years and years there, and… it’ll be enough.”

Doubt lingers on the boy’s face.

Kenneth gets up from his seat and wraps his younger self in a hug. It’s the first that either of them have had in a long, long time.

“You’ll be fine,” he says tightly, as though the force of his words could make it true. “We’ll be fine. I promise.”

He keeps his gaze on the wall so he doesn’t have to see the trust in the boy’s eyes. He remembers days as a youth looking up from his work to the open sky beyond, wishing so much and so many times to just drop everything and go. He remembers unpursued romances and friendships dead from neglect, and unchased dreams left to wither by the wayside. He remembers the notebook, always the notebook, and the failed runs, and the screams of frustration, and the time machine slowly but resentfully taking shape beneath his hands.

For he had made a promise to his future. He had a duty to his past.


So this is Earth.

KJ stands on the unfamiliar planet with nothing to his name save the clothes on his back, the watch on his wrist, and the notebook from the future in his hand. Trees rustle with birdsong in the warm morning air. He gazes up at the mansion before him. Tall white columns frame a door. He’s supposed to ring the doorbell at exactly thirty seconds past 9:27. His watch is synced and ready for the moment.

It’s a quiet neighbourhood. He smells the sea on the wind and turns towards it, seeing the stretch of distant blue past the bottom of the hills on which he’s standing, the valley below scattered with the ruins of long-abandoned houses bleached white by sun. A sole car cruises its way through the streets.

It’s 9:25. KJ walks up the gravel driveway, waits for the right time, and rings the doorbell.


“You were right, you know,” Kenneth says, standing in the doorway of Déjà Vu and watching his younger self wait by the house. He sees the door open. KJ goes in. The door shuts. The loop is complete. “I wasted my life. What happened to me, Axie?”

Axell tosses aside an incomplete daisy wreath. “I’m a pilot, not your pro bono therapist.”

Kenneth sinks to the floor. He wraps his arms around his knees, staring at his childhood home on the day he first arrived. It looks different from his memory; less like something from a dream.

Axell suddenly freezes. “KJ…” Dawning realisation spreads on their face. “It’s the notebook!

“What?”

Axell turns to him, their voice breathy with excitement. “The notebook you gave him was old. It couldn’t have been as old back when you first got it, because that’s impossible. That… that means things are different!” Axell’s eyes shine. “Look, it’s a different notebook, it was a different conversation… two timelines masquerading as the same one. A fake time loop.”

Kenneth stares at his sibling.

“That means we can change things, all of it!” Axell hops up. “We could go back… no, forward, forward and back to when that kid you just dropped off is grown up and in the past trying to rescue himself. We could get them to take the boy somewhere else, and let him find his own way, forget the notebook—”

“—No, wait. If he never builds the time machine, he never goes back in time to rescue himself in the first place. Everything starts over. We’d just create an actual time loop.”

“Okay, maybe, but would that really be worse than this?” Axell asks. “It’s taken your life, KJ. But a time loop—a good one, one you don’t notice—that’s immortality, isn’t it? The universe might end eventually, but you… you’ll never reach that point, your space in time preserved forever in an eternal loop. You’d always be alive. You won’t know it, so it won’t drive you crazy, but you’d always be alive.”

“What if there was a reason I built this machine?”

“What if it was because you spent your whole life on it and regretted it when you were eighty?” Axell asks. “All we know is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Hey, say we make a loop, all right? We get them to leave your younger self on an interesting planet, and he lives a normal life without the pressure to build a time machine. When the time comes when he would have gone back in time, he can’t. So the past gets no interfering time travellers, and everything reverts to how things originally were. At some point in that timeline we know you do manage to build a time machine, which is how all the time travelling started. So, eventually we’re right back where we are now. Except that this time there’ll be a version of your life within that loop in which you get to live. A life where… where anything can happen. Anything. Like how it was meant to be, you know?”

Kenneth nods, his eyes on the horizon. “That’ll be something, huh?” he murmurs. “Not remembering the future.”

Axell punches him on the shoulder. “Do you know how many existential crises you gave me while growing up? Knowing that no matter what happened, you’d finish that machine, and no matter what I tried I wouldn’t be able to change that. Like, what did that mean for free will if there’d be no way I’d be able to kill you?”

“What?”

Axell grins. “You’re lucky I never tested that theory. I thought we could do a magic show. Shoot at you blindfolded, miss every time. Would have been great.”

They fall into comfortable silence, sliding back into memories of childhood from years that are still yet to come. On the hill beyond the mansion they see the stone ruins of the cathedral where they used to play, their hideout and refuge from their parents’ watchful eyes. Their parents hated it when they played in ruins. It made it all the sweeter.

“I’ve got a secret to tell you,” Kenneth murmured one day as they lay beneath the broken roof, drowsy with sunlight. “I’m from the future.”

Axell rolled over, eyes wide. “Really?”

“Yeah. Don’t tell mum and dad, okay?”

Axell nodded, and gaped at the dense writings in the notebook Kenneth pulled out, unable yet, at six, to comprehend the weight of the destiny that it held. But Kenneth was no longer alone from then on, working on the machine in the cathedral as Axell played and kept a dilligent lookout, weathering the storms of Kenneth’s teenage years with its yells of impotent rage at an inescapable fate.

In calmer times, they hung out on the upper floor, lying among the mossy stone watching ants scrabble through the cracks. Kenneth never stopped working, even then, studiously making his way through scientific books and online courses, teaching himself to understand the terms and schematics in the blueprints.

“Sorry I can’t help,” Axell said, many years later, as Kenneth sat half-buried in a mess of machinery. “I’m not good at building stuff. But, hey, if you ever need a pilot, I’m all yours.”

Kenneth smiled. “Thanks, sis.”

Axell hesitated. “About that,” they said nervously. “I’ve… got a secret to tell you.”


The cathedral is just as they remember it. Adults, now, they pick their way back up the broken steps, up to the crumbled upper floor that would not see them again for years.

They sit down on the ledge where a wall used to be, legs dangling high against the stone, looking out upon scattered trees bronzed gold in the equatorial autumn.

“What would happen to you?” Kenneth asks. “If we change things.”

Axell shrugs. “I guess my birth won’t happen the same way if they never adopted you. But, I don’t know… maybe my soul or whatever would still be in there, and I’d just be someone else, like a weird sort of reincarnation. Souls gotta go somewhere, right? Or maybe I wouldn’t exist. But half the time I still will, and that’s the only one I’d notice. And it’s been a pretty awesome life, existential crises and all.”

“Free will,” Kenneth says. The universe suddenly seems to open up to him in all its terror and awe. “I never thought I had that.”

“This isn’t the past,” Axell says, still enthralled by the wonder of that discovery. “It’s the present. It’s always been the present. Every time, every loop, it’s always been us. Living for the first time, doing everything for the first time… not just echoes of ourselves following in the steps of our future, but the originals. Every version of us. Always unique. Always real. Always free.” Axell turns to KJ and grins. “It’s about time we started living like it.”


The figure hurrying down the road is indistinguishable from the man Axell just left on the ship. He turns at the sound of his name, blinking away the rain in surprise as Axell runs up to him.

“It’s not a loop!” Axell shouts. “We can change the future!”

KJ brushes wet hair from his eyes. “Ax? What—”

He breaks off, just as he sees that same glimmer of confusion in Axell’s eyes, and they turn their faces to the sky.

They both had felt a ripple in the world: a cascading sense of doom warping past, present and future and turning one into the other, history picking up quickly—too quickly—on the change of events. There’s no time, Axell realises in horror as reality wavers around them. There’s no time to get the boy to another planet, let alone to live his life in a timeline where he never builds a time machine, no time-

-and then the world settled into a past free of interfering time travellers, and KJ and Axell are—were—gone.

A man rushed out from a side street with science books piled high in his arms. He turned the corner and skidded to a stop, arrested by the sight of a young boy shivering in the shadow of the arch.

KJ barely noticed the stranger who bent down before him.

“Hey. Are you all right?”

The boy raised his face to the concerned eyes that met his. “Please…” he whispered, voice trembling with hunger and cold. “Could you help me?”


A light rain was skittering against the window when KJ awoke. He was lying on a couch, soupy sunlight puddling on his face, the room livened with the clink of silverware and the slow ticking of a grandfather clock.

“Did you sleep well?”

KJ rolled over. His rescuer was having breakfast on the other side of the room. “Yeah.”

“That’s good.” The man gestured at the modest breakfast tray. “Come have a bite to eat. You must be hungry.

“We didn’t get properly acquainted last night,” he added as KJ got up and hesitantly pulled up a chair. “I’m Seamus. What’s your name?”

“Kenneth,” KJ said. “Kenneth Jordan Tan. Most people call me KJ.”

“KJ it is, then,” Seamus said. He lapsed into silence, and when he spoke again, there was a strained quality to his voice. “I’ll be here for a physics conference till the end of the week. If you’ve got nowhere else you can go, I’d be happy to provide food and shelter; but I’m going back to Earth right after, so unless you want to come along…”

KJ’s eyes lit up.


“My parents died in the mines when I was a baby,” KJ said a few days later, when Seamus was less of a stranger and they stood by the ship’s viewport watching Demitar recede into the blackness of space. Fellow passengers sat around them, engaged in their own quiet conversations or contemplating the view. He looked up at Seamus. “Do you have a family?”

“I did,” Seamus said. A sad smile creased his face. “I lost them, too.”

“Oh.”

“It’s all right. It’s been a long time.”

“What happened to them?” KJ asked. “I mean, if you don’t mind talking about—”

“My… child fell. He was leaning against a railing, and it broke. My wife Esmé couldn’t forgive herself. She was the one who took him there, you see. Tommy loved exploring those old buildings as much as she did. He… he always wanted to be like her. He loved her.”

Seamus chuckled sadly. “And why wouldn’t he?” he asked, almost to himself. “She loved him.

“We got into a fight a few days after. Esmé took the gun and threatened to kill herself. She said she… deserved it for letting her child die, and that if God was really in control like I said, then she bet a small miracle wouldn’t be too hard.” He swallowed. “Some sign that she was forgiven, you know, and she wouldn’t shoot. She gave God about a minute—until 9:28 on our big clock. The minute ran out, and she shot herself.

“9th June 2261,” Seamus said. “I’ll never forget that day.”


The garden grass was cool with dew in the early dawn, the sky red with ominous beauty foreshadowing the storm to come. KJ was now fifteen, and Seamus officially his adoptive parent.

“What would you do if you had a time machine?”

KJ shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “Go back in time, I guess. Witness historical events… the usual stuff.” He yanked up another handful of weeds and chucked the uprooted mess onto the pile.

“Aren’t you afraid you might change history?” Seamus asked.

“That’s assuming history can be changed.”

“You think it can’t be?”

“If it can, it means that there’s the potential for all sorts of paradoxes to occur,” KJ said. “Some of them might be impossible to work out, and if something’s impossible, it means the potential for them to happen can’t exist either.”

“What kind of paradoxes?”

KJ paused in his weeding. “Well… there’s the usual grandfather paradox, where you’re a psychopath who goes back in time and shoots your biological grandfather before he conceives your parent, thus erasing yourself from existence and ensuring that you can’t go back in time in the first place.”

“There are many solutions to that,” Seamus said.

“Yeah, I know. There’s the Echo Theory, and time loops and alternate universes… but the grandfather paradox and all those related to it share the same concept: it involves changing history in such a way that it affects its ability to be changed. The grandfather paradox is easy to solve with the Echo Theory, because once you prevent your own birth, all that’s left could be an echo of yourself that still arrives in the past and kills him. Maybe the echo vanishes after that, or just hangs around in a world where you were never born.”

Seamus smiled. He was proud of the boy, watching him now, the teenager’s forehead creased in concentration as he talked time travel.

“But if there are no echoes, then you stop your birth, you’re never born, you never get to stop your birth, you get born, you stop your birth…”

“And you have a time loop,” Seamus said, bending the tips of two grass blades together to create a triangle with the ground.

KJ nodded. “Exactly.”

“Of course,” Seamus said, “it could instead be that circumstances make it impossible for you to prevent your birth. Perhaps the gun jams, or you have a crisis of conscience.”

KJ frowned. “But ascribing that kind of self-preservation effect to the timeline implies that… there’s some sort of intelligence behind the space-time continuum.”

Seamus raised an eyebrow. “Is that so hard to accept?”

KJ brushed it off. “It doesn’t really matter, anyway,” he said, resuming the weeding. “It’s all theoretical. I doubt that anyone would ever manage to make a time machine.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” Seamus said.

KJ wanted to ask what he meant, but then the first heavy drops of rain started to fall, and they had to clear the uprooted weeds and return indoors.


“You built a time machine,” KJ said.

“Yes.”

Five years after that morning storm found KJ standing open-mouthed in Seamus’ laboratory, an abandoned cathedral from whose stained glass windows glowed blurs of colour on the ground. Pew benches stacked with books and notes had been pushed against the walls, clearing a workspace, in the middle of which stood a broken mess of machinery.

“It was our life’s work,” Seamus said quietly. “I wish Esmé could have been there to see it completed. We used to dream of travelling through time together. As outlaws of history… partners in time.”

“Did it work? The machine?”

“It did,” Seamus said. His face crinkled into smile. “The first time, it took me half an hour into the past. It was magical… seeing the world again in a departed moment, walking through the garden at a time when I’d been indoors, and… seeing myself, as another person might. I saw him go back.

“And then, for the second trip, I decided to do an experiment. I told myself I would scratch a mark on that wall.” Seamus gestured. “If I saw that mark before I left, I wouldn’t go. It would mean that history allows you to change things that prevent it from being changed—that you could prevent your birth, that there are echoes, so to speak, an echo of me appearing in the past to make that mark when I don’t do it myself. No loops.

“But that,” Seamus said, eyes sparkling, “is where things got strange. I remember it only as… a memory of a memory. I remember remembering that I went back and made that mark. I hid from my younger self and saw him walk up and see it, presumably deciding he would not go back… and then, suddenly, I was him again, staring at a blank wall.”

Seamus shook his head slowly. “I don’t remember making that second trip. But there was a split second, right when I looked at that wall, where I was absolutely certain all that had just happened and I’d been staring at my own back just a moment before. It made me stop the experiment. I could have trapped myself in a half-hour-long time loop, where I go back, I make the mark, I see it and don’t go back, I never make the mark, I don’t see it and go back… It terrifies me how close I came.

“But if it was real—and I think it was, KJ—it means, as you put it, there are no echoes. I can’t change history to one where I never finish this machine. So much luck went into its creation. So many solutions from experiences I cannot replicate. The slightest thing out of place would prevent its completion, and all I’d do is create a time loop.” Seamus looks at his son, a broken smile on his face. “I cannot save my family.”

“So you destroyed the machine.”

“It was ours, KJ. We were meant to travel together. If I cannot even save them… to use the time machine for anything else would be sacrilege.”


The curtains were drawn to keep out the world. KJ sat by the hospital bed, eyes blurred with tears and watching Seamus’ lips as he struggled to speak. The cancer had sapped most of his strength. He had perhaps a day left; perhaps hours.

“The time machine…” Seamus whispered. “There was a way. I thought I could… give my younger self instructions… help them to finish it. I… I wrote instructions. Step-by-step. Build the machine, every time… save them, every time. But it… it might not have helped, because…”

Seamus swallowed, his eyes filling with tears. “Because Tommy didn’t fall. He… he jumped. Because of me. I… I’d said things…”

“Dad—”

“And I can’t fix that. Even if I had a way… if I told myself… how to build the machine… what if he…”

Seamus petered off. Guilt shadowed his face. “We… we’d made an agreement,” he said. “Esmé and I. It’s why she stopped… working on the machine. We said if… if we ever had kids… we wouldn’t risk them, their existence… messing with history…” He grimaced, eyes squeezed shut against tears. “But I kept going. She begged me to stop… I didn’t listen. She never forgave me for that. She knew I… I wanted… wanted him… different…”

Seamus broke down and cried.

“I’m sorry,” he gasped. “I’m so sorry, Tommy. I’m so sorry—”

KJ grasped his hand in both of his, turmoil churning in his mind. “Tell him,” he said, as the shuddering tears died down. “Write to yourself, speak to yourself—”

Seamus shook his head. “No… I was not a man who listened, KJ. To science… perhaps. To instructions for a machine I’d been desperate to build… yes. But to the people I loved… when I thought God was telling me different… if I tried to explain that… he’d think I was a demon. It would all be over. I can’t fix that, KJ.

“But then you came along,” Seamus said. “You… My second chance. Alive. If I changed the past… where would you be?”


KJ knelt in the sanctuary before the rubble, holding the once-buried notebook in his hands. The instructions were still legible. Step-by-step, in his late father’s tiny handwriting. How do you measure the worth of a life? he wondered. How do you weigh one against another?

He rose to his feet and made his way out into the cathedral’s small graveyard.

He wanted to think of it as not selfishness, but practicality. He could have survived on those streets without Seamus, maybe. But he didn’t know for sure, and someone would need to close this loop. And he couldn’t trust Seamus not to still drive Tommy off another ledge.

The dead were dead. To save just one would, already, be supererogatory.

KJ paused before a row of three graves, white stone painfully bright in the morning sun. Flowers lay scattered upon the newest one, still fresh from the day before, but it was to another of the three that he turned and bowed his head.

“I’m sorry, Tommy,” he whispered.

Then he left the graveyard to begin the work, trying not to feel like he was stealing a family that was never his to have.


They looked so young, the uniformed workers streaming in and out of the warmly-lit pub, the cheerful aggressiveness of their banter chasing away the gloom of the overcast night.

KJ watched them from the outside, his hands in his pockets, wondering which—if any—of the youths his parents were. He dared not venture in to ask, as an older man disrupting their relaxation with his grieving from another time. Already, their nearby presence disturbs his carefully-crafted images of the parents he never knew. For these are kids; they’re just kids, spinning freely through the streams of time oblivious to what lay ahead.

He could go forward… waylay them on their path, offer a distraction, ensure that they did not step into the mines that day. But that path lay darkly fragile before him, full of unseen traps and dangers that threatened to jeopardise all their fates.

It was with a heavy heart that KJ finally turned away and trudged back across the bridge to where he’d parked his ship.

He dropped the spatial anchor and jumped eight years ahead—to his last night as a child on this planet, drenched as he was by this very same storm.

He had forgotten how it rained on Demitar, water pounding down upon him the moment he left the ship, splashing hurriedly out of the alley and under the nearest awning for shelter. The streets were the same, and yet so foreign, so different from the scraps of memory from a distant childhood. He felt like a tourist bumbling through the city, pausing at every junction to collect his bearings, his dress and manner distinctly out of place amongst the locals who hurried nimbly from shelter to shelter… and from the homeless boy huddled beneath Torin Arch.

He had expected him to be different, somehow, to stand out more, or to have some deeper intuition tell him yes, this is the one. But the boy could have been any child, barely visible had KJ not been looking for him.

He crouched before the boy. It was his own young face he saw, and KJ was suddenly afraid.

He wanted to run, run back to his time and leave him there to wait for Seamus to come down that street and have history unfold as it was meant to be. But the thought of Seamus recalled their final conversation, and the brokenness with which he spoke about the family that he could never save.

KJ lifted his younger self into his arms. He glanced down the street, suddenly self-conscious of abducting a child in the middle of the night, but nobody gave him more than a passing glance as he went back into the rain and ran back towards his ship with the weight of his past in his arms. Soon he was fumbling with the door, getting the boy inside where it was warm, heaping blankets on him and making him a hot meal. On the table was a thick notebook: painstakingly copied out from Seamus’, KJ’s own small additions correcting, simplifying and explaining wherever he knew he would need it.

Hours later, they stood before a large house on the 9th of June, 2261. It was 9:25 in the morning.

His instructions to the boy were specific and threefold. One: at exactly thirty seconds past 9:27, ring that doorbell. Tell the owners you’re an orphan in need of a home, and they will take you in. Two: when the opportunity presents itself, start work on the time machine. Lastly, go back in time and rescue yourself off the streets to permanently save a life; for, if our father’s theory is correct, in this universe, there are no echoes.

No other self will do that job for you.


 [ the gun abandoned, © 2017 Miranda Jean ] “I’ll give Him a minute, okay?” Esmé said through tears, the gun oddly steady in her hand. “Till 9:28. For a miracle, a sign, since that’s the kind of universe you believe in, where Tommy didn’t die for no reason—”

“Esmé, please don’t—”

“Do you think he couldn’t tell?” she asked, fiery challenge in her voice. “You think I couldn’t, that I didn’t know why you were still working on that machine—”

“Not this, please…”

“He was a kid!” she burst out. “All you had to do was love him! What did you say to him that night, Seamus? What made him think he had to jump? Was he a disappointment to you? Because he wasn’t the kind of boy you wanted to have?”

Esmé—”

Perverse laughter escaped her lips. “But I wasn’t any better of a parent, was I? It was the only thing you ever really thought I was good for. But I couldn’t… I couldn’t even be a good mother.” Her voice broke. “Tommy was my one chance, and…” She swallowed back a fresh wave of tears. “How can I ever forgive myself, Seamus?” she begged. “How can we forgive ourselves?”

Seamus glanced fearfully at the clock. Thirty seconds.

The doorbell rang.


KJ stood in the shadow of a tree, clutching to his last moments of conscious existence as he waited for the rewritten history to take him away.

He heard the sobbing cries as the door opened. He saw a woman dropping to her knees; the gun abandoned, the boy embraced, the gasps of prayers.

They went in. The door shut, and he heard no more.

The familiar garden lay around KJ, years before he ever worked it. Vines twisted up wooden trellises with sprays of fruit ripening for the harvest. He looked back to the white mansion and the abandoned stone of the cathedral beyond, and his heart ached in lonely grief for a future past that would soon be gone.

Eventually, he turned away from the house and walked slowly back to Déjà Vu.

He had no idea how much longer he had, seconds slipping from his grasp like precious jewels, edging him towards a deadline that he could not see. But until then… until then, he was alive. He was free.

And the universe was waiting.


He did not know where the hands came from: if they were real or merely dream, for Kenneth couldn’t tell if he was awake or lost in sleep from his exhaustion. But there was something about the man that evoked a feeling of going home, and his voice recalled someone he heard a long, long time ago. It soothed him, steadying his ragged breaths, and so he relaxed into the warmth of the stranger’s chest and did not protest when he lifted him up.

Besides, it felt safe—as if this had happened a myriad times before and more, on and on backwards through repeating infinities.

The arrow of time does not always fly straight.


© 2017, Davian Aw

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